31 Days to Scare ~ High Spirits

The Facts:

Synopsis: The owner of an Irish castle decides to attract visitors by falsely claiming the building is haunted, only to have a pair of real ancestral spirits start causing trouble…

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Daryl Hannah, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Liam Neeson, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Tilly, Donal McCann, Mary Coughlan, Liz Smith, Tom Hickey, Tony Rohr

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  As another October was drawing to a close and it was getting time to step away from focusing solely on scary movies for the year, I was thinking about what to feature for the last few posts.  I knew I’d cover some well-known titles and already planned out my Halloween entry but it was that last day, the 30th, that had me scratching my head.  Then it hit me…or actually it came crashing down.  I was just waking up this morning when a unexpectedly picture fell off the wall, causing a great deal of noise and starting the day off with a startle.  A faulty nail is the assured culprit but…what if a ghost was having some fun with me in the early hours?  For some reason, it got me in haunting mood and my mind went right to High Spirits, a silly but fun favorite of mine.

Now, let’s be clear.  A horror movie this is not so if you’re looking for blood, guts, and gore you can skip to tomorrow but if you need a spooky/goofy respite from suspense and are up for a trip back to the late ‘80s you have come to the right place.  Released in 1988 to mediocre reviews and no box office, this isn’t exactly an unheralded classic that didn’t get its due.  While I personally find it to be a riot, at the time it arrived in theaters audiences were already distancing themselves from this broad type of farce.  Over time, I think the movie has aged well and the cast is chock full of familiar faces, many of whom are turning in sharp and ribald performances.

Poor Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole, The Stunt Man) is having trouble getting guests to stay at his castle in the Irish countryside.  Though the place is in need of repair, Plunkett and his staff of locals don’t do much to spruce it up to make it more appealing to the tourist trade.  When he’s (literally) at the end of his rope, a light bulb for an idea goes off when he’s reminded by his boozy mother (a delightful Liz Smith) about the numerous ghosts that supposedly live in the castle.  Why not market the castle as haunted and, once the guests arrive, fake the appearances to create massive buzz?  That should keep the rooms occupied and the cash coming in.  Right?

The plan works…almost.  When the first batch of tourists arrive, they include Jack (Steve Guttenberg, Diner) and Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo, The Sentinel) a couple on their second honeymoon and they clearly need it.  She’s an uptight city gal while he’s looking forward to getting the most out of their creepy Irish adventure.  They’re joined by a priest (Peter Gallagher, Hello, My Name is Doris), a sexpot (Jennifer Tilly), and a demanding family from the suburbs (led by Martin Ferrero from Jurassic Park).  The staff do their best to give the group a good scare but the results are less than thrilling.  Figuring out they’ve been duped pretty quickly, the guests plan their escape…and that’s when Jack meets Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah, Splash!), Peter’s very beautiful but very dead relative.

Murdered on her wedding night by a jealous husband (Liam Neeson, The Haunting) and doomed to repeat the violent act nightly for eternity, when Jack intervenes in a drunken daze it breaks the cycle and Mary is freed to be a regular old spirit.  Grateful to Jack for freeing her, the two strike up a connection that neither really found with their significant other.  The movie then becomes your typical boy meets ghost story, further complicated by her dead husband and his living wife getting into the mix.  All this happens while Plunkett tries to keep the other guests out of harm’s way when their less than haunted experience gets very real after the rest of the Plunkett ancestors get roused and the line between the living and the dead is tested.

Written and directed by Neil Jordan (who would score an Oscar four years later for The Crying Game and also gave us Greta in 2019), the movie is total Sunday afternoon rainy-day fare and I think it’s a lot of fun.  It’s obviously not trying to be a classic in any sense but it has some memorable moments and performances that are off-the-wall enough to be quite amusing.  Smith is a hoot at Peter’s mum who is always three sheets to the wind while it’s nice to see Neeson so early in his career in a lark of a comedic role.  Guttenberg and D’Angelo can play these types of roles in their sleep but they’re engaging nonetheless and Hannah makes for a lovely apparition.  The production design of the castle is impressive and, haunted or not, you’ll likely wish a similar stay would be in your future.

High art?  No.  High Spirits?  Yes.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Sentinel (1977)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman moves to an apartment in a building which houses a sinister evil.

Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, Sylvia Miles, Beverly D’Angelo, John Carradine, Ava Gardner

Director: Michael Winner

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Largely due to the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, there was a huge boom in horror films with religious overtones released in the ‘70s.  Seemed like at the heart of every haunted house or strange acting neighbor was a gate to hell or devil possession.  It didn’t just stop on the sliver screen either, television movies got into the game as well with above average entries like Summer of Fear pitting Linda Blair against a devil-ish relative.  By the time The Sentinel was released to theaters in February of 1977 ,there wasn’t a whole lot movie-goers hadn’t already been exposed to.

What elevates The Sentinel a bit higher than its fellow occult brethren is a first-rate cast of big names, sure-handed direction from a director that knew his way around the material, and a script thoughtfully adapted from a best-selling novel.  Maintaining the mood of Jeffrey Konvitz’s popular 1974 tome, Konovitz and director Michael Winner lift the story from the page to the screen with ease, transferring a plot with several different threads into an efficient chiller with plenty of twists, turns, and more than its share of scares.  While it falls into excess at times and may invoke some winces seen through “woke” eyes, it makes it though largely on its high production values and overall sophistication.  Did I mention the cast?  It’s like The Love Boat for the inhabitants of Hell.

In New York City, in-demand model Allison (Cristina Raines) is looking for a place of her own.  Though cohabitating with her long-term boyfriend (Chris Sarandon), she’s never lived by herself and feels like she needs space to be independent.  All the apartments she finds are too expensive (even though an early montage shows Alison on no less than 7 major magazine covers so…how broke is she?) but fate takes her to the offices of Helen Logan (Ava Gardner) who just happens to have the perfect spot for her.  A handsome brownstone with a great view, the furnished apartment is hers for the bargain price of $500, no, make that $400.   It’s a no-brainer.  To the brownstone, Alison will go.

Haunted by a teenage trauma she carries with her even today, living alone doesn’t go so well for Alison.  Though she meets a kindly neighbor (Burgess Meredith) just after moving in, she begins to experience strange occurrences and hears another neighbor loudly clomping around above her bedroom during the night.  She begins to suffer horrible migraines and fainting spells, all unexplained events that coincided with her moving into her new apartment.  When she meets a few more neighbors that aren’t so genial (including a mute Beverly D’Angelo who does something rather explicit in front of Alison) and begins to be curious about the blind priest that lives on the top floor, she starts to investigate with the help of her boyfriend.  The more she learns about the history of the building, the deeper into darkness she’ll plunge because it’s not just the neighbors she has to be afraid of.

Director Winner had already made numerous films that had received acclaim before he took on The Sentinel so it’s easy to see why he didn’t have any trouble securing his roster of stars.  Rains makes for a lovely lead, even when she devolves into a sweaty screaming mess she has an air of dignity about her that makes us care for the character.  In smaller roles that may require them to exhibit perverse behavior (or simply act out a perversion), the veteran stars shine in their brief bits of screen time.  Gardner, in particular, seems to be taking glorious delight playing a glam grand dame of NY real estate.  Check out Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) as a cop with no lines who is partnered with Eli Wallach called in to investigate when Rains goes off the deep end.   The bit parts could also double as a Before They Were Stars clip — so many people show up here that went on to have long careers.

The movie is problematic to be sure, with some attitudes toward different sexual orientations a bit passé and a finale that’s downright offensive…but it’s all a time capsule of the temperature of the time the movie was made and released.  Winner isn’t shy about showing a bundle of extremes be it gore or nudity so audiences are warned to gird their loins and steel themselves when the film goes barreling toward its abrupt but appropriate conclusion.  There’s quite a lot of good stuff going on here and it’s spooky enough to warrant a recommendation if you’re so inclined.

Movie Review ~ Vacation

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Rusty Griswold takes his own family on a road trip to “Walley World” in order to spice things up with his wife and reconnect with his sons.

Stars: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Leslie Mann, Beverly D’Angelo, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Chevy Chase

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Like the memories of a long-ago family road trip, watching the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies have a special place in my mind.  I’ll never forget hearing my dad howl with laughter watching Chevy Chase strap a dead body to his car in the original Vacation from 1983.  I also remember my parents fumbling with the VCR remote to fast forward through some of the racier parts of 1985’s European Vacation.  And I can’t count how many memories are associated with the multiple annual viewings of 1989’s Christmas Vacation. Vegas Vacation from 1997?  Eh, I think I saw it on an airplane once…and I won’t even deign to watch the 2003 TV Movie Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure.

So you have to understand that I approached this reboot/sequel of the Vacation franchise with a side eye glance and full on arched eyebrows.  While the franchise didn’t have a spotless track record I didn’t want another inferior sequel to sully the good times of the past.  Gradually, I started to come around once the casting came together and several funnier-than-they-should-have-been previews were released.  Still…what’s to say that all the funny bits weren’t crammed into the trailers just to get unsuspecting butts in seats?

Well, the summer Vacation of 2015 is a nice throwback to the one that started it all and while many of the funny bits were tipped off in early trailers, I’m pleased to report that most of these jokes are taken a step further in the finished product and it has a healthy amount of raucous material heretofore yet unseen.

Is the ride clear of bumps?  Oh goodness no.  Thankfully, the film is so packed with gags (and a few gag worthy moments) that these rough patches are cleared in time for a better joke to land.

Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms, We’re the Millers, another in a long line of actors that have played the character, something the film delightful acknowledges) is, like his dad, a hard-working family man that just wants to eek out the best kind of life for his wife and two sons.  Working as a pilot in a bargain airline, he looks forward to the family togetherness of a yearly summer cabin retreat.  This year is going to be different, though.  Noticing a lack of excitement in the same old routine and feeling nostalgic for his family trips, he ditches the cabin idea and invests in a tricked out rental car to carry his tribe to Walley World…the destination of the first film that paved the comedic way for all trips to come.

Rusty’s wife (Christina Applegate, a good straight-man, er, woman, to Helms’s dopey simpleton) wished for a Paris trip for two but goes along with her husband’s plans in hopes of reigniting a spark in their marriage.  Their sons are post-pubescent Skyler Gisondo (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), a hopeless romantic, and pre-pubescent Steele Stebbins, a foul-mouthed nightmare that lives to torture his older brother.  All three would rather be anywhere else than road-tripping it across the country with the good natured head of their family.

As in the original, the road to Walley World isn’t an easy one and the Griswolds encounter a host of comedic roadblocks along the way…from hazardous waste ponds to a drunken sorority charity event to a detour to meet up with Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann, The Other Woman) and her bo-hunk husband (Chris Hemsworth, Cabin in the Woods, who gets the best visual joke with the most, um, girth).   There are nice nods to the first film that I won’t spoil here and while it starts to run out of steam near the finale the ride up to that point has been more memorable than you’d care to admit.

Ironically, the worst part of this new Vacation are the two holdovers from all of the previous films…Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo.  Popping up late in the game to offer some unnecessary words of wisdom, it’s a sequence that was included with the best of intentions but comes off as superfluous, especially considering that this film seeks to establish itself on its own four wheels.  It doesn’t help that Chase looks like he took one too many extra scoops of mashed potatoes and D’Angelo’s plastic surgeon went a little wild with the Botox.

Directors and co-writers John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) start things off with a laugh in a fun (if low-brow) credit sequence and keep things light, there’s no villain of the film and the only problems that pop up are of the Griswold’s own making.  Helms and Applegate are terrific comedians and don’t oversell the material – here’s hoping this Vacation is well received to get a holiday sequel on the books.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Vacation (2015)

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Synopsis: Rusty Griswold takes his own family on a road trip to “Walley World” in order to spice things up with his wife and reconnect with his sons.

Release Date: July 29, 2015

Thoughts: As a huge fan of the original National Lampoon’s Vacation, I was dying a little inside when I heard that a remake was getting started over at Warner Brothers. Why would they need to remake a movie that had such a solid foothold in the comedy pantheon and served as the basis for many an imitation in the years to come? Fears were assuaged a bit when it was revealed this was less of a remake but more of a reboot/sequel with Rusty Griswold trying to relive one of the best trips of his life with his own family. The first trailer for the 2015 Vacation looks promising and I’m solidly behind stars Ed Helms (We’re The Millers) and Christina Applegate. Nice to see that Rusty’s parents (Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo) make a cameo in it as well. There’s also our first look at a much talked about sight gag, courtesy of Chris Hemworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron).