Movie Review ~ Nanny

The Facts:

Synopsis: Immigrant nanny Aisha, piecing together a new life in New York City while caring for the child of an Upper East Side family, is forced to confront a concealed truth that threatens to shatter her precarious American Dream.
Stars: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Rose Decker, Leslie Uggams
Director: Nikyatu Jusu
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  On the surface, Nikyatu Jusu’s thriller Nanny feels like it could be a tight twist on the mid-late ‘90s cycle of yuppie thrillers that put families in a particular income bracket in peril a la The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.  Aligning it with those agreeable (and quite entertaining, if I do say so) popcorn chompers would be selling Jusu’s film short, though, because Nanny is more emotionally complex and resonant.  Leaving you alarmingly chilled rather than terrifically thrilled, there’s a more important lesson to be learned from this modern metropolitan horror tale.

Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop, Us) is just starting work for Amy (Michelle Monaghan, Pixels) and Adam (Morgan Spector, With/in) as a nanny for Rose (Rose Decker) in their nicely appointed Upper East Side apartment as the film opens.  As is often the case, Adam is the more hands-off parent, while Amy is the helicopter mom who confuses the smothering of her daughter with genuine love and care.  Amy’s more concerned with how her family looks to the outside world, the appearance of perfection is the ultimate goal.  Aisha picks up on that and does what she can to stay within the boundaries of her employer’s strict rules.  However, she’s also a mother with a son back home.  Most of her wages go toward a ticket to bring the two back together.

As the work demands increase, so does the stress of the job.  Though a new romantic relationship is prosperous, it re-introduces her to traditions and age-old spiritual tales that begin to haunt her.  This leads Aisha down a path of nightmares involving her son that start crossing into reality.  The hallucinations become outright fear when she loses contact with her child and cannot find out where he is.  Where is her son, and how does Rose appear to know him and pin Aisha’s increasingly strange behavior on him?

Nanny belongs to star Diop, a commanding presence that keeps you hooked on each development and left turn the film takes.  While you may begin to suspect where Jusu is guiding the thriller and arrive at the final destination long before Aisha does, Diop’s strong performance rises above Nanny’s sub-par structure, fortifying it into something more nuanced and intriguing.  Monaghan and Spector are solid too, and it helps that the script doesn’t pander to making them the expected NYC snobs we expect.  They’re snobs alright, but their angle has a tweaked edge to it.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Uninvited (1944)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A pair of siblings from London purchase a surprisingly affordable, lonely cliff-top house in Cornwall, only to discover that it carries a ghostly price—and soon they’re caught up in a bizarre romantic triangle from beyond the grave.
Stars: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Gail Russell, Dorothy Stickney, Barbara Everest, Alan Napier
Director: Lewis Allen
Rated: NR
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  The true test of motion pictures in any genre is how well they stand the test of time.  Can a movie made in 2022 hold up as well as one made in 1922?  Time and technology aren’t the only things that separate motion pictures.  The tastes of audiences are fluid, and cultural shifts occur.  Until a crystal ball is invented that can tell Hollywood producers what will still hold appeal years in the future; it’s anyone’s guess what films made now will still have a foothold fifty years on.  When you find a movie that does hold up and, in fact, outdoes its contemporaries, that’s when you know you have a winner.

Such a film is 1944’s The Uninvited, a haunted house thriller that I only saw for the first time a couple of years ago but shot right to the top of my favorite horror movies.  While you won’t find any gore or masked killers sauntering around this black-and-white feature released by Paramount Pictures in February 1944, there’s enough tension created by its enveloping plot and carefully constructed images to keep a chill consistently running up your spine.  Even better, it has a creative story with pieces to re-position throughout, making the experience a tip-to-tail joy. 

Londoner Rick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) are away from the city on vacation in a coastal town when they happen to come across a beautiful house for sale.  With both siblings looking for a second home away from the clamor of city life, their interest is piqued when they find out they could get Windward House for a song.  Figuring it was simply a matter of the owner Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), wanting to unload it to the right people, they buy it with little fanfare or second thought.  While exploring the grounds, Beech’s granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell) catches Rick’s eye, further proof it seems that the home is a good investment.

Yet the house starts to show signs of issues once the brother and sister are ready to move in.  It’s the small things at first.  Domestic animals either recoil at or refuse to enter parts of the house, a terrible draft runs through the place, and they find out Stella’s mother fell (or was pushed) from the cliff directly outside their home when Stella was still a baby.  A locked room opened seems to unleash more trouble, with a spiritual presence desperate to make itself known by any means necessary, even possession.  A séance leads to one of the silver screen’s first images of a ghost…but is this specter offering a message of protection or a warning of danger to come?

First-time director Lewis Allen moves all the pieces nicely, with a beautiful interior set and outdoor views of the imposing cliffside.  Adapted from Irish author Dorothy Macardle’s 1941 novel ‘Uneasy Freehold’ (later published as ‘The Uninvited’) by Dodie Smith (who wrote the novel on which 101 Dalmatians was based) and Frank Partos, the script for the film offers a wealth of fun scenes for the actors to play.  Though it was rumored she was challenging to work with, Russell is delightful as the young ingenue whom the leading man develops feelings but might want to watch his back if he considers anything further.  I also liked Hussey as Milland’s sister, a rare female written to be as strong as her male counterpart. The Uninvited is a film that also benefits from a strong supporting cast, many of whom have secrets that need to be unlocked at critical junctures.

If you’re searching for shocks-a-minute, this isn’t the film for you.  Those on the lookout for the sophisticated scare this Halloween should welcome The Uninvited into their homes because it’s a dandy feature that quickly turns up the heat the deeper we delve into the house’s history.  I was surprised by how tense things get, and stay, during the movie and appreciated that my expectations were upended.  Now, The Uninvited is one of my ‘secret weapon’ recommendations for those I meet whom I feel will appreciate the classy engagement it offers.  And now I pass that on to you, dear readers! 

With that, the 2022 #31DaystoScare comes to a close! 

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

31 Days to Scare ~ A Double Shot of Crawford

Two films starring Joan Crawford that I had never seen had been calling to me for a while, and I was having trouble deciding which ones to watch for 31 Days to Scare. Ultimately, both were so short and interesting that I decided to bundle them for A Double Shot of Crawford. If Crawford is the true star of Berserk, she was more of a cameo in I Saw What You Did, but both show off her tremendous screen presence. 

Berserk (1969)
The Facts:

Synopsis: A scheming circus owner finds her authority challenged when a vicious killer targets the show.
Stars: Joan Crawford, Ty Hardin, Diana Dors, Michael Gough, Judy Geeson, Robert Hardy
Director: Jim O’Connolly
Rated: Approved
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  After a long and celebrated career of almost 45 years and nearly 80 films, Joan Crawford’s work in the movies was struggling in the late ‘60s.  She would find the occasional job here and there, but rumors of her being difficult to work with had proceeded her, often proven true by the actress’s noted drinking problems late in life.  Her work with William Castle on 1964’s Strait-Jacket and 1965’s I Saw What You Did bolstered her into the B-movie horror genre after starring in the A-List suspense thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962.  By the time 1969’s Berserk pulled up, Crawford was done with the American film business and was looking to the European market.

A British film production, Berserk is almost a double-bill film in and of itself.  It serves as a fine suspense thriller with Crawford well cast (and well-lit), and it also features several circus acts, bringing horror and spectacle together into one package.  Your thoughts on the circus and its use of animals aside, it is fascinating to see the traveling entertainment all these years later to view some of its inner workings and oddities.  While the fully performed circus routines tend to pad the feature (full disclosure, I fast-forwarded through many of them after a few minutes), I can see how their presence would add a selling point to those wanting an extended peek into the tent.

At its heart, Berserk is a murder-mystery whodunit and not a bad one at that.  Someone starts to trim the roster of performers and staff of Crawford’s traveling circus, and it’s up to the dwindling members to find out who could be behind it all.  A shocking opening finds a tightrope walker strangled by his rope, which also cleverly (or would it be cheekily?) reveals the title as shocked spectators look on.  Unbothered by this terrible death, ringmistress Monica Rivers (Crawford) asks her business partner Albert Dorando (Michael Gough, Venom) to locate a new act immediately.  Lucky for them, Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin), another tightrope walker with an added element of danger, has shown up looking for a job.  He fits the bill, is ruggedly handsome, and instantly has eyes for single-mother Monica, so he’s hired.  Their affair begins quickly, and soon, he wants to be taken on as part of the business.

When more people start to die, usually any that stand in the way of Monica or Frank getting what they want, the performers team up and begin to put the pieces together that perhaps it’s Monica behind the killings.  This scene was a fun turning point of the movie, when the “freaks” get back at their master and, led into battle by the voluptuous Diana Dors; it’s when the film loosens its collar a bit and settles into having some fun with its cattiness.  Dors and Crawford have some nice run-ins, and as the bodies pile up, more people arrive on the scene that may be helping or hindering the process.  One of these is Detective Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy, Dark Places), sent to help the circus pinpoint its killer in disguise, and Angela Rivers (Judy Geeson, Lords of Salem), Monica’s estranged daughter stops by after getting kicked out of boarding school.

If there’s one place where the movie falters, it’s in a finale that’s a bit ludicrous even by the standard of these trashy-but-fun films.  There’s a sense of not knowing how to wrap things up, so writers Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel chose the ending that shocks the most, even if it creates a multi-verse of plot holes.  Up until that point, apart from the slightly slow circus acts, the genre pieces of Berserk had been quite fun to get a front-row seat for.  For nothing else, it’s lovely to see Crawford looking glamorous and in complete control of the movie.  As mentioned before, she’s rarely seen without a particular key light across her face, and it almost becomes comical by the end to have that same light on her no matter where she is or what time of day the scene takes place. 

I Saw What You Did (1965)
The Facts:

Synopsis: Teenagers Libby and Kit innocently spend an evening making random prank calls that lead to murderous consequences.
Stars: Joan Crawford, Andi Garrett, Sarah Lane, Sharyl Locke, John Ireland, Leif Erickson, Patricia Breslin, Joyce Meadows
Director: William Castle
Rated: Approved
Running Length: 82 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In the horror genre, the name William Castle often goes hand in hand with a particular type of schlock B-movie cinema. While he initially began as a standard director of lower-grade films that studios could use to fill out double bills, he eventually turned his talent at marketing a movie with gimmicks and ploys from advanced advertising into a small cottage industry. Often the advanced buzz on a film was more interesting than the film itself. This is the guy that had a “fright break” in his 1961 film Homicidal that allowed guests to run out of the theater if they were too scared to stay for the end. I’ve watched that film, and while it isn’t particularly frightening, the 60-second countdown in the “fright-break” as a woman slowly walks toward a door to open creates a nerve frenzy that’s had to ignore.

By the time I Saw What You Did came about in 1965, Castle had also released 1959’s The Tingler, with vibrating devices installed in seats to give audiences a buzz whenever the titular creature had shown up. His idea around I Saw What You Did was to have seat belts installed in seats to prevent the viewer from leaping out due to fright. Maybe not on par with his previous stunts, but it still comes across as if you might want to proceed with caution if you consider buying a ticket. I find all these quite fun, but you can also understand why these campaigns went by the wayside. Not only were they hard to maintain as movie theaters across the country grew, but it also indicated the film needed a trick to entice audiences when the movie itself should be the draw.

At least with Castle, most of his films were easy to recommend. I’m always surprised at how nicely put together his movies are, and I Saw What You Did is no exception. Opening with such a spring in its step that you may wonder if you’ve started into a teeny-bopper comedy, we get introduced to Libby Mannering (Andi Garrett) and Kit Austin (Sara Lane). They plan a night in at Libby’s house while her parents are away overnight. They’ll be a babysitter because Libby’s younger sister Tess (Sharyl Locke) has been ill, so Kit’s dad agrees that she can hang out at Libby’s isolated home on the outskirts of town.

When Kit arrives, and her dad has gone, the babysitter cancels, leaving Libby’s parents to make a last-minute decision to allow their teen daughter to have some adult responsibility. Libby can be in charge if they stay in the house and don’t go out. No sooner have they left than the teens, bored after Libby shows Kit around their expansive home and outdoor barn, start playing a fun telephone game. They flip through a phone book, pick a random name, and call the number, pranking whoever answers with silly questions or their favorite line: “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” A call to Steve Marak (John Ireland) will turn their crank calling into a nightmare.

They first get Marak’s wife on the phone, and with the girls posing as a sultry woman, she confronts her husband, who is already in an aggravated state. Things get dicey from there, with Marak killing his wife and burying her body, only to receive another call from the giggly girls saying: “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” Convinced there is a witness to his crime through a series of coincidences that involve Marak’s lusty neighbor (Joan Crawford), Marak identifies the address where the girls are calling from and makes a late-night beeline to them.

I went into I Saw What You Did, thinking it would be much different than it turned out. Maintaining a natural feeling of pep and capturing that teen spirit in the first half, the transition makes sense when it turns dark in the second, and we start to fear for the girl’s safety. There’s a lot of teen slang that makes for fun laughs, and Crawford is a campy treat as the nosy neighbor who can’t see she’s making eyes at a dangerous killer.

The film’s finale is quite scary, with Castle adding ample amounts of fog to his studio set and creating a sense of dread by doing very little. Films of this era often drew suspense from the editing, and Edwin H. Bryant cuts I Saw What You Did with efficient skill. It’s a full 82-minutes that rarely sags because of the performances (the two teens are terrific, as is the youngster playing the ill sister) and Castle’s eye for crafting visuals that give you the shivers is on target. That’s the kind of filmmaking that needs no trickery to promote.

31 Days to Scare ~ Cursed

The Facts:

Synopsis: A werewolf loose in Los Angeles changes the lives of three young adults who, after being mauled by the beast, learn to kill it to avoid becoming werewolves themselves.
Stars: Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Joshua Jackson, Milo Ventimiglia, Judy Greer, Mýa, Shannon Elizabeth, Portia de Rossi, Kristina Anapau, Solar, Derek Mears, Nick Offerman
Director: Wes Craven
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Perhaps I’m getting more nostalgic in my old age, but I’ve developed a fondness for revisiting several films from my high school and college years that proved formative.  Steering clear of the true childhood classics from the ‘80s, I’ve focused instead on those late ‘90s to mid-‘00s features that launched (or sunk) numerous Hollywood careers.  What has surprised me most about these trips down movie theater memory lane is not the films that have held up nicely but the titles that improved through the years.  Some have gone from good to excellent, while others have moved in my mind from “bad” to “what took me so long to rewatch this?” 

Today’s example is Cursed, a werewolf movie with a Scream-vibe released in 2005.  Cursed isn’t a great movie; it’s been altered and chopped up too much from its original version, damaging the intended vision of director Wes Craven (Summer of Fear) and his production team.  It is, however, so much better than I had remembered it and absolutely not the dumpster fire it was classified as when it was initially released.  Based on an original screenplay by Kevin Williamson (The Faculty), the script went through numerous rewrites by various other screenwriters. Hence, it’s hard to figure out to whom the final product should be attributed.  Some might argue Miramax/Dimension Films producer Harvey Weinstein shaped the version released in theaters because he ordered so many changes during the over two years of production the crew endured.

Yes, that’s right.  Over two years were spent once filming began before the troubled production finally made it to theaters.  In that time, cast members were changed, storylines were cut/modified, and the special effects team was let go.  What audiences saw in theaters reflected that mess, and my recollections were of a film that wanted to get to the kills faster and faster.  It made little sense, with characters appearing and disappearing without much explanation.  We’ll likely never see that originally filmed version that tested either poorly or well (depending on who you talk to), but instead, we have a director’s cut which aims to restore some narrative order to the film.  In this reassembled package, something more in line with a movie Craven and Williamson would have collaborated on finally emerges. While it isn’t a showstopper on their resume, it has some excellent sequences.

Becky and Jenny (Shannon Elizabeth and singer Mýa) are at a carnival in Los Angeles and are warned by a psychic (Portia de Rossi) that one of them is in danger and to beware of a beast they know.  Shortly after, Ellie, a young professional (Christina Ricci, Mermaids), and her younger brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra) get into a car wreck with Becky on a deserted stretch of road in the Hollywood hills.  As the siblings try to help Becky, they watch as she is attacked by an unseen creature that they are both scratched by.  The next day, brother and sister exhibit strange behavior, such as an advanced sense of smell and lightning-fast reflexes. 

Doing some old-fashioned detective work at the library, it becomes clear to Jimmy that the creature they encountered was a werewolf, and now he and his sister are becoming similar beasts.  As the werewolf continues to attack friends of Ellie and Jimmy, there is an urgency to find out who the monster is and their plan in choosing their victims.  The list of potential suspects is long, and who in their circle of friends they can trust is shrinking rapidly.

You can see why Dimension Films were so key in making Cursed a variation of their popular Scream franchise, which had petered out right around the time Williamson turned in his original script for this werewolf whodunit.  Substituting out a flesh and blood serial killer for a hairy werewolf taking a bite out of a group of young adults in Hollywood was a good way for the studio to keep a proven business formula going without continually tapping the same well of characters.  Early test screenings provoked discussions that led to suggested changes that major players disagreed with, and that’s when the tinkering started to set the movie on its eventual collision course with post-production hell. 

While Cursed is undeniably silly at times (the reshot scenes are unfortunate, look at poor Eisenberg’s hideous wig in the newer footage) and major cringe at others (a subplot about Jimmy’s rumored gay leanings and how it plays out is beyond dated), it offers more than a few classic Craven passages that get the blood pumping.  That original car wreck is well-staged, ending with a horrific image only available in the director’s cut.  The centerpiece is Mýa’s lengthy chase scene through a parking garage where the creature pursues her.  This scene is edited masterfully and a real nail-biter.

Cursed is a case of ‘your mileage may vary’ on how well another viewer might receive it.  I found a rewatch of it seventeen years after it was released to poor reviews and lackluster box office, an eye-opener to how decent a film it is.  Maybe it’s because I know how much worse it could have been or know that a truly poor edit of Craven’s film is out there, but the Director’s Cut is the only way to see this film.  When searching for it, you’ll see the sanitized version if you see a PG-13 rating.  Hold out for the unrated version (or buy it here from Scream Factory), and you’ll be pleasantly surprised…and a little scared!

31 Days to Scare ~ Run Sweetheart Run

The Facts:

Synopsis: Initially apprehensive when her boss insists she meets with one of his most important clients, s single mother is relieved and excited when the influential businessman defies expectations and sweeps her off her feet. But at the end of the night, when the two are alone together, he reveals his true, violent nature. Battered and terrified, she flees for her life, beginning a relentless cat-and-mouse game with a bloodthirsty assailant hell-bent on her utter destruction.
Stars: Ella Balinska, Pilou Asbæk, Clark Gregg, Dayo Okeniyi, Betsy Brandt, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ava Grey
Director: Shana Feste
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Tracking the new film Run Sweetheart Run over the past two years reminded me of what it was like to follow a movie before the internet became this unruly beast. Back 20-25 years ago, there were a few sites online where you could find information about upcoming movies that updated more frequently than your weekly/monthly subscription magazines. Through these sites, often maintained by zealous fans and consisting of gossip tidbits, you could catch wind of a movie that sounded up your alley and then track it through production, marketing, and, finally, release. I can recall following along for the releases The Relic (charting the many delays to its 1997 arrival in theaters) and, the biggest one of all, the modern shark classic Deep Blue Sea in 1999.

Run Sweetheart Run had barely time to make it onto my radar after its debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival before its distribution into theaters was canceled when the lockdown closed movie houses and turned Hollywood into a ghost town. While many similar genre titles eventually found their way into viewers’ homes via streaming or minor theatrical releases once theaters began opening up, Run Sweetheart Run had seemingly vanished from existence. Though it had been sold off to Amazon quickly in May 2020, the streaming service and original producer Blumhouse sat on the film for over two years, a strange stretch to let such an innocuous title languish on a next-to-empty shelf. 

Movies that gather dust on a shelf start to gain a reputation, not a good one. I never quite understood why Blumhouse and Amazon would let the horror title, directed by Shana Feste (Country Strong) and written by Feste along with Keith Josef Adkins and Kellee Terrell, remain unreleased when they put out other titles that might have benefitted from later rollouts. I’d keep checking the IMDb page and news sources for information on the film (mind you, all I had to go on was the synopsis, the cast list, and a few random press photos, the original buzzed-about trailer was never even released online) but came up with nothing. Then…October 2022 rolled around, and it was time for Run Sweetheart Run to get its due.

I’ve followed many films that turned out to be duds, but I was so happy to find that Feste’s film was tremendous fun, the kind of bolt-for-your-life horror that moves so fast you don’t have time to clock how out of joint the logic is at times. The film feeds off the energy put forth by its appealing leads, Ella Balinska and Pilou Asbæk, and a pulsating-synth music score that turns Los Angeles into a neon-tinged town of menace for one woman desperate to survive a night of horrors and the man that is the cause of it all.

Single mother Cherie (Balinska, 2019’s Charlie’s Angels) is studying to get her law degree and working at a high-profile law firm with a boss (Clark Gregg, Moxie) that benefits from her hard work. She double-booked him tonight for an anniversary date with his wife and dinner with a client in town for the evening. Practically guilting her into going, a reluctant Cherie agrees to go out with the client, but when she meets Ethan (Asbæk, Overlord), she’s grateful for her supposed error. A handsome, successful man, Ethan seems interested in Cherie too and has said enough right things by the end of the night that he convinced her to cancel her ride home and come inside with him. As they enter the house, Ethan turns back and stares into the camera, stopping it from following the two of them indoors. What is about to happen is…private.

We don’t see what happens inside, but we hear it, one of several acts of violence toward women that Feste does not show. That may seem like it gives the audience a break from another movie depicting violence against women. Still, there’s something sinister in how characters break the fourth wall and physically move the camera so the audience can’t see what’s about to happen. Cherie is different, though, and is unwilling to go down gently. So begins a night where Cherie is pursued by an evil that won’t stop no matter who is standing in his way. Involving family and friends won’t help Cherie either because Ethan has more than worldly powers at his disposal.

There’s more than a nugget of good ideas and a ton of metaphor, but, almost blessedly, Feste doesn’t lean into this too much. Instead, Feste lets you take the analogy to heart and come up with your interpretation of who Ethan is and what he ultimately has been tasked to do. Feste imbues the story early on with some cheeky fun, but that melts away the further into the night the story gets. That’s also when Balinksa entirely takes control of the movie, and while she may share the lead responsibilities with Asbæk, she’s unquestionably the show’s star.

You can poke holes all around the story and screenplay, but it defeats the bloody-ied fun of the experience. It’s a shame the film got lost in the shuffle because it’s well done and comes across as a confident change of gears for many involved. I could have done with a little more time in the second act with a new character introduced in the final 1/3, but that would add additional time that I don’t think the simple set-up could have supported. Available on streaming, you won’t have to sprint to Run Sweetheart Run, but do walk quickly to add it to your list for a perfect weekend option leading up to Halloween.

31 Days to Scare ~ Venom (1981)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Terrorists in the process of kidnapping a child get trapped in a house with an extremely deadly snake.
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Nicol Williamson, Sarah Miles, Sterling Hayden, Lance Holcomb, Susan George, Cornelia Sharpe, Michael Gough
Director: Piers Haggard
Rated: R
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  I could imagine a viewer in 1981 standing in front of the poster for Venom seen above and scratching their head in confusion. Referring to The Birds, Psycho, The Omen, and Jaws call to mind four classic but drastically different horror experiences. Even if you lifted the elements from all four films the poster indicated, it couldn’t quite describe the odd appeal of Venom or its continued life on the periphery of the genre. I have had this one on my ‘to-do’ list for some time but kept delaying, thinking it was one of those half-hearted productions that lured stars in need of cash. Surprisingly, a good deal of money seems to have been invested in it, though it’s debatable how well it was all spent.

Not expressly a creature feature but not without its share of jump-out-of-your-seat moments thanks to a reptile on the loose, Venom had a troubled production that resulted in an uneven film. Original director Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was replaced after the first week, and new director Piers Haggard arrived to find a cast and crew at odds with one another. Haggard went on record later saying the snake was the nicest member of the cast to work with if that indicates the atmosphere on the set. With strong personalities like the infamously eccentric Klaus Kinski and combative Oliver Reed, not to mention stalwart Sterling Hayden, you can understand how the film starts to cater more toward its human stars than its central antagonist. That’s especially disappointing because the first 40 minutes of the film are gripping.

A wealthy American family living in London is targeted by a kidnapping plot meticulously plotted from within their household. Mother Ruth Hopkins (Cornelia Sharpe) is hesitant to leave her asthmatic son Philip (Lance Holcomb) for a few days in the care of her father Howard (Hayden), who is recovering in their home after an illness. Still, the family’s British maid Louise (Susan George, Fright) and chauffeur Dave (Reed, The Brood) know Philip’s routine, and it’s a school holiday, so there’s little to be worried over. That is until Louise’s secret lover Jacques Müller (Kinski, Nosferatu) arrives to help the house staff carry out plans to kidnap Philip and hold him for ransom.

Never underestimate the plans of a naughty boy and his irascible grandpa, though. While Ruth thinks her son and father are going to lay low (the script is so freewheeling with exposition that Sharpe has the line, ‘You need to be careful of your asthma since we’re in London, but at least you’re with your grandfather while I’m away for the weekend. Well, at least there’s no school for a few days. Just don’t go out.”) they’ve planned for the boy to travel alone to an exotic animal store and pick up a new harmless house snake to add to his home zoo. A mix-up at the store has sent his purchase to Dr. Marion Stowe (Sarah Miles) at the Institute of Toxicology though; he unknowingly goes home with a deadly black mamba.

It doesn’t take long for the snake to pop out and cause massive problems for the kidnappers and potential victims, adding an extra layer of danger for all. To put even more pressure on the situation, the police are tipped off about the kidnapping and surround the tiny flat, forcing Jacques to take more desperate measures to escape capture. With a slithering predator moving silently around the house, a nest of criminal vipers crafting their next move, and London’s finest rallying outside, the race is on to see who will strike first.

If you have any fear of snakes, Venom will surely crank up that blood pressure at the outset. Waiting for the snake to appear makes for more than a few deliriously fun sequences, and even watching the camera (standing in for the snake) slowly gliding through the air ducts is enough to make your hairs stand on end. I don’t have the greatest affinity for these reptiles and admit that when the mamba makes its first appearance, it comes as a significant shock. If only the rest of the elements in the film lived up to that initial thrill.

The further the movie gets away from being about the snake and more about the trio of criminals (and the police outside), the less interesting it becomes. These are all fine actors, but we bought a ticket to Venom, not Kidnapper Talks to Police. When the film should be surging into its final act, it’s still fooling around with Kinski and Reed’s shameless mugging for the camera. Hayden sometimes gets a bit into the action but largely rises above those shenanigans. I liked Miles as the knowing doctor, and George was fun as a femme fatale that should be more careful about what dark places she peers into. George has one of the trickiest acting exercises in the film, one that Kinski must recreate later, but the younger actress comes off far better than Kinski’s comically overbaked take.

It can’t hold a candle to the movies it name drops on its poster, but, like its marketing, Venom manages to get the job done and serve its purpose at the time. I’m surprised no one has attempted to remake it over the years because the story, while containing far-fetched elements, is a more believable set-up than you’d think. Movies like Crawl can make us believe someone can be stuck in a house with a crocodile; why not re-do Venom with a more restrained cast and tighter directing?

31 Days to Scare ~ Eye of the Cat (1969)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man and his girlfriend plan to rob the mansion of the man’s eccentric but wealthy aunt. However, the aunt keeps dozens of cats in her home, and the man is deathly afraid of cats.
Stars: Michael Sarrazin, Gayle Hunnicutt, Eleanor Parker, Tim Henry, Laurence Naismith
Director: David Lowell Rich
Rated: NR
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  The one thing I don’t do nearly enough of every year for this series is travel back to a time when they truly cranked out horror films. Twenty days in, I often find myself scrambling for titles that I haven’t covered (or want to cover) but then realize that I haven’t even crept up to the edge of the bountiful time when Hollywood leaned into the growing craze for double-bill entertainment and drive-in fare. In truth, most of these are often bland carbon copies of each other, with the studios doing what they still do today: finding a hook that works and continuing to let it wriggle out money until it’s dead. Every so often, a fabulous find like Eye of the Cat slinks into your lap, renewing your commitment to exploring each cobwebbed corner of the horror film vault.

A Universal Studios production, this comes with some prestige to it. Written by Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of Psycho (1960) and starring Eleanor Parker (the Baroness in The Sound of Music), Eye of the Cat was directed by David Lowell Rich. Rich was the director of the TV movie 1964’s See How They Run (the first movie produced for the medium), which gave network executives the blueprint for the made-for-television film. He was also behind the camera for the popular Lana Turner movie Madame X in 1966. Nabbing hot new stars Michael Sarrazin (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? also arrived in 1969) and Gayle Hunnicutt (appearing in Marlowe the same year) was another win.

So, with all of these factors in its favor, why is Eye of the Cat not that well known? While it has gone on to become a modest cult hit with its strong devotees, it retains its share of detractors for having some semblance of a trashy vibe. I think it’s a hot-wired thriller laced with campy melodrama that bogs it down at critical moments. With all that on the table, the premise is so good and the execution so delightfully “studio” that it’s a must-see in my book.

Parker (Home for the Holidays) plays a wealthy woman living in San Francisco dying of emphysema. (You’ll hear about how the disease has taken 2/3 of her lung tissue several dozen times throughout.)  Charged with the care of her two young nephews after their parents died, only Luke (Tim Henry) remains with her as a grown adult. It’s Wylie (Sarrazin, The Seduction) that Aunt Danny worries about and longs to have back in her life, though, and ever since he left, she has found comfort in a menagerie of cats that has taken Wylie’s place in her heart…and her will. She’s shared all this information with Kassia (Hunnicut), the beautician she visits regularly and has recently had a severe health emergency in the presence of. 

With her client declining rapidly due to the illness, Kassia sets into motion a plan long in development. She’s located Wylie and entices him to return to his aunt’s well-appointed mansion and again get back in her good graces. After he returns to the will, Kassia will kill her and take a cut of the inheritance Wylie stands to receive. There’s just one tiny issue Kassia failed to tell Wylie about. The cats. A childhood trauma at his aunt’s has left him paralyzed with a fear of cats, and he can’t complete his task or compete with the felines until they are out of the way. An old wife’s tale says a cat will always come back, but when a cat knows it isn’t wanted and that someone plans to hurt its owner, it will return…with plans of its own.

From its opening moments featuring a cat prowling around the city, first as a stylized overlay and then the real thing (the main cat is a mischievous-looking orange tabby), Eye of the Cat is a spooky movie that rarely pumps the brakes. Like Stefano’s script for Psycho, it bears down on the audience and doesn’t give much explanation or set-up. It would be best if you got on board, kept up, or were left in the dust. The film’s beginning feels disjointed because Stefano and Rich drop you right into the action without much establishment of whom we’re watching; it’s only later that gaps are filled in. There’s also some disappointing sag in the middle of the film when Wylie and Kassia go out for a night at a swinging ’60s head club which ends with girls in very short mini skirts rolling around fighting/hair-pulling. If you’re watching the movie, fast-forward past this part because it adds nothing but extra time to the film.

Instead, focus on the great work Parker is doing. It could have been easy for Parker to take a Joan Crawford-sized bite out of the role (and Crawford would have been a more obvious choice while giving a less interesting performance). Still, she shows a restraint that favors heightened suspicion over nagging paranoia and growing fear rather than over-the-top terror regarding the people in her house trying to do her in. There’s a marvelous bit where Parker is in a wheelchair, perched precariously at the top of an infamous San Francisco hill and struggling to keep from falling backward. A cat is sauntering up from behind her, and her nephew is coming toward her, and we aren’t sure who means her more harm…and neither is she. Brilliant.

The supporting players are also strong, with Hunnicut being a swell femme fatale that might be playing both brothers against each other but is absolutely hiding something from Wylie. I’ve always found Sarrazin to be an appealing actor but never someone to actively root for. He’s a bit insufferable by design here, but the extra layer of subterfuge he’s pulling makes the character even harder to stomach. I hadn’t seen (or remembered) Henry before, but he’s a handsome leading man, and you feel bad Parker’s character ignores him as she does. However, perhaps she knows something we don’t. There is the suggestion of some impropriety between aunt and nephew, but this was 1969, and a hint is all we get.

The finale of Eye of the Cat was nicely built up and so extreme that when it was aired on network TV, the studio had to refilm the ending to be “less intense.” It’s pretty tense but not as nail-biting as it sounds nor as perfectly satisfying as it could be. I would be interested to see if they remade this today, even as a short in a longer anthology. Eye of the Cat would work nicely as a 45–50-minute chapter of something more gothic and centered around San Francisco’s impressive architecture. Featuring a lush, spine-tingling score by Lalo Schifrin (Tales of Halloween), Eye of the Cat was a pleasant surprise and a title I’d share with friends interested in something different than the same old Halloween rotation of movies.

31 Days to Scare ~ Windows (1980)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A shy woman and her police protector are watched by her admirer, a weird woman with a telescope.
Stars: Talia Shire, Elizabeth Ashley, Joe Cortese, Kay Medford, Michael Gorrin, Russell Horton, Michael Lipton, Ron Ryan, Linda Gillin, Tony DiBenedetto, Rick Petrucelli
Director: Gordon Willis
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Over time, plenty of films earned their reputations for being critically reviled and justified box office bombs. Even the benefit of time and a new critical analysis can’t save hopeless movies like 1964’s The Creeping Terror, 1979’s Caligula, 1987’s Leonard Part 6, or 2003’s Gigli, but it has happened for others. Movies now considered classics like Psycho (1960) originally received a chilly reception in their write-ups, and there’s even an example from 1980, the year Windows was released. Released ten months after Windows opened and closed quickly was The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel that first got mixed notices but has become a cult, and now mainstream, genre classic.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Windows has been wholly vindicated over the past 40 years, nor was its initial demise without some reasonable defense. Arriving in an era when homophobia was rampant in the public sphere and discrimination essentially went unchecked, its lesbian villain is problematic. In much the same way Basic Instinct would come under fire a decade later, the onscreen representation left much to be desired. Yet to reduce the film to merely that is shortchanging some top-of-the-line filmmaking and terrific performances centered around a story that was likely ahead of its time. That Windows was unwilling to push its subtext further made it seem weak, and that it introduced its subtext at all was its first “mistake” in the eyes of the public.

It’s impossible to discuss Windows without giving away a few high-level plot points that may be considered spoiler-y (even if the poster gives one away already). If you want to go in completely unaware of what’s going on in Barry Siegel’s screenplay, bookmark this review and come back later. 

On reflection, the opening shot of Windows has multiple meanings on more than a strictly visual level, and it’s a credit to director Gordon Willis that he lingers on it long enough for it to stick in your mind. Willis was the longtime cinematographer of Woody Allen, creating the fantastic views of New York in Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), not to mention his stunning work in all three films in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy. Windows was his only foray into directing, and that’s a shame. Perhaps it was because the film was so poorly received, or he could have preferred the singular role behind the camera, but pulling double duty here showed that he could easily do both.

After this first memorable shot, the movie turns ugly quickly. A timid woman named Emily (Talia Shire, Prophecy) comes home late from work and is violently assaulted in her home. Her attacker records this encounter while holding a knife to her throat, instructing her along the way and threatening harm if she disobeys. While the violence here and throughout Windows is not graphically shown (i.e., no blood is seen), this scene is incredibly visceral and stomach-churning to watch. Shire’s character, who we learn later is working on controlling a stutter, is rendered nearly speechless, and we’re holding our breath for her.

The next day, the police question Emily when her neighbor Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley, Coma) stops to see what’s happening. We get the sense she’s taken a motherly interest in Emily, but this is an incident newly divorced Emily must deal with alone. Deciding quickly that she needs to move to a more safe building, Emily secures a new high-rise apartment and moves out within days. Surprising even himself, the detective assigned to her case (Joe Cortese, Green Book) falls for Emily, and soon they are hanging out and getting to know one another over dinner and old movies. 

What Emily doesn’t know, and what we find out before the first thirty minutes is over, is that Andrea has developed a fixation on Emily and hired the man to attack her. She paid him to record the violence and listens to Emily’s fear as a way of fantasizing about being with her. Once Emily moves, Andrea also finds a loft nearby and trains a telescope to peer into her former neighbor’s new apartment, where she spies on Emily with the detective. As her obsession grows, so does her boldness in keeping Emily for herself and isolating her from anyone that may keep them apart. 

Movies like Single White Female and Fatal Attraction learned a thing or two from Windows; that’s obvious. As flawed as the film can be, and it is broken in places, it’s a fascinating watch once you get past its deeply uncomfortable opening. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen the LGBTQ+ population portrayed so much worse in the years since (ouch, but true) that it doesn’t come across as repellant as it did in 1980, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It helps that the cinematography from Willis draws you in and keeps you fixed from edge to edge with beautiful views of the city and NYC skyline that aren’t there anymore. His use of shadow and light is unparalleled, especially as Windows approaches the soft landing finale, which is all about moving in and out of dark places.

If not for anything else, watch the movie for the performances of Shire and especially Ashley. Shire has always been an underrated actress, strongly showing in supporting roles for her brother (The Godfather films) and Sylvester Stallone (the Rocky films), but she rarely got a chance to lead pictures. The work here speaks for itself and proves she can hold her own confidently starring in a film. I’d argue that Ashley performs better but only because it has to go deeper into the layers of deception, doubly hiding who she is. First downplaying her lesbianism, then her obsession with Emily. Her acceptance of both proves a breaking point, and that’s when the danger begins. I almost wish the film allowed her to go further because it’s the holding back at times that makes the movie, and character, seem milder than they are at their core. Ashely was rewarded for all this with a nomination at The Golden Raspberry Awards, celebrating the “worst of cinematic under-achievements”…blech. It’s a bonkers, but equally unforgettable performance.

I can only recommend Windows to you based on my experience of hearing all the negative things said about it and then viewing it myself. And I liked it. As a gay man, I always have my antennae up for inadequate representation and don’t mind dinging movies/directors/actors for it. Making a gay person a villain isn’t reductive, and I find it offensive that movies like Windows are dismissed because it does. Numerous films have had this same set-up with male-female relationships, and no one has done a double-take. It’s time to take the kid gloves off and accept movies like this, including the evil deeds people can do, regardless of whom you share your bed with.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Victim (1972)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A wealthy woman is trapped in a house with no electricity or phone during a storm. A killer has murdered her sister, stuffed the body in the basement, and is now after her.
Stars: Elizabeth Montgomery, George Maharis, Eileen Heckart, Sue Ane Langdon, Jess Walton, Richard Derr, Ross Elliott
Director: Herschel Daugherty
Rated: NR
Running Length: 73 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  A few years back, I fell into the vortex of educating myself on the television movie of the week boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Most younger audiences don’t remember how popular these weekly entertainment events could be; even I caught on at the tail end of their golden years. Running 90 minutes with commercials, favorite TV celebrities (and the occasional old-time film star) were the headliners of movies with various topics, from social issue dramas to creaky mansion horror. Delivered with high-quality production values shooting on studio lots provided a smooth transition for performers to go from their series commitment to the longer feature work. 

Some titles would have a long-lasting impact and usher in exciting new talent, like Steven Spielberg’s landmark Duel in 1971 (which we discussed already this year), but most have been lost to time and live in the fond memories of those that watched them live. While 1972’s The Victim isn’t the first made-for-television movie we’ve featured in 31 Days to Scare (and it won’t be the last), it was the one I had heard enough about that I positively leaped toward the pre-order button when boutique label Kino Lorber announced they were releasing it on Blu-ray. Restored in 2K, the 50-year-old film looks marvelous, and it was an excellent way to experience the highly regarded classic for the first time. 

Having recently decided to separate from her husband, Ben (George Maharis), Susan (Jess Walton) arrives at their sprawling home in Monterey for peace and quiet. The divorce has been a long time coming, so there’s an element of relief at this moment, which is why she politely declines when her sister Kate (Elizabeth Montgomery) asks if she wants her to drive in from the city to keep her company. We know both sisters come from money, yet the isolated house where Susan is staying is owned by her soon-to-be ex, who is away on business and giving her the space she needs.

Kate is persistent and still feels like Susan might need her, and when she can’t reach her on the phone a short time later, she decides to visit her anyway. Undeterred by a highway patrolman who discourages her from completing her journey due to an oncoming storm that will wash out the roads, she arrives to find her sister missing. Only a stern hard-of-hearing cleaning lady (Eileen Heckart, The First Wives Club) is present, and she’s not forthcoming with any details of where her employer has gone. Of course, we know where she is because director Herschel Daugherty shows us…she’s been murdered and left in a wicker basket in the basement.

Susan’s murder isn’t a spoiler, but Kate finding her and finding out who did it is the other shoe that Daugherty and screenwriter Merwin Gerard (adapting a short story that had been filmed for TV multiple times already) keep dangling over our heads for much longer than some may deem necessary. There’s an awful lot of Montgomery walking around the house, lighting candles, blowing out candles, turning on lights, turning off lights, calling out to see if “anyone is down there,” and then going to investigate anyway, and so on. Yet, oddly, it manages to create a startling amount of tension, with the characters doing very little in terms of actual forward-moving action. All while a thunderous storm is happening outside, Kate becomes further isolated from the outside world.

In her first project after an eight-year run in Bewitched, Montgomery quickly switched gears and established herself as the in-demand, go-to actress for lead roles in television movies. She would play many victims but just as many victimizers in her time before her sad death at only 62 from cancer. She’s perfect here, and the change from care to concern to fear to terror is smooth and entirely believable. This changing of the seasons, if you will, is the critical reason why the viewer will also start to fidget nervously as her character again ventures into a potentially dangerous space. 

Yes, The Victim stretches for too long, and especially when the solution is presented, it lingers when it could accelerate the pace. Remember how this was initially consumed. It had commercial breaks, so the pacing would always be staccato. Luckily, Montgomery and especially Heckart (sublime as the cranky maid who might not be a killer, but you could imagine her planning a death or two) snatch the audience back after each noticeable commercial break and lead toward a finale that comes quickly and just as quickly finds the film finished.

Also somewhat bewilderingly known as Out of Contention (?), I can see why The Victim is cited by many as a movie that “scared me to death when I was a child” because it has that aura of fear running through most of its latter half. Watching it today, it’s pretty mild if we’re being objective after the fact, but watched with all the lights out late at night? It does have its effective passages. 

31 Days to Scare ~ Silver Bullet

The Facts:

Synopsis: A werewolf is stalking Tarker’s Mills, and only young, wheelchair-bound Marty Coslaw suspects the truth.
Stars: Corey Haim, Gary Busey, Everett McGill, Megan Follows, Terry O’Quinn, Lawrence Tierney, Bill Smitrovich, Kent Broadhurst, David Hart, James Gammon, Tovah Feldshuh
Director: Daniel Attias
Rated: R
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: In the long line of movies adapted from the works of Stephen King, it seems like 1985’s Silver Bullet is often breezed over. That could be for a few reasons. The first is that the source material, 1983’s ‘Cycle of the Werewolf,’ is not one of King’s most in-demand novels. In fact, at a little over a hundred pages, it’s his shortest published novel. It would make for a more than decent primer for those wanting to wade into the King waters, which can often be a bit tricky to delve into. With its interesting chapter set-up (each chapter corresponds with a month), it’s a quick and captivating read, but it does not stick in the mind like the more profound prose King wrote before or since.

Another reason Silver Bullet is sometimes forgotten is because when it was released in 1985, King adaptations came off the double-whammy in 1984 of Firestarter and Children of the Corn, two less-than-well-received features. While both have found their audiences over time, there was a bit of burnout with King, who would experience a rebound in 1986 when Stand by Me opened. Showing a different, less horrific side to the writer opened another realm of possibility to what could be adapted from him. 

Quaint Maine town Tarker’s Mills is in for a scary spring. Right now, however, all Jane Coslaw (Megan Follows, forever Anne on the PBS Anne of Green Gables) can think about is how her wheelchair-bound brother Marty (Corey Haim, The Lost Boys) is always getting special treatment even though he often finds himself in trouble at her expense. Engaged in another spat, the siblings are not on good terms when their wild uncle (Gary Busey, A Star is Born) arrives, but at least he gets the responsibility of caring for Marty off Jane’s back. As Jane’s family is celebrating the reunion, the first of many deaths in Tarker’s Mills is started by a creature that hunts when the moon is full.

In a small town, gossip travels fast, and when bodies start to pile up, the siblings (mostly Marty) investigate who could be behind it all. Eventually, Marty discovers that it could be the work of a werewolf who has infiltrated their ranks and is picking off town members. Zooming around town on his electric wheelchair (the Silver Bullet, get it?), Marty looks for clues as to who might be a beast in disguise…only to discover that the beast may also be looking for him.

A memory piece told to us by an unseen narrator (Tovah Feldshuh, Love Type D), the older version of Jane, Silver Bullet is a bit corny at times and doesn’t always fulfill its mission to create the horror mystery it endeavors to. The creature’s identity is revealed early on, so we spend much of the remainder just waiting for the beast and boy to meet, relying on Haim to do a lot of heavy lifting. The late actor was still young here, and while his charm shone through, director Daniel Attias couldn’t get the sharp performance out of him that is pretty much required. He nails the sensitivity part, however, which is maybe the most important. 

I find that I like revisiting Silver Bullet every few years because it gives me time to forget some of the parts that don’t work as well. The creature make-up has good moments and also some very shoddy views. Still, at least Italian cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi knows how to light a scene well enough to make the entire film appropriately spooky. It’s not a top-tier Stephen King adaptation, but it’s far from the bottom rung. I’d keep it on hand for a movie marathon; its short run time can be a great addition to maximize your fright flicks.