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Month: February 2021

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:

  • Betsy Palmer Films
  • 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
  • Deserts
  • Horror Films
  • Mutant Monsters
  • Survival
  • Wes Craven Films

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:

    Bring On the Night (1985)

    Bring On the Night (1985)

    “One of the great things about my life is that I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m gonna be doing in a year’s time.”

    Synopsis:
    Sting works closely with his new band (Omar Hakim, Darryl Jones, Kenny Kirkland, Branford Marsalis, Dolette McDonald, and Janice Pendarvis) as they prepare to perform live in Paris.

    Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

    • Concert Films
    • Documentary
    • Michael Apted Films

    Review:
    Michael Apted (RIP, 1/7/21) directed this intriguing behind-the-scenes look at rock-star Sting going solo and collaborating with a jazz-oriented group of musicians. It won “Best Music Video, Long Form” at the 1987 Grammy Awards (which makes complete sense), and remains an invaluable time capsule of the artist at work. There’s a nice balance of light-hearted banter, creative collaboration, and truly fine music — especially by pianist Kenny Kirkland and saxophonist Branford Marsalis. While it’s not must-see by all film fanatics, it’s a well-done example of what concert films can offer to audiences.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • An intriguing glimpse behind the scenes of Sting’s creative world

    Must See?
    No, but it’s recommended. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

    Links:

    Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982)

    Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982)

    “Let’s spent the night together / Now I need you more than ever.”

    Synopsis:
    The Rolling Stones perform live in 1981 for audiences in Arizona and New Jersey.

    Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

    • Concert Films
    • Hal Ashby Films
    • Rock ‘n Roll

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary accurately dismisses this “dull concert film” — which “captures none of the excitement of the events or the intensity of the Stones’ performances” — as perhaps an instance of director Hal Ashby “accidentally jettison[ing] the good stuff and [keeping] the reject material.”

    He argues that “the camera seems incapable of achieving any intimacy with the performers”, and that “even Mick Jagger seems distant”. Indeed, I was surprised and dismayed to see what a lost opportunity this film is, given the possibility of concert films not only to not only give viewers an up-close view of their favorite performers in action, but to show behind-the-scenes interactions leading to or following the event. We don’t hear any dialogue here, and the few cutaways to non-performance footage are oddly interspersed. The one semi-cool scene shows a concert stadium being set up for the evening’s show in time-lapse:

    As Peary notes at the end of his very brief review, “You’ll have better luck with Gimme Shelter” (I agree).

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Fine cinematography

    Must See?
    No; you can skip this one unless you’re a die-hard Stones fan.

    Links:

    Andy Warhol’s Dracula / Blood For Dracula (1974)

    Andy Warhol’s Dracula / Blood For Dracula (1974)

    “My body can’t take this treatment anymore. The blood of these whores is killing me!”

    Synopsis:
    Desperately in need of virgin blood, sickly Count Dracula (Udo Kier) is taken by his loyal manservant (Arno Juerging) to Italy, where he intends to woo the supposedly “pure” daughters (Milena Vukotic, Dominique Darel, Stefania Casini, and Silvia Dionisio) of a landowner (Vittorio de Sica) and his wife (Maxime McKendry), not realizing that two of them are sexually involved with the family’s “Bolshevik gardener” (Joe Dallesandro).

    Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

    • Horror Films
    • Looking for Ms./Mr. Right
    • Paul Morrissey Films
    • Vampires
    • Virginity

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary writes that while this horror satire is “not as popular as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, also directed by Paul Morrissey”, it’s “a much better film”. He describes it as “erotic, cleverly scripted by Morrissey and very funny, but concedes that it’s “so super bloody, gross, and violent that viewers will surely be scared away”. While Peary considers “the entire cast… impressive”, he notes that “best of all is Arno Juerging, who plays Dracula’s always angry assistant. He speaks in the most unpleasant tone imaginable and his argument-conversations with the overly-excited Kier are classics.”

    Peary calls out Juerging’s “bar-game scene with peasant Roman Polanski” as “also a highlight”.

    I agree with Peary that this cult favorite is well worth a look: it’s sumptuously filmed, cleverly scripted, and offers plenty of atmospheric, tongue-in-cheek enjoyment. Chances are you’ll enjoy it more than you expected to.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Numerous campily humorous moments



    • Fine cinematography and sets

    • Claudio Gizzi’s guitar-drenched score

    Must See?
    Yes, as a cult favorite.

    Categories

    • Cult Movie

    Links: