1974

The Sugarland Express (1974, Steven Spielberg)

After setting up Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as the protagonists, Sugarland Express takes about an hour to get back to them. Hawn and Atherton have an amazing setup–he’s about to get out of prison and has been transferred to pre-release. Hawn comes to visiting day but to break him out. She’s just gotten out of jail and the state took away their son. So she wants Atherton to come with her to get him.

They make it out all right only to end up kidnapping a state trooper (Michael Sacks) within the first twenty or so minutes. There’s a big car chase sequence–pretty much the only one of the movie, which eventually has about 80 cars in a shot–where Hawn and Atherton get the upperhand. Well, they bumble into it. But then Sacks isn’t really particularly with it either. Once the cops figure out what’s happened, they call in the boss, Ben Johnson.

So until Johnson gets into the movie, it seems like Sacks is going to take over as protagonist. But then he doesn’t. Because Johnson dominates the film. Intentionally. Director Spielberg, screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, they pull back from Hawn and Atherton’s story and fill it out with the ginormous police response. It’s the kidnappers followed down the highway by a line of a dozen cop cars. It’s quirky. Johnson takes an immediate liking to Hawn after she grins at him through the back window. Because Johnson doesn’t want to be a hard ass, he wants to help these crazy kids (they’re supposed to be twenty-five but he’s a softey), and he’s never killed a man in ninteen years on the Texas highway patrol.

The movie is based on events from 1969. Texas in 1969. So that character motivation raises all sorts of possibilites for further discussion of portrayal of law enforcement in popular culture. But for the purposes of Sugarland, Johnson’s an old softey and he wants to help all these kids–including Sacks–get out of the situation okay.

Eventually they have to bed down for the night–cops and kidnappers–and that break from the Express is when the film catches back up with Hawn and Atherton. There hasn’t been time for them to get a moment. And it’s kind of when it becomes clear how far Spielberg and the writers want to keep the viewers from Hawn and Atherton. They don’t want to dig too deep. Just like they don’t want to dig too deep on Sacks, who Stockholms way too fast to be an effective state trooper unless they’re really all supposed to be sensitive doofuses (no other cop in the movie is sensitive–just Sacks and Johnson–the rest are gun-happy). And they don’t want to dig too deep on Johnson, because, well, he’s in his late fifties and it’s a still Goldie Hawn movie, after all.

So there’s not going to be character exploration. There’s also not going to be much more comedy; Atherton is realizing the gravity of the situation. The adrenaline has worn off and he sees his death. Meanwhile Hawn’s convinced because they’re famous–oh, yeah, they’re folk heroes–they’re going to get their baby back. Only they can’t really talk about it because, well, they aren’t bright. The moments when you do actually find something out about Atherton and Hawn–about their backgrounds or situation–it’s a sympathy moment. Not just for the audience, but for Johnson and Sacks too. Because even though Sacks is a doofus, he’s not a dope like Atherton or Hawn.

Then there’s the next morning there’s the next big action sequence–involving the kidnappers, there’s a big car crash without them that Spielberg plays without absurdity but still want some humor in the danger–and it’s a doozy. Texas gun nut vigilantes go out after the kidnappers. They shoot up a used car lot, with Hawn trapped in a camper while Atherton goes after an escaping Sacks through the lot. It’s intense. And sets the direction of the rest of the film. The energy of it too. The first half has a lot of great editing from Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields and it’s fast but it’s not hurried. In the second half, with Atherton deciding to officially offer to trade Sacks for the baby, the Express–save narrative-driven slowdowns–is accelerating all the way to the finish. Spielberg and the screenwriters are intentional with how they use their time.

The script from Barwood and Robbins is precise. Spielberg’s direction is always in rhythm with it, even when he’s slowing down or speeding up. He gets flashy at times, but always to further the story–or affect its pacing. And there’s this patient, lush Vilmos Zsigmond photography so it’s never too flashy. Then there’s that great editing. And the effective (and simple) John Williams score, which enthusiastically promises hope then takes it away. It’s a technical feat.

Of the performances, Atherton and Johnson stand out. Sacks and Hawn have a lot less to do. Well, Hawn has more to do occasionally but it’s really just more screentime. The first half of the film is Atherton in a panic, the second half is Hawn in a different one. Again, Spielberg and the screenwriters stay back from the characters. They’re caricatures the actors have to fill out, because if you fill them out too much in the script, then Sugarland can’t be Sugarland. Part of the film’s charm is Spielberg and the screenwriters ostensibly keeping things light. Because it’s a Goldie Hawn movie and she’s so cute and bubbly. Only there’s a sadness around the cute and bubbly. Because it’s a tragedy, not a comedy. It’s a tragedy with some funny parts and some exciting parts. But it’s such a tragedy instead of trying to cover all the factors, the filmmakers just implied them and the actors informed them through their passive performances. Because it’s a lot of Hawn, Atherton, Sacks, and Johnson in close-up. There’s a lot of time with these characters together. And they have to develop together. And they do. The filmmakers are able to bake in all the sadness without doing any excess exposition dumps.

Sugarland’s great. It all works out.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, based on a story by Spielberg, Barwood, and Robbins; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields; music by John Williams; produced by David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Lou Jean), William Atherton (Clovis), Michael Sacks (Slide), Ben Johnson (Captain Tanner), Gregory Walcott (Mashburn), Louise Latham (Mrs. Looby), Jessie Lee Fulton (Mrs. Nocker), Gordon Hurst (Hubie Nocker), and A.L. Camp (Mr. Alvin T. Nocker).


It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown! (1974, Phil Roman)

Easter Beagle has a really strong script from Charles M. Schulz. Everything is balanced just right. It’s not balanced equally. The proportions are just right. Besides the lovely musical sequences–where Beagle goes for being lovely and graceful (lots of dancing Snoopy, set Vince Guaraldi, some Bach, and some Beethoven)–most of the special is spent with Peppermint Patty (Linda Ercoli) and Marcie (Jimmy Ahrens). Patty is trying to teach Marcie how to make Easter eggs. Things go wrong in very amusing ways as Marcie apparently has no understanding of how eggs work.

That subplot keeps up the whole special–but is actually completely independent of the “twist”–and just gets funnier. By the final few screw-ups, Peppermint Patty’s frustrations are possibly less than the viewer’s. It’s perfectly plotted by Schulz and director Roman. Really funny, really good plotting.

Other subplots include Sally (Lynn Mortensen) needing new shoes, Linus (Stephen Shea) trying to convince Sally and the other kids the Easter Beagle will give them all Easter eggs so why make them, and Woodstock needing a new bird house. Charlie Brown (Todd Barbee) and Lucy (Melanie Kohn) are around, but mostly just to be exasperated by their younger siblings.

There’s a great department store sequence–where everything is all Christmas (Easter Beagle has a couple moments of big commercialism commentary from Schulz; the department store works a lot better than the stuff in dialogue)–and only Snoopy is able to find the Easter section, on his way to picking out a bird house for Woodstock. Because even though Snoopy is a bit of a jerk to Woodstock–there’s a lot of almost mean slapstick violence–he does want to get him a new bird house.

Great music, some fantastic sequences (like, lots of them–Easter Beagle is mostly fantastic sequences), and strong performances from the cast. Kohn is maybe the weakest, but she comes around–though Barbee does have the worst part in the special–and Ercoli and Ahrens do some great work. Oh, and Mortensen and Shea. The Easter Beagle stuff is excellent.

And it’s got a great finish.

It’s the Easter Beagle, which has almost zilch to do with Easter, is a constant, consistent success.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Roman; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Chuck McCann and Roger Donley; music by Vince Guaraldi; produced by Bill Melendez; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Linda Ercoli (Peppermint Patty), Jimmy Ahrens (Marcie), Lynn Mortensen (Sally), Melanie Kohn (Lucy), and Todd Barbee (Charlie Brown).


It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown (1974, Phil Roman)

It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown opens with this adorable five minute Woodstock sequence. He builds a new nest, then goes and takes a swim in a bird bath. A storm comes in–whatever its faults, Mystery does have some rather ambitious animation for a “Charlie Brown” special–the tranquil clouds changing into storm clouds looks awesome. Woodstock then has to survive on the water until Snoopy can save him. Once Snoopy comes in, things start to get less adorable. Mystery starts going for gags, because whenever Snoopy tries to help Woodstock, something goes wrong because of Snoopy’s callousness. For a while it seems like a subplot is going to be Woodstock snapping.

But it’s not. Because Mystery doesn’t have any subplots.

Once the storm is over and Woodstock is dry, Snoopy walks him home. Only the new nest is gone, so Snoopy dons a Sherlock Holmes outfit and they get investigating.

Wait, did I forget to mention Sally (Lynn Mortensen) has a science project due and the subject is nature. She needs something from nature.

Hint, hint.

So Snoopy and Woodstock investigate the Peanuts kids, starting with Charlie Brown (Todd Barbee) under a hot lamp. Then Lucy and Linus, then Marcie, then Pigpen, then Peppermint Patty. None of the scenes stand out except the Peppermint Patty one, where Patty decides Snoopy is playing cops and robbers and plays as the robber and attacks him. It might be a good scene if Donna Le Tourneau’s voice work on Patty were better. There’s got to be something special in the voice of a character who thinks a bipedal dog in a costume is a funny-looking kid and Le Tourneau doesn’t have it here.

After all the investigating, they go to the school and find the bird nest. Even though they’re just following the footprints from the tree, which Mystery previously implied led to Charlie Brown’s house and maybe the plot would move along a little faster. The trip to the other kids’ houses is narratively pointless. Other than to keep doing this sight gag where Snoopy’s bubble pipe makes a big bubble. The big bubble always pops on Woodstock, soaking him once again. Given Woodstock almost drown to death in the opening scene, it’s a little mean. Mystery is a little mean to Woodstock, who’s basically the only not annoying character in it.

Because Sally gets really, really, really annoying. Mortensen plays her a little sociopathic, which is funny, but she’s fighting with Woodstock, who’s sympathetic.

The last third is a series of unfunny jokes. Mystery goes out on a particularly bad one.

It took six guys to come up with the story for Mystery–Charles M. Schulz isn’t credited with them, though he wrote the teleplay. They didn’t come up with much. For a while it seemed like it’d be focused more on Snoopy and Woodstock, so dialogue-free comedy. But no.

It’s not terrible, it’s just not successful. It doesn’t really try to succeed either. It’s also not assured enough to be rote.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Roman; teleplay by Charles M. Schulz, based on a story by Joseph A. Bailey, Jerry Juhl, Jeff Moss, Norman Stiles, Jon Stone, and Ray Sipherd and characters created by Schulz; edited by Chuck McCann; music by Vince Guaraldi; produced by Bill Melendez; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Todd Barbee (Charlie Brown), Lynn Mortensen (Sally), Melanie Kohn (Lucy), Stephen Shea (Linus), Donna Le Tourneau (Peppermint Patty), Jimmy Ahrens (Marcie), and Tom Muller (Pig Pen).


Sister Street Fighter (1974, Yamaguchi Kazuhiko)

Sister Street Fighter should be campy. With the constant horns in Kikuchi Shunsuke’s score, lead Shiomi Etsuko’s colorful outfit, villain Amatsu Bin doing an Elvis impersonation, the countless and intentionally weird martial arts villains… it ought to be campy. But it’s not, because somehow Sister Street Fighter manages to keep its melodrama sincere.

Lead Shiomi is a Hong Kong martial arts champion who goes to Japan to search for her missing brother. He too is a martial arts champion, but like many good martial arts champions, he’s also a secret drug agent. Shiomi isn’t just a concerned sister or martial arts champion, she’s got the assignment of finding him. It’s unclear if she regularly works as a secret agent or just this one time.

Shiomi’s a likable lead. Sister Street Fighter never goes out of its way to require anything like acting from its cast; likable’s about as high as you can get. Especially since Shiomi gets the more tedious half of the movie. The other half is all of Amatsu’s villainy, which gets pretty awful, or something with his goons. Even though the goons are sort of played for laughs and aren’t especially good at being eccentric martial arts villains, the film always takes them seriously. Somehow staying straightfaced through the absurdities does more for pacing than Shiomi’s dramatically inert search for her brother.

In Japan, Shiomi gets herself a bunch of friends and allies, including Sonny Chiba in an extended cameo. Chiba himself had a Street Fighter franchise, but playing a different character (with Shiomi appearing in the final entry, not as the same character as here). There’s no baton-passing to Shiomi, just the relatively effective too slight mentorship. Chiba’s a karate man, Shiomi’s a karate woman, they believe in the good karate schools. They’re pals and they’ve got the most star power in the picture.

Sadly, they barely get any time together.

Amatsu’s an okay villain. He’s an evil jackass, walking around with his sunglasses on all the time and his Elvis capes. Ishibashi Masashi is Amatsu’s overconfident henchman who can’t deal with Shiomi beating him up. Ishibashi’s all right too.

As for the eccentric villains, none of them stand out good or bad. Director Yamaguchi shoots all the fight scenes in long shot with very few cuts. It’s about seeing the fight progress. The fight choreography isn’t great, but what it does well, Yamaguchi knows how to showcase.

He also knows how to do the ultraviolence quite well. Sister Street Fighter is often bloodless, but only because they’re saving all the gore for the finale. It should’ve been peppered throughout, especially given Shiomi’s plot is so bland and it could use all the help.

Most of the film involves Shiomi at Amatsu’s estate, which is a mix of Bond villain, bikini bimbos, and dungeons. Lots and lots of dungeons, but with tech. Shiomi has to break in after the second or third time everyone thinks she’s dead. Sister Street Fighter is short but repetitive. Unfortunately it’s not to reinforce information gathering, but because the writers don’t have any other ideas. So why not just do this one thing again. And then again.

But the scenes with Shiomi on the estate take up a lot of runtime. It’s got a great pace. It doesn’t have the best direction in the film, but it definitely moves the best.

In the end, Sister Street Fighter doesn’t succeed, it just doesn’t fail. It’s like it isn’t even ambitious enough to fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Yamaguchi Kazuhiko; written by Kakefuda Masahiro and Suzuki Noribumi; director of photography, Nakajima Yoshio; edited by Tanaka Osamu; music by Kikuchi Shunsuke; production designer, Nakamura Shuichiro; produced by Takamura Kenji and Yoshimine Kineo; released by Toei Company.

Starring Etsuko Shiomi (Li Koryu), Emi Hayakawa (Emi), Sanae Ôhori (Shinobu Kojo), Xiu-Rong Xie (Fanshin), Hiroshi Kondô (Li Gyokudo), Tatsuya Nanjô (Jiro), Nami Tachibana (Reiko), Hiroshi Miyauchi (Li Mansei), Bin Amatsu (Shigetomi Kakuzaki), Masashi Ishibashi (Kazunao Inubashiri), and Sonny Chiba (Hibiki).


The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge (1974, Ozawa Shigehiro)

The title, The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, doesn’t really refer to anything in the film itself. The Street Fighter is Sonny Chiba. He’s gone for psychotic killer karate man (from the first film, Last Revenge is the third) to suave, romantic ladies man. Complete with a secret room to put on his disguises. He also does disguises now. Last Revenge is often like a cheap James Bond knockoff, but then there’s some fighting and everything’s okay for a while.

Anyway. Chiba doesn’t wantonly kill everyone anymore but he still does get cheated by the criminals who hire him for the odd jobs. Only Last Revenge is more interested in the Chiba the ladies man than Chiba the killer karate man. So instead of fighting his way through the bad guy’s organization, Chiba instead romances the guy’s evil sister (Ike Reiko). It’s a family thing–there’s Ike, smart brother Kitamura Eizô, and stupid brother Shioji Akira.

Except it’s not a Romeo and Juliet thing, Ike’s really always just trying to kill Chiba. Sometimes involving mafia karate man Frankie Black, who has a magic power (really) to cut heavy objects with his mind. Black’s also dressed like a Mariachi. He’s really tall too. So sometimes Street Fighter’s Last Revenge will have this giant white guy Mariachi fighting Chiba.

It’s absurd and bad and awesome at the same time.

Kitamura–the smart brother–has this whole subplot about government corruption where he ends up teaming up with Wada Kôji’s corrupt prosecuting attorney. Wada’s also a karate man, ten years more advanced than Chiba.

Oh. Yeah. In addition to just having straight-forward, usually well-choreographed fight scenes, Last Revenge reduces Chiba’s badassery. He gets his ass handed to him a few times by Wada, with the film unable to figure out how to be sympathetic to Chiba. Luckily he’s a karate man and just needs to visit Suzuki Masafumi for some tips. Suzuki runs a karate school and is a real good guy, not a de facto one like Chiba.

It’s basically an excuse for director Ozawa to showcase some karate. The fight scenes have more jumping than intricate technique.

Though Shiomi Etsuko, as a young karate woman, gets some nice technique showcasing. She’s ten years too young to take on Chiba, or so he says; he’s ten years too young to take on Wada, or so Wada tells Chiba. Not being developed enough in your karate and hitting people with time-delayed fatal wounds are the big script gimmicks. Neither ever feel like anything but gimmicks.

However, it’s cool seeing Shimoi has a fun arc of rejecting Kitamura and family to be an antihero like Chiba. It gives him a protege, whether he wants one or not. There are lots of ladies interested in Chiba–the film’s first subplot involves his message service receptionist deciding she has to track him down because of his sexy voice. It makes his “romance” subplot with Ike all the more plausible.

Not good, but plausible. Even though Ike’s performance as a deceptive femme fatale is probably the film’s best bit of acting. And Ike gets no favors from the script or Ozawa’s direction. Ozawa doesn’t really do the directing performances thing. He’s patient with his composition, giving the actors space and time, but he doesn’t do anything to help them. It doesn’t really matter for any of the guys. But it matters for Shimoi and Ike.

Wada’s a good villain. Not so much to Chiba, rather as a foil in Kitamura’s plans.

So it’s a shame when none of it comes through at the end. Last Revenge has a chance to be this violent but benign martial arts thriller and screws it up so much it’s difficult to remember how or why it got the goodwill to burn.

Mostly it’s because Chiba’s got such a weak part.

Good photography from Yamagishi Nagaki. Decent score. Street Fighter’s Last Revenge is perfectly well-produced, it just can’t overcome a bad script and that script’s temperate Chiba.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa; written by Takada Kôji and Shimura Masahiro; director of photography, Yamagishi Nagaki; released by Toei Company.

Starring Sonny Chiba (Tsurugi), Ike Reiko (Aya), Wada Kôji (Takera Kunigami), Shiomi Etsuko (Huo-Feng), Suzuki Masafumi (Masaoka), Kitamura Eizô (Ôwada Seigen), Murakami Fuyuki (Iizuka), Shioji Akira (Ôwada Gô), and Frankie Black (Black).


Return of the Street Fighter (1974, Ozawa Shigehiro)

Return of the Street Fighter almost stages a third act rally. It comes so close, then it doesn’t. After a string of boring fight scenes, director Ozawa finally gets in a couple good ones. Lead Sonny Chiba against one adversary, instead of a half dozen, two dozen, or four dozen. The failure to do big fight scenes is all on Ozawa. Chiba’s holding up his end–vicious karate killing machine–but Ozawa’s not shooting the fights well. When it’s just Chiba and someone else fighting, Ozawa and editor Horiike Kôzô create this rhythm to the cuts; the “story” pauses entirely for the fight.

When it’s Chiba vs. the evil karate school? Yawn. No fault of Horikke’s though; there’s just no good footage. Ozawa doesn’t do establishing shots. No matter how long Chiba’s fighting or how much ground he’s covered, no establishing shots. Ozawa never takes the camera off Chiba and never lets Chiba stop moving. Not fighting moving, but actually moving from place to place moving. It’s sort of narratively efficient but it doesn’t get the film anywhere. It’s just another unfortunate Return detail.

The story this time has Chiba working for evil karate school owner Tanaka Hiroshi–mostly doing hits. Chiba’s got a plucky, cute girl sidekick, Ichiji Yôko, who seems a little too cozy with Tanaka. Because Chiba doesn’t believe in Tanaka’s brand of karate, Tanaka’s just another client. And when Tanaka tries to hire Chiba to take out rival (good guy) karate school owner Suzuki Masafumi… well, Chiba’s got a line.

Thanks to flashback footage from the first film, we know Suzuki is the only karate school owner Chiba’s ever going to trust. Because we get to see their entire fight scene from the previous film. Return doesn’t even run ninety minutes and there are three lengthy flashbacks using first movie footage, then there’s Ozawa’s karate documentary where he showcases the various weapons and styles in use at Tanaka’s school. Why? Because then when there are actual fight scenes involving weapons and styles, Ozawa gets to rush through and just get to Chiba running away before taking the bad karate men down.

Again, it’s narratively efficient, it just doesn’t do anything good. It makes the actual fight scenes seem abbreviated. It’s a shame. When Ozawa wants, he can direct one hell of a fight scene.

Koiwa Hajjime’s script is pragmatically plotted, even when it misses opportunities. The connecting scenes between fights improve a lot in the second half of the film, contributing to the impression it’s going to get really good for the finale.

None of the cast stands out. Chiba’s pretty good, but underutilized. And it’s not like he can fix the poorly directed group fight scenes. Ichiji is annoying, but because she’s a narrative drag, nothing about the performance. Claude Gagnon is an unimpressive Mr. Big, however. And the showdown with returning baddie Ishibashi Masashi disappoints. Group fight.

The more obvious to becomes Return of the Street Fighter has nowhere to go, the more hurried the film becomes. It’s too bad; Return has the pieces to make something. The good fight scenes are quite good. They’re just dramatically inert. Given the whole film’s about Chiba resolving threads from the last movie, dramatic inertness shouldn’t even be possible.

But dramatically inert Return gets. It’s not all on director Ozawa. Most of it is on him, though.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa; screenplay by Koiwa Hajjime, based on a character created by Takada Kôji; director of photography, Yoshida Sadtsugu; edited by Horiike Kôzô; music by Tsushima Toshiaki; released by Toei Company.

Starring Sonny Chiba (Tsurugi), Ichiji Yôko (Boke), Claude Gagnon (Don Costello), Ishibashi Masashi (Shikenbaru), Tanaka Hiroshi (Otaguro), Shima Naoki (Yamagami), and Suzuki Masafumi (Masaoka).


The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is either terrifying or horrifying. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Sometimes it’s visual terror or horror, sometimes it’s audial, sometimes it’s just implied. Director Hooper has three different styles–daytime, nighttime, indoor–and each goes from terror to horror multiple times. The film takes place over less than twenty-four hours, with Hooper and the film taking breaks–sometimes long–to move ahead in the present action. There’s an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break.

The breaks are never scenes. There is no comic relief. Even when there’s a relative pause in the intensity, Hooper keeps it buzzing. There’s a constant reminder. It’s not about being concerned or cautious or scared. It’s about being terrified. Hooper, photography Daniel Pearl, co-composer Wayne Bell–in addition to directing, producing, and co-writing, Hooper also co-composes the score–they make the idyllic terrifying. In the opening crawl (narrated by John Larroquette), the film says it’s going to make idyllic terrifying. And it does.

The film, the opening crawl informs the viewer, is about five “youths,” specifically Marilyn Burns and Paul A. Partain (at least, according to the crawl). And Burns does have a central role in the film’s goings-on, whereas Partain just has a big part. He’s left out of the action; Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel bully Partain to a degree. He’s in a wheelchair–he’s traumatized in the first five or six minutes in an attack from a knife-wielding hitchhiker (Edwin Neal)–yet he’s still a complete jerk. Sure, Burns isn’t an awesome sister to him and her boyfriend, Allen Danziger, is a dick, but Partain’s a jerk.

It’s not about him whining or being unpleasant in general, it’s about how those traits affect his actions, which do not endear him to anyone. And most of Texas Chain Saw Massacre does not involve chainsaws or massacres. Most of it is, in terms of runtime, not intensity of moments–most of it is the five youths.

They’re apparently college students or at least around that age. William Vail and Teri McMinn, who are the nicest, complete the five. The girls are blonde and into astrology. The guys are sort of early seventies dimwit Texas hippie posers. Vail and McMinn are a couple, with Vail the traditional male lead type. He’s sweet, a little dumb, but sensitive.

And, for a while, Hooper and Henkel tease him having the bigger part. Then they give it to Partain; taking the film away from someone likable and sympathetic, putting it on someone unlikable and difficult to sympathize with, even though not sympathizing with him creates guilt. But no resentment. Because Texas Chain Saw isn’t about resentment or sympathy or likability.

It’s about horror and terror.

Hooper shoots the daytime scenes as tranquil, relatively rich in color (there’s this lovely sunflower patch some characters walk through). He does tracking long shots, often with a slight dolly in or out at the end. The narrative distance is the thing. The opening crawl told us to pay attention to the youths–who are in this part of rural Texas seeing if Burns and Partain’s grandfather’s grave has been robbed–and Hooper directs exactly how we can pay that attention. The sound editing is big in Texas Chain Saw, and not just when it becomes a combination of clanging music, screaming, and a chainsaw–which is when the film is being terrifying, while foreshadowing being horrifying. The sound editing is also how Hooper is able to keep the audience with the characters. We can always hear them, we just can’t really see them. Instead, we mostly get to see Partain. Whining. Being weird. Being unpleasant.

The nighttime shots are completely different. Cinematographer Pearl gives the film this rich blackness, which Hooper sporadically, unevenly fills. There’s a chase sequence through bramble; it creates a maze for the pursued, one the audience can’t see around either. And the pursuer–Gunnar Hansen in a mask of flesh and waving a chainsaw–is always just behind. The chainsaw, which Hooper refuses to fetishize, always seems just in range of its target. Later, during the morning sequence, Hooper shows he can do terrifying chase scenes in daytime too. He and Pearl’s subtle use of depth throughout the film is magnificent.

After the nighttime shot comes the interior scenes. Even though there have been some interior scenes on the same location, Hooper handles it differently. Tight shots. Fast cuts. From the victim’s perspective to outside the victim, toggling rapidly; sometimes the rapid cuts lead to the change in perspective. Editors Sallye Richardson and J. Larry Carroll do great work throughout, but the last thirty minutes are unbelievable. The film’s already shockingly intense, but then Hooper and his editors have to kick it up a notch. Turns out there are even more surprises in the story than expected. Though expectation is hard. Hooper keeps the viewer’s attention on each moment as it occurs. No distractions.

Except Partain. Isn’t he annoying? Don’t you hate him? Wow. You hate a kid in a wheelchair. You’re awful. Isn’t he annoying though?

The last third is terrifying and horrifying in a way the first two-thirds aren’t. Turns out there’s a comfort in the unknown, all Hooper and Henkel have for reveals are worst case scenarios. The last third explores that unknown. Intensity to the point of nausea. Then more. Then more. Then more. It never ends.

I suppose Partain’s great. His obnoxious is perfect. Burns’s good. Vail and McMinn are fine. Danziger’s an unlikable prick, which, again, seems to be the point. Hansen doesn’t get any lines, but the physical performance is outstanding. Especially since Hooper takes the time to show the inhuman villains emotional moments, but not their intended victims. Neal’s good. Jim Siedow is a gas station owner who the Mystery Machine–oh, yeah, the youths are in a van–comes across. He’s great.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre terrifies. It’s what Hooper’s going for–terrifying the viewer. The way he does it is to create this masterpiece of mood, timing, photography, performance, everything. Every shot appears precise (which is astounding given the film’s micro budget), every cut is right on; his control of the mood is absolute.

Maybe someday I’ll even be able to watch it in one sitting.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay by Kim Henkel and Hooper, based on a story by Henkel; director of photography, Daniel Pearl; edited by J. Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson; music by Wayne Bell and Hooper; released by Bryanston Distributing.

Starring Marilyn Burns (Sally), Paul A. Partain (Franklin), Allen Danziger (Jerry), Teri McMinn (Pam), William Vail (Kirk), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker), Jim Siedow (Old Man), John Dugan (Grandfather), and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface).


The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)

Despite the title, The Exorcist is about pretty much everything except the actual exorcist. When he does appear, kicking off the third act, it’s kind of a stunt. There’s a lot of implied mythology in the film, without much connective tissue–but nothing ruling out connective tissue. Director Friedkin does a balancing act. The reveal moment of the exorcist, complete with foggy streets, is where Friedkin just gives in to the sensationalism.

It’s 1973, there’s a possession so real skeptical priest Jason Miller fights for it to be exorcized, things are about to get intense. There’s fog, isn’t there? And music. Friedkin’s sparing with music. He uses it to great effective earlier, less on the exorcist’s introduction.

The actual exorcism has excellent special effects and good acting. Friedkin’s direction is far more pragmatic than usual; unlike the rest of the film, he and editors Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman don’t make any imaginative, affecting cuts. Cinematographer Owen Roizman is given the mundane task of insuring the frosty breath comes out. Previously, he’d been creating this warm, welcoming, terrifying Georgetown. It’s a step down.

Despite being entirely well-acted, none of The Exorcist’s actors particularly standout. Max von Sydow’s archeologist priest starts the film, digging up demonic relics. von Sydow just has to look scared or sick. It’s not much of a part. But Friedkin and the editors work their magic and make it through.

Then the film moves to Georgetown, where movie star Ellen Burstyn is filming an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel, The Exorcist–just kidding, she’s in some mainstream hippie movie. She and daughter Linda Blair are living in a rental house, complete with servants and a full-time assistant (Kitty Winn). Everything’s going fine until something starts happening to Blair… and the doctors can’t figure out what.

At the same time, priest Jason Miller is confronting a crisis of faith while trying to care for his aging mother. Miller’s crisis doesn’t get much time, it’s just part of his ground situation.

The film cuts between Burstyn and Miller. They’re in the same neighborhood, their orbits moving closer and closer. Though not in any inevitable way, rather coincidental. Burstyn and Blair’s story, despite a deadbeat dad subplot, is a lot less intense than Miller’s. They have all the fun supporting cast members, including drunk movie director Jack MacGowran.

Friedkin and the editors seem to cut a little faster each time. Actors’ lines don’t finish in their scenes, but carried over to the next shot, the next scene. Simultaneously, Roizman’s photography is completely laid back. It’d be calming if the movie weren’t called The Exorcist and there weren’t occasional scary music and what are those weird noises in the attic?

After getting done with von Sydow and moving on to Blair, Burstyn, and Miller, the film keeps its character focus pretty well balanced. Until Blair gets less and less to do. She has to go to the doctor and we don’t find out until after it’s happened. That absence succeeds in hurrying things along, but not making Burstyn or Blair much more sympathetic. They’re sympathetic because they’re mother and daughter and Blair’s a cute kid, not because they’re particularly likable. Blatty’s script doesn’t do them any favors. He writes scenes for maximum effect, not character development.

Then Burstyn ends up losing time to Lee J. Cobb–as a police inspector–and Miller. Miller’s got a new church subplot, which eventually meets up with Cobb’s murder investigation one. It leads to an excellent scene, beautifully shot, edited, acted, but nothing for the story. During the second act, the film loses its sense of momentum. Cobb and Miller are too stone-faced; the film needs Burstyn’s growing dread, which it mostly skips, even going so far as to switch over to Miller to avoid showing Burstyn and Blair’s side.

Blair’s fine. She handles the part, which is considerable. She’s the film’s de facto subject. Everything revolves around her and she knows it. Mercedes McCambridge does even better, doing some of Blair’s character’s voice work.

Great acting from Cobb, Miller, and Burstyn when she’s got the material. Nice support from everyone else.

The Exorcist is often expertly and sublimely executed. But that strong execution mostly pauses for the third act. The epilogue is better though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman; production designer, Bill Malley; produced by Blatty; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Jason Miller (Father Karras), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant Kinderman), Jack MacGowran (Dennings), William O’Malley (Father Dyer), Peter Masterson (Dr. Barringer), Robert Symonds (Dr. Taney), and Mercedes McCambridge (The Demon).


Voodoo Black Exorcist (1974, Manuel Caño)

Voodoo Black Exorcist is exasperatingly dull. In the first scene, which is before the opening titles, after a few seconds it becomes clear seventh century Haitian lovers Aldo Sambrell and Eva León aren’t just star-crossed, they’re also in blackface. Voodoo Exorcist Black is not a Blaxploitation horror film, but a (dubbed) Spanish remake of The Mummy set in the Caribbean.

Though calling it a horror movie is a little too gracious, because it’s never scary. It’s only compelling twice–both involving León, who isn’t good or appealing, she’s just the one who suffers the most in Santiago Moncada’s weird script and she gets some pity. So when León’s threatened, maybe Black Exorcist Voodoo registers a pulse. Maybe.

So after this terribly done but somewhat energetic opening sequence, the film moves to the present. By showing NASA footage of shuttle launches and moon shots and whatever else. It’s weird. It’s a weird way to do a time transition and one has to wonder if it was in the original Spanish version or something the dubbers came up with. Because the dubbers do a lot on the film. They do a lot.

But it’s not clear they make the movie much worse. Black Voodoo Exorcist is already atrocious. Maybe if there was some background noise it would help on some of the cruise ship interiors. I forgot–the movie is a Mummy remake set on a cruise ship. The cruise ship is transporting the mummy, who occasionally turns into an intense white guy, also Aldo Sambrell. León and Sambrell might have been black a thousand years ago, but now they’re both white. León through reincarnation, Sambrell… just because? He even becomes black again when he mummifies. It’s weird. But it’s just a bad weird.

Eventually Sambrell teams up with archeologist Alfredo Mayo. Mayo is León’s lover. She’s his secretary. She wants to get married. Even though he’s a gross old man and she’s a hot young woman, he doesn’t seem to want to get married. There’s no tension about it though, because both actors are so bad. And the script. And Caño’s exasperatingly bad direction.

Exorcist Black Voodoo is Panavision too. It’s a nice wide frame of cruise ship exteriors and not cruise ship interiors. Even though Roberto Ochoa’s photography isn’t good, it’s bright enough to betray visual inconsistency. But Caño’s setups are all bad so it’s easily on him too.

In the second act, the movie actually teases being interesting as Sambrell starts courting León. By starts, I mean there’s a short scene. Then it’s over and it’s back to being boring. Then Fernando Sancho’s self-depreciating police inspector gets all the screen time as he investigates Sambrell.

Exorcist Voodoo Black is a movie where a cop turns a firehose on an escaping thousand year-old voodoo mummy (Sambrell’s always running when in his mummy makeup). And it’s not amusing for a frame.

I’m not even sure Voodoo Black Exorcist deserves a good joke made about it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Manuel Caño; written by Santiago Moncada; director of photography, Roberto Ochoa; edited by Antonio Ramírez de Loaysa and Frederic Vich; music by Fernando García Morcillo; produced by José Antonio Pérez Giner; released by Horizon Films.

Starring Aldo Sambrell (Guedé Nibo), Eva León (Silvia), Alfredo Mayo (Dr. Kessling), and Fernando Sancho (Comisario Domínguez).


Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974, Michael Cimino)

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is the story of men in all their complexities. Their desire for money, their desire for women, their desire for stylish clothes. Whether a young man–Jeff Bridges–or an older man–Clint Eastwood–how can any of us truly understand these deep, complex beings.

I wish the film had that level of pretense, but it doesn’t. Writer-director Cimino has a lot of machismo issues to work out and he also wants to draw a lot of attention to Eastwood’s character’s Korean War valor. Is it a commentary on the Vietnam War? It would suggest a deeper level to the film, which is otherwise initially Bridges and Eastwood’s comedic misadventures avoiding George Kennedy, while the second half is Bridges, Eastwood, and Kennedy teaming up to rob a bank. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s Eastwood-lite second half is a sequence of questionable sight gag “comedy” and boring car chases. Oh, and the lamest heist sequence ever. Cimino’s direction is all about the Idaho and Montana vistas. He doesn’t pace well, though editor Ferris Webster does no favors.

Frank Stanley’s photography is fine. It’s occasionally too impersonal, but it’s not like a better lighted pool hall was going to fundamentally fix the film. Cimino’s script–and his resulting film–are real shallow. Kennedy’s the closest thing to a full character just because Kennedy has to contend with big contrary actions. Cimino forcefully shoehorns them into the script, complete with dialogue to foreshadow, and Kennedy manages to make them work. No one else is as lucky.

Except maybe Geoffrey Lewis. He’s the film’s comedy relief, someone everyone–Kennedy, Bridges, and Eastwood–can bully. Men like to bully. It makes them men. Bullying and knowing almost nothing about concussions, even though all implied backstory is to the contrary of the latter. Lewis actually works in the background, just because Cimino treats him like scenery. But Lewis stays busy.

Eastwood’s got a nothing character. Initially he’s just running away from Kennedy. Then he teams up with Bridges and they have cinema’s lamest bromance. Cimino forces in some exposition on Bridges, which Bridges delivers in an annoying, obnoxious, insipid fashion. Eastwood gets none. He has no character. He delivers a decent performance nonetheless, apparently able to pretend there’s some depth to not just his character, but the film itself.

And Bridges. As it turns out, Bridges maybe gives the film’s most appropriate performance. He’s doing something, it’s not working, so he just does more of it. Also the perfect description of Cimino and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

A weak score from Dee Barton rounds it out. Besides the Montana travelogue, which is gorgeous, a lot of cameos from seventies character actors, and Kennedy’s performance, there’s not much to the film. It needs a better director and a much, much better script.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Cimino; director of photography, Frank Stanley; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Dee Barton; produced by Robert Daley; released by United Artists.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Thunderbolt), Jeff Bridges (Lightfoot), Geoffrey Lewis (Eddie Goody) and George Kennedy (Red Leary).


Scroll to Top