31 Days to Scare ~ Psycho II

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After twenty-two years of psychiatric care, Norman Bates attempts to return to a life of solitude, but the specters of his crimes – and his mother – continue to haunt him

Stars: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, Claudia Bryar

Director: Richard Franklin

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 slow-burn thriller Psycho remains one of the most famous and famously recognizable movies.  With its iconic ‘shower scene’ and last minute twist, the movie was already interred in the Hollywood history books by the time 1982 rolled around.  That was the year that Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho was based on, had published a sequel that found escaped madman Norman Bates turning up on the Tinsel Town set of a movie based on his life and eventually getting back to his own tricks.  While this was a surprisingly meta take (and one the Scream sequels would steal) executives over at Universal Studios who owned the sequel rights weren’t thrilled about their town getting skewered and satirized.

Hiring screenwriter Todd Holland and director Richard Franklin, both having had recent successes with horror films of their own, Universal decided to beat Bloch to the punch and draft their own take on the further adventures of Norman Bates.  The resulting film was far removed from the original, more in the slasher vein which was enjoying peak popularity at the time.  That’s not to say it exists without merit because Psycho II is very much its own film, strong enough to withstand ornery critics who grumbled that it sullied Hitchcock’s memory.

Released from a mental hospital when he’s deemed to be harmless, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, wisely changing his mind and reprising his role before Christopher Walken could be seriously considered) has only one place to go.  Home.  The house he lived in still stands, as does the motel where guests checked in but didn’t check out…well, at least the ones that showered.  22 years after being apprehended dressed like his dead mother and speaking in her voice, the house brings back bad memories…and maybe his killer instincts.  Not long after he arrives people go missing, dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways.  Is it Norman brandishing the knife or is it someone else with their own motives?

Surprisingly, Psycho II is filled with decent twists and winds up to be quite entertaining.  I somehow get amnesia between viewings and always forget how the pieces fit together.   Aided by Jerry Goldsmith’s (Poltergeist) score that thankfully doesn’t even attempt to top Bernard Hermann’s string heavy orchestrations from Psycho, this has more than its share of spooky moments from toilets overflowing with blood all the way through it’s surprising finale.  Franklin doesn’t try to mimic Hitchcock’s style but cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween) does liberally lift familiar camera angles right from the previous film (not to mention Franklin taking a huge risk by recapping the first film in clips before the opening credits).  He even manages to work in a nice tip of the hat to Hitch – try to see if you can spot a recognizable shadow when looking around the room that used to belong to Norman’s mother.

Along with Perkins, Vera Miles (The Initiation) is a returning player from the original as the sister of Janet Leigh’s doomed character leading a one-woman crusade to keep Bates behind bars. Robert Loggia (Jagged Edge) is nicely sanguine as Norman’s psychiatrist and Meg Tilly’s (The Big Chill) waifish waitress cautiously befriends Norman and eventually takes up residence with him in the main house.  Character actors Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, and Claudia Bryar are all standouts in the well-cast ensemble.

It wouldn’t have been possible to top Psycho but it could have been easy to drag its good name through the mud.  Thankfully Psycho II is elevated from cheap cash-in sequel to respectable continuation thanks to a cast and crew who obviously held the original film in high regard.  Now Psycho III and Psycho IV: The Beginning…those are the sequels you should be worried about.

Down From the Shelf ~ I Love Trouble

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Peter Brackett and Sabrina Peterson are two competing Chicago newspaper reporters who join forces to unravel the mystery behind a train derailment.

Stars: Nick Nolte, Julia Roberts, Saul Rubinek, Marsha Mason, James Rebhorn, Robert Loggia

Director: Charles Shyer

Rated: PG

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  On paper, I’m sure that writing team Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer thought they had a winner.  Aping the same style of rat-a-tat comedy that worked so well for the likes of Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn in movies such as Bringing Up Baby, I Love Trouble was intended to be a modern take on a classic concept.  Unfortunately, Meyers/Shyer have overstuffed their turkey of a plot with about 40 minutes of extra material and made more than a few blunders in the casting department.

At the time of its release, Roberts was the top movie star and could have easily been the only headliner to draw in crowds.  They wanted to see their pretty woman in light romantic fare and matched up with a swoon-worthy fella to recapture that magic.  Now, no one is saying that Roberts had to stick with that formula and to her credit I think she signed on to the film with the best of intentions.  It’s the addition of Nolte as her co-star that put a large hole in an already weighty ship.

Nolte is a strong dramatic actor, a ruggishly handsome dude that worked his way through the 70’s and 80’s in a string of diverse turns.  He’s so uncomfortable in this type of movie that it’s almost painful to watch him try.  It was well documented that Nolte took this film for the money and didn’t get along well with Roberts…and it all shows up on screen.  Though Roberts and Nolte give it their best effort and create a few interesting moments, the lack of chemistry is apparent to the point where you almost beg them not to kiss.

It’s not all their fault, though.  The script from Meyers/Shyer and Shyer’s direction are wooden and forced without a lot of cohesion. There’s a vague murder mystery plot that reporters Roberts and Nolte team up to try to solve (mostly for their own glory rather than any real dedication to the good of the public) and to say the reasons behind the murder were loony would be an understatement.  There’s a big to-do about growth hormones in cows and how it causes cancer…great stuff for setting the scene for romance, right?

The movie is way too long and should have been trimmed down from 123 minutes to 90…just enough time for the mechanics of the film to present themselves and run their course.  I remember seeing this film in the theaters when it was released and not being a huge fan.  I’ve been drawn to it several times since and will learn my lesson that it’s just not a very good film someday.  I do love bad movies but I do not love the trouble this one causes.

Down From the Shelf ~ Jagged Edge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When an heiress is brutally murdered in her remote beach house her husband soon finds himself accused of her murder. He hires lawyer Teddy Barnes to defend him, despite the fact she hasn’t handled a criminal case for many years.

Stars: Glenn Close, Jeff Bridges, Peter Coyote, Robert Loggia

Director: Richard Marquand

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review

This is a pulpy little thriller from the mid 80’s that probably was responsible for ushering in movies like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Final Analysis, Guilty as Sin, and countless other films where a protagonist is blinded by their animal attraction to someone that may be out to do them harm.

Almost thirty years after it was originally released (yikes!), revisiting Jagged Edge has become something of a yearly trip for me and I still enjoy it.  Time has been kind to the film, owing in large part to a restrained script from Joe Eszterhas (before he went over the, um, edge with the aforementioned Basic Instinct and, later, Showgirls) and two strong lead performances in Close and Bridges.

Before Close became known for playing unhinged women in a string of films, she was a reliable guiding force in whatever project she was working on and that’s true here as well.  Though her seemingly intelligent lawyer winds up doing a lot of stupid things, Close brings a class to it that’s hard to deny. 

Bridges handles the role of the widower accused of killing his wife for her money well and he rolls nicely with the twists that the movie doles out without hinting either way whether he’s guilty or not.  Loggia turned his foul-mouthed, wise-cracking private investigator working with Close into a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and Coyote is appropriately blustery as a shady District Attorney.

Set along the Bay Area of California and several of its outlying coastal towns, Jagged Edge is directed just fine by Marquand (Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi) but really benefits from an effectively dissonant score from John Barry and interesting cinematography courtesy of Matthew F. Leonetti.

The film chugs through many a red herring and courtroom drama mechanics in its journey to a decent but not wholly satisfying conclusion.  I’ve some thoughts about the wrap-up that I won’t go into here as it would spoil the ending for you and I don’t want to give it all away.  You see, even if the ending doesn’t totally work in hindsight the film succeeds because everything that leads up to it lands and lands well.  As far as movies of this ilk go, Jagged Edge easily rises to the top of the pile for me.