Saturday, August 31, 2019

Retro Review: FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972)

(UK - 1972; US release 1974)

Directed by Jimmy Sangster. Written by Jimmy Sangster and Michael Syson. Cast: Judy Geeson, Joan Collins, Ralph Bates, Peter Cushing, James Cossins, Gillian Lind, Brian Grellis, John Bown. (PG, 94 mins)

A minor late-period Hammer thriller that's rarely referenced today, 1972's middling FEAR IN THE NIGHT gets by almost entirely on atmosphere alone, set in an eerily empty boarding school that allows director/co-writer Jimmy Sangster to maximize the sense of isolation felt by the film's terrorized heroine. But the story is so rote, predictable, and ultimately silly that the payoff isn't really worth the buildup. Recovering from what's been unfairly deemed a nervous breakdown (someone slipped her a mickey in a restaurant) followed closely by an attack by a one-armed man that no one around her believes really happened, Peggy (Judy Geeson) leaves her job as a caregiver for elderly Mrs. Beamish (Gillian Lind) when she marries teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) after a whirlwind romance. Robert moves them to an isolated rural area outside of London where he's accepted a position at a boarding school run by headmaster Carmichael (Peter Cushing). But right away, something is off and naive Peggy never does quite pick up on it: there doesn't seem to be any other teachers aside from Robert, and she keeps hearing voices in classrooms but there's no sign of any students. Carmichael--who has a prosthetic left arm--acts weird around her, she gets a strange vibe from his much-younger wife Molly (Joan Collins), and she's eventually attacked again by a one-armed man, but an incredulous, dismissive Robert tells her to "sleep on it" before talking her out of calling the police.

Hammer fans will recognize recycled elements from other Sangster-scripted women-in-peril thrillers like SCREAM OF FEAR (1961), PARANOIAC (1963), NIGHTMARE (1964), and CRESCENDO (1970), with some dashes of classics like GASLIGHT and DIABOLIQUE for good measure. But some of the big third-act reveals are so obvious that you'll figure out that someone is trying to drive Peggy insane and frame her for a murder long before Peggy does, especially with Robert's behavior and the presence of Collins, cast radically against type as a scheming, manipulative bitch. Robert's confession to Peggy about why he's actually at the school and what he's actually doing for Carmichael is utter nonsense, and the ultimate trick pulled off by Carmichael just comes off as one contrivance too many. Despite its myriad flaws, FEAR IN THE NIGHT is a reasonably enjoyable Hammer suspense thriller if approached with shrugged shoulders and an appropriately diminished level of expectation. Geeson (best known for co-starring with Sidney Poitier in 1967's TO SIR, WITH LOVE and more recently emerging from semi-retirement to appear in Rob Zombie's THE LORDS OF SALEM and 31) turns in an appealing performance even though you'll wish she wasn't so meek, passive, and slow on the uptake. It's obvious from the moment he's introduced sinisterly grimacing while adjusting his prosthetic arm like Dr. Strangelove that Cushing's Carmichael can't possibly be the villain, and with what's essentially a four-character story, it doesn't take much sleuthing on the part of the viewer to figure out what's going on and who's responsible.

Having written trailblazing Hammer titles like 1957's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA among many others, Sangster saw his short-lived and largely negatively-received directing career end with FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which followed 1970's THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN and 1971's LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. All three of Sangster's films starred Ralph Bates, FEAR being the last of several unsuccessful attempts at grooming the young actor to be Hammer horror's heir apparent, selected to help nab the youth market as Cushing was pushing 60 and Christopher Lee was nearing 50. Hammer and Bates parted ways by the time FEAR IN THE NIGHT was barely released in the US in 1974, and it marked the only film to team Bates with Cushing, the legend he was supposed to succeed. The film is old-fashioned enough and completely lacking in the lurid sex and skin in which Hammer was beginning to indulge that, aside from the hairstyles and the fashions and one shouted "Bastard!," it could've been made a decade earlier.

Ralph Bates and Jimmy Sangster
on the set of FEAR IN THE NIGHT
For all its stale twists and predictability issues, FEAR IN THE NIGHT (just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory because physical media is dead), is probably Sangster's most accomplished directorial effort from a technical standpoint. The money shot that concludes the opening credits sequence is legitimately creepy, there's some unusual cutting techniques that are well-handled, and the use of all the open space in the hallways and abandoned rooms at the school indicates that he may have caught some of the early hits of the Italian giallo craze. But without the shocking violence and the innovative style of a Dario Argento, FEAR IN THE NIGHT can't really compete in that field, and the story is so old-hat that most of the "surprise" twists are really just hoary cliches. Sangster (1927-2011) would soon leave Hammer behind, relocating to Hollywood by late 1972, where he became a busy television writer, only periodically dabbling in big-screen horror (he wrote 1978's THE LEGACY and 1980's PHOBIA) while focusing on TV shows like BANACEK, IRONSIDE, CANNON, MCCLOUD, MOVIN' ON, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, WONDER WOMAN, and B.J. AND THE BEAR.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: KILLERS ANONYMOUS (2019) and ASTRONAUT (2019)

(UK/US - 2019)

Gary Oldman really should have better things to do after his DARKEST HOUR Oscar triumph than dropping in for Bruce Willis duty on a straight-to-VOD Lionsgate/Grindstone clunker like KILLERS ANONYMOUS. So should Jessica Alba, who has even less to do here than Oldman, yet both are prominently displayed on the cut-and-paste poster art for this utterly dreadful dark comedy that squanders them and an interesting premise and crosses its fingers hoping that frantically piling on one nonsensical twist after another in the final act will gaslight you into thinking you're watching a more clever movie than you are (and just take a moment and look at that poster--it looks like the graphic design team had a 5:00 pm deadline and started working on it at 4:57). KILLERS ANONYMOUS opens with a prologue where Oldman's unnamed character (a mystery man known only as "The Man") is summoned from Los Angeles to London by underling Jade (Alba) to assess a botched assassination attempt on a popular US senator (Sam Hazeldine) who's a rising star with presidential aspirations. Jade is killed during the opening credits (and that's it for Alba, who couldn't have worked on this for more than a day) by Krystal (co-writer Elizabeth Morris), who heads straight to a meeting of Killers Anonymous, a support group for assassins dealing with job-related stress and burnout. It's a potentially amusing idea, but once everyone arrives--there's also group leader Jo (MyAnna Buring); player Leandro (Michael Socha); mild-mannered Calvin (Tim McInnerny); sensitive Ben (Elliot James Langridge); 'fookin' 'ell, mate!" LOCK STOCK knockoff rage case Markus (top-billed Tommy Flanagan); and new member Alice (EMPIRE's Rhyon Nicole Brown), a mysterious American who's hesitant to say much--the film stops dead in its tracks as director/co-writer Martin Owen (LET'S BE EVIL) gives each of the characters their own long monologue about who they are and what brought them to KA.

This goes on for about an hour, intermittently broken up by frequent bitching about quiet Alice by resident loudmouths Markus and Krystal, and while it might be a nice acting class exercise for the cast, it doesn't make for a very engaging film. Owen occasionally cuts away to Morgan (Isabelle Allen), a teenage runaway who's hiding in a crawlspace and eavesdropping on everything, and to a grimacing Oldman, whose enigmatic "The Man" is positioned on a nearby rooftop listening in on the bugged session while on the phone counseling a troubled killer (Suki Waterhouse) back in L.A. Not unlike a deadening mash-up of early Guy Ritchie, SMOKIN' ACES, and THE ICEMAN COMETH, the pointless and self-indulgent KILLERS ANONYMOUS is an absolute endurance test that doesn't have a single clever or even remotely amusing moment in its 96 excruciating minutes, which is pretty tough to accomplish considering the offbeat black comedy potential of a support group for assassins. Your first inclination would be to think that this must be some unreleasable dud that was shot four or five years ago and is only now being dusted off because of Oldman's DARKEST HOUR awards run. Nope...production began in July 2018, a good three months after the Oscars. Gary Oldman showed up on the set of KILLERS ANONYMOUS a newly-anointed Academy Award-winner. Did he lose a bet? Was his family being held hostage? Was he choking in a restaurant and Owen was there to successfully administer the Heimlich, making Oldman feel obligated to do him a solid in return? What is Gary Oldman doing in this movie?  What is Jessica Alba doing in this movie? Hell, I don't even know what Tommy Flanagan is doing in this movie. (R, 96 mins)

(Canada - 2019)

It's hard to watch ASTRONAUT and not think that it might exist in some alternate post-CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND where an elderly Roy Neary is still watching the skies. That's because Richard Dreyfuss stars in this slight but sincere Canadian drama from debuting writer/director Shelagh McLeod. Dreyfuss is Angus Stewart, a 75-year-old retired civil engineer, astronomy enthusiast, and recent widower who's been forced to sell his home and move in with his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent), and adoring young grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence) after recurring TIAs and a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation and angina. Though Barney loves having him around and learning about space, his presence causes tension between between Molly and Jim, so he reluctantly agrees to move into a nursing home after Molly finds him in the midst of another mini-stroke. Though he befriends other residents--including a flamboyant Art Hindle and Graham Greene as a partially paralyzed stroke survivor--the irascible Angus quickly grows bored with the rigidity of the facility's director (Mimi Kuzyk), and at Barney's suggestion, enters himself in an online lottery created by Elon Musk-like multi-billionaire Marcus Brown (Colm Feore), where the winner gets a seat on Brown's ultimate dream project: the first commercial space flight. The age cut-off is 65, so Angus simply shaves off a decade and divulges nothing about his worsening health situation. And of course, he makes the cut.

A film aimed at senior audiences who might balk at all the R-rated talk and geriatric threesomes in Clint Eastwood's THE MULE, ASTRONAUT is corny, maudlin and shamelessly manipulative. But Dreyfuss admirably resists his innately hammy impulses and turns in a heartfelt performance as a man who knows the end is near and just wants one shot at his lifelong dream. There's certainly a strong argument to be made that everything that unfolds is just a fantasy of dying man, and an attempt at suspense in the third act where Angus' expertise in engineering helps avert a potential disaster for Brown is a little too hokey, but this is really all about Dreyfuss. He shows a genuine camaraderie with young Lawrence and his scenes with Bridges have a realism to them that will resonate with anyone who's lost a parent and knows the other doesn't have much time left. ASTRONAUT loses its way a little in the home stretch, but it's the kind of film that probably would've been a minor sleeper hit of the STRAIGHT STORY sort in the late '90s. And it gives Dreyfuss--last seen embarrassing himself by playing a deranged criminal mountain man like the love child of Walter Brennan and Strother Martin in the dismal Gina Carano actioner DAUGHTER OF THE WOLF--a worthy late-career dramatic lead. Call it MR. HOLLAND GOES TO SPACE. (Unrated, 97 mins)

Monday, August 26, 2019

In Theaters: ANGEL HAS FALLEN (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Written by Robert Mark Kamen, Matt Cook and Ric Roman Waugh. Cast: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Danny Huston, Nick Nolte, Jada Pinkett Smith, Piper Perabo, Lance Reddick, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Millson, Ori Pfeffer, Rocci-Boy Williams, Michael Landes. (R, 121 mins)

The third entry in a franchise so ridiculous that the only thing preventing Donald Trump from offering Gerard Butler a cabinet position is a presumed inability to correctly pronounce "Gerard," ANGEL HAS FALLEN dials down the raging "America! Fuck yeah!" boner of its two predecessors--2013's OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and 2016's LONDON HAS FALLEN--which proved to be surprisingly popular mash-ups of the Cannon jingoism of the '80s with the dogshit CGI of the '10s. This time, Mike Banning (Butler), the head of Secret Service detail for OLYMPUS House Speaker, LONDON vice president and now President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), is in the running for a cushy D.C. desk job as a reward for his years of risking life and limb but is battling PTSD, chronic migraines, back pain, and a secret painkiller addiction that he's kept from his wife Leah (Piper Perabo, replacing Radha Mitchell). While on a routine detail on a presidential fishing trip in Pennsylvania, Trumbull's entire Secret Service team is wiped out by a drone attack, with Banning and the president barely escaping with their lives, the latter winding up in ICU in a coma. Banning awakens to find himself handcuffed to his hospital bed and informed by Secret Service director Gentry (Lance Reddick) and FBI Special Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) that he's under arrest for the attempted assassination of the president and the premeditated murder of nearly two dozen Secret Service agents. His fingerprints and DNA were found in a van used to house the bat-like drones, and they've uncovered a secret bank account in his name with $10 million traced back to Russia.

With Trumbull incapacitated, Vice President Kirby (Tim Blake Nelson) is sworn in as acting president and, seeking revenge against the apparent Russian plot to assassinate Trumbull, immediately announces a return to the use of paramilitary contractors, namely Salient, a company owned by Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), Banning's old Army buddy who was really hoping that Banning could talk the anti-contractor Trumbull into offering him a lucrative deal. Meanwhile, Banning can't convince anyone he's been set up, and when Salient mercenaries take down his prisoner transport, he manages to escape and make his way to the isolated, rural West Virginia makeshift compound of his estranged father Clay (Nick Nolte), a grizzled, paranoid, anti-government mountain man who was so haunted by his time in Vietnam that he left his wife and young Mike and went off the grid. Realizing he's been set up by his old friend--and perhaps someone more powerful pulling the strings--and is now the most wanted fugitive in America, Banning reluctantly bonds with and gets some help from Clay before heading back to the hospital in Pennsylvania in an attempt to save the president's life and prove his innocence once and for all.

The last time Morgan Freeman played the US president was in 1998's asteroid-headed-toward-Earth opus DEEP IMPACT, and that was probably a more plausible film than ANGEL HAS FALLEN. The villainy of Wade is obvious from the outset, since he's played by Danny Huston, but the mid-film reveal of the real string-puller will only be a surprise if you've never seen a movie before. But relatively speaking, ANGEL is a bit less cartoonish than the two films that came before it, and is refreshingly devoid of Banning's smart-ass quips clanging to the ground, such as OLYMPUS' "Let's play a few rounds of Fuck Off...you're it!" and LONDON's "Why don't you boys pack up your shit and go back to Fuckheadistan?" That doesn't mean it's a gritty political thriller, but director and former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh (FELON, SNITCH, SHOT CALLER) has a knack for solid action and suspense sequences, including a striking late-film shootout over multiple stories overlooking a hospital lobby. There's also some--but not much--attempt at timely, nudging commentary with Banning being accused of Russian collusion and one key character being a dead ringer for (at press time and subject to change at any moment) Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, which should guarantee that actor's casting in the inevitable HBO miniseries chronicling the Trump presidency.

Look, like the entire HAS FALLEN trilogy, ANGEL is dumb. But unlike OLYMPUS, it doesn't show a series of establishing second-unit shots of the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, and the White House accompanied by the caption "Washington, D.C." (it was shot at London's Pinewood Studios and in Bulgaria, with the interstate highways of Pennsylvania and West Virginia looking strangely Eastern European). And it is amazing how Banning has managed to have the kind of career he's had, being the human shield for two presidents, with no one ever finding out about his crazy, off-the-grid, government-hating dad, or how every new-looking truck he manages to steal while on the run is somehow lacking in GPS or anyone reporting it stolen, or how Salient goons manage to get into Banning's house despite cops, Feds, and the media camped right out front. It is what it is, and the digital effects by the Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX are as amateurish as ever, but Butler does his thing, Freeman's dignified presidential gravitas comes natural and is curiously comforting, and Huston is as smug and sneering as ever, which is the reason you hire Danny Huston. But never mind all that. What's really key in making ANGEL HAS FALLEN the most entertaining of the trilogy so far is Nolte. The 78-year-old living legend doesn't turn up until the midway point, but from his first appearance, he steals the film from everyone and instantly reminds you that he's a goddamn national treasure. Notoriously eccentric enough that his casting as a grizzled old mountain man seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Nolte gives this everything he's got, reveling in some hilarious one-liners ("You're welcome!") and back-and-forth bantering with Butler ("What is this, your manifesto?" Banning asks when he sees a stack of papers on Clay's table). Clay delivers an emotional, gut-wrenching monologue about how he felt chewed up and spit out by his country after his time in Vietnam that's so good that I wouldn't be surprised if Nolte wrote it himself. ANGEL HAS FALLEN is pretty standard as far as these formulaic things go, but it comes alive and steps up its game whenever Nolte is onscreen. When it's all over, you might ask yourself if every movie could benefit from having a madman-bearded Nick Nolte muttering, grumbling, and being a conspiratorial, cantankerous, and shotgun-toting old curmudgeon. The outtakes on the eventual Blu-ray have to be gold.

Friday, August 23, 2019


(UK - 1970; US release 1971)

Directed by Jimmy Sangster. Written by Jeremy Burnham and Jimmy Sangster. Cast: Ralph Bates, Kate O'Mara, Veronica Carlson, Dennis Price, Jon Finch, Dave Prowse, Joan Rice, Bernard Archard, Stephen Turner, Graham James, Neil Wilson, James Hayter, James Cossins, Glenys O'Brien, George Belbin. (R, 95 mins)

One of the least-loved films in the Hammer horror cycle, 1970's THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was intended as a reboot of their FRANKENSTEIN series as part of a calculated effort to skew toward a younger and more hip audience. By this time at the dawn of the '70s, audience interest was waning and Hammer decided to shake things up, with their general feeling being that 48-year-old Christopher Lee and 57-year-old Peter Cushing--the faces of "Hammer horror"--were starting to get on in years, relatively speaking. Cushing had just co-starred in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, the first of the so-called "Karnstein trilogy," a film that represented a sort-of turning point for Hammer in that it went all-in on excessive gore and gratuitous nudity from Ingrid Pitt and the female cast members. But when it came time for the follow-up to 1969's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, Hammer opted to head in a different direction, ditching Cushing to make a desperate grab for the youth market and placing most of their hopes on the shoulders of one Ralph Bates. A busy British TV actor (most notably appearing as Caligula in the 1968 six-episode ITV series THE CAESARS), Bates was already being groomed as Hammer horror's heir apparent when he was cast in 1970's TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, which, in its earliest stages, wasn't even supposed to feature Christopher Lee's Dracula, instead focusing on Bates as Lord Courtley, a Satanist disciple of the vampire. Lee was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the DRACULA series and made no secret of his feelings to anyone who would listen. Nevertheless, it was at some point decided that he had to be in it, so the script was hastily rewritten to have Courtley supernaturally transform into Dracula, thus reducing Bates' role in the film to make way for Lee. The 30-year-old Bates took one for the team, and was rewarded by being made the new Victor Frankenstein in the same year's THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, replacing Cushing as part of Hammer's new youth-driven direction. This didn't seem to bother Cushing in the slightest, as he paid a visit to the set and even posed for some publicity shots with Bates. Perhaps he was as tired of playing Dr. Frankenstein as Lee was of playing Dracula, but just wasn't such a surly pain in the ass about it.

Ralph Bates (1940-1991)
THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was the directing debut of veteran Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, a key figure who was instrumental in establishing the studio as the UK's premier House of Horror, having scripted their first three Cushing/Lee teamings: 1957's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA, and 1959's THE MUMMY, among many others. Sangster would ultimately prove to be a better writer than a director, quickly bailing on his short-lived directing career after just three films--all of which starred Ralph Bates--to return to his better-suited screenwriting occupation. A loose remake of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN again tells the Frankenstein origin story, beginning with Bates' sociopathic Victor in school, where he's introduced showing up a harumphing professor and and manipulating him into believing he's having a heart attack. When his rich father Baron Frankenstein (George Belbin) refuses to pay for Victor to attend medical school, Victor rigs his father's shotgun to blow up in his face the next time he goes hunting. With the Baron out of the way, Victor inherits Castle Frankenstein, leaving it in the care of 16-year-old servant and the Baron's sexual plaything Alys (Kate O'Mara) while he goes off to university in Vienna. Six years later, Victor and his friend Wilhelm (Graham James) return to the castle, where Victor grows obsessed with reanimating the dead and assembling a man out of body parts collected by a team of husband-and-wife grave robbers (Dennis Price and Joan Rice). He picks up where his father left off with Alys ("She gave satisfaction to my father and she can do the same for me," Victor sneers to Wilhelm, adding "I hope she can cook"), and is so focused on his work that he barely picks up on the vibes he's getting from former classmate Elizabeth (Veronica Carlson), whose professor father (Bernard Archard) ends up being the source of the brain used in the Monster. Unfortunately, that brain is damaged when the grave robber drops the jar it's in and a glass shard gets stuck in it, turning the Monster (bodybuilder and future Darth Vader David Prowse) into a rampaging lunatic and convenient hit man when Victor needs his enemies eliminated.

Peter Cushing visiting Ralph Bates on the set. 
As much if not more so than Cushing's interpretation of the character, Bates' Victor Frankenstein is an outrageously vainglorious prick who has absolutely no use for anyone. Starting with orchestrating his father's "accidental" death, Victor will let nothing stand in his way. He electrocutes Wilhelm when he expresses his outrage over his experiments, he kills the grave robber when he decides he knows too much, he has the Monster kill the grave robber's wife when she starts asking questions about her husband, and he tries to pin it all on his hapless, slow-witted cook Stefan (Stephen Turner) when former classmate and current chief of police Henry (Jon Finch, soon to star in Roman Polanski's MACBETH and Alfred Hitchcock's FRENZY) comes around to investigate. Bates' smug, arrogant Victor is like a Donald Trumpenstein, throwing everyone under the bus at the first sign of minor inconvenience or demonstrating even the slightest threat of disloyalty, treating Alys like shit, and stopping just short of shouting "FAKE NEWS!" when too many people have seen the Monster roaming around the woods and Henry demands to search the castle. All the pieces are in place for THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN to work, but it just never quite pulls itself together. Bates is fine in the role and much of the humor is intentional (Victor's killing of a pair of highwaymen is very funny), but the film just plods along, taking forever to get going (it's nearly 70 minutes in before the Monster even appears), and as a director, Sangster lacks the style and verve that guys like Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, Roy Ward Baker, and even Peter Sasdy, for that matter, would always bring to the table. The film looks stagy and cheap, and Prowse's square head apparatus doesn't hold up under the scrutiny of HD on Scream Factory's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead). Prowse, who would soon have a small but memorable role as the hulking nurse of Patrick Magee's wheelchair-bound Mr. Alexander in Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, is imposing enough, but he looks ridiculous, spending most his limited screen time shirtless, wearing only bandages from the waist down, which many have observed makes him look like he's wearing a diaper.

In short, nobody liked THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, neither in the UK nor in the US, where it appeared in the summer of 1971 on a drive-in double bill with the harder-edged SCARS OF DRACULA, easily the most violent of the Christopher Lee DRACULA outings. Hammer continued in their attempts to make Bates happen, first by reuniting him with Sangster on the second film in the Karnstein trilogy, 1971's LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, then by casting him as Dr. Jekyll opposite Martine Beswick in the same year's gender-bending DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, and finally teaming him with Joan Collins, Judy Geeson, and--wait for it--Peter Cushing in Sangster's 1972 thriller FEAR IN THE NIGHT. By this time, it became apparent to Hammer that Ralph Bates wasn't the answer to the problems (nor, for that matter, was having Sangster behind the camera). Other than occasional non-Hammer supporting roles (he appeared with Lana Turner and Trevor Howard in 1974's PERSECUTION, and with Collins and Donald Pleasence in the 1976 demonic baby outing THE DEVIL WITHIN HER), he spent the rest of his career as a regular fixture on British TV, including the lead on BBC's DEAR JOHN, which ran for two seasons starting in 1986 and would be remade a couple of years later into the hit NBC sitcom with Judd Hirsch. Bates' last screen appearance came in a small role in 1990's little-seen period adventure KING OF THE WIND. He was just 51 when he died of pancreatic cancer in 1991.

What Hammer didn't realize at the time in their grooming of Bates was that the horror landscape was changing. In 1968, ROSEMARY'S BABY was a sign of things to come, but it didn't become apparent until THE EXORCIST in 1973 that the concern wasn't Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (or Ralph Bates)--it was simply a genre trend that saw a declining interest in "classic" horror. This became clear with 1972's DRACULA A.D. 1972, and 1973's THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, which found Hammer reaching a compromise in their shameless youth pandering by dropping their "aging" stars and their respective Dracula and Van Helsing characters into mod, swinging 1972 London in all its shagadelic glory. It wasn't any kind of happening and fans were decidedly not freaked out, and as a result, ambitious, inventive, and very entertaining period adventure/horror hybrids like CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER and THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES were forced to languish on the shelf for extended amounts of time because Hammer had grown skittish about their product. 1974 saw the release of FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (like CAPTAIN KRONOS, completed in 1972 and unreleased for two years), which brought back Prowse as a much-different and more ape-like monster than he played in THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. Even with veteran Hammer director Terence Fisher returning (in what ended up being his final film before retiring from the business), along with Peter Cushing stepping back into his signature role, its focus was less on classic horror and more on graphic gore. And still, it was a critical and commercial flop and marked the end of the road for Hammer's FRANKENSTEIN series.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In Theaters: READY OR NOT (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy. Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Andie MacDowell, Henry Czerny, Mark O'Brien, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston, Liam McDonald, Ethan Tavares, Hanneke Talbot, Celine Tsai, Daniela Barbosa, voice of Nat Faxon. (R, 95 mins)

"Fucking rich people." 

That's the central theme of READY OR NOT, the strongest effort yet from the filmmaking collective known as "Radio Silence," consisting of directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and producer Chad Villela, whose work will be familiar to fanboy-approved anthologies like V/H/S and SOUTHBOUND. Their debut feature film was 2014's uninspired and instantly-forgotten DEVIL'S DUE. READY OR NOT seems a little familiar at the outset--with a set-up that's reminiscent of the excellent YOU'RE NEXT, which opened exactly six years ago--but it soon goes its own way, almost like a satirically-charged old dark house horror movie about the extent to which the wealthy will go in order to protect their fortune and privilege that's part CLUE and part MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It's wildly entertaining and contains maybe the most hilariously bonkers finale of the summer, but what really makes READY OR NOT something special is a star-making performance by Australian actress Samara Weaving. Perhaps best known for the Showtime series SMILF, Weaving (Hugo is her uncle) has been making a name for herself in cult horror circles with the 2017 Netflix original THE BABYSITTER, which was better than a movie directed by McG has any business being, and she was the only good thing about the obnoxious splatter horror comedy MAYHEM.

Weaving is a force of nature in READY OR NOT. She plays Grace, an orphan who grew up in a series of foster homes and has always longed for a permanent family to call her own. She gets that when she marries Alex Le Domas (Mark O'Brien), a scion of the Le Domas "dominion," an obscenely wealthy family of billionaire one-percenters whose past generations made their fortune in the board game industry, allowing the current patriarch, Alex's father Tony (Henry Czerny) to be the proud owner of four professional sports teams. Self-conscious Grace is concerned that she's being perceived as a gold-digger who's only in it for the money, but Alex has long been the black sheep who willingly distanced himself from the family, and for that, his mother Becky (Andie MacDowell) is grateful to Grace for convincing him to return home. It's a beautiful wedding at the expansive Le Domas mansion but Grace's perfect wedding night hits a snag when Alex informs her of a longstanding family tradition: when someone new joins the family, they have to play a game at midnight, all part of an agreement Tony's great-grandfather made with a mysterious "Mr. Le Bail" that was soon followed by success and fortune. The game is a way to honor that deal and the new family member chooses a card. It all seems like harmlessly eccentric family fun--they played Go Fish when Charity (Elyse Levesque) married Alex's cynical, alcoholic older brother Daniel (Adam Brody), and Fitch (Kristian Bruun) led a game of Old Maid when he married Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), the youngest of the three Le Domas offspring. But Grace draws Hide and Seek, which produces a palpable wave of unease, starting with Alex, who was afraid something like this would happen. Hide and Seek is the big one, the game where the stakes are much higher, something Tony's bitter harridan of a sister Helene (Nicky Guadagni) learned the hard way 30 years earlier when her new and soon-to-be-dead husband picked the same game. Drawing Hide and Seek means that it's time for "Mr. Le Bail" to be appeased with a ritual sacrifice so the Le Domas family--a sort-of Satanic Parker Brothers who sold their souls sold in perpetuity for all time--can continue wallowing in their limitless fortune. And if they want to continue living, because if the target isn't found and sacrificed by sunrise, they're all going to die.

The concept is utterly preposterous and probably sounds moronic in synopsis form, but it's a surprisingly engaging blast as Grace learns quickly that this game is dead serious, and the reason why Alex seemed so worried and distracted all day long. He makes every effort to keep her hidden and get her out of the house when things get really bad--usually due to coke-addled Emilie (she's overshadowed by Weaving, but Scrofano turns in an inspired comic performance) repeatedly killing the servants by accident ("Does she look like she's wearing a giant white wedding dress?" Daniel asks Emilie after she blows a maid's head off). The filmmakers make terrific use of the massive house and the long corridors, plus dumbwaiters and hidden passageways in the walls that the servants use. Once Grace realizes that it's kill or be killed, it's game on, and the shock that the Le Domases experience when the bride starts fighting back is quite amusing, whether it's Czerny's enraged, dialed-up-to-11 bloviating ("DO YOU THINK...THIS IS A FUCKING GAME?" to which Daniel replies "Yeah, it's Hide and Seek, remember?") or an incredulous McDowell declaring "Holy dick!" Grace is a new horror hero brought to vivid life by Weaving, who throws in funny bits like a cute little snort when she laughs too hard, eventually becoming a portrait in volcanic fury by the end, covered in blood, muck, and assorted viscera, with a wedding dress in tattered ruins, a hole shot through her left hand, and a guttural howl of rage that rivals any Swedish melodic death metal singer. READY OR NOT works in spite of its eye-rollingly silly concept, and while it's not the best horror movie of the year so far, it's definitely the most fun.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: ATTRITION (2018), VAULT (2019) and CHARLIE SAYS (2019)

(UK/US/China - 2018)

Belatedly making its way to Blu-ray/DVD after its gala premiere on Roku last November, ATTRITION is one of former actor and probable Russian sleeper agent Steven Seagal's worst films, despite Seagal and his dwindling number of apologists in his online fan base touting it as his best work in years. Hyped as a long-planned pet project--he also wrote the script--it's really just an aimless, meandering Seagal home movie that briefly comes to life with some CGI splatter-abetted throwdowns in the last ten minutes. Until then, it's all talk, with Seagal as Axe, an ex-black ops badass who walked away from the death and destruction to devote himself to Buddha and is now a practicing doctor in a tiny Thai village. He's summoned back into action when a young woman named Tara (Ting Sue), who possesses some type of mystical powers that are never quite explained, is kidnapped by local crime lord Qmom (Yu Kang) and his henchman Black Claw Ma (Cha-Lee Yoon). Though he's now a man of peace, prayer, and healing, Axe teams with Chen Man (Louis Fan Siu Wong), the son of his martial arts mentor, and "puts the band back together," reassembling his mercenary team to rescue Tara. It takes about 55 of the film's 85 minutes before this crew of fourth-string Expendables--Infidel (APOCALYPTO's Rudy Youngblood), Ying Ying (Kat Ingkarat), Scarecrow (James Bennett), and Hollywood (Sergey Badyuk)--reunites, just in time for Axe to give them all recon and prep work assignments, which is really just a cover for Seagal's standard mid-film sabbatical, where he essentially says "I'm gonna duck out for a while...I'll be back for the climactic showdown."

Until then, it's a lot of Axe caring for patients, playing with little kids, talking a man (ONLY GOD FORGIVES' Vithaya Pansringham) out of suicide, showing a bad-tempered criminal that he's using martial arts the wrong way, and having visions of a topless Tara in his dreams, asking her "Who are you?" and being told "I am nothing...I am everything." It all ends with a long, ON DEADLY GROUND-style lecture about keeping the spiritual philosophy of martial arts alive (delivered by Seagal in a scene that's lit so strangely that it might actually be someone wearing a Steven Seagal mask), followed by live footage of Seagal and his blues band playing for the cast and crew over the closing credits. Props where they're due: Seagal dropped about 25 lbs prior to filming and looks noticeably more svelte than he has in recent years, but that's the nicest thing one can say about this. He probably figured ATTRITION would be taken seriously since about 75% of the dialogue is in Mandarin, which means everyone is speaking to him in Mandarin with English subtitles, while he speaks in mumbled Seagalese English, and everyone just understands one another. ATTRITION was supposed to be the flagship offering of "365Flix," a streaming service created by co-producer Philippe Martinez (who co-directed Seagal's recent GENERAL COMMANDER) that nobody's heard of, with their site still promising "Coming Summer 2019." When the initial launch of the service didn't happen, Martinez instead set up a distribution deal for 365Flix through Roku--offering ATTRITION and a handful of instantly-forgotten mid-2000s Martinez productions like LAND OF THE BLIND, HOUSE OF 9, MODIGLIANI, and THE GROOMSMEN)--in what sounds like one of the most poorly-crafted business plans in the history of home entertainment. Now, nearly a year later, ATTRITION is finally on Blu-ray/DVD courtesy of Echo Bridge Entertainment, which means it'll likely be in the $5 bin at Walmart by the end of this sentence. (R, 85 mins)

(US - 2019)

The 1975 Bonded Vault heist in Providence, RI is turned into generic mob movie Scorsese-worship with VAULT, a watchable but instantly forgettable chronicle that seems to be working more from a checklist of genre cliches than an actual script. Low-level hoods and childhood best friends Robert "Deuce" Dussault (SONS OF ANARCHY's Theo Rossi) and Charles "Chucky" Flynn (VIKINGS' Clive Standen) spend their time knocking off small businesses before graduating to banks, ultimately getting too cocky for their own good when they rob two in the same day in the same area and get pinched and sent to the joint. It's there that they meet Gerry "The Frenchman" Ouimette (Don Johnson), an underboss in the Providence branch of La Cosa Nostra, with close ties to Rhode Island mob kingpin Raymond Patriarca (Chazz Palminteri), who's also in the same prison and basically still running his organization unimpeded. Unable to be "made" because he's not Italian and disgruntled because a dismissive Patriarca has no appreciation for everything he's done for the family, Ouimette ropes Deuce and Chucky into a post-parole plot to rob the Bonded Vault, a "business" inside the Hudson Fur & Leather storage center that's used as a secret bank and stashing place for Patriarca's operation. While Ouimette remains at a distance, Deuce and Chucky meet up with his guys--all using aliases of "Buddy" and their hometown to keep their identities a secret--and successfully make off with what's later estimated as $30 million, making it one of the largest heists in US history.

It's here that VAULT essentially becomes GOODFELLAS JR, with Ouimette sitting on the money and Deuce and Chucky getting antsy about not getting their cut, plus the crew inevitably turning on one another, with "Buddy Providence" (William Forsythe) deciding to whack a few of them on his own, or perhaps on the orders of someone higher. Deuce turns into a trainwreck, going on sweaty, wild-eyed Henry Hill coke jags and getting increasingly paranoid that he's being followed as he and girlfriend Karyn (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK's Samira Wiley) go on the run from one fleabag motel to another all the way out in Nevada. Director/co-writer Tom DeNucci gets things off to an interesting start as he builds the characters and sets the scene, but it takes a turn for the rote and predictable soon after, with the pace really lagging in the second half when it should be getting frantic and tense as Deuce starts to feel the walls closing in on him. The cast is fine, though it's too bad we don't get more interaction and ballbusting with the assorted "Buddys," like Forsythe's "Buddy Providence" and Andrew Divoff's bad-tempered "Buddy Woonsocket," and it's nice to see the great Burt Young in a brief bit as an aging Mafioso. The script also plays a little too fast and loose with the facts, to the point where it almost qualifies as Bonded Vault fan fiction, most egregiously with the character of Gerry Ouimette, who was 35 years old in 1975 and is being played by 69-year-old Don Johnson. But more importantly, Gerry Ouimette wasn't even involved in the Bonded Vault heist. His younger brother John was, but by using Gerry, who was directly connected to the Patriarca crime family, the filmmakers go off on a wild speculative tangent about the reasons behind the heist, which manifest in the form of a twist ending that only seems to be deployed because Palminteri was in THE USUAL SUSPECTS. (R, 99 mins)

(US - 2019)

The 50th anniversary of the horrific Tate-LaBianca Murders of August 9-10, 1969 has sparked a renewed interest in the Charles Manson saga, due in large part to Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate being a key player in Quentin Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD. This year also saw the lower-profile release of the indie THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE, with Hilary Duff in the title role, and CHARLIE SAYS, which focuses on Leslie "Lulu" Van Houten's indoctrination into Manson's "family." The latest collaboration between director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner, who previously teamed on 2000's AMERICAN PSYCHO and 2006's THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, CHARLIE SAYS is a laborious misfire that, despite its POV, doesn't really tell us anything we didn't already know about Manson and says even less about Van Houten, played here by Hannah Murray, best known as Gilly on GAME OF THRONES. It certainly doesn't go into details on what prompted Van Houten to abandon her family and throw everything away for Manson (a pretty by-the-numbers SNL-level impression by DOCTOR WHO's Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith). Van Houten seems incredulous at every turn--whether it's the lurid sex (she's introduced to Squeaky Fromme when she's in the middle of giving elderly George Spahn a handjob), the patriarchal nature of Manson's rule over his followers at Spahn Ranch, like men being served dinner before the women, or just his general craziness. The structure doesn't do the film any favors, as it's told mostly in flashback in 1972 by an incarcerated Van Houten, Patricia "Katie" Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), and Susan "Sadie" Atkins (Marianne Rendon) to USC grad student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), who teaches college courses to the inmates at the women's correctional facility where they're being held.

Faith's 2001 book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult was one of two sources for Turner's script, and telling the story of Faith's viewpoint and having her get inside the heads of the three women might've been a more productive approach than what's on the screen. By the end of the film, Van Houten shows remorse for her participation in the LaBianca murders (she wasn't part of the crew that invaded Tate's home the night before), but she's still a blank slate as a character in this film. That's no fault of Murray's, as she does what she can with how little she's been given. Of course, Smith is able to overact to his heart's content, but his Manson seems more like a petulant child in need of a time-out than an insidiously charismatic cult leader, especially with the amount of time Harron and Turner devote to his musical aspirations and his hissy-fit over Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson (James Trevana-Brown) failing to land him a record contract with influential producer Terry Melcher (Bryan Adrian). Haven't we seen and heard all of this before? Isn't CHARLIE SAYS (drink every time Leslie makes a suggestion and a brainwashed Spahn Ranch space case cuts her off with a Mansonsplaining "Well, Charlie says...") supposed to be about Leslie Van Houten? For all its liberties with the Tate part of the story (she's only briefly seen here, and yet Mary Harron isn't being endlessly harangued in one article after another about Grace Van Dien's lack of dialogue), ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD did a much more effective job in one extended sequence of conveying the truly disturbing mindset of the "family" at Spahn Ranch and depicting the hold Manson had over them--with Manson barely even being in the movie--than Harron accomplishes in nearly two hours here. What a missed opportunity. (R, 110 mins)

Friday, August 16, 2019

In Theaters: 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019)

(US/UK - 2019)

Directed by Johannes Roberts. Written by Johannes Roberts and Ernest Riera. Cast: Sophie Nelisse, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sistine Stallone, John Corbett, Nia Long, Davi Santos, Khylin Rhambo, Brec Bassinger. (PG-13, 90 mins)

Rescued from straight-to-DVD oblivion just a week before hitting retailers in 2016 under the title IN THE DEEP and released in theaters a year later, 47 METERS DOWN proved to be a surprise summer 2017 hit for the upstart Entertainment Studios, who bought the film from a cash-strapped Dimension Films when the latter didn't see any potential in it. That was just before THE SHALLOWS ended up being a sleeper success in 2016, convincing Entertainment Studios CEO and veteran comedian Byron Allen that this cheap acquisition was a smart investment. He was right, but 47 METERS DOWN has been the only thing keeping Entertainment Studios afloat after a string of box-office duds, including the terrible German-made social media horror pickup FRIEND REQUEST, the ridiculous THE HURRICANE HEIST, and the godawful Keanu Reeves sci-fi thriller REPLICAS (HOSTILES and CHAPPAQUIDDICK got good reviews, but played to mostly empty theaters). 47 METERS DOWN was an accidental hit for the hapless Allen. Nobody needed a sequel but desperate times call for desperate measures. And for our sins, we've got 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED.

Director and co-writer Johannes Roberts returns, and to his credit, there's no idiotic twist ending like the one that completely ruined its predecessor and sent a palpable wave of resentment rippling across the theater. Roberts has yet to make an all-around front-to-back good movie, but he has his moments, as anyone who saw last year's THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT can attest. A largely by-the-numbers reboot/sequel to the 2008 hit, THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT is pretty forgettable except for a standout scene at a swimming pool that makes brilliant use of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." It's an instant classic sequence that's masterfully assembled and uses sight and sound so effectively that it's almost enough to trick you into thinking the movie is better than it is. Roberts tries that same technique again here, with a long tracking shot through a narrow underwater cave that uses Roxette's "The Look" before segueing into an eerie cover of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun." It's not quite as effective as Bonnie Tyler, but this seems to be Roberts' schtick (Status Quo and Aztec Camera also make needle-drop appearances). No cast members from 47 METERS DOWN return, though there is a shot of a school named "Modine International School for Girls," likely included as a wink-and-a-nod to Matthew Modine, who got a free vacation to the Dominican Republic by taking a small role in the first film.

Set in a posh, scenic resort town in the Yucatan Peninsula, UNCAGED opens with teenage Mia (Sophie Nelisse) being bullied by some mean girls and getting no help from her stepsister Sasha (Corinne Foxx, Jamie's daughter). They've both been relocated after their parents--Mia's dad Grant (John Corbett) and Sasha's mom Jennifer (Nia Long)--have gotten married and marine archaeologist Grant has a long-term job opening up a long-hidden cave system housed in the ruins of an ancient Mayan city that's been underwater for centuries. Sasha talks Mia into bailing on a glass-bottom boat tour of the area to head to a secret cove with Sasha's besties Alexa (Brianne Tju) and Nicole (a debuting Sistine Stallone, Sly's daughter), where Grant and his two research assistants have conveniently left some diving equipment. They decide to just explore the first cave and head back up, but as soon as someone says "What's that?" and ventures off on their own, their fate is sealed. The girls are soon joined by a screaming fish (don't ask) and then by a blind, albino great white shark, part of an undiscovered species that's spent centuries evolving in total darkness...that is, until Grant opened up a cave and they got through. Sightless but with every other sense heightened, the shark is joined by others, repeatedly sneaking up on and cornering the girls into tight spots in caves and rock formations, and stirring up enough silt that they're pretty much as blind as the sharks when it comes to finding a way out. And their oxygen tanks are running low...

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED is a lesson in stupidity and poor decision-making, starting with no one thinking to use a guide line, but the rest is mostly on the part of Stallone's Nicole. She's the one who dismisses safe diving protocols, she's the one who sees something mysterious and swims toward it, she's the one who knocks over a large totem and stirs up all the silt, and she's the one whose selfishness and frantic impatience end up making the situation worse and leading to the deaths of two more people, so much so that her fate actually serves as a crowd-pleasing moment. The concept of the uncovered city and the cave system make for an appropriately creepy setting, but it eventually becomes impossible to tell what's going on, with one sequence such a dark blur that it's several minutes before you can even ascertain who just got killed. What this really is at the end of the day is a JAWS-inspired retread of Neil Marshall's THE DESCENT. The ghostly-white albino sharks probably sounded good on paper, but poor CGI renders them lacking in onscreen execution, and Roberts shows absolutely no shame in blatantly cribbing the most memorable scene in the 20-year-old DEEP BLUE SEA when a potential savior is taken out right in the middle of his inspirational speech. On the basis of it not having a completely, infuriatingly shitheaded twist ending, 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED might be an ever-so-slight improvement over its predecessor, but it's still the kind of disposable, streaming-ready B-movie that you won't even remember by the time you get to the parking lot. However, Roxette is still stuck in my head...

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Retro Review: DR. HECKYL & MR. HYPE (1980)

(US - 1980)

Written and directed by Charles B. Griffith. Cast: Oliver Reed, Sunny Johnson, Maia Danziger, Virgil Frye, Mel Welles, Kedric Wolfe, Jackie Coogan, Corinne Calvet, Sharon Compton, Denise Hayes, Charles Howerton, Dick Miller, Jack Warford, Lucretia Love, Ben Frommer, Joe Anthony Cox (Tony Cox), Yehuda Efroni, Michael & Steve Ciccone, Candi & Randi Brough, Herta Ware, Dan Sturkie. (R, 98 mins)

Though it sports the credit "Screenplay by Charles B. Griffith...with apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson," that pre-emptive mea culpa doesn't begin to atone for DR. HECKYL & MR. HYPE, an astonishingly unfunny comedy/horror knockoff of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and probably the worst film of Oliver Reed's career. Just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), it was also directed by Griffith (1930-2007), a longtime associate of Roger Corman's going back to 1956's GUNSLINGER. Griffith's place in cult movie history is secure thanks to his screenplay credits on two early Corman classics--1959's A BUCKET OF BLOOD and 1960's THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS--as well as 1975's Corman-produced DEATH RACE 2000. Griffith also wrote notable Corman titles like 1957's NOT OF THIS EARTH and ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS and 1966's THE WILD ANGELS, and it was good that he was able to dine out on that connection for so long, because when left to direct his own films, the results land in varying degrees of unwatchability, with two of his projects for Corman--1979's JAWS ripoff UP FROM THE DEPTHS and 1981's Jimmy McNichol car chase comedy SMOKEY BITES THE DUST--ranking among the very worst films ever released under the auspices of Corman's New World Pictures.

Sandwiched between those two bottom-of-the-barrel duds was DR. HECKYL & MR. HYPE, which isn't a Corman production but certainly feels like a particularly abysmal one. Instead, it was produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus in the early days of their Cannon reign, before they carved their niche as the home of Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and all things ninja, which kept the lights on while they made doomed, clandestine deals on cocktail napkins. Golan and Globus were still finding their footing in Hollywood, and several of their releases around 1979-1980--GAS PUMP GIRLS, INCOMING FRESHMEN, HOT T-SHIRTS, THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES HOLLYWOOD--seem more like standard-issue New World drive-in offerings from the time. That's especially so with DR. HECKYL & MR. HYPE, from the involvement of Griffith, in one of the very few films he would make away from Corman, to the presence of Corman and/or New World stalwarts like Mel Welles (THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS), Kedric Wolfe (UP FROM THE DEPTHS), Corinne Calvet (TOO HOT TO HANDLE), Charles Howerton (EAT MY DUST), and the legendary Dick Miller, perfectly cast as a loudmouth garbageman. What HECKYL lacks is the sense of exploitation and fun that Corman films almost always delivered (unless it was a movie helmed by Charles B. Griffith), barely earning its R rating and even cutting away at the first hint of nudity that doesn't even arrive until late in the film, which is something Corman never would've tolerated in a New World product. DR. HECKYL & MR. HYPE is so deadeningly tedious and so mind-bogglingly awful that one can't help but wonder if Griffith initially took his script to Corman, only to have him thumb through it, answer a phone that wasn't really ringing, tap his watch and politely say "Yeah sorry, Chuck, I, uh, I got a thing."

The idea of spoofing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is nothing new. Abbott and Costello met the pair in 1953, and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR alredy reversed the formula, with nerdy, socially inept Dr. Julius Kelp turning into "Buddy Love," and is generally regarded as Jerry Lewis' crowning achievement. But HECKYL is absolutely dead on arrival, with Reed--not a guy noted for his comedic skills and in a role initially pitched to Dick Van Dyke--as Dr. Heckyl, a monstrously ugly podiatrist with boils, warts, a bulbous, misshapen nose, awful teeth, a red eye, mop-top hair with the texture of steel wool, green fingernails, and pale green skin, making him look very much like a live-action version of Weirdly Gruesome from THE FLINTSTONES. People flee from him in terror ("Mine is the face that ruins a sunny day," he says) but all he wants is to find love. His colleague Dr. Hinkle (Welles) has been experimenting with a weight loss serum that has a side effect of turning one into what they've coveted, so the obese women he's used as guinea pigs all become young and gorgeous in addition to losing weight. It only takes a drop to be effective, and after Hinkle interrupts his attempt at suicide via garden-shear decapitation, a depressed Heckyl guzzles a significant quantity of the serum and morphs into his own id, "Mr. Hype," a handsome, well-dressed lothario with a nasty penchant for killing his conquests and throwing them in the dumpster outside Heckyl's apartment. Heckyl has no idea what Hype has done when he reverts back to usual self, but his actions have gotten the attention of cigar-chomping Lt. Mack Druck, aka "Il Topo" (Virgil Frye) and Coral Careen (Sunny Johnson), a patient for whom Heckyl has been carrying a torch for some time.

Reed's early narration establishes some level of pathos for Heckyl, but the decision to make him look so cartoonishly off-the-charts grotesque undermines any attempt at plausible empathy for the character or his situation. It also doesn't work as a spoof, since a total of zero jokes land, most of them limited to Lt. Druck's flat feet (he's a flatfoot, get it?) and his "ingrown nail" just being a metal nail impaling his toe and removed with a pair of pliers, a sight gag that's aimed at five-year-olds. Elsewhere, the jokes are limited almost entirely to characters having silly names that are supposed to be funny in and of themselves, like Wolfe as another Heckyl colleague, the lecherous Dr. Lew Hoo; Jackie Coogan as bumbling Sgt. Fleacollar; Calvet as French seductress Pizelle Puree; Howerton as Clutch Coogar, a good ol' boy car salesman with two left feet (more childish sight gags), and others like "Herringbone Flynn," "Fritz Pitzle," "Fran Van Crisco," nurses Pertbottom, Lushtush, and Rosenrump, twin rookie cops (Michael and Steve Ciccone) named "Hollowpoint" and "DumDum," and another cop named "Gurnisht Hilfn."

Sunny Johnson (1953-1984)
There's nothing here for anyone other than the most fanatical Oliver Reed completist (and maybe the curio value of spotting future BAD SANTA sidekick Tony Cox, credited as "Joe Anthony Cox"). It's hard to imagine what Reed saw in this project other than easy money, but he actually appears to be trying here, though one can only imagine the flop sweat under his makeup and the drunken rages he hopefully indulged in off-camera. He gets to sink his teeth into some bile-soaked rants as Hype lashes out at his victims, surrogates for all the women who have rejected the virginal Heckyl based solely on his looks, but through the lens of 2019, it comes off like excerpts from a manifesto by the world's most debonair incel. HECKYL caught Reed just as his days as an A-list lead were winding down on his way to the world of straight-to-video. Not long after this, Reed would basically accept any offer if it paid enough, even starring in 1983's CLASH OF LOYALTIES, a three-hour, mega-budget Iraqi propaganda war epic produced by Saddam Hussein that played at a couple of film festivals but was never officially released anywhere but Iraq. He then became a regular presence in Harry Alan Towers-produced exploitationers shot in South Africa in the waning days of apartheid in the late '80s (DRAGONARD, CAPTIVE RAGE, GOR, SKELETON COAST, HOUSE OF USHER). Once in a while, there was a rare acclaimed lead (Nicolas Roeg's 1987 film CASTAWAY) and an occasional high-profile supporting gig (THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN), up until his final role in 2000's Oscar-winning GLADIATOR. His wonderful performance as wizened old gladiator trainer Proximo would've undoubtedly kick-started a late-career Reedassaince had he not died during production in 1999, collapsing in a Malta bar from a heart attack after buying rounds for everyone and out-drinking a group of sailors, which even Reed would probably agree was the most Oliver Reed way to go. And though she's given little to do, Johnson manages to convey some charm as Coral, enough that you'll feel sad remembering that she died tragically young, taken off life support by her family following a ruptured brain aneurysm at just 30 in 1984, a year after she landed her best-known role as Jennifer Beals' figure-skating best friend in FLASHDANCE. DR. HECKYL & MR. HYPE was only given scant distribution in the fall of 1980 before being shuffled off to cable and home video. Griffith would return to the New World lumberyard for the worthless SMOKEY BITES THE DUST and retired from movies after 1989's WIZARDS OF THE LOST KINGDOM II, a cheapjack sequel from Corman's Concorde headlined by David Carradine, Sid Haig, and future Phil Spector murder victim Lana Clarkson, and stitched together with copious amounts of stock footage from THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS, BARBARIAN QUEEN, AMAZONS, and DEATHSTALKER II.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Retro Review: TOO SCARED TO SCREAM (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by Tony Lo Bianco. Written by Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold. Cast: Mike Connors, Anne Archer, Ian McShane, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Murray Hamilton, Ruth Ford, John Heard, Carrie Nye, Maureen O'Sullivan, Chet Doherty, Ken Norris, Sully Boyar, Karen Rushmore, Val Avery, Rony Clanton, Beeson Carroll, Victoria Bass, Adrienne Howard, Harry Madsen. (R, 99 mins)

The sole feature directing effort to date from veteran character actor Tony Lo Bianco (THE FRENCH CONNECTION), TOO SCARED TO SCREAM is an obscure oddity in the '80s slasher craze in that it skews much older than expected. Sure, there's the requisite splatter and some gratuitous nudity, but in a genre focused on dead teenagers, this has an overqualified cast on the mature side, headed by Mike Connors--TV's MANNIX--who also produced with his buddy, co-star Ken Norris, and A. Kitman Ho, the latter going on to be Oliver Stone's producing partner during the director's glory days from 1986's PLATOON through 1993's HEAVEN & EARTH. At times, TOO SCARED TO SCREAM (shot in NYC in 1982 as THE DOORMAN, but shelved until the short-lived B outfit The Movie Store got it into a few theaters in early 1985) feels less like a slasher film and more like a pilot for a Connors cop show that's been spruced up with enough violence, F-bombs, and T&A to qualify for an R rating. When a high-class call girl (Victoria Bass) is stabbed to death in her Manhattan high-rise apartment, Lt. DiNardo (Connors) and his partner Frank (PENITENTIARY's Leon Isaac Kennedy, his middle name misspelled "Issac" in the credits) zero in on their prime suspect: weirdo night doorman Vincent Hardwick (Ian McShane). Hardwick certainly seems the guilty type--he's evasive with questions, randomly spouts Shakespeare like a pompous asshole, and lives with and dotes obsessively on his paralyzed, wheelchair-bound mother (Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia Farrow's mother and the original Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan, and who somehow chose this to end a long big-screen sabbatical), who can no longer speak but conveys with her eyes and worried looks that even she's creeped out by him.

A few more of the building's residents turn up dead, including a horny old woman (Ruth Ford, best known as the First Daughter opposite an Oscar-nominated Alexander Knox in 1944's WILSON) who keeps trying to booty call Hardwick in the wee hours when he's on duty; a lecherous fashion guru (Sully Boyar, of all people); and a model (Karen Rushmore) who takes the time to give herself a long, lingering nude oil rubdown before being offed (Lo Bianco had a few episodic TV directing credits under his belt, but he's definitely relishing the freedom he has here). Even though all of the murders happen on Hardwick's shifts, the evidence against him barely even qualifies as circumstantial, so DiNardo decides to take a break from busting the chops of ambitious female cop Kate Bridges (Anne Archer) by sending her in undercover as a new tenant (one of a few plot points that echo PIECES, along with one victim being dismembered and the remains compared to a jigsaw puzzle). Lo Bianco's direction is serviceable as he manages to create a few moderately tense moments and captures some vintage Times Square location shots (E.T., FIRST BLOOD, THE BURNING, and the porno I LIKE TO WATCH are on various theater marquees). He also leaves a blown Connors line in the finished film, when the star refers to McShane's Vincent Hardwick as "Mike Hardwick." Already a busy actress but still a few years from breaking out with her Oscar-nominated turn in 1987's FATAL ATTRACTION, Archer brings some charm to her role, even if her dancing skills land more on the side of Elaine Benes than FLASHDANCE. Connors more or less reprises his MANNIX persona, albeit with a few bizarre moments like when DiNardo finds the first victim's S&M-enthusiast john from the night before (Beeson Carroll) naked, hog-tied, and burned, slapping him on the ass and telling him "Don't catch cold," later quipping to Frank that "his butt looked like an ashtray at a Lucky Strike convention." Kennedy has next to nothing do, like many of the name actors who pop up in brief cameos, presumably as a result of Lo Bianco and Connors calling in some favors from friends who maybe stuck around just long enough to hit craft services: in addition to O'Sullivan and Ford, there's Carrie Nye just killing it in her one scene as a sardonic fashion designer; Murray Hamilton is a drunk, disgraced ex-cop and the older sugar daddy ex-husband of the first victim; Val Avery plays a coroner with a morbid sense of humor; and John Heard drops by as a forensic lab tech, perhaps because it was on his way to the set of C.H.U.D. They even managed to get legendary French singer Charles Aznavour to contribute the incongruous opening credits song "I'll Be There,"which also gets a more contemporary take at the end by Phyllis Hyman.

On VHS from Vestron back in the day, and just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), TOO SCARED TO SCREAM is of little interest to anyone other than '80s slasher completists and Ian McShane superfans. Written by Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold, a pair of '70s and '80s Saturday morning cartoon vets who also scripted Joseph Zito's much nastier 1981 cult classic THE PROWLER (Barbera's father was Hanna-Barbera's Joseph Barbera), the movie isn't very good, but the climactic plot twist does take things into an admittedly unexpected direction for the time, and is probably one of several things throughout that wouldn't fly in today's cancellation culture. As far as McShane is concerned, the future DEADWOOD star goes all in here, obviously patterning his performance on Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO. He gets to do some crazy and deranged shit, like putting on makeup, smiling at himself in the mirror, picking fights in an Irish bar, acting all twitchy, having meltdowns, and, in a scene that's worth the price of admission, force-feeding heaping forkfuls of cake to a game O'Sullivan. The Blu-ray has a couple of decent bonus features, with 82-year-old Lo Bianco and 70-year-old Kennedy on hand for newly-shot interviews, mainly reminiscing about cast members but never addressing why it took three years for the movie to be released or why no one behind the scenes knew how to spell "Isaac."