Edgar Wright Talks with Walter Hill about The Driver

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2011 when this screening took place.

Continuing with his film programming at New Beverly Cinema which he entitled The Wright Stuff II, filmmaker Edgar Wright gave us a vehicular double feature with “The Driver” and “Duel.” The main attraction of the evening, however, was “The Driver,” a 1978 movie directed by Walter Hill, and Wright gleefully told the audience it was more for him than us as it was his first time seeing it on the big screen, and that it made him want to become a getaway driver. Joining him for this screening was the film’s director Walter Hill, actors Bruce Dern and Ronee Blakley, and producer Frank Marshall.

Upon seeing the sold-out audience at the New Beverly, Hill remarked, “This is the largest crowd in the United States that has ever seen this movie. It didn’t do all that well when it was first released.”

Indeed, “The Driver” is not as well-known as some of Hill’s other movies like “48 Hours” or “Southern Comfort.” When it came out, it was criticized as not being fun and for being “too real.” Hill remarked how depressing it can be when a movie you make does no business and gets bad reviews. Later though, another filmmaker contacted Hill about the reception “The Driver” got and told him, “Pay no attention to reviews. The movie’s marvelous, life is hard.”

“The Driver” marked the first time Hill worked with Dern, and Dern praised Hill endlessly throughout the evening and said he would go anywhere in the world for him. Dern said he found Hill to be “full of surprises,” and he came to work thinking they would do something which had never done before. Hill in turn described Dern as “a very special actor” who always jumped out at him with quality and personality in each of his performances, and that he gave each role an unusual quality of psychological density to even the most mundane characters.

Marshall, best known for producing the Jason Bourne movies and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” originally turned the movie down because it was being shot at night in downtown Los Angeles. Back in the 1970’s, he was worried about shooting there as it had a very brutal atmosphere. Somehow though, he got sucked into doing this one and ended up trading a summer in Malibu as a result. “The Driver” later led Hill to make another film called “The Warriors” which was also shot at night.

While Dern has most of the movie’s dialogue, the main star of “The Driver” is Ryan O’Neal. His character is noted for having only 350 words in the entire script, and Wright remarked how nice it was to have an action movie where the hero has no good lines. O’Neal was known as a heartthrob at the time, but he was eager to do something different in his career when this role came along. However, many didn’t accept O’Neal as this character when the movie came out as people had a different image of him at the time. Years later though, it is clear just how good he is here, and it served him well in his growth as an actor.

When it comes to the car chases in “The Driver,” it is clear the actors really were driving those cars instead of their stunt doubles. This film was released not long after “The French Connection” which did everything for real, and everyone was really tearing around at crazy speeds. Hill said he and his fellow filmmakers were “young and reckless” back then, and he gleefully pointed out there indeed was “a real man in that car that flipped.”

But what’s great about the car chases in “The Driver,” as Marshall pointed out, is how Hill uses them to tell a story. These are not car chases for the sake of car chases, but ones which are an integral part to the movie as a whole. Watching it at New Beverly Cinema, it made me yearn for the kind Hollywood doesn’t do any more unless CGI is heavily involved. In the end, there is not much which is even better than the real thing.

One audience member asked if there were any police experts on set during the making of “The Driver.” Hill said there were not, and he made clear how the movie is really “pure fantasy” in what it portrays and is the “opposite of law enforcement.” It’s hard to think of any police force wanting to be involved with a movie like this as it appears to show the bad guys getting away without any real repercussions. In the end, Hill saw it as an extension of the “dark sides of personalities.” Indeed, this is not a film inhabited by easily redeemable characters, and Hill was correct in describing as a “very unreal movie.”

Hill also took the time to talk about his style of directing, and this something I was eager to know more about. His films typically don’t get much rehearsal time, but he found this actually works in the director’s favor. He told the audience that two-thirds of directing is casting, and he never gets any rehearsal until take one. Dern added how Hill is not very good at rehearsal, and this made him and Walter seem like a perfect match for one another.

Hill even talked about how he originally wanted Robert Mitchum for Dern’s role, and that he talked with him for six hours straight about it. In the end, however, Mitchum told Hill there was “too much car stuff” and that he didn’t have the energy for it. This clearly benefited Dern who got the role instead, and he admitted Mitchum would have been a “handful” for Hill to deal with.

In the end, this screening “The Driver” really turned out to be a gift for everyone at New Beverly Cinema. It was a gift for Hill and the other guests as it brought back so many memories they would have otherwise forgotten. It was also a gift for Wright as he would never have seen it on the big screen otherwise. But it was an especially big gift for the audience because many of would not have seen it otherwise. I probably would not have rushed out to see “The Driver” if Wright did not feature it in his festival of movies, and for me it turned out to be a special treat.

“The Driver” is one of the many movies which show how Walter Hill is still a vastly underappreciated filmmaker at times. After watching it at New Beverly Cinema, I am reminded of how effective a director he can be when given the right material.

ADDITIONAL WRITER’S NOTE: This movie has become a cult classic in recent years and has proven to be very influential on many filmmakers. Nicolas Winding Refn has cited it as an inspiration on his brilliant movie “Drive,” and you can see its influence all over Edgar Wright’s 2017 action film “Baby Driver.”

So Bad Its Good: Josh Olson on His Favorite Cult Movie Musicals

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in 2012.

Writer Josh Olson, best known for penning the screenplay to David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” dropped by New Beverly Cinema to introduce two of his favorite cult movie musicals: “The Apple” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” These films were not well received critically or commercially when first released, but they have since gained a cult following, and the fans have come to appreciate them for reasons the filmmakers did not exactly intend. This was especially the case with “The Apple” which has since become one of the most unique movie musicals ever made.

Olson thanked those who came to this double feature and made clear to us he worships at the altar of “The Apple” and shows it to those unfamiliar with it (a.k.a. virgins) everywhere. He even remarked how two close friends of his, after they saw it, had a baby. The movie tells the story of two young Canadian musicians, Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), who travel to America to participate in an infinitely popular music festival. They are approached by the powerful entertainment agent Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) to sign with him, but Alphie sees the dark side of the music industry and refuses to be a part of it. Bibi, however, finds herself caught up in the wild lifestyle this industry has to offer, and it is up to Alfie to rescue her from Boogalow’s evil clutches.

In addition to screenwriting, Olson works for a website run by filmmaker Joe Dante called Trailers from Hell, and he talked about how the trailer for “The Apple” was one of the first he did a commentary track for.

Josh Olson: I stand by almost everything I said on that commentary except at one point I did use the phrase “it’s so bad it’s good,” and I regret that today. This movie has taught me that that phrase is meaningless. Intention does not matter. There are great movies out there that are so much better than the filmmakers intended them to make or had a right to make. Everything is accidental in this business so I don’t think it matters. I think either a movie is great or it is not, and there are movies that people think are wonderful that just won’t entertain you one iota as much as “The Apple” will.

Olson made it clear to the audience he will never again use the phrase “so bad its good” in reference to “The Apple” as he considers it to be one of the greatest movies in the history of the world. Once it was shown, he came back to the front of the audience to introduce the movie version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and said there was no way to top “The Apple,” so he wasn’t going to even try.

Olson talked briefly about “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” before it started. It was directed by Michael Schultz who previously made “Car Wash” which Olson described as a “weird, urban Robert Altman film,” and also “Cooley High” which he called one of the most formative films from his childhood. Olson told the audience at the New Beverly how Schultz got involved in making a cinematic adaptation of the Beatles’ classic album.

Josh Olson: Robert Stigwood (one of the most successful movie producers of the 1970’s) came to him and offered him “Grease” to direct, and Schultz looked at it and said, “This is fucking horrible and I don’t want anything to do with it.” So, he passed on “Grease” and it then went on to make a trillion dollars, and Robert Stigwood came back to him with the idea of turning the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” into a movie starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. To this, Schultz said, “Wow, this sounds like a worse idea than ‘Grease.’ But what do I know, I passed on ‘Grease.’”

After watching the “Sgt. Pepper” movie, we were all in agreement with Olson that it was one of the most “batshit” ideas for a feature film, and it remains one of the biggest critical disasters in motion picture history. Olson, however, did try to rationalize this particular movie’s existence as it was made back in the 1970’s.

Josh Olson: It was a better time back then, and you have to have the yin to balance out the yang. The really good ones (movies) were almost indistinguishable from the really bad ones. But we had people thinking “Sgt. Pepper” was a good idea for a movie, and we also had people who were making “Apocalypse Now” back then, so it was a small price to pay.

Big thanks to Josh Olson for putting this crazy double feature together. “The Apple” isn’t so much a movie musical as it is an experience, and you won’t find another one quite like it. As for “Sgt. Pepper,” we may never get another opportunity to see it on the big screen again, so those who stayed could not quite say they regretted sitting through it. But yeah, it really was a bad idea for a movie.

Edgar Wright Talks with John Landis About ‘Animal House’

Asks for Babs!

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2011 when this screening took place.

Edgar Wright continued his film festival he named The Wright Stuff II at New Beverly Cinema with “Animal House,” and joining him for this screening was special guest John Landis who directed it and succeeded in making what Wright called the first “adult gross out comedy ever.” Landis said director Todd Phillips had already made three movies where he did several shot for shot steals from “Animal House,” and even Wright had to admit he may have subconsciously stolen the taking coat gag for “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” from it as well.

“Animal House” was Landis’ third film, and he made it soon after finishing “Kentucky Fried Movie.” However, he was not the first choice to direct as it was initially offered to John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”), then later to Richard Fleischer (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) who all turned it down. Landis said they all passed on it saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Landis was drawn to this project by what he called “a very smart script” written by Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller. Landis gave a lot of the credit to Kenney who had come to this from the Harvard Lampoon where he was described as being “consistently brilliant.” Kenney wrote scripts called “Laser Orgy Girls” and “Charles Manson In High School,” but then he did “High School Yearbook” which eventually evolved into “Animal House.” The thought was there were so many off-color elements to where it made more sense to set it in college.

“Animal House” marked the film debut of many young actors who would soon become big stars in their own right. It was John Belushi’s first movie, and he was already an established star thanks to “Saturday Night Live.” Tom Hulce was doing the play “Equis” on Broadway when cast, and Bruce McGill was discovered doing Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” As for Karen Allen, she originally drove her friend to audition for it, but she never planned to audition herself. But Landis took one look and told her, “First off, you just lost a friend. Second, we want you in the movie!”

Others from “Saturday Night Live” were considered, but Lorne Michaels was getting pissed about losing more of his cast. While Landis got Belushi despite a crazy schedule which had him available for only three days a week, Michaels refused to let Dan Aykroyd be in it. Then there was Chevy Chase, the show’s first breakout star, who was getting offered everything and decided to do “Foul Play” with Goldie Hawn instead.

The only veterans in “Animal House” were Tim Matheson who started off as a child actor, and Donald Sutherland who was already a big star. All of Sutherland’s scenes were shot in two days, and he was offered $35,000 plus gross points. Sutherland, however, instead took an offer of a flat $50,000 which turned out later to be a mistake as the movie made over $140 million. Everyone else was paid scale except for Belushi, and the horse got $150,000. This led Landis to admit, “I got paid less than the horse!”

The late John Vernon who played Dean Wormer was talked about quite a bit. Vernon played his role so deadly straight, and Landis said Vernon got exactly what the movie was all about. Vernon was also the only one involved with “Animal House” who knew it would be a success as Landis remarked at how he said, “No one realizes what an important movie this will be.”

“Animal House” had a budget of $2.1 million, was shot in 32 days and averaged about 43 setups each day of shooting. Landis said the studio left them alone during the making of it, but they later complained about certain things. They did not like the actors who were chosen and even said, “Why’d you hire John Vernon?! He’s a television actor, a villain in a Clint Eastwood movie!”

The studio also voiced concern over the scene where some of the characters visit a black bar. They feared, Landis quoted them as saying, that “black people will riot” and would “tear up the screen.” But Landis and the producers were adamant of how the scene was told from a white person’s perspective and that it was meant to be subjective. Landis even got Richard Pryor’s take on it, and Pryor said, “I think it’s funny and white people are crazy!”

Studio executives also had an issue with the girls never being shown going home after the party. This led one of them to ask, “How do we know those girls weren’t raped?”

Test screening “Animal House” was an interesting story. The filmmakers took it to Denver where it had audiences screaming with laughter. Landis even taped the audience’s reaction and played it for Belushi over the phone. As a result, Belushi jumped at the chance to attend another screening of it in Atlanta where it ended up being shown to a bunch of what Landis called “drunken booksellers” who sat in stone cold silence throughout. Landis said Belushi came out of it saying the movie needed to be recut, but he was told to shut up by the producers who reminded him he wasn’t around for the Denver preview.

In the end, audiences found “Animal House” to be extremely funny and filled with many laugh-out loud moments, and that’s even if not everybody got the Belushi erection joke. That there was a sold-out audience at the New Beverly is proof of how it continues to stand the test of time. Landis thanked everyone for coming out and said the movie will soon be debuting on Blu-ray, and that all the grain which was taken out while being remastered has been put right back in.

‘Someone’s Watching Me!’ – The Lost John Carpenter Movie

 

Someones Watching Me Blu ray cover

Someone’s Watching Me!” is often referred to as the lost John Carpenter movie due to its unavailability on video and DVD for many years. It finally got released on DVD in 2007 (Shout Factory later released it on Blu-ray), but while there are some Carpenter movies I still need to catch up on, this may be the only one I haven’t heard of previously. I ended up buying it from a video store which was closing down as I am a huge fan of the director’s work, and I have no excuse for being this far behind on the films he has made.

The movie stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a television director who has just moved to Los Angeles and has set herself up in a luxurious apartment in a high-rise building. But as soon as she starts unpacking her things, a stranger begins stalking her with his telescope and calls to leave threatening messages with that deep, ominous voice stalkers usually speak in. Things continue to get worse from there until she finally decides to take matters into her hands.

Carpenter wrote “Someone’s Watching Me!” back when he was primarily making a living writing screenplays. At that point he had only directed “Dark Star” and “Assault on Precinct 13,” and this movie was completed a few days before he began work on “Halloween.” You can see a lot of “Halloween” in this one as Carpenter gets some great shots of what’s going on behind a character, and the point of view shots really increase the tension as he puts you into Hutton’s shoes to where you feel as menaced as she is. It also shows how brilliant he was in not only creating suspense and tension, but in maintaining them all the way to the end.

This script also shows one of Carpenter’s strengths as a writer as he creates strong female characters which would inhabit all his movies. Hutton is very good as Michaels and I thought she made the character very believable in a way which wasn’t showy. As her anxiety gets increasingly worse, she stands her ground and refuses to move out of her apartment. Michaels is not about to be intimidated by this peeping tom, and you root for her to turn the tables on this guy at any given opportunity.

“Someone’s Watching Me!” also stars Adrienne Barbeau who would later become Carpenter’s wife for a time (this was the first project they worked on together) and starred in “The Fog.” She plays Michaels’ co-worker, Sophie, who is tough as nails and not easily intimidated by anyone around her. Barbeau gives Hutton great support throughout, and it’s great fun watching her steal one scene after another.

The movie also stars David Birney as Paul Winkless, the man Michaels ends up flirting with and falling for. It’s almost surprising Michaels would fall for anyone as she proudly asserts herself as an independent woman right from the start. Birney matches Hutton’s strength and wit throughout, and Carpenter’s direction successfully casts doubt on him as well as everyone else surrounding Michaels throughout.

Charles Cyphers, a member of Carpenter’s repertory company of actors, appears here as police detective Gary Hunt. It threatens to be a thankless part as the character seems brought in just to express disbelief in the protagonist’s fears, but watching Cyphers here makes you see why Carpenter loves working with him. Cyphers gives us a character who might be a cliché, but he imbues him with a worldliness which makes his actions and beliefs understandable. Some actors would just consider this a paycheck role they could just walk through, but Cyphers proves to be the kind of actor who doesn’t fall into such inexcusable laziness.

Carpenter gets to pull off a lot of shots which have long since cemented him a master of horror and suspense. He utilizes different camera moves like shooting handheld or panning back and forth to reveal something just around the corner. The fact this made for TV movie holds up today says a lot about his talent.

Granted, this movie was made back in 1978 when voyeurism seemed like a rarity at best. These days everyone’s a voyeur as technology allow us to peak into those dark corners which we assumed were inaccessible. To discover someone is watching you from afar and that your privacy is a thing of the past is not a hard scenario to believe in this day and age. This ends up making a movie like “Someone’s Watching Me!” scarier than ever before. Even with the constraints of a made for television movie, Carpenter creates a thrilling tale which holds you in its tense grip and never lets you go.

* * * ½ 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 * * * *

‘I Spit on Your Grave’ Remains an Infinitely Repulsive Motion Picture

I Spit On Your Grave 1978 poster

I should have known better than to sit through this infamous motion picture. Years ago, when I received my first Roger Ebert Home Movie companion as a Christmas present, I read his review in which he described this particular movie as a “vile piece of garbage” and that attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of his life. After I finished reading his review, I felt as though I had watched as he didn’t even warn his readers how his review contained spoilers, and it showed how serious he was about convincing us to avoid this exploitation film as he found it to have no redeeming value in the slightest.

Reading Ebert’s review of “I Spit on Your Grave” filled my head with images my young brain had no business thinking about at such a tender young age, but I probably would never have known about this movie were it not for his review. As the years went by, the thought of it remained strong in my consciousness to where I was compelled to find out more about it. Plus, it had a cool movie trailer I couldn’t help but watch multiple times. Then again, “Maximum Overdrive” also had a really cool trailer, and we all know how that one turned out. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I am still alive, therefore I am no cat.

I Spit on Your Grave” is by far one of the most repulsive motion pictures I have ever allowed myself to sit through, and I have seen “The Human Centipede 3.” It tries to pass itself off as a feminist movie, but it instead proves to be a complete insult to feminism, and you don’t need to be a woman to realize this is the case. Even in the realm of exploitation movies, I could not divorce myself from the moral standards I was raised to believe in as they came into play here.

In case you don’t know the plot of “I Spit on Your Grave,” it follows Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) as she drives from Manhattan to an isolated cottage out in Connecticut in an effort to start writing her first novel. While there, she attracts the attention of three men and their mentally disabled friend, Matthew, who eventually abduct and brutally rape her for what seems like an eternity. Somehow, she survives and eventually turns the tables on her attackers in ways which will have men crossing their legs more often than not.

This is a motion picture I found myself skimming through more than watching as the rapes prove to be far too disturbing to endure. The sexual assault of Jennifer lasts for over half an hour, and just when you think it is over, it starts up again to where I wondered what writer and director Meir Zarchi was trying to prove. If he wanted to show how unforgivably brutal a crime rape is, he succeeded far more than he needed to.

For what it’s worth, I have to give Camille Keaton credit as she does make Jennifer’s suffering feel all too real to where she deserves a Purple Heart for her efforts. While the performances in “I Spit on Your Grave” are generally poor, Keaton doesn’t hide from the terrors her character is forced to experience in the most demeaning way possible. There is something to be said for her work even as this film proves to be every bit as deplorable as the violence perpetrated on her character.

At the same time, the major flaw of “I Spit on Your Grave” is how it revels in its heroine’s degradation more than in her revenge. In fact, Jennifer’s bloody vengeance on her attackers takes up less than half the time Zarchi spent on her multiple rapes, and there is something deeply wrong when you realize this. Jennifer comes to strangle, decapitate, castrate and disembowel those men who inflicted an infinite amount of cruelty on her, but we never feel her satisfaction as the morality of what she is doing never feels as justified as you would expect it to in any other exploitation film.

Another big problem with “I Spit on Your Grave” is that it is such an amateurishly made motion picture. The artistry behind the camera is seriously lacking to where the low budget cannot be blamed for this film’s shortcomings. There is no music score to speak of, and there is very little to no music throughout. As a result, the whole thing feels like a home movie which never should have seen the light of day.

The original title of “I Spit on Your Grave” was “Day of the Woman,” and this should show how intent Zarchi was on selling this as a feminist movie. But seriously, this is not what a feminist movie looks like in the slightest. While Jennifer is certainly entitled to her revenge, it doesn’t take away from the fact that what she does is just as bad, if not worse, than what those men did to her. This may be nothing more than a movie, but it is hard for me to escape this fact.

There are other movies which deal with rape in a far more probing and intelligent manner than “I Spit on Your Grave.” Among them are “The Accused” which stars Jodie Foster in her first Oscar-winning performance, and Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” which features a scene in which Monica Bellucci’s character is raped and beaten for 10 minutes straight and in a single shot. Even Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left,” a movie every bit as violent as this one, dealt with rape and revenge in a way which was as intelligent as any subject Craven dealt with in his career.

And yet after all these years, I find myself writing about “I Spit on Your Grave” as if it were a motion picture worthy of being celebrated. Many may see it as a film worth noticing, but I say it is one you must avoid even if you are open to movies which are psychologically damaging to sit through. It is also so poorly made to where you want to smack its most ardent fans in the face and ask them what they see in it. Some may defend its quality, but this will only make you wonder what the term quality actually means.

As I write this review, “I Spit on Your Grave” has long since been remade, and that remake has so far spawned two sequels. Also, it has just been announced that Zarchi completed a direct sequel to the original entitled “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” which will be released in 2018. All I can hope is that the sequel will show Zarchi as having learned more about filmmaking in the 40 years since he inflicted this infamous motion picture on us.

* out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: I really wanted to give this film a ZERO STARS rating, but I cannot deny the credit Camille Keaton deserves for enduring what she did here.

‘Jaws 2’ Proves to Be a Pretty Decent Sequel

Jaws 2 movie poster

WARNING: THIS REVIEW DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS, BUT YOU PROBABLY KNOW WHAT THEY ARE ALREADY.

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…”

Ah, what a great tagline to a halfway decent sequel. “Jaws 2” is easily the best sequel to Steven Spielberg’s horrifying classic which became the first movie to make over $100 million dollars, so of course a sequel had to be made. Another shark is off the coast of Amity Bay, to get revenge or just to feed or just to scare the crap out of the residents who depend on the summer months for their very existence.

Some people seem to think this is the same shark from the first movie… What are you, stupid? IT GOT BLOWN UP! This is probably the wife of that shark, or maybe it’s his mother. Maybe it was the shark’s gay lover or something. We never do learn about the shark’s relatives, do we? I am assuming that the shark in “Jaws 3-D” was not a distant relative, but someone who just hates Florida theme parks with a passion. As for the shark in “Jaws: The Revenge,” that one was definitely a relative. It had to be to swim all the way to the Bahamas to go after the damn Brody family!

Anyway, back to this shark, also a relative who waited a little while after the first one to strike. This sequel takes place a couple of years after the original and opens with some divers exploring the wreckage of the Orca who get attacked by the shark. Immediately, we zoom ahead to Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) rushing off to the opening of a new hotel on Amity Island which his wife (Lorraine Gary) has helped out with. We meet up again with Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) who is as excited about the summer months as he was previously. We also get to see the two Brody boys, Mike and Shaun, who have grown up a lot since we saw them last.

Then the darn shark appears again when he (or is it a she?) is least expected. There is a good scene involving a water skier which is “Jaws 2’s” first big action sequence. Of course, no one actually sees this shark attack the skier, so they just assume it was some sort of boating accident. Otherwise they would have found out earlier and got rid of the shark sooner, and there wouldn’t be a movie to watch. But then some kids find a beached killer whale on the sand which has had huge chunks of his skin bitten off, and this catches the eye of Chief Brody who becomes convinced there is another shark on the hunt. He has no proof and only his instincts to go on, so naturally no one believes him.

One of the many great things about “Jaws” was the human drama on the island was very strong. Spielberg wasn’t just interested in giving us shark attacks. That brings me to this film’s biggest weakness; the scenes on dry land suffer without the buddy relationship between Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. The characters are more like clichés this time around instead of fully realized human beings, and the story is more contrived. One guy standing in Brody’s way is Len Peterson (Joseph Moscolo) who doubts his sanity every step of the way. He is the movie’s key idiotic character, and the one guy we desperately want to see get eaten by the shark. When movies have characters like these, it doesn’t take long for audiences to get aggravated by them.

You’d also think Mayor Vaughn would know better this time around. He went through all this crap with the first shark, and now he thinks Brody is misguided in his assumptions yet again. He urges Chief Brody not to press it this time around, and their working relationship in “Jaws 2” ends up seeming completely ridiculous. If the Mayor is not going to be trusting of Brody’s instincts, then he should have fired him a long time ago.

There was a naturalness to the characters and acting in “Jaws” which unfortunately does not carry over to “Jaws 2,” and this sequel is deeply affected as a result. It would have been great to have Spielberg and Dreyfuss back for this one, but they had better things to do like making “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Actually, it would have been a huge shock if Spielberg came back to direct this one, considering the hell he went through making the original.

However, if you can get past the contrived screenplay, there are still plenty of shark attacks to enjoy. The shark is still a very threatening villain like its predecessor. Every time that fin comes out of the water, I get goose bumps all over my skin. The tension is still pretty taut as the shark sneaks up on its prey stealthily. There are also a couple of good jump out of your seat moments here, especially one involving Scheider slowly going into the ocean to retrieve some boat wreckage.

While the first shark was indiscriminate in who he, or she, killed, the shark in “Jaws 2” seems to have a big hankering for teenagers, especially ones who won’t stop screaming. One critic, I can’t remember who, said this movie would be a good time for those who enjoy seeing teenagers getting eaten, so I can only imagine what parents around the globe feel about this sequel. After a while, it just seems like the shark is going after these teenagers in order to get them to shut up. It makes you wonder what the shark is thinking throughout, “WHAT ARE YOU STUPID?! I CAN HEAR EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE YOU STUPID SHITS!!”

The teenagers do a great job of screaming and acting when they are in shock. The moments where they are in shock are very effectively done, and it helps quiet things down before the great white pops up again. Among the kids is Keith Gordon who later went on to star in “John Carpenter’s Christine” and “Back to School” with the late Rodney Dangerfield. Seeing him looking so young here is a bit of a shock after all these years.

The last half of “Jaws 2” has the teenagers out sailing, basically laying themselves out as shark meat. Among these kids are the Brody boys, both who have been grounded from getting into the water because of their father’s suspicions. But what’s a boy to do when a girl’s cousin wants to go with him to the lighthouse? She tempts Michael with that line we often hear teenagers say, “Do you always do what your parents tell you to do?”

Furthermore, why should the older brother have all the fun? Little Sean hitches a ride with Mike who really doesn’t want him around. So, they have the typically brotherly relationship which adds quite a bit to the story. When the teenagers find their lives in danger upon the appearance of the shark, how they feel about each other becomes completely irrelevant as they have to band together in order to survive.

Actually, I wonder if the filmmakers went with teenagers as shark meat in response of the sudden popularity of the slasher genre. I mean, the great white shark is in many ways the ultimate serial killer. He has sharp knives for teeth, and he (or she) can cut you up good. This one leaves no leftovers even if we wanted any, and much blood is spilt.

“Jaws 2” was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, and it is a good thing I am writing down his name instead of trying to pronounce it. He takes on daunting task of following a Spielberg masterpiece with a sequel which can only hope and pray to match the power of the original. The fact he does not entirely succeed is not altogether his fault. No one could ever have expected this sequel to be better than the original, and this certainly could have been a lot worse. Szwarc pretty much films “Jaws 2” in the same manner Spielberg did in terms of the shark attacks, but he also shows us more of the shark as well. While showing the shark takes some of the suspense away, he still does a good job of keeping the viewer on edge as we wonder when the shark will strike next.

Scheider made it clear on several occasions of how he did “Jaws 2” as a contractual obligation to Universal Pictures. I doubt he was all that excited about doing the sequel while the other key players went off to do other things. At least Robert Shaw had a good excuse; his character got eaten in the original. All the same, Scheider is still very strong here as Brody as he tries to convince the town there is another shark out there and makes it clear he’s not going to wait around for everyone to realize this. Scheider is one of the best reasons to watch “Jaws 2,” and he gives the audience a lot to cheer for as the film reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Of course, we all know what happens to the shark at the end. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to know, don’t read any further. But it is a very cool death as Brody gets the shark’s attention by banging on a power line and drawing it in by sound. Holding the power line out for the shark to take a bite out of, his glee and anxiety are ever so apparent as he invites the shark to “SAY AHH!!!!!” The death of the shark by electrocution is right on a par with the way the first shark died, and it’s a scene I’m sure audiences cheered like crazy.

Another key ingredient of “Jaws 2” was also one of the main ones from Spielberg’s film, John Williams’ music. His score to the original remains one of the best and most frightening pieces of music ever created for a movie. With “Jaws 2,” Williams takes those themes from the first film and mixes them up with new ones for the characters inhabiting this sequel. It’s another great score which captures the heart and terror which unfolds onscreen. None of the other composers in this franchise came close to matching what Williams did. They simply lost the heart of the music and relied too much on the main “Jaws” theme to carry them through.

“Jaws 2” is understandably no masterpiece, but it is “Citizen Kane” when you compare it to the other sequels which followed it. “Jaws 2” was the last good movie in a series which soon descended into mediocrity. If you have to watch something on cable in the afternoon, you could certainly do worse than watch this one. Besides, it gave us one of the greatest taglines in movie history:

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…”

Of course, by the time “Jaws: The Revenge” came around, the tagline sounded more like this:

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back to a movie theater…”

* * * out of * * * *

Blue Collar

blue-collar-movie-poster

Even though it was made back in 1978, “Blue Collar” doesn’t feel at all dated thematically. Dealing with crooked unions and frustrations with a job that never pays you enough is something many of us still deal with in this day and age. Watching it more than 30 years after its initial release makes me wonder how much, if any, progress has been made for any American workers.

Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto star as a trio of Detroit auto workers who work hard at their jobs but never get much respect for what they do. They get crap thrown at them by their superiors, and the union doesn’t seem all that interested in helping them. The divisions between the blue and white collar workers are heavily pronounced, and tensions and bitterness are always at an all-time high.

Pryor’s character of Zeke Brown feels especially disrespected and is never afraid to hide his frustrations from the union or anyone else who pisses him off. Even worse, Zeke gets a visit from the IRS informing him of back taxes he can’t even afford to pay. Keitel’s character of Jerry Bartowski works at a gas station as well as the auto factory, but barely make ends meet and can’t even afford braces for his daughter who desperately needs them. Then there’s Kotto’s character of Smokey James, a man who served time in prison and is well aware of how the class structure is designed to keep everyone where they are so the powerful people can stay powerful. But even he has his breaking point, and he’s finally reaching it after all this time.

Fed up with the union’s incompetence, the three men rob the union of the money they keep in their not very well hidden vault. The robbery is sloppily handled, but they make out with the safe which has only a few hundred dollars, but it also contains a ledger which shows how seriously corrupt the union is. On top of being involved in an illegal loan lending operation, the ledger also shows their ties with organized crime syndicates. With this information, they decide to blackmail the crooked union into giving them tons of cash which will take care of all their financial problems. Their plan, however, soon exposes their naïve nature as the union quickly resorts to methods which can never be mistaken as legal.

What will happen from there will tear friendships apart and leave them paranoid of one another and of those they can’t trust. “Blue Collar” works as a critique of those unions which poorly represent their workers, and it is also a brilliant character piece and a thriller where lives hang in the balance as the powers that be aren’t about to be comprised by anyone, especially those in the lower class.

“Blue Collar” was Schrader’s directorial debut, and it’s a remarkably impressive one. He vividly captures the hard-working atmosphere these men inhabit and is aided by a tough as nails blues song for the movie’s main title which was performed by the late Captain Beefheart. There are moments in the “Hard Workin’ Man” song where all the other instruments disappear except for a deep thundering metal boom which hints at the anger and frustration slowly boiling to the surface for these characters. The environment they work in is harsh and unforgiving, and while they value what they do, no one above them seems to as they are considered to be easily disposable.

This was one of Pryor’s few dramatic roles, but it’s not bereft of his humor. Considering his work as a comedian and a social satirist, he is perfectly cast here and infuses the Zeke with humor and a wounded soul which will never fully be mended. Pryor really shows an acting range most dramatic actors only dream of having.

In fact, that’s the sad thing about watching Pryor in this film; he really was one of the lost dramatic actors of our time as he never got to play many serious roles which were deserving of his talent. We all know him to be one of the best comedians ever, and he did star in some very funny movies. Still, he got stuck in a lot of crappy ones which never utilized his talents fully, and it is an enormous loss he never got to do more dramatic work.

Keitel gives another great performance in a career filled with them, and he always inhabits his characters more than play them. Jerry Bartowski is a strong guy on the surface, but seeing him become completely unraveled after the robbery allows Keitel to expose the character’s vulnerabilities of which there are plenty. There are moments where he doesn’t utter a word and yet you can see on his face what is racing through his anxiety-ridden mind. Bartowski may see himself as his own man who answers to no one, but he soon finds there is a limit to the choices he has when it comes to keeping his head above water.

Kotto, who has since become one of the most undervalued actors working today, has constantly been cast as an unforgettable imposing presence in every film he has appeared in. Whether it’s as Parker in “Alien,” Special Agent Mosley in “Midnight Run” or as Al Giardello on the brilliant “Homicide: Life on the Street,” he never fails in giving us a character who feels larger than life. “Blue Collar” is no exception as he portrays someone wise about the world around him, but not wise enough to know when he and his pals are digging a hole too deep for them to climb out of. His character’s fate feels the most tragic as a result, and the last scene he has is amazing in its power.

With Schrader’s movies, a common theme runs through them of the emasculated male wanting to make a difference in a society he sees as corrupt and in need of saving. Be it Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Willem Dafoe as John LeTour in “Light Sleeper” or even Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse from “Affliction,” Schrader deals fearlessly with characters whose hold on sanity we see constantly erode. Now with the three leads in “Blue Collar,” each of them are pushed to the limit as they slowly realize the trouble they have brought upon themselves. Watching it destroy their friendship, which brings about a strong mistrust between them, is as fascinating as it is painful to witness.

I’m not sure how many people out there are aware of “Blue Collar,” but it is one of those movies from the 70’s deserving of a big audience from one generation to the next. Watching it today is even more bittersweet as those auto factories in Michigan where the movie was shot no longer exist. It was tough for the people who worked there back then, but imagine what it must be like for them now. The movie ends in a freeze frame which brilliantly encapsulates how the union and those in power continue to stay on top of the working man. After all these years, it doesn’t feel like much has changed, but anyone and everyone out there is welcome to prove me wrong.

* * * * out of * * * *