Movie Review ~ It’s a Wonderful Knife

The Facts:

Synopsis: A year after saving her town from a psychotic killer on Christmas Eve, Winnie Carruthers’ life is less than wonderful — but when she wishes she’d never been born, she finds herself in a nightmare parallel universe and discovers that without her, things could be much, much worse.
Stars: Jane Widdop, Jess McLeod, Joel McHale, Katharine Isabelle, William B. Davis, Justin Long
Director: Tyler MacIntyre
Rated: NR
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Would Taylor Swift be where she is today if she hadn’t become a successful crossover artist? In a short amount of time, she was moving from country music to becoming a pop darling who is now the biggest artist on the planet. Due to that sustained crossover appeal, Swift has amassed many fans following her from one genre to another. That’s the ultimate prize for any consumer-based product released to the public: finding out if it can capture the attention of more than just its target audience, and it’s undoubtedly true in movies. Genre movies, horror specifically, can struggle to snag viewers who wouldn’t usually go for that type of entertainment. It takes uncovering a rare gem (an easy example is 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas) to find a new title to add to the list.

While I wouldn’t put It’s a Wonderful Knife on quite the same level as Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated holiday classic, I will give this creatively crafted twist on a perennial Christmas film major props for comfortably straddling two genres (slasher and Christmas) and representing both with an evident unbiased enthusiasm. Riffing on It’s a Wonderful Life is nothing new; Hollywood has been putting its spin on that Capra chestnut for ages, but it’s how writer Michael Kennedy (Freaky) approaches the material that sets it apart.

It’s Christmas in Angel Falls, and Winnie Carruthers (Jane Widdop) wants to party with her friends while her family finishes their celebration at home. Too bad a knife-wielding murderer in a white cloak and featureless mask has chosen that night to begin their reign of terror on the town. What Winnie doesn’t know is that the killer, known as the Angel of Death, is targeting their victims for personal reasons, and her own family may be at risk. Luckily, though the Angel racks up a decent body count, Winnie takes the killer down before they can murder her brother. 

Unmasking the predator should lead to a resolution, but a year later, life in Angel Falls has grown rancid for Winnie, who is treated as a pariah for her service or forgotten about altogether. In anger, she wishes to a night illuminated with the Northern Lights that she’d never even been born…and her wish is granted. Making that wish has changed the course of events throughout time, though. In this new reality, not only do Winnie’s family and friends not know who she is, but no one stopped the Angel of Death’s first rampage, and they’ve been routinely taking out townspeople ever since that first Christmas one year prior. Winnie knows who the killer is, however, and as she tries to convince her family that she’s their long-lost (unborn) daughter, she teams up with a loner (Jess McLeod) to make sure this Angel gets their wings clipped. But if Winnie’s wish changed the fabric of time, could it also have changed the killer’s identity?

Embracing the holiday spirit while finding new ways for a masked serial killer to slice and dice revelers in a time-hopping horror fantasy could have been too hefty of an undertaking for a low-budget, direct-to-streaming title. However, no filmmakers here should expect to receive a lump of coal in their stockings based on It’s a Wonderful Knife. This is fun, with an engaging cast that makes it easy to watch. It’s also made of strong(ish) stuff, with most of the far-fetched logistics thought through enough or skimmed over quickly not to leave you obsessing over the dangling plot threads. 

Carrying most of the film and its wrinkles in time on her back, Widdop was a strong casting choice by director Tyler MacIntyre. Obnoxious enough at the start to sell the angsty teenager vibe but able to quickly pivot to a young adult thrust into a crazy situation, Widdop is why many weightless shifts the film goes out on a limb with are given additional heft. She is also paired nicely with McLeod, a high-school castoff who suddenly becomes an essential figure in Winnie’s plan. There’s a fun supporting turn by Katherine Isabelle (Knight Moves) as Winnie’s aunt, and as Winnie’s dad, Joel McHale (Becky) continues his fascinating attempt to define his place in mainstream film. Then there’s Justin Long (Barbarian), who has been on a winning streak lately. I’ll say that Long opting to play his character with a voice like Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie was…a choice.

It’s a Wonderful Knife has a cheeky title that will catch the attention of the viewer…and who isn’t up for a little slasher whodunit with a twist? It comes out of the box ready to go with a built-in energy that keeps it moving with zip through its trim runtime. I can see this one working as a Halloween watch through the end of the year and beyond. That’s winning the crossover jackpot right there.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Howling (1981)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a bizarre and near-deadly encounter with a serial killer, a television newswoman is sent to a remote mountain resort whose residents may not be what they seem.
Stars: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Elisabeth Brooks
Director: Joe Dante
Rated: R
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Memories of trips to the various local video stores we had in our neighborhood growing up are seared into my mind. Lacking the branding and organization of a big-name retailer, these mom-and-pop storefronts would be like entering a new world each time you go in. Who knows what you would find on their shelves or the layout? It’s why I always begged my parents to let me go into any video rental store we saw when we traveled. One of my most vivid memories was of G&M Video, a few scant blocks from my home that I could easily walk to. Rows of worn VHS boxes were spread onto tiers, and before small outlets acquired large stockpiles of films, there was enough space for each movie to be well-featured. 

Before I was old enough to have a say in what movies we rented, two VHS covers always drew me in, fascinating me as to what scary stories they could be waiting to tell. These were 1981’s The Howling and 1985’s Howling II (which I later learned was subtitled the comical Your Sister’s a Werewolf), and both had tantalizing marketing, early examples of perfect visual hooks to nab viewers’ attention. Despite my pleading, it took me a while to catch Howling II, and the less said about that silly and horny film, the better. However, strangely enough, the video clerk told my parents The Howling wouldn’t scar me so I could see it early.

Based on a 1977 novel by Gary Bradner and adapted by John Sayles (who wrote Alligator the year earlier), director Joe Dante’s The Howling is often included in the list of classic ’80s horror films and is an entry in the cycle of werewolf films notable for its landmark effects. News anchor Karen White (horror legend Dee Wallace, The Lords of Salem) is nearly killed while helping the police catch her stalker, a noted murderer who assaults her in an adult movie arcade before being gunned down by cops. Psychologically damaged, she accepts an offer from her therapist (Patrick Macnee, A View to a Kill) to visit The Colony, his secluded forest retreat in Northern California.

Arriving with her husband (Christopher Stone, Wallace’s spouse IRL), Karen nervously attempts to relax and begin a healing process through therapy. However, she is distracted by the weird residents and a creepy howling on the foggy nights. As her colleagues back in L.A. (Dennis Dugan, Parenthood, and Belinda Balaski, Matinee) research the man who nearly killed Karen, they uncover details that suggest he might have been something other than human. When his body vanishes from the morgue, the red flag is raised. Back at The Colony, Karen’s husband is becoming distant, possibly because of slinky Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), and she begins to suspect her peaceful paradise is a sinister front for a secret society that will go to deadly lengths not to be exposed.

It had been some time since I’d sat down and watched The Howling from start to finish, and in my mind, I had remembered a film with more propulsive energy. Dante kicks things off with a doozy of an opener, a grimy and creepy visit to the seedy L.A. strip of adult bookstores and XXX movie houses that no longer exist. Once that’s done, it takes a while for anything else to happen until our first hairy beast arrives. The script from Sayles is wryly humorous throughout, nicely ribbing the frou-frou new age psychology so popular in that era. Still, much of the dialogue is flat and uninteresting, exposition at its most obvious.

When Dante does kick it into gear, such as a tense chase of one doomed character that extends into multiple locations, it shows the director’s still developing talent for concise storytelling and the ability to lead the audience exactly where he wants them. Wallace has some nice moments, but overall, I think she’s been more effective in her other known-for works (Cujo, E.T., Critters, The Frighteners). The entire cast is solid, with Dante casting several familiar faces in cameos like cinematic Easter eggs.

Noted at the time for its effects, The Howling can’t help but look dated now in this era of CGI. You must mentally throw the forty years of technological advancements away and put yourself back in the shoes of the skilled artists who problem-solved their way to these impressive achievements. Yes, they look a little shoddy at times, and the effort to display each featured change takes up multiple minutes of screen time, but the practical effects are equally unique to see in action. It always makes me wonder why a victim would pause and watch someone turn into a werewolf for three minutes like the viewer has to…but that’s just a logical piece I must get over.  

Call The Howling a landmark, a classic, iconic, whatever. Yes, it’s all those things that helped move the careers of its filmmakers and cast forward.   It hasn’t aged well, though, so it’s hard to encourage more than a casual rewatch for old-time’s sake. I showed it to someone who had never seen it, excited for them to experience it for the first time, and was disappointed that it felt so slow and uneventful. Seven sequels of degrading quality followed it (do check out Howling V: The Rebirth; that one is fun!), but I’m going to be a bit blasphemous and say this is another franchise I’m amazed hasn’t been revisited. There’s strong remake potential here, even going back to the source novel (and its sequels) that was altered in adaptation. Someone must be considering it; what’s the worst that could happen?

31 Days to Scare ~ Dark Harvest (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a cursed town, the annual harvest becomes a brutal battle for survival.
Stars: Casey Likes, E’myri Crutchfield, Dustin Ceithamer, Elizabeth Reaser, Jeremy Davies, Luke Kirby, Britain Dalton, Steven McCarthy
Director: David Slade
Rated: R
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: You can easily see what appealed to Hollywood producers in author Norman Partridge’s 2006 nifty novella Dark Harvest. It’s a period-set autumnal small-town horror tale that reads like Stephen King meets The Hunger Games, covered in just enough deep Shirley Jackson glaze to give it a sophisticated glow.  Rich with lore and ambiance, it gained enough praise and goodwill from genre fans that even its shortcomings (i.e., a lack of finality and weak ancillary characters) could be overlooked due to the strength of the structure Partridge assembled.

Initially announced for release in 2022, it got lost in the shuffle of its studio (MGM) switching hands officially to Amazon.  Delayed another full year, it’s only now quietly slipping into your digital rental options as Halloween approaches, and you have to wonder why Amazon would hold onto it for a prime October opening only to sneak release it when viewers are on the hunt for new fright fare.  Then you get a look at director David Slade’s take on Partridge’s original idea funneled through an adaptation by Michael Gilio, and it starts to make sense.

Opening on Halloween night, 1962, Dark Harvest drops audiences into the finale of The Run, an annual event that sends the town’s teenage boys out to track down Sawtooth Jack, a creature that rises from the cornfields that must be killed before midnight.  The boy who completes this task doesn’t just get bragging rights and a shiny new car, but their family receives a new home, a sizable check, and a societal standing worth more than anything.  The winners gain something else: the opportunity to leave the town and not look back.  The winner in 1962 is Jim Shepard, and as his younger brother Richie (Casey Likes) watches his best friend drive off into the dark night, he knows that life may be “better” for him and his parents (Jeremy Davies, The Black Phone, and Elizabeth Reaser, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), but it will never be the same. 

A year later, Richie has hardened up and intends to get out of town by winning The Run of ’63.  This puts a target on his back because no one wants to see the same family win twice, least of all Richie’s parents, who will lose another son.  As Halloween draws near, Richie runs afoul of school bullies who want a chance at the benefits winning will get them and warms up to a new girl in town, Kelly (E’myri Crutchfield, Vacation), while gradually coming to learn more about the evil history of The Run and what it entails.  The night of the event provides gruesome revelations for the town, with adolescents running rampant and tearing apart a carefully held pact the elders have contained for ages. 

I’m positive there’s a corker of a movie ready to be made from Dark Harvest as initially written, but the translation to the screen is as shaky as the camera work from Larry Smith (Austenland).  Though set six decades in the past, Slade and Smith give the film a slick modern look that doesn’t remotely gel with the screenplay’s tone, and that sets the movie on a competing trajectory from the start.  While there are some artful touches throughout (cornfields are spooky no matter how you shoot them), too often, Slade’s film feels like it’s slow time-hopping without a DeLorean.  Iffy production values that can’t replicate the time and place outside of clothing and cars also take you out of a true immersion in the early ’60s Anytown U.S.A. vibe critical to Partridge’s original tome.

Slade has worked with an array of A-listers at the top of their game or on their way to stardom, but this Dark Harvest crop is a mixed batch.  As the left-behind son turned hard-hearted outcast, Likes (represented currently on Broadway in Back to the Future: The Musical, go figure) is amiable but takes a while to warm up to be the leading man he’s cast as.  I wish Crutchfield had more to do earlier on in the film, long before she’s thrust into playing second banana tag along and emotional sounding board to Richie.  Davies has constantly reminded me of a wispier Henry Thomas, and he’s giving off the same reliable, not-so-great fatherly vibes Thomas did in his recent middling horror outing Pet Sematary: Bloodlines.  Two usually reliable performers, Reaser and Luke Kirby (Boston Strangler), have apparently chosen Dark Harvest as the film they are using their Get-Out-Of-Bad-Acting-Jail-Free cards on, so I won’t say any more about them.

Despite some grisly kills and several inspired moments that hint at the appropriate mood Dark Harvest should have strived for, most of this is a missed effort to adapt a book that was screaming out for a movie version.   Too many careless errors have been made in significant areas (the closing credits even misspell the name of legendary casting director Ellen Chenoweth!) to excuse away what should have been a slam dunk.  Instead, we have a poorly paced melodrama with occasional bouts of bloody horror in the place where a chilly folk fable focused on a town haunted by the consequences of its evil actions should be.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Ruins (2008)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A leisurely Mexican holiday takes a turn when friends embark on a remote archaeological dig in the jungle, where something evil lives among the ruins.
Stars: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, Joe Anderson
Director: Carter Smith
Rated: R
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When a novel reads like a good movie, you start to picture what it will be like as you flip the pages. The characters turn into A-list stars, and the chapters take on a scene-like structure, which becomes more focused as the plot develops. How would this twist be revealed, you ask yourself. Will they actually show that on the big screen, you muse? Building up these expectations can only set the inevitable adaptation to a high bar that it won’t always reach, and it’s why you often hear “the book was better” as audiences exit a theater while they toss their popcorn in the garbage. 

Author Scott Smith’s first work, A Simple Plan, was published in 1993 and brought to the screen by director Sam Raimi in 1998. With Smith handling the screenplay adaptation (getting an Oscar nomination for his efforts) and the movie receiving strong critical and audience support, in the eyes of Hollywood, it was a no-brainer to greenlight whatever Smith had coming up the pipeline. In fact, the film rights to Smith’s sophomore novel The Ruins were sold to producer Ben Stiller and Dreamworks before it was even finished. When it became a bestseller after its release in 2006, the chapter-less novel was moved into production with Smith handling the adaptation and a first-time director, Carter Smith, behind the camera.

Smith sets his horror show in Yucatán, Mexico, finding four friends in the final days of a vacation where they haven’t done much but drink and relax poolside. The two couples are at different stages in their relationship. Jeff (Jonathan Tucker, Monsterland) and Amy (Jena Malone, Consecration) are working through growing pains that come with lives diverging and needs changing. Conversely, Amy’s best friend Stacy (Laura Ramsey, No One Lives) and her boyfriend Eric (Shawn Ashmore, X-Men: Days of Future Past) are taking notes on the rocky road Jeff and Amy have traveled, vowing never to take that same route, keeping things light and fun. 

These bonds are tested when they meet Mathias (Joe Anderson, The Reckoning), a German tourist whose brother hasn’t returned from hiking to a Mayan excavation site deep in the jungle. He’s venturing there tomorrow and asks the couples if they want to join him. Desperate for some time away from the pool, a few are easily swayed past the obvious red flags this raises, eventually convincing others to join. When they reach where Mathias’s brother should be, they find nothing except the remains of a Mayan temple covered with a flowering vine…and angry locals who don’t want them to leave. Trapped in the mysterious ruins to escape the locals, they eventually realize they may have been better off taking their chances to run back to civilization.

The Ruins received a critical drubbing when it first came out and was not a massive success at the box office. It essentially stalled the feature film career of its director for a decade, and Smith hasn’t written a novel since, nor has his work in the film industry continued with verve, though he did create the short-lived 2022 series The Peripheral for Prime Video. I vaguely remember seeing it when it came out on video. Still, I wanted to view it again recently after being reminded of its existence through two Carter Smith directing gigs, Swallowed and The Passenger, released this past year. 

Time does heal everything because watching The Ruins now provides a nifty film treat. It’s slick entertainment that’s efficient in its storytelling (with its express-train beginning, maybe a bit too much) and delivers on its genre promise to frighten. It takes an ordinary and relatable situation and turns it into a nightmare we could imagine being stuck in. Smith’s novel is a breathless read, and I wholly recommend it, but he’s been smart when moving it to the screen by shifting its characters around, smoothing out some of the book’s more mystical qualities that wouldn’t have been possible to show on screen.

The four central performances are critical to the lasting success of The Ruins (Brit Anderson’s iffy German accent nixes him from the rest of this paragraph), and each actor contributes here. Ashmore is the level-headed center of the group, always keeping an eye on reality when a more dominant presence like Tucker can sway the foursome into making decisions that could have consequences. Giving off some Renée Zellweger vibes, Ramsay has to endure the most heinous of the body horror elements present in the freaky ruins with vines that have a life of their own, and she manages to do it all without overplaying high drama. Acting since she was a child, Malone was transitioning to more adult work, and her experience shows as she grows from a meeker contributor to a strong-willed survivor at all costs.

It’s nice to return to these genre films from the mid-to-late 2000s when the market was saturated with similar entertainment, and audiences would quickly write off projects that might have warranted special consideration. The Ruins is one of those movies that has benefited from a little space and works nicely as a 95-minute shocker…especially if you are unprepared for what it’s really about. I’ve kept most of its secrets out of my review, so go ahead and trek to The Ruins. I think it will grow on you.

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 ~ 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.