31 Days to Scare ~ A Howling in the Woods (1971)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A disillusioned housewife returns to her family home in a small Nevada town and discovers her father missing, strange behavior by the townsfolk and a mysterious howling in the woods at night.

Stars: Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman, John Rubinstein, Vera Miles, Tyne Daly

Director: Daniel Petrie

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The phenomenon known as the YouTube black hole is real thing.  There have been times when I’ve logged onto the popular streaming site to look for one short clip and wound up, hours later, having exhausted myself viewing endless videos of something else entirely.  One late night spiral led me down the path of old TV movies never formally released on any kind of video (VHS, DVD, BluRay, etc.) and, more specifically, the thrillers produced by major television networks featuring their top tier talent.  A number of these are fondly remembered as the first exposure some had to being truly frightened as a child, though watching them as an adult the effect is admittedly not as severe.

What truly has surprised me is reading up on these films and noting how highly rated they are by viewers even now and that made them an attractive opportunity for inclusion in 31 Days to Scare.  A few years back, I covered the creepy Christmas-set 1972 Home for the Holidays starring Sally Field and a number of other well-respected actors and that one actually held up over time.  Over the past year, I had saved a few to have at the ready for this month and found myself in the mood the other night roll the dice on a title I selected at random.  So I ditched plans for the newer crop of films I had queued up and put aside the classic titles on physical media that were on my “To Watch” list in favor of the low-quality kitsch of 1971’s A Howling in the Woods.

Premiering in November 1971 on NBC, A Howling in the Woods was produced by Universal Television (it even starts with the modified Universal logo…glorious) and reunited I Dream of Jeannie stars Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman.  Based on Velda Johnston’s 1968 novel, the film was directed by Daniel Petire who already had a huge list of TV and film credits (including the 1961 version of A Raisin in the Sun) to his name.  Rounding out the cast are John Rubinstein, before he made his Broadway debut in the title role in the original cast of Pippin, an early performance Tyne Daly who already hinted at the solid Emmy winning actress she’d become, and still-stunning Vera Miles (Psycho II) as Eden’s warm stepmother.  Scored by future eight-time Oscar nominee Dave Grusin and shot on location in picturesque wintery Lake Tahoe, the made for TV movie looks and sounds great all around.  I mention all these credits up front to give you an idea of the level of production value in front of and behind the scenes that went into this because it wasn’t unusual for these types of films to have an A-team assembled.

So…to the story.  I’m not sure how closely Richard DeRoy’s adaptation follows Johnston’s novel but this mainly revolves around Liza Crocker (Eden) returning to her hometown (Stainesville, named after her family) after years of being away and not receiving the warmest of welcomes.  Former friends now give her the cold shoulder and business owners grudgingly provide service and not with a smile.  What has she done to deserve this?  She certainly seems like a pleasant person with her glam fashion and perfect hair and make-up. Speaking of that, I did find it hilarious that Eden is never anything but totally flawless throughout; even when caught in the rain her hair is never out of place nor does her mascara run.  And, of course, she goes to bed in full 0make-up, fake eyelashes, foundation, eyeshadow, et. al.

Arriving at the inn owned by her family, she is greeted by her stepmother, Rose (Miles), and a stepbrother, Justin (Rubinstein), she never knew she had.  Her father is unexpectedly out of town in Mexico, which makes sense at first since Liza’s visit wasn’t planned and none of them knew she was arriving.  She’s come home without notice because she’s leaving her husband (Hagman) for reasons we’re never quite sure of (it still isn’t clear to me now) but no matter, Rose and Justin are happy she’s there and make her feel at ease even if the townspeople make her feel uneasy.  Then, she begins to hear a howling in the nearby woods and though she’s told by everyone to ignore it, she can’t resist investigating the source, uncovering a mystery (or maybe two) meant to stay a secret.

There’s good atmosphere to be had here and, more importantly, good acting throughout by a cast that knows how to handle this kind of material.  It’s not incredibly deep stuff nor is the mystery all that hard to decipher once one thread it is pulled out, however there are still a few surprises to be had along the way.  Mostly, it’s a pleasantly paced and accomplished work that has more thought put into it than many similarly pitched thriller films you’d see produced today.  Watching it now you’ll find things to pick apart or wish would be handled better for overall pacing issues but by and large I can see why this one is still popular with fans of these old television classics.

Evidently, someone else thought this was a cut above the rest as well because like a number of other TV films A Howling in the Woods was picked up for international distribution and released theatrically in Europe.  I can’t imagine this playing well in a movie theater, it’s too small of a production to work well on a big screen, even watching on my large television was slightly too much.  However, if you happen to have 93 minutes to spare on a phone/laptop/or can stream this to your smaller TV, you might get a nice throwback thrill from this.

 

Here’s A Howling in the Woods on YouTube, in case you were interested!

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Psycho II

psycho_ii

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.

31 Days to Scare – The Initiation (1984)

initiation

The Facts:

Synopsis: Tormented by recurring nightmares, a sorority pledge finds an already scary initiation turning hellish when a psychopathic killer targets the pledges.

Stars: Vera Miles, Clu Gulager, Daphne Zuniga, Hunter Tylo, James Read, Marilyn Kagan

Director: Larry Stewart

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Released in 1984 at the peak of the teen slasher film craze, The Initiation is one of the better entries in the genre.  Though it could easily be lumped into the same trash heap that so many of these early 80’s college-set slice and dicers fell into, this turned out to be a pleasing and non-fussy diamond in the rough.

Even though you may roll your eyes at the set-up (co-eds stalked by a crazed killer) don’t judge this film by its description alone.  If you do, you’d be passing up a flick less concerned with gawking and hacking at the nubile bodies on display and more interested in crafting a thoughtful framework in which to off its young stars.

Daphne Zuniga (Spaceballs) is Kelly, an average teen starting college that winds up pledging a sorority on campus.  Before the crackdown of hazing on college campuses, pledges were required to do all sorts of crazy things and one wonders if all the pain that the pledges are put through in this particular sorority are ultimately worth it because the girls are all so dreadful.  Still, that makes it all the better when they get picked off one by one by an unseen killer.

The film takes its time to set up the characters and a dark family secret being kept from Kelly by her parents played by above the title stars Vera Miles and Clu Gulager.  Though fairly recognizable names at the time, their presence here smacks of easy money but at least they invest their short time in the film with some convition.

The final task that Kelly has to perform to get into the sorority involves her breaking into the shopping mall her father owns.  With the remaining pledges and a couple of expendable frat dudes along for the ride, the last act of the film is set in the mall (with some amazingly nostalgic store titles on display) as the identity and true motives of the killer are revealed.  Though it winds up not making the most logical sense, there was a certain cleverness to it that I had some respect for.

At 96 minutes, the film is probably about 10 minutes longer than it needed to be but, as it is, this is a better than average nearly forgotten entry in the landscape of 80’s teen horror films.  While it may not provide the kind of scares or T&A than other films of that era, it’s no less gruesome in its kills or creativity.  Worth a watch if you’re a fan of these kinds of films.