No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (1979)

The original “When a Stranger Calls” from 1979 is a horror movie I am tempted to say I have seen many times already. This is because the scenes with Carol Kane playing a babysitter who is menaced by an anonymous caller who taunts her endlessly as he constantly asks if she has checked on the kids are scenes I have watched from time to time. It’s those scenes which keep getting presented on shows which celebrate the scariest horror movie moments, and it was featured in the documentary “Terror in the Aisles.” Even Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson paid homage to it in the “Scream” movies, and they did to such a powerful effect. Those scenes were enough to frighten me to my very core as being alone in the house was always deeply frightening to me when I was young, and the sound of silence can make things seem even more unnerving as it can get punctured at any given second.

Truth is, I never watched “When a Stranger Calls” until now. I finally took the time to watch it when I found it was available to stream on Amazon Prime. Like many movies I watch on this particular streaming service, I figured I would just watch it for a few minutes and then turn it off, perhaps hoping to watch the rest of it later. But in the end, I found myself watching it to its brutal conclusion, and this proved to be for better and, especially, for worse.

“When a Stranger Calls” starts off with Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) arriving at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano and Rutanya Alda) to babysit their children while they are at a party. Everything starts off fine with Jill relaxing at the residence and speaking with her friend about the latest gossip at school. But while working on school assignments, she starts receiving phone calls from a man who keeps asking her if she has checked on the children. As the calls keep coming at her with the volume of each ring getting increasingly louder, Jill hears the man saying he wants her blood all over his body. To her credit, she does the smart thing by calling the police who attempt to trace these calls to their source. Of course, then they discover that the caller is actually inside the house…

The opening 12 minutes of “When a Stranger Calls” have long since become iconic as it does provide audiences with one of the most terrifying scenes in a horror film, and it does so without any blood or gore. Director Fred Walton does a brilliant job of setting up this babysitter in a normal home environment which is no different from the ones we have lived in, and the silence of them when the stereo isn’t on and playing the top 40 hits proves to be quite deafening. With scenes like these, we are reminded of how what we don’t see proves to be more infinitely terrifying than what we do.

But therein lies the problem with this film, it peaks too soon. Once Jill’s horrifying predicament comes to an end as she runs straight into private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning), the story then moves to a number of years later when John is obsessively pursuing the man on the other end of the phone line, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) who has just escaped the insane asylum he was committed to. What results from there is frustratingly dull as “When a Stranger Calls” wastes fine actors in a movie which looked to promise so much more than it ends up giving.

It really sucks to say this as this film features a very talented cast who do give the material their all despite it being so lackluster. Durning gives us a fully realized character who is ever so obsessed about capturing the man who laid waste to a family in the worst way possible. Beckley, who died six months after the film’s premiere, does a strong job of inhabiting such an insane and unstable character in Curt to where I never caught him overacting. We also have Colleen Dewhurst on board as Tracy Fuller, a person who comes into contact with Curt in a rather ambivalent fashion, but once she does, things become far too predictable.

“When a Stranger Calls” does eventually return to Jill’s life years later when she is married and has children of her own, and this does result in a much-needed increase in suspense and tension as we are reminded of the hell she went through. We even get one highly effective jump scare, but it all leads to a conclusion which proved to be deeply unsatisfying.

When it comes to Kane, she is the best thing this movie has to offer. She has long since proven to be a tremendous comedic talent in movies like “Annie Hall” and “The Princess Bride, the TV shows “Taxi” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and she was fearless in her portrayal of one of John Munch’s ex-wives on “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Here, she goes from playing a young student and babysitter to a woman still dealing with the trauma and guilt over a horrific event. Kane looks like an ordinary person here which helps to make her terrifying ordeal feel even more real, and she inhabits Jill with an unshakeable fear as the phone rings louder and louder and the calls get more and more threatening. Her performance is tremendous as she made me feel Jill’s fear and desperation throughout.

Now as much as I try to view a movie for what it’s trying to be instead of what I want it to be, I cannot help but think of how much better it could have been. Frankly, I think it should have focused more on Jill and how she deals with all she has been through. It could have been something along the lines of David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” reboot which catches up with Laurie Strode 40 years after her near-death encounter with Michael Myers. This would have been more enthralling as Kane is so good here, and watching her trying to process all she has been through is far more interesting than following a cop obsessed with catching a killer.

It also would have helped if Curt had been kept in the shadows, like the alien in “Alien,” the thought of him proves to be more haunting than his appearance. Some people want to see the monster right away, but like the anonymous truck driver in “Joy Ride,” a strange voice can be far more unnerving. The fact the filmmakers give Curt a face within the first half hour just killed much of the suspense and terror they thought this movie would have.

Having finally watched the original “When a Stranger Calls,” I can see why it still resonates strongly with horror fans, as those first 12 minutes are truly terrifying. While the rest of it doesn’t hold up, the opening has long since enshrined the movie as a classic scary flick in the eyes of many. It even got a sequel, albeit a made for cable one, in 1993 with “When a Stranger Calls Back,” and both Kane and Durning returned to reprise their roles. And yes, there was an inevitable remake of it back in 2006, but judging from its trailers, the thing looks like a Noxzema commercial disguised as a horror flick.  

But seriously folks, 12 great minutes does not a good movie make, and this one had the potential to much better than it was. The more I think about “When a Stranger Calls,” the more a certain question comes to mind; Is this film a cinematic example of premature ejaculation? Seriously, I’m asking for a friend.

* * out of * * * *  

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Dr. No’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008 when I was way behind on my 007 watchlist. RIP Sean Connery.

I keep hearing over and over telling me Sean Connery was the best James Bond and still is. And yet after all these years and so many 007 movies later, I have only seen a few of the ones starring Connery. Until yesterday, the only ones I had seen all the way through were “From Russia With Love” which remains one of my favorite Bond movies ever, and the rogue Bond “Never Say Never Again” which brought Connery back to the role for the first time since “Diamonds Are Forever.” The James Bond I really got weaned on as a kid was Roger Moore who played the character like a flamboyant playboy who got caught up in events he looked as though he had no business getting caught in. Nevertheless, Moore managed to get the job done even as the franchise started to descend into parody.

Yesterday, New Beverly Cinema, my favorite movie theater in Los Angeles, had a double feature of the first two Bond movies ever made: “Dr. No” & “From Russia With Love.” I had seen bits and pieces of “Dr. No” previously, but never the whole way through. Watching it today, this 007 adventure seems like an average Bond with the megalomaniac villain bent on world domination. I was starting to get sick of this in the last few films which starred Pierce Brosnan as Ian Fleming’s famous spy. Every once in a while, I like to see Bond go head to head with a villain who is not looking for an infinite level of power, but instead one whom he just wants revenge over like in “License to Kill.”

It helps, however, to keep in mind what action movies were like before James Bond came along. Compared to “Dr. No,” they were nowhere as gritty. Shooting female characters in a film was not allowed back in 1962, and this Bond quickly did away with this unwritten law. There was a lot more going on than just your average good guy here. While it might appear to be something of an average film for those seeing it today, “Dr. No” was in many ways a groundbreaking film which led to a franchise which has lasted longer than so many others.

OK, I am in agreement, nobody played James Bond better than Connery, and this is even though I consider Daniel Craig to be a very close second. His very first appearance as 007 in “Dr. No” was truly brilliant as you could see him at the card playing table, but you did not see his face until he uttered one of the most famous lines in cinematic history:

“Bond. James Bond.”

My dad is always telling me what made Connery so great in playing Bond is that he was so believable in how he could romance a woman one second, and then slap her when she was holding back information from him. There was a raw danger which Connery brought to this iconic character, and he set the bar almost impossibly high for the others who inhabited Bond after him. When he lets a driver take him to his destination, even though he knows this driver is up to no good, shows how quickly Bond can change from being suave and debonair to lethal and dangerous in a heartbeat. Connery’s Bond kept his cool and managed to get his way in the end. The bad guys think they have him cornered, but this is what he wants them to think.

It is endlessly interesting to see how the Bond movies have evolved since “Dr. No.” It remains the only 007 film to not have a pre-titles scene which the others are famous for having. It just goes right into the gun barrel opening in which Bond shoots right at us. The titles look cheesy today as “Dr. No” and “007” are put everywhere on the silver screen. It was the first of many opening credits sequences designed by Maurice Binder, and this one remains the most disjointed of the bunch. It goes from the unforgettable Monty Norman theme we all know to three men superimposed over the credits to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.” The audience at the New Beverly laughed at this part, and I couldn’t help but laugh myself. Things have changed a lot since “Dr. No” came out.

Seeing Bond flirt for the first time with Miss Moneypenny (the late Lois Maxwell) here makes me miss the banter these two characters have had from one film to the next. Miss Moneypenny was not in “Casino Royale,” and I have no idea if we will ever see her again in the future. But seeing these characters here for the first time reminded me of how great and fun their banter was until M made her buzz Bond in for his next assignment. Just when things got interesting between the two, business comes to obliterate pleasure.

In “Dr. No,” Bond actually gets to bed several different ladies instead of just one. Connery makes seduction look so easy to pull off. The fact such seduction is not this easy in real life is utterly frustrating. This lucky bastard of an Oscar winning actor had quite a selection before he came to meet the first Bond woman ever, Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), whose entrance in a flesh colored bikini is still one for the ages. This also marked the first time Bond actually sang, and he has not sung since. I can’t help but wonder if this was a good or bad thing. Then again, I can’t quite picture Timothy Dalton singing “Thunderball.” As for Brosnan, I never want to hear him sing again after “Mamma Mia.”

One of Bond’s first death-defying moments involved a tarantula, and just typing out this particular spider’s description sends shivers down my spine! UGGH! This may have been why I never bothered to watch “Dr. No” earlier in my life. Those damn things creep me out like nothing else. Seriously, get that creature away from me! Easily one of the scariest moments in any Bond movie, the tension escalates so quickly to where the rest of this movie can never quite match it. Still, it wouldn’t be the last time we saw spiders in a Bond movie. My brother covered my eyes during one scene in “Octopussy” which included them. I think it is just as well that he did.

Watching “Dr. No” was fun, and it is an excellent Bond movie in many ways. Time has not been exactly kind to it though. We can see the green screen being used, so we have to snicker some. The pace is a lot more leisurely, and no Bond movie can move so slowly these days. Norman’s Bond theme is played endlessly here to where we threaten to get sick of it. But decades later, it is impossible to tire of this theme as it is to tire of John Carpenter’s theme to “Halloween.”

The print New Beverly Cinema had of “Dr. No” was in peak condition, and it was a recent printing down for the occasion of United Artists’ 90th anniversary. It was great to see it on the big screen all the way through instead of just on television. From here, the Bond series had nowhere to go but up. The formula was more or less perfected with “From Russia With Love,” and the producers did not mess with this formula until after “Die Another Day.” I enjoyed “Dr. No,” and I love how it paved the way for many more exciting adventures with this British spy. May there be many more in the years to come.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Killing Fields’

I remember renting this film from Netflix a few years ago and telling my friends what I was about to watch. I got a good dose of jaws dropping open and many of the same responses:

“Oh, that’s a fun one!”

“Go into it with a strong stomach. There are scenes in it that will pulverize you!”

“Not a fun movie!”

I remember hearing a lot about “The Killing Fields” when it was first released back in 1984, but it took me until recently to finally sit down and watch it all the way through. From a distance, it looks like another in a long line of movies about the Vietnam War and of the terrible damage it left in its wake. But in actuality, it takes place in Cambodia when the country is in the midst of a civil war with the Khmer Rouge regime; a result of the Vietnam War spilling over the country’s borders. It is based on the memoirs of award-winning American journalist Sydney Schanberg who was a correspondent for The New York Times, and of how he spent years reporting the endless fighting and bombing which took place in Cambodia and Laos. Along with photographers Jon Swain (Julian Sands) and Al Rockoff (John Malkovich), he works to capture the reality of this horrific situation as it escalates into something far worse, and before the United States military can sanitize what is being presented for public consumption.

But as much as “The Killing Fields” is about what happened in this conflict, it is really at its heart a story of friendship between Sydney and his translator, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. Together, they work to get to the unvarnished proof of the situation and risk their lives in many instances. In the process of escaping Southeast Asia with their lives, Schanberg helps Pran’s family escape, but as the Americans get ready to leave, they are forced to give up Pran as the new regime wants all Cambodian citizens to be returned to them. This leads to a guilt ridden Schanberg spending as much time as possible searching for Pran through humanitarian services and government officials. While he does so, we watch Pran being subjected to forced labor under the “Year Zero” policy the Khmer Rouge initiated to destroy the past and start a new future.

The scene where Dith Pran stumbles upon the corpses left to rot in the Cambodian fields is where the movie gets its name, and these images will never leave my mind. In that moment, director Roland Joffé captures the vicious and evil nature of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s answer to Adolf Hitler. What happened in these fields is no different from what the Nazi’s had done to the Jews during World War II. But what’s even worse is this same kind of ethnic cleansing is still being exacted in different parts of the world today. Some might foolishly think the events of “The Killing Fields” have no real relevance to what we are suffering through today, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, with this movie, we get depressing proof of how history repeats itself.

What gives “The Killing Fields” even more emotional heft is that Haing S. Ngor, who plays Dith Pran, went through the same ordeal as did his real-life counterpart. It is impossible to watch Ngor here without knowing he shared a horrifyingly similar experience as he had to convince the soldiers he was an uneducated peasant. Had they realized Dith was really an intellectual and a reporter, he would have been killed right on the spot. Ngor was not a professional actor when he got cast, so he doesn’t act as much as provide an undeniably human face of what Cambodians were forced to endure when the Khmer Rouge came to town, and he gives what is undoubtedly one of the bravest performances I have ever see. Forget the Oscar; Ngor should have received the Purple Heart!

But as great as Ngor is, let’s not leave out the other actors whose work is every bit as good. Sam Waterston plays Sidney Schanberg, and this was long before he got involved in that long-running show with the overbearing “chung CHUNG” sound. Waterston does exceptional work capturing Schanberg’s relentless quest for truth and presenting it for all the world to see. Throughout, we see him stubbornly pursue whatever sources are available to him regardless of how it puts his life and the lives of those close to him in constant mortal danger. This later leads to a deep sense of guilt as he encouraged Dith Pran to stay with him even though he was at greater risk than anyone else in his circle. Waterston captures the complexities of a reporter who sees the importance of getting at the heart of a story as well as the large cost which becomes all too difficult to deal with.

In addition, we have John Malkovich in one of his earliest roles, and we see the unrelenting intensity he brings to Al Rockoff as he quickly recovers from an explosion which goes off right next him. Almost immediately, Malkovich jumps right back up to take as many photos as possible. Julian Sands also has one of his earliest roles here as fellow photographer Jon Swain, and this was long before he got stuck in those “Warlock” movies. Plus, you have Craig T. Nelson on board as Major Reeves, the face of the military officials who work to cover up American mistakes while maintaining whatever control they have left over an increasingly chaotic situation.

And then there is the late Spalding Gray who co-stars as the U.S. Consul, and his experience of making “The Killing Fields” ended up inspiring his one-man monologue “Swimming to Cambodia.” Hence, another career was born thanks to this movie which led to many more immensely entertaining monologues performed by him until he left us ever so tragically.

Looking back, it’s surprising to see “The Killing Fields” marked the feature film directorial debut of Roland Joffé. From watching this, I figured he had been directing motion pictures already for decades. Nothing on display here ever feels like it was staged or overly rehearsed. Joffé makes you feel like you are watching a very in-depth documentary which no one else could have pulled off, and that is saying a lot.

Joffe was also aided greatly by Director of Photography Chris Menges, who won an Oscar for his work here, as he captures a land and a time which is anything but sentimental. Composer Mike Oldfield, best known for composing and performing “Tubular Bells,” also provides an original sounding film score which heightens the horror and unrelenting chaos consuming Cambodia and those unlucky enough to be stuck there.

All these years later, “The Killing Fields” remains an immensely powerful cinematic achievement, and I wonder if people still think about it as much as they did back in the 80’s. Ngor, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (I was rooting for Pat Morita who was nominated for “The Karate Kid“), was murdered during a robbery in downtown Los Angeles outside his home in Chinatown. Knowing he survived the horrific fate which consumed and destroyed the lives of many Cambodians only to have his life cruelly ended in such an utterly senseless crime makes watching this film today seem all the more tragic.

As for Joffé, he went on to direct “The Mission” with Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons which received critical acclaim. But then he helmed the dreadfully miscalculated adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” which changed the end of the book and added more sex to it for all the wrong reasons. Then he went on to direct “Captivity,” a movie so blatantly unwatchable I turned it off after less than 20 minutes. You look at “The Killing Fields” and then at “Captivity,” and you wonder what the heck happened to this guy.

I am really glad I finally took the time to watch “The Killing Fields” long after its original release in 1984. Even if its Best Picture montage give away the film’s ending, it did not take away from the experience of watching it. This proved to be not just a great directorial debut, but a great collaboration of artists who completely sucked you into the reality of a place and time many of us would never want to experience up close. So many years later, this is a cinematic masterpiece which forces you to experience what people go through. There’s no way to come out of “The Killing Fields” without being deeply affected by it.

I desperately tried to resist using this cliché, but I have to say it; they don’t make movies like this anymore. With Hollywood’s constant obsession with comic book and superhero movies, let alone the latest unnecessary remake, you have to wonder if we will ever see a movie like “The Killing Fields” ever again.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Grey Fox’

I remember when this film came out in 1982. I was a big fan of movie review shows like “At the Movies” back then, and the scene where Bill Miner tells an unsuspecting passenger about how he used to rob stagecoaches always stayed with me. As a result, when the opportunity came to watch “The Grey Fox,” which Kino Lorber has just re-released in a new 4K restoration, I jumped at the chance. The question was, do I put this film in the “No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now” category of this website, or in the one known as “Underseen Movies” as it has been said the film only grossed $5 million worldwide. Well, considering how I remember when it was first released 38 years ago, I think the former category makes the most sense.

“The Grey Fox” stars Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber who eventually became known as “The Gentleman Bandit” after masterminding 26 robberies and for originating the command, “Hands Up!” As the film opens, Bill is being released from San Quentin Prison after a 33-year prison sentence, and he is also heading straight into the 20th Century, a period in time which he may not be the least bit prepared for.

Bill seems to get off to a nice start as he takes a train ride where a fellow passenger shows him a device which peels apples very quickly, and he seems amiable even when he tells this passenger how he once robbed stagecoaches. But while his sister gives him the warmest of welcomes, her husband, well aware of his past crimes, is not quick to show Bill the same kind of welcome. Bill is eager to show him he is worthy of his attention, and the next day he begins a new job which has him shucking oysters.

Things look to be going okay, but then Bill sits down in a movie theater which is playing “The Great Train Robbery,” the classic film which is especially famous for a scene where an actor shot his gun right at the camera. As we look at Bill’s face, we see a passion arise in him to where he becomes intent on resuming his previous career sooner than later. His sister begs him to stay, but he tells her, “I have ambitions in me that just won’t quit.”

Most films from the 1980’s take their sweet time in showing their main character start off being released from prison and adjusting to life as a civilian before giving up and returning to a life of a crime. Back then, you did not need to speed everything along to get to the good stuff, and learning of a character’s history and experiences proved to be rewarding in a way which added to the cinematic experience. Of course, as time went on, filmmakers are obligated to move through the story at a rapid pace even if we do not have time to catch our breath. What is interesting here is how the filmmakers of “The Grey Fox” do not hesitate to move past Bill’s attempts to live as a peaceful civilian in very quickly in order to see him return to his previous occupation as a robber. If there were any other 80’s films which pulled off such a feat, I have yet to watch them.

In many ways, “The Grey Fox” is an anti-western along the lines of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as Bill’s exploits are not as spectacular as this genre may suggest. His initial efforts to rob trains of their valuables proves to be unsuccessful as he is confronting by those who are not quick to give up anything without a fight. While his exploits may have made him infamous in the past, he is now living in an age which is far more eager to stop crime than celebrate it. As a result, he flees to Canada to see if he can have more success there as his passion for adventure usurps most other desires in his life.

“The Grey Fox” was directed by Phillip Borsos who had previously found tremendous critical acclaim in Canada with his short films “Nails,” “Spartree” and “Cooperage.” “The Grey Fox” marked his feature film directorial debut, and it proved to be a resounding triumph as he created a wonderful character study of a man trying to survive in a time he is not fully prepared to live in as he goes back to what made him famous, or infamous, in the first place. Along with cinematographer Frank Tidy, he perfectly captures the beauty of the Canadian wilderness which anyone can get lost in, and serves to illustrate how isolated Bill has been over the years. I have yet to view this film on the silver screen as the world is still in the grips of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), but I do hope the day will come when I can.

Borsos would go on to direct “The Mean Season” which starred Kurt Russell, and anything with Kurt Russell in it has got to be worth seeing. His last film was “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog,” an innocent adventure film which came out at a time when younger audiences were starting to get more cynical about the family movies being released in theaters. I remember when an English teacher I had in college remarked at how the film’s trailer was playing and of her observing teenagers a couple of rows ahead of her who remarked at how it looked “lame.” She would go on to say how our generation was being mediatized to where we had been forever robbed of our innocence.

What a shame Borsos’ life got cut short at the far too young age of 41 following a battle with acute myeloblastic leukemia. He still had a lot to give to us from behind the camera.

But let’s be honest, the real star of “The Grey Fox” is indeed Richard Farnsworth who is unforgettable to where it makes perfect sense why he was cast as “The Gentleman Bandit.” Having started out as a stuntman who later became an actor and appeared in movies such as “Gone with The Wind,” “Red River” and “The Wild One,” he had already been working in show business for years when he got this role. Vincent Canby was correct in describing “Farnsworth” as being “remarkably appealing with a face the camera adores.” The actor, who passed away back in 2000 after a painful battle with cancer, certainly had a face which had life written all over it, and it is the kind of face Hollywood does not value as much as it used to.

Farnsworth creates a lived-in portrait of a man who is famous for being a robber, but who ended up spending more time behind bars than he did robbing stagecoaches. From start to finish, he nails the complexities of Bill Miner who proved to be a genuine, thoughtful, gentleman-like, loving, and at times quite the dangerous individual. And those eyes of Farnsworth’s are beautifully indeed as he lets us into his soul to show a life still yearning for adventure and a connection with someone which can possibly give him something to live for other than robbing trains.

The actor also has some terrific scenes opposite Jackie Burroughs who portrays feminist photographer Katherine Flynn. They have instant chemistry together, and their dialogue feels real, genuine and not the least bit manipulative. When the truth of who Bill is comes to the surface, we can see in Burroughs’ eyes how Katherine cannot simply tear herself away from him. Bill is one of the more unique individuals she could ever hope to meet, and Katherine knows she will likely never meet someone like him ever again, so why stop things there?

Well, it took me almost 40 years to sit down and watch “The Grey Fox” after that movie clip I saw on “At the Movies” was forever burned into my conscious mind. I think it is safe to say it was well worth the wait. Lord knows I would never have appreciated it on the same level when I was 7 years old, so it’s nice to catch up with it now long after my view of movies had evolved to another level. It is a beautiful relic which deserves to be embraced by a new generation of film buffs. I do hope you take the time to see it whether in a theater or by virtual cinema. With this new 4K restoration, it is now more beautiful than ever.

* * * * out of * * * *

Please click here to visit “The Grey Fox” page at the Kino Lorber website.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Bonnie and Clyde

I went into “Bonnie and Clyde” with the same mind set I had when I sat down to watch Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I figured the passing of time dilute the immense power it possessed upon its initial release. Plus, already knowing the basic story, I felt I was more than prepared for the movie’s most controversial elements to where I did not think I would come out of it particularly disturbed.

But in the end, none of that mattered. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” still is an extremely unsettling horror film, but “Bonnie and Clyde” isn’t far off in the shocking department. It’s a brilliant character piece which follows the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as they make their way across America robbing banks, and of the people they pick up on their journey. It was also one of the first films to come out of the New Hollywood era in how it portrayed sex and violence in a much more visceral fashion. More than 40 years later, it still packs a powerful wallop, and nothing has taken away from its accomplishments.

Yes, this is another one of those movies “based on a true story,” a major pet peeve of mine as this term typically signals another real-life story undone by clichés and Hollywood formulaic conventions. This term, however, is not seen in the opening credits which is a major plus. Instead, we are presented with snapshots of the title characters which, while from a time long since past, feel very vivid. By introducing these two infamous people in this fashion, we are already drawn into their reality without questioning it much. I wish more movies today would try this tactic more often as it has me believing I am about to watch something out of the ordinary.

“Bonnie and Clyde” jumps right into the action as we come upon Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) listlessly resting in bed and clearly bored with her life as a waitress. When she suddenly spots the mischievous Clyde (Warren Beatty) trying to steal her mother’s car, she is immediately smitten and jumps right out of the house to join him. While in town, Clyde tells her he robs banks, and she questions just how serious he is. Clyde ends up proving it to her by robbing a store across the street, and he proudly shows off the loot he absconded with. From there, these two are on the run and crazy in love with one another.

What is shown onscreen likely doesn’t resemble complete historical accuracy, but Arthur Penn’s true aim was to present a more romanticized version of these two individuals who were as passionate as they were dangerous. The story takes place in the middle of the Great Depression when families lost much of what they owned, and criminals were treated like celebrities. This becomes apparent when Bonnie and Clyde hide out at an abandoned farmhouse when its owner comes by for one last look. It turns out the bank took his farm from him heartlessly, and the two bank robbers no longer see him as a threat but as someone who was thoughtlessly wronged. When they tell him they rob banks, the farmer sees them like they are coming to the rescue of folks like him. Now does any of this remind you of anything we are going through in this day and age?

But don’t mistake the romanticism of “Bonnie and Clyde” as being the same as glamorizing the criminal lifestyle. While Beatty and Dunaway look fabulous in their costumes, which quickly became fashion statements of the time, the violence shown here is harsh in its senseless brutality. The movie marked the first time a character got shot at and killed all in the same frame, and even today it is still shocking to watch.

This brings me to another big accomplishment of this classic film; the screenplay makes us empathize with these characters. Brilliantly written by David Newman and Robert Benton, with Robert Towne on board as a special consultant), the screenplay sucks us completely into the lives of these criminals to where we don’t get much of a perspective outside it. Now in real life we have the common sense not to be around these people, but the appeal of being so close to those who are considered famous is more enticing than we ever care to admit. Bonnie and Clyde are criminals, but we are seduced by their desire to lead a life that unrestrained by legal boundaries and filled with a strong desire to feel alive. Seriously, this devilish desire exists in all of us as everyone has a dark side.

With Beatty, I have long since gotten so used to seeing him as one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen. But watching him as Clyde wiped this image away from my consciousness for two hours, and I was instantly reminded of what a great and charismatic actor he was and still is. He must have had the time of his life playing this gleefully law-breaking criminal because it shows in his face throughout. Beatty inhabits Clyde with a wild abandon, fully accepting of the path this character has taken in life with little to no remorse.

Watching Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, it’s easy to see why this movie turned her into such a big star. Now I don’t just mean her first scene where she stands naked in front of her bedroom window as she stares seductively down at Beatty. What struck me was how she brought a fantastically crazed energy to Bonnie as she fearlessly takes this character through a throng of deeply felt emotions. Whether she is in sheer ecstasy or utter frustration over her circumstances, she fully inhabits Bonnie to where it’s impossible to catch her acting.

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked one first movie roles for the great Gene Hackman who plays Clyde’s never-do-well brother, Buck. It’s immensely entertaining to watch him imbue Buck with such a combustible lifeforce, and it makes me miss his work on the big screen all the more. Seriously, he deserves a better cinematic swan song than “Welcome to Mooseport.”

I remember Michael Pollard from “Tango & Cash” in which he lent Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell his state-of-the-art van which they, unsurprisingly, destroy. As getaway driver C.W. Moss, I can’t help but wonder if he got typecast as a car expert or mechanic on the basis of his performance here. Whatever the case, I loved how he got all sucked into the fame this bank robbing duo were obsessed with, and the look of fear and confusion on his face when things go horribly wrong reflects our own. Like him, we slowly realize just how deep into the muck we have gotten ourselves into.

Estelle Parsons, who plays Buck’s wife, Blanche, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. Regardless, I have to say though I was with Bonnie in wanting to shut Blanche the hell up because she was constantly yelling throughout the whole film, and I can only take so much of that. Still, you have to admire just how far Parsons went with her character. If Blanche and Buck ever had a son, it would have looked and sounded a lot like Bill Paxton’s character of Hudson from “Aliens.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked the film debut of Gene Wilder, and he gives the movie some of its funniest moments as Eugene Grizzard. When the gang steals his car, Eugene promises his girlfriend he will tear them apart. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and watching Wilder’s expressions throughout reminds us of what a brilliant comedian and actor he was.

Arthur Penn was not just looking to make an average gangster movie, nor was he showing violence for the sake of it. Even back in the 1960’s, there were already several movies like this one, and he had to find a way to make it stand out from the pack. By giving us the combustible elements of sex and violence, he made “Bonnie and Clyde” a true classic for the ages. There are never really and good or bad guys to root for or against here, and by its viciously bloody conclusion, we are emotionally drained at all we have witnessed. Whether or not you feel justice was served, you still can’t escape the feeling of loss presented here.

This movie certainly has had a huge influence on many other movies I deeply admire like Tony Scott’s “True Romance,” Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” or even Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise.” The combination of sex and violence remains a potent one in some of the best films ever made, and I would like to think “Bonnie and Clyde” was the first one to make this clear to audiences.

I apologize for taking way too long to sit down and watch this one, but in retrospect, it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Damien – Omen II’

Damien Omen II poster

Now here’s a sequel which I have avoided watching for far too long. Richard Donner’s “The Omen” was a classic horror movie that dealt with the antichrist coming back to the land of the living in the form of a young boy named Damien. When Damien stared right into the camera at “The Omen’s” conclusion, it was the perfect climax as evil was not vanquished like it is in most movies, and we were left unnerved as nothing could stop him it seemed. As a result, the thought of doing a sequel seemed pointless as there was no way you could top the last scene.

But we all know that things didn’t stop there, and in 1978 we got “Damien: Omen II” which had us catching up with Damien seven years after the events of the original. Like many sequels, it pales in comparison to the original, but it still has its moments which kept me gripped to my seat even though its conclusion was never in doubt.

Damien Thorn (played here by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) has since been adopted by his powerful uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden) and his wife Ann (Lee Grant), and he is one of the top students at a military academy. Whereas Harvey Spencer Stephens, who played Damien in the original “Omen,” portrayed the antichrist as being pretty well aware of who he was in the large scheme of things, Scott-Taylor portrays him as a pre-pubescent boy who has yet to discover the deadly powers he possesses and of what he is destined to do. Still, he does gives off great Kubrickian glares throughout which lets us know he is not one to be messed with.

In some ways “Damien: Omen II” feels like a missed opportunity as the story could have been a beautifully twisted take on the typical coming-of-age movie where we go on a journey with a young character struggling through adolescence to where he finally becomes comfortable with who he is. When Damien finds out he is indeed the Antichrist and runs out of the school in sheer panic, this seemed promising because it felt like the filmmakers were not out to make him the typical one-dimensional villain. However, it didn’t take him long to accept his newfound identity, and soon after he’s like, “Okay that’s cool, I’m an evil mofo. I can live with that.”

It would have been more interesting if Damien would have struggled with this more throughout the movie to where his transition to accepting his true identity would be all the more understandable and terrifying. It could have been like when Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side in those “Star Wars” prequels, but with better dialogue.

Still, “Damien: Omen II” does have a lot of good things about it, and horror fans will definitely get a huge kick out of the merciless killings displayed in gory detail for their benefit. One lady gets attacked by crows and has her eyes torn out, one guy gets smashed between two train cars, one guy falls into the icy water during a hockey game and is carried away by the current, and a doctor becomes the victim of an elevator accident which outdoes David Warner’s decapitation in the first “Omen.” Watching these killings gives the viewer quite the visceral punch, and if this is what you’re looking for here, you won’t be disappointed.

William Holden is well cast as Richard Thorn, the wealthy industrialist who looks to have all the power in the world. It’s interesting to note Holden turned down the role Gregory Peck had in “The Omen” because he didn’t want to do a movie about the devil, so he must have been kicking himself silly when it came out and was a huge hit. Well, Holden makes up for the missed opportunity by playing a man who thinks he has control over everything but soon finds this couldn’t be further from the truth. He is also paired with the great Lee Grant who plays his wife Ann, someone whose overprotectiveness of Damien becomes very clear as the movie goes on.

It’s also great to see actors like Lance Henriksen, who is great in everything he appears in, as Damien’s commanding officer Sergeant Neff. Like any good leader, Neff knows how to bring out the best in his soldiers, but what he brings out of Damien is something we can’t agree is his best (not that it matters to either of them). “Damien: Omen II” also marked the film debut of the late Meshach Taylor who plays the character with the most memorable and vicious death sequence this sequel has to offer. While it might sound like I’m giving something away, trust me when I say that you will see his demise coming from a mile away. You just won’t be able to guess how he will die.

Of course, this is the kind of horror movie where most of the characters act idiotically. Those who learn that Damien is the Antichrist either get killed off quickly or come across as raving lunatics the main characters are quick to dismiss. Then again, it’s hard to present your evidence to anyone in a rational manner when you’re dealing with something so evil. It’s not like you can just go up to someone and say, “Uh dude? Your son is the devil and you may want to consider killing him. Just saying.”

“Damien: Omen II” was directed by Don Taylor as Donner was busy making “Superman.” Taylor started out in show business as an actor and gave memorable performances in “Stalag 17,” the original “Father of the Bride” and “The Naked City.” As time went on he transitioned to directing and helmed movies such as “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Tom Sawyer.” He had a tough act to follow as “The Omen” was a benchmark in the horror genre, but for the most part he fares well in putting together a sequel which fares better than others of its ilk. There are some good jump scares, some wonderfully gory deaths, and he keeps us watching as Damien throttles through adolescence with a confidence you can’t help but be unsettled by.

But after all these years, it’s safe to say the biggest star of “The Omen” franchise is the late Jerry Goldsmith. He won an Oscar for his score to the first film, and his score for “Damien: Omen II” proves to be every bit as unforgettable as what came before. The chorus of voices singing “Ave Satani” keeps you on edge as his music makes you fully aware something really bad is about to happen. There are few other film scores out there which can you fill you with such dread as this one does.

It’s astonishing I waited so ridiculously long to watch “Damien: Omen II” after having been so enthralled with “The Omen” when I first saw it, but I guess I didn’t want to spoil the experience. But its first sequel proves to be better than many give it credit for, and it eventually proved to be the only good sequel in a franchise which got too big for its own good. “Omen III: The Final Conflict” proved to be anticlimactic despite it starring Sam Neill, “Omen IV: The Awakening” was inescapably awful, “The Omen” remake in 2006 reminded us why shot-for-shot remakes are largely unnecessary, and the A&E television series “Damien” did not fare well critically. At the same time, the ongoing mission to make “The Omen” relevant in this day and age reminds me of what John Carpenter once said in regards to “Halloween’s” Michael Myers, “Evil never dies.”

On top of that, the “Omen” movies remind me of the lyrics from my favorite Iron Maiden song:

“Woe to you, oh earth and sea

For the Devil sends the beast with wrath

Because he knows the time is short

Let him who hath understanding

Reckon the number of the beast

For it is a human number

Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.”

* * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Super Fly’ (1972)

Super Fly 1972 poster

With the remake about to be released, it was time to check out “Super Fly,” the 1972 blaxploitation crime drama which is considered one of the biggest classics of the genre. I have been aware of this film’s existence for years, and the photo on its VHS cover of Ron O’Neal holding a gun and looking ever so cool in his white suit and pants has been burned into my memory for decades. But like many movies I perused at local video stores, all of which have since vanished, I never got around to watching it until now.

While I certainly understand why “Super Fly” is long considered a classic blaxploitation film, it is not necessarily a great movie. On one hand the signs of its low budget are very much on display throughout to where I was reminded of what John Carpenter once said about the rule of making independent movies: “Shoot as little film as possible and make it as long as you can.” But on the other, it presents us with a New York time which no longer exists in modern day America, and the gritty realism of the city streets is on display throughout to where the movie’s existence is especially important as you can only fake this kind of realism in today’s cinematic world.

Ron O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, an African-American drug dealer who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle in Harlem, New York. He got the name Priest because of the cross he wears around his neck. While this cross may or may not reflect his belief in God or any religious deity, a closer inspection reveals that the tip of the cross is fashioned in the shape of a spoon, and this allows him to do lines of cocaine whenever he needs a hit. In addition to his high-class apartment, the kind which would fetch at least a million in today’s New York real estate market, he also has a dedicated girlfriend in Georgia (Sheila Frazier), a white girl mistress named Cynthia (Polly Niles), the best set of clothes any man would be lucky to own and wear at the time, and he drives around town in a 1971 customized Cadillac Eldorado. Looking at Priest is to be convinced this is a man who has a lot of power and confidence you would be foolish to question, and this is something he does not have to spell out to anyone in words.

But as successful as Priest is, he yearns for a life outside of the underground drug business. This, of course, leads to him to plan one last “big score” which he believes will allow him to retire and go straight, but those of us who have watched countless gangster movies know this last big score will be the one fraught with the most danger. It gets to where there I expected the one scene where Priest just shakes his head as if to say to himself, “I should have gotten out of the life sooner, and now it’s too late.” Still, Priest is much smarter than his friends and foes realize, and we watch as he plots his way to his biggest drug deal ever, and then attempt to stay one step of everyone else who wants to do him in.

It has been said that the screenplay for “Super Fly” was only 45 pages long, and this is why we get exposed to so many shots of people walking, driving and talking in restaurants. This is the kind of film editing you would never see today as everything needs to move at a fast pace. This ends up dragging the movie down a bit as certain moments play themselves out for much longer than is necessary. Still, it allows us to take a look back at the New York that was before it, for better or worse, was cleaned up to where much of the state if unaffordable to live in. This helps to make up for other scenes which are staged rather pathetically, especially one in which a character gets hit by a car.

O’Neal immediately comes across as the personification of cool from the first moment he appears onscreen. He was in his 30’s when starred in “Super Fly,” but his face has the look of a man who has seen a lot in life up to that point, and this makes his performance as Priest feel all the more powerful and authentic. I never got the feeling he was trying to glamourize Priest’s lifestyle, and he was not afraid to make this character a rough and unlikable dude at times. He simply portrays Priest as a man who makes his way through life the only way he knows how, and his methods as you can imagine are not always morally sound.

As for the rest of the cast, their performances range from okay to pretty good. Charles McGregor, who was released from prison before “Super Fly” began filming, has some good moments as Fat Freddie, and Carl Lee, who plays Eddie, has a strong scene in which he tells Priest if it wasn’t for him, he would have overdosed. This line of dialogue would later prove to be tragically ironic as Lee became a heroin addict, and he died of a drug overdose back in 1986.

When “Super Fly” was released, many African-Americans were said to have been displeased with the way the movie glamourized people like themselves as drug dealers and pimps, but it resonated deeply with others who saw the movie as an example of how to rise up in the American class system. Does this movie glamourize the lifestyles of drug dealers? Well, perhaps it does, but the scary truth is there is always an allure to a life like this as it affords us a wealth which constantly seems out of our reach. Still, it should be noted how we never really see Priest enjoying himself much in the movie. While he has many things a person would want in life, we see right from the start how he has long since tired of his role in society to where it is believable and understandable why he yearns to do something legitimate for a change.

For those who think “Super Fly” provides audiences with a rather ambiguous look at the world of drugs and drug dealing back in the 1970’s, you need to take the time to listen Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to it which, by the way, is one of the best of its kind ever. An exhilarating fusion of soul and funk music, Mayfield also provided lyrics which were very socially aware and took an even closer look at drugs and poverty in society. When you read the lyrics of the song “Freddie’s Dead,” you can see the evidence of this very clearly:

“Everybody’s misused him

Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan

Pushing dope for the man

A terrible blow

But that’s how it goes

A Freddie’s on the corner now

If you want to be a junkie, wow

Remember Freddie’s dead

We’re all built up with progress

But sometimes I must confess

We can deal with rockets and dreams

But reality, what does it mean

Ain’t nothing said

‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”

Looking at this, it is no wonder the soundtrack ended up making more money than the movie itself, and the movie did make a huge profit.

So “Super Fly” may not be an example of great filmmaking, but it should be noted how its production succeeded in offering advances for African-Americans. The city of Harlem went out of its way to back the movie financially, and many black businesses helped with production costs. Furthermore, the majority of the crew were in fact African-American, something which was very rare at this time in cinema. Taking all this into account makes “Super Fly” all the more enjoyable as it was a movie made with passion and respect as the filmmakers sought to tell it like it is. Despite its glaring flaws, it is a very cool movie to experience, and I am glad I finally got the chance to check it out, especially before I went out to see the remake.

* * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Dracula’ (1931)

Dracula 1931 poster

While at a party celebrating the DVD, Blu-ray and Digital release of “Ouija,” I was one of several people who won the DVD box set of “Universal Classic Monsters,” a complete 30-film collection of all the movies from Universal Pictures’ Monster Universe which played in theaters from 1931 to 1956. These movies included such iconic characters as Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Phantom of the Opera, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. With the occasion of Halloween rapidly approaching, I decided to sit down and watch the 1931 English-language version of “Dracula.” While I am familiar about Count Dracula and how he says “I want to suck your blood” on what seems like a regular basis, this marks the first time I have taken the time to sit down and watch this particular movie.

Having grown in a time of horror movies like “Jaws,” Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” I wondered how this would affect my enjoyment of this horror classic which was first released back in 1931. Watching “Dracula” today made me wonder if I would react to it in disdain, and I came out of it wondering how I would have reacted to it were I alive and watched it when it first came out. Nevertheless, I can see why this version of “Dracula” remains such an unforgettable cinematic classic. While certain aspects of its production seem cheap by today’s standards (we all know it took a fishing pole to make the bat fly), time has been kinder to this version than I expected.

“Dracula” begins with a group of people riding in a stagecoach to a local village, and among them is Renfield (Dwight Frye), a solicitor on his way to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula for business purposes. The mention of Dracula’s name, however, has everyone reacting with wide-eyed expressions (and we are talking really wide) as his reputation for sucking blood is never in doubt, and the townspeople beg Renfield to reconsider going to his residence. But unlike some stupid kid in an 80’s horror flick eager to tempt fate because he thinks he is invincible, Renfield has actual business to do with Dracula, so it’s understandable how the man will not be deterred from meeting with the man everyone rightfully believes is a vampire. Of course, by the time Renfield discovers this, it is too late.

The first thing I want to talk about in regards to this particular version of “Dracula” is the man who plays Bram Stoker’s iconic character, Bela Lugosi. Before watching this movie, I was more familiar with what happened to Lugosi’s career after he played Dracula than what came before it. A victim of typecasting, he would later descend into oblivion to where he appeared in Ed Wood’s infamous films, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” being the most memorable, and people in Hollywood had long since assumed he had died. Lugosi would be memorialized years later by the late Martin Landau who played him in Tim Burton’s delightful and thoughtful biopic “Ed Wood.”

But seeing him here made me realized just how perfectly cast Lugosi was why he remained forever typecast as a result. From his first appearance, Lugosi is an insidiously frightening presence as all he has to do is stare in the distance to give you an idea of how threatening he can be if you dare cross him. When he claims his first onscreen victim, he simply waves his arm to let his three undead wives know this one is his to turn. When it comes to movies, this is an example of showing power as the character doesn’t need words to show how commanding they are.

Lugosi is wonderfully mesmerizing throughout “Dracula” as he just needs to give off a look with his eyes to let you know what is going on in his obsessive mind. Every physical step he takes is tinged with a sheer menace, and the actor also benefits from the wonderful cinematography by Karl Freund, whom many consider an uncredited director on this film. When he tells a character to “come here,” the power in his voice more than suggests you should take his order very, very seriously as he doesn’t need any additional dialogue from David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin.

It should be noted how when this film was made, Hollywood had just emerged from the era of silent movies.  As a result, the acting is more emotive than the kind we often see in movies today. The transition from silent films to talkies was not without its bumps, so the actors we see here are still used to a process of trying to get things across to an audience by acting out emotions instead of inhabiting their characters. Still, I did get a kick out of Dwight Frye’s performance as Renfield as he is clearly having a blast playing an infinitely possessed human being whose suffering, caused by a vampire’s bite, comes close to equaling Nicolas Cage’s present-day theatrics.

“Dracula” was directed by Tod Browning, a filmmaker who these days is better known for his 1932 cult classic, “Freaks,” one of the movies which is impossible to erase from the mind once you have seen it. I really liked how he used silence to the film’s advantage instead of giving us a music score. The tension is still taut as he follows Dracula’s every step, and this is a vampire who moves ever so gracefully because he doesn’t have to move quickly for anybody.

There was a score composed for the film by Philip Glass in 1998 and performed by Kronos Quartet, and you can tell it’s a Philip Glass score right from the start. It suits “Dracula” well, but I enjoyed the film more without it.

If there is anything disappointing for me about “Dracula,” it was the ending. Now this is largely the result of me being spoiled by countless slasher movies from the 80’s, but I think things could have been handled in a far more spectacular fashion than just driving a stake into a character’s heart and the happy couple running off together. It seems such like am abrupt ending to a classic motion picture, but then again, I am watching it close to a hundred years after its release.

There are many other versions of “Dracula” I need to watch now as I am eager to see how this character has evolved cinematically from one generation to the next. Browning’s 1931 version is a good one to start with, and lord knows there are also many other classic horror movies I need to watch. In order to better understand and appreciate the present, we at times have to go back to the past to discover how things got started.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster

Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a movie I had heard a lot about over the years, and I have watched numerous documentaries about its making to where it felt like I had seen it even though I had not. It wouldn’t be until the year 2000, just after I graduated from college, when I sat down to watch it on my new 27-inch JVC television set. I just started my subscription with Netflix, and this was one of the first movies I rented from it.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” came out in 1974, so I went into it thinking there was no way it could be as horrifying now as it was when first released. I sat down in front of my TV prepared to eat my dinner, a Cedarline Mediterranean Stuffed Focaccia, while watching this horror classic. One of the first images, however, was of a pair of rotting corpses draped over a gravestone in a cemetery, and I decided it would be better to turn off the TV and finish my dinner before continuing. Once I was done and tossed my plate into the dishwasher, I turned the set back on and continued watching, believing it would be a piece of cake to sit through this lauded horror classic.

It has now been over 40 years since the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was unleashed on the world, but when I watched it on DVD, I had no idea it would prove to be one of the most unnerving and brutal motion pictures I ever sat through. I figured no movie going experience would ever be more intense than “Requiem for a Dream” was when I saw it in Hollywood with a sold-out audience, but then I watched Hooper’s horrifying masterpiece. After it was over, I wondered to myself if I could have possibly endured this film had I first watched it on the silver screen.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” opens with a crawl, narrated by John Larroquette, stating it is based on a true story, but it turns out this was not the case. However, certain plot elements were inspired by serial killer Ed Gein whose acts of violence came to inform many other movies including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” We are introduced to a group of two siblings and three of their friends as they travel out to Texas to visit the grave of their grandparents. As you can imagine, what they discover far surpasses any imagined fears anyone could have endured when they were young.

I knew I was in trouble when this group of kids picked up a hitchhiker (played by Edwin Neal). This guy looked like he hadn’t showered in weeks as his face and hair seemed much slimier than anyone else’s on planet Earth. Seeing him cut himself and one of the kids had my hair standing on end, and this was just the beginning. The horror this movie had to offer was just starting, and the intensity would only increase exponentially from there.

By the time everyone got to the house, I was already sweating. I hadn’t seen the movie, but I already knew what was coming. People don’t just die a horrible death in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” they die a realistic one. When Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) smashes one guy on the head with a hammer, the guy falls down and convulses horribly. Watching this sequence, I felt this is the way a person would react if bashed in the head with the hammer, and it showed me this would not be your average horror movie in the slightest.

What’s especially surprising about this film is it’s not as bloody or gory as you might expect. I figured there would be an ocean of blood on display, but instead it’s what I didn’t see which really messed with my head. We see Leatherface impale the beautiful Pam (Teri McMinn) on a meat hook, but we never see the hook go into her body. The expression you see on Pam’s face ends up feeling all the more unbearably real as a result because you can’t help but wonder how the hook went in and of how long she could hope to last before all her blood drained out.

In some ways, the powerful effect “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” gives off was something of an accident. When making this movie, Hooper was aiming for a PG-rating and even talked with members of the MPAA to find out how he could earn such a rating for a horror film like this one. A lot of the advice het got was to not show any body penetration or the chainsaw slicing into human flesh, and of course, he needed to limit the amount of blood shown. But instead of getting the PG-rating, Hooper saw his film get an X as these guides he was given proved to have the opposite effect. The fact it managed to get an R seems astonishing even by today’s standards. Still, this seems as welcome an accident as the shark not working on the set of “Jaws” was.

This could have been nothing more than a mere horror flick of the exploitation kind, but there really is a lot of artistry on display throughout. The acting all around is never weak, cinematographer Daniel Pearl gives everything a dirty look which will make you want to take a shower quickly after this movie’s conclusion, and the sound design makes you feel like you are in a real-life slaughterhouse. Hooper may have had a simple mission in mind while making this horror classic, but it turned into something far scarier than he ever intended.

Leatherface remains one of the scariest villains any horror movie could ever hope to have, and it’s a real shame this was the only time Gunnar Hansen played this iconic character as he brought a lot of thought and an instinctual energy to the role. Seeing him wander around in that human flesh-made mask of his, I started to fear what Leatherface looked like without the mask.

But while I want to give credit to all the other actors, I have to single out Marilyn Burns who plays Sally Hardesty. While she has an easy time during the movie’s first half, the last half has her screaming endlessly to where you want to see her get a Purple Heart instead of an Academy Award for her work. She screams and screams and screams to where I wondered just how tortured she felt throughout shooting. The closeup of her eyes while she is a guest at the most devilish of family dinners had me staring at the screen in utter horror. Even though I knew exactly how this movie would end, I was still gripped as I became desperate for Sally to escape any and every which way she could.

The movie’s last half is a frenzy to where I wondered how I could have survived this had I first watched it on the silver screen. Watching it on my television set with the volume turned down was hard enough as I wanted Sally’s hellish experience to end sooner rather than later, but her torture dragged on longer to where I refused to believe “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a mere 84 minutes long. When the screen finally went to black, it felt like such a welcome relief as I wondered just how much more I could have sat through had Hooper extended things out to two hours.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has long since earned its place alongside the greatest horror movies ever made, and the fact it hasn’t lost any of its power to unnerve and horrify the bravest of film buffs speaks to a power most filmmakers hope to have in their lifetime. The only other horror movies which equal this one’s power to terrify decades after their release are John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” Some horror movies play better on the big screen than on television, but this one proves to be every bit as effective on both.

I still have yet to watch any of the sequels as I feel like I am still recovering from this cinematic experience over 10 years later. I did watch the Platinum Dunes remake, but the only thing about it which truly unnerved me was when Leatherface took off Eric Balfour’s face and made it into a mask for himself. As I write this review, the prequel “Leatherface” is about to released in theatres everywhere. Filmmakers can only hope to equal Hooper’s film, but it hasn’t stopped them from trying.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Platoon’

Platoon movie poster

I think its use of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber is one of the reasons I stayed away from watching “Platoon” for the longest time. It still is one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard, although it would later be eclipsed by the even more emotionally devastating “Symphony No. 3” (subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by Henryk Górecki which Peter Weir used to powerful effect in “Fearless.” Plus, the way the violence in “Platoon” was described to me by friends at school, like when a soldier gets his arms blown off by a bomb, filled my mind with horrible images which had no business infecting my mind at such a young age.

It took buying the 25th anniversary edition of “Platoon” on Blu-ray for me to finally sit down and watch it. I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, and here I am buying it at Costco for $11.99 By then, I had seen many Oliver Stone movies like “Born On the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” and “Natural Born Killers,” so I was long overdue to give this Best Picture winner a look.

Before “Platoon,” I had seen “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” which viewed the Vietnam War from different perspectives. The one thing they had in common was they were directed by filmmakers who had never served in Vietnam. Stone, however, had served there, so “Platoon” is largely autobiographical for him. As a result, this is probably the first truly realistic depiction of the Vietnam War anyone could have ever hoped to see in a movie.

Charlie Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, and it’s interesting watching him here as this was long before his days on “Two and a Half Men.” Taylor serves as the narrator and most relatable character as, like him, we are coming into this war fresh-faced, naïve and innocent. The first scene where Taylor comes off a plane with a bunch of newbies is an omen of what is to come. Seeing body bags filled with fallen soldiers and crossing paths with those men who have seen the war up close quickly gives you a good idea of what Taylor will probably end up looking like at the movie’s end.

Sheen is perfectly cast as he makes Taylor go from being a newbie to an experienced combat veteran in little time. It’s a shame Sheen has since pissed away a good portion of his talent to where he’s pretty much playing a version of himself as some drunken womanizer, be it on a television show or a movie. His work here is a strong reminder of how good he can be as he is utterly believable in a role no one would cast him in today.

Seeing Taylor struggle on through the Vietnamese jungle after the opening scene is a quick indication of how unprepared he is for combat. Like many wars Americans have fought, it was on the soil of another country they were completely unfamiliar with. We see how this puts them at an immediate disadvantage as they look completely exhausted and depleted even at the start of the day.

When it comes to Vietnam, Taylor makes it clear he is a unique case as he tells everyone he dropped out of college to volunteer and serve in the war. This makes him seem like part of a generation raised to believe fighting in a war is both noble and infinitely patriotic, something to be proud of. Taylor also feels that not only poor kids should be sent to fight instead of the rich, but he soon learns the truths about war, one of which is given to him by King (Keith David) who tells him something which resonates strongly even today: “You got to be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody know, the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”

The other two performances worth noting are given by Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes. Both figure prominently in Taylor’s tour of duty, and even he says these two were fighting for his soul. Dafoe is mesmerizing as the idealistic soldier who sees America’s involvement in Vietnam ending badly. The Christ-like pose he gets in, whether its holding a machine gun over his shoulders or as he runs from the Vietnamese soldiers, is no mistake. Elias ends up dying for the sins of his fellow soldiers while doing his best to protect them.

Berenger’s performance as Barnes ranks among his best ever. He succeeds in getting inside the head of someone who has been shot at so many times to where they are forever psychologically altered. Having seen death up close, Barnes acts as if he has surpassed it. In some ways, Berenger doesn’t need those makeup scars to show you how many firefights his character has been in as watching him walk through the jungle, completely unaffected by explosions going off around him as if he were Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” is more than enough proof of this.

Stone makes you feel the blood, sweat, tears and exhaustion these soldiers experience, and it’s all so vivid to where we come out of “Platoon” feeling like war veterans ourselves. It leaves all those other movies which make war seem like fun to utter shame. Coming from a filmmaker who has seen this particular war up close, we cannot deny the authenticity he puts on display.

“Platoon” also captures how quickly people can lose their moral bearings in the face of war. The scene in the village is by far the movie’s most unnerving moment as we watch Taylor and the other soldiers get overcome by their boiling anger and hatred. What’s so horrifying is that while you would like to believe you would have acted differently than they did, there’s no way you can be sure if you haven’t been in combat. The line between soldier and killer gets seriously blurred here, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Before filming began, the cast was treated to an intensive military training course under the tutelage of former Marine Captain Dale Dye who also served in Vietnam. They were made to dig foxholes and subjected to forced marches and nighttime ambushes which utilized explosions. This succeeded in breaking them down, and you can see and feel the weariness in them throughout. It more than adds to the sheer realism we see here.

There’s no victory to be found in “Platoon,” only death and destruction on both sides of the conflict. The movie gets at the truth of war which Danny DeVito talked about in “The War of the Roses” when he said, “There is no winning! There’s only degrees of losing!”

The violence and death portrayed may not seem quite as visceral as it did when the movie first came out. There have been many other war movies since like “Saving Private Ryan” which featured scenes of such brutal violence that no other filmmaker could possibly match. Plus, we all know about the Vietnam War in general and big a mistake it was for America for many years now. Still, “Platoon” is nothing less than powerful as its vision of the craziness and insanity of war is impossible to shake once you have seen it.

The Vietnam War may be a thing of the past, but the lessons we learned from it still need to be taught over and over again. America keeps fighting wars which, whether necessary or not, continually overstay their welcome and leave a lot of people feeling angry and betrayed. Oliver Stone certainly understands that, and he makes “Platoon” into a movie which shows the damage of war and why we can’t just let the past be the past.

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