John Saxon

The Appaloosa (1966, Sidney J. Furie)

The Appaloosa could be worse. Director Furie apes styles he doesn’t understand how to use—his Leone-esque angles, the Acid Western—with what’s a fairly traditional Western, albeit just with a Mexican supporting cast. Well, okay, so Marlon Brando is the only gringo playing a gringo. All the other White people are supposed to be Mexican. You can tell from their makeup. Even the actual Hispanic actors are wearing a pound of makeup. The scene where Brando tries to darken his skin—it’s not clear he’s trying to actually appear Mexican, it seems like it has more to do with his monologue about his adoptive (Mexican) father and wishing he looked like him or something. But it turns out it’s not. Anyway, in the scene Brando uses coffee grounds to do it and sister-in-law Miriam Colon tells him it doesn’t work; you wish he’d just asked her what she was using.

Colon is married to Rafael Campos, Brando’s adoptive little brother. Or whatever. Campos isn’t good. You feel like it’s not his fault. The whole thing with Campos and Colon’s family is really forced. Maybe because Campos is exaggerating everything—exaggerated Mexican accents are going to be a thing, Appaloosa establishes real early on—but also because Brando’s in this goofy wig, fake beard thing. With the Western hat version of a Robin Hood hat. Brando’s appearance itself is distracting. It takes him a while to clean up too, long enough it seems like he might be in the makeup the whole movie. It’s distracting. You can’t watch him without wondering if they really thought the beard looked real enough.

But he does clean up. Just in time to do a Speedy Gonzales impression. See, it’s not clear Brando’s trying to appear Mexican when he decides to go into Mexico to get his prized horse—the titular Appaloosa—back from bandit leader John Saxon. Not until he’s sitting in a bar and bad guy Alex Montoya forces Brando to drink pulque to show he’s tough enough to be in bar. Montoya comes over to chit chat after Brando shows he’s legit and Brando goes into full Speedy Gonzales. It’s kind of beyond cringe, quickly getting into the “Greatest American Actor” humiliates himself in studio Western territory. Like, Brando wasn’t doing too great to start—the fake beard gets in the way of his mouth and the wig’s goofy—but he wasn’t doing a hideously bad Mexican accent opposite a Hispanic actor also doing an amped up Mexican accent. It’s like exploitation in action.

And it’s also bad. Montoya’s a lousy villain. Though I guess it doesn’t matter because Brando’s a lousy hero, going towards that Acid Western turf; he wants to get his horse back because it’s the key to him finally repaying Campos for everything his father did for Brando and he acts like a badass—he starts the movie confessing to a priest about all the men he’s killed—but it turns out, it’s all talk. Brando’s best scene—maybe only good scene—is when he talks about his inability to accomplish his mission. There’s some halfway good scenes in other parts, but it’s hard because Saxon’s effective without being good and Brando’s good without being effective.

A lot of the problem is the script—by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee–which tries not to be exciting. But then you’ve got Furie trying to bring tension to everything; he and editor Ted J. Kent also don’t know how to time the action for tension. It might just be Brando’s too laidback. The whole thing’s hard to take seriously. Again, if Furie knew why he was using the techniques he was using… it’d be better. The film’s sound design is way too bland. And the inserts in the third act—cutting from medium shots to close-ups—never match. Brando and sidekick Anjanette Comer are in one position in the two shot, in obviously different ones in their close-ups.

Comer’s a whole other thing, playing Saxon’s “wife.” She’s in a pound of brown face, she’s not very good, and her backstory is a mess.

Half okay, half bad music from Frank Skinner.

Good photography from Russell Metty.

The first act has its cringe moments, the second act’s plodding, but the movie does seem like it’s at least going to do something interesting. Then the third act is rushed and the finish itself pointlessly cops out. Unless Brando refused to shoot an actual ending.

But, yeah, could be worse. Probably couldn’t be any better though.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney J. Furie; screenplay by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee, based on the novel by Robert MacLeod; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Allan Miller; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Marlon Brando (Mateo), John Saxon (Chuy), Anjanette Comer (Trini), Miriam Colon (Ana), Rafael Campos (Paco), Emilio Fernández (Lazaro), Alex Montoya (Squint Eye), and Frank Silvera (Ramos).


Black Christmas (1974, Bob Clark)

Black Christmas has a lot of significant problems, but the film’s strengths make up for (or just distract from) a lot of them. But then there’s director Clark. He can’t make the film scary. He can make it disturbing–and often does, even when it’s not successful otherwise–but he never makes it scary. And when Olivia Hussey is running away from the psycho killer, it has to be scary. It’s the first scene with real action in the film and Clark doesn’t do it. In the process, he loses any of the disturbing too.

Even though the final act is a flop, the film does still look good. It’s not exquisitely directed anymore–Clark does a beautiful job introducing the film and its characters in the first act–but it’s always well-produced. Reginald H. Morris’s photography is always competent, even when he’s not doing anything special. His use of focus is particularly gorgeous and it really brings personality to the film in the first third.

Clark just can’t direct the scary part. And he never does, because neither he nor writer Roy Moore, have anything interesting in mind for Hussey. She’s initially just one part of an ensemble, but once she becomes the lead, there needs to be something to the character and there isn’t. Hussey’s not good, but she’s not bad and she does have a few strong moments. She just doesn’t have anything to work with. Her character has the film’s least thoughtful story arc–she’s pregnant with creepy boyfriend Keir Dullea’s baby and she doesn’t want to keep it. Why doesn’t she want to keep it? She doesn’t love him. And her “ambitions.” What ambitions? No idea, Clark and Morse don’t care. They care enough to immediately establish Margot Kidder’s backstory because Kidder does wonders with it. It’s like Clark doesn’t want to ask too much of Hussey.

If it’d been any of the other stalked sorority girls–Black Christmas has the psycho killer terrorizing a sorority just before Christmas because narratively pointless gimmick–the film would’ve been better. Hussey plays the script. She doesn’t bring any personality of her own. Everyone else acts. Hussey recites. And Clark’s mostly responsible. He shoots Hussey differently than the other actors. Lots of close-ups, lots of boring close-ups. Almost every other shot is interesting (until the action), but never the ones of Hussey. It’s frustrating.

Like I said, great supporting performance from Kidder. She’s hilarious, charming, sympathetic, profane, gentle. John Saxon is fine as the cop. Marian Waldman’s awesome as the drunk den mother. She has the same kind of sipping sherry stashed all over the house–it’s a fantastic subplot and far more imaginative than the psycho killer one. Andrea Martin is good as another sister. James Edmond is fantastic as one of the girl’s fathers. When Edmond’s still part of Christmas, it’s a special film in how it deals with grief and fear amid cheap horror gags. Art Hindle’s good too. Doug McGrath’s funny as a dumb police sergeant. There’s so much texture to the supporting cast, it just makes Hussey and Dullea stand out even more. I neglected to mention Dullea’s awful. There could be a drinking game for his lousy performance in this film. Anyone would’ve been better.

Or, even better, the character wouldn’t exist because there’s no place for him in the film. Clark and Moore’s problem is how they anticipate the narrative. The characters have nothing going on except what they’re doing at a moment–Black Christmas takes place over thirty hours or so–even when they’re in the middle of another subplot. The setup for the psycho killer is infinitely better than the psycho killer because there’s nothing to do with the psycho killer. Clark and Moore completely cop out.

Okay music from Carl Zittrer. Okay editing from Stan Cole. Sometimes excellent direction from Clark, sometimes not. Truly great performance from Margot Kidder. Black Christmas has a lot going for it, it just doesn’t really get anywhere.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Bob Clark; written by Roy Moore; director of photography, Reginald H. Morris; edited by Stan Cole; music by Carl Zittrer; released by Ambassador Film Distributors.

Starring Olivia Hussey (Jess), Keir Dullea (Peter), Margot Kidder (Barb), John Saxon (Lt. Fuller), Marian Waldman (Mrs. Mac), Andrea Martin (Phyl), James Edmond (Mr. Harrison), Doug McGrath (Nash), Art Hindle (Chris) and Lynne Griffin (Clare).


New Nightmare (1994, Wes Craven)

New Nightmare should be a little bit better. The film has this fantastic second act and goes into the third strong but director Craven’s resolution is tone deaf. He’s making a movie about movies he was involved with, incredibly popular movies he was involved with, and he sacrifices the actual good work he’d been doing to further the commercialist ambitions of the film.

After relying on her for almost the entire film, Craven sells out Heather Langenkamp. And he doesn’t sell her out for Robert Englund or the Freddy Kruger character; he sells her out for himself, because Craven’s a character in the film. And Craven plays himself very, very badly. He and Langenkamp have this incredibly awkward scene where he’s revealing the whole concept of the film (the original Nightmare on Elm Street movies entrapped an ancient nightmare demon who’s now free); it’s way too much exposition, Craven can’t do, but Langenkamp manages to make her side of the scene work. It’s a rough sequence, but it gets a pass because immediately following, the film’s working again.

Watching New Nightmare this time–probably my fourth or fifth time (since the theater)–I kept thinking about how it’s not just Craven’s best work as a director, it’s some of his most enthusiastic. He’s doing a moderate budget action movie, not a horror film. Even when the “monster” finally does appear, Craven finds a balance between danger and accessible “horror.” Putting Miko Hughes, who plays Langenkamp’s nightmare plagued son, in danger–the child in danger trope–is a bold move for Nightmare. Craven acknowledges genre conventions just long enough to ignore them.

J. Peter Robinson’s score is another good example of those ignored conventions. It’s big, epical adventure music, never actually scary or unsettling. Well, until the end credits, when it’s self-aggrandizing, which is appropriate given how Craven closes the picture.

Nightmare’s frustrating; Craven couldn’t make the film–even with his strong direction, particularly of actors–without Langenkamp and he abandons her at the end. It doesn’t seem to be malicious, but it does do disservice to her excellent work in the film. She turns a candyland caricature of “herself” into a person.

Good support from Robert Englund (more as himself than the monster), Tracy Middendorf, Fran Bennett. New Line Cinema executive Robert Shaye’s pretty bad too. John Saxon’s fun though. And Hughes is pretty good, especially given the character arc.

Mark Irwin’s photography is strong. He maintains Craven’s accessibility, but with ominous presence.

The film’s more than worthwhile for Langenkamp’s performance and Craven’s direction. His storytelling choices are what knock over the cards.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wes Craven; director of photography, Mark Irwin; edited by Patrick Lussier; music by J. Peter Robinson; production designer, Cynthia Kay Charette; produced by Marianne Maddalena; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Heather Langenkamp (Heather Langenkamp), Miko Hughes (Dylan Porter), David Newsom (Chase Porter), Tracy Middendorf (Julie), Fran Bennett (Dr. Heffner), Robert Englund (Robert Englund), John Saxon (John Saxon), Wes Craven (Wes Craven) and Robert Shaye (Robert Shaye).


A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, Chuck Russell)

Dream Warriors is masterful in its manipulation; it’s the very definition of franchise building. Screenwriters Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell wrap what appears to be particular kind of narrative–after a film away, Heather Langenkamp–the original’s protagonist–is going to be the focus. Only she’s not. Then it’s like the character who opened the movie–Patricia Arquette–is the actual focus. Only she’s not.

And no one’s going to think Craig Wasson’s the focus, even though he at least gets to participate in it–the focus is building a mythology around Freddy Krueger, a mythology with nothing to do with the actual narrative and entirely self-contained. According to the IMDb trivia page, Craven had it just the opposite; so either Russell or Darabont went in and separated things out. The screenplay is admirably constructed. It’s bad and dumb, but it’s well-constructed for what it’s trying to do.

But Dream Warriors isn’t just masterful in that type of manipulation. Whether it’s getting away with tons of fantasy special effects in a mainstream horror movie or turning the audience’s passive dislike for a character into a tacit approval of Robert Englund’s terrorizing of them, the whole thing is an expert package.

Mood is very important here because, as a director, Russell never wants to show his hand. There’s a certain respectability Dream Warriors is going for, what with having Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor in the opening titles, which are a very classy sequence of arts and crafts from Arquette, set to Angelo Badalamenti’s (initially) way too good–for the movie–score. Roy H. Wagner’s photography reminds of giallo, with its shadows against the strong colors of the sets. Except Russell’s rarely ambitious in his direction. Editors Terry Stokes and Chuck Weiss have some effective cuts with Badalamenti’s music, but none of them have to do with Englund’s villain or even the sensational dreamscape where most of the big action takes place. Instead, they’re for the setup, when Dream Warriors is trying to appear sincere.

The acting is mostly bad. Often because of the script’s silliness. Expert construction or not, it’s silly. Langenkamp suffers the worst, except for maybe Priscilla Pointer, who plays the head psychiatrist of the Dream Warriors–a bunch of teens Englund is haunting. Pointer’s character isn’t just played as mean, she doesn’t even get anything to do with it. Arquette’s a little better than Langenkamp but not much. Craig Wasson plays another psychiatrist and even roughs up John Saxon at one point. Saxon’s so out of it he doesn’t look embarrassed in that roughing up scene. John Saxon was in Enter the Dragon. Craig Wasson shouldn’t be able to rough him up.

The rest of the supporting cast is a low mediocre. Except for Larry Fishburne. Larry Fishburne’s excellent. Movie should’ve been about him.

But it’s not made to be excellent, it’s made to further a franchise–and it succeeds. It even gives Englund some occasional good moments amid his otherwise one-note, sensationalist routine.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Chuck Russell; screenplay by Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont and Russell, based on a story by Craven and Wagner and characters created by Craven; director of photography, Roy H. Wagner; edited by Terry Stokes and Chuck Weiss; music by Angelo Badalamenti; produced by Robert Shaye; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Heather Langenkamp (Nancy Thompson), Patricia Arquette (Kristen Parker), Craig Wasson (Neil Gordon), Laurence Fishburne (Max), Priscilla Pointer (Dr. Elizabeth Simms), Rodney Eastman (Joey), Ken Sagoes (Kincaid), Ira Heiden (Will), Jennifer Rubin (Taryn), Penelope Sudrow (Jennifer), Bradley Gregg (Phillip), Nan Martin (Sister Mary Helena), Brooke Bundy (Elaine Parker), John Saxon (Donald Thompson) and Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger).


A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven)

The best thing about A Nightmare on Elm Street is the font in the opening titles. It’s something sans serif and it’s slightly off and it looks good. To be fair to the movie’s reputation, I did jump twice, both times at the end; maybe because it was waking me up. As opposed to encouraging me never to sleep again A Nightmare on Elm Street made me wish I was comatose for its running time.

It’s not hard to pinpoint what’s wrong with the movie. Wes Craven’s script is atrocious and his direction is worse. His actors–with the exception of Johnny Depp–are awful. Ronee Blakley might give one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen. John Saxon’s not as bad as the rest, but he’s bad. Heather Langenkamp is terrible as the lead. She and Blakley are never once believable as mother and daughter.

I’ve seen this one before and I remember it being poorly made. I can’t understand why it has a good reputation. The number of Halloween lifts are few, but visible enough to remind of a far better film.

Craven’s ineptness as a director doesn’t get any help from editor Rick Shaine, who’s unspeakably bad. I think some of the problem might be lack of coverage, which would be Craven’s fault, but come on. People move five yards between cuts.

Charles Bernstein’s music is silly.

It’s a crappy movie and it’s disheartening it launched a franchise. I guess audiences weren’t any better read then either.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wes Craven; director of photography, Jacques Haitkin; edited by Rick Shaine; music by Charles Bernstein; production designer, Gregg Fonseca; produced by Robert Shaye; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring John Saxon (Lt. Thompson), Ronee Blakley (Marge Thompson), Heather Langenkamp (Nancy Thompson), Amanda Wyss (Tina Gray), Jsu Garcia (Rod Lane), Johnny Depp (Glen Lantz), Charles Fleischer (Dr. King), Joseph Whipp (Sgt. Parker) and Robert Englund (Fred Krueger).


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