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Oddly Compelling Despite Some Major Flaws, 25 October 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Translating novels to the screen is a tricky business; most authors have been mistreated in one way or another by Hollywood, with the possible exception of Ira Levin, whose film adaptations are usually eerily close to the books.

V C Andrews's first novel, FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, notorious for its theme of incest, comes to the screen limping with half broken legs. One of the novel's major themes is incest. The Dollenganger family are the product of a vaguely incestuous union (Mother married her father's much younger half-brother), and during their imprisonment in the attic, the older brother and sister actually have sex once, but in the book this all has its own peculiar logic and actually makes sense.

Director Jeffrey Bloom and the production team backed off of the incest; the mother's marriage is mentioned once and the two older siblings have a closeness that is vaguely suggestive but otherwise the theme of incest is never really developed.

At the beginning of the film we meet the Dollanganger family: Mom Corinne (Victoria Tennant), father Christopher (Marshall Colt), and their four children: Christopher (Jeb Stuart Adams), Catherine (Kristy Swanson), and the twins Cory (Ben Ryan Ganger) and Carrie (Lindsay Parker). They are a close family; almost too close, but their world is shattered when the father is killed in an automobile accident.

Mother, grief-stricken, is unable to cope with life, and eventually they find themselves penniless and on the street, so Mother decides to take the children to the home of her parents, grandparents the children have never seen. On the way there, Mother reveals that her father disinherited her for something she did years ago, and this "pilgrimage" is a mission to win back his love and reenter his good graces.

We finally arrive at the Foxworth Mansion and are greeted by Grandmother, played by none other than Louise Fletcher. Fletcher is great here, as she always is when she plays a type of evil woman who wields power, but I did find myself thinking the poor woman should have had a word with her agent; ever since the 1976 Oscars Fletcher had been playing variations on the Nurse Ratched theme. But no matter. No one did it better than she.

The other actors were savaged by the critics, but I thought they were quite good. Victoria Tennant and Kristy Swanson, who both took a major shellacking in the reviews, deliver in fact the two performances (along with Fletcher's) that drive the narrative forward. In fact, all four of the kids deliver fine work.

No, the actors are not the problem; they work hard and are mostly effective. What cobbles them is an extremely awkward script; people simply do not speak the way these kids do most of the time (Cathy has a habit of constantly repeating her older brother's name, for example). And Tennant as their mother comes across as stilted and stiff most of the time, though this may be her way of indicating that Corinne is under the spell of her mother. Only Fletcher seems to have the gift of flinging about the rather purple dialogue; her character is a religious fanatic, half Nurse Ratched and half Margaret White from CARRIE, and she has a field day with her role.

In the end, it is Kristy Swanson's Cathy who proves to be her grandmother's (AND mother's) nemesis. Swanson is fierce despite the awkwardness of some of what she has to say, and all four of the kids make a believable family.

I am not going to reveal the plot. It's something that should be experienced. Some will probably hate it, but I was most impressed. They ripped half the guts out of what was a truly excellent book in the Gothic tradition, yet still managed to produce something eerie and frightening.

In spite of what the film lacks, they managed to give it a somber and creepy mood that is not only impressive but hard to forget.

But if you see the film, do read the novel as well; it's great.

It's Best to Approach This As A Work Of Fiction, 13 October 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I've been a Christian for nearly fifty years, and as I do not happen to believe in the pre-tribulation Rapture, approaching this movie as a work of fiction seemed wise. And as it turned out, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

As storytelling goes, it isn't half bad, and the acting is serviceable and even touches the heart or chills the bones at times.

By now even those who have never seen it (and wouldn't if you paid them) probably know the basic plot: the Rapture, which is basically the sudden disappearance from the face of the earth of everyone who was "right with God" (meaning of course the sort of Christian who reads the Bible as if it were a "Dick and Jane" reading primer), leaving behind friends and loved ones to muddle about in confusion until they figure it out for themselves.

The principle players are reporter Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron), airline pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), Steele's daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens), and the Reverend Bruce Barnes (Clarence Gilyard), the obligatory minister who finds himself "left behind" and thus forced to face up to his inadequacies as a man of God.

There's nothing inspired in the casting; the characters are stock and the actors inhabit them surprisingly well, Johnson especially (his grief when he comes home and discovers that his wife and son are among those taken is one of the more genuine moments in the whole picture).

Since this is taken from the novel by Tim LaHaye, a proponent of the pre-tribulation Rapture, we all know what comes next: the tribulation and the rise of the Antichrist. It's all muddled up with a man in Israel attempting to combat world hunger and the move towards a single world currency (which is never explained; Christians who follow this theology have this particular theory about money but how it ties in to the return of Christ they can never really satisfactorily say).

In addition, the nations of the world are declaring peace, which is a good thing, right? Not on your life. It takes a while to find it out but what this world peace really means is that there is no God so no need for any of the religions of the world.

The United Nations takes a real beating in this movie; it is painfully obvious that the people who wrote this thing suffer from a xenophobia so deeply ingrained that anyone who does not look, speak, walk, or think as they do is at the very least suspicious and probably headed for the lake of fire.

As for the Antichrist, this is where the movie slips, and slips badly. He arrives in the form of Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), a rather blank-faced man with a pronounced Russian accent. (Well of COURSE it would be Russian; remember those damn Commies??) The scenes in which Currie appears are the silliest ones in the film and frankly he comes across as comic relief most of the time.

The film doesn't really end; the credits just roll. Two more films followed this one and they're all fun to watch if you do not take them too seriously.

Haven't seen the remake yet (Good God, Nicolas Cage must have been desperate for money), but I'll review it when I do.

Evil Dead (2013)
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Boring Does Not Even Begin to Describe This Unnecessary Remake, 29 September 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I approach today's onslaught of remakes with trepidation; ever since Gus Van Sant started the trend in 1999 with his dreadful carbon copy of PSYCHO, I usually avoid these retreads like the Bubonic Plague. And the remake of THE EVIL DEAD (1981), a film that I loved for both its audacity and its willingness to laugh at itself, really set my teeth on edge despite the imprimatur of both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell.

Long story short: They didn't do much with the basic plot (five college friends gather at a remote cabin in the woods and end up being possessed by demons living in those woods), except for throwing in a bit about one of their number being a drug addict and the reason for the gathering some sort of half-assed intervention.

The rest of the film is more or less a copy of the original; the elements are tossed around like vegetables in a salad, but the premise remains. What really gets me about this movie is that it is even more bloody and violent than the original and yet with all the action happening on the screen I found myself falling asleep.

The acting is somewhat better than the original, and so are the production values, but the overall look of the thing is grimy and dark; the original had a color palette made mostly of bright red and was much more brightly lit.

I was wondering if the remake would keep the notorious "girl-gets- raped-by-a-tree-in-the-woods" sequence. I was disappointed. It's sort of there, but it's a muted version of the sequence and it's so dark that it's hard to follow.

As in the original, nobody gets out alive. But the last half hour is painfully slow going and hard to follow.

My final analysis: I would never have thought that they could do a remake of the 1981 film that was MORE gory (in terms of blood this one makes the early film look tame; they're swimming in it) than the original and at the same time so utterly boring that in the end it was not worth my time.

Really I just wish they would quit making these awful remakes.

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Never Has Infidelity Been So Beautiful...Or So Boring, 22 September 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

David Lean made BIG movies. And by "big," I mean not only large in scope but usually insufferably long as well. That being said, it is not possible to give any of his films less than five stars because his visuals are always great and he was also a master of directing actors.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, one of Lean's lesser efforts, is a lovely-to-look-at but interminably long (at three hours and seventeen minutes) story of a man cheating on his wife. A great deal of justification for the affair is written into the script (as it was in the novel), but at the end of the day, we have a man who to all intents and purposes loves his wife and children who suddenly finds his "true love" in another woman.

After an opening frame scene in which Zhivago's brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) interviews a young girl (Rita Tushingham) whom he suspects might be his brother's love child with Lara (Julie Christie), the main story begins with the funeral of Yuri Zhivago's mother (Tarek Sharif played the eight-year-old Yuri); it is a lovely, austere, and painfully slow-moving scene that is a harbinger of things to come. After the poor woman is finally in the ground, the young orphan is taken to live with the Gromyko family. They have a young daughter about Yuri's age named Tonya, and to cut to the chase, when they grow up, Yuri and Tonya marry and start a family as he begins his career in medicine (and writing poetry on the side). The marriage is a happy one and Yuri genuinely loves his wife and children.

Meanwhile we see Lara, a poor young woman helping her mother in her dress shop and engaged to a young radical named Pasha (Tom Courtenay). Lara's mother is having an affair with a wealthy businessman named Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), and before we know what's what he makes moves on Lara.

To sum up the rest of the plot in a nutshell, a good deal happens before Lara and Yuri finally meet, but when they do they inexplicably fall madly in love and Lara ends up being the inspiration for a poem written by Yuri.

The whole thing plays out against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. I have noticed that movies about this period tend to be long and rather dull, with a lot of long sequences in which little more is seen than vast expanses of snow (REDS is another of these pictures).

I am being too harsh, perhaps. This film has a lot of good things: the acting is flawless, the script is a fair adaptation of Pasternak's book, and the story, when Lean allows it to move, is compelling stuff. Plus it is beautifully shot and graced with an achingly romantic score by Maurice Jarre.

Unfortunately at the end of the day what we have is a rather sordid tale of a man cheating on his wife and the excuse for his betrayal is that he is a poet and a dreamer. And Lean takes more than three hours to tell this story.

Lovely to look at, but the story is not the grand romance it is made out to be and the film itself is mostly a crashing bore. But this is a highly subjective review; many people loved this film and a lot of folks hated it. I'm sort of in the middle; some of it is very good but ultimately it never seems worth the time it takes to watch it.

Lush, Romantic, and Beautiful, 14 September 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

DESERT HEARTS proves that a truly great romance does not necessarily have to fit the "boy-meets-girl" paradigm; this love story between two women is gorgeous, achingly romantic, and sensual and tender in equal measure.

The setting is Reno NV in the 1950s, and director Donna Deitch has invested her film with a gorgeous sense of both the time and the place. Vivian Bell, a professor of English at Columbia, arrives on the train, as so many women did in those days, to get a divorce. We are never really given a concrete reason for the divorce except that she is clearly an unhappy woman.

There are a few similarities here to the 1939 film THE WOMEN; Vivian comes to stay at a ranch, run by a blowzy woman named Frances Parker, played to a fare-thee-well by the late Audra Lindley, who manages to recall Marjorie Main in the 1939 film while at the same time creating a character completely unique and original.

Among the ranch denizens is Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), Frances's stepdaughter and an outspoken Lesbian at a time when Lesbians were not outspoken. In the course of events, she meets Vivian and the attraction between the two is immediate.

I really don't need to reveal too much. Romances tend to follow a certain formula, and this one is no exception, with the added tension of Vivian's difficulty in coming out (if only to herself) and the near-destruction of the bond between Cay and Frances, who loves her stepdaughter but can't understand Lesbianism. What really places this film high in the pantheon of LGBT love stories is the romance. Like MAURICE two years later and LATTER DAYS almost two decades later, the relationship is passionate, sensual, and the sex scenes are beautifully shot, so that what we are observing is not just sex but lovemaking.

Shaver and Charbonneau are electric here; the sparks fly between them from the first moment they set eyes on each other, and they continue right up to the final scene. And in addition to Lindley we are treated to a great supporting cast, most notably Andra Akers as Cay's friend (and possibly sometime lover), who in the course of the film marries a man who seems to know all about her. For a film set in the 1950s there is a refreshing openness to many of the characters that smashes stereotypes and breathes extra life into an already exciting film.

This is a great film, one of the best romances I have ever seen (regardless of the genders of the parties involved). Dietch and Company proved here that a great romantic movie can be made with two women, or two men, or a man and a woman, so long as the characters and their emotions are as genuine as they are here.

This one is a must-see.

This is One Idiotic Movie, 11 September 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This so-called "documentary" sets out to "prove" that the attacks of 11 September 2001 were an inside job and the result of a vast conspiracy.

There's only one problem: they can't prove any such thing.

To begin with, it is very bad investigative technique to start with a predetermined premise and shape your "research" to prove the narrative. This kind of research, done with the express purpose of affecting the outcome, is ludicrous and execrable and the results are not worthy of attention.

The narrator starts out with a detailed explanation of the definitions of "conspiracy," "theory," and "conspiracy theory." It's a whole lot of twaddle because most people with half a brain already know what these things mean and his definitions shed no new light on the subject.

The rest of the film is devoted to a mishmash of eyewitness accounts (so unreliable that they are often disallowed in court) and pseudo scientific claptrap ("Hunt the Boeing??" Leave it to the French to come up with an absurdity so complete that it made me laugh.)

The filmmakers steer clear of experts and people who know aviation, building construction, the effects of various stresses on a given structure, or anything remotely resembling an attempt to ascertain the facts.

If you buy this piece of garbage, I have a lovely bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

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Sensational, Brilliant, Low-Key and Terrifying, 31 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In an era of blood and gore horror films (which are just fine in their place; in fact some of them are my favorite movies), director Peter Medak and star George C Scott gave us the best, most intense low-key haunted house movie since Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING (1963). This film gave me goosebumps that lasted for days when I first saw it in the theatre and it still has that effect on me when I put the tape in my VHS thirty-four years later.

As with all really great haunted house films, it is the house that is the star. George C Scott, the human star power of the film, appears here with his wife Trish Van Devere, and delivers a subtle, low-key performance in which a raised eyebrow is as eloquent as Hamlet's soliloquies.

Scott plays John Russell, a composer and professor of music. The film begins with a tragedy: Russell and his wife Joanna (Jean Marsh) and young daughter Kathy (Michelle Martin) are pushing their disabled station wagon to the side of a snowy road; they are on vacation, presumably headed for the ski slopes. Russell goes across the road to a telephone booth to call for help, and a truck comes along, slipping and sliding on the icy road, and smashes into the Russells' car, killing Joanna and Kathy as John looks on in helpless horror.

Scene shift: Seattle. John has taken a professorship at the University of Seattle in the hope that the change of scene will shake his depression. With the help of a Claire Norman (Van Devere), a lovely woman from the Historical Society, he finds a handsome old mansion to rent, completely furnished and with a functioning music room, an amenity which attracts the music professor. He moves in.

But all is not peaceful in the somewhat gloomy but otherwise handsome old house. The ghostly shenanigans start with nothing but a series of loud bangs that awaken Russell early in the morning. He goes in search of a source but finds nothing.

The tension builds from there in a simply brilliant and measured fashion. A woman at the Historical Society warns him that the house "does not want people." The events keep escalating until we are deep in a really scary and mystifying story. There is a seance, a voice that appears on a recording even though it was not heard when the recording was made, John and Claire go digging into the house's history, and there is even a real excavation in a child's bedroom, of all places.

Add to all this a political connection: there is a link between the goings on in the house and the Senator from Washington, Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas in possibly his last great role). The tension builds until it is almost unbearable, and I won't give away the ending except to say it has a certain feeling of inevitability.

George C Scott's performance in this film has been much talked- about; Roger Ebert felt he was too reserved, and that his lack of emoting detracted from the impact of the story. I do not agree. Scott (no doubt with Medak's approval) made the choice to play the educated man as the skeptic, drawing him slowly and unwillingly (also disbelievingly) into the truth of what is happening, and why.

I do enjoy a good old fashioned gore-fest, but there is something special about the horror movie that terrifies the viewer without resorting to blood and guts. Sometimes a whispered suggestion is more powerful than a scream.

And the passage of thirty-four years has done nothing to diminish the impact of this fascinating and frightening film.

Still Mesmerizing After All These Years, 14 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It's been more than forty years since I was first enthralled by this superb thriller, and it came on Turner Classic Movies the other night and I was mesmerized and on the edge of my seat all over again, as I am every time I see it.

Adapting stage plays to the screen is a risky business; sticking too close to what took place in the theatre usually gets a film labeled "stagy" by critics, and it isn't a compliment. But I see no problem with what Mervyn LeRoy did here.

Apparently LeRoy saw the play on Broadway and was so taken with it that he brought it to Hollywood with all of the principle actors (Kelly, McCormack, Varden, Croydon, Jones, and Heckart) repeating their stage roles. And in directing the film, he made no attempt to have his actors tone their performances down as he might have done. Stage acting and film acting are very different: stage acting is BIG, with the cast working to make sure that everyone in the theatre, from the front row to the last row of the balcony, hears everything. It is not easy. It takes a great deal of training, and this training is on display here in a way that you do not often see in a film. The result is almost the experience of seeing the play in the comfort of your living room.

The story is legend by now: Rhoda Penmark (nine-year-old Patty McCormack in one of the most chilling performances by a child ever given) is outwardly the picture of the perfect little girl, her dresses immaculate, her pigtails never out of place, her manners perfect to the point of being old-fashioned. But this little girl is an amoral predator who when she wants something is quite willing to kill to get it.

The story, however, is really about Rhoda's beleaguered mother Christine (Nancy Kelly in a performance that won her a Tony for the Broadway play). She is not completely ignorant of her daughter's peculiarities when the film begins, but all she has is a vague unease. As the story progresses, she discovers things about Rhoda, and about herself, that lead to a shattering climax.

Also in the cast are Eileen Heckart as Hortense Daigle, the grief- stricken, drunken mother of a little boy Rhoda has murdered, Evelyn Varden providing much-needed comic relief as landlady/busybody/amateur psychoanalyst Monica Breedlove, who dotes on the little monster and with the best of intentions never has the slightest clue what is really going on in the Penmark household.

The whole ensemble is great, but in the end the film belongs to Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack, who deliver what I consider to be two of the best female performances of 1956.

This picture may not be everyone's cup of hemlock. The stagy performances make the experience unique; seasoned theatre goers will probably settle back and revel in it (as I did); film buffs may find it overblown and hard to take. But whether you love it or hate it I dare you to forget it.

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Truly Frightening Twist on the Zombie Genre, 19 February 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

28 DAYS LATER... is a magnificent example of what talent, imagination, and technical skill can do on a minuscule budget. Filmed for only about eight million dollars in an era when most movies' budgets are in the hundreds of millions, director Danny Boyle and company have managed to give us one of the most truly frightening entries in the zombie genre, with a terrific script and the usual cast of English actors who always seem to me to have an edge on American talent; the people in this small, almost intimate horror film are individuals with distinct personalities, not the stereotypes one often finds in horror movies.

The story, it has to be admitted, makes up in power and energy what it lacks in originality; Boyle and his screenwriter Alex Garland acknowledge debts to all the DEAD films of George Romero, Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND (also filmed as THE OMEGA MAN), John Wyndham's THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, and other worthy entries in the annals of the zombie film. But it must be said that the genre is a narrow one and similarities are inevitable.

Having acknowledged this, 28 DAYS LATER... is not quite your typical zombie film; the zombie motif has here been crossed with OUTBREAK and THE STAND. The movie opens with a group of very passionate but VERY misguided animal rights activists raiding a research lab and releasing a bunch of chimpanzees, despite the desperate pleas of the lab personnel that the chimps are infected with a virus that causes uncontrollable rage and that is highly infectious. Naturally enough, their self- righteousness renders the activists deaf to the scientists' pleas and they open the cages, and in very short order total chaos ensues and every person in the lab is dead.

Fast forward four weeks. In a hospital, a young man named Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes from a coma to discover that the London he remembers is no more. The city is still there, but the people are...just...gone. He wanders around calling out, and he grows increasingly desperate until he finally locates a couple of survivors: Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley. Selena, a tough, cynical survivalist, soon gives Jim a brutal lesson with regard to the Infection: once an individual is infected, you have twenty seconds before (s)he becomes a raging, ravening maniac bent on killing. And it isn't long before it happens to Mark and Selena, seeing it before Jim has even a clue, hacks Mark to pieces with a machete. She then informs Jim that she'll do the same to him if necessary.

They move on, picking up a couple of other survivors on the way, until they hear a call on the radio from a quasi-military base near Manchester. The rest of the film chronicles their journey to this "blockade" and what happens to them when they get there. Some of the very last part of the film, at the "military base," is annoyingly predictable; at least I found myself doing a bit of eye-rolling, but in the end it takes away almost nothing; the tension remains high even when some of what is happening on screen gives the viewer a touch of déjà vu.

All told, this is one of the most exciting horror movies I have seen in a very long time. The director and screenwriter have taken what is an old horror meme and presented it with fresh eyes, literally: most of the movie was shot with a Canon high-speed video camera and the result is sometimes a jerky, almost stop-motion effect, only much quicker, that adds to what is already very unsettling stuff. And they are aided and abetted by a great cast that never allows all the "horror movie stuff" going on to rob them of their humanity, even when they are forced to do and witness the unspeakable.

I loved every bone-chilling minute of this one; it may well be the scariest thing I've seen since THE EXORCIST.

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Tallulah is Great Fun if You Can Overlook the Plot Holes, 19 January 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

As thrillers go, DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! really isn't all that bad; it has all the necessary elements of the genre and the acting is several steps above the average for this kind of film.

The plot is a tad bit predictable, but not uninteresting: Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers) comes to London to marry her fiancé Alan Glentower (Maurice Kaufmann). One day she decides to pay a visit in the country to Mrs Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead in her final film), the mother of her former fiancé Stephen, who died in a car accident. Why? We're not sure; to pay respects, maybe.

BIG MISTAKE. Because the old woman is certifiable, blames Pat for her son's death, and before either we or Pat know what we are about, the old bat has the poor woman locked in a room, refusing to give her food, and reading daily to her from the Bible to "purify" her for her "reunion" with Stephen (whose death we find out at some point was in fact a suicide). And the batty old thing has managed to infect her house servants Anna (Yootha Joyce) and Harry (Peter Vaughan) with her peculiar brand of insanity, or maybe there's money in it for them, but they do her bidding without question. Also on the premises is Joseph (Donald Sutherland, unrecognizable in a sensational performance), a developmentally disabled young man who does odd jobs around the house and who might help Pat but in his innocence he runs everything by the old lady.

The hour or so that Powers spends fighting to escape has its moments: when Pat tries to outwit Mrs Trefoile (she comes close a couple of times) the excitement picks up; Powers, as always, is fiercely intelligent even when playing the victim. Which makes her lack of success slightly hard to swallow, especially since it's a while before the old bat finally pulls out a gun. In fact, the moment when Pat informs the old woman that her son killed himself, the loony old thing shouts "LIE!" and belts her across the mouth. And Pat just sort of shrinks away. This to me was the one flaw in the plot: Powers's character is intelligent, strong, and not a shrinking violet; WHY she doesn't just punch the old bat's lights out is somewhat of a mystery, but if she had, most of the movie would not exist.

The acting, as is often true of Hammer films, is excellent. Tallulah Bankhead brings her own exceptional style to the Grand Guignol proceedings; as a final film, it is nothing to be ashamed of. She runs the gamut from terrifying to hilarious with her usual panache.

Yootha Joyce and Peter Vaughan as the mysterious couple who keep house for Mrs Trefoile deliver splendid performances; just enough weirdness mixed with a drop of humanity to keep the viewer guessing. And Donald Sutherland, as I have mentioned before, is so good I didn't even recognize him and I've been a fan for over forty years.

The viewer has only one hurdle to jump: to buy the premise that a strong, healthy young woman could so easily be overpowered by a frail old woman. Bankhead is a formidable presence but Powers is forced to play the shrinking violet in some scenes to make her credible as a victim. Some of that doesn't work all that well, but otherwise the movie is jolly good fun.

Pass the popcorn.

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