Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Carol Anne is staying with relatives in a high-rise building and the supernatural forces that have haunted her previously follow her there.

Stars: Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn-Boyle

Director: Gary Sherman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The best thing that can be said about Poltergeist III is that at least it’s better than its predecessor…though the bar was set so low by Poltergeist II: The Other Side that that’s not saying much.  The third sequel to one of my all-time favorite films had a troubled production and limped onto the screen amidst a cloud of doom.  Still, it has one or two interesting sequences and is more than competently made…but fails to deliver on anywhere near the same level at Poltergeist.

Young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been sent to live with her aunt (Nancy Allen, Carrie) in a new high-rise apartment building in Chicago.  She’s there to attend a school for the gifted but it’s clear that it’s maybe more to give her beleaguered family some distance from the girl that attracts ghosts…and most likely because JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson wanted nothing to do with the movie.  Her aunt lives with her new husband (Tom Skerritt, Steel Magnolias) and stepdaughter (Lara Flynn-Boyle) in a gloriously late ‘80s mirrored apartment…a perk of his job as one of the developers of the building.

It’s not exactly clear how it happens but somehow the vengeful spirit of Reverend Kane wasn’t totally vanquished in the previous film and has tracked Carol Anne down with the intent to finally take her to the other side.  This traveling ghost takes a page from the shark in JAWS: The Revenge and travels out of his comfort zone to lay claim to the girl that got away.  Over the course of an evening, Carol Anne and her family are hunted by Kane and his minions of spirts throughout the building, from the parking garage to the swimming pool.

Now I firmly believe that a good movie could have been made of the material here…but director Gary Sherman was either too limited by the paltry budget or his imagination to deliver a worthy film that wound up putting the final nail in the Poltergeist coffin.  Not that he was helped by the numerous maladies that seemed to plague the film…chief being the tragic death of O’Rourke before the film was finished.

Performances are all over the board here with Skerritt and Allen showing up for their paychecks (though Allen seems to have fun with how alarmingly insensitive she is to her niece) and O’Rourke improving slightly on her dreadful previous performance as Carol Anne.  It’s nice to see Flynn-Boyle’s first screen appearance but stormy weather arises when Zelda Rubinstein shows up to preside over a master class of bad acting.

A film that’s literally just smoke and mirrors, it’s a shame that Poltergeist III couldn’t make something of material that should have worked better than it did.  With multiple deaths associated with the series that came to be known as the Poltergeist Curse, it’s no wonder the studio took one look at the finished project and anemic box office returns and decided to call it quits on future installments.

 

Down From the Shelf ~ The Dead Zone

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man awakens from a coma to discover he has a psychic detective ability.

Stars: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Colleen Dewhurst, Martin Sheen, Herbert Lom

Director: David Cronenberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I find it difficult to think back to a time when films made from Stephen King novels weren’t saturating the cineplexes.  For a while, the author’s novels were brought to the screen with frightening regularity…even if more than a few of the books and short stories didn’t exactly lend themselves well to the big screen treatment.  Still, for every turkey like The Lawnmower Man and Thinner audiences struggled through there were a healthy dose of winners.  Even though it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a King novel, The Dead Zone remains a qualified success thirty years after it opened.

Released in 1983 (the same year as Cujo and Christine), The Dead Zone is more thriller than horror with a strangely episodic nature for a genre film.  It’s no wonder the source material was turned into a successful Canadian television series for several years because it’s easy to see how King’s general set-up (man wakes from a coma to discover he has psychic powers) could lend itself well to weekly self-contained storylines.

Opening with Michael Kamen’s haunting score over picturesque views of the small New England town the film takes place in, it’s not long before quiet schoolteacher John Smith (Christopher Walken, A View to a Kill) meets the business end of a runaway semi and winds up in a five year coma.  Awakening to a changed world, he has to adjust to a life that’s moved on from him.  His girlfriend (an underused Brooke Adams, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) has married and had a child so there’s not a lot John has to live for or look forward to even though he now possesses a powerful gift of second sight.

It’s in these first forty-five minutes that The Dead Zone really makes its mark on the audience.  There are several chilling scenes of John foreseeing danger coupled with his sadness knowing what awful things await his loved ones.  Director David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method) isn’t afraid to take time with our introduction to the characters, only to rush through the final hour of the film with several storylines that feel like a mash-up of scripts intended for sequels.

These storylines involve John helping a local sheriff catch a rather benign serial killer, his tutoring of a young boy with a sinister father, and his crossing paths with a rising political candidate (Martin Sheen) John knows has dangerous ulterior motives.  Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam manages to overlap these threads believably but none of them wind up feeling fully thought out or adequately resolved.

Though it may not have the true horror aspects associated with King, The Dead Zone does manage to maintain its momentum, however fractured the narrative continues to become as the film progresses.  It’s not concerned with the blood and guts that make up the flashier later adaptations but wants to look more into the psyche of the characters.  For that, I find it one of the best adaptations of King’s work to date featuring fine performances and appealing production values.  Worth revisiting.

In Praise of Teasers – Alien (1979)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Let’s start?  Shall we?

I’m going big right away…my numero uno favorite.

Alien (1979)

Besides being one of the best movies ever made, Alien from director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) boasted a truly kick-ass  trailer that only hinted at the terror to come.  While it’s a bit longer than a traditional teaser, the absence of any narration or dialogue and quick edits of scenes/characters that would soon become part of movie history help to make this one for the record books.  I especially like how the edits get faster and more intense until all hell breaks loose.  How could any sci-fi/horror fan see this trailer in the theater and not get a little tingle of excitement?  It’s not only one of the best teasers ever…it’s one of the best trailers ever.

Bonus fun – check out the teaser poster above.  Though Alien would eventually run with the famous tagline “In space no one can hear you scream” there’s something equally ominious about “A word of warning” that’s used on the early promotional poster.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Steel Magnolias

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolving around Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana is the story of a close-knit circle of friends whose lives come together there

Stars: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott

Director: Herbert Ross

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Like the film adaption of A Few Good Men, the movie version of the play Steel Magnolias has ruined me for any future stage production.  Playwright Robert Harling brought his auto-biographical play to the screen with a script that took the ladies out of the beauty salon and added male characters without sacrificing any of the charm, humor, and emotion that made the theatrical work so popular.

It can be a tough chore to adapt a play for film without making it seem too stagey or confined but Harling and director Ross (The Turning Point) avoided these pitfalls with ease thanks in no small part to a slam-dunk sextet of females in leading roles.  It’s clear that the women enjoyed working together because their warmth and easy-going vibe really elevates the film from being a sappy Southern fried weepie to a memorably classic tearjerker.

I’ve seen Steel Magnolias on stage several times (even on Broadway with Delta Burke, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen, and the Noxzema Girl) and the shadow of the movie always loomed large…I know it’s unfair to make comparisons but it can’t be helped with a cast of this caliber.

It’s lovely to see the journey Roberts (coming off good notices in Mystic Pizza) takes as a young Southern belle.  Earning an supporting Oscar nomination for her work here, she’d follow this up with a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later.  She fits in well with other Oscar winners Dukakis (for Moonstruck), MacLaine (for Terms of Endearment) perfectly cast as funny biddies and Field (two time winner for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) as her kind but overly protective mother.  They’re joined by a surprisingly effective Hannah as gawky Annelle and the still underrated Parton (Joyful Noise) as salon owner Truvy.

Though the film has several scenes throughout that may get you misty, it’s Field’s breakdown near the end of the movie that chokes me up each and every time I’ve seen it.  There’s something raw and real about the internal struggle that manifests itself in a powerful cry for answers that hits a nerve within me.  The beauty of the film, similar to Terms of Endearment, is how it injects humor in all the right places so just when the tears start to flow you find yourself laughing.

Yeah, one could describe Steel Magnolias as chick flick and it absolutely is – but more than that it’s notable for its strong performances, gorgeous score (by Georges Delerue), and sensitive direction by Ross (though it’s widely known that Ross was a real devil to work with – he hated Parton and was especially hard on Roberts).  Tearjerkers don’t always come in this easily accessible a package.

Mid-Day Mini – Ice Castles

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young girl is on top of the world until a tragic accident dashes her hopes and dreams of becoming a world-class figure skater.

Stars: Lynn-Holly Johnson, Robby Benson, Colleen Dewhurst, Tom Skerritt, Jennifer Warren, David Huffman

Director: Donald Wrye

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Oh boy, Ice Castles is a movie I avoided for the longest time because it looked like another of those 70’s romance filcks that was light on plot and heavy on schmaltz and for the most part it is.  A great deal of the 108 minute running time is devoted to overly sentimental situations involving a girl from a small town with dreams of becoming a famous figure skater.  Her coaches (Dewhurst and Warren) believe that she has what it takes but her father (Skerritt) and boyfriend (Benson) can’t get behind her to give her the support she deserves.  The film hinges on the young athlete bouncing back from an accident that sidelines her and that’s when something curious happens…it gets good.

Though star Johnson (For Your Eyes Only) tries to thwart the film with her painfully off-key line readings, Ice Castles has one of the better third acts in sudsy romance outings culminating in a final scene set to the Oscar nominated tune “Through the Eyes of Love” that had this reviewer going from dry-eyed to red-eyed in about 4 seconds.  It was then that it became clear why people consider this worthy of making a tearjerker list.  Don’t get me wrong, the bulk of the film is poorly acted and feebly constructed but the finale makes it all worth it. 

Benson was arguably the big star at the time and he receives top billing here though the film tends to rest too much on the uneven shoulders of Johnson.  It’s always nice to see Skerritt and can anyone match the rich, gravelly tones of Dewhurst?  If you can’t make it through Ice Castles, I suggest trying out Disney’s 1991 film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken which essentially is the same story presented in a much more well-constructed package.