Embassy Pictures

Scanners (1981, David Cronenberg)

About a half hour into Scanners, the film starts to run out of its initial steam. Director Cronenberg (who also scripted) opens the film with some dynamic set pieces–lead Stephen Lack mind frying a mean woman, Lack on the run from goons, Patrick McGoohan chaining Lack down and torturing him (apparently), and Michael Ironside blowing up some guy’s head with his mind. Scanners is a lot right off. Oh, and then a car chase action sequence after the head explosion. Again, it’s a lot.

And then it’s time for the first exposition dump. McGoohan is trying to find “good” Scanners, who are telepaths, like Lack. Ironside is trying to find bad ones. Both want them as biological weapons, McGoohan just wants to sell them to humans. Ironside wants to subjugate the humans. Not all that information comes out at the first info dump, mostly just McGoohan bickering with security chief Lawrence Dane. Dane doesn’t trust McGoohan, but Cronenberg wants the viewer to side against Dane. It’s a confusing turn of events at the end, just because McGoohan’s not a sympathetic character and Dane seems square but level-headed.

Then Lack comes in and goes on a secret mission around Canada as a double agent to join Ironside’s group. Previous to this point in his life story, Lack’s character had been homeless. Now he’s a well-dressed Canadian, kind of a maple syrup James Bond. Only he’s not particularly good at the secret agent stuff. Eventually he meets a girl Scanner–Jennifer O’Neill–who he actually treats terribly and roughly, which is a little disconcerting at times because apparently Lack is supposed to be sympathetic and likable. He’s not, of course, because his performance has all the life of a once damp towel. Same for O’Neill. Same for McGoohan. Dane gives the film’s best performance almost by default.

Well, except for Ironside. I mean, Cronenberg front loads the film with action. He saves some effects work for the grand finale, but there’s no action to it. There’s exposition, there’s pointless contrivance. Cronenberg keeps throwing out big revelations to try to get some emotional connection to the characters, but they’re impervious–Ironside should be intellectually sympathetic but Cronenberg can’t swing it. He really does rely on Lack instead and Lack crumbles, time and again.

But until the late second act, Ironside’s a perfectly good thuggish villain. Sure, he’s also a millionaire war profiteer but it’s Canada, it’s just how Canadian millionaire war profiteering Scanners who operate out of desolate office parks operate.

Nice photography from Mark Irwin, some occasionally strong editing from Ronald Sanders. Once O’Neill and Lack have teamed up in their chemistry-free quest for… it’s unclear. Cronenberg has at least two jumbo red herrings in the script just to keep things moving, which might work at ninety minutes but at over a hundred it’s a slog.

Howard Shore’s music is competent, occasionally Hitchcockian, but most often too much. Cronenberg never really gets a sense of the locations in the film and Shore’s music defaults to filling in mood. But it’s not good at filling in mood.

Really, until O’Neill shows up and becomes Lack’s Eva Marie Saint, Scanners can almost get through. Cronenberg’s got Dane, he’s got Ironside. Sure, Lack’s vacant but maybe he’s supposed to be vacant in that poorly acted way. The strange part about the film is how the first act’s well-plotted. Shame the rest of it is either aimless or misguided.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; director of photography, Mark Irwin; edited by Ronald Sanders; music by Howard Shore; produced by Claude Hèroux; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring Stephen Lack (Cameron Vale), Patrick McGoohan (Dr. Paul Ruth), Jennifer O’Neill (Kim Obrist), Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok), Lawrence Dane (Braedon Keller), and Robert A. Silverman (Benjamin Pierce).


The Oscar (1966, Russell Rouse)

The Oscar is a spectacular kind of awful. It’s the perfect storm of content, casting and technical ineptitude. Director Rouse probably doesn’t have a single good shot in the entire film. It might not even be possible with Joseph Ruttenberg’s photography and the maybe studio television level of the set decoration. Though there is this inexplicably good shot of Eleanor Parker during her awful monologue.

Oh, right, the awful monologues. Not everyone gets one. Parker gets one, Jill St. John gets one, Tony Bennett gets one, Milton Berle gets one–okay, well, actually pretty much everyone gets one and they’re part of what makes The Oscar such a worthwhile terrible movie. Rouse seems completely unaware lead Stephen Boyd is supposed to be playing a jerk. He’s also completely unaware lead Stephen Boyd is giving a truly awful performance. Tony Bennett is really bad too, but he’s in it less. It’s all bad Boyd, all the time.

Elke Sommer’s Boyd’s wife. I think she may have the shortest monologue. The Oscar–Rouse and cowriters Harlan Ellison and Clarence Greene in particular–doesn’t think much of Sommer. She’s a flakey virginal hippie. Boyd must seduce aware her innocence but then she disgusts him. Right after she disgusts him, Sommer’s wardrobe essentially becomes exquisite and quite revealing lingerie. She’s got a scene at the end of the movie–maybe even her monologue moment but it’s out of character so less effective–but otherwise she becomes background.

Berle and Parker do as best with what they can. They’re old Hollywood players, Parker should know better than to lust, which Berle has to remind her about because he’s the virtuous dude. Cotten’s a virtuous dude too but he’s got nothing going on. He’s not dynamic enough for the part. It’s not like he’s Orson Welles signing the standard rich and famous contract for Boyd.

Edie Adams is legitimately good, ditto Peter Lawford. St. John tries and it helps a lot, especially since she gets nothing off her costars. Ernest Borgnine is fine but like a sleazy detective on a family show. He’s not supposed to be too sleazy, he’s somebody’s drunken, blackmailing uncle after all.

Really bad–really amusingly bad–music from Percy Faith. The script is a strange mix of okay one-liners, creepy misogyny and lame dialogue.

The only actual good thing about The Oscar is Edith Head–who even cameos–and her gowns. They’re stunning. Rouse doesn’t know he’s got this Edith Head fashion show to be directing. Instead he’s doing a… well, it’s impossible to say. You actually have to see The Oscar to understand The Oscar.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Russell Rouse; screenplay by Harlan Ellison, Rouse and Clarence Greene; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; edited by Chester W. Schaeffer; music by Percy Faith; produced by Greene; released by Embassy Pictures.

Starring Stephen Boyd (Frank Fane), Tony Bennett (Hymie Kelly), Elke Sommer (Kay Bergdahl), Milton Berle (Kappy Kapstetter), Joseph Cotten (Kenneth Regan), Eleanor Parker (Sophie Cantaro), Jill St. John (Laurel Scott), Edie Adams (Trina Yale), Ernest Borgnine (Barney Yale) and Peter Lawford (Steve Marks).


Godzilla, King of Monsters! (1956, Terry O. Morse and Honda Ishirô)

Morse didn’t just direct the added American scenes for Godzilla, King of Monsters! but also did the hatchet job editing it.

The concept–adding in footage of a reporter reporting on what would be an international news event–isn’t bad. But Morse (aided, undoubtedly, by Al C. Ward’s awful scripting) contrives a way to shoehorn Raymond Burr’s American reporter into all of the original Godzilla story. Even though Burr doesn’t have a single scene with Hirata Akihiko’s scientist, Monsters makes them old college chums and Burr inexplicably talks to Hirata’s stand-in on the phone.

I suppose Morse and Ward thought it was necessary to tie plots together, but at most it added two and a half minutes of runtime. Morse could have just recycled the “stairs to the hospital” shot a fourth time.

As for Burr, he’s not very good. The cheapness of his scenes–particularly the one where he’s in a helicopter but sitting in an office–probably hurt the performance. For example, when he’s actual in a torrential downpour, he’s convincing. However, Morse could have spent that money better making sure Burr had a real presence in the third act instead of standing in the background.

The voiceover cast is uniformly terrible, ruining the performances of the original actors. The other American cast is fifty-fifty–Frank Iwanaga is great as Burr’s sidekick (Monsters‘s should’ve been focused on them), but Mikel Conrad’s atrocious as his boss.

With the original version readily available, Monsters should be avoided.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Terry O. Morse and Honda Ishirô; screenplay by Murata Takeo, Honda and Al C. Ward, based on a story by Kayama Shigeru; directors of photography, Tamai Masao and Guy Roe; edited by Morse; music by Ifukube Akira; production designer, Chûko Satoru; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki, Edward B. Barison, Richard Kay and Harry Rybnick; released by Embassy Pictures.

Starring Raymond Burr (Steve Martin), Shimura Takashi (Dr. Yamane), Kôchi Momoko (Emiko), Hirata Akihiko (Dr. Serizawa), Takarada Akira (Ogata), Frank Iwanaga (Tomo Iwanaga), Sakai Sachio (Hagiwara), Murakami Fuyuki (Dr. Tabata), Yamamoto Ren (Seiji), Suzuki Toyoaki (Shinkichi), Okabe Tadashi (Dr. Tabata’s Assistant), Ogawa Toranosuke (President of Company) and Mikel Conrad (George Lawrence).



This post is part of the Sum Up | Godzilla, Part One: Showa.

Escape from New York (1981, John Carpenter)

Man and boy, I’ve probably seen Escape from New York ten times. This viewing might be the first where I noticed the film’s quietness. Carpenter uses the relative silence to make the first third (even before Isaac Hayes shows up), the most memorable parts of the film.

Some of that memorable quality has more to do with Carpenter’s approach than the script. The flying sequence is phenomenal. The deliberate cuts between Kurt Russell, delicately lighted in the cockpit, and the glider silently moving through the New York streets, the music barely audible… it’s one of Carpenter’s more “beautiful” moments as a director.

That sequence also showcases how Carpenter and his crew were able to take a lower budgeted picture like New York and make it more impressive than most big releases of the day. Carpenter sets up a dystopian future, but make the futuristic aspects imaginative and thrilling to the audience.

Lots of seventies Carpenter regulars show up–Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Stephens (not to mention Donald Pleasence and Adrienne Barbeau)–but the additional supporting cast members are iconic. Obviously, Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York is a flashy role, but Harry Dean Stanton and Ernest Borgnine are great too.

In a very Altman fashion, suggests these complex relationships–particularly Barbeau and Stanton, but also Russell and Van Cleef–and lets the viewer decide for him or herself. He does something similar with Pleasence’s finish.

The film is a significant masterpiece, something I’m not vocal enough about.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Carpenter and Nick Castle; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Todd C. Ramsay; music by Carpenter in association with Alan Howarth; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Larry J. Franco and Debra Hill; released by Embassy Pictures.

Starring Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken), Lee Van Cleef (Hauk), Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie), Donald Pleasence (The President), Harry Dean Stanton (Brain), Isaac Hayes (The Duke), Tom Atkins (Rehme), Charles Cyphers (The Secretary of State), Season Hubley (Girl in Chock Full O’Nuts) and Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie).


The Fog (1980, John Carpenter)

It’s not just Janet Leigh being in the film or all the trouble–visibly–starting when Jamie Lee Curtis arrives in town, it’s everything about The Fog–it’s an aware Hitchcock homage. The list can continue with the setting, the reference to The Birds, but it’s even more. There’s a definite feel to the film; Carpenter seemingly (he really doesn’t, since the film’s only ninety minutes) dedicates a bunch of time to the character development.

He’s got that fantastic introduction to Adrienne Barbeau’s character. There’s her talking to admirer Charles Cyphers on the phone to showcase her actual personality (versus her radio personality), the guys on the boat talking about her, then, a few scenes later, there are the backstory heavy photographs and newspaper clippings. It takes almost no time, but Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill create this incredibly full character. I think the line about her grocery shopping does a lot of work in about four seconds.

Hill’s contributions to the script can’t be overlooked–besides Barbeau’s fine character, there’s also the almost passive–but touching–romance between Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s so passive, it’s hard to even call it a romance, but it’s there and the scenes are great. Atkins is the closest thing the film’s got to a leading man and he’s fantastic–his character’s also very Hitchcockian. The film’s got six principles–Barbeau, Atkins, Curtis, Leigh, Nancy Keyes and Hal Holbrook. Leigh and Keyes spend most of the film together–another great relationship–while Barbeau and Holbrook are mostly solo. Holbrook’s part is only significant at the beginning and end, so the film’s almost three–Barbeau the radio deejay, Atkins and Curtis’s wild ride, and Leigh and Keyes working on the town’s anniversary celebration.

The anniversary celebration, which is handled extremely carefully, just shows off what a great job Carpenter does with limited money here. Everything gives the impression of majesty, mostly due to Carpenter’s fine Panavision composition and Dean Cundey’s lush color palate (another Hitchcock similarity). It’s an incredibly tight script and the majority of the film doesn’t have a single misstep. There’s Cyphers in his small role and he’s great. Darwin Jostin has a cameo, he’s great. It’s all great… until the end.

The end falls apart slowly, maybe because it’s hurried. After spending so much time with Curtis and Atkins (and Leigh and Keyes), seeing them pushed aside for Holbrook to take over–while Barbeau awkwardly narrates–really knocks away at the picture.

The film opens slowly and quietly. You’ve got John Houseman telling a story. Houseman’s definitely got the voice for it. It’s gradual, ominous and full of mood. The ending is fast, loud and neon.

The performances are all good, especially Barbeau (until the end, she can’t make her monologues sound good, no one could), Atkins, Keyes and Curtis. Atkins is such an assured leading man, it’s hard to believe he never played one again (maybe he did, but I’ve sure never seen it). Barbeau’s character is so interesting, she could have played her in a straight, non-genre picture and it probably would have been even better.

It’s great filmmaking, it’s just a problematic film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace; music by Carpenter; production designer, Wallace; produced by Hill; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring Adrienne Barbeau (Stevie Wayne), Jamie Lee Curtis (Elizabeth Solley), Janet Leigh (Kathy Williams), John Houseman (Mr. Machen), Tom Atkins (Nick Castle), James Canning (Dick Baxter), Charles Cyphers (Dan O’Bannon), Nancy Kyes (Sandy Fadel), Ty Mitchell (Andy), Hal Holbrook (Father Malone), John F. Goff (Al Williams) and George ‘Buck’ Flower (Tommy Wallace).


The Howling (1981, Joe Dante)

All due respect to Rick Baker, but Rob Bottin’s werewolf transformation in The Howling is superior. The transformation lasts so long it’s no longer shocking, just interesting. It’s so deliberate, it got me wondering what the werewolf would do if he needed to change in a pinch… if he didn’t have three or four minutes to spare.

The Howling is actually a really peculiar movie, both technically and in terms of plotting.

It is, possibly, Joe Dante’s straightest work. He’s making a regular picture here, with newsroom stuff, with cop stuff. It’s different from anything else I’ve seen of his–when Belinda Balaski is running from a werewolf, he handles it without any humor. It’s beautiful direction, even if there is a strange animated shot at one point (which makes little sense, because there’s some fine stop motion at the end, so why didn’t they just use it earlier too).

But The Howling is actually full of humor. The last shot of the film is a hamburger cooking, it’s goofy. There are constant, omnipresent references to werewolf films–there are ten characters named after werewolf movie directors–there’s a clip from The Wolf Man, there’s even a picture of Lon Chaney hanging on a wall–in story. But these references are somehow detached from the rather serious and straightforward way Dante tells the story. He’s got Kevin McCarthy giving a straight performance–Kevin McCarthy giving a straight performance in a Joe Dante film. It’s incredible.

Where The Howling gets in trouble is Dee Wallace. It isn’t just her performance, which is okay (though she’s never quite believable as a go-getter anchorwoman), but the way John Sayles’s script treats her. The concept–reporter discovers her elite psychiatric resort is really a colony of werewolves–really seems to imply she ought to be the main character. But she isn’t. She isn’t even the first to discover the werewolves. She isn’t even the second… wait, yes, she is. She is the second.

But Sayles avoids giving Wallace much to do and the film suffers for it. There are big plot holes–for example, it’s never explained why Wallace is invited to the werewolf club. It’s also never explained why her husband–played by Wallace’s real-life husband, Christopher Stone–accompanies her.

No, where Sayles finds the most interest–and maybe Dante too–is with Dennis Dugan (yes, Dennis Dugan) and Balaski. Both of them are fantastic, full of chemistry, having a great time, as TV news producers investigating. Their scenes are wonderful–they get the Dick Miller scene and it’s a doozy–and the film comes alive whenever either are onscreen.

The Howling also skirts around being particularly disturbing. Wallace is having real psychological problems, occasionally represented onscreen as dream sequences, but it’s hard to imagine her having a really hard time. Her basic recovery is just too fast.

There’s some good acting from John Carradine and Slim Pickens. Patrick Macnee has less to do than Wallace, if it’s even possible. Stone leaves a lot to be desired… Robert Picardo’s got a small part and he’s fantastic.

What’s nicest about the film is the way it gets so much better in the last third. The first act and most of the second invite all these questions, all this thinking–the last act doesn’t bother with it, but still manages to close with a great scene. Unfortunately, it isn’t the last scene in the film, just the last scene in the narrative. The final scene’s a misstep, because The Howling spends so much time as a rather quiet movie about people, only to go with a big comic finish.

It’s nice for a film to take its entire running time to impress (or close to it–the last shot’s awesome, but it’s a diversion from dealing with the emotional aftereffects of the previous scene); makes the viewing experience all the more rewarding (and somehow exciting).

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; screenplay by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, based on the novel by Gary Brandner; director of photography, John Hora; edited by Dante and Mark Goldblatt; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by Jack Conrad and Michael Finnell; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring Dee Wallace (Karen White), Patrick Macnee (Dr. George Waggner), Dennis Dugan (Chris), Christopher Stone (Bill Neill), Belinda Balaski (Terry Fisher), Kevin McCarthy (Fred Francis), John Carradine (Erle Kenton), Slim Pickens (Sam Newfield), Elisabeth Brooks (Marsha Quist), Robert Picardo (Eddie Quist), Margie Impert (Donna), Noble Willingham (Charlie Barton), James Murtaugh (Jerry Warren), Jim McKrell (Lew Landers), Don McLeod (T.C. Quist) and Dick Miller (Walter Paisley).


Phantasm (1979, Don Coscarelli)

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is not any kind of cinematic wonder. Coscarelli is a decent director in terms of composition and his screenplay has some inventive moments. Mostly, the writing credit is due because of his enthusiasm for the content. There’s nothing like seeing adults defer to the wisdom of a teenage boy–and A. Michael Baldwin pulls off the performance quite well. In Phantasm‘s world of approximately fifteen speaking parts and maybe three non-speaking (maybe), Baldwin runs the film.

Lots of Phantasm plays like an adolescent fantasy. Even ignoring Baldwin following brother Bill Thornbury on a date and watching him fool around with the girl (unintentionally preventing her from killing him), Phantasm‘s full of stuff for boys. There’s a gun porn scene, which is hilarious in how lame it comes across–Thornbury telling Baldwin to shoot to kill and so on–it’s hard to fault Phantasm for such tangents, because the whole thing is just goofy.

Maybe Phantasm isn’t scary, but it’s cool. Bad guy Angus Scrimm mysteriously appearing with crazy backlighting, cool. The silver ball thing with a fountain of blood spurting out–the design of this killing device itself–cool. Phantasm makes up for the lack of artistry with some good ideas and that enthusiasm. Coscarelli somehow transcends suspension of disbelief here–knowing how a shot works, understanding the sound effects’ effect–makes Phantasm all the more enjoyable. It’s an admirable film–Coscarelli just as easily couldn’t have pulled it off.

But Coscarelli doesn’t exactly know how to use his budget. Phantasm, effectively had double the budget of Halloween (Carpenter spent half just on the Panavision camera). Apparently, Phantasm was originally three hours long–there are signs throughout of cuts with one character nonsensically disappearing and another popping in for a moment almost as a gag–so some of the budget could have been used on those lost minutes.

The acting is hit and miss. Baldwin’s solid and believable, but not exactly good. The script’s a little too absurd. The same goes for Thornbury, whose likability is his greatest asset. It even gets him through this strange little porch-sitting guitar playing scene. Reggie Bannister plays their sidekick in the film’s most humorous role. It kind of works, it mostly doesn’t. Part of the budgetary slash editing problems is Bannister frequently just appears out of nowhere. Most of the supporting cast is mediocre, with Terrie Kalbus giving the film’s worst performance. Scrimm’s a fun villain–and figuring out why he had to be tall actually made me feel pretty smart.

Phantasm succeeds in spite of itself, because it is so impossible to take seriously, much less to be scared by it. But in not being disturbing, it offers a rather pleasant viewing experience, warts, wind machines, reused footage and all.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written, produced, edited, photographed and directed by Don Coscarelli; music by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave; production designer, Kate Coscarelli; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring A. Michael Baldwin (Mike Pearson), Bill Thornbury (Jody Pearson), Reggie Bannister (Reggie), Kathy Lester (Lady in Lavender), Terrie Kalbus (Fortuneteller’s Granddaughter), Lynn Eastman (Sally), David Arntzen (Toby), Bill Cone (Tommy), Laura Mann (Double Lavender), Mary Ellen Shaw (Fortuneteller) and Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man).


This is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner)

To be fair, I haven’t seen Spinal Tap in fifteen years, so when I say I remember it being funnier… well, I’m sure I used to think Caddyshack was funnier too. Funny even.

Spinal Tap achieved, in the late 1990s, a mythic reputation among film and DVD geeks for a couple reasons. First, I suppose, was Waiting for Guffman. Second, and more specific, was the Criterion Collection DVD release, which became rare as many of those early Criterion DVDs became rare. I didn’t have the Criterion–though, at one point, I think I might have had a copy of the in-character audio commentary–and I never watched it during this period. Getting around to it now was because the fiancée had never seen it and, like I said, I remembered it being funnier.

The film’s greatest deficit, both acting-wise and creatively, is obviously Rob Reiner. His direction is insipid, which–from the technical angle–could be explained by his character’s lack of talent, but the direction of actors isn’t any good either, so that excuse is out. His acting is something even worse and he weighs down every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, Reiner’s not the only problem. While Spinal Tap is really funny during the first half hour or so, once the film gets itself a narrative, it crumbles. Long, unfunny scenes, meant to tell a story, make the film feel like it’s three hours instead of eighty-two minutes.

Some of the cameos are incredibly successful–Bruno Kirby’s for instance–but others are just too short. Fred Willard needed a few more seconds. Spinal Tap is almost a success, stressing the ‘almost.’ The rest of the fault has to fall on the band focus. Christopher Guest is the best, but doesn’t get as much screen-time as Michael McKean, who is the worst. June Chadwick, as McKean’s girlfriend, is boring and predictable (both her performance and the character). Harry Shearer isn’t in the film anywhere near enough and it never feels like he has a relationship with the other band members.

In short, it works as a joke, not a movie.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Reiner; written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Reiner; director of photography, Peter Smokler; edited by Robert Leighton, Kent Beyda and Kim Secrist; music and lyrics by Guest, McKean, Shearer and Reiner; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Embassy Pictures.

Starring Rob Reiner (Marty DiBerti), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), R.J. Parnell (Mick Shrimpton), David Kaff (Viv Savage), Tony Hendra (Ian Faith), Bruno Kirby (Tommy Pischedda) and June Chadwick (Jeanine Pettibone).


Scroll to Top