31 Days to Scare ~ The Seduction (1982)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A popular Los Angeles anchorwoman is stalked by a photographer who’s obsessed with her and wants to win her affections at any cost.

Stars: Morgan Fairchild, Michael Sarrazin, Vince Edwards, Andrew Stevens, Colleen Camp, Kevin Brophy, Wendy Smith Howard, Joanne Linville

Director: David Schmoeller

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I’m not quite sure how I wound up crossing paths with The Seduction, I just know that I found myself in the mood for some early ‘80s glam wrapped around a slightly sleazy plot and this more than fit the bill.  Here’s another film with a VHS cover that stared back at me from the shelf of my home video store for years, but I didn’t dare even suggest it as a possibility of a rental to my parents because…well, just look at that image of the gorgeous Morgan Fairchild featured above.  They would have taken one sideways glance at that fallen spaghetti strap and sent me out to the car to wait for them to pick out our movie of the night…and who knows what unknown Richard Attenborough film we would have wound up with.  No, I knew that my time with this one would eventually arrive.  And here we are…decades later.

Was the wait worth it? Well, let’s say this. I was happy to get reacquainted with Fairchild after all this time because while she was never going to be an Oscar-winning motion picture powerhouse, she had a seriously strong run for a number of years on television as the go-to for assertive boss ladies that ruled the roost.  That’s why her work in The Seduction is of such interest, and what must have attracted her to the role, because her character begins the film in such a vulnerable state (literally, she’s first shown swimming quite nude in her pool) and eventually takes control of her terrifying situation.  It does take some effort to get there, though, and by the time it does the viewer may wonder why an apparently intelligent woman waits so long to take a stand.

The opening of The Seduction takes place during that aforementioned nude swim, a slow breaststroke (no pun intended) over which Dionne Warwick breathlessly coos about “Love’s Hiding Place”, written by composer Lalo Schifrin (Tales of Halloween).  The song is lousy but Schifrin’s score throughout the film tends to underline the freedom Jamie Douglas (Fairchild) feels as the movie begins only to turn menacing as neighbor/stalker Derek (Andrew Stevens, The Fury) obsessively pushes his way into every aspect of her life and won’t take no for an answer.  A successful anchorwoman for the 6 o’clock news, Jamie has achieved success in her work and has equality in her relationship with her reporter boyfriend Brandon (Michael Sarrazin), a man that would do anything to protect her. 

Even Brandon is no match for Derek’s fixation on Jamie and unlike other films with similar themes, writer/director David Schmoeller (Puppet Master) has his fanatic villain get right to business before you can make too much of an indent in your couch.  He’s so aggressive with his advances that it’s no wonder Jamie rebuffs him, not to mention she already has a boyfriend that she likes just fine, thank you very much.  Derek has an admirer of his own, co-worker Julie (Wendy Smith Howard) and I halfway thought her plotline would somehow intertwine with a series of murders Jamie is investigating of young women being brutally killed by an assailant known as the Sweetheart Killer.  Alas, Schmoeller only has eyes (and energy) for one plot and with The Seduction running 104 minutes…it’s a lot of plot to get through.

To their credit, Fairchild and Stevens are admirable in their respective roles of victim and victimizer and both are asked to do some outrageous things over the course of the film.  I mean, Fairchild and co-star Colleen Camp (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) have a long scene at a gym and in the sauna/steam room/showers and then she comes home and instantly gets into a bubble bath where Stevens watches her from the closet.  Didn’t she JUST take a shower?  It’s all in service to that quickening pulse race of titillation that just reads as skeevy now.  Yet both actors are well cast in their parts, and I believed in what they were selling.  The same business of no one being able to protect the woman being terrorized that exists in movies today runs rampant here and it’s nice to see some action being taken by Fairchild finally. Still, it does arrive late in the film after so much has happened to poor Jamie that you don’t so much root for her as you start to hope something happens to one of them to cause the other to lose interest.

Rather expectedly, The Seduction was a big ‘ole flopperoo when it arrived in theaters in January 1982.  On Golden Pond, Absence of Malice, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (which was released in June of 1981) beat it at the box office.  Fairchild and Stevens would go on to have considerably long careers working in television and Schmoeller would find himself behind several notable movies in the direct to video horror market in the coming decades.  There’s no real seducing going on in The Seduction and it could be classified more as The Distraction, but it’s decently made, competently acted, and has a satisfying finale.  For the genre, that’s three important boxes checked.

31 Days to Scare ~ Malignant

The Facts:

Synopsis: Madison is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.

Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Mckenna Grace, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jake Abel, Ray Chase, Jean Louisa Kelly, Susanna Thompson

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I feel as if I should start a review of Malignant by dividing up the reader into two different categories.  Are you the type of person that sees a horror film and need to have it grounded in some kind of truth, a reality that benefits from an explanation with sound science behind it?  If you are, please step to the left and I can find you another movie later.  For the rest of you still with me, I invite you to try out this ambitious bit of terror that unfurls itself slowly before taking several shots of adrenaline as it reaches its climax.  It’s utter nonsense, let’s be real clear, and gets so crazy you almost wonder if it’s going to turn out to be some huge joke with a “Gotcha” dance break, but it’s in the way it takes itself so seriously that ultimately makes Malignant such a wild ride.

The movie locked me down almost from its first shot, the imposing Simion Research Hospital perched high on a cliff one rainy night in 1992.  Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie, The Water Diviner) is documenting the study of her patient Gabriel when she’s suddenly called to his room to witness something…strange.  Jumping ahead to 2019 and into the Seattle home of Madison (Annabelle Wallis, The Mummy) and her good for nothing husband Steve (Jake Abel, The Host), we barely get to meet the couple before we learn that Steve likes to rough up the pregnant Madison and that she’s lost several babies because of it.  It’s during one row that he smashes her head up against a wall, leaving her bleeding from the back of her head and needing to lie down.  Later that night, a ghostly figure appears and makes Madison a widow, eventually sending her to the hospital where she loses another baby. (Fear not of spoilers…this is all within the first 10 minutes!)

With the police investigating Steve’s strange death, Madison returns home with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson, We Summon the Darkness) and let’s her in on a little secret: Madison was adopted when she was very young after being abandoned by her birth mother. She also had an imaginary friend when she was young…a boy named Gabriel.  While Madison is putting her life back together and recovering, several other seemingly unrelated people are meeting the same dark figure that did-in wife beating Steve. One woman (Jean Louisa Kelly, Uncle Buck) is hunted down after giving a tour of Seattle’s underground city, others are violently slaughtered by the specter that walks funny and evades Detective Shaw (George Young) and Detective Moss (Michole Briana White, Songbird) with apparent ease.  It’s during these new crimes that Madison starts to see visions of the killer at work, like she is actually there when it is happening.

Director James Wan, working from Akela Cooper’s (Hell Fest) script (which he gets a story credit on along with his wife Ingrid Bisu who also appears in the film), has a long history with creating iconic horror characters and/or series.  An original creative behind the Saw series as well as directing Insidious and it’s sequel as well as The Conjuring and it’s follow-up, Wan fit in Malignant after directing Aquaman and before he set to work on the big-budget follow-up to that superhero film.  This feels like a pet project that Warner Brothers let him roll with and perhaps why Wan pulls out all the tricks in his arsenal for a movie that’s way more fun to watch than dissect.  There’s just too much bonkers business going on to take it all that seriously, even if some of the resolution has some grounding in science.

While the big reveal is a total doozy, it’s not close to the end of the film and it’s a credit not just to Wan but the rest of the cast that they are able to continue making the film engaging while carrying a rather strange idea to its bloody conclusion.  It’s during that time when Wan goes heavy metal on the action with dynamic camera angles (the director has never met a multi-level house he can’t shoot entirely from above in an uninterrupted take as an actor goes from floor to floor) and limber stunt people to bend and twist their way around in largely practical physical acts that boggle the mind.  It’s all very breathless and a tad exhausting…and I loved it.

It truly helps Wan has a cast that is taking the material deadly seriously.  Were they to even wink slightly at the camera it would have broken the illusion that someone was in on the silliness of it all.  With her dark hair and eye lined lids, Wallis is tortured soul personified and quite good as a wild-eyed woman putting together her past while trying to figure out if she needs to be worried more about her present.  Wan tends to cast his leading females well and he’s got another bullseye here.  Production elements are top notch and watching the film in 4K HD on HBOMax the cinematography from Michael Burgess (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) is spooky and spot-on. 

When this is published, Malignant is sadly not available to watch on HBOMax (who’s the smartypants that decided it shouldn’t be available for Halloween??) but could be playing at a local theater near you.  Try to catch it on a rainy night, because if you are in the right frame of mind, this is a decidedly good watch and fun for the “sure, ok, why not” explanation that meets viewers ninety minutes in.  The cast is strong and Wan is more than prepared to present a film made with precision and skill.  Don’t cut Malignant out of your queue without investigating it a little bit.

31 Days to Scare ~ Night Teeth

The Facts:

Synopsis: A college student moonlighting as a chauffeur picks up two mysterious women for a night of party-hopping across LA. But when he uncovers their bloodthirsty intentions – and their dangerous, shadowy underworld – he must fight to stay alive.

Stars: Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Debby Ryan, Lucy Fry, Raúl Castillo, Alfie Allen, Alexander Ludwig, Sydney Sweeney, Megan Fox

Director: Adam Randall

Rated: NR

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If I haven’t said it enough already in the last few months, let me say it unequivocally: Netflix is truly running circles around the other streaming services (and Hollywood studios) in bringing back the pleasingly retro films that were made for mass appeal consumption in theaters two decades ago…but with a modern eye.  Already scoring this summer and again earlier this month with resurrections of the teen slasher film (the Fear Street trilogy {1994, 1978, 1666}, and There’s Someone Inside Your House), they’ve now got a sleek and stylish vampire flick on their hands, and I sure hope they treat it better than they did another one they unjustly ignored in July.  That would be Blood Red Sky, a wild action film that can be summarized bluntly as ‘vicious vampires on a hijacked plane’ but is way, way more insane that that.  The L.A. set Night Teeth is less in your face but every bit as entertaining in the way it unfolds at its own pace, benefitting from a charismatic cast and a sleek production overseen by director Adam Randall.

I’ve loved vampire movies ever since I can remember, voraciously reading all that I could, going as “Generic Vampire with Cape” for Halloween during my formative years more than a few times, and seeing every fanged flick that came out…but there’s a stumbling block I’ve found with each new one that arises up from its coffin.  With so many variations to the vampire lore, the rules are always changing so no two groups of bloodsuckers are ever quite the same.  Usually, this is just an excuse for lazy writers to work around small budgets, tiny talent, or miniscule creative input but first-time writer Brent Dillon finds an interesting morsel of a hook to set the stage for the events of Night Teeth that felt unforced for once. 

Turf wars have led to a long-standing rivalry between different tribes of vampires in and around the Los Angeles area.  As part of a truce enacted, tribes were expected to never feed on the unwilling, stay in their own neighborhoods, and never cross into the realm of another without being expressly invited…and that rarely happens.  Making sure the night hunters keep to their word is a band of human protectors and at the opening of Night Teeth it’s Jay (Raúl Castillo, Wrath of Man) one of these guards. that first realizes one tribe is about to start something big when he and his girlfriend come face to face with Victor (Alfie Allen, John Wick), a creepy leader for a tribe that isn’t known for playing nice.  It’s nearly sunrise, though, so any more action will have to wait for later that evening. 

Meanwhile, Jay’s brother Benny (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Bumblebee) is a college student trying to make ends meet while dreaming of becoming a music producer.  Living with his grandmother and occasionally seeing Jay pop in, he’s a tad sheltered and doesn’t get out much. After overhearing Jay’s heated phone exchange, Benny convinces his unusually distracted older brother to let him fill in at his car service job to make some extra cash.  Posing as Jay, he sets out for a supposedly easy night chauffeuring for just one booking but after meeting the beautiful Blaire (Debby Ryan, The Opening Act) and her vixen-ish pal Zoe (Lucy Fry, Vampire Academy) he’ll wish he stayed home and finished mixing his latest demo track.  Because these are deadly dames.

Writer Dillon and director Randall keep most of Night Teeth tight and taut, never letting what could start to feel repetitious (Benny takes the women to a series of parties/locales where they enact some carnage in service to Victor’s plot to take over the L.A. scene) get too stale by the third round.  There are enough interesting things going on with Benny slowly discovering what’s going on after a few stops and characters that refreshingly aren’t obnoxious toxics so you want to remain engaged.  Usually in these movies a couple is thrown together just for some standard romantic entanglement but in Night Teeth the chemistry feels genuine, another piece that works for the overall benefit of its success.  I liked the energy Ryan and Fry were putting out there and enjoy even more what Lendeborg was giving back to them in return.

I don’t say it often but even at nearly two hours, the movie is just as long as it needs to be.  I’m not sure if I would have cut out anything because this was far more enjoyable than even the souped-up preview would have you believe.  I could have even done with more of certain aspects, like the all-too brief cameos of Megan Fox (Till Death) and Sydney Sweeney (Nocturne) as mavens of one tribe who realize far too late they’ve underestimated a rival.  For all you Fox fans that may be coming to this one expecting your queen to play a significant role…don’t expect too much.  If I tell you she only had one day of filming, does that give you an idea of what you’ll be getting?

While this might pair nice with Blood Red Sky for a double dose of vampire mayhem, double sides of Netflix’s most polished bloodsucking coin, I’d suggest you check out Randall’s previous film as well.  I See You came out in 2019 and is a sneaky little horror nugget that gets under your skin far more than you might think.  Like Night Teeth, it’s made with generous amount of style but doesn’t let any kind of flare overwhelm the necessary storytelling.  Do make the effort to sink your chompers into Night Teeth, especially to show Netflix these kinds of movies are valued and encourage them to make more!

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Sleepwalkers (1992)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mother-and-son team of strange vampiric shapeshifting creatures able to stay alive only by feeding on the life-force of the innocent move to a small town to avoid discovery while searching for their next victim.

Stars: Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick, Alice Krige, Jim Haynie, Cindy Pickett, Ron Perlman, Lyman Ward, Dan Martin, Glenn Shadix

Director: Mick Garris

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: By 1992, the pickings in the Stephen King library of horrors to option into visual media properties was getting mighty slim.  With most of the bestselling author’s novels getting a big (or small) screen adaptation, Hollywood had turned to his short stories to either use as chapters in anthologies or expanding them into full length features.  Strangely, the writer had never put an idea to paper that was solely meant for the screen and so Sleepwalkers (or Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers as it was originally promoted) was something of a big deal when it was announced.  Here was a rare commodity, a previously unknown story that fans would have no prior knowledge of going in.  This could function to not let down those that had held his tomes in high regard only to be disappointed in the feature film version. On the other hand, much of what made King such a special writer in the first place was his way of getting into the mind of his characters and that was only something that could be seen on the page.

You must take this ungainly effort with a healthy dose of salt and vinegar then because at the end of the night is Sleepwalkers all that good of a Stephen King movie?  No, not really.  Does it work just fine as a mid-range horror film so popular in this era that delivers a few thrills here and there over the course of it’s barely 90-minute runtime?  Absolutely.  I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the movie and revisit it frequently, mostly because of one performance (we’ll get to it) but also because it seems to have a sense that it’s kind of silly and decides at a certain point to lean into the camp of it all. It’s no Misery, but it’s no Maximum Overdrive either.

Opening in a hastily abandoned home in Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock’s The Birds took place) at a crime scene littered with feline carcasses that I’m sure made the folks at PETA scream bloody murder, we jump over to small town Indiana at the home of Charles Brady and his mother Mary.  A good-looking high school student, Charles (Brian Krause) is the All-American boy next door on the outside but it’s all just a disguise that hides his true form: a nomadic shapeshifting werecat that feasts on virginal lifeforces.  That’s bad news for classmate Tanya (Mädchen Amick), who just got asked out on a date by Charles and is about to have a devil of a time fending off his advances once he reveals what’s underneath his wholesome features and true intentions.

You see, while Charles has to make sure he’s satiated, he’s also responsible for ensuring his “mother” is also fed, and Mary (Alice Krige, She Will) is one ravenous mama.  Well…maybe mama is too specific. It becomes clear quickly there’s more to this mother-son relationship than meets the eye and once Tanya proves to be significant trouble and more than Charles can handle, Mary has to step in and show her “son” how to get the job done right.  The residents of the small town are unprepared for the vicious beasts and more than a few go down in bloody shreds as the longest date night of Tanya’s life rages on.

The chief reason to see (and enjoy) Sleepwalkers is Krige sinking her teeth into her role and slowly chewing it in small bites.  Normally, this measured devouring would be more than any movie could tolerate but Krige possesses a special charm that makes her screen time almost giddy fun.  Here’s an actress that looks like she could be doing Shakespeare biting fingers off of characters and carrying grown men over her shoulder while firing a gun.  It’s a great pleasure to see her in action and you only wish King’s film had more of these trippy moments of delirium to keep up the strange sense of wonder.  At least director Mick Garris (writer of Hocus Pocus) seems to understand the movie needs to sway into the mood of the what King has produced and not resist the urge to acknowledge that it is pretty goofy.  I mean, the special effects range from neat-o to lame-o so the balance has to be struck somewhere in the middle for tone overall.

Despite making back it’s budget the film was seen as a disappointment when compared to King’s other, more sophisticated projects and Sleepwalkers is unfortunately often thought of in the lower rungs of his feature flicks.  That’s a bummer because the cast is made up of fun genre players (Pacific Rim’s Ron Perlman, DeepStar Six’s Cindy Pickett and her then-husband Lyman Ward from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as well as Glenn Shadix from Beetlejuice) and Amick should have been a bigger star.  Krige went on to be a memorable Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact and continues to turn in impressive performances with great presence.  If you’ve never seen it, it’s definitely one to check out if for nothing more than to further your Stephen King completism.

31 Days to Scare ~ Dead Calm (1989)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After tragically losing their son, a married couple are spending some time isolated at sea when they come across a stranger who has abandoned a sinking ship.

Stars: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, Billy Zane

Director: Phillip Noyce

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When recommending 1989’s Dead Calm, I also wish there was a way I could wave a magic wand and clear your mind of the last thirty years of movies its three stars and director would make.  All have gone on to be involved with massive projects (and even win one Oscar) and you can’t help but look at this gripping thriller they made before becoming Hollywood commodities in a different way than you would have back when it was first released.  Though the film remains a bona fide nail biter, I think the “before they were stars” wonder of it all could lessen the impact slightly for a viewer in 2021 as opposed to someone that sat down in a theater in April of 1989 when Dead Calm sailed onto U.S. shores and changed many careers.

The history of Dead Calm begins all the way back in 1963 when it was written as a novel by Charles Williams and attracted the attention of legendary director Orson Welles.  Welles liked it so much that he began filming the movie soon after but left it unfinished.  Years later a copy of the book fell into the hands of Australian director Philip Noyce (Above Suspicion) who got fellow Ozzies George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Terry Hayes (a collaborator with Miller on The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) involved and the rest was, uh, smooth sailing.  The cameras rolled in mid-1987 and the shoot took place over six months on the open sea. 

Like Jaws, Noyce benefited from the location in giving the audience a sense of isolation for an unlucky couple trying to forget a recent tragedy and the trouble they unknowingly welcome aboard in the from of a stranded stranger.  When the stranger turns out to be a psychotic that has sunk his own ship to hide a bloody crime, he manages to get the husband off the boat long enough to take control of the new vessel and the wife.  Now the couple must find a way to communicate and independently stay alive from the dangers present on both ships.

While Billy Zane (Ghosts of War) was the true fresh face of the bunch, the Hawaiian-born, Australian-raised Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) was already an established star down under.  It was Sam Neill (Peter Rabbit) who was considered the veteran, having played Damien Thorn in a third Omen film and weathered the nightmare horror experience that was Possession.  Just coming off A Cry in the Night (aka Evil Angela aka A Dingo Stole My Baby: The Movie) with Meryl Streep, Neill was a considerable “get” for this small-ish picture.

You can see what attracted a filmmaker like Welles to the original story. There’s a tortured soul living in all three main characters and the novel expands on this more, lessening some of the vice grip tension the screenplay from Hayes employs.  That’s why the film Noyce has made is so much of a thrill, because you never know quite what’s about to happen or where the characters might be headed next.  Kidman’s grief-stricken spouse was involved in a horrific accident that claimed the life of her son and always carries the guilt of that with her, unable to share intimacy with her husband out of shame because of it.  Without admitting it, the husband might be directing some of that guilt her way as well, though he makes a good show at hiding it.  Zane’s monstrosity picks up on this once he gets them separated and manipulates that…but also misjudges just how deep the earlier life changing event has bonded the couple, preparing them for what is currently taking place.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the overly commercial ending was a studio intervention to add an extra shot of adrenaline, but the movie succeeds just fine without it.  Dead Calm had already completed its carefully plotted voyage without capsizing its precious suspense cargo in the process.  I wish we had the option of watching Noyce’s original cut instead of the one with the tacked-on joy buzzer of a climax but at least it gives us a few more minutes of the gorgeous cinematography from Dean Semler (Razorback and an Oscar winner for Dances with Wolves) because the work he does is truly magnificent.  Surprisingly, this was a bit of dud at the box office but cleaned up nicely on home video and yes, it holds up like a watertight seal all these years later. It all worked out fine for those involved. The next year Kidman would star in Days of Thunder with future husband Tom Cruise and Noyce’s follow-up film would be 1992’s Patriot Games, the sequel to Sam Neill’s next movie, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. Zane would have to wait through a few years of forgettable films before scoring big time with his next sea faring flick…1997’s Titanic.

31 Days to Scare ~ Scream Pretty Peggy (1973)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A sculptor hires young college girls to take care of his elderly mother and his supposedly insane sister, both of whom live in the old family mansion with him.

Stars: Ted Bessell, Sian Barbara Allen, Bette Davis, Charles Drake, Allan Arbus,Tovah Feldshuh

Director: Gordon Hessler

Rated: NR

Running Length: 74 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: All I keep reading about in the many movie rabbit holes I often find myself in was how different TV movies were before the advent of cable television.  Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s these were stop-what-you’re-doing and watch events that commanded the attention of a public that saw famous faces from screens big and small.  While not the most current A-listers, these stars of yesteryear or rising hopefuls would appear weekly in dramas, comedies, and a rather large selection of mysteries/thrillers or horror films with commercials to break up the mounting tension.  These are the ones that are the most interesting to me (obviously for this series) because to hear people tell it, they still remember the scares these tales of terror gave them. 

One of the most famous stars to grace these pulpy movies was none other than Oscar winner Bette Davis (The Watcher in the Woods). While her time on the silver screen had mostly run its seasoned course by the time the TV Movie of the Week picked up steam, she found regular work as a “special guest star’ in numerous television projects that made good use of her poise and presence.  It could be said the first TV horror for this era was 1973’s Scream Pretty Peggy and while it doesn’t rank high on the list of the most memorable roles Davis created, it is notable for providing the actress some meaty moments to chew on while the rest of the cast is left with paltry scraps to pick over.

It’s almost unfair to promote Davis as being such a star of the movie because she’s really not in that much of the 74-minute film.  The cast is small enough as it is but the bulk of it plays out between young Sian Barbara Allen as college student Peggy Johns who seeks out a job as a housekeeper at the massive estate of famed sculptor Jeffrey Elliot (Ted Bessell).  Hired more to look out for his aging mother (Davis), Peggy’s eager to please Jeffrey because she has an ulterior motive for wanting the job in the first place.  An aspiring artist herself, she seeks his approval for her own piece and maybe something more than their employer/employee relationship but both Jeffrey and his mother keep themselves at a distance for reasons that slowly become clearer.

I’d say more but there’s not a lot of plot left to talk about above and beyond that.  I was surprised the script, co-written by longtime Hammer Studios screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, among others) and Arthur Hoffe is so staid and without much action.  I’ve a feeling it was Hoffe’s premise that Sangster was brought it to flesh out and amp up.  Yet there’s only so much one can do to raise the stakes, especially in the early ‘70s on network TV, for this particular story with its similarities to another famous suspense director’s most known movie. I won’t say which, but the lead actress has a daughter that followed her into the movie business, same genre too. 

More energy in direction from Gordon Hessler would help, or at least from the cast. However, aside from Davis who is a massive trooper in getting her scenes imbued with some sense of urgency, the two main leads treat the proceedings like they’re acting out a family drama rather than a house of horrors mystery.  In fact, while I liked Allen’s free-spirited Peggy at first, once it becomes obvious how much of a follower she was and to such a wet blanket like Bessel’s cardboard bland Jeffrey I was almost rooting for the sinister figure we assume to be Jeffrey’s insane sister to catch and eliminate her like she had a young Tovah Feldshuh (Love Type D) in the pre-credit sequence.

How glad was I to see that boutique home media distributor Kino Studio Classics was releasing a number of these TV movies in a 2K remaster just in time for Halloween?  I’d started to watch Scream Pretty Peggy on YouTube before (tip, you can watch SO many of these old movies of the week via YouTube) and the quality was good but not great.  The folks over at Kino Studio Classics have obtained a sparkling remaster that looks just gorgeous.  It’s crisp and colorful, down to the gaudy eye make-up and lipstick Davis wears, a small callback to her look in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, maybe?   For that alone, the movie is worth a look, but it will likely be more of a view out of curiosity than anything else.  It’s not bad enough to be laughable, not scary enough to be scream-able, but Davis makes it interesting enough to be watchable.

If you’re looking for reviews of other TV movies of this era, check out my posts on Home for the Holidays (1972) with Sally Field and A Howling in the Woods (1971) with Barbara Eden.

Movie Review ~ The Rescue (2021)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A chronicle of the enthralling, against-all-odds story that transfixed the world in 2018: the daring rescue of twelve boys and their coach from deep inside a flooded cave in Northern Thailand.

Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It already plays like a movie.  An otherwise ordinary day in the summer of 2018 goes sideways quickly when a Northern Thailand youth soccer team made up of 12 boys and their coach venture into a cave and become trapped when it floods without much warning.  With little hope of exiting on their own, the government first calls in their own reserve of divers to bring them out but sans the experience for such a lengthy and perilous dive it proves to be futile.  Then an international team of skilled cave divers are flown in, working with local authorities to regroup and plan a way to locate the team and bring them out safely.  All before the oncoming monsoon season submerges the caves fully, drowning them. 

These events played out over 18 days as the world watched on the edge of their seats, unable to do anything but wait for news to come out of Thailand that the mission had failed, or the team had emerged from the caves with the assistance of the professionals.  It’s no spoiler to report they survived, but at the expense of the life of one Thai Navy SEAL at the time and another who died from an infection contracted at the scene.  So, approaching the new National Geogrpahic documentary The Rescue (in theaters now before debuting on Disney+ in December) one must ask what they hope to gain insight on if they already know of the events that transpired and its resolution.

There’s the challenge for recent Oscar-winning documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin who scaled to the highest heights with the incredible accomplishment of Free Solo.  They are working with a different sort of beast here, stepping in to direct The Rescue after its original director Kevin Macdonald had to bow out to focus his time on 2021’s The Mauritanian.  Maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel as completely innovative a creation as Free Solo or perhaps it is stymied by some legalese around the rights to the story of the Tham Luang cave rescue.  It’s crazy, but Netflix owns the “life rights” to the boys/coach while NatGeo owns the rights to the story of the men who ran the rescue operation.  Which is why you’ll see competing projects on the same topic arriving over the next few years. 

The good news is that I think the directors were the right choice to jump this hurdle because they’re used to speaking to those that favor somewhat niche extreme sports.  In much the same way they were able to bring out the different colors of free climber Alex Honnold, Vasarhelyi & Chin work similar magic in their interviews with a range of cave divers that admit to being outcasts in high school and last picked on the playground.  Taking them back through those harrowing days in the caves when they didn’t know what they would initially find takes its toll and it doesn’t appear that the men have recounted it so much yet that it’s a rote memory.  There are still residual effects of the experience they can’t hide and it’s all there for us to see.

Without having access to more info on the team trapped inside the cave, there’s often a little one-sidedness to the film which makes the first half a bit slow moving.  It’s necessary to gives us an idea of the scope of just how far in they were so we know the distance the divers swam but it’s, how shall I say it?, uneventful. Only when we get to the actual rescue operation does the film find some footing but even that relies on recreated footage (that’s pawned off as real, more on that later) to bolster the immediacy of it.  Regarding those recreations, it wouldn’t feel so strange if it wasn’t edited alongside actual footage from inside the cave.  Without a disclaimer at the beginning that there was this mix, it feels like the viewer is being led slightly astray. Even the notice at the end is cleverly worded to further distance itself from actually saying much of it was staged.

The emotional beats of the film are there, though.  You can’t help but get emotional when the various international representatives speak of the cultures and countries working together to save these lives, especially viewing it at a time when we all seem so divided.  I wish a little more focus had been on the Thai man that died, but his widow speaks so eloquently about what it meant to him to be of service and how important it is to her to have been his wife that the full emotional weight of the loss hits home quite powerfully.  I also appreciated there were additional insights offered into the lives of the divers, one who experienced a devastating loss in conjunction with a pivotal moment of celebration.

A narrative feature on the rescue at Tham Luang is being made (with Ron Howard supposedly directing…interesting) so this documentary isn’t the last word on the subject, but I suspect The Rescue will be the most in-depth piece on the people that risked their lives to save others.  For a follow-up to their Academy Award winning film, Vasarhelyi & Chin show they will continue to be strong players in this category, and I won’t be surprised if we see them at the ceremony again because of this film.  It’s a worthwhile watch and while it takes a bit to get moving, when it does begin to execute its mission it’s a breathless endeavor.     

31 Days to Scare ~ The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

The Facts:

Synopsis: A distraught woman becomes a nanny to exact revenge for the loss of her baby and husband.

Stars: Annabella Sciorra, Rebecca De Mornay, Matt McCoy, Ernie Hudson, Madeline Zima, Julianne Moore, John de Lancie

Director: Curtis Hanson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Here it is folks, the halfway point of 31 Days to Scare and you’re getting a real gem as a reward for making it to Day 15.  One of the all-time greats in the realm of the psychological thriller that the 1990’s delivered so very nicely, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a bona fide blockbuster that I can still remember my parents taking me to at a special Saturday night sneak preview.  This is one of those “special previews” that you had to pay for the privilege of seeing and oh boy, was it worth it.  To sit in a packed theater (one of those tiny Har Mar screens for you Minnesotans) and hear the audience react to the suspense generated from this nanny from hell potboiler is something I’ve never forgotten…even as it approaches its 30th anniversary.

In truth, much of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle feels even more slimy than it did back in January of 1992 when it was released and dominated the box office for a surprising four weeks.  The first act of it hinges on a pregnant Seattle woman being sexually molested by her gynecologist, a violation that causes a chain reaction of events which leaves him dead by suicide and, unbeknownst to the woman who has brought a high-profile lawsuit against him, the doctors own pregnant wife losing their unborn child along with her ability to have further children and their entire life savings.  Life goes on for the woman and her family but the broken women who lost everything lives in a darkness she can’t escape from.

Months pass and Claire (Anabella Sciorra, who would star in another less successful thriller, Whispers in the Dark, the next year) is getting ready to go back to work after giving birth and needs live-in help for her baby, young daughter, and other tasks she might not have time for.  They already have handyman Solomon (Ernie Hudson, Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters) from a local group home who has helped to build a greenhouse in the back, but Clarie and her husband Michael (Matt McCoy, DeepStar Six) need an experienced professional to watch the baby.  Into their lives comes what appears to be the perfect nanny, Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay, Backdraft) and she checks all the right boxes, is hired, and moves in with the family.  Of course, we know she’s the wife of Claire’s abuser, but the family is blissfully unaware at first, enjoying the friendly caregiver that says all the right things to the wife, flirts just enough with the husband, and mothers the daughter when her own parent is too distracted to be there.  Then there’s her plan to win over the baby…

She doesn’t win over everyone though…and that’s what Peyton doesn’t quite count on.  Solomon sees through the cheery veneer from the start, but Peyton makes it clear he shouldn’t mess with her (in another one of the film’s moments that wouldn’t fly today but still lands with the intended sharp sting) unless he wants his tenure to end prematurely.  Her biggest obstacle is family friend Marlene (a sharp and sly Julianne Moore, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, already showing the potential for the movie star she was poised to become) who feels challenged in some way by Peyton and sets out to get to the bottom of the nanny’s strange behavior…to her own downfall. 

As audience members, we know the solution to the mystery the characters are trying to solve so the suspense on that end is lacking but the tension scores high points for how and when it will come out and what the reaction will be.  The wait is more than worth it – again, I’ll say that I won’t ever forget Sciorra’s way of informing De Mornay her services are no longer needed or the way the audience cheered when she did.  This type of audience together-ness is what I miss about movies such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Sleeping with the Enemy from the year before.  These were movies that were building to a climax the audience was craving and the filmmakers actually followed through and gave them what they wanted.  That’s why audiences stomp their feet and applaud at denouement…because they are so satisfying if a director and cast have set them up right.

While Sciorra is very good here and top billed make no mistake, this is De Mornay’s film all the way.  With her ice blue eyes and Hitchcock blonde hair, De Mornay had a brief career bump thanks to her performance and rightfully so.  It’s not easy playing a villain (it’s fun, not easy) and still giving it human traits but De Mornay makes Peyton a person that experienced a loss first, a vengeance-seeker second.  Winning an MTV Movie Award as Best Villain (naturally), De Mornay turns on a dime from the sweet to a bitter cold that is acutely chilling and it’s terrifying.  Even changing the timbre of her voice gives the character a different kind of depth to her predatory nature is downright frightening.  I’ve always loved what Hudson brings to any movie but it’s admittedly hard to watch him (or any actor, let’s be honest) play someone with intellectual disabilities.  The performance doesn’t age quite as well because of it.  Moore is sublime, whether she’s puffing on a cigarette (which she is frequently during the movie), badgering her assistant, or squaring off with the nanny, she’s a force onscreen.  She’s have to wait a few more years before the A-list came calling but she was about to move up the ranks quickly.

Written by 29-year-old Amanda Silver (who would go on to write the Planet of the Apes movies as well as two other movies I might be doing for this column soon, so I won’t mention them) and directed by future Oscar winner (for L.A. Confidential) Curtis Hanson, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is fortified filmmaking that was built to last.  Even running nearly two hours, there’s barely anything that lags and it just continues to pick up speed as it nears its conclusion.  I’m sure critics at the same longed for something that didn’t get quite so conventional, but it has whipped the audience into such a frenzy that it could only end the way it does.  Highly rewatchable, it’s a film I can watch anytime I see it on TV or someone suggests it.  I mean, I’ll go for De Mornay threatening to beat up grade school bullies on a playground or getting uncomfortably close to Ernie Hudson like a lioness smelling her prey any day of the week. 

Movie Review ~ The Last Duel

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1386, Marguerite de Carrouges claims to have been raped by her husband’s best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris. Her husband, knight Jean de Carrouges, challenges him to trial by combat, the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history.

Stars: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Clare Dunne, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathaniel Parker, Michael McElhatton, Alex Lawther

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  With the big summer effects bonanzas being on hold for an entire year and the prestigious costume dramas pushed out for better positioning at award chances to later in 2021 or even 2022, audiences have been lacking in the area of the grand epic for going on two years.  Sure, we’ve had the occasional Marvel film here and there to satiate some sense of wonder but I’m talking about those films that make you feel like you’re back in Hollywood’s heyday when everything was made on a studio lot and extras numbered in the thousands.  As recently as a decade ago we were still getting these movies, but they’ve taken a backseat to films that are easier to produce with limited involvement from humans that are added in post-production.  The sets aren’t real, and the overall ambiance feels phony…making the stakes not feel quite as high for historical epics involving swords, sandals, arrows, chainmail, etc.

One director out there hasn’t shied away from continuing on the legacy of the epic and that’s Ridley Scott, a filmmaker often taken a bit for granted in the business for his tendency to lean into fare of the sheer entertainment variety.  Though primarily an action director, he was also behind Thelma & Louise, Matchstick Men, and A Good Year so he is known to stretch when the mood suits him.  That lighter touch helps a bit in Scott’s newest film, The Last Duel, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 non-fiction novel “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat” which details the final legally recognized duel that was fought in France.  One man is accused by another of the most heinous act of violation against his wife, a charge that leads them to the highest court in the country where they leave it in God’s hands to decide who is telling the truth.  If the defendant dies during the duel, it will prove the woman was telling the truth.  If the accused comes out of the duel alive and kills his accuser, well then, he is telling the truth and the man’s wife will be burned alive for her lie.  Not the soundest execution of justice and back in 2019 when the film was first announced, not the most promising of a plot description for a town just settling into the first wave of post #MeToo productions.

Adapted by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (yes, they did win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting), the two were wise to ask Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to join them in their journey in bringing Jager’s novel to the screen.  This not only brought some needed balance to the screenplay and gave a stronger voice overall to the script but allowed for the central female character to not be written from just one point of view.  The result is a surprisingly swift feature broken into three chapters that tell the same story, just from the perspectives of different characters.  Employing a Rashomon-style technique in storytelling isn’t anything revelatory but in the hands of pros like Scott and his cast, the small similarities and even smaller subtle differences unique to each version of events keeps this one in a gripping space where the edge of your seat moments extend far beyond what happens during the titular duel.

Audiences are wise to buckle up and pay attention for the first thirty minutes which sets the stage for the friendship and eventual rivalry between knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon, The Martian) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Annette).  Though Carrouges has the more noble name and throws himself into harm’s way for the honor of his king, he’s unliked by most that know and fight alongside him because of his selfishness and constant need for recognition.  That’s the opposite of Le Gris who, at least at first, is content to just be welcomed in by people in a higher status and be a trusted confidant.  Over time, this skill with ingratiating himself to nobility pushes Le Gris ahead of Carrouges, a sleight that causes a rift in the friendship that cannot be mended.

While the men are sorting out their business, widower Carrouges meets and marries his second wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) and moves her in with his cruel mother (wickedly nasty Harriet Walter, Herself) who picks away at her while he is away in battle.  Unable to conceive a child during their years together, the two are at odds when he takes a trip to the city the same day his mother decides to leave Marguerite alone for the day.  Of course this is the same day Le Gris, who has been obsessed with Marguerite ever since meeting her when Carrouges decided to bury the hatchet, pays a visit. 

Some version of these events plays out three times until this point and it mostly is the same story with tiny tweaks to attitudes depending on who is telling the tale.  In Carrouges version, Marguerite is much more docile, to hear Le Gris tell it, Marguerite was flirting with him and encouraged his visit, but in Marguerite’s retelling, or ‘The Truth’ as the words linger longer on the screen insinuate, neither man read the signs correctly. Watching different iterations also means audiences have to witness a brutal rape twice so here’s your warning this unpleasant encounter is on display and though absent of nudity or gore, is more gruesome than anything that plays out later in the vicious battle royale between Carrouges and Le Gris.  Can a scene like this be shot with any kind of sensitivity?  I doubt it, but Comer bravely gives it her all and Scott allows her room to breathe.

Speaking of Comer, with the amount of male energy flying around and the dueling taking up such a major piece of the action, it’s saying something the actress is far and away the winner of the evening when the credits roll.  Making a splash on television even before her award-winning run in the acclaimed spy series Killing Eve, Comer graduates to the A-list with a star making (and surely Oscar nominated) turn as a woman unwilling to back down or be intimidated from anyone or anything, even a horrific threat of death.  Already victimized once, she refuses to go through it again via her husband or even the highest court in the land…and believe me, the court sure tries. 

Backing Comer up in the acting department are Damon and Driver who dial back their oft-tendency to grandstand with Driver in particular making a strong case for himself as capable of even more than his most loyal fans have thought.  True, he’s playing a pretty despicable guy but for a while he’s almost endearing and definitely more tolerable than Damon’s character.  I mean, the hair alone on Carrouges is enough to drive you crazy.  In past films, Damon tends to gnaw at the scenery when he gets worked up but anytime Affleck (Live by Night) is onscreen in The Last Duel there’s nothing left to consume because he’s swallowed up the entire caravan of costumes by Janty Yates (Prometheus) and the sumptuous set decorations courtesy of Judy Farr (Rocketman).  Of all the people that were bound to overact, I wasn’t expecting it to be Affleck but with his blond hair and a blond goatee that looks like a tennis ball was just cut in half and stuck on his pointy chin, it’s a performance that treks into high camp.  And he doesn’t even go all the way with it.  There are several scenes where his lothario character is meant to be scampering around chasing after women and they’re all naked and he’s fully clothed – we all know this character would be naked as a jaybird without a care in the world.  It’s a small detail but became a major one in my mind considering what the movie puts the Comer character through.

I initially thought I’d find long jags of the film slow but with Scott at the helm it moves like a locomotive, peppered here and there with his trademark flair for a well-staged battle scene.  With the R-rating firmly in place he’s able to make these incredibly violent and in your face, leading up to and including the final duel between the two men.  It all makes for an experience that has a solid impact with parallels to victim-blaming that resonate even today.  The Last Duel might be about the final official battle over honor in France, but it leaves audiences with the recognition that the war was just beginning.

Movie Review ~ Needle in a Timestack

The Facts:

Synopsis: A devoted husband will stop at nothing to save his marriage when it’s destroyed by a time-traveling rival.

Stars: Leslie Odom Jr., Cynthia Erivo, Freida Pinto, Orlando Bloom, Jadyn Wong

Director: John Ridley

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Is there anything more outright depressing than watching four talented (and, let’s be honest, gorgeous) actors loafing around in a truly ridiculous bit of nonsense filmmaking?  Oh geez, but Needle in a Timestack is as eye-rolling as its title suggests, and despite the presence of those four aforementioned stars, two of which will surely win an Oscar within the next decade, it’s a real effort to get through and even then you feel no sense of accomplishment.  What makes it even more of a depressing miss is that the team involved in front of and behind the camera could have collaborated on something more worthwhile and not wasted the precious time the very plot of the movie is so adamant about protecting.

I can see why rising stars like Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and Leslie Odom, Jr. (One Night in Miami…) would be swayed into taking on the leads in this adaptation of a short story written in 1966 by Robert Silverberg.  Directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), the project had some relative glitter of attraction with Ridley’s script giving some modernity to Silverberg’s futuristic (for the era) story of a husband and wife torn apart by a fissure in time caused by the wife’s former flame.  For two actors looking to have more dramatic arcs in unconventional stories that didn’t expressly call on their roots in musical theater, this had definite potential to show their clear range.

What they couldn’t have predicted is how much of a goober the story would come across to viewers, or how inconsequential nearly every event would feel when filtered through Ridley’s flat dialogue, his rote direction, and Ramsey Nickell’s solar flare golden hue cinematography which feels like an ad for a Nissan Altima circa 2004.  Patch in an at times overly committed Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) as Erivo’s jealous ex Tommy who literally rewrites her history so she will be with him and Freida Pinto (Hillbilly Elegy) second banana-ing her way through an underwritten female role who exists just to be the fallback girlfriend for whatever man isn’t with Erivo and you have something decidedly uneventful.  And it’s nearly two hours long. 

The strange thing about Ridley’s movie is the way it’s so earnest and forthright about some relationships (i.e. the leads) but so cagey about others.  Take Jadyn Wong’s character Zoe, the sister of Odom Jr.’s Nick who influences much of his decision making about how to fix the problem that Bloom causes.  After Tommy manipulates time to bring Janine (Erivo) back into his life and cut Nick out like he never existed, (it’s more like Total Recall than anyone wants to admit) Nick turns to Zoe for advice concerning her ‘best friend’ Sibila who she has a ‘special relationship’ with and also has a time mishap to solve.  Ridley’s insistence on classifying this Zoe/Sibila relationship as ‘best friends’ throughout is akin to saying two men living together and sleeping in the same bed in the ‘80s were ‘dedicated bachelors’ or ‘special friends’.  If the film weren’t about such honesty in relationships, this severely awkward entanglement between these two women (not to mention Wong’s obsessive need to say ‘Sibila’ in a gravely surfer twang in each line of dialogue) just sticks out more like a sore thumb.  Let lesbians be lesbians, please.

It must also be said that as charming and commanding a presence as both Erivo and Odom Jr. are onstage and onscreen, they lack the necessary chemistry together to provide Needle in a Timestack that earnest edge to give us reason to care about their relationship being restored.  To be clear, the acting isn’t at fault in the least because both are the least embarrassingly bad things about the movie, but they seem to be united in just getting through the film sitting comfortably in the friend zone.  On the plus side, Erivo has just released an EP of original music that’s quite good and is prepping a promising sounding remake of The Rose while Odom Jr. has a nice role in the sequel to Knives Out in 2022 and will star in the intriguing trilogy continuation of The Exorcist.  And check Pinto out in Intrusion on Netflix where she gets to be the star in a creepy home invasion thriller.  Consider this Needle just a tiny prick in the midst of a greater haystack of more fulfilling projects these actors have set into motion.