Vault of Horror-1973

Vault of Horror-1973

Director-Roy Ward Baker

Starring-Curd Jurgens, Daniel Massey

Scott’s Review #1,038

Reviewed June 26, 2020

Grade: A-

Horror anthologies are usually a vast treat and a reminiscent memory of childhood afternoons watching Twilight Zone re-runs on television. This is hardly much of a stretch since Vault of Horror (1973) is a British anthology based on Tales from the Crypt (1972), which in turn was based on stories EC Comics series. Each chapter is superior storytelling providing bloodthirsty horror viewers with suspense, adventure, and surprise endings.

Below is a summary, review, and rating of each vignette.

Framing Story- A

Events get off to an intriguing start as one-by-one five businessmen enter an elevator in a corporate office in downtown London. They are taken to the basement level though none of them has pressed that floor and emerge to find a gentlemen’s club. With no way to get back onto the elevator they begin to drink, each discussing a reoccurring nightmare. This segment immediately grasps the viewer as we ponder questions. Is someone holding the men there for a reason, who is behind it and why? Are the men’s nightmares nightmare’s or are they revealing deeper secrets?

Midnight Mess- A

Harold Rodgers (Daniel Massey) is a suave, well-dressed man who tracks down his missing sister Donna (real-life sister, Anna Massey!) in a peculiar village. He fiendishly kills her to acquire her share of their father’s inheritance. Working up an appetite he dines at a local restaurant who serves blood soup and blood clots as the main course. The village is inhabited by sophisticated vampires and his sister is one of them! This vignette is my favorite as the restaurant decor is warm and toasty, the village provides a stylish ambiance, and clever writing exists throughout. The bloody feast the eatery serves is a devilish delight in macabre humor. And the fangs are great.

The Neat Job- A

Arthur Critchit (Terry-Thomas) is an elegant man suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. He is married to Eleanor (Glynis Johns), a trophy wife, who despite wanting to please her husband, is a lousy housekeeper. Constantly berated for being incompetent, Eleanor loses it and kills Arthur with a hammer. She proudly cuts him to bits and stores his remains in glass jars, all neatly labeled. This story is simply delicious, offering elegant British furniture to salivate over and macabre, witty comedy as the viewer eagerly anticipates what Eleanor will do when she finally snaps, and we just know she will snap. Bravo!

The Trick’ll Kill You- A-

Sebastian (Curd Jurgens) is a magician on holiday in India, where he and his wife Inez (Dawn Addams) are searching for new tricks for their act. Frustrated, they encounter a girl charming a rope out of a basket with a flute. The couple persuades her to come to their hotel room where they murder her and steal the enchanted rope. They gleefully plot how to incorporate the rope into their act assuring them of riches. Inez experiments with climbing the rope only to disappear with a scream. An ominous patch of blood appears on the ceiling, and the rope coils round Sebastian’s neck and hangs him. Their smirking victim reappears alive in the bazaar. This vignette provides a good glimpse of the Far East and is culturally wonderful. The story is compelling though a let down from the earlier entries.

Bargain in Death- B+

Maitland (Michael Craig) is buried alive as part of an insurance scam concocted with his friend Alex (Edward Judd). They each plan to double-cross and kill the other to get the money. Two trainee doctors bribe a gravedigger to dig up a corpse to help with their studies. When Maitland’s coffin is opened, he jumps up gasping for air, and the gravedigger kills him. At the same time Alex’s car crashes into a tree and he dies. In humorous comedy, when trying to close the sale of the corpse the gravedigger apologizes to the doctors for the damage to the head. This segment is more comical than the others and a nice aside is that the trainee doctors are named Tom and Jerry. The plot is a bit convoluted and doesn’t succeed like the other stories.

Drawn and Quartered- A

Moore (Tom Baker) is a struggling painter living in Haiti. When he learns that his paintings have been sold for high prices by art dealers after being praised by a critic, he goes to a voodoo priest for help exacting revenge. He is instructed that whatever he paints or draws can be harmed by damaging its image. Returning to London, Moore paints portraits of the three men who cheated him and mutilates the paintings to exact his revenge. After he displays his own portrait, each one, including Moore, suffers an agonizing experience.  This story is top-notch, and the loss of the eyes and the hands are the highlights in fun.

As the film wraps, we learn the mysterious puzzle involving the five men in satisfying form. Vault of Horror (1973) is a horror anthology that hardly disappoints. I am eager to watch this one again which is a major achievement for a cinematic offering to have on a viewer.

Night of the Demon-1957

Night of the Demon-1957

Director-Jacques Tourneur 

Starring-Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins

Scott’s Review #1,037

Reviewed June 25, 2020

Grade: B+

There is something very soothing about 1950’s British horror films. Whether it’s the intelligence, the accents, or the elements, they differ from American horror films of the decade. Arguably, they are just better. The horror genre, already existing in cinema for decades, creates a clever story about a curse. Night of the Demon (1957) provides great visual effects within its black and white cinematography that are effective and make the look work well. That said, the hype surrounding this film as one of the greatest horror films of all time is unwarranted.

When I think of the greatest of all horror films, selections such as Halloween (1978), The Shining (1980), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) come to the forefront on the American front while Peeping Tom (1960) and Frenzy (1972) must be mentioned as for British films. Night of the Demon, while above average and having risen to prominence and rediscovery as a cult classic doesn’t completely deliver the goods.

To provide a bit of contextual background, the film was plagued with issues and differences of opinion that are plausible proof of messiness upon dissection. The original ninety-five-minute British feature was trimmed down to eighty-three minutes and re-titled Curse of the Demon for the United States market, playing there in 1958 as the second half of a double feature. Additionally, there was a dispute between director and producer whether to show the creature on-screen. Producer edited footage before release which results in continuity issues. Night of the Demon is the pure British version.

Dana Andrews, best known for The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, stars as Doctor John Holden, an American psychology professor who visits Britain to attend a conference led by the deceased Professor Harrington. Harrington is killed by electrocution after seeing a creature emerge from the trees. His niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) also arrives to attend her uncle’s funeral and teams with Holden to determine a connection between Harrington and satanic cultist, Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). The cultist lives with his mother in a lavish stately manner. 

Let’s outline what works best in Night of the Demon. The visual aspects are superb and deserving of accolades. During a party at the Karswell home, the cultist wills a swirling windstorm to develop that is as frightening as it is realistic. Of curiosity is whether Alfred Hitchcock studied this scene to a similar one in The Birds (1963) where the female star shuffles a group of children at a party in from danger. The scene is professional and authentic.

The climax of the film, amid a dark train track, is one of the best. The ambiance is frightful and well-paced, just what a finale to a film is supposed to be. Karswell, eventually followed by a piece of parchment with runic writing on it, supposedly part of an ancient curse, is terrifying. It’s like he is being chased and pursued. Holden can pass the curse (meant for him) back to Karswell, who is inevitably ripped to ribbons by a speeding train. Why is a scene of peril amid a train always so compelling? The sense of adventure, dread, horror, and the macabre, all reconvene in this important scene. Naturally, the creature reappears.

The romance between Holden and Joanna is mediocre at best and unnecessary to the main plot of the film. It’s as if someone decided a romance was needed between the male and female principles and Holden and Joanna were it. There is little chemistry nor do the duo need to be romantically intertwined- it serves little purpose other than providing them with a reason to sleuth together. The decision seems more like a measure of cinematic tradition of that time than any real story purpose. It’s not an irritant, nor is it a positive.

The creature is not scary, and the film would have been better leaving it out. Sometimes, especially in horror, what is not seen is scarier than what is scene. The creature is preliminary and amateurish at best and provides no fright value. It appears to be made of clay or plastic.

Night of the Demon (1957) is a horror film that I would like to see again and perhaps study deeper. It contains rich special effects and wonderful black and white cinematography that enrich the visual treats. The story of an ancient curse and a riveting speeding train climax that would make Hitchcock take notice are praiseworthy. But I still do not understand the greatest of the horror greats categorization.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural-1973

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural-1973

Director-Richard Blackburn

Starring-Cheryl Smith. Leslie Gilb

Scott’s Review #1,036

Reviewed June 22, 2020

Grade: A-

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) is a bizarre and fascinating horror film and a great example of 1970’s experimental cinema. At the risk of stating that there may be a tad too much exploration going on since aspects go in many directions, the film is the perfect watch for a late weekend night extravaganza of the weird and wild and is a joy to view. The fact that I am still thinking about the film days after watching is a tremendous sign. Vampires, creepy clown-like figures, a reverend, a blood-thirsty woman, and a thirteen-year-old girl make up the cast of unusual characters to feast ones’ eyes upon in delight.

During the Prohibition-era of southern United States of America, a young, angelic girl named Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith) slips out one night to look for her gangster father after an anonymous and cryptic tip. Lila is someone of note in her small town, envied by many in the church where she preaches with the local Reverend (Richard Blackburn). She treks along swampy territory to the strange town, Astaroth where her father is being held. After Lila is attacked by vampires a strange woman named Lemora (Lesley Gilb) helps her and gives her a place to reside, but Lila soon begins to wonder if Lemora is a friend or a foe.

For such a low-budget affair the visual details are superb. The photography and the use of lighting are particularly honorable. Many characters ooze with glowing fright especially Lemora. The ghostly white color enhances her blood red lips offering a pasty and haunting image that is ghastly to the eyes. If done at a sloppy level the result could easily have been juvenile or comedic (not in a good way), but the elements fall together in an easy flow that combines horrific details that fascinate.

The best characters are Lila and Lemora and their scenes together are immense. Gilb is the standout and brings a monotone, wide-eyed performance reminiscent of a talking Bride of Frankenstein. She frightens the audience, to say nothing of Lila, and is a fantastic villain. Beautiful and erotic, her sexuality is in question. Lila, young, fresh-faced, and developing, is ripe for the picking by Lemora, but I was perplexed if Lemora wanted her blood, or her other parts. The vague, but suggested lesbianism and sexual abuse of a child only enhances the mystique and macabre qualities. When Lemora bathes Lila this is where it’s most evident.

I adore films that challenge the norm and attempt to break the mold of your typical carbon copy film or a formulaic script, but there is none to be had in Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural and it keeps the viewer guessing. Comparisons to the brilliant The Night of the Hunter (1955) have been made and while I don’t quite see that, a chilling fairy tale concept exists. Think Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers Grimms German fairy tale, sans Hansel. Lila’s pigtails and little girl dress give her a child’s vulnerability and appearance.

While deserving of credit for bravery and letting loose from a story perspective, there is a measure of disorder and confusion as to what is really going on that perplexed me. Blackburn, who also plays the Reverend, offers many creatures who are on the attack, coming out of nowhere to scare Lila. Unclear is who they are (or were!) and what their motivations are. Why does Lemora like to feed on children? Is she holding Lila’s father captive to lure her into her clutches? Is Lila’s blood more desirable then other children’s? The plot points are uneven but maybe that doesn’t really matter.

A suggestion, if plausible, is to check out the uncut version of the film. I saw the cut version which was trimmed by nearly forty minutes and released theatrically in late 1974. Tough to find, I wonder if this would provide more clarity to several plot items. Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) was heavily criticized by the Catholic Legion of Decency who deemed it “anti-Catholic”, which is more than enough reason to give it a whirl.

Richard Jewell-2019

Richard Jewell-2019

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates

Scott’s Review #1,035

Reviewed June 19, 2020

Grade: B

With most Clint Eastwood films, especially in the latter part of his career, one should expect a mainstream story with a conservative edge. The man has lost his touch with age, unlike greats like Martin Scorsese. This may not always make for the most cutting-edge cinematic experience, but the results can still be compelling. Richard Jewell (2019) was not on my radar but for the last minute, surprising Oscar nomination for Kathy Bates. I am still smarting that she presumably took the last spot over the snubbed Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers-2019). But I digress.

As anticipated, the project has a predictable edge and a safe feel, Eastwood clearly sending a nasty note to the media and to the FBI shaming them for their corruption and ineptness. The biography, centering around the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and its aftermath during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, tells the story in a nicely paced way but feels light, pulling too much of a right-wing slant. Lead actor Paul Walter Hauser is the best part of the film, providing empathy and heroism to his character, the one and only Richard Jewell.

Our title character is an overweight, average-looking man who lives with his mother in a modest apartment in Georgia. He works as a supply clerk in a small law firm where he meets arrogant attorney Watson Bryant (Rockwell). They bond over video games and become fast friends. The time is 1986. Jewell, aspiring to become a police officer, lands a job as a security guard at Piedmont College, where he is subsequently fired for overstepping his grounds. Finally, he begins a job running security for a concert series near the Olympic games. He has a keen eye for law enforcement and is passionate about doing his job well.

Hauser, who had supporting roles in I, Tonya (2017) and in BlacKkKlansman (2018), has reached his breakout role.  Hauser makes the character likable and loyal. Law and order are his passions and he eat, sleeps, and breathes the life. The actor makes the audience know that Richard is not dumb. He is highly intelligent but has not been handed an easy life. The relationship with his mother is touching and he genuinely wants to protect those who he serves.

As far as the supporting roles go, Rockwell is fantastic as Watson, who ultimately defends Richard against the FBI. With wit, sarcasm, and outrage, his passion comes across on screen as a gruff but loyal friend. Other big-name stars are not as lucky with their roles. Jon Hamm plays FBI Agent Tom Shaw, a made-up character who wants to railroad Richard at all costs. He tricks Richard into stating a confession that he records. Olivia Wilde is Kathy Scruggs, an unpleasant journalist who will trade sex for stories. The character is unlikable, and rumors abound that the writing is sharply embellished. Both Hamm and Wilde suffer from one-note characters.

Let’s discuss Kathy Bates’s performance. Bates is a legendary actress and well-regarded. In film, her best role is of the maniacal Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990). Throughout recent years she has brightened the small screen with daring and unique roles on American Horror Story. Her role as the sympathetic and kindly Bobi Jewell is not one of her best. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but the character never has a big memorable scene.

Unclear is the historical accuracy of the story and my hunch is that liberties could offer good drama. Inexplicable is the omission of anything related to the real bomber, who is never mentioned. What were his motivations? Whatever happened to him? Viewers can do their own research, but a real miss is to not include this. The story only centers around Richard’s accusers and attempted railroading simply because he fits the profile of a bomber. The film could have gone further.

Also, viewers are left with no knowledge that Richard traditionally put a rose on one of the bombing victims grave or other niceties that could have been included. Why did Eastwood need to hammer home the point that Richard was fretting about the perception that he may have been gay? True or false the point feels like a homophobic tidbit thrown in to appeal to a likely redneck audience.

Richard Jewell (2019) will not appear on Eastwood’s “greatest hits” of top films or even top 10 lists. Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) would get my votes for “best of”. The film is only a slightly above average biography of a falsely accused man eventually gaining justice. The spin is a politically conservative one of a main character portrayed as a hero meeting unfortunate circumstances.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Kathy Bates

A Prophet-2009

A Prophet-2009

Director-Jacques Audiard

Starring-Tahar Rahim

Scott’s Review #1,034

Reviewed June 18, 2020

Grade: A-

A Prophet (2009), known as Un prophète in the French language, is a prison drama/crime thriller made exceptionally well and told from a character perspective rather than a plot angle. Skirting any traditional genre prison characteristics, the film instead crafts a character study with the conflicting emotions of its main character taking center stage. The result is a layered, complex experience led by a brilliant acting turn by actor Tahar Rahim.

Malik (Rahim) is a nineteen-year-old French youth of Algerian descent imprisoned for six years for attacking police officers. Friendless and unable to read, he is vulnerable and coaxed into murdering a witness involved in a crucial trial. He becomes embroiled in tensions between the Corsicans and Muslims who populate much of the prison. Malik cannot forget his participation in a murder, tortures himself, and has frequent nightmares of the incident. He slowly rises the ranks of power within the prison community becoming involved in dangerous events and pivoting from meek to feared.

Largely avoided are overused prison elements common in many films of similar ilk. In other films, humor or standard dramatic situations occur that make a watered-down experience. A Prophet breathes fresh life into the prison film, albeit grisly and violent life. The film is not for everyone and is extremely dark, even brutal at times. During murder scenes, blood and guts are spilled at an alarming rate, and there ceases to exist many characters to sympathize with. Malik is the main character but is an opportunist, readily doing what he must to gain power and control. Can we blame him? No.

Malik is a complex and nuanced character who is a joy to watch and dissect. He starts his prison tenure as a naive and timid boy, illiterate and easily manipulated. Over time, he grows into a seasoned gangster becoming involved in intricate plots and messy situations. Actor Tahar Rahim successfully makes the character both likable and detestable, fleshing him out so the audience will love and hate him. This is the mark of a wonderful actor who can give complicated dynamics to the character.

Prison life is portrayed exceptionally well by director Jacques Audiard, who relays an authentic representation. It was good enough to make me never want to be imprisoned anyway. He wisely hired former convicts as both extras and advisors to flesh out the experience. Life in prison, Audiard style, is not a rosy picture, but one filled with pain, fright, and violence. The Arab population, woefully underrepresented in cinema, is given a voice.

Another subject matter, homosexuality, a popular addition in prison films is not explored. Mostly played either for laughs or providing a conveniently situational plot device, A Prophet does not need the inclusion, too much else is going on. Although a titillating prospect for many, the subject may have added a sexual or romantic angle taking away from the main point of the film, which is one man’s journey within the prison system.

Told from one man’s viewpoint, A Prophet (2009) is a triumphant French film that deservedly received accolades for its courage and realistic feel. Starring a young actor with great potential and a brave director unafraid to develop logical storytelling and avoid typical traits, one wonders what their next project will be. Violent gangs, corrupt guards, and impressionable prisoners would be a good way to continue.

Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Foreign Film

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin

Scott’s Review #1,033

Reviewed June 16, 2020

Grade: B

The final film by legendary and influential director Robert Altman is not his greatest work. If I were to compare A Prairie Home Companion (2006) to another of Altman’s pictures it would be Nashville (1975) both having grassroots entertainment similarities. The latter combines satire amid a political rally in a southern city while the former celebrates behind the scenes events at a long-running radio show in Minneapolis.

Difficult to criticize anything a genius does, my expectation was much more than was given. The film plods along with little excitement or juiciness ever happening so the experience is to enjoy the standard Altman fixtures like a huge cast, overlapping dialogue, and witty chatter. A melancholy effort since no new material will ever be released by the cinema great, but a chance to celebrate his achievements all the same.

Set in present times, events take place in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a chilly city in the United States mid-west. A long-running live radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, prepares for its final broadcast. The radio station’s new parent company has scheduled the show’s home, the storied Fitzgerald Theater, for demolition and dispatched “the Axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones) to judge whether to save the show. Prospects are grim as radio shows are deemed a thing of the past and irrelevant.

The many radio stars revel and reminisce in memories as they prepare for cancellation. Led by the singing Johnson Girls, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and sister Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), and daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) who are most prominent, other characters include cowboy duo Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly); pregnant PA Molly (Maya Rudolph) and the show’s creator and host, Garrison Keillor. A spirit known as “Dangerous Woman” (Virginia Madsen) also joins the group.

Star-power is not the issue here and pleasing is to witness a bevy of A-list Hollywood stars duke it out for screen-time. Anyone possessing knowledge of Altman knows that he was an actor’s director, meaning he let his actors truly shine and interpret what the motivations of the characters were. Garrison Keillor, who wrote the piece, follows Altman’s lead in this area letting the cast try and bring to life what is on the written page. Unfortunately, they fail.

While meandering greatly, A Prairie Home Companion has an earthy and humanistic theater troupe quality. The stars of the radio show are like family and cling to each other for moral support during uncertainty. This feels nice to the viewer as a common compassion is endearing, many of the individuals have spent decades together. Their stories and experiences resonate warmly, and one can’t help but being sucked into their lives.

The problem with this is that the stories go on and on and quickly seem pointless. There is little doubt whether the show will close. While the people are enamoring nothing much really happens in the film and it becomes a bore. The character interactions lack any energy and do not carry the film in any direction. They merely are what they are.

I can appreciate a slow build if there eventually is a pay-off. A Prairie Home Companion (2006) never achieves full-throttle or hits the gas petal so that the film exists but doesn’t shine. With masterpieces such as The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), and 3 Women (1977) my expectations were soaring so that may be a part of my let down. Prairie Home is not included in my go-to catalog of Altman greats and would teeter at the bottom of a master ranking of his films.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Robert Altman

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child-1989

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child-1989

Director-Stephen Hopkins

Starring-Robert Englund, Lisa Wilcox

Scott’s Review #1,032

Reviewed June 12, 2020

Grade: C+

When one compares A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) to the first A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), made merely five years prior, the latter is shockingly bad, but rated on its own merits it is okay with both creative and silly moments. The franchise feels exhausted at this point, a long rest recommended, as too many cheesy and doltish moments make this installment more of a comic failure with rarely any scary or sinister moments. A watered down and forgettable entry in a series once blooming with potential. Sadly, it would only be two years before another Nightmare was released.

With a mother theme complete, nearly all the parents and children involved in Freddy Krueger’s original story-line dead and buried, a dream sequence double-shot contained within parts 3 and 4, the logical next idea is to utilize a child story. This is not a bad idea given that Freddy was accused of child molestation, but the intention to produce a spawn of Freddy is less than marvelous. The Child’s Play franchise (1988-2019) took this cue with Seed of Chucky in 2004.

Once again, a year has passed since the events of the previous entry as Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and Dan (Danny Hassel) cheerily date and enjoy their lives together as they graduate from high school. They are accompanied by friends Greta, Yvonne, and Mark. When Alice has a strange dream about a nun, a mental hospital, and an attack by patients, Dan stresses that she controls her own dreams. As the dreams, persist she begins to have nightmares of Freddy and a strange baby. When Alice and Dan learn they are pregnant, things become violent when Dan and the others are systematically killed off in their dreams while Alice is deemed “crazy”.

A pleasantry to mention is that at least the film offers a slight measure of consistency and continuity as we are reintroduced to Alice and Dan, familiar characters from Part 4. The film wisely keeps the same actors to avoid the jarring disruption that existed in Part 4 when a startling recast was made of its main character from Part 3. Johnson and Jordan are not the greatest actors nor are the supporting cast, but great acting ability is a nicety not a necessity in slasher films.

The visuals are also entertaining, which have habitually been good throughout each of the chapters. Some animated sequences emerge particularly within the dream sequences. The kills and attacks are also well crafted as when a comic book artist is terrorized by Freddy and when one victim, Greta, eats herself alive. There is more humor to the kills than in other installments. Greta’s death is almost revenge against her controlling mother, who is weight conscious. When Greta chokes to death (in real life) she drops dead in front of her mother and their dinner guests. The scene is macabre black humor.

Otherwise, the film is very familiar territory. The baby topic culminates in a wacky sequence that does not work well and is implausible even for a horror film. In dreams, Freddy is feeding his victims to the baby (strangely, named Jacob- wouldn’t Freddy Jr. have been cleverer?) as nourishment to make him be like Freddy. In the real world, Dan’s (now dead) parents demand the baby from Alice when it is born. This is a silly television afternoon special moment. The story concludes with Alice going to sleep to fight Freddy and save her son, which she naturally does.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, 1989 was a paltry year in cinema and specifically in the slasher genre. Quite successful during the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, it became over-saturated and riddled with carbon copies. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) is a forgettable film offering little to distinguish itself from other chapters. In its defense, how could it, being the fifth release in six years? A feeble attempt by the studio to capitalize financially on a name brand that has run out of steam.

Harriet-2019

Harriet-2019

Director-Kasi Lemmons

Starring-Cynthia Erivo

Scott’s Review #1,031

Reviewed June 10, 2020

Grade: B

The story of real-life American freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman, a woman who risked her life multiple times to rescue slaves from the United States of America South, pre-civil war, is a story of monumental importance to get right. An escaped slave herself, Harriet was more than an Abolitionist, she was a political activist and hero to all whose lives she touched. She was a figure that all women and men should aspire to emulate with her message of freedom and civility.

The cinematic telling of Harriet’s story, simply titled Harriet (2019), is a mild success, mostly deserving of praise for being told at all.  At well over one-hundred and fifty years post-civil war, racism still runs rampant across the United States, so the release of the film is important. A gutsy performance by Cynthia Erivo, a British singer turned actor, is the high point but unfortunately, the rest of the offering is lackluster, frighteningly modern in look and feel, with clear heroes and clear villains and nobody with muddied motivations to be found anywhere.

We first meet young Harriet (Erivo), then named “Minty” Ross, in 1840’s Maryland, then a slave state. She is to be married to her intended, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), already a free man. Minty’s father, also free, asks her owner to release her as his grandfather had promised before his demise. Refusing, his son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn) decides to sell Minty as punishment. Savvy, Minty flees for the northern states and settles in Philadelphia, a newly free woman with her life ahead of her. She risks capture and death to return to Maryland, in disguise, to rescue her family from the horrors of slavery.

Her plight was so important and so heroic that I really wanted to love this film. To be fair, it is okay, but does not do justice to the real-life Harriet, or succeed as a cinematic offering. The weakest point is the modern look that the film and the actors possess, and I think this was done intentionally. Every single actor, black and white, looks like a present day’s actor dressed in mid-nineteenth century garb and it does not work. My hunch is that film makers wanted this to add relevancy to the current racial problems and I am all for that, but the film suffers as a result.

I am all for feminism in cinema, but Harriet can be accurately accused of stomping that point into the ground. During some of the numerous action sequences when Harriet becomes a flawless sharpshooter, she nearly rivals a Marvel superhero instead of a simple woman championing a cause. And why is Harriet psychic? This is a silly addition that feels plot driven. Director Kasi Lemmons, known for films like Eve’s Bayou (1997) and Black Nativity (2013) knows her way around a picture, but Harriet will not be known as her finest achievement.

There are some positives to mention. Erivo, not known for her acting as much as her singing ability, rises to the occasion. Viola Davis nearly ended up being cast, who would have been brilliant, but Erivo nonetheless impresses. She is pretty, yet plain which humanizes Harriet and makes her relatable to many. Erivo provides both toughness and sympathy so that the audience will champion her cause without it feeling forced. Early in the year, thought to be a lock for the Best Actress Oscar, the film lost ground critically, and Erivo limped to an Oscar nod, and she was lucky to get that. She lost.

The cinematography is credible and another positive to the film. The green, lush landscapes are very southern and peaceful, roaring rapids, bridges, and spacious forests making for atmospheric niceties serving as backdrops for many sequences. Casting Janelle Monae as the gorgeous (and free) Marie Buchanan is fine and adds a Color Purple (1985) comparison-think Celie/Shug Avery. Ironically, the acting among the black actors is superior to the mostly over-the-top or cartoon-like white actors.

Best described as a formulaic Hollywood film with a good message, Harriet (2019) could be a launching pad for Erivos, a new name in Hollywood film. She tackles a difficult role and is the best thing about the production. The sleekness and modernism make the resulting experience less than the grittiness that a film like Harriet needs. Much better biographies of legendary figures exist, a shame since Harriet Tubman is one of the most prominent to have their stories told on the big screen.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Cynthia Erivos, Best Original Song-“Stand Up”

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master-1988

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master-1988

Director-Renny Harlin

Starring-Robert Englund, Tuesday Knight, Lisa Wilcox

Scott’s Review #1,030

Reviewed June 8, 2020

Grade: B-

By 1988, a tepid year in cinema, and with the slasher genre nearly being dead on arrival, the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) had the cards stacked against it. The franchise feels tired and out of gas by this point so more comedy and humorous lines were added along with a return to a similar concept offered in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), the dream sequences. The film is so-so with not much making it stand-out as compared to the superior first three offerings. Thankfully, Robert Englund is the mainstay and main attraction.

A year after the events of the previous film, Kristen (Tuesday Knight) and her friends have been released from the stifling Westin Hills sanitarium, putting the horrific events behind them. Their attempts to resume normal teenage activities like attending class and partying are thwarted by Freddy Krueger (Englund) who begins to infiltrate Kristen’s dreams. Per usual, a fresh batch of teenagers is along for the ride as they struggle to stay awake by watching Music Television (MTV) and revisiting the lavish junkyard featured in the previous installment.

The redundancy of another franchise film using the tired “one year later” to begin events anew is feeling like a cliché. Main character Kristen being played by a different actress does not help the film only making it lack any consistency, the fact that actress Patricia Arquette had little interest in returning for a round two in the role is not the films fault, but a brand-new character instead of a recast might not have been a bad idea. Recasting prominent roles may work in daytime soap operas but not in the movies.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, while quite similar to its predecessor, Dream Warriors, so much so that they could easily be watched in tandem, has some positive qualities. I love the MTV angle, the network music channel overtaking nearly every United States teenager’s living room or bedroom throughout the 1980’s. If the film makers wanted to get teenagers who might not necessarily watch horror films, this was a perfect marketing tool. The target audience is perfectly aligned, and the film feels fresh and relevant for its time of release.

The drawback to the above point is that making a film that is timely means that decades later its risk is being referred to as “of its time”, and sadly that is what has happened with Dream Master. Nobody will scramble to watch this installment when other better chapters are out there. There may hardly be a reason to watch this one against unless a Nightmare marathon is on the docket. The junkyard set and the creepy church set are very good, so the film does well from a visual perspective.

Englund is Freddy and his familiarity cannot be dismissed, but the actor seems to be phoning in his performance by this point in the franchise. Finally receiving top billing, as he should, he shares his familiar witty remarks and playfully taunts his victims like a cat would before pouncing on a mouse. The actor adds even more humor to his one-liners, but this sacrifices the horrific moments of which there are not many. A successful horror/comedy fusion is a delicate balance and there is not enough meat on the bone.

Entertaining at best, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) is not well remembered, nor should it be. A dated affair, with emotionless teenage actors needing acting lessons and surely never to be heard from again, round out the cast led by Robert Englund. The film is a letdown because it is too much like Dream Warrior and suffers from too much predictability.

Suspicion-1941

Suspicion-1941

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Carey Grant, Joan Fontaine

Scott’s Review #1,029

Reviewed June 3, 2020

Grade: B+

An early American effort by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock (1941), follows the Oscar winning Rebecca (1940) with a similar themed film. A dazzling beauty (Joan Fontaine) is manipulated by her charming husband (Carey Grant) but is he gaslighting her and plotting her death or is it all in her mind? The puzzle unfolds with a sizzling final thirty minutes that eclipses the remainder of the film, which drags and plods along slowly.

Wealthy but insecure Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine) meets handsome and irresponsible playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant) on a train in England. He charms her into eloping despite the strong disapproval of her father, General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) who thinks Johnnie is after the family money. After a lavish honeymoon and return to an extravagant new home, Lina discovers that Johnnie has no job and no income, habitually lives on borrowed money, and was intending to try to sponge off her father. She talks him into getting a job, which he ends up embezzling from.

Lina begins to think that not only is Johnnie after her money but intends to kill her. She becomes aware of his financial schemes and motivations, feeling conflicted over her love for him and her own survival. Events kick into high gear after a friend’s death, an insurance policy, and discussions with an author friend, Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee), a writer of mystery novels, about untraceable poisons. A bizarre dinner conversation surrounding ways to get away with murder cause Lina to start unraveling.

Many suspensions of disbelief must be contained in frustrating measure throughout most of the film and a bothersome level of female mistreatment is to be endured. Gnawing at me from the very first scene is the insecurity of Lina. She is gorgeous, rich, and intelligent so why does she feel, and is perceived even by her parents, as a lonely spinster certain to become an old maid. Despite Hitchcock’s love of glasses on female characters, brandishing Lina with gawky bifocals hardly makes her an ugly duckling. Johnnie’s nicknaming her “monkeyface” is jarring and insulting.

The determination to not make Hollywood royalty Carey Grant too bad of a guy does not work. It feels like a weak effort to suddenly go in a different story direction to thwart the perception of a character as not a villain but someone to feel sympathetic towards. Unclear is if this was Hitchcock’s decision or the mighty studio’s (my best guess would be the latter since Hitchcock was not afraid to take risks). The audience hardly has a chance to let their emotions marinate as the big reveal quickly culminates in the end credits rolling and the film concluding.

A significant positive to Spellbound are the hidden tidbits brewing beneath the main saga of the Hollywood glamour boy and girl (Grant and Fontaine). A clever LGBTQ+ revelation among two supporting characters can be unearthed, decades before the terminology was even invented. Hitchcock loved his gay characters, who could not be openly gay at the time, though the director did his best to offer the now obvious idiosyncrasies. Sophisticated Isobel seems to live alone in her quaint and lovely cottage, but during a dinner party, a blonde woman wearing a suit and tie, clearly butch, joins the conversation. As Isobel asks her to pour more wine, we realize she is hardly a servant but Isobel’s lesbian lover!

The stunning yet highly subtle revelation is prominent to eagle-eyed viewers cagey enough to catch on. Besides these lovely ladies, an odd-looking male dinner guest wearing glasses and discussing murder novels is an interesting character though we see little of him. The same can be said for Lina’s sophisticated mother, Mrs. Martha McLaidlaw (Dame May Whitty), and Lina and Johnnie’s maid, Ethel (Heather Angel). Both, playing small roles, add subtle delights to the film.

Suspicion (1941) is an early Hitchcock film that flies under the radar, rarely mentioned among his best works. The film is a tough sell for its tedious pace, the inexplicable insecurity of the lead character, and an unfulfilling story conclusion. The suspense and activity in the final act (mostly the stunning edge of the cliff car drive) promotes the film to an above average rating, but grander and greater works were soon to follow in the decades ahead. The most fun is noticing the delicious peculiarities of the bevy of interesting supporting characters.

Oscar Nominations: Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Actress-Joan Fontaine (won), Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture