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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Don Siegel’s 1956 cult classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is a consistently creepy sci-fi thriller with a clever idea and a chilling subtext for its time, about (presumably) McCarthyism and the paranoia it caused. When you think about it, it’s a premise that would suit any time period and act as a metaphor for whatever issue is at hand in society. That’s what made the idea welcome to be reinterpreted for a remake in 1978. If the ‘50s version is a metaphor for McCarthyism, this ‘70s version could be about the beginning of a new generation that is all about themselves, ending the era of the flower people. But it could also work as a parable for faceless city life, having moved the original setting of a small suburban town to a big city.

But even when that aside (and it’s not a thought that’s dwelled upon in the actual film to begin with), Philip Kaufman’s 1978 retelling of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” not only matches the original in tone but also surpasses it in execution, concept, and even effect. This is a horror film that frightened, delighted, and captivated me all at the same time.

Strange-looking flowers have bloomed in San Francisco. A health department employee, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), picks it and decides to inspect it. She brings it home. The next morning, her selfish, slobbish boyfriend seems like a different person—more cold and distant. This is not her boyfriend, she argues, even if it still physically looks like him. Other people in the city have this problem as well, claiming that members of their family and friends are not the same people they used to be. Her colleague, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), is ignorant of any change until his writer friend, Jack (Jeff Goldblum), and his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), discover a deformed body in the bathhouse they both run. The body has an adult figure but no distinguishing characteristics…and it slightly resembles Jack.

The body is missing when Matthew brings his psychiatrist friend, Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), in on the discovery, and he dismisses everyone’s paranoia as excuses to get out of relationships or not accepting change in their lives. But when Elizabeth falls asleep and Matthew discovers a forming double of her, things get stranger and even more unnerving as it seems the flowers and their pods are the cause of the phenomenon. It seems people are being duplicated and replaced as emotionless beings, and before long, it’s becoming harder for our main characters to know who to trust.

About what I wrote above about how the film works as a parable for city life, that theme of individual isolation is present throughout, especially when more of the city’s residents become converted by the growing population of “pod people” and our main characters are easily outnumbered against many. How do you trust your fellow neighbor when you don’t know who he really is? It’s a scary notion that is played very effectively, as the invasion expands slowly but surely. The tone laced within the film’s atmosphere is perfect—there’s a great sense of quiet foreboding that makes small actions almost seductive. Even in the final half-hour, when the climax should be loud and bombastic, is still quietly creepy and succeeds at being suspenseful in moments of betrayal, fear, and shock. This isn’t a case of the “it’s-good-but-it-could’ve-been-great” syndrome that countless resolutions cause; this film is riveting from the beginning to the middle to the end. (And speaking of endings, I won’t spoil it, but it ranks among the best shockers in horror-film history.)

Most of the credit has to go to Kaufman, whose direction constantly fills the audience with uneasiness. And it looks and feels like he thought up every shot and decided to throw in a little extra something here or there for every frame of the film. He has a disturbing shadowy look that works with the material; he has extras stand still in windows and walls for unnerving effect; reflections cast oddities such as rays of light; and so on. I’ve seen this film about ten times so far—I’m not sure I caught everything as of now.

But more importantly, with a unique gritty style of filming, it feels real, which is one of the main reasons this film still continues to scare me.

This may not seem like an actor’s film, but all the actors do great, believable jobs. Donald Sutherland is excellent what could’ve been a thankless role; this actor knows how to grab your attention with his voice, his poise, and his attitude. Brooke Adams is suitably vulnerable and easily sympathetic. Leonard Nimoy gives us the same deadpan wit that his Mr. Spock character on “Star Trek” is known for, and it rings true for the character and for the situation at hand. Jeff Goldblum is good comic relief. Veronica Cartwright is the least impressive of the bunch, but she’s not bad; her terrified reactions seem a little over-the-top sometimes. While we’re on the subject of casting, Kevin McCarthy, from the original 1956 film, makes a terrific cameo appearance.

To sum up, I love this film. It’s a brilliantly unsettling remake that, in my opinion, even better than the original. I know someone out there is thinking of redoing this idea for a new version in a new era (as well they should, because a good allegory remains a good allegory); one can only hope it’ll be as solid as this version.

Halloween (1978)

6 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

John Carpenter’s 1978 thriller “Halloween” sure has spawned more than a dozen ripoffs, most of which deplorable wastes of time. But how does “Halloween” itself hold up? It holds up very well—so well, that I believe it’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. You know the storyline—a masked psychotic killer stalks and kills teenagers. That’s also the storyline for those afore-mentioned deplorable ripoffs like “Prom Night,” “Friday the 13th” (and its sequels), “Terror Train,” and even the lame “Halloween” sequels. But the original “Halloween” is very different from all of those other movies. Why? Read further and I’ll try to explain.

The film opens (on Halloween night 1963) with a wonderful but scary point-of-view shot of someone stalking a teenage girl who apparently had sex with her boyfriend. The person grabs a carving knife, picks up a mask to wear (so we can see through the eye holes of the mask), and stabs the girl repeatedly, killing her. Only when he is discovered do we see who the killer is—it’s a six-year-old boy in a clown costume. That’s the opening scene and it’s an effective chiller. It grabs our attention—especially with the lack of emotion in the little boy’s face as he holds the blood-soaked knife.

The kid is sent away to a mental hospital and is described by his psychiatrist as pure, unadulterated evil. The psychiatrist is named Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and he says he has spent eight years trying to reach through his mind, and the next seven years trying to keep him locked up. But now, fifteen years since the incident, the guy escapes. He returns to the same town and the same street where it happened. And wouldn’t you know it, it happens to be on Halloween. So now, Loomis has to track him down before he finishes what he started all those years ago. But he just might be too late…

Loomis is well-played by Donald Pleasance, but most importantly, the other actors give likable, sympathetic performances. I say “most importantly” because like all thrillers and horror films, they work best if we care about the characters that are in jeopardy. The guy’s primary targets are a trio of teenage girls—Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her best friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles). When we first meet them, they seem like realistic teenagers and are likable enough for us to fear for them. That’s either a credit to the writers’ part (the writers are Carpenter and Debra Hill) or the actresses’ part, but it works.

As for the killer—named Michael Myers, or “The Shape,” as he referred to in the end credits—he seems like a demon that stalks before he kills. He kills mercilessly, silently, and remorselessly. Carpenter, as director, is careful about his camera angles for this guy. Until the final act, he isn’t seen entirely. He’s kept obscure to shadows, lighting, or distances.  He’s creepy especially when he is seen from a distance (like when a kid that Laurie is babysitting looks out a window and sees him just standing under the porch light of the house across the street) and still creepy when he gets closer to chase his final victim for the night. He sports a white-painted Captain Kirk mask and black coveralls, and that makes him just as frightening. And we never know what his motivations are. That shows that killers are more terrifying when the motive is unknown. And since he’s possibly mentally-unfit, it would seem like all it would take is teenage sexuality to set him off. All of these make Michael Myers an effective, ominous villain.

John Carpenter’s chilling piano music score for the film may seem simple, but it’s just fantastic. It works well with the tone of the story and it also goes all over the place. Most of the scores will start one theme and lay another theme on top of it, but it will keep the other theme and sometimes start another theme. With this music, added with Carpenter’s clever camerawork in keeping the killer obscure for the most part, it is so hard to feel secure when watching this movie. I remember I had to tell myself, “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.”

So “Halloween” loves moviemaking, but it also loves its characters. No one in this movie is presented as a stereotype, although that’s how I fear they’ve become after being exploited in the other movies—the Virgin Girl Who Lives to Fight, and the Sex-Crazed Friends Who Die. I don’t know why the ripoffs don’t have the writing talent to create characters as effective as the ones in “Halloween,” but each one has these stereotypes. But here’s something the ripoffs do even worse—they keep the sympathy away from the characters in jeopardy and have the killer be the main focus. That’s a very important difference between “Halloween” and the ripoffs it spawned—we never identify with Michael Myers in “Halloween,” and the movie has us care about what happens to Laurie, Annie, and Lynda.

It’s so hard to make a horror film of this brilliance. “Halloween” is well-crafted, well-acted, thought-provoking, and scary. Since its release and popularity, filmmakers have tried so many times to recreate its terror…but hardly even close to what “Halloween” has created. It’s a classic in the horror-movie genre.

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

3 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It was described by Don McLean as “the day that rock and roll died”—February 3, 1959; the day in which musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson all died tragically in a plane crash. They were each music legends in their time.

I suppose if movies were made about these three talented stars, the best way to start would be to tell the story of how in three short years, Buddy Holly and the Crickets broke new ground in music and shot to national stardom. That story is told in the wonderfully told biopic (the aptly named) “The Buddy Holly Story.”

It stars Gary Busey in an electrifying performance as Buddy Holly and it begins as he and his two best friends and bandmates (played by Don Stroud and “American Graffiti’s” Charles Martin Smith) are performing at a skating rink in Lubbock, Texas. They play the traditional country music, which doesn’t sound very exciting to Buddy. And he knows that it doesn’t sound very exciting to the youths at the rink either. So he tells his friends to take it up a notch; bring their music to a bop beat. Everyone at the rink is into it. The radio show they’re performing for is against it and so is the local minister.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets have their way of making music by combining country music and rhythm & blues. The band has a shot at a recording, but that doesn’t go well since the producers just want them to go with the usual stuff and Buddy wants things his own way. One even utters, “He doesn’t like Elvis.” Buddy responds, “I like Elvis fine. But I’m Buddy Holly.” But as a big city radio station plays the band’s demo tape, one thing leads another.

The movie follows the important details of Buddy’s life. We get his beginnings in Lubbock, we meet his snobby girlfriend (soon to be ex-girlfriend), we see the constant arguments that go with Buddy’s music style and what others want him to perform, then comes his early hits, his performances, his marriage, and his final appearance on stage with the other two musicians, Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper. Maybe the movie altered some things or left out some other details, as some rock historians would point out, but the feel of the movie is absolutely right.

There’s a real energy in the performing scenes. The main reason is probably because they were all performed live, not post-dubbing. No moment seems flat or unsuccessful in these scenes. Gary Busey tops off his excellent performance by performing all the songs himself and matching his tone and energy to exact Buddy Holly’s. Busey really gets into his character—I didn’t feel like I was watching Gary Busey performing “Peggy Sue,” “It’s So Easy,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh, Boy!” and the rest; I felt like I was watching Buddy Holly.

Was there anything I didn’t like about “The Buddy Holly Story?” Well…the ending. It ends right after the final performance with Valens and Bopper with a freeze-frame, with dead silence and a pop-up text that states what happened afterward. The credits scroll up while zooming on Buddy’s face. I’m aware that Buddy died after that concert, but the way of explaining it right then and there is just sporadic. It’s just terrible. Younger viewers who watch this are going to be devastated because this movie has such a light, energetic, and inspirational feel to it that is thrown right out the window just as it ends. But for the most part, “The Buddy Holly Story” is a rich, wonderful story of how this small-town kid and his friends made it to the top in music. Add the remarkable performance by Gary Busey and the undoubted energy of the concert scenes and you have a special movie about rock n roll.

Magic (1978)

11 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Magic” is an unsettling but well-made thriller with a nice take on the possessed ventriloquist’s dummy story. And it’s always fun to create stories featuring dolls or dummies with some sort of supernatural entity surrounding them, because they themselves are so wholesome-looking when they’re still that they have to have something sinisterly wrong with them.

Anthony Hopkins stars as Corky, a nervous novice magician who has failed in his attempt at professional magic. Knowing he needs a new gimmick, he comes back as a combination magician and ventriloquist with a foul-mouthed dummy named “Fats.” His act is successful, as he gains an agent (Burgess Meredith) who wants to sign him for his own TV show. Afraid of success, he takes off to the mountains, where he meets an old high school crush Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), stuck in a loveless marriage with Corky’s high school friend Duke (Ed Lauter).

Corky brings Fats with him, and he uses it to amuse Peggy. While Duke is gone, and Corky and Peggy get reacquainted, they develop the relationship that they would’ve had in high school if Corky weren’t so shy. But they also believe that they are soul mates and they wind up making love, leading to the jealousy of…Fats. As it seems, Corky cannot control Fats off-stage, and Fats even talks him into performing murderous deeds to save himself.

The genius of the film is that it’s never fully explained if the dummy “Fats” is alive, let alone evil. While it may seem that Fats may have developed a malevolent personality of its own, it’s never quite clear. Corky and Fats do have unsettling conversations; however, Fats’ lips don’t move unless Corky is controlling him, and yet he still continues to talk. That’s a very clever move and makes “Magic” more of a psychological thriller than a horror film—it presents the implication that maybe Corky is of two minds: the innocence that we see and the psychotic instability that comes from the notion that Corky doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. In that case, it’s really quite fascinating. There’s a lot you could read into this—is the doll alive or just a manifestation of Corky’s id? And how far will it go? Will it go so far that Fats won’t allow Corky to make his own decisions?

The direction by Richard Attenborough and the writing by William Goldman, based upon his own novel, is effective enough to make the story of a possible possessed malevolent doll seem somewhat plausible. There are many eerie, troubling scenes centered around Corky’s unstable mind as he talks with Fats about doing what he wants to do to stay with Peggy, and the way it continues to develop further and further into the horror element is efficiently well-done. Also, the little moments such as Corky teaching Peggy a magic card trick have their own charms.

Anthony Hopkins turns in an excellent performance as Corky, a man who appears to be innocent and balanced, but also disturbed and sad. And of course, I should also credit his work as the voice of Fats, sounding much like a British TV comic (fittingly enough, since he’s made for show business). Hopkins is great in this movie, and so is Ann-Margret, who is fun and charming as the potential love interest. She sparkles throughout the movie.

“Magic” is a terrific thriller with an eerie feel, a strong leading actor, and a suitably creepy doll. I can predict that even those who won’t find this movie scary will still see it as a brilliant character study and psychological case.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

25 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, and Elaine May were able to take grim material and write it into a feel-good movie like “Heaven Can Wait” is beyond me, but it works. This is a sweet, lighthearted fantasy with some good laughs and sweet moments, despite most of the material having to do with death and murder.

Let me explain—the main character has died before his time and has to go back to Earth in another person’s body, so we get a montage of events for the character to choose somebody. With each turndown, there’s a death. This should be grisly, but the way it’s executed makes it funny. And when he does find a body, there’s a subplot involving people who supposed to be his assistants (one of which is his wife) that attempt to kill him. Grisly? Possibly.

Funny? Yep.

The film stars Beatty (who also co-wrote directed, along with Henry, May, and Robert Towne) as Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. He’s a chipper young fellow, is more than physically fit, and his team is headed for the Super Bowl. But while riding his bike through the Mulholland Drive tunnel, he collides with a truck and dies…or does he?

Joe finds himself at a way station in the afterlife with his guardian angel (Henry) and the mysterious Mr. Jordan (James Mason). Joe is told that he died, but he believes there’s been some sort of mistake. And he’s right—as it turns out, the angel was on his first assignment, guarding Joe, and mistook the outcome of the incident in the tunnel for Joe’s imminent death. So, Joe was taken before his time and would like to return back to Earth. However, his body has already been cremated and so he must find a new body (someone who is supposed to die, and this is where we get that montage I mentioned).

Joe finds himself in the body of millionaire industrialist Leo Farnsworth, who had just been poisoned by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and his personal secretary Tony (Charles Grodin), who also happens to be Julia’s lover. Mr. Jordan, the angel, and we (the audience) see Joe as Joe, making it easier for us to follow his character—everyone else in the movie sees Joe as Farnsworth, making for some comedic moments of confusion for them. He’s now in charge of the company, which is confusing for him already. But once he gets the gist of it, he’s able to get through to his executives through football talk. He puts an end to the pillage that seems to come through with the company.

Eventually, Joe is able to convince his long-time friend and trainer Max (Jack Warden) who he really is. So Max can help Joe get this new body into shape so he can play for the Rams (after he buys the team), and play in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, there’s a romance he develops with an environmental activist, played by Julie Christie. He likes her a lot, and the feeling becomes mutual—she hated Farnsworth’s policies and actions, but falls for Joe’s easygoingness.

“Heaven Can Wait” has a lot of fun with its story gimmicks, and provides a lot of laughs while keeping the audience ahead of the show. And like I said, there’s a great deal of cheerfulness that makes everything easier and more appealing.

The funniest parts of the movie revolve around Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin, who are absolutely hilarious as the main reactors to most of the stuff going on with Farnsworth (not knowing it’s really Joe in his body). Of course they’re surprised and confused that their murder scheme didn’t work and as Cannon freaks out and screams at the top of her lungs, Grodin must calm her down, even though Cannon doesn’t want him to cover her mouth to keep her from exclaiming loudly. And of course, they must try again to murder him swiftly when Joe makes silly decisions.

Jack Warden plays the role of Max very well and has his share of good moments as well, and the same can be said for James Mason and Buck Henry as Joe’s invisible (well, visible only to him) advisors. Warren Beatty is possibly too sincere as Joe (though he is likable for us to follow him). But Julie Christie, as appealing as she is, doesn’t do enough with the nothing role of the love interest.

The ending doesn’t work well for me. It seemed too odd and also kind of contrived. I guess it’s the obligatory happy ending, but I’m just not pleased with the resolution. Without giving it away, it just didn’t do anything for me.

“Heaven Can Wait” is a fun screwball comedy mixed with afterlife-fantasy, mixed with somewhat-macabre material.

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1978)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What’s more disturbing about drug use is that some people are the ones we least suspect of using. Take Benjie: He’s 13 years old. He lives in the Watts ghetto with his caring mother, stepfather, and grandmother. He’s a bright junior high school student. He’s happy just hanging out with his friends.

Now he’s a heroin addict. He was introduced to the stuff by one of his buddies, and loves the high so much that he frequently buys from the local drug dealer.

Benjie is the focus of “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich,” a tough, well-acted, gritty family drama about a confused boy caught in a world of drug addiction. He keeps saying he isn’t hooked—he is.

The situation gets worse, and Benjie is eventually sent to a drug rehabilitation center when everyone finds out about him. In one of the most bizarre sequences in the movie, we see in photo slides Benjie coping with rehab—in between is a painfully effective scene in which Benjie is confronted by an encounter group and tearfully opens up to them.

That leads to the second half of the movie, as Benjie deals with rehabilitation, starting over, deeper temptation, and his relationship with his stepfather.

The most interesting part of “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” is the relationship between Benjie and his stepfather. The stepfather is not written as a monster to act as reason for Benjie to use drugs in the first place. Instead, he tries to be the best father Benjie can be, but Benjie constantly shuts him out when he’s there for him. Benjie tells his best friend that he does this because he’s afraid that if he winds up loving him like a father, then he’ll be sad if this new father leaves, like his old father. When the stepfather—named Butler—finds out about Benjie’s new hobby, he’s very strict and sometimes goes out of line, but tries to do the right thing by him. And when things get really nasty, he seems to be the only person Benjie can depend on. But the problem is, he can get to his wit’s end with the kid.

Those scenes make “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” more of a movie about family values and trust rather than merely a story of tragedy involving young people and drugs (though it is that, as well).

The acting is great, especially seen in the scenes involving Paul Winfield as Butler and Larry B. Scott as Benjie. Paul Winfield is excellent as Butler—he creates a character that is tough and persuasive as he tries to be a hero figure as a surrogate father for a disillusioned teenager. Larry B. Scott turns in a believable performance as a kid who has high spirits but whose ambitions turn low. Cicely Tyson as Benjie’s mother, Helen Martin as Benjie’s grandmother, and Kevin Hooks as the drug dealer named “Tiger” are also solid.

What surprised me about “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” was how honest it was. In fact, at times, it’s hard to watch. But that means it’s working. Just about every scene in this movie is so authentic that at times it is frightening. It’s an effective tale about how pride, trust, and respect can be taken away by drugs, and about how coping and willing with withdrawal can gain them back.