Category Archives: 1970s

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

*. A pre-title credit announces “A film by Wes Craven.” And yes, he was the writer-director. But wasn’t “A film by Wes Craven” four-flushing it? All that Craven had previously done was The Last House on the Left.
*. He must have known he was going somewhere. Or else maybe this was a movie that he was particularly proud of (even if he hadn’t been keen on making another horror picture, and only did it for the money). If so, that pride hasn’t taken a check. On the DVD commentary he remarks “I have not watched this for years and years and I’m struck by how strong it is. It’s pretty damn good.”
*. I think the only way it counts as pretty damn good is by taking into account how it was made on a shoestring. Thematically it’s very similar to Last House on the Left: the terribly decent family (they even get together for group-prayer sessions) that has to descend to savagery in order to defend itself. For some reason this idea fascinated Craven, and whatever else you want to say about it, it does register on a primal level. It pushes buttons.
*. Like a lot of very simple and not very original concepts though it allows for a great deal of further interpretation. Tracking its sources, it draws on various folk motifs, with Craven saying that the Sawney Bean story was the main inspiration. More than that though I think it’s basically riding on the coattails of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The group of normal people who, after stopping for gas (this would become an obligatory scene for many imitators, to the point where Roger Ebert would dub a whole sub-genre Wrong Gas Station movies), end up in a bad neck of the woods. The warning “Y’all stay on the main road now, you hear! Stay on the main road!” goes unheeded, as it would in horror films for decades to come. They are then hunted by a cannibalistic family of murderous degenerates.
*. Craven admitted to being influenced by Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and indeed wanted Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played Leatherface in that film, to be in this one. Hansen turned him down. But Robert Burns, production designer of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, signed on and apparently re-used some of the props he’d made for Tobe Hooper’s film. I also think the use of the broom may have been another nod or homage.
*. Aside from these sources of inspiration, near and far, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more worth flagging. Some critics see the conflict between the two families as representing a kind of class struggle. Well, obviously the Carters are “bourgeois” in the sense that they own a nice trailer, go to school, and have jobs. And the feral family have none of these things. So when Jupiter snarls at the head of Big Bob Carter “You come out here and you stick your life in my face,” it’s a great line, reeking of semi-articulate class resentment. But there’s nothing else in the movie like it. Nor do the Carters seem much like colonial settlers, wiping out Native Americans or the Vietnamese. I’m not opposed to these kinds of readings, but I just don’t feel like there’s much basis for them here.
*. Here’s another critical point of view, from Kim Newman: “Craven’s obsessive theme is the depiction of antagonistic groups, usually parallel families . . . more or less representing the forces of destructive anarchy and normative repression. The only possible contact between the two is psychopathic violence, and Craven wittily has the carnage stem from each group’s desire to emulate its mortal enemy.” This is nicely expressed, but is it true? How are the Carters or the Collingwoods (the family in Last House on the Left) repressed? How does the violence result from the evil families wanting to emulate normal people, rather than just preying on them? Newman is a great critic, but he seems typical here of people wanting to read more into Craven than there is there.

*. The religious angle is also only slightly touched on. The aforementioned family prayer goes unanswered, and Bob ends up being crucified before becoming part of a communion dinner. It’s hard not to read that as some pretty serious sacrilege. But what of it? Craven getting back at his Baptist upbringing?
*. The marketing was effective. Craven didn’t like the title, which I’ll admit is a bit obscure, but out of the hundred possible titles lined up it tested well with audiences. Oddly enough, Craven also thought The Last House on the Left was a terrible title, but it tested well too, despite not having much to do with the movie. And he also preferred Scary Movie to Scream.
*. Sticking with the marketing front, more misleading was the glowering face of actor Michael Berryman (Pluto) on the film poster. Definitely iconic, but Pluto is not the main villain in the movie and indeed is played as a bit of a goofball. But Jupiter and Mars didn’t have such great faces.
*. You have to feel for Berryman. Along with a long list of other health issues he was born without sweat glands, so filming in 49-degree Celsius temperatures was a real trial. But it paid off, as he’s probably the one character in the movie everyone remembers.
*. Who else is here? Dee Wallace is Brenda. At the time she was on her way to becoming a scream queen (she’d go on to appear in The Howling, Critters, and the belated sequel Critters Attack!). Probably best known for her turn in E.T. All I can say is that I’m glad we were spared more screaming. Brenda’s screaming fit at the end of this movie is hard to endure. This was only Wallace’s second movie and I wonder if anyone would have seen her in it and thought she’d go on to have such a long, productive career.
*. I don’t think it’s a good movie at all. It isn’t scary. It has a cheap, made-for-TV look to it that I hated (which is weird given how much I like the work Burns did on Texas Chain Saw Massacre). It’s surprisingly tame when it comes to showing any actual violence. The threatened baby is kind of edgy, but it’s only threatened (Craven had wanted to kill it until the cast rebelled). There’s a basic idiot plot. The dog is actually a lot smarter than the Carters, at least until we get to the ridiculous Wile E. Coyote trick that Brenda and Bobby MacGyver-up to catch Jupiter.
*. That said, looking over the notes I made on this movie a few years ago, I think I liked it a bit better this time. I still find it raw and dumb and not well turned out, though the grounding in primal fears and folktales pays off. But when the great wave of twenty-first century resets or remakes of the horror classics of this period hit, I have to say that Alexandre Aja’s 2006 Hills Have Eyes (produced by Craven) was one of the few that I found to be an improvement on the original. This movie may be a landmark, but it’s not one that you need to visit very often.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

*. The pods are back, but we’ve moved on as a culture from the cozy white-picket fence community of Santa Mira to the dirty streets of San Francisco. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen San Francisco, which is a pretty city, ever look this grungy. But then we’re following a Health Inspector (Donald Sutherland) around as he finds rat turds in restaurant kitchens. Hell, not just in the kitchen, but in the food! This San Fran is a creepy, run-down place. When do you think Matthew is going to get that windshield fixed? And sure there are kids picking flowers in the park, but what’s up with that weird priest playing on the swings? And Robert Duvall no less! Immediately we’re on our guard. Things can’t be what they seem.
*. So it’s a pretty place, but run-down and full of weirdos. Like this cast. Brooke Adams is the only conventional-looking movie star. The others appear alien even before the spores land. Donald Sutherland’s hair mimics that hanging moss in the opening shots of the park (even director Philip Kaufman thought it a bit much), and his nose (which Kaufman seems to delight in exaggerating) is definitely out of this world. Leonard Nimoy is wonderfully cast and manages to steal every scene he’s in, but as Gene Siskel remarked, if aliens ever landed “Leonard Nimoy would be the last person I’d go to for advice.” Veronica Cartwright is wonderful, and would have more alien trouble just the next year, as well as a small part in The Invasion in 2007, but is she the one you’d expect to have kept her shit together at the end?

*. And Jeff Goldblum. Pauline Kael, who raved about this movie, crushed on him, commenting of his performance that he “knows enough to disregard his handsomeness.” That struck me as odd, but I guess compared to his castmates he seems the least odd, all 6’4″ and 170 pounds of him (he would bulk up to a very buff 185 for The Fly). In 1978 I might not have suspected his subsequent career appearing in many of the biggest box-office hits of the next several decades. His character is such a perfect antiheroic type. The going gets tough and he (1) gets a bloody nose; (2) starts to cry; (3) falls asleep; and (4) is fascinated by the pretty pink flower. Poets get no respect. Though I guess he redeems himself a bit near the end.
*. Yes, Kael loved this movie. She had days, a lot of days, like that. Here’s how her review begins and ends: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers is more sheer fun than any movie I’ve seen since Carrie and Jaws and maybe parts of The Spy Who Loved Me. . . . it may be the best movie of its kind ever made.”
*. Of what kind would that be? Not thought-provoking social commentary but popcorn thrills like Carrie, Jaws, and James Bond. But is that really the kind of movie this is? I mean, to take the most obvious point, it has that real downer of an ending. They get rid of the upbeat frame story the studio insisted on in 1956 and doubled down with a bitterly ironic twist (albeit giving Matthew a moment of heroism in destroying the grow-op). I love the ending here, even though I’m not sure Kaufman helped things by taking such an iconic shot as Sutherland’s scream and zooming straight into his mouth.

*. It was the ’70s, that great decade of paranoia in American cinema, so we feel right at home when Cartwright starts on about how “It’s a conspiracy, I know it.” And she’s right. But since we’re no longer in the grips of a Red Scare, who or what is the enemy within? The Red Scare hadn’t turned into the Fed Scare yet in America (that would have to wait until 1993’s Body Snatchers, and even more emphatically with 2007’s The Invasion), so what anxiety is being addressed? The counterculture? But surely that spirit of nonconformity and individualism is what the pods are seeking to erase. What are the politics of this movie? Or does it have any?

*. Muddying the waters further is the matter of how we can tell who is and who isn’t “one of them.” Take the question of when Kibner is taken over. The short answer is we don’t know, we’re not told. But when do you think? Was he already one of them at the book signing event? Or is that just the way he is? Cinematographer Michael Chapman remarked in an interview that it’s “hard to tell if someone is a pod or just a ’70s asshole.” So were ’70s assholes the target here? And what kind of assholes? The “cloying sympathetic” (Kaufman) Kibner? On the DVD commentary track Kaufman says that he hasn’t been transformed yet at the book signing (note his one angry outburst after they leave the bookstore), but that Robert Duvall was already a pod priest.
*. Is the point then that we can’t really tell if we’ve lost our humanity, either because we’re not connected well enough anymore to notice or because modern people are less human anyway? There seems to be a connection here, at least in my eyes, to the zombie apocalypse movies that followed. These would ultimately result in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Juan of the Dead, where jokes are made about how you can go outside and walk down the street after the zombie apocalypse and not know if the people you meet are alive or dead. This is another way of thinking about something Kaufman says during the commentary: “I feel like everything that is talked about in Body Snatchers has come to pass, and that we are now living in a world largely controlled by pods.” This is apocalypse in its literal meaning of revelation, not a fantasy but a realistic depiction of the way we live now.

*. Again I wonder what the pod people are up to, what their end game is. To devolve into a lower form of plant life, parked in front of their TVs like Art Hindle, headphones on and listening to music? Plants like music, Cartwright has told us. And why are they still going to work, and keeping their regular hours even after they’ve obviously taken over the city entirely? Are they actually doing anything in the lab, or just instinctively going through the motions, like the zombie mallwalkers in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead? I like how Elizabeth’s husband says, in trying to reassure her about being transformed, that “Nothing changes: you can have the same life, the same clothes, the same car.” These things are important! But does that mean he’s still a dentist? And what if Elizabeth doesn’t want to go back to the lab?

*. There are some new curves thrown in to the mix that are so good they’d be held over for the next instalments. Two stand out. The first is the alien scream and their pointing fingers. The ultimate j’accuse, signaling banishment from the new in-group, and a nice set-up for the flourish at the end. The other new wrinkle is the way the old human bodies are removed by garbage trucks. Proving once again the old adage that one man’s waste is another man.
*. People who talk about this movie inevitably get drawn into arguments over which of the two Invasions is better. I think they’re both great movies, but I’d have to say I enjoy Siegel’s version more. Not just because it’s less gloomy, but for its snappier pace (Kaufman’s movie is nearly 40 minutes longer). But really they’re two very different movies, reflecting entirely different styles and different Americas. Kaufman references Hamlet in his commentary, talking about how that play has been adapted in different productions reflecting new contexts and ways of interpreting and understanding its characters and story. I think that’s what happened here.
*. In itself, it’s good entertainment. The effects have held up very well. Even the dog with the human head still works. I believe Denny Zeitlin’s score was a one-off, but it’s effective. There are lots of cameos, from Kevin McCarthy to Don Siegel as the cab driver and Kaufman himself as the man waiting outside the phone booth. In some ways it feels like a very freestyle production, with Kaufman letting himself go in a way that you wouldn’t be expecting in a big-budget production today. You might think of it as coming at the end of the burst of maverick American filmmaking of the period. After this, the pod people were going to take over and everything was going to look pretty again.

Diamonds are Forever (1971)

*. The seventh “official” (Eon Productions) Bond movie, and as with any long-running franchise they’d reached a point where they had to decide whether they were going to make a break and head in a new direction, or try to turn back the clock. George Lazenby wasn’t interested in returning and while different actors were tried out (including Burt Reynolds, Adam West, and Roger Moore, who had a prior commitment), the studio wanted Connery back and were prepared to pay anything to get him. In this case “anything” being $1.25 million, which set a record at the time.
*. This was a big mistake. Connery looks tired and puffy, and his performance is only a notch above mailing it in. But pretty much everything else about the production seems just as worn out, despite the all-hands-on-deck approach. Guy Hamilton, who’d directed Goldfinger, doesn’t add any energy or sense of style. Just compare the helicopter raid at the end here to that at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Even Shirley Bassey can’t save the worthless theme song. The sets by Ken Adam all seem infected with a tacky spirit of sameness.
*. That tackiness is evident everywhere. Maybe it’s the Las Vegas setting. Maybe it had something to do with the budget having to be scaled back to make up for Connery’s salary. Whatever the reason, the look is just ugly, starting with the opening kill in a giant, colon-cleansing release of muddy slop.

*. In addition to this ugliness and feeling of being tired there was also a somewhat intentional decision made to play more for laughs, moving in a very different direction from the previous film. So we get the gay henchmen Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, the comedian Leonard Barr as Shady Tree being one of the Vegas gangsters, and a chase through the desert with Bond driving a space buggy. Plus all the usual dry quips. Funny? I didn’t think so when I first saw the movie and I still don’t. So I can’t entirely blame my worsening sense of humour.
*. The script by Tom Mankiewicz (son of Joseph L.) is junk, leaving most of Ian Fleming’s novel behind. Apparently the whole idea of introducing the Willard Whyte/Howard Hughes character came about as the result of a dream Cubby Broccoli had. I can’t think of a worse idea for writing a screenplay than listening to a producer’s dreams. And so what we end up with is a wholly useless character who gets thrown at us late in the day and who takes up far too much time. He’s basically just a repeat of the Draco character from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and he leads the exact same helicopter assault on the villain’s lair at the end. They weren’t thinking outside of the box here.
*. Jill St. John’s Tiffany Case should be a lot more fun, but she goes from being a resourceful criminal mastermind to being a bimbo in a bikini in the final reel. What a waste.

*. I’m sure Charles Gray is a capable actor, but he’s totally miscast as the third different Blofeld (or fourth, depending on how you count these things). Again we go from the threatening Telly Savalas to a fussy Brit who even shows up in one scene in drag. I suppose that was another attempt at humour. How we are supposed to believe that he’s interested in Tiffany is beyond me.
*. The drag Blofeld is one of the reasons Diamonds are Forever is often referred to as camp. I don’t think the label quite fits, and think I’ll stick with tacky. Tacky like the dreadful fake explosions as the diamond-powered satellite takes out subs and missiles. A real low for the series thus far.
*. Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (Bruce Glover and Putter Smith) are often panned as being among the worst of the Bond villains. I don’t agree. They may be campy too, and the way they keep coming up with the most theatrical ways they can think of to get rid of Bond, just so he can escape, makes you roll your eyes, but I rather like them. I also find them among the most memorable henchmen in the canon. I also like Bambi and Thumper, and think they are sadly underused.
*. That’s about all the good I can say about Diamonds are Forever though. This is not just the first Bond movie that actually seems dated to me, but the first downright bad Bond flick. Bond would indeed prove to be forever and so come back, but at this point you’d be perfectly justified in thinking the franchise was played out.

The Kremlin Letter (1970)

*. A good movie is often a happy accident of art. You can take all the talent in the world and if it doesn’t come together in the right way then you’ve just got a mess. Why, take a look at Beat the Devil . . .
*. The Kremlin Letter is another John Huston mess. Huston thought it “had all the makings of a success,” and seen from one angle I guess it did. But as Arbogast put it, if it doesn’t jell then it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’.
*. The obvious place to start is with the script. “In retrospect it was perhaps overcomplicated,” Huston had to admit. No kidding. I honestly had no idea what was going on here, even after reading a detailed plot synopsis I found online. But the basic point is that a team of gentlemen spies (part of an old-school, extra-governmental order of such operatives) is assembled to go to Russia and retrieve a compromising letter.
*. The hero, in this film without many, is Charles Roan (Patrick O’Neal), whose super power is an eidetic memory. Also part of the team are Ward (Richard Boone), an avuncular good ol’ boy, Barbara Perkins as the daughter of a break-and-enter specialist now too arthritic to join the old group (the members of the team are all getting on in years), and a pair of fellows known as the Warlock and the Whore (George Sanders and the ubiquitous Nigel Green, respectively) who are chosen simply because they are such colourful types. Sanders in particular is introduced in drag because he’s gay, don’t you know. And we all know gay spies like to dress in drag.
*. Rounding out the cast we have Max von Sydow as a Russian counterintelligence guy, his wife Bibi Andersson, and Orson Welles as a Communist Party boss. That’s quite a cast, and they’re left totally at sea.
*. In addition to the muddle of the plot there is a huge problem with tone. On the one hand this is definitely a film that, to quote Huston biographer Jeffrey Meyers, “followed the bitter, cynical, and disillusioned tradition of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Ipcress File, but lacked their tight plots and convincing characters.” As Huston himself put it, “I was attracted to the story by its depravity . . . I thought the story shocking, immoral, vicious and cynical.” It is all of this. But this does not make it any more believable or authentic, at least in my book. The team of oddball agents, for example, just strike me as a random gang of eccentrics and I had trouble understanding what function any of them really served.
*. Then there is the treatment of sex. This is even uglier and less credible. As for the ugliness, I’m put in mind of the impression David Thomson had that “Huston never quite trusted women as characters.” I wonder if he even liked them. I mentioned this in my notes on The Maltese Falcon and clearly in the following thirty years Huston hadn’t mellowed in his views.
*. And so there is a gratuitous, leering catfight in the early going that plays nothing like the comparatively innocent gypsy camp scene in From Russia With Love, and a really nasty bit at the end where Andersson is roughed up that I had to wonder at the point of.
*. Aside from this crudity, none of the female characters comes across as believable. We go from the bizarre and embarrassing innocence of Barbara Perkins (“My father says that going to bed is an integral part of the job and one must be good at it. So I thought that, uh, I mean I . . .”) to the masochistic lust of Andersson (“Hit me again! kick me! kick me!”), in both cases falling for the distinctly unimpressive O’Neal, who is impersonating, quite improbably, a Russian gigolo part of the time. If you find any of this grittily realistic I’m not sure where your canons of realism were formed.
*. The weird (to give it a neutral adjective) attitude toward sex is also present in the scene where the captured Russian cracks not at the threat of his wife and youngest daughter being tortured, but at video of his older daughter being seduced by another woman. Now that’s going too far!
*. Maybe one of the stars Huston had wanted to play Roan might have saved some of this. Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, and Robert Redford were all considered for the role. They might at least have projected some sexual heat. But perhaps they read the script and thought better.
*. It’s hard to think of any highlights. Some praise is usually given over to the photography, but I don’t think Finland standing in for Russia looks any different here than it did in Billion Dollar Brain. There’s little action, and that little is not well done. Flourishes like the rolling, unwinding ball of red yarn seem more laboured than stylish. The idea of having scenes begin being spoken in Russian and then switching into English was, at least, a curious innovation. But I can’t say it helps much. The only part of it I found myself enjoying was the confrontation between Von Sydow and Welles, which wraps up by being held by Huston for a long, silent shot that’s quite effective.
*. The film’s end is dark and despairing indeed. Despairing because even if Roan accepts his new mission it doesn’t seem likely that this will be the end of it. But at the same time it’s a punch that fails to fully land, in part because the intercut images are necessary to remind us of who the note is even talking about, and it’s unclear what Ward’s motives are. Perhaps, if I had been paying more attention, all of this would have been clearer, but as I’ve said before the biggest problem with confusing movies is that after a certain point you simply stop caring. So, instead of feeling the horror intended I only registered relief that it was over.

Black Christmas (1974)

*. Without giving it credit for launching the slasher genre I think it’s still fair to say that Black Christmas was the first of its kind. The reason it’s less well known is that it was the unbelievable box office success of Halloween that really launched the genre properly. It is profitability that leads to imitation in the film business, and Black Christmas (released in the U.S. as Silent Night, Evil Night, which I’m sure didn’t help) pretty much sank without a trace when it was released (they had trouble getting the title right: on television it premiered as Stranger in the House). It did turn a profit on its modest budget, but not enough for anyone to notice. Halloween would break the bank four years later. Then we were off to the races.
*. An aside: Director Bob Clark always said that he’d been friends with John Carpenter and had told him about his thoughts for a sequel to Black Christmas, which he didn’t want to do. It was to be called Halloween. He also said that Carpenter was a fan of the movie and had been influenced by it. I understand that Carpenter has said that he hadn’t seen it before making Halloween. Go figure.
*. Many of the separate ingredients we get here had been tasted before, most notably in the Italian gialli, but Black Christmas gave us the whole package of what would become a formula: the POV shots (perhaps first done in The Spiral Staircase), the calls coming from inside the house (actually done a year earlier in The Severed Arm), the threatened young people, the killer with one name (Billy) who strikes on a holiday, the scene where the last girl runs around discovering all the bodies at the end, even the business where she finds out that the front door is locked from the outside! How does that keep happening?
*. There are some variations on what would become the standard script. The last girl is no virgin but is actually thinking of getting an abortion. And in fact the women in this particular sorority-house massacre aren’t sexualized at all. We’re also in a transition zone from the mystery plot of the giallo, with various suspicious types and red herrings thrown in to the mix, to the lone psycho slayer who is basically a killing machine and, what’s more, is still alive at the end. (Kim Newman makes an interesting point: “The most heavily criticized aspect of Black Christmas — the transformation of the unknown psycho villain into a quasi-supernatural presence — would be seen as Halloween‘s strongest suit.”) But I think these just go to show how the genre hadn’t reached its final form yet.
*. Its claim to be the first slasher movie is what most people know about Black Christmas. But I don’t think that would be enough to have kept interest in it going, and even growing, for nearly fifty years. The fact is, this is a pretty good little horror movie. Halloween is scarier, but after that and maybe Nightmare on Elm Street I’d rate Black Christmas ahead of almost any other early slasher I can think of.
*. I realize that such comparisons aren’t saying much, so I’ll drop them now. What else is to like here?

*. Quite a lot. Bob Clark’s direction is solid if not overly stylish. He goes to the well maybe a bit too often in making jarring cutaways from violent action to something else going on at the same time, but not so much as to be annoying. I think what impresses me the most though is the treatment of space, meaning the wonderful interior of the house. The layout, and especially that old horror stand-by the staircase, are put to very good use. Moving up and down, and through the different floors and rooms, is quite effectively handled.
*. The cast is great, belying the low budget. Olivia Hussey is a cool and credible scream queen. Keir Dullea looks properly unbalanced. Maybe it’s his hair. John Saxon is typecast in a role he’d reprise in Nightmare on Elm Street. Andrea Martin, a comedian, is entirely believable in her second Canadian horror vehicle (after Cannibal Girls). But best of all is Margot Kidder. She’s playing an original character and pulls it off. Here’s a talent we never really saw enough of, for different reasons.
*. The script, which spent a lot of time in development, is both very simple (a killer, who remains unseen, is hiding in the attic of a sorority house), and quite complex in the manner of one of those later Hammer psychothrillers. I think this latter point is what Newman is adverting to when he calls the film “over-plotted.” But these two tendencies don’t work against each other.
*. Another disjunction is the absence of gore, while creating shock value out of some very explicit telephone calls. Those are really quite daring by the standards of 1974. As is the matter-of-fact way Jess’s decision to have an abortion is handled. Clark wanted realistic college students and I think he got them. These aren’t stereotypes of nerds or bimbos but seem like real people.
*. Sticking with the telephone messages, they did a lot of work on them, but it results in an odd mix that doesn’t sound like anything a single person’s voice (because it wasn’t).
*. The ending. Yes. Well. No, I don’t know what to make of it. It seems odd to say the least that Jess is left to recover from these traumatic events alone in the house. And did Jess kill Peter? Why was she screaming? Did she just faint? As for who Billy and Agnes are, I have no idea. The 2006 remake presents a grotesque backstory, which I think is irrelevant for appreciating this film. Billy is meant to be an enigma. That’s one reason we never see his face. If you find that frustrating, I understand. But this isn’t a movie that was ever going to tie things up neatly.
*. “If it doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight!” One of the great thriller ad lines of the time. Up there with The Last House on the Left (1972): To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie . . .” and Phantasm (1979) “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” Are there any great taglines anymore? I can’t think of many.
*. This is one of those rare movies where I can identify with many of the locations. It was shot in Toronto and there’s one scene shot at the foot of Soldiers’ Tower at Hart House. I walked underneath that every day for years. It’s a different kind of movie nostalgia.
*. Not a bad movie at all in absolute terms, and a very good one given the genre it did a lot to define. Why wasn’t it successful at the time? The American marketing didn’t help (it did very well under its original title in Canada). The lack of gore and general sense of restraint probably held it back. Carpenter just needed to tweak things a bit. A catchy jingle. Girls in underwear. And a killer that would be a physical presence (credited as “The Shape”) while at the same time less of this world. A hero, in other words. Not a Billy.

The Wiz (1978)

*. The Wiz is a real headscratcher of a movie: not so bad it’s good but rather full of both very good and very bad parts.
*. Its failure at the box office is often said to mark the end of the blaxploitation era, but I can’t see why, aside from the obvious fact that it has an all Black cast, this qualifies as a blaxploitation film. At the time it was the most expensive movie musical ever made. That’s not exploitation cinema.
*. Instead of blaxploitation what it strikes me as being is a cross between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Warriors. In other words, a movie very much of its time (all three films were released within the same six-month period). Such a pairing also helps explain some of the good-bad dichotomy in The Wiz, since Sgt. Pepper’s is one of the worst movies ever made and The Warriors is an underground classic.
*. Of course by this time the Hollywood musical was pretty much dead. Why? Rock might have had a hand in it. A great pop song isn’t a great show tune. Sgt. Pepper’s had a lot of great music, but not great musical music. And maybe the whole idea of a musical just seemed silly by the ’70s. Saturday Night Fever worked because the music was part of the story (or diegetic). In The Rocky Horror Music Show the music worked because the whole idea of the characters breaking out in song was part of the camp goofiness. But these are rare exceptions to the rule.
*. I think the music in The Wiz is mostly forgettable. There’s the “Ease on Down the Road” number, played three times, but that’s the only real show-stopper. Most of the rest of the stuff struck me as disposable. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” isn’t bad, but I didn’t see where it had much to do with the story. There’s a huge production number done at the plaza of the World Trade Center during what seems to be a hurricane (just look at Quincy Jones trying to smile while avoiding being blown off his piano bench). I had no idea what the point of it was. To mock changing fashions? It looks like the halftime show at the Super Bowl or the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. And just as hard to sit through.

*. The production values are also all over the map. I love the Flying Monkeys imagined as a motorcycle gang. They’re great. But then on the subway platform the gang are attacked by garbage receptacles with teeth that wouldn’t look out of place on a high-school musical stage.
*. What can you say about the cast? Diana Ross is just another in a long, long list of pop/rock stars who for whatever reason can’t project charisma on screen. But she’s not bad, given the incongruity of her being older than we imagine Dorothy being while still preserving a childish asexuality. Michael Jackson I lump in the same category, but he’s unrecognizable anyway with a Reese’s cup stuck on his nose. It’s a relief when Richard Pryor shows up.
*. It bombed and was panned when it came out, but as with any movie this big and this strange it’s gone on to enjoy a bit of a cult afterlife. Which is something I can understand. There are certainly parts of it that stick in your head, even as it goes on too long and ends on a really low note with a corny message about believing in yourself and the power of positive thinking. I think The Wizard of Oz had more going on, though I wonder if that’s even a fair comparison. Has The Wiz become something timeless? Oddly enough, it may be getting there.

The Gore Gore Girls (1972)

*. I’ve already commented on the early gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, what became later known as the Blood Trilogy: Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and Color Me Blood Red. I’ve said I don’t think much of Lewis’s oeuvre outside of Two Thousand Maniacs! I didn’t want to bother saying anything more about him, but I had a copy of The Gore Gore Girls sitting around so I thought I’d look at it again and see if there was anything to add.
*. There isn’t much. This was basically the end of the line for Lewis, at least until Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat thirty years later. The intention here was to go in two different directions: more gore, and more humour. The two are not mutually exclusive. So, for example, one victim here has her ass pummeled bloody with a meat tenderizer. Another has her nipples cut off so that her breasts spout milk (regular milk from one breast, chocolate milk from another). This last gag is probably what The Gore Gore Girls is best known for today. In other words, it’s the highlight.
*. I get a sense of tired desperation from the proceedings, nicely captured in the final title card “We announce with pride: this movie is over!” It must have seemed like a relief to everyone involved. The gore and the jokes are just thrown up on the screen as though trying to force some kind of reaction. Lewis was played out, and all he could do was turn the dial up. So there’s blood and a bit of goofiness and lots of strippers.
*. The goofiness mainly comes by way of the dapper detective Abraham Gentry, played by Frank Kress. He’s actually kind of amusing, and even breaks down the fourth wall on a few occasions. For a Lewis movie it’s not a bad performance, though I think it’s the only movie Kress appeared in.
*. I guess I should also add that Henny Youngman also puts in an appearance. He isn’t quite as funny. Apparently they shot his stuff in a day and then he disowned any involvement in the project.
*. Then there are the strippers. There are a lot of stripper acts that I’m guessing were just put in to fill out the running time. They are actually quite sad because the fact is it takes a bit of work, and sometimes a lot of work, to make people (men or women) look sexy or glamorous onscreen. You can’t just throw them out there and tell them to shake their booty and take off their clothes and think it’s going to work. It doesn’t.
*. Having said all this, I’d still rate this as one of Lewis’s better movies, though nowhere Two Thousand Maniacs!, which was his only good one. Here there’s a bit of a giallo vibe what with the mysterious killer and their black gloves. The big reveal at the end might also be an homage to Bava’s Black Sunday but they don’t mention that on the DVD commentary and I wouldn’t want to bank on it. If you’re interested in what trash cinema of this period looked like then check this one out, but otherwise it’s skippable.

Serpico (1973)

*. In 1971, at the end of Dirty Harry, SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan tosses his badge into a quarry pond. In 1973 NYPD Detective Frank Serpico rejects the badge of a detective’s gold shield, opting for (very) early retirement to Switzerland.
*. Two dramatic acts of abnegation from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both Harry and Frank are disgusted with “the system,” but for very different reasons. Harry would, of course, be back, his fight against the system becoming a part of American mythology. But there would be no second act for Serpico, whose story had the uncomfortable distinction of being true. I have to think there’s some larger meaning to this.
*. I have to say I find Serpico a dull watch today, but that’s more because of its genre than its politics. The progressive-activist biopic is almost the definition of Oscar bait. Norma Rae. Silkwood. Erin Brockovich. Milk. All stories about little guys taking on the corrupt/racist/homophobic/capitalist system. And I think they’re stories that are worthy of telling. I just can’t imagine watching any of these movies twice.
*. Al Pacino in his heyday, just after The Godfather and just before The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon. He’s good here, if a little improbable. He looks so small, and one simply can’t credit him running down the bad guys on foot. Sidney Lumet was a last-minute replacement as director but Mr. New York City comes through, even if you have to grin at the way Serpico keeps arranging secret meetings at such conspicuous landmarks.
*. As with most of these biopic heroes, Serpico is a Christ figure. This is even more obvious because he’s undercover as a hippie so he even looks like a ’60s (or ’70s) Jesus. He’s also often wearing white, and the light on him is highlighted whereas the dirty cops are cast in shade. Actually, most of the supporting players are cast in shade. There’s some talent alongside Pacino but we don’t really notice them in such a one-man show. The women are so disposable they don’t even register. Though there’s no way he was going to let that magnificent sheepdog get away. He’s a keeper.
*. Everything looks dirty in that documentary-style grittiness that was, briefly, the style after The French Connection. And yet it’s not a movie that makes much of an impact today. Perhaps it’s too authentically of its time and place, meaning the pre-Disneyfied NYC. Fifty years later, bad cops are more likely to be exposed by cell phone footage than being outed by a whistleblower. I’m not sure if the medium has changed the message.

Deep Red (1975)

*. I’m sensitive, if mostly indifferent, to the fact that I don’t like a lot of the movies I talk about here. I think I may come off as overly negative. So it was with great pleasure that I sat down for a re-watch of Deep Red, one of my all-time favourites. This is a movie that, the first time I saw it, actually made me jump out of my chair in joy.
*. My jump came when Marcus (David Hemmings) registers that he saw something at an earlier point in the movie. This is referring to the “reveal,” and it is so brilliantly conceived and executed that I won’t ruin it for you here. Suffice to say that I saw what he saw. Since then I’ve introduced several other people to the movie but nobody else has got it on a first viewing, so this makes me feel even better.

*. I say the reveal is brilliantly conceived and executed and that’s something I’d echo for most of the script. Not that the story is anything special, though it is a well-tuned giallo that, surprisingly for the genre, has all the elements in place without involving us in any crazy jumps in logic. The red herrings are sensible and effectively registered, and it’s possible to be guessing at the killer’s identity up until the end, though I think it is still adequately prepared for and completely satisfying. Guillermo del Toro says that Deep Red “doesn’t make logical sense but it makes lyrical sense” in its rhyming of images, but I really think that shortchanges the plot, which I found to be pretty tight.
*. What I really like about the script though isn’t the story, or the dialogue, which is only serviceable most of the time and, given its being split between English and Italian, leads to some very odd subtitling on the DVD. A man saying “What, please?” is subtitled as “Sorry, what did you say? Could you repeat that please?” There are a lot of moments like this. The subtitles are barely an approximation of what are pretty flat lines.

*. No, what I mean when I say I love the script goes back to something I heard Robert Towne say in an interview once about how a great screenwriters sees the action. The dramatic and visual context is everything (I seem to remember Dan O’Bannon saying something similar, but I may be mistaken). Towne’s example is when, in Lawrence of Arabia, someone asks Lawrence what he loves about the desert and he looks about him and says “It’s clean.” That’s a line that takes some visual imagination.
*. Dario Argento (said to be “a director of incomparable incompetence,” in Vincent Canby’s sniffy review of Deep Red), along with his co-writer Bernardo Zapponi, have this visual instinct in spades. I think of the way they wanted to come up with murder scenes where we see injuries that the audience can relate to, so that instead of having victims stabbed or shot they have someone having their face stuck in boiling water, and another fellow having his open mouth smashed onto a mantelpiece. You can really feel that one!
*. The best example though comes when the psychic goes to open the door to her apartment and stops and screams before the hatchet comes crashing through it. Why? Because she’s a psychic! The scream comes before the jump scare because she senses what’s on the other side of the door. That’s worth a round of applause right there.

*. Another thing I love about Deep Red is its flagrant theatricality. The way the red curtains are drawn to reveal the psychic conference. The empty street that looks like it must be a set, complete with a bar copied from Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks,” complete with mannequins set up inside. This gives the proceedings the perfect blend of trash and art house. Karyn Kusama notes how Marcus’s instructions to his music students at the beginning sets the note for the rest of the film. They have to play jazz trashier. There’s just no cleaning it up.
*. Trashy, violent, and funny too. The reversal of gender roles between Marcus and Gianna (Daria Nicolodi) makes a cute motif, from their arm-wrestling to his being miniaturized by the broken seat in her car. This also serves a dramatic purpose, as despite being the male hero he is vulnerable throughout. As the police like to needle him, he doesn’t even have a real job.

*. Its influence has had a long reach. The psychic conference may have been the inspiration for the mentalist showdown at the beginning of Scanners. Billy the Puppet from the Saw franchise was apparently taken from the mannequin that makes a weird entrance here. And John Carpenter was definitely drawing, consciously or not, from Goblin’s score for his Halloween theme. Less notably, the girl being drowned in a scalding bath in Halloween II was also a steal, or homage.
*. Yes, you’ll probably want to be a fan of the genre to fully appreciate it. But this is the Citizen Kane of gialli and I think it’s a wonderful entertainment in its own right, put across with talent and verve in every department. Everyone has their own list of favourite movies, mixing undisputed classics in with idiosyncratic picks. Deep Red is a title I’d group with the latter, but it still makes my top 10.

The Cat and the Canary (1978)

*. There’s always a question when producing a new version of an old classic as to whether you want to bring it fully up-to-date or keep it in its original setting, with or without a dose of irony.
*. The Cat and the Canary started out as a play by John Willard in 1922. Since then it’s been filmed several times, beginning with Paul Leni’s 1927 silent version. This 1978 version is set in 1934, and the date helps give it more the air of an Agatha Christie mystery then I think the source originally had. This isn’t a surprise, since the success of recent Christie adaptations, like Death on the Nile, was apparently part of the film’s inspiration. This sort of thing was experiencing a bit of a renaissance, as evidenced not only with the Christie adaptations but such other Old Dark House mystery-comedies as Murder by Death, Clue, and House of the Long Shadows.
*. This was actually the fourth or fifth direct film adaptation of Willard’s play, but it hadn’t been done in forty years (the last version being the 1939 Bob Hope and Paulette Godard vehicle). I’m not sure what the aim was. It doesn’t try that hard for either laughs or thrills. The director, Radley Metzger, is a hard to pin down figure, known for adult-oriented/softcore erotic films while at the same time maintaining an art-house reputation. But there’s nothing sexy about this movie, despite all of the potential.
*. An interesting cast with nowhere to go. Still, it’s charming in its way, I think mainly because of the familiarity of the story. Plus it’s nice seeing some of the old faces. Edward Fox really takes the opportunity to ham it up. Wilfrid Hyde-White’s default setting was hammy, and he’s obviously enjoying himself. Olivia Hussey is funny as Honor Blackman’s wide-eyed gal pal.
*. Only a week after watching it, sitting down to write out the notes I’d made, I found I’d forgotten it almost completely. It’s that kind of movie. A bit like one of Christie’s less strenuous “entertainments,” and not really of its own time, or any other.