31 Days to Scare ~ He Knows You’re Alone (1980)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young bride-to-be is being stalked by a serial killer.

Stars: Don Scardino, Caitlin O’Heaney, Patsy Pease, Elizabeth Kemp, Tom Rolfing, James Rebhorn, Dana Barron, Tom Hanks

Director: Armand Mastroianni

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  For years all I had heard about He Knows You’re Alone was the tiny trivia factoid that it was the screen debut of Tom Hanks.  Over the years it’s become a footnote to his resume and not much else, falling into the forgotten pit of early slasher films.  Usually, these movies earned their place on the bottom of the heap so when I finally caught this one I was pleasantly surprised to find He Knows You’re Alone to be a competent, if not outright totally entertaining, bit of ‘80s nostalgia.

It’s almost impossible to watch the movie now and try to bear in mind just how early it arrived on the scene.  Released in August of 1980, it came out three months after Friday the 13th and two years after Halloween.  Sequels to both these lasting franchises hadn’t been released and the clones and copycats hadn’t reared their low-budget heads yet so He Knows You’re Alone was still a newcomer to audiences looking for some scares.  Also, the focus on guts and gore hadn’t become de rigueur yet which is why the film is curiously absent of grotesque make-up and buckets of blood.

Leading with a strong opening that’s meta before it became a cliché, we quickly get down to business as a killer dispatches of a young lass at a movie theater.  This killer (creepily played by Tom Rolfing) doesn’t wear a mask so we always know who’s behind it all, but screenwriter Scott Parker has fleshed out the maniac and through flashbacks shows him to be a jilted lover triggered by any female ready to walk down the aisle.  While heading out of town, the killer happens upon a woman (Caitlin O’Heaney) saying goodbye to her fiancé as he departs for his bachelor weekend.  She’ll be spending time with her bridal party so they’re all vulnerable to the killer stalking them over the next few days.

While it draws comparisons in hindsight to Friday the 13th (even though it was filming at the same time) the movie obviously follows the rough outline set out by Halloween, the granddaddy of all slasher films.  The three women each have their own agenda for the weekend; one is going to get some (the delightfully slutty Patsy Pease romping around with her married professor lover played by the late, great James Rebhorn, I Love Trouble) one wants to get some (Elizabeth Kemp, looking to hook-up with a jogger played by Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks), and our bride still isn’t sure her fiancé is the man for her and entertains leaving him for a former flame (Don Scardino).

Director Armand Mastroianni plays it relatively cool for the first hour or so, peppering the film with the occasional suspense sequence but focusing a large amount of time on character development. They might be one-dimensional creations but they sure do get time to talk!  With a lack of blood and gore the film can feel a bit “soft” for the genre but I for one appreciated not seeing every last person disemboweled or sliced up.  I’m sure budget had everything to do with it but the restraint shown here is admirable.

Performances are strong and O’Heaney is a steely lead.  With her beady eyes and pointed features she comes off as an ordinary woman caught in an extraordinary circumstance.  I appreciated that when she starts running from the killer she doesn’t stick around the house to be picked off but instead runs as fast as she can into town and, admittedly, into the protective arms of her ex.  Kicking into high gear for a finale set inside a cavernous mortuary that stretches ever so slightly longer than it should, there is a nice wrap-up that allows our final girl to get up close and personal with her stalker.  For what it’s worth, Hanks is nice enough to have around even though he doesn’t play much of a part in the grand scheme of things.  Not making an appearance until the film is more than half over, rumor has it his character was supposed to be killed off but producers felt like the audience would find him too likable to be killed so he just kind of disappears near the end.

This is one that’s too good to be totally forgotten.  Though other movies would come around that would be scarier and gorier, there’s some fun stuff going on.  It may be too slow for audiences weaned on numerous jump scares and too tame for those with a bloodlust but I feel the film holds up nicely even when you do compare it to other films in the genre.  It may sit alone on a shelf during this time of year as more intense films are dusted off, but give this one a go if you have the chance.

31 Days to Scare ~ Blink (1993)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Emma, a blind violinist who had recently undergone a revolutionary surgery, joins with a police detective to track a serial killer after she was an inadvertent witness to his latest crime.

Stars: Madeleine Stowe, Aidan Quinn, James Remar, Peter Friedman, Bruce A. Young, Laurie Metcalf

Director: Michael Apted

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: My review of 1993’s Blink has to begin with another sad lament that mid-range thrillers like these are no longer made. Throughout the ‘90s movies like this would be released every few weeks and while none of them were going for awards or even enormous box office, many became small gems that are perfect for revisiting even two decades later. I remember looking forward to this one for some time and making sure my dad (who also had a fondness for thrillers) had this on his radar as well. Even at the ripe age of 25, Blink holds up considerably well as a suspense yarn and boasts quite a few good performances and one terrific one.

A blind violinist (Madeline Stowe, Playing by Heart) has been without sight since a childhood accident plunged her into darkness. Independent and more than a little flawed herself, Emma undergoes an experimental surgery that restores her vision but has several side effects. The most troubling to overcome is a visual delay that causes her to see things long after they occurred – so blurry people that visited her in the hospital one day won’t register as clear faces until the next. It may sound like a condition created for the movie but it’s a very real thing.  When Emma’s neighbor is found dead, she realizes she may have “seen” the murderer and tries to convince the detective assigned to the case (Aidan Quinn, In Dreams). He has a hard time believing her when she proves to not be the most reliable of witnesses, eventually pitting her newfound and still shaky sight against a killer’s aim to eliminate the only witness to his crime. There are several twists to the story as it chugs along, including a love affair between the detective and the woman he’s supposed to protect and the true motives of the killer which gradually come to light.

Directed with skill by Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough) and bolstered innumerably by Stowe’s believably rough around the edges performance, Blink is a nifty little thriller with some strong suspenseful sequences. The screenplay by Dana Stevens doesn’t make Emma a perfect heroine, she’s a drinker who was emotionally and physically scarred by her mother and isn’t necessarily the victim people make her out to be. There’s some deep wounds here and Stowe navigates these tricky character nuances well. She’s nicely matched by Quinn and the two create more than believable chemistry (helps they already played a couple, albeit a troublesome one in 1987’s Stakeout). I also liked Peter Friedman (Single White Female) and Stowe’s doctor and even though I feel her part was majorly trimmed in the editing suite, Laurie Metcalf (Pacific Heights) is always a welcome presence.

Worth keeping your eyes open for, Blink is a strong reminder why we need these modestly budgeted thrillers to make a comeback. They are great for a rainy day or a stormy night!

31 Days to Scare ~ Brain Dead (1990)

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a showdown of man versus machine, Martin plunges into a chaotic nightmare trying to save his mind from the megalomaniacal corporation.

Stars: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Bud Cort, Patricia Charbonneau, George Kennedy, Nicholas Pryor

Director: Adam Simon

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Spoiler alert right from the start: the poster for Brain Dead is very deceiving. The face on the cover doesn’t belong to any of our lead cast members nor does it factor in at all to what happens during the 85 minutes of this low-budget horror film from prolific producer Roger Corman. It’s an effective hook ,though, and I’m guessing it helped earn a rental from most people who never even bothered to look at the back for a plot synopsis. That was Corman’s specialty, creating a box art that that catches the eye and sets some intrigue in the eye of the consumer.

The good news about Brain Dead is that, slightly false advertising aside, it’s a dandy of a horror/thriller hybrid that has several soon to be heavy hitters doing some good work early in their careers. I’m not sure if any of them would necessarily voluntarily list the movie on their resume but their presence alone makes the film an interesting watch. Add to that a script from Charles Beaumont who wrote multiple episodes of The Twilight Zone and you have a movie that rises above its meager production to be a somewhat low-wattage cult favorite.

Dr. Rex Martin (Bill Pullman, American Ultra) is a scientist focusing on brain studies. Experimenting with new techniques, he’s contacted by an old friend (Bill Paxton, Edge of Tomorrow) on behalf of the organization he works for. Seems that one of their employees (Bud Cort) has suffered a mental break and is in a delusional state. He is the only one that knows a certain series of numbers imperative in advancing their business but in his current state he can’t remember or is unwilling to provide a response. Paxton’s character wants Pullman to help extract the data using his untested methods…at least that’s what Pullman thinks is going on.  After a rather standard first half hour the film takes the first of several turns that changes the way Pullman (and we the audience) looks at the situation. The lines of reality blur and we aren’t sure if Pullman is the doctor, the patient, or something in between.

Director Adam Simon keeps things strange enough to keep the 85 minutes rocketing along and there’s enough gore to punctuate the action when it gets staid.  I’d advise keeping yourself distraction free while watching Brain Dead because the plot twists and turns on a dime – you won’t want to miss where the film is heading. While it’s no gigantic achievement, considering the cast alone it’s definitely a hidden gem in the Corman catalog.

31 Days to Scare ~ Sorority House Massacre (1986)

The Facts:

Synopsis: College student Beth and her sorority sisters are stalked by an escaped psychopathic killer who shares a strange telepathic link with her

Stars: Aimee Brooks, Angela O’Neill, Wendy Martel, Pamela Ross, Nicole Rio, John C. Russell

Director: Carol Frank

Rated: R

Running Length: 74 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: It’s going to be hard to look past the title of this movie. It’s going to be even more difficult to overlook the plot description. The cover is going to make you raise both eyebrows in a significant arch. Yet, in the end, Sorority House Massacre is not a bad effort considering it’s low budget and inexperienced cast. You’re just going to have to trust me. It’s no classic and there are literally hundreds of other movies you should see before this one. If you’re like me, however, you’ve seen all those other hundred movies and might need to take a chance on something you’d normally breeze by.  This 1986 cheapie from Roger Corman’s production company was written and directed by Carol Frank, a first-time director who never made another movie after this. That’s no dig on Ms. Frank, just an important bit of trivia to get out of the way. Though it’s very similar in plot to The Slumber Party Massacre, another Corman flick that Frank served as an assistant to the director on, Sorority House Massacre does what it can to set itself apart when it has the opportunity to do so.

Reminiscent of any number of popular slasher films that came before it (the whiff of the Halloween films is ever-present), Sorority House Massacre follows a few nights in the lives of sorority sisters left alone for the weekend. Though at first they giggle and talk about boys, they soon start screaming as a madman gets into their house and starts picking them and their boyfriends off one by one. Beth (Angela O’Neill) figures out she has a telepathic link to the killer and discovering how this connection is formed becomes a nice diversion in the midst of all the slayings.

At 74 minutes, the movie manages to feel longer than it should be. There are a few silly sequences included just for the drive-in fans…like the totally random sequence where the girls invade one of their absent sorority sisters closet for a dress-up montage. Of course this is a great moment to feature some copious nudity but it’s oddly voyeuristic, like the camera was just left on during a costume test for the nubile actresses. Then there is the fascination with repressed memory (lucky that one of the girls is a budding psych student!) that results in a hysterical passage where Beth gets hypnotized to plumb her mind for details on the killer.

Surprisingly, the acting is often above average here and I appreciated the attempt to fill out the movie with more backstory than was probably necessary. The killings are bloody enough and several chase sequences have a decent payoff…though it’s never clear just how these girls can’t overpower the scrawny slasher or call for help in what is a fairly populated neighborhood. As in most of these low-budget productions, there’s a lot of crew equipment visible and in one shot I thought a boom mike was another character in a scene because it made so many appearances.

This is one I always passed up in my video store days…mostly because I couldn’t come up with an excuse for my parents to let me rent a movie called Sorority House Massacre. It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime and though I considered stopping it several times I’m glad I took a gamble on it because while it’s not quite bad enough to be a cult classic it’s good enough to hold my interest.

31 Days to Scare ~ Deadly Blessing (1981)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After her husband dies under mysterious circumstances, a widow becomes increasingly paranoid of the neighboring religious community that may have diabolical plans for her.

Stars: Maren Jensen, Sharon Stone, Susan Buckner, Michael Berryman, Lois Nettleton, Jeff East, Douglas Barr, Lisa Hartman, Ernest Borgnine

Director: Wes Craven

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Hard to believe it now, but back in 1981 when Deadly Blessing was released director Wes Craven wasn’t nearly the household name he would become. Coming off of directing the intense The Last House on the Left and the bizarro The Hills Have Eyes (both of which would get lesser remakes decades later), Craven dialed down his extreme style for this moody chiller. Though not well received by audiences or critics, it was interesting to view this one for the first time. While Craven was never someone that was consistent from film to film, he had good eye and that’s what keeps Deadly Blessing afloat for much of its run time.

Jim Schmdit (Douglas Barr) grew up as a member of the Hittites (think Amish) but left the religious community to marry.  Inheriting a family farm, he’s returned with his bride Martha (Maren Jensen) much to the judgmental dismay of his father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine) the elder in their order. When Jim dies in a suspicious accident his family that disowned him feels the land should revert to them and not to Martha.  Martha intends to stay but when her two friends arrive for support and strange accidents start to happen, it’s up to her to find out if Isaiah is behind it all or if there aren’t more malevolent supernatural forces at work.

I’ve mentioned before how much I frequented the horror section of my local video store as a child.  I can still remember seeing the Deadly Blessing VHS staring back at me but, alas, it’s never one that made it home.  I actually think had I seen this as a teen I’d have been disappointed – back then I was all about the gore and high stylized horror flicks and Deadly Blessing isn’t overzealous with blood and guts.  It’s more character driven than you might expect and while there are some tepid performances (Jensen is a snooze…a pretty snooze…but a snooze all the same) it’s a mostly well acted affair.

Playing Martha’s best friends are a young Sharon Stone (Lovelace) and Susan Buckner (Patty Simcox in the movie version of Grease) and they are often the highlights of the film.  Stone seems to go off the deep end pretty quickly (you would too if a giant tarantula fell in your mouth!) and never quite comes back from the brink which results in feeling like her performance is way too overbaked. That stands in stark contrast to Buckner’s nuanced take on the character – she’s a nice breath of fresh air and I wonder how much more effective the movie would have been if she and Jensen had switched characters.

Craven stages some sequences with a nice amount of tension, like the scene where Jensen is relaxing in a bathtub and someone releases a huge snake into it with her. Though it’s almost a shot-for-shot preview of what he’d do three years later in A Nightmare On Elm Street (the snake head pops up between Jensen’s legs like Freddy’s glove does with Heather Langenkamp) it’s highly effective. I definitely subconsciously lifted my legs off the floor and tucked them in under me.  There’s also a creepy scene with a couple attacked in a car and some nice point of view shots where we become the person stalking Jensen and company.

The conclusion of the film was a genuine surprise and who (or what) is behind it all was kept secret right until the final reveal. Do you know how hard that is?  Though it must be said that the good will is nearly ruined by a dumb nonsensical coda the studio insisted on, for the most part Deadly Blessing is a worthwhile look into Craven’s earliest work. Special mention for the spooky score by the late James Horner (The Magnificent Seven), a future Oscar winner. Another special mention for myself for never realizing until now that Stone is featured on the poster and not Jensen…sheesh…how did I miss that?

31 Days to Scare ~ Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A night at the movies turns into a nightmare when Michael and his date are attacked by a hoard of bloodthirsty zombies – only a “Thriller” can save them now.

Stars: Michael Jackson, Ola Ray, Vincent Price

Director: John Landis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 13 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: To celebrate the 35 year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the folks over at IMAX did a pretty cool thing and re-released it in theaters for one week. Showing before The House with a Clock in Its Walls and looking scary good enhanced by 3D, it only hammered home again what a landmark achievement this was in the still-growing music video scene. All these years later, it stands as a high-water mark for the medium and is a pretty creepy mixture of horror and music.

Directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) who had shown an eye for horror and comedy, there’s a sizable portion of this without any music at all and it opens with Michael Jackson and his girlfriend Ola Ray running into car trouble in the woods. Aping I Was a Teenage Werewolf from 1957, Michael changes into a beast and just before he nabs his prey we see that we’re actually watching a movie…that’s also being watched by Jackson and Ray. The meta-ness of it all aside, Ray can’t take the scares and hightails it out of the theater. Reluctantly, Jackson follows her and that’s when Thriller takes control. As they walk home Jackson’s killer vocals and unimpeachable dancing give way to an ever expanding smorgasbord of all manners of ghouls and zombies that come out to play…and dance. It all culminates around the 8:25 mark when Jackson finds himself possessed by the dead. Will Ray be able to get away or will she succumb to the creatures of the night?

I can’t tell you what a joy it was to see this projected on the huge IMAX screen in 3D. It looked like a million bucks and by the time we get to the legendary dance break I had goosebumps all over. It’s such a masterful mix of music and story tightly packaged into 13 minutes. While this was only in theaters for a week, maybe we’ll all get lucky and they’ll bring it back around Halloween – it’s worth seeing whatever movie it is paired with.  Even if you can’t see it in a theater, watch it again above and relive how good this is!

31 Days to Scare ~ Thinner (1996) 

The Facts:

Synopsis: An obese attorney is cursed by a gypsy to rapidly and uncontrollably lose weight.

Stars: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney, Michael Constantine, Kari Wuhrer, Stephen King, Walter Bobbie

Director: Tom Holland

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Starting with the release and huge success of Carrie in 1976, author Stephen King has enjoyed seeing the profits for numerous adaptations of his work come his way.  Studios began scrambling to buy the rights to his work and bring his tales of terror to life which is how we’ve come to have solid titles like The Shining, Christine, Cujo, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, and Misery in our libraries.  To talk about the good adaptions, you must also talk about the bad and King’s work has produced far more duds than hits…such is the case with Thinner from 1996.

Originally published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, Thinner hit bookshelves in 1984 and when it was discovered the King was Bachman isn’t wasn’t long before a studio attached themselves to the grim morality tale.  Condensing the 300+ page novel to 90 minute movie, director and co-screenwriter Tom Holland (who also wrote Psycho II and directed Fright Night) removed the, uh, fat from King’s tome and produced a slick but slack horror thriller that is passable entertainment but feels like everything about it was second-hand.

When overweight attorney Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) accidentally runs over and kills an old gypsy woman and then gets off scott free, he incurs the wrath of a gypsy king (Michael Constantine, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) who puts a curse and him and others that covered up the crime.  Each person cursed has their own personal hell to endure and Billy’s is that no matter how much he eat,s he continues to lose weight at a rapid pace.  At first, that’s good news for the man that has tried for years to shed pounds and his beleaguered wife (Lucinda Jenney, Matinee) who has kept him on a strict diet.  When the weight loss begins to accelerate, and his friends start dying in horrible ways, Billy must track down the gypsy clan to get the curse reversed.

Arguably, there’s a nice concept at the heart of Thinner and had this been given a bit more money and prestige I’d imagine it could have been a sleeper hit.  The problem is that Holland never quite figures out is how to make his characters (any of them) the least bit sympathetic so we have someone to be invested in.  There’re literally no “good” people to be found, everyone has an ulterior motive to their actions or spits their lines out with such overstimulated venom you have a hard time feeling sorry when they are killed off.

It also doesn’t help the leading man is such a bore.  Burke had infamously taken over for Peter Weller in RoboCop 3 and even under that heavy costume with his face obscured he managed to overact.  He does the same thing here, saddled with a fat suit and unconvincing make-up at the beginning and eventually turning skeletal as he continues to lose fat and muscle.  I’m not sure if the make-up did this to him but Burke has this smile/grimace on his face when he’s heavier that is truly unnerving…and not in the way Holland intended.

If I’ve forgotten to mention Joe Mantegna (House of Games) up until this point he should count himself lucky.  As a tricky mobster client of Billy’s, Mantegna plays up the wise guy role to the point of parody and acts as a silly means to an end in helping Billy connect the dots to the origin of the gypsy curse.  If there’s one actor I didn’t mind, it’s the always reliable Jenney who seems to know she’s in a turkey so opts for such a small performance that it has the effect of letting her scene partners look like they’re overacting.

Not surprisingly, this was a huge box office bomb but it didn’t stop the King adaptations from coming.  It would be three years before The Green Mile would be released and in 2017 there was the one two punch of the remake of IT and the dandy Gerald’s Game for Netflix.  It’s clear the best was behind the King work at that time and while Thinner wasn’t bad enough to make studios think twice about taking a dip in the King swamp it’s prospects of being much better are keenly felt two decades later.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An animated adaptation of The Wind in the Willows followed by an adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Stars: Bing Crosby, Basil Rathbone, Eric Blore, J. Pat O’Malley, Campbell Grant, Oliver Wallace, Pinto Colvig, Leslie Denison

Director: James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney

Rated: Approved

Running Length: 68 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In going through items to feature in my 31 Days to Scare, I often forget to include some kind of film the whole family can watch together.  So pulling The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad off the shelf seemed like a good idea because what I remembered of it was that it started benignly enough with the light-hearted foibles of characters from The Wind in the Willows and ended with the scary treat of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Admittedly, it had been years since I’d seen either short (each about 30 minutes) so revisiting this lovely little package of hand-drawn animation was as much a joy for me as it would be for you and your family.

Released in 1949 (a mere four months before Cinderella), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad starts off like so many of the Disney animated films do – that of a live-action book opening to reveal the story to be told.  The first segment features eccentric dandy Mr. Toad and his comic antics that almost causes him to lose his beloved Toad Hall to a bunch of wily weasels.  Aided by his friends Badger, Rat, and Mole, Mr. Toad must prove his innocence after he is wrongly convicted of stealing an automobile and goes on the run to clear his name.

Narrated by Basil Rathbone , the animation in the Mr. Toad passage is truly top-notch (the film won a Golden Globe…for cinematography!) and finds Disney artists working at the top of their game.  The landscapes are beautiful and the way the fast-moving action is oriented drips with creativity and the type of inspiring imagination that was quickly becoming Disney’s calling card.   It’s also heartily funny, with Mr. Toad’s frenzied zest for fun fairly infectious.  Based on a small section of Kenneth Grahame’s popular children’s novel The Wind in the Willows, it was always interesting to me Disney didn’t revisit this character.  Before this was released, it was Disney’s wish to animate a full version of The Wind in the Willows but sadly that never appeared.  Still, you can take Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland if you need a Willows fix.

Moving into the next sequence, the narrator (Bing Crosby, who also sings three swinging songs throughout) welcomes us into the tale of Ichabod Crane, the meek schoolteacher in Sleepy Hollow that falls in love with a beauty but runs afoul of a legendary headless rider that haunts the woods.  This part of the film is why I wanted to feature it in 31 Days to Scare, but I didn’t remember it as clearly as I thought because it only turns dark and scary for the last ten minutes.  The majority of the short is bright and breezy following Ichabod’s falling for Katrina van Tassel, much to the annoyance of local big shot Brom Bones.  Crosby croons out two nice ditties and one with an ominous bounce as Brom retells the legend of the Headless Horseman.

Based on a short story by Washington Irving, parents won’t need to be on high alert because when the film does move toward its scary finale it’s tempered with comic action and a few false endings.  As an adult watching it, I appreciated the pace but young kids are either going to get freaked out when the ghoul does appear or be asleep by the time he does.  The animation isn’t quite as strong as the Mr. Toad sequence (and boy oh boy does Katrina look an awful lot like Cinderella!) but the touches of Disney charm again are much appreciated.

I grew up watching both segments individually on the Disney Channel…this viewing was the first time I’d ever seen them in their original packaged presentation.  Many of these old Disney films have some cringe worthy bits that are definitely not PC but both parts that comprise The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad are free from any such historical snafus.  Not that there aren’t elements we can’t learn from and have discussions on today, it’s just nice to have an example that’s free of perceived controversy.

 

Down From the Shelf ~ A Star is Born (1976)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A has-been rock star falls in love with a young, up-and-coming songstress.

Stars: Kris Kristofferson, Barbra Streisand, Gary Busey, Marta Heflin, Sally Kirkland, Paul Mazursky

Director: Frank Pierson

Rated: R

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  If you are truly doing your homework before seeing the new A Star is Born in theaters, you’ll  eventually wind up at the doorstep of the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.  That it will be the last movie you see before the new one is both a good and a bad thing.  It’s a good thing because the bar is lowered so far that whatever Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga do in the third remake is bound to be more impressive than what is onscreen here.  It’s a bad thing because, well, you have to sit through a 139-minute vanity project that is a big ole turkey of a film.

I have much respect for the 1937 and 1954 versions of A Star is Born so was looking forward to finally seeing this 1976 update all the way through.  I’ve tried to watch it on several occasions but failed to latch on to the characters or the music in a way that made me want to continue.  Seeing that Streisand had reworked the film and added in material to a special edition that was available for a time on Netflix (it’s no longer there) I decided it would be best to get my A Star is Born marathon going in time to catch that one.  After all, if Streisand wants me to see her version I simply must oblige.

That’s how I came to watch A Star is Born on a Sunday evening after taking in the first two films that afternoon.  I have to say this was by far my least favorite version of the story and the only one out of the three that I wouldn’t entertain seeing again anytime soon.  Streisand added extra footage when she first plays the song Evergreen to Kristofferson and tweaked a few other shots along the way, but from what I saw and read it didn’t alter the general feeling of the film.

There are so many wrong moves and incomprehensible changes screenwriters John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, and Frank Pierson (who also directed) made in translating the Hollywood tale to the rock and roll music scene…most are simply unforgivable.  Instead of taking place in Hollywood, the film moves the action to the music scene as a way to tailor the proceedings more to the talents of its two stars.  Though Streisand really wanted Elvis Presley to be her co-star, the aging singer and his manager Colonel Tom Parker wanted too much money/control so the part went to Kristofferson instead. Kristofferson was already an established musician and Streisand had a Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl and a host of notable screen appearances.  The two had built in fan bases that had proven they would show up whenever and wherever these stars would appear.  On paper, this looked like a perfect way to update the film for the current time and place.

It’s clear from frame one there is going to be trouble.  For starters, the two leads are terribly mismatched and recast as incredibly unsympathetic vainglorious caricatures.  There’s next to no chemistry between Kristofferson and Streisand, even when they are singing together two feet apart it feels like there is a cavernous distance between them.  Sources say that Kristofferson was intimidated by Streisand and her commanding presence and started to shrink onscreen whenever she was present.  That’s pretty clear to see because Streisand takes the air out of every scene she’s in.  You’ve got to be a strong enough actor to stand your ground with her (like Omar Shariff, Ryan O’Neal, and Nick Nolte) or else you get lost in the shuffle and Kristofferson blends into the background most of the time.

As for Streisand herself, this is one of those strange films where she stumbles over her own star presence.  She was too big of a star by that point to truly give herself over to the demands of her role as a singer that was small time who eventually makes it to the big time.  From the first moment we see her she’s already possessing the confidence required to make a name for herself, whereas the previous women who played this role were missing some piece that Kristofferson’s character could supply her with or encourage out of her.  I know this was an era of sustained feminism so getting rid of the notion Streisand’s character needed a man to help her succeed seemed like an easy cut, yet it winds up crippling both characters because you never truly understand why they need each other in the first place.

The screenwriters really stumble with a plot twist early in the third act that wasn’t present in either previous version of the film.  I won’t spoil what it is but it further establishes that these two characters don’t have the same kind of love and respect for one another their predecessors did.  Coming so late in the game, it lessens the impact of the tragic finale…a finale that takes eons to get to.

The first two takes on A Star is Born had a buoyancy to them, even as they were showing a dark underside to the price that comes with being a star.  The approach of this third try feels wallowing and weary, robbing the picture of any momentum or grace.  Though Streisand (The Guilt Trip) would win an Oscar for writing what truly is a lovely ballad (Evergreen) and the film became, shockingly, the third highest grossing movie of the year, it’s largely remembered as a vanity project of Streisand (shepherded by her former hairdresser turned boyfriend Jon Peters).  For an even more scathing take on the production of the film, read director Frank Pierson’s editorial My Battles With Barbra And Jon about the horror he experienced working on it.

If you are strapped for time before seeing the new version of A Star is Born, this 1976 version is easily the most skippable of the bunch.  Unlike its older siblings, this one is the most dated and the least enjoyable of the three.

Down From the Shelf ~ A Star is Born (1954)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A film star helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career on a downward spiral.

Stars: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow

Director: George Cukor

Rated: NR

Running Length: 154 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  You’ve seen the cover image of of 1954’s A Star is Born a million times over the years.  It’s an iconic image: Judy Garland’s wide eyes looking toward the heavens with her hands forming a picture frame around her face.  Aside from The Wizard of Oz, it’s surely Garland’s most recognizable calling card though it still surprises me how many people haven’t seen the movie its taken from. A musicalized remake of 1937’s A Star is Born, screenwriter Moss Hart and legendary director George Cukor reworked the rather simple story of the original to better suit their female star.  Garland hadn’t been onscreen for four years and after working through so many “kid” roles over the previous decade this was seen as her most adult role to date.  Produced for a then astounding $5 million and becoming a huge hit with a lasting history, this version of A Star is Born is what people usually think of when they hear the title.

Jettisoning Esther’s backstory in North Dakota and jumping right into the present, Cukor introduces us to former matinee idol Norman Maine (James Mason) as he arrives at a high-profile event three sheets to the wind.  Though the studio press agent tries to keep him offstage, Maine manages to stumble into the mix of the big band and singers currently performing.  One of these singers is Esther (Garland) and she gamely tries to work Norman into the act. As he sobers up and realizes how she saved his butt, Maine follows Esther to a nightclub where he is knocked out by her after-hours performance.

We have to pause here and recognize how likely the most famous sequence of the film and of oft-shown in Garland’s career happens less than 30 minutes into the 2 ½ hour movie.  When Esther ferociously belts out The Man that Got Away it’s one of those rare magic moments in film that instantly made it a classic clip.  Garland’s vocals are on fire and her performance is the stuff that Oscars are given out for (more on her Oscar loss later) and it’s not hard to see why Maine is so taken with the singer and her voice in that pulse-quickening rush of a moment.

Even if the film never quite gets back to that level of engagement with the audience, the remaining developments in A Star is Born manage to make improvements to the original story while never doing a disservice to the people involved in the 1937 version.  This is very much its own film and while the character names are largely the same, some dialogue is repeated verbatim, and certain passages feel like shot-for-shot recreations, it still operates as an entity entirely unto itself.  There are several large musical numbers for Garland and in true road show fashion the movie begins with an overture and has an intermission halfway through.

Cukor has the same lust for showing the underbelly of Hollywood’s studio system that his predecessor William A. Wellman did and he manages to go even further.  We see how Esther (again renamed Vicki) is brought into the fold by Maine and how initially her new bosses at the studio want to change her appearance.  Maine intervenes and grooms Vicki into the star he knows her to be while falling believably in love with her along the way.  The same rise to fame for Vicki and fall from grace for Maine is present as is the devasting moment when Maine embarrasses her publicly.  The tragic ending wisely remains unchanged but I feel like it’s missing one final song for Garland to close the picture out.

Nominated for six Oscars, the film rather unbelievably won none (it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture!).  Garland was beaten by Grace Kelly for The Country Girl, a loss that still pops up on many lists of Oscar wrongs that were never made right.  I admit I’ve never seen Kelly’s film but I just can’t imagine the performance would be even close to what Garland did here.  Her work has guts and glory, pain and pride, beauty and tragedy.  I don’t think she was ever better before or after and it’s a testament to the power of her performance that it holds up so very well.  Mason isn’t anything to scoff at either.  Whenever I start to watch the film I always feel like he’s too old for her and the age difference seems too wide (he was 13 years older than her in real life) but by the time they are falling in love and he asks her to marry him the gap fills and it all makes sense.  This is, after all, a story about someone with experience mentoring a newcomer and then watching her flourish – it all fits.  I do wish that Garland had a female friend because the movie is so heavy with brash male characters, missing is that maternal care from Janet Gaynor’s grandmother in the original.  As it is, it comes off like Garland only has males to take care of her and confide in.  The chemistry between Garland and Mason is strong, though, so these observations only pop up upon reflection when the movie has long since ended.

An unquestionable classic (as a film and a snapshot of Garland at her very best), 1954’s A Star is Born is the easiest of the three existing versions to recommend if you can only watch one before taking in the 2018 version about to be released.  I’d also encourage you to pair this one with the 1937 original because that’s a dandy of a film, too!  You can just as easily skip the unwise 1976 reworking.