Thursday, April 29, 2021

#2,560. The Pit (1981)

Directed by Lew Lehmen from a script penned by Ian Stuart, The Pit is a very strange motion picture.

The story centers on 12-year-old Jamie (Sammy Snyders), a loner who is bullied by classmates and considered an oddball by the local adults (even his parents - played by Richard Alden and Laura Press - have a hard time understanding his behavior). Before heading out of town on a trip, Jamie’s mom and dad hire Sandy O’Reilly (Jeannie Elias), a live-in babysitter, to look after their young handful. Even though she’s twice his age, Jamie soon believes he’s falling in love with Sandy. In fact, he has a crush on several older women, including the librarian (Laura Hoillingsworth), and for a boy of twelve he spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about sex (during dinner one night, Jamie drops his napkin so that he can peer up Sandy’s skirt).

But Jamie’s bizarre behavior isn’t limited to an overactive libido. His only friend is his teddy bear, which he talks to on a regular basis. What’s more, Jamie has discovered something unusual in the nearby forest: a large pit that he believes is home to a group of carnivorous troglodytes! Naturally, when he tries to tell Sandy about his “friends” in the woods, she doesn’t believe him, but if these creatures are truly a figment of his imagination, why are people who have mistreated Jamie in the past suddenly disappearing?

Sammy Snyders delivers a strong performance as Jamie, who is both a sympathetic character (we feel bad when he’s teased by the librarian’s niece Abergail, portrayed by Andrea Swartz) and a little monster (he plays a nasty trick on the librarian in order to take pictures of her naked). As the central character, Jamie is the primary focus of The Pit, and his shenanigans are the source of the movie’s more horrific sequences; the scenes in which he talks to his teddy bear are pretty damn creepy (especially when the Teddy responds in Jamie’s voice), yet it’s what Jamie does to “care” for his troglodyte buddies that are the film’s most disturbing moments.

Tonally, The Pit is all over the place. It has the look of a made-for-TV movie, but is unflinching in its depiction of Jamie’s sexual obsession (one morning, he sneaks into Sandy’s room to watch her sleep, and stares at her partially exposed breast). And while The Pit is undoubtedly a horror film, director Lehmen occasionally slips a few comedic scenes into the mix, many of which feel out of place (especially one in particular, involving an elderly blind woman in a wheelchair). Yet despite all this, I would not hesitate to recommend this 1981 Canadian flick to genre fans.

Sure, The Pit is weird, and times it’s a bit of a mess. But it’s never boring, and I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like it before!
RATING: 7 out of 10 (worth a watch)

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

#2,559. Vampyros Lesbos (1971)


The title alone should clue you in on what to expect from this trippy horror fantasy. Only there are times in the movie when director Jess Franco seems to have forgotten the “Vampyros” in favor of the “Lesbos”.

The story (what there is of it) centers on the exploits of Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda), a very attractive vampire who, with the help of her erotic nightclub act, lures female victims to her remote island getaway in the Mediterranean.

The Countess’s most recent conquest is Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Stromberg), an American working abroad. Linda’s boyfriend Omar (Andrea Montchai) has been unable to satisfy her sexual cravings, making her easy pickings for the alluring Countess.

But at what cost to Linda’s eternal soul?

There’s no shortage of nudity in Vampyros Lesbos (moments after they meet, the Countess somehow convinces Linda to shed her clothes and go skinny-dipping), and the film’s psychedelic musical score sets the perfect tone throughout. In addition, Franco takes full advantage of the exotic setting (the movie was shot on-location in Turkey), and Soledad Miranda makes for one hell of an alluring vampire.

Unfortunately, genre fans may walk away from Vampyros Lesbos a tad disappointed; there are scenes featuring a Dr. Steiner (Paul Muller) who has dedicated his life to studying the undead, and Franco himself plays the minor role of Memmet, a creepy, igor-like sidekick who gets his thrills torturing women, but aside from this (and a few scenes with the Countess and some fake-looking blood), this 1971 film comes up decidedly short in the horror department.

But if it’s any consolation, in the “naked-women-slithering-around-on-top-of-one-another” department, Vampyros Lesbos is a home run!
Rating: a generous 6 out of 10

Sunday, April 25, 2021

#2,558. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)


Based on the novel by Laird Koenig (who also penned the screenplay), The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane relates the sometimes tense, always disturbing tale of 13-year-old Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster), who, as far as her neighbors know, lives with her father, an accomplished poet.

Of course, nobody has actually met Rynn’s father; Mrs. Howlett (Alexis Smith), who owns the house they lease, has been asking to speak with him, and Mrs. Howlett’s son Frank (Martin Sheen) claims to be an old friend of his. Even the kindly policeman, Ron Migliorti (Mort Shuman), thinks it’s strange that Rynn is always home, but her father never is.

In fact, most everyone, including Rynn’s new boyfriend Mario (Scott Jacoby), suspects she is hiding something, but nobody could have guessed the terrible secret Rynn has tucked away in the basement.

At times creepy (thanks in large part to Sheen’s portrayal of Frank, an obvious pedophile), The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane belongs - from start to finish - to Jodie Foster, who, despite being only 13 when the movie was made, delivers a nuanced performance as a young girl who is smarter than everyone around her. The scenes in which she outwits the pushy Mrs. Howlett are among the film’s most engaging. Even after we discover what Rynn is hiding in the basement, we root like hell for her, and it’s because of Foster that I heartily recommend The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.

Parents should be warned, however: the PG rating is misleading, to say the least. With its strong subject matter and a scene of nudity, this is not a movie you’ll want to watch with the kiddies.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Friday, April 23, 2021

#2,557. Never Grow Old (2019)


Horror will always be my favorite genre, but westerns are a close second, and one of the many reasons why is there are a plethora of obscure, excellent “oaters” - from all eras – out there, just waiting to be discovered.

A great example is 2019’s Never Grow Old, starring Emile Hirsch and John Cusack (in a very different sort of role for him).

It’s the mid-19th century, and Patrick Tate (Hirsch) is an undertaker in a small frontier town. Business for Patrick has been slow as of late, in part because the community’s fire and brimstone Minister (Danny Webb) led a successful campaign to have alcohol, gambling, and prostitution banned.

Patrick’s financial situation improves, however, when gunslinger / outlaw Dutch Albert (Cusack) rides into town. Albert re-opens the saloon, and all at once Patrick has more bodies to bury than he ever had before.

But at what cost to the town that he and his wife Audrey (Deborah Francoise) call home?

Never Grow Old is a supremely disturbing film, powerfully acted, and with extraordinary cinematography that makes its muddy, grimy locale look as realistic as they come (you believe from start to finish that you’re in the old west).

Yet despite its impressive camerawork, the well-realized sets, and the strong performances, it’s the story that grabs your attention. And it never loosens its grip. This is a dark, dark movie, and there are scenes that will shake you.

Written and directed by Ivan Cavanaugh, who also helmed the 2014 horror film The Canal, Never Grow Old blew me away. It is a movie I highly recommend.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

#2,556. The Last Voyage (1960)

Released more than a decade before The Poseidon Adventure, The Last Voyage is a concise yet oh-so-effective disaster film about a cruise ship that runs into serious trouble on the high seas.

Cliff Henderson (Robert Stack) is relocating to Japan, and along with his wife Laurie (Dorothy Malone) and daughter Jill (Tammy Marihugh) he boards the SS Claridon, which is Asia bound. Under the command of Captain Robert Adams (George Sanders), the SS Claridon is an old ship, and is scheduled for the scrapyard once this voyage is complete.

Unfortunately, the Claridon will never make it to Japan; after a fire breaks out in the boiler room, the entire ship is rocked by a devastating explosion. Along with opening a gaping hole in the side of the vessel, the explosion has all but destroyed the Henderson’s state room, pinning Laurie’s leg under a beam.

As water pours in, the crew, including First Officer Osborne (George Furness), the Chief Engineer (Jack Kruschen), and Second Engineer (Edmond O’Brien), works quickly to save the ship and get as many passengers into the lifeboats as they can, while Cliff and crewman Hank Lawson (Woody Strode) try to free Laurie before the SS Claridon sinks to the bottom of the Pacific.

Directed by Andrew L. Stone, The Last Voyage generates a great deal of tension throughout, and on several different fronts. First, the movie follows the crew as they try to keep the ship afloat, and slowly realize doing so is an impossible task. Bulk heads flood, walls collapse, and more explosions set the stage for the inevitable. In addition to the crisis at hand, a conflict arises between the Captain (well played by Sanders) and his subordinates. Through it all, Captain Adams remains determined to bring his dying vessel into dock in one piece, and is slow to alert the passengers of the impending danger (his crew continually presses him to do so). Yet despite his stubbornness, the captain isn’t entirely demonized (we understand his motivations, even if we - like his crew - believe he’s making a mistake) and we even sympathize with him as the pressure mounts.

Then there’s the drama surrounding Cliff Henderson and his family; after saving his young daughter (a very tense sequence), Cliff rushes out to find someone to help him free his wife. As The Last Voyage progresses, her situation becomes more dire, and Dorothy Malone does a fine job conveying the many emotions her character experiences as she waits to be rescued (including the realization she might not be rescued in time).

Each and every subplot is well-developed, and while it may not feature as star-studded a cast as The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, every performer in The Last Voyage gives their all (including the narrator, cast member George Furness, who recounts the events as if speaking from some time in the near future). All this plus the well-realized special effects (which netted the film its sole Academy Award nomination) help make The Last Voyage a disaster flick that’s every bit as strong as its ‘70s counterparts.
RATING: 8 out of 10 (This is a good one!)

Monday, April 19, 2021

#2,555. The 5th Wave (2016)


A young adult sci-fi thriller from director J Blakeson, The 5th Wave gets off to a promising start, only to be bogged down by below-average effects and one of the more predictable twists in recent memory.

An alien race is systematically ridding the world of its human population. After launching three waves of attacks from orbit, the invaders up the ante, taking human form to hide in broad daylight and finish the job.

With her parents out of the picture, Cassie (Chloe Grace Moretz) is trying to make her way to her kid brother Sam (Zackary Arthur), who has been recruited by the army to help fight the aliens (now called “The Others”). But will she reach him in time?

The incredibly talented Moretz delivers a compelling performance as the desperate young woman hoping to save her brother, and the opening scenes, - i.e. the aliens’ arrival and their subsequent “attacks” (electronic pulses to shut off the power, tsunamis, etc) - are strong.

Alas, just when the movie should be hitting its stride, it falls off the rails, introducing a subplot about an army of children that’s not nearly as interesting as what came before it. And without going into too much detail, I figured out the movie’s “big surprise” a good 45 minutes before it was revealed.
Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Saturday, April 17, 2021

#2,554. Southbound (2015)


A horror anthology, Southbound features five separate yet intertwining stories.

Over the course of a single day, a group of people - including two criminals (Chad Villella and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin), an all-female rock band (Fabianne Therese, Hannah Marks, and Nathalie Love), a guy making his way home (Mather Zickel), a brother (David Yow) trying to track down his long-lost sister, and a family (Gerald Downey, Kate Beehan, and Hassie Harrison) on vacation - will come face-to-face with their worst nightmares as they travel a lonely stretch of desert highway.

Unlike many horror anthologies, Southbound has no framing story; a radio DJ (voiced by Larry Fessenden) ushers in each new segment. The element that links these tales is the highway itself, surrounded on all sides by the desert, a grim reminder to the film’s characters that they are all alone, cut off from the rest of the world, and nobody is coming to save them.

Each segment is strong; things get off to a wild start with The Way Out, directed by Radio Silence, and even though we have no idea who the criminals are or what they’re running from, it’s shot in such a way that the audience is kept on-edge the entire time. This is followed by director Roxanne Benjamin’s Siren (the female rock band), which leads into David Bruckner’s The Accident, arguably the most unsettling of the film’s segments (a scene set inside an abandoned hospital is absolutely nerve-racking), which leads into Patrick Horvath’s violence-fueled Jailbreak before wrapping this up with The Way In, again directed by Radio Silence, bringing the movie full-circle.

There isn’t a weak story in the bunch; each will creep you out in its own special way, and leave you wanting more. Southbound is a horror anthology that will surely stand the test of time.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, April 15, 2021

#2,553. The Piper (2015)

A dark retelling of The Pied Piper of Hammelin set during the days of the Korean conflict, director Kim Gwang-tae’s 2015 film The Piper strikes the perfect balance between a fairy tale and a horror movie, ultimately proving to be an effective blend of the two.

A Piper (Ryu Seung-ryong) and his sickly son (played by Goo Seung-Hyun, the boy suffers from tuberculosis, and the Piper is trying to get him to Seoul for treatment) stumble upon a remote village, controlled by a chief (Lee Sung-min) who is determined to protect the status quo, meaning his villagers stay where they are, and never realize that the war is over. The village, however, has a rat problem, and the Piper, who also dabbles in naturalistic medicines, promises to drive the rats away for the price of a pig. In addition, The Piper falls in love with the town’s new Shaman (Woo-Hee Chun, who was also in The Wailing).

Of course, if you’re familiar with the story, you know what happens next: the Piper does what is asked of him, but then the chief convinces the others not to pay. The first hour or so of The Piper has a fairy-tale feel to it, almost like a Disney-level family movie, save the occasional sexual references (which are pretty mild, actually). But boy does the tone change as the film hits that final act, with bloodthirsty rats and curses from beyond the grave.

Hang in there: The Piper may seem horror-lite for a while, but it gets really grim at the end, and brings the terror in a big way.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (it’s a good one!)

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

#2,552. The Grey Fox (1982)


Director Phillip Borsos’ subtle, gorgeous western stars Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, the real-life stagecoach bandit who, after serving 33 years in San Quentin, was released in 1901.

At first determined to live a normal life, Miner has a change of heart when he screens the silent classic The Great Train Robbery, and before long is himself holding up trains, first in the Pacific Northwest, then in Canada.

Miner eventually settles in a small town in British Columbia, where he meets and falls in love with photographer Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs). But with the law hot on his trail, he and his partner Shorty Dunn (Wayne Robson) decide to pull off one more heist before calling it quits for good.

Farnsworth is brilliant as the understated Miner, a man who usually keeps his emotions in check (save the scene where he’s watching The Great Train Robbery, when you can see the excitement in his eyes), and Frank Tidy’s cinematography is often breathtaking. Even the mundane - like a rainy day or oyster farming by the side of the water - looks picturesque in his hands.

Winner of seven Canadian Genie Awards, including Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Original Screenplay (penned by John Hunter), The Grey Fox is a movie to treasure.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Sunday, April 11, 2021

#2,551. No Such Thing (2001)


A dark yet surprisingly sweet fantasy, writer / director Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing tells the story of Beatrice (Sarah Polley), a wannabe reporter who travels to a remote region of Iceland to search for her missing boyfriend. Eventually, she discovers that he and two other people were killed by a monster (Robert John Burke) that claims to have been around since the dawn of time.

Taking pity on the Monster, Beatrice agrees to help him end his miserable life, though it seems the only person on earth capable of accomplishing this feat is Dr. Artaud (Balthasar Kormakur), whose whereabouts are unknown.

Beatrice’s former boss (Helen Mirren), a media powerhouse, agrees to help them track down Artaud in exchange for the exclusive rights to their story. Beatrice and the Monster agree, only to find themselves unwitting pawns in something much bigger than either of them anticipated.

No Such Thing is as much Beatrice’s film as it is the Monster’s; Sarah Polley is delightfully understated in the lead role, and her adventures before meeting the monster are memorable, to say the least (at one point, she undergoes an intense operation on her spine, arguably the most terrifying sequence in the entire film).

Equal to her is Burke as the Monster, whose hatred of the modern world has turned him into an alcoholic. His dialogue is often quite funny, yet the lion’s share of the laughs are generated by Mirren, portraying a character so committed to dredging up bad news that she’s willing to risk anything – even the lives of innocent people - if it will generate headlines.

No Such Thing does occasionally lose its way, especially late in the movie, when it tries (and fails) to make a grand statement about the media, government, and society’s declining values, but that aside, I found it an entertaining watch. And keep an eye out for Julie Christie, who has a small role as Beatrice’s surgeon.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Friday, April 9, 2021

#2,550. Careful, He Might Hear You (1983) - Spotlight on Australia


Mark Hartley’s 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood turned me on to a number of great Aussie exploitation (known as “ozploitation”) films, but over the years I’ve also discovered a handful of excellent period dramas that were produced "Down Under", including My Brilliant Career, The Getting of Wisdom, and Newsfront, just to name a few.

Now I can add director Carl Schultz’s exquisite 1983 movie Careful, He Might Hear You to that already impressive list.

Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Sumner Locke Elliott, Careful, He Might Hear You takes us back to the Great Depression. Two sisters: working-class Lila (Robyn Nevin) and socialite Vanessa (Wendy Hughes), are locked in a custody battle, each vying for the right to raise their young Nephew PS (Nicholas Gledhill). Lila and her husband George (Peter Whitford) have been PS’s legal guardians since he was an infant, while Vanessa, who only recently returned from England, was named co-guardian by their late sister, PS’s mother.

Believing it’s in the child’s best interest, Vanessa wants to bring PS to England with her, giving him a life of luxury and privilege, while Lila fights tooth and nail to ensure the boy remains with her in Sydney.

Both Hughes and Nevin are pitch-perfect as the feuding siblings, each with their own ideas regarding their nephew’s upbringing, and John Hargreaves (Long Weekend, Don’s Party) is superb in a brief appearance as Logan, PS’s absent father (the scene where Logan offers his son some practical advice is arguably the movie’s most poignant).

The performances, coupled with John Seale’s gorgeous cinematography (PS’s first glimpse of Vanessa is shot in such a way that she appears almost dreamlike), do their part to ensure this Australian melodrama is engaging from start to finish.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

#2,549. Incident in a Ghostland (2018)

Written and directed by Pascal Laugier, 2018’s Incident in a Ghostland grabs you by the throat in its very first scene. 

While moving in to their late Aunt’s dilapidated house, single mother Pauline (Mylene Farmer) and her teenage daughters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) are attacked by an oafish mute (Rob Archer) and his companion (Kevin Power). Though taken by surprise, Pauline manages to get the upper hand on the invaders, ending this nightmarish experience once and for all.

Cut to 16 years later. Beth (now played by Crystal Reed) is a best-selling author of horror novels. She has the perfect husband (Adam Hurtig), the perfect son (Denis Cozzi), and the perfect life. 

Unfortunately, Vera (Anastasia Phillips) has never recovered from the terrifying home invasion, and begs Beth to help her. In an effort to end her sister’s torment, Beth returns to the scene of the crime, only to realize there’s more going on in this house than meets the eye.

To go any deeper into the story would constitute a spoiler, and Incident in a Ghostland is a film that earns its surprises. 

What I can tell you is that this is a very dark motion picture, and never once does it lose its edge; you are on pins and needles throughout. The performances (Reed, Phillips, Jones and Hickson, as well as Mylene Farmer as the girls’ mother)  are outstanding, and the film’s penchant for mystery (like Beth, we can’t quite get a grasp on what’s happening to Vera) as well as the solid direction of Pascal Laugier keep things moving along at a brisk pace.

To coincide with its darker elements (and there are plenty of them), at the heart of Incident in a Ghostland lies the touching story of two estranged sisters reconnecting, brought together by an unspeakable tragedy. In the end, Incident in a Ghostland also works on that level, and is an effective family drama.

But it’s the horror that will stay with you for a long, long time.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 (strongly recommended)

Sunday, April 4, 2021

#2,548. The Single Standard (1929)


Greta Garbo is one of my favorite actresses, yet I had never seen this movie before.

Socialite Arden Stuart (Garbo) refuses to settle down, choosing instead to have a series of love affairs, first with her chauffeur Anthony (Fred Solm), then with jet-setter and sometimes artist Packy Cannon (Nils Asther).

During their time together - sailing the South Seas on his yacht - Arden falls deeply in love with Packy, who ultimately rejects her so that he can concentrate on his work.

Heartbroken, Arden returns home, where longtime admirer Tommy (Johnny Mack Brown) once again proposes marriage. Arden accepts, knowing full well that she’s still in love with Packy, and always will be.

Garbo’s next-to-last silent feature (The Kiss, released the same year, was her last), this 1929 movie tackles the old double-standard of how society views promiscuity: a man who sleeps around is shrugged off, while a woman with more than one beau is considered loose and immoral. Over the course of the film, Arden becomes the subject of much gossip and innuendo, while Packy remains a favorite among the elite, despite the fact his behavior has been every bit as “scandalous” as Arden’s.

It’s a brave topic for this time period, and though occasionally a bit too melodramatic, The Single Standard is nonetheless an engaging motion picture.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Thursday, April 1, 2021

#2,547. Skatetown, U.S.A. (1979)

I never got into roller skating growing up; it was a fad that passed me by completely. And based on what I saw in the comedy / musical Skatetown, U.S.A. I don’t think I missed very much.

The roller disco palace Skatetown is one of L.A.’s hottest spots, and their weekly dancing competition draws the best skaters in town. Young hopeful Stan Nelson (Greg Bradford), with the help of his best friend / manager Richie (Scott Baio), might just be good enough to win this week’s dance-off, but gang leader and current champ Ace Johnson (Patrick Swayze) is willing to do anything and everything to ensure he comes out on top again.

The cast gives this 1979 film what little appeal it has, with a bunch of ‘70s Television stars (Scott Baio from Happy Days, Maureen McCormick of Brady Bunch fame, Ron Pallilo, aka Horshack in Welcome Back Kotter, and even the unknown comic, Murray Langston, a regular on The Gong Show, turns up for a scene or two) and some veteran comic actors as well, including Flip Wilson, Ruth Buzzi, and Billy Barty. Nowadays, though, Skatetown, U.S.A. is notable because it marked the screen debut of Patrick Swayze, delivering not what I would deem his finest performance, but playing the role of the heavy with enough charisma to at least keep things interesting.

Yet despite the excitement generated by its cast, Skatetown, U.S.A. comes up considerably short in the comedy department. The jokes, though earnest, are rarely funny (I would call them dated, but that might imply they were funny in 1979). I think I chuckled once, during a scene in which Skatetown’s deranged doctor (Bill Kirchenbauer) is talking to Geraldine, Flip Wilson’s alter-ego (it’s a moment involving a lightbulb that tickled my funny bone). In addition to its lack of laughs, I discovered that watching people roller skate does absolutely nothing for me; not even Patrick Swayze’s smooth moves were enough to hold my attention. As the movie progressed, I actually found myself itching for the contest at the center of it all to begin (it takes the movie an hour to get around to it, shambling aimlessly for the first 60 minutes from one badly timed comedic scene to the next, with no rhyme or reason).

Alas, the anxiety I experienced waiting for the contest to start ultimately had no payoff. When the roller dancing finally started, the film’s already-faltering energy level came crashing down. There are two good musical numbers by Dave Mason, and as a time capsule of late ‘70s disco-mania, the film has its charms, but don’t feel bad if you never get around to watching Skatetown, U.S.A.
Rating: 4 out of 10 (don't bother)