Saturday, June 15, 2019

Messenger Of Death

Charles Bronson worked with director J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) nine times, and MESSENGER OF DEATH may be the least of the lot. It was Bronson’s next-to-last collaboration with both Thompson and Cannon Films, which opened it in just 450 theaters to moribund business.

Nine women and children from the same Mormon family are murdered by a shotgun-wielding assassin. The lone surviving family member, husband and father Orville Beecham (Charles “Flat Nose Curry” Dierkop), refuses to identify the killer. Bronson plays Garrett Smith, a Denver newspaper reporter investigating the massacre, whose path leads to Orville’s father Willis (Jeff Corey) and Willis’ brother Zenas (John Ireland).

Both men hate each other passionately and blame the other for the murders. As the intrafamilial blood feud boils over into violence, Smith becomes a target for murder by mysterious employees of the Colorado Water Company, a corporation owned by one of Denver’s richest and most respected families, one with little connection, it would seem, to the wild-eyed Beecham clan.

An unusual action vehicle for Bronson, MESSENGER OF DEATH casts the stone-faced icon as a passive observer, fighting only when attacked. He doesn’t fire a gun at anyone, nor does he have much to do with identifying and apprehending the killers. In his most notable setpiece, he battles a trio of water trucks, but even there, Bronson plays the victim.

Though it’s more of a mystery thriller than action flick, MESSENGER OF DEATH is solid enough with an unusual setting and interesting supporting cast, but it doesn’t quite come together satisfactorily. Thompson and Cannon cinematographer Gideon Porath (AVENGING FORCE) do an outstanding job staging the opening massacre with dread and stark menace, using the Colorado scenery to creepy advantage.

As well, Robert O. Ragland’s score adds novelty, but MESSENGER OF DEATH is barely distinguishable from Bronson’s other Cannon pictures, except it’s classier. The screenplay by Paul Jarrico (TOM, DICK AND HARRY) holds little water, and the climax plays like MURDER, SHE WROTE with a line of red herrings gathered in a parlor waiting to be identified by a convenient witness. Themes of religious persecution and revenge add some flavor to the mystery.

Trish Van Devere (THE HEARSE), Marilyn Hassett (THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN), Laurence Luckinbill (STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER), Daniel Benzali (MURDER ONE), Gene Davis (10 TO MIDNIGHT), and Penny Peyser (THE IN-LAWS) fill out the cast. Jarrico was blacklisted during the 1950s and ended up writing spaghetti westerns in Europe, making him perhaps the perfect scribe for a tale about persecution.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Halloween (2018)

There is a good movie to be made about a Laurie Strode who survived the attack on her and her friends on Halloween night of 1978 and used it to grow into a strong, positive adult who refused to let that night forever define her. Hollywood has never wanted to make that movie. Every time Jamie Lee Curtis has returned to play Laurie, the character is a “basket case” (as she calls herself in HALLOWEEN 2018 or H40) who has never been able to escape her past.

So it goes with H40, from PINEAPPLE EXPRESS director David Gordon Green and VICE PRINCIPALS writers Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride, which ignores every other HALLOWEEN sequel. Exactly forty years after Michael Myers went on a killing spree in little Haddonfield, Illinois, he escapes custody during a prison transfer and — inexplicably — returns to Haddonfield to finish the job. Laurie is a paranoid, alcoholic, twice-divorced agoraphobe who has somehow gotten herself together well enough to construct a $10 million compound in the woods (no explanation is given as to how she accomplished this, nor how her high-security complex is so easy to infiltrate in the climax).

Laurie is estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), who lives a normal middle-class life with her nice husband Ray (a welcome Toby Huss) and their daughter — Laurie’s granddaughter — Allyson (Matichak). Other characters include Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), Michael’s new shrink after the death of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence died in 1995); British podcasters Dana Haines (Rhian Rees) and Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall), doing a story on Myers; deputy Hawkins (Will Patton), who reveals he was there the night Myers was first arrested (a potentially intriguing character point muffed by director Green); and various cannon fodder that includes Allyson’s high school friends. Few of these characters will survive to the closing crawl.

Which is another problem with H40 and probably its biggest: it isn’t scary. Though Green and his special effects crew have figured out how to mangle the human body — Michael has grown more creative as he has reached his 60s — the killings seem perfunctory with little suspense. A couple of sequences work, one of them a lengthy tracking shot that follows Michael into a house and back onto the sidewalk, leaving death in his wake. Most of the kill scenes are predictable, including the climax set inside Laurie’s House of Booby Traps that would leave Maxwell Smart salivating.

What’s good? Most of the acting, particularly Curtis, who embraces the badass gramma role and sells her obsession with Michael, even though the Green/Fradley/McBride script leaves her hanging. As well, Greer and Matichak are believable as Curtis’ relatives, though Karen’s impatience with her mother is also underwritten. John Carpenter, of all people, agreed to score the film, collaborating with his son (with Adrienne Barbeau) Cody and his godson Daniel Davies on a familiar soundscape that fails to paper over the egregious lapses in screenplay logic and lack of suspense in Green’s direction.

While H40 succeeds in leavening the shocks with dollops of intentional humor (the little toenail-clipping boy played by Jibrail Nantambu should star in the next sequel), the film is ultimately a depressing exercise undertaken by filmmakers who don’t understand the allure of Michael Myers or, even worse, the power of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Taking A Break...But Come See Me At Letterboxd

Hello, all.

Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot has been in service since the end of 2004, first on Tripod, then here at Blogger. Originally I blogged about a variety of subjects, including politics and events in my own life. The blog eventually shifted to books/television/film, but over the past couple of years, it has been strictly film, for the most part.

Because I post regular reviews over at Letterboxed, it has seemed like an extra burden to post both there and here, particularly since I update this blog much less frequently.

So for now, I'm going to take a break from Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot. Whether it ever resumes, I just can't say right now. I will leave it standing, in case you'd like to find any old writings. But if you are interested in my film reviews, please see me over at Letterboxd, where I post something about at least 95% of the movies that I see. You don't have to "join" Letterboxd to follow me, and you can easily add my Letterboxd RSS feed to your reader.

Thank all of your for reading and commenting over the years. I hope to see you again soon.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Night Slaves

Robert Specht (THE IMMORTAL) and Everett Chambers (COLUMBO) adapted Jerry Sohl’s 1965 Gold Medal novel NIGHT SLAVES, which was marketed as science fiction, but really isn’t. Specht and Chambers wisely dumped Sohl’s frustrating ending, but otherwise left the main plot intact. Clay (James Franciscus) and Marjorie (Lee Grant) Howard are an estranged married couple on vacation while Clay recuperates from a serious auto accident.

They visit a sleepy little town that seems normal enough. By day, at least, everybody is abnormally exhausted. At night, everyone turns into a zombie, files into trucks, and heads out of town. They always return by daylight, and nobody has any memory of the night before. Only Clay is unaffected, and nobody — especially Marjorie, who thinks the accident has scrambled Clay’s brain — believes his story.

Director Ted Post’s TWILIGHT ZONE experience came in handy when presenting NIGHT SLAVES’ off-kilter scenario of paranoia and the fear of losing one’s identity. Is Clay slipping into madness, as his wife fears, or is something spooky — and possibly otherworldly — happening in little Eldrid, California? Franciscus’ nicely modulated performance makes Clay a relatable protagonist, though the love story between Clay and a mysterious young woman played by Tisha Sterling (COOGAN’S BLUFF) is unbelievable with a treacly wrap-up (I didn’t buy it in the book either).

Sohl had no problem with the changed ending and spoke highly of the film in interviews. Shooting on the Warners backlot gives NIGHT SLAVES an artificiality that harms the story. Clay’s fear is based on not knowing what is real, but in an obviously fake western town, nothing is real. However, Post’s thoughtful unraveling of the mystery and Franciscus’ sympathetic performance work well enough to get NIGHT SLAVES past its shortcomings.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Jagged Edge

Columbia released this solid courtroom thriller written by Joe Eszterhas, who was coming off hits FLASHDANCE and BLUE THUNDER (which he script-doctored without credit), and directed by Richard Marquand, who was still hot off RETURN OF THE JEDI. It opened at #2 at the box office (behind COMMANDO!), but stayed steady near the top of the charts for several weeks. It may be best remembered today for its surprise ending, which confused so many viewers that SISKEL & EBERT did a separate episode several weeks after their initial review in which Gene and Roger explained the killer’s reveal to their audience.

San Francisco publishing magnate Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges) stands accused of slashing his wife to death in their bedroom and spelling “BITCH” on the wall in her blood. In fact, district attorney Krasny (Peter Coyote) and investigator Martin (Lance Henriksen) make no effort to look for another suspect. Forrester, of course, proclaims his innocence, and when he is arrested and formally charged, he appeals to defense attorney Teddy Barnes (Glenn Close) to defend him in court.

Forrester is wealthy, charming, handsome — hell, he’s Jeff Bridges, right? — and the divorced Teddy finds herself doing with him things no attorney should be doing with her client. And she hates the sketchy Krasny, for whom she used to work and whose ethics-skating routine she knows well. Robert Loggia (BIG) earned an Academy Award nomination for playing Sam Ransom, Teddy’s crusty investigator (what other kind is there?) with an expletive for every sentence.

What worked in a courtroom thriller in 1985 doesn’t always hold water decades later, simply because we know more about the legal process and procedures. For the most part, JAGGED EDGE’s court shenanigans lack bite. Ransom is Teddy’s detective, but he doesn’t do a helluva lot of detecting. And, frankly, Teddy is kinda dumb, rarely missing an opportunity to violate common sense. Of course, Eszterhas (who went on to BASIC INSTINCT) and Marquand are manipulating their audience to deliver thrills — that’s their job — but by stacking the deck in their favor, they make it difficult to play along with them.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ghost Story (1981)

Universal shelled out $225,000 for the rights to Peter Straub’s 1979 best seller. With the casting of four Golden Age movie stars in central roles, GHOST STORY must have freaked out geezers who paid to see a Fred Astaire movie and were inundated with R-rated gore and nudity (male and female). It did pretty good business, though, for a thoughtful, slow-burning horror movie released at the height of the slasher craze.

Craig Wasson (BODY DOUBLE) plays a young college professor who returns to his snowy New England hometown to attend the funeral of his twin brother, who fell naked from a window and splatted on the ground many floors below. Wasson’s father is the mayor (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., LITTLE CAESAR), who meets with his childhood friends Melvyn Douglas (NINOTCHKA), John Houseman (THE PAPER CHASE), and Fred Astaire (THE BAND WAGON) regularly to drink brandy and tell ghost stories.

All four have recently been suffering from nightmares, and Wasson comes to suspect it has something to do with a trauma they experienced together fifty years earlier. By the climax of the story adapted by CARRIE’s Lawrence D. Cohen and directed by John Irvin (THE DOGS OF WAR), only one of the old men is left alive to face the terror that has taken the lives of his three friends.

Stealing the picture from the veterans, which ain’t easy, is an ethereal and erotic performance by Alice Krige (in CHARIOTS OF FIRE the same year) in two roles that turn out to be more closely related than the characters realize until too late. While not a total success, due partially to limp pacing and subpar visual effects (though horror makeup by THE EXORCIST’s Dick Smith is superb), GHOST STORY capably sends an occasional shudder. Moody photography by the pioneering Jack Cardiff (SONS AND LOVERS) sets the proper atmosphere, aided by Philippe Sarde’s (TESS) score and one of Astaire’s finest non-musical performances.

Patricia Neal (HUD) co-stars as Astaire’s wife, and Jacqueline Brookes (LAST EMBRACE) is Douglas’ wife. Astaire, Douglas, and Fairbanks never appeared in another feature, and Douglas, who looks frail, died before the film was released in December 1981.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

It's Alive (1974)

Upon its initial 1974 release, IT’S ALIVE was a box office flop, due to what director/producer/writer Larry Cohen believed to be poor marketing. It made money overseas, however, and Cohen convinced new management at Warner Brothers to re-release the film in 1977 with a new campaign. Cohen was right, as IT’S ALIVE went on to gross millions against its original $500,000 budget. Two sequels followed, both directed by Cohen (BLACK CAESAR), and a 2008 remake, which nobody gives a damn about.

Unique and in questionable taste, IT’S ALIVE is certainly the best horror movie ever made about a mutant baby who crawls about killing people. Like FRANKENSTEIN and KING KONG, the monster is humanized in the storytelling and presented with sympathy, even while it’s slaughtering.

Intelligent screenwriting presents two sides of the issue. One faction, including Los Angeles law enforcement and the baby’s father (John P. Ryan with a strong dialed-down performance), wants to destroy the killer infant. Another, led by curious scientists (including LANCER patriarch Andrew Duggan) who want to study the phenomenon, wants the baby captured alive. So does its mother (Sharon Farrell), who doesn’t see her son as a monster, but merely a confused child looking for love from its creator, just like Frankenstein’s monster.

While the concept is campy on the surface, Cohen directs his actors to play it straight, resulting in genuine chills and thought-provoking themes of intolerance, ecology, and the power of the family unit. Opening scenes are filmed in a realistic documentary style. Perhaps that was done to help the audience accept not only the outlandish concept, but also the characters’ acceptance — nobody ever questions that a mutant baby killed a whole operating room of medical personnel.

Both Ryan (DEATH WISH 4) and Farrell (LONE WOLF MCQUADE) tended to ham performances, but are properly restrained here, which helps sell the premise (give Ryan extra credit for a hell of a Walter Brennan impression). Rick Baker (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) created the monster child, which is shown infrequently (probably a wise decision on Cohen’s part, though frustrating for the viewer), and Bernard Herrmann (PSYCHO) composed the score. Ryan, Duggan, and Cohen regular James Dixon as a cop returned for the sequel, titled — what else — IT LIVES AGAIN.