Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

“We don’t know why we do all these things… We don’t know how it all started.”

Synopsis:
Two orphans (Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann) with psychic powers and vague memories of surviving a watery crash are discovered by a man (Donald Pleasance) working for a greedy tycoon (Ray Milland) eager to exploit the kids’ powers to earn more money. When the siblings learn they’re trapped in Milland’s house, they engineer an escape to a mysterious place shown on the top of Richards’ special box, relying on help from a curmudgeonly trucker (Eddie Albert).

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Review:
This live-action Disney filmed received a not-so-resounding review from Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who noted that “Escape to Witch Mountain is a Walt Disney production for children who will watch absolutely anything that moves.” Forty-three years later, the film doesn’t really hold up well as sci-fi/fantasy (the Harry Potter franchise has outdone it by a long stretch), but it possesses a charm that’s of-its-era — and it’s easy to see why it appealed to young audiences at the time. Richards and Eisenmann are plucky, resourceful, insightful kids who find ways to survive in a world with questionably motivated adults around every corner. Richards’ flashbacks to an event she can’t quite piece together but knows has something to do with their origins are nicely interspersed throughout the screenplay, with images literally gaining more clarity as more is revealed. None of this is to say that Escape to Witch Mountain will hold much interest to adults; it likely won’t. But it’s reasonably effectively made (for its time), and film fanatics may enjoy seeing Albert in a critical role as the kids’ eventual accomplice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effective direction and cinematography

  • An appropriately eerie score

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless it brings you fond memories.

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Wetherby (1985)

“I thought I could get over it — but now, everywhere, the darkness beckons.”

Synopsis:
When a mysterious young man (Tim McInnerny) shows up at her house after a dinner party with friends (Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Marjorie Yates) and shoots himself, a schoolteacher (Vanessa Redgrave) reminsces on her past as a young woman (Joely Richardson) dating a soldier (Robert Hines) about to head off to war. Meanwhile, a detective (Stuart Wilson) attempts to unravel the mystery of the suicide, in part by sending a young college acquaintance (Suzanna Hamilton) of McInnerny to Redgrave’s house for a visit.

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Review:
Playwright David Hare wrote and directed this enigmatic flashback mystery about the entangled lives of a spinster teacher (Redgrave) and an odd young man (McInnerny) who commits bloody suicide in front of her for no apparent reason. It’s truly difficult to know where the plot will go from moment to moment, given the asynchronous timeline, the gradual unveiling of how the various players know one another, and the (intentional) lack of full clarity around certain characters’ motivations. It’s clear that Redgrave is still mourning the loss of her youthful lover (Hines); that she believes in (or craves) uninhibited passion; and that she’s almost eerily accepting of whatever life sends her way. Wilson, on the other hand, is oddly determined to get to the cause of MccInnerny’s actions, even when his obsession compromises his own romantic relationship. McInnerny is perhaps (not surprisingly) the biggest enigma — and the inclusion of how McInnerny’s college acquaintance (Hamilton) suddenly impacts Redgrave’s life is an intriguing narrative choice. Ultimately, this character-driven film will be most enjoyed by those who enjoy literary screenplays with much to chew on and few direct “answers”. As DVD Savant writes in his laudatory review: “The strength of the show is that the behaviors of its characters are so interesting, we don’t mind that the loose ends of the mystery do not neatly resolve themselves. Learning more about these people is reward enough.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances across the board

  • Stuart Harris’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s strongly recommended if you enjoy this type of film.

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‘Gator Bait (1974)

“Ain’t much different killin’ gators and killin’ coonies — just messier, that’s all.”

Synopsis:
When the son (Clyde Ventura) of a backwoods sheriff (Bill Thurman) accidentally kills his friend (Ben Sebastian) while attempting to rape a Cajun poacher (Claudia Jennings), he lies and claims Jennings was the murderer. Thurman, Ventura, Sebastian’s father (Sam Gilman), and Ventura’s brothers (Don Baldwin and Douglas Dirkson) seek vengeance on Jennings’ family — including her beautiful sister (Janit Baldwin) and mute younger brother.

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Review:
This swamp-set exploitation flick — co-directed, written, produced, and scored by husband and wife team Ferd and Beverly Sebastian — was clearly designed with one goal in mind: to showcase Playmate of the Year Claudia Jennings in denim shorts wielding a rifle and zooming through swampy rivers in a motor boat. There are countless repetitive scenes of Jennings being chased by backwood hokums intent on rape; and while we’re confident Jennings herself will be okay (she has a permanent look of steely determination on her face), it’s deeply unpleasant watching her doe-eyed sister being brutally terrorized. While the men in this flick are ultimately rendered pathetic and useless, this doesn’t redeem the journey.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A refreshingly bold and self-sufficient female protagonist
  • Nicely shot live action footage in the swamps of Florida

Must See?
Nope. You know who you are if this type of film appeals to you.

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Out of the Blue (1980)

“If you don’t shut up and get out of here, I’m going to take you out of the blue and into the black.”

Synopsis:
The punk-loving daughter (Linda Manz) of a convicted trucker (Dennis Hopper) tries to survive life with her drug-addicted mother (Sharon Farrell), and lives in anticipation of the day her dad is released.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “low-budget film” about the “lonely, miserable life” of a scrappy teen whose alcoholic dad is in jail after he “rams his truck into a schoolbus, killing all the children” got made only because “Hopper assumed directorial chores in mid-film”. However, the “acting is good; [and] the terrible family life is authentic, as is the brutal world outside the home”. He adds it’s “too bad the film’s as messy as Manz’s life because it delivers a strong, important message about how adults can destroy the lives of their children.” I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment. While the film doesn’t quite cohere as a compelling narrative, there are numerous well-shot scenes which convincingly convey how lost and angry Manz is, and what a truly hopeless situation she’s in. The “final scene between Manz and Hopper”, which “will make your skin crawl” — and which is followed immediately by another unexpected doozy — seem like an appropriate denouement to this relentlessly tragic tale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Linda Manz as Cebe
  • Sharon Farrell as Kathy
  • Many powerful and/or disturbing scenes

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a one-time look.

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Vice Squad (1982)

“Come on scumbag, make your move — make my day.”

Synopsis:
A gutsy prostitute (Season Hubley) assists a detective (Gary Swanson) in cornering a psychopathic pimp (Wings Hauser) — but when Hauser breaks loose from his captors, Hubley’s life is on the line.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “sleazy sexploitation film” is “another film which gives the wrong impression that all street hookers are model types” — but this doesn’t quite ring true; yes, Hubley and her close friends are beautiful, but director Gary Sherman includes plenty of panning shots depicting the array of deglamorized activity going down at night on the streets of Hollywood, and Hubley’s murdered friend (Nina Blackwood) is shown in quite a sorry state. Hubley herself is actually a refreshingly (if foolheartedly) bold female protagonist who more than holds her own with “Hauser’s scary villain” — “someone you’ll love to hate” (indeed, he seems to have a minor cult following based on this flick alone). Peary accurately notes that the film is “extremely brutal and unpleasant, particularly the finale” — though I believe modern film fanatics won’t find it particularly over-the-top. Favorite odd scene: the toe-sucking request.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Season Hubley as Princess
  • John Alcott’s cinematography of sleazy Hollywood

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for its cult status.

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Lords of Flatbush, The (1974)

“Don’t ever tell me what to do and what not to do. You understand me?”

Synopsis:
A group of leather-clad friends (Sylvester Stallone, Perry King, Henry Winkler, and Paul Mace) hang out and wreak mild havoc while King ditches his girlfriend (Renee Paris) for a new blonde (Susan Blakely) in school, and Stallone learns his pregnant girlfriend (Maria Smith) is desperate to put a ring on it.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary only seems to include this “unexceptional, uninvolving film about four leather-jacketed high-school buddies in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in the mid-fifties” because it “became a surprise commercial hit”. As he points out, its success was certainly not due to the “skimpy and trite” storyline or the “bad” sound quality, but rather because “its youth audience recognized the star quality of the unknown leads… who were… destined for stardom”. I agree with Peary that “Stallone is particularly good, playing a tough talker who’s pushed into marriage by his pregnant girlfriend” — but the problem is, not a single one of these characters is likable, and their actions are uniformly ill-advised. Blakeley’s (underdeveloped) “Jane” is right to be ambivalent about “Chico” (King), and Smith seems destined for a lifetime of dominance by chauvanist Stallone. A scene of Stallone in a rooftop pigeon coop seems to want to remind audiences of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront — but it simply made me want to rewatch that classic instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Evidence of early star power

Must See?
Nope; definitely feel free to skip this clunker.

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I Shot Jesse James (1949)

“I just want a chance to prove I ain’t no murderer.”

Synopsis:
An accomplice (John Ireland) of Jesse James (Reed Hadley) decides to shoot James in exchange for amnesty and $10,000 so he can marry his beloved singer-girlfriend (Barbara Britton). However, Ireland quickly becomes known as a notorious traitor, and ends up competing with another man (Preston Foster) for Britton’s affections.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Samuel Fuller’s directorial debut is this interesting low-budget film about ‘that dirty little coward’ Robert Ford”, who “Fuller keeps… in close-up much of the time to hint at his psychological confusion, first about deciding to kill his best friend… and then about being regarded as a traitor by his fellow townspeople.” Peary argues it “makes sense” that “Ford becomes increasingly sympathetic” given that “Fuller despised Jesse James and thought his murder was a public service”. As a low-budget psychological western, Fuller’s flick works quite well, and it hardly matters that “there isn’t enough action to satisfy most western fans.” Ireland gives an appropriately haunted performance in the title role: it’s easy to see how extreme cognitive dissonance fuels his inability to understand his girlfriend’s (Britton) waning love for him, as well as Britton’s fear for her life if she risks leaving Ireland. There’s plenty of genuine tension here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Ireland as Bob Ford
  • Ernest Miller’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended, and certainly a must for Fuller fans.

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I Drink Your Blood (1970)

“You’re mad, you son of a bitch!”

Synopsis:
When a group of hippie satanists led by an Indian (Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury) enter into a small town and assault a young woman (Iris Brooks), her grandfather (Richard Bowler) goes to check on the visitors and is drugged with LSD. Seeking revenge, Bowler’s grandson (Riley Bills) injects them with rabies and they all go murderously insane.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “wild film was one of the first to cash in on hip young horror fans’ appetite for blood and gore, first whetted by Night of the Living Dead,” but adds that “this picture didn’t have the subtlety and sophistication of Romero’s breakthrough film” (no kidding!). While “there are some scares… neither the acting nor the direction by David Durston is impressive and the film itself is pretty offensive”. He concedes that the film “does have color, energy, and a preposterous plot” — but this is far from enough to redeem a tale this unpleasant from start to finish. From the opening scene of a brutal satanic ritual in the woods (culminating in a local girl being assaulted), to the rabid hippie-sadists’ goring of one another while foaming at the mouth, this movie simply makes one lament for the state of humanity. Thank goodness for the wherewithal of the plucky young male protagonist (Bills) — though his trick of preparing “a pie he’s shot up with rabies” is pure fiction and doesn’t correlate with actal transmission of the disease.

Note: Check out Brandon’s Cult Movie Review for a fun 20 minute condensation of this flick.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A plucky young protagonist in the midst of chaos (yay for kids!)

Must See?
Nope — unless, of course, this is your cup of… tea.

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Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978)

“Who would have thought? All we wanted was a bigger, healthier tomato.”

Synopsis:
With the help of a journalist (Sharon Taylor), a spy (Gary Smith), and a parachuting lieutenant (Rock Peace), a special operations agent (David Miller) attempts to learn why tomatoes are suddenly wreaking havoc on humanity.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that the “title sufficiently tells [the] plot of this sci-fi spoof that, regrettably, is not nearly as bad as its distributors would like us to believe”. He argues that “unfortunately, the filmmakers had enough skill to make it clever but dull rather than inept but campy, like other ‘Worst Film’ contendors”, and points out that “at least it has an even more ludicrous title tune than The Blob‘s” (indeed, the song will stick in your memory for days thereafter; be forewarned). While Peary asserts that the “funniest gag has an actor dubbed (loud and out-of-synch, appropriately) simply because this is a sci-fi film and he is Japanese”, I believe the best scenes (relatively speaking) are those which openly parody well-known horror films (i.e, tomatoes bobbing menacingly in the ocean a la Jaws). While I’m not a personal fan of this ridiculously silly film, it’s harmless and worth a look if you enjoy this kind of entertainment.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fun parody sequences from famous flicks

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look if you’re curious.

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Which Way is Up? (1977)

“Which way is up, sucker? You forget who you are and where you came from?”

Synopsis:
An orchard worker (Richard Pryor) living with his wife (Margaret Avery), his horny father (also Richard Pryor), and many others in a tiny house accidentally becomes aligned with a protest movement and is forced out of town by his company. Once in the big city of Los Angeles, Leroy (Pryor) falls in love with a beautiful organizer (Lonette McKee) and starts a family with her — but when he accidentally witnesses the murder of a prominent activist, he’s sent back to his small town, where he begins to live a double life with both McKee and Avery (who is suddenly sexually interested in him). Complicating matters even further, Avery admits she’s been impregnated by her “spiritual counselor” Reverend Thomas (also Richard Pryor), which sets Leroy on a vengeful mission to sleep with the Reverend’s pious wife (Marilyn Coleman).

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Review:
This loose remake of Lina Wertmuller’s The Seduction of Mimi (1972) is an awful misfire from start to finish. It was clearly designed as a star vehicle for Pryor, playing three utterly unlikable characters who aggressively pursue and/or cheat on women. There is little incentive to care about the central protagonist’s travails, and the screenplay simply reinforces racial stereotypes through profanity and caricatures. It’s hard to see what appealed to Pryor about this one, other than the chance to bed several beautiful women onscreen and inhabit multiple roles a la Eddie Murphy (who was much more skilled at this). Skip it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Not many.

Must See?
No, unless you’re a diehard Pryor fan.

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