31 Days to Scare ~ The Willies

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two brothers camping with their cousin try to frighten each other by telling stories.

Stars:  Sean Astin, Jason Horst, Joshua Miller, James Karen, Dana Ashbrook, Kathleen Freeman, Jeremy Miller, Clu Gulager, Michael Bower

Director: Brian Peck

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It’s around this time of year that I really start to miss video stores.  I know there are a few left here and there but they’re often packed to the brim with overstock DVDs and VHS tapes culled from shuttered mom and pop stores.  These can be an overwhelming mountain to climb, only worth it if you have a truckload of time to spare or are aren’t looking for anything specific.  I still prefer the days when the rental franchises hadn’t kicked in yet and your friendly neighborhood video store had full but not packed shelves of titles to choose from.

Every store did their checkout process their own way but my favorite was always the ones that had the display box sitting in front of the rental case (if it was in).  That way you could always see what movies the store had and could keep an eye on a title if you happened to miss it on that particular trip.  In 1990, when The Willies was released, finding the single copy of the movie in at Good Neighbor Video in South Minneapolis was a nearly impossible feat.  The store didn’t do reservations so you had to be in the right place at the right time to snag a copy.  I remember waiting for weeks to rent it, making a beeline for it’s location every time I entered the store only to be disappointed when there was no rental case in place.  Then, one day, there it was and it was finally my turn to get…The Willies.

Another entry in the line of popular anthology films like After Midnight and Cat’s Eye, The Willies is a teen-targeted horror comedy that’s best viewed now through the lens of forgiving nostalgia.  After looking for a copy and not willing to pay a high price tag (it’s since come out on a cheaper disc), I watched the film on YouTube and was surprised at the quality.  It’s no 4K BluRay but for a low-budget, mostly-forgotten film from the ‘90s it doesn’t look too shabby streaming on the popular website.  In fact, if you’ve been on the hunt for a particular movie (or, better yet, a television movie from the ’70s or ’80s), YouTube is the place to go because I’ve found a lot of good content there recently.

The basic premise of the film finds three boys (including Sean Astin, Gloria Bell) telling campfire tales, each trying to outdo the other in the scare department.  After three initial quick-fire tales that are amusing in their own juvenile gross-out ways (the woman trying to dry her poodle in the microwave has stuck with me for the last 29 years), we move on to two longer tales with a bit more meat on the bones.  A bullied kid finds an ally at school that gives his tormentors something more sinister than a week of detention is a bit rough in the narrative department but boasts some fun performances from familiar faces James Karen (Poltergeist) and Kathleen Freeman (Hocus Pocus).  The next yarn involves a young outsider obsessed with insects that makes the mistake of stealing enhanced manure from a local farmer.  When he introduces the fertilizer to his bugs, they turn the tables on him and do more than put him under the magnifying glass.

Writer/director Brian Peck has managed to put together the film in a neat little package, often suggesting it’s better than it’s obviously small budget.  Most of the effects are handled well, as are the gore and make-up for the more ghoulish scares.  There are some clever in-jokes related to some of the cast members (listen for the reference to The Goonies directed at Astin’s character) and Peck managed to call in a few favors by featuring recognizable TV stars of the time in brief cameos.  Amassing a decent amount of fans over the years, this is one I think would be a nice candidate for some company to pick up for a Collector’s Edition BluRay.  It would be nice to hear more from the people involved in the making of it or at least see the film print cleaned up a bit.  It’s not anything that will keep you up at night (from fear or regret from watching it) but it serves as a nice reminder of how effective a movie can be based solely on positive intent.

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist (1982)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a family moves into their new home, they notice strange events that mostly affect their young daughter.

Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Dominique Dunne, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Lawson, James Karen

Director: Tobe Hooper

Rated: PG

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  How sweet it is to feel the tingle that goes up your spine when you’re sitting down watching a truly satisfying horror film…there’s just no other feeling like it.  Horror films have come and gone over the years, each one a more cannibalistic example of mindless copies of something original.  But try as they might, no haunted house ghost tale can hold a candle to classics like 1963’s The Haunting and 1982’s Poltergeist.  Both films are handsome, classy productions that aren’t cheap scarefests and each delight in playing (or rather, preying) on the things that scare you.

Poltergeist is one of my favorite films of all time because it fits into several categories at once (like the best horror films do…see JAWS as an example).  It’s a drama, a mystery, a midnight movie freak out, a paranormal thriller, and a period piece all centered on one suburban Regan-era family out to live the good life in a new home development that holds its share of buried secrets.

Life for the Freeling family is pretty typical of the time period.  Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Silkwood) is a sales agent for the residential development where he lives with his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), and three children (Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke).  The kids go to school, the mom cleans the house, sports are watched on the television over the weekend, and the biggest problem they face is worrying about the new pool they’re putting in the backyard.

Strange things begin to happen, though, seemingly out of the blue.  Little Carol Anne (O’Rourke) starts to talk to the television and the “TV people” that want to play with her.  A scary tree and ominously stormy nights keeps young Robbie (Robins) from getting a peaceful slumber.  Not to mention the kitchen chairs that stack themselves and some strange gravitational pull that moves things across the room at an alarming pace.  It all culminates in the film’s first big scare and before you know it, Carol Anne has vanished yet her presence and voice remain in the house.

What happens next involves a team of paranormal investigators (lead by Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight) and one tiny medium (Zelda Rubinstein) as they attempt to help the Freelings find their daughter and rid their house of the titular entity that for some reason has targeted them for trouble.

Directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and written/produced by Stephen Spielberg (Lincoln), the film is a welcome blend of the eye-popping scares that Hooper was famous for capturing under the watchful hand of Spielberg’s sensitive script.  I’ll admit that there’s a part in the film which always causes me to tear up a bit…how often do you find that in a film that literally tosses skeletons and rotting flesh at the screen?

What’s so wonderful about Poltergeist is that even though it spawned two disappointing sequels, inspired three decades worth of copycats, and is clearly a film from the early ‘80s it manages to remain timeless and timely.  The scares continue to work like gangbusters and no matter how many times I’ve seen it I never manage to lose interest in the story being told.