This is Elvis (1981)

This is Elvis (1981)

“Will we ever see Elvis in person again?”

Synopsis:
People close to Elvis Presley reflect back on his storied life and career, culminating in death by heart attack at the age of 42.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Documentary
  • Elvis Presley Films

Review:
Having watched all nine of Elvis Presley’s Hollywood dramas listed in GFTFF — as well as his riveting Vegas concert film That’s the Way It Is (1970) — it was both fitting and sobering to end my Elvis run by watching this creatively filmed documentary about his life, which includes strategic snippets of recreated scenes (using actors):

… alongside ample authentic footage from the earliest days of Presley’s stupendous fame:

… to his final challenging weeks. Indeed, it’s the candor of this latter footage that makes one sit up and notice: despite being overseen by his estate, this documentary pulls few punches in letting us know how sick Presley became towards the end of his life, showing heartbreaking evidence of his eventual inability to cope.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of engaging footage

Must See?
Yes, as a surprisingly insightful documentary about Elvis’s rise and eventual fall.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Sisters (1972)

Sisters (1972)

“That body is here somewhere!”

Synopsis:
When a small-town reporter (Jennifer Salt) sees a woman (Margot Kidder) killing her date (Lisle Wilson) in her apartment, she insists on telling a detective (Dolph Sweet) and pursuing any leads she can find — including tracking Kidder’s stalking ex-husband (William Finley) and hiring a private detective (Charles Durning).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Brian De Palma Films
  • Horror Films
  • Journalists
  • Living Nightmare
  • Mad Doctors and Scientists
  • Margot Kidder Films
  • “No One Believes Me”
  • Twins

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary points out that this “creepy, funny, visually innovative” thriller by Brian De Palma is unfortunately “not that satisfying”. De Palma “not only borrows themes and scenes from Alfred Hitchcock (i.e., Rear Window, Psycho) but also has a standout score by Bernard Herrmann” and “seems inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Val Lewton’s Cat People.” Peary writes that “in a performance that recalls Simone Simon, Margot Kidder is unexpectedly sweet and vulnerable as French-Canadian Danielle Breton, a model working in New York” who “has her bad side: Dominique, her murderess, detached Siamese twin”. As Peary notes, the film’s major problem “is that the opening sequence[s] [are] so technically exciting (with tracking shots, split screen, sharp cutting), witty (there’s a hilarious parody of TV game shows called Peeping Toms), and suspenseful that it’s never equaled.”

Peary’s review reveals numerous spoilers that I won’t name here — but suffice it to say that I don’t believe the film capitalizes on its potential, though not all agree, and many take great pleasure in recognizing even more cinematic homages. While it’s worth a look for its highly creative elements, it’s not must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Margot Kidder as Danielle Breton
  • Lisle Wilson as Phillip
  • An intriguing premise
  • The highly innovative split-screen sequence
  • Fine use of location shooting
  • Bernard Herrmann’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look for its better elements.

Links:

Slumber Party Massacre, The (1982)

Slumber Party Massacre, The (1982)

“You know how girls love to scream.”

Synopsis:
A teenager (Michele Michaels) whose parents have gone away for the weekend and asked their next-door neighbor (Ryan Kennedy) to keep an eye on her invites a group of friends (Debra Deliso, Andree Honore, and Gina Mari) over for a party, and they’re soon joined by two male onlookers (Joe Johnson and David Millbern). Meanwhile, Michaels’ beautiful new classmate (Robin Stille) stays home babysitting her annoying little sister (Jennifer Meyers). Can the teens all stay safe from a power-drill-wielding serial killer (Michael Villela) on the loose in their neighborhood?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Horror Films
  • Serial Killers

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “slice-and-dice” slasher flick “has received attention because it was produced and directed by a woman, Amy Jones, and scripted by radical feminist Rita Mae Brown” — but “as hard as one looks, it’s impossible to find a satirical-political-feminist theme that would explain why Jones or Brown would be associated with this entry” in the genre. Indeed, Jones and Brown “follow all conventions relating to female nudity, horny teens, too many false alarms, painful death, [and] buckets of blood,” leading Peary to wonder, “Were they just trying to prove that they could make as tough and obscenely violent a film as young male directors, or that they could make a bloody, sexy exploitation film that would rack in the same amounts of money as the male-directed Halloween rip-offs have?” (If so, they succeeded; this film earned quite a bit at the box office and spawned several sequels.) However, as Peary points out (rather harshly):

“… this film is trash. Every character is stupid beyond belief. There are numerous ways in which the girls could get out of their predicament, but they haven’t even the intelligence to lean out a window of the two-story house to yell for help. Instead, the dense girls wait around to be murdered one by one. It is infuriating and frustrating how they are set up for slaughter.”

While I’m not at all a fan of slasher flicks, I think Peary is missing the boat a bit: viewers of this type of movie don’t tend to spend much energy worrying about logic or characters’ intelligence (and Brown originally wrote it as a parody, which makes sense).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is only for horror fanatics.

Links:

Friday the 13th (1980)

Friday the 13th (1980)

“Camp Crystal Lake is jinxed.”

Synopsis:
A group of teenage counselors preparing a camp site for re-opening after years of closure due to the death of a child are gruesomely killed off, one by one.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Horror Films
  • Serial Killers
  • Summer Camp
  • Teenagers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary gives away major spoilers in his review of this “low-budget film”, the “first of a series that has become an American institution;” but I’ll try my best to keep identities unrevealed. Peary writes that the murderer’s “dramatic battle with the last survivor, gutsy Adrienne King… is strong stuff” and adds, “In fact, the film is skillfully enough made by director Sean Cunningham that you’ll be scared out of your wits waiting for each counselor to meet his or her ghastly end.” He posits that Friday the 13th is a “successful mix of bloody horror and youth-sex genres, so it’s no surprise it made a fortune”, but he argues you may question “your own reason for sitting through entertainment with gratuitous sex and violence and teenagers who are portrayed as oversexed, insensitive clowns ideal for slaughter.” I disagree completely with Peary’s characterization of the counselors: only one couple (Kevin Bacon and Jeannine Taylor) is shown having sex; the others are reasonably hard-working when they’re not joking around or relaxing with silly and perfectly normal teenage games. All film fanatics will surely be curious to check out this iconic horror flick that kicked off so many sequels — but don’t read anything at all about it if you want to remain authentically surprised.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine use of idyllic (and menacing) location shooting
  • Numerous scary moments

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance and status as a cult favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Hills Have Eyes, The (1977)

Hills Have Eyes, The (1977)

“I’m going to get those bastards.”

Synopsis:
A retired police officer (Russ Grieve) travelling across the Arizona desert with his wife (Virginia Vincent), kids (Dee Wallace, Susan Lanier, and Robert Houston), son-in-law (Martin Speer), granddaughter (Brenda Marinoff), and two German shepherds suddenly finds his family’s life in danger when they wander off the beaten path and encounter a family of backwoods “atomic-test mutant” cannibals (James Whitworth, Cordy Clark, Lance Gordon, Michael Berryman, Arthur King, and Janus Blythe).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cannibalism
  • Horror Films
  • Mutant Monsters
  • Survival

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this picture about a “middle-class family from Cleveland” who “must give up civilized notions if they are to live” — has “extreme violence” but “differs from director Wes Craven’s previous film, The Last House on the Left, because this time you never forget that it’s ‘only a movie’.” As he points out this is “a relief, considering what we must watch” — and he adds that while the “film is as vicious as its reputation”, it’s unfortunately “neither well-made nor scary”. It’s notable for featuring “bald Michael Berryman (whose frightening face was used on the film’s posters)”:

… and Dee Wallace in one of her first feature-length film roles.

Other noteworthy performances include Houston as a back-flipping teenager who suddenly finds himself at the head of a posse for survival:

… and Blythe as the only sympathetic cannibal.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effectively terrifying moments

  • Must See?
    No; you can skip this one unless you’re a Wes Craven fan.

    (Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

    Links:

    Last House on the Left, The (1972)

    Last House on the Left, The (1972)

    “Are you sure we’re not going to put you folks to any trouble?”

    Synopsis:
    During a trip to the big city, Mari (Sandra Cassell) and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) are kidnapped and tortured by a sadistic gang of escaped convicts (Davis Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, and Marc Sheffler) while Mari’s concerned parents (Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr) wait back at home ready to celebrate her 17th birthday.

    Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

    • Fugitives
    • Horror Films
    • Kidnapping
    • Revenge
    • Serial Killers
    • Wes Craven Films

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary writes that this “repulsive, controversial cult film” — notorious as the breakthrough movie of writer-director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham — “starts out humorously”:

    … but quickly devolves into a middle section that’s “an outright embarrassment” and a “final section” that’s “hogwash”.

    He accurately notes that the “humor [and] happy music are offensive”, that “you’ll feel ashamed to be watching it”, and (presuming you’re seeing it in a theater) you’ll “feel paranoid about the men around you who are grinning and taking delight in the girls’ torture.” He argues that the “major problem is that the film is so convincingly made — and the sadists and their victims so authentic — that the torture scenes really seem to be happening.” Remarkably (or, sadly, not so), the film has a significant cult following and was recently released on Blu-Ray. Regardless, as DVD Savant writes, “it’s still an indefensible carnival of cruelty and carnage, with unendurable pain and suffering meted out to two innocent girls by a quartet of pitiless human monsters.” Meanwhile, Howard Thompson’s review for The New York Times is worth copying here in its (short) entirety:

    In a thing (as opposed to a film) titled “Last House on the Left,” four slobbering fiends capture and torture two “groovy” young girls who airily explore the bad section of a town and more or less ask for trouble. When I walked out, after 50 minutes (with 35 to go), one girl had just been dismembered with a machete. They had started in on the other with a slow switchblade. The party who wrote this sickening tripe and also directed the inept actors is Wes Craven. It’s at the Penthouse Theater, for anyone interested in paying to see repulsive people and human agony.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Decent production values

    Must See?
    No, though film fanatics may be curious to check it out given its cult status.

    Links:

    Omen, The (1976)

    Omen, The (1976)

    “What could be wrong with our child? We’re beautiful people, aren’t we?”

    Synopsis:
    When his wife (Lee Remick) loses her baby during childbirth, a diplomat (Gregory Peck) is urged by a hospital’s chaplain (Martin Benson) to secretly give her a replacement baby whose mom has just died. Soon, however, their son Damien (Harvey Stephens) — cared for by a nefarious new nanny (Billie Whitelaw) and her big black dog — begins showing distressing signs of evil; and when a mysterious priest (Patrick Troughton) repeatedly warns Peck that he must investigate the truth behind his adopted son’s birth, Peck enlists the help of a journalist (David Warner) in learning more.

    Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

    • Amateur Sleuths
    • Evil Kids
    • Gregory Peck Films
    • Horror
    • Lee Remick Films
    • Satanists

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary argues that this “big-budget horror film, given class by a distinguished cast, starts out well, but becomes extremely unpleasant”, with the deaths “repugnant” — “particularly a decapitation (a scene known for its effective special effect).” Peary goes on to write that, “In The Exorcist, God defeats Satan; in Val Lewton’s films, God and the devil fight to a stalemate; but this picture joins Rosemary’s Baby and other recent films in which the devil emerges triumphant — it’s part of a depressing subgenre.” While I agree with Peary that the deaths become increasingly “unpleasant” (and a particular plot twist will sit like a lump in your stomach), it seems to me they’re part and parcel of how a tale like this would be told. The inherent tension of the story — starting with Peck deceiving his wife in such a profound way — carries the narrative along, as we watch the unbearable discomfort of a woman fearing her own son:


    … and Peck’s eventual realization that he will have to take unthinkably drastic actions. Of special note is Billie Whitelaw as Damien’s nanny; she steals the show each moment she’s on screen.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
    • Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn
    • Lee Remick as Katherine Thorn
    • Atmospheric cinematography and sets

    • Many creepy and/or horrific moments

    • Jerry Goldsmith’s score

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

    Links:

    Demon Seed (1977)

    Demon Seed (1977)

    “You like games? So do I.”

    Synopsis:
    An arrogant, driven scientist (Fritz Weaver) who has worked for years on a powerful AI machine named Proteus IV leaves his estranged wife (Julie Christie) at home, not realizing she will soon be terrorized by the super-human computer, who has nefarious plans for propagating his own existence through her.

    Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

    • Computer-Out-of-Control
    • Horror
    • Julie Christie Films
    • Pregnancy
    • Rape
    • Science Fiction
    • Scientists

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary writes that this “controversial science-fiction film” — based on a novel by Dean R. Koontz — “somehow manages to be erotic and anti-erotic, daring and offensive”.

    He adds that the film’s “premise is intriguing but disturbing — it’s tasteless enough seeing movie heroines raped by monsters in some recent pictures, but Christie being molested by a mechanical apparatus is ludicrous and appalling…” With that said, he notes that “Christie’s about the only actress who could retain her dignity playing such a victim”, and indeed “gives one of her finest, most vulnerable performances”.

    Peary writes that while “the film’s cultists don’t like the ending”, he finds “it to be satisfying”, and notes that the “scariest scene, other than the rape of Christie, is when Proteus attacks scientist Gerrit Graham”.

    While Demon Seed is undeniably cliched, illogical, and silly in many ways, it remains surprisingly suspenseful and relevant to our modern times, when “personal devices” control far more of our existence than they (very likely) should, and we’re equally — or more — at risk of AI surpassing our own ability to control what we’ve created. If you’re curious, watch this fun 10-minute overview of the film. (YouTube has added a whole new dimension of possibilities to film blogging!)

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Julie Christie as Susan
    • Trippy special effects

    Must See?
    No, but it’s worth a look.

    Links:

    Exorcist, The (1973)

    Exorcist, The (1973)

    “I’m telling you that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter.”

    Synopsis:
    An actress (Ellen Burstyn) seeks help from a priest (Jason Miller) and his exorcist-colleague (Max von Sydow) in saving her preteen daughter Regan (Linda Blair) from demonic possession.

    Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

    • Ellen Burstyn Films
    • Horror
    • Lee J. Cobb Films
    • Max von Sydow Films
    • Mercedes McCambridge Films
    • Possession
    • Priests and Ministers
    • Single Mothers
    • William Friedkin Films

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary writes that this “powerful, controversial, influential adult horror film — a one-time cult phenomenon” presents a world “breaking apart,” in which “the Devil can make a dramatic entrance”, taking “possession of Regan [by] inhabiting her body and eating away at it.” He points out that the “film is at times almost unbearably intense” and “not for the squeamish, because some of the language and imagery is quite shocking: Regan’s face becomes monstrous, her speech is vulgar, she vomits green slime, she violently attacks all who come close, she masturbates with crosses, she levitates”.

    Peary notes that the “special effects make-up by Dick Smith and Rick Baker revolutionized the horror genre”, leading one to “feel sorry for Blair.” (She has since acknowledged it was “grueling” to go through being made-up for two hours each day — and we’ve also learned she fractured her back during the scene in which she’s bounced violently up and down off her bed.)

    Peary refers to Friedkin’s direction simply as “solid”, noting he likes “the way he refrigerated Blair’s room so that steam pours out of everyone’s mouth”, and he asserts that the “most interesting aspect of the picture is that it conveys a fear that is rarely dealt with: Regan doesn’t have those around her turn into monsters (a basic primal fear) but becomes a monster herself. Not since Pinocchio grew donkey ears and a tail has a child become so bestial.”

    Peary argues that the “caliber of acting and production gave the film needed class to attract a mass audience” — but this understates the fact that The Exorcist had a tremendous cultural impact. Documentary footage reveals that audience members waited in line for hours to see the film, and would routinely leave and/or faint mid-way, unable to continue their viewing. Despite costing twice as much as its initial budget (and taking twice as long to film as projected), it remains the ninth highest grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation).

    Viewed on its own terms today (almost 50 years later), The Exorcist has held up remarkably well: for better or for worse, Friedkin’s draconian directorial style (doing whatever he deemed necessary to get the responses he wanted from his actors and set) resulted in a film which authentically represents humanity at its most vulnerable and terrorized. This is not a film to watch or take lightly — and while modern-day audiences may be less astonished by the impressive special effects (all achieved on-set, rather than altered during post-production), they remain truly noteworthy and frightening.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Linda Blair as Regan

    • Fine performances by the adult cast


    • Highly atmospheric cinematography and direction

    • Creepy make-up

    • Impressive special effects

    Must See?
    Yes, for its historical notoriety and enduring cultural impact. Selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2010 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

    Categories

    • Historically Relevant
    • Oscar Winner or Nominee

    (Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

    Links:

    Poltergeist (1982)

    Poltergeist (1982)

    “It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning.”

    Synopsis:
    A suburban mom (JoBeth Williams) and dad (Craig T. Nelson) try to protect their kids Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) from malevelent forces in their house, eventually drawing on the help of a team of paranormal experts (Beatrice Straight, Richard Lawson, and Martin Casella) and a medium (Zelda Rubenstein).

    Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

    • Ghosts
    • Horror Films
    • Kidnapping
    • Steven Spielberg Films

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary writes that this “thrill-a-second horror movie” — directed “by Tobe Hooper under the close supervision of Steven Spielberg” — is “suspenseful, scary, witty, [and] imaginative”. He points out that Richard Edlund’s special effects are dazzling, especially the parade of the ‘lost’ ghosts down the staircase and the startling appearance of the giant demon head”:


    But he argues that “what makes [the] film really nerve-wracking — especially if you’re a young viewer — is that every thing (trees, dolls, toys, records, furniture) comes to life and becomes hostile.”



    He adds that the “characters are appealing” (though he complains that “Dunne’s character has nothing to do”):

    … and posits that the “finale, which is too much like the end of The Amityville Horror, is anticlimactic — all the skeletons, the mud, and the loud screaming are annoying.”


    I’m of two minds about Poltergeist, which I never saw as a kid or teen (I was horror-averse until my adulthood, when I could finally approach the genre from a sufficiently analytical lens and avoid sensory overload). While I recognize its innovation in terms of special effects and numerous thrilling moments, I find the storyline and characters frustratingly inconsistent. (To name just two glaring errors, Nelson has purportedly missed days of work while his younger daughter is missing — without the police being notified? And distraught Williams apologizes to Straight for inconveniencing her?!) Some have argued for “hidden depths” in the film, finding meaning and nuance in each narrative or visual twist, while others have semi-jokingly pointed out “everything wrong” with the movie. Ultimately, film fanatics will need to decide for themselves whether this becomes a beloved favorite or a once-and-done cult flick with historical significance.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Fine central and supporting performances




    • Nicely done special effects
    • Atmospheric cinematography

    Must See?
    Yes, simply for its cultural relevance and cult status.

    Categories

    • Cult Movie
    • Historically Relevant

    (Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

    Links: