A few weeks ago, during Spring Break, my wife and daughter went to Sedona for a few days, and I watched a lot of somewhat cheesy horror movies. I’ve also watched some other movies that came out in the years since 19 May 1971, when I was born. Let’s check them out!
Night of the Lepus (1972). I mean, you’re not wrong if you think giant mutated rabbits terrorizing a small town in southern Arizona would be a bit silly, but given the restraints of the early 1970s, this movie isn’t that bad. The way they make the bunnies look bigger is well done, and there’s a good amount of slaughter, so that’s nice. As we’ll see with another movie below, a kid is to blame for everything, and the movie doesn’t quite explain how the rabbits grow so big so quickly, but who cares, right – we’re here to see Peter Cottontail get blasted into oblivion, damn it! Stuart Whitman (that’s Oscar-nominated Stuart Whitman to you!) is the scientist who’s trying to help rancher Rory Calhoun curb his rabbit problem (which, as we all know from Australia and Hawaii, is a huge problem), but he inadvertently (with the help of his idiot child) unleashes a mutant strain into the population, and the rabbits grow huge and get a taste for blood! DeForest Kelley (in, weirdly enough, his last non-Star Trek-related film role) is the academic who brings Whitman in, and Janet Leigh (that’s Oscar-nominated Janet Leigh to you!) plays Whitman’s wife, who begins as kind of an equal partner and ends a damsel in distress, because 1972. It’s really not a terrible movie – everyone is trying hard to sell it, and it’s a fun way to spend 90 minutes or so. It’s certainly better than The Swarm (see below)!
The Last Wave (1977). Peter Weir began his remarkable three-decade run as a director with The Cars that Ate Paris (which I haven’t seen) and Picnic at Hanging Rock, and then he made this weird-ass movie, which I don’t love but which certainly shows a director who knows what he’s doing and who has a lot on his mind. Richard Chamberlain (not even attempting an Australian accent) plays a lawyer in Sydney, and he’s asked to defend four aborigines charged with murder even though he’s not a criminal attorney. We see the death of the man, and it’s very odd, and Chamberlain wants to claim that it was a tribal altercation and the men should be tried under tribal law even though there aren’t any recognized aboriginal tribes in Sydney (which means they can’t claim that right). The defendants’ spokesman, David Gulpilil (who began his career in Walkabout, which I watched a few years ago and is most recognizable to American audiences as Crocodile Dundee’s buddy), doesn’t want Chamberlain to poke around in tribal stuff, saying they’ll take whatever justice the white man wants to give them, but Chamberlain won’t leave it alone. Meanwhile, the weather is acting very oddly, with torrential rain and other extreme stuff, and Chamberlain is having dreams about strange things. He begins to learn about the Dreamtime, the mythic world of the aborigines, and he meets a shaman who, along with Gulpilil, reveal to him that, you know, the end of the world is coming. Oh dear. It’s a weird movie, with a lot of bizarre imagery as Chamberlain either falls deeper into madness or deeper into revelation, depending on your point of view, and the way the film is shot is superb, as Weir does an excellent job making it odder and odder as Chamberlain searches for meaning. Some of the limits of special effects are evident in some places, but that doesn’t lessen the power of the visual aspects of the movie, even if the story is a bit lacking. It’s not the greatest movie, but Chamberlain does a good job selling it, and it’s one of those movies that really does take advantage of the visceral impact film can have. Don’t expect too much in the way of solid answers, but do expect a weird trip!
The Swarm (1978). Irwin Allen tried to adapt his disaster movie template to a standard creature feature kind of story, and the results are not terribly good. Allen had the money to get a huge, big-name cast (seven Oscar winners!), but nobody seems particularly interested to be there, except perhaps Bradford Dillman, playing an Air Force major who doesn’t trust pretty-boy scientist Michael Caine. Oh, everyone overacts – they’re certainly trying – but they’re not really invested in the movie. Caine has been studying the African killer bees for 15 years, he says, but he has no idea how to deal with them when they actually arrive. General Richard Widmark wants to poison everything in Texas to kill them, which sounds like a bad idea. Henry Fonda, proving once again that he is the dullest big star in movie history, fails to make an antidote to the bees’ venom, because of course he does. Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, and Fred MacMurray (who was so embarrassed by this movie that he retired!) are in a love triangle that is really dumb and really inconsequential. Widmark wants to evacuate the small town that the bees decimate because – and I am not making this up – he thinks they will come back as revenge against the Air Force managing to snag some of the swarm to study. Slim Pickens appears for about five minutes to take his dead son away from the Air Force, and I kept expecting him to ask the military men to start singing “Camptown Races.” People die inexplicably after they seem to have recovered from their stings. The bees get into places that it seems the government would be able to make impenetrable. Almost the entire cast dies, which is a commitment to mayhem that’s pretty keen, although a few characters simply disappear, as if Allen forgot about them. And the movie is two-and-a-half hours long, because Allen forgot he was making a creature feature and thought we’d all be invested in whether or not de Havilland wants to marry Johnson or MacMurray (if they made the movie today, 60-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh would have to choose between 65-year-old Tom Hanks and 67-year-old Denzel Washington, and they’d just decide to form a thrupple). Hint: We’re not. This is just a lousy, boring movie, and while Michael Caine doesn’t say it, I will: It’s all the kid’s fault for stirring up the bees!!!!!
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). I had never actually seen this, so I figured it was about time! I do like that Ben Mankiewicz introduced it on TCM and mentioned the shock ending without spoiling it, as if anyone who’s even remotely interested in seeing this doesn’t know what it is! This is a pretty cool movie – I don’t have much to say about it, as I’m sure everyone reading this has already seen it, so what could I add? Sutherland is fun, Brooke Adams is fine, Jeff Goldblum is still working on his schtick but hadn’t quite perfected it yet (the mannerisms are there, but not quite as pronounced as they would become), Veronica Cartwright always looks like she’s about to cry-scream, which she does quite often in this movie, and Leonard Nimoy is terrific as the hip but still skeevy psychiatrist. Some things don’t make a ton of sense – Sutherland seems to keep trying to convince people about what’s happening long after it’s clear he needs to focus on killing things, and later he wanders into the garden – where plants grow! – and falls asleep, which seems kind of dumb, and the whole sleeping thing is never explained too well, but who cares, right? It’s a neat thriller about the power of conformity, and it’s nice that Philip Kaufman doesn’t push that too much, just lets it linger around the edges. Subtlety works, people! (Robert Duvall is a priest on a swing early in the movie. He’s uncredited, and while I was watching, I thought, “Is that Robert Duvall?” Turns out it is, and he’s danged creepy, too.)
Hell Night (1981). This is not a very good movie, made tolerable by Linda Blair’s presence and that’s about it. Blair isn’t the greatest actor, but she’s a lot better than the rest of the cast, who are played by never-wases with varying degrees of badness. Blair and three other people are pledging a fraternity/sorority, so they have to stay in a mansion overnight. Said mansion, of course, was the scene of a bloody massacre 12 years earlier, when the patriarch killed his wife, three of his children, and then himself. Only one son, the youngest, who never spoke but just grunted a lot, survived, and legend has it that he still wanders the mansion. Of course, the presidents of the fraternity and sorority, along with some random tech dude, sneak back to scare the four pledges, but of course the son is still wandering around, and he starts killing everyone. There are two huge plot holes in the movie, which bothered me. At one point, the pledges find a head in a bed, and it looks like the fourth pledge’s. They run shrieking out of the house, and Blair even weeps the girl’s name while they’re running. Then they got back inside to look for her, and later find her body, head fully intact. Another girl had been beheaded before, but the head in the bed doesn’t look anything like her! Then, there’s apparently two killers, but that’s not really explained. I mean, we can kind of figure it out, but it’s still dumb. Anyway, the kids are stupid, as you knew they would be – one of them gets away after they find the girl’s head, and he goes to get the cops, but Blair and Jeff Barton go back into the mansion instead of simply standing by the front gate, where they can’t be surprised. Oh well. It’s dumb fun, but it’s nothing special.
Conan the Barbarian (1982). Sandahl Bergman doesn’t get enough credit in this movie, I don’t think. Conan’s proclamation about what is best in life is terrific (they’re his first words of dialogue, and he says them 25 minutes in!), but Bergman’s speech about passing by doors in the night because she didn’t have anyone to stay warm with is excellent, and it’s really the heart of the story. Arnold will never be mistaken for a great actor (neither will Bergman, for that matter), but when she acts with him, she manages to get quite a bit out of him. Furthermore, she saves his life twice in the movie, and he fails to save hers, so screw you, Conan! It’s good to watch this every once in a while, because it’s fun to look at some of the different things going on beyond Arnold. Also, I wonder if HD is the reason sword-‘n’-sorcery epics don’t work as well as they did back in the day. Everything on screen just looks darker and grungier, even with some of the anachronistic touches (the witch’s sexy outfit cracks me up every time), and in the past decade or so, everything in “historical” (I know this isn’t one, but it’s not present day) epics just looks too damned clean because of the clarity of the film. Filmmakers have to make a conscious choice to scuff everything up, and too often they don’t. Anyway, that’s my two cents. Down with HD!
Razorback (1984). Russell Mulcahy’s first feature, after a few years doing music videos (he directed “Video Killed the Radio Star”!), is a solid horror movie, and it’s not surprising that he went on to do Highlander, as some of the stylish techniques he used in videos and in that movie show up here. It’s the mid-1980s, so the actual giant boar isn’t great, but it’s pretty good, and Mulcahy makes sure not to show all of it and only shows it in flashes. This works well except for the very end, when it’s killed and we don’t see a lot of it so it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. Anyway, Gregory Harrison comes from New York to the outback because his wife, a reporter concerned with animal rights, disappears while doing a story on kangaroo slaughter, and he meets Bill Kerr, whose grandson was taken by our friend the pig a few years earlier, but no one believes him. Harrison finds out soon enough that his wife is dead (we know she is, but he doesn’t yet), but he also discovers that two employees of the meat-processing plant that his wife was investigating were not being very nice to her before she died, so it’s both a creature feature and a revenge flick. Arkie Whiteley, best known for The Road Warrior, is the scientist studying boar migration, and Whiteley, while very game, was only 19/20 when the movie was filmed, so she kind of has a “Denise Richards as nuclear physicist” vibe going on. It’s a cool movie, with the boar doing awful things, Harrison in way over his head, and Mulcahy filming the desert beautifully – the movie really does look great, far better than it has any right to. I also love that, unlike today, there’s absolutely no explanation for why this pig is so damned big. It’s big, it’s angry, ’nuff said. Get to the goring!
Scissors (1991). I’m always fascinated by movies by people before they were stars, so I try to catch them when I can, and this pre-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone movie (but post-Total Recall) is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Stone had been kicking around for some time, guest-starring in things (including a stunning dual role on Magnum, P.I.!), starring in some small movies and showing up in some mid-level movies (she’s in Action Jackson, for instance, and who can forget her role as Steven Seagal’s wife in Above the Law?), but this was all before her incandescent role in Basic Instinct, which catapulted her into the stratosphere. Scissors is, sadly, fairly indicative of her career before that movie (with the exception of Total Recall, I guess), as it’s kind of garbage. It’s Frank De Felitta’s only feature film (he was mostly a writer, and he directed some TV movies), and he makes a complete mess of it. Stone plays a 26-year-old virgin who has recently moved to the big city (Chicago, although it’s filmed in Los Angeles and looks it), where she restores old dolls and works temp jobs. Somehow she has the money to live on the top floor of a swanky apartment building in a large place and she can afford to see a psychiatrist (played with surprising calmness by Ronny Cox) all the time, and a few minutes into the movie, she’s almost raped by a dude on her elevator. She stabs him in the arm with her red-handled scissors (which she uses in her restoration), but the experience freaks her out. Her neighbor, a handsome actor played by Steve Railsback, helps her out and falls for her, but she’s not ready to have sex with him, and his twin brother (also Railsback, naturally), who’s confined to a wheelchair, is especially creepy. Eventually she gets trapped in an apartment of a dude who’s been killed in his bed – stabbed by red-handled scissors – and she descends into madness before the inevitable answers come. It’s glorious trash, honestly – Stone really throws herself into playing crazy, as very little scenery is left unchewed, especially when she gets into the apartment. There are so many plot elements that it feels like about three or four screenplays bolted together, none of which make much sense. What’s going on with the creepy brother, who’s a painter and a peeping tom? What’s the deal with the actor’s ex-lover, who seems to be inordinately interested in Stone and the creepy brother? What’s the deal with the fact that the brother, it’s revealed, is faking his injury? Who is the dead dude in the apartment and what connection does he have to Stone? Why does Stone talk about someone named Billy, who’s obviously someone from her past? Why is Ronny Cox so frank about his sexual desires in a way that isn’t really creepy but definitely oversharing? What’s going on with his wife, who’s running for Congress? They seem to share a healthy sex life, but there’s a bit of oddness underneath it. Why is Stone so obsessed with dolls? These are all plot elements, seemingly important, but without spoiling anything, I hate to tell you that very little of what I just wrote about is all that important. You’ll have to watch the movie to find out which things are! It’s a bizarre movie, with a dazzlingly gratuitous Stone topless scene early on (it’s pretty hilarious), and it’s definitely not something you should seek out, but if you happen across it, it’s not a terrible way to spend 100 minutes or so. Just wild.
Detroit (2017). Kathryn Bigelow’s intense movie about the murders at the Algiers Motel during the riots in Detroit in 1967 is fairly gripping movie-making, with a giant flaw right in the middle of it. Bigelow does a good job showing the circumstances of the riots, the conflicting ideas expressed in the riots, the attempts by black leaders to calm everyone down and the attempts by police to beat the rioting out of everyone, and the ambivalence some black people felt toward the riots. John Boyega does a very nice job as a security guard who just wants to protect a business and ends up getting way too involved in the situation at the Algiers, and Algee Smith is also very good as the singer in a Motown group that’s about to break out, but once he finds himself at the Algiers, he begins to change his mind about what’s important to him. Once the cops come into the motel in response to what they believe is a sniper, things get very bad very quickly, and Bigelow and the actors do an excellent job with it all. The aftermath, where the cops basically get away with it, isn’t quite as effective, but it’s still pretty good. The problem is that so much of the movie is fictionalized – as the tag at the end tells us, some aspects of the incident are not known, so the creators had to change things. That becomes a problem because the “sniper” – a man firing a starter’s pistol out a window as a joke – is the first one killed. The cops want to find the “sniper,” and that leads to everything going to hell. A few of the people being interrogated are friends of the dead man, and they were in the room when he fired out the window. The two white girls – played fairly well by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever – are just acquaintances of the dead man, and they weren’t in the room but they knew he had the pistol. Algee Smith and his friend, played by Jacob Latimore, had just met the dead man and were unimpressed with him, and they also saw that he had the pistol but weren’t in the room when it was fired. None of these people tell the cops that the dead guy showed off his starter’s pistol, and none of the people in the room with him told the cops he fired it. Why not? Maybe the cops wouldn’t have believed them, and maybe his buddies wanted to be loyal to him, but the girls and Smith and Latimore have no allegiance to him. Even his friends don’t anymore – the dude is dead. It makes no sense, and it makes me think a lot of that part was fictionalized and the writer couldn’t figure that out so he just ignored it. It’s a frustrating part of an otherwise pretty good drama. Oh well.
The Gentlemen (2019). I don’t know why Guy Ritchie stopped making gangster movies, because he’s so good at them (he made some good films and bad films between RocknRolla in 2008 and this, but I don’t think any of them were as good as his gangster movies), even though they follow the same kind of pattern. The Gentlemen is a fine return to form, as he gathers up a bunch of good actors, writes them a twisty screenplay with some good violence, and turns them loose. Matthew McConaughy is the American pot grower who’s become England’s biggest weed distributor, and he wants to sell his business and retire with his wife (Michelle Dockery), so he makes a deal with Jeremy Strong, but Henry Golding wants in too, and violence ensues. Almost the entire story is told by Hugh Grant – who’s playing a delightfully skeevy reporter – to Charlie Hunnam, who’s McConaughy’s right-hand man, at Hunnam’s posh house, as Grant was assigned by his editor – a wonderfully unhinged Eddie Marsan – to write an exposé on McConaughy, but Grant thinks he can extort McConaughy to kill the story. Colin Ferrell is there, too, as a boxing coach whose students raid one of McConaughy’s farms, which he knows is a colossally bag move. There’s a lot of moving parts, but it’s not too hard to follow, and like most Ritchie movies, there’s a lot of violence, a good deal of humor, and it moves along nice and briskly. It doesn’t end particularly well, as McConaughy and Hunnam seem deliberately stupid about something very important, but generally, it’s a good time. There’s also a bit of a lack of a good “proper villain,” as it seems Ritchie attracts good actors, none of whom want to really play the bad guy. Golding is sort of the villain, but he’s not too convincing at it. In Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Hatchet Harry was a chilling villain, and although Vinnie Jones wasn’t really that evil, he was pretty terrifying, while in Snatch, Brick Top is truly evil. Nobody in this movie is really that charismatic as the villain, and it’s too bad. Still, it’s a fun flick. Nothing wrong with that!
So those are some movies I’ve watched recently. How many have you seen, and if you haven’t seen any, get to it!