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Nifty little made for TV chiller
I've long held a great fondness for genre cinema that lays the bite on a family. I suppose because family is about the most primal, fundamental structure in society so if you really get pulling on those teeny tiny strings you can make the whole edifice feel like it's in trouble. Of course such films come in every shape and size, from the everything will be fine and nobody was ever in much danger types right through to the family itself as trunk of rot and ooze types. The Strange and Deadly Occurrence sticks mostly on the light side of the genre, but through swift pace, smart direction and determination to put everyone through the ringer with very little downtime, it manages to be a definite winner. The story is as simple as they come, a happy family in a beautiful new house are plagued by rapidly escalating unusual and menacing events. Something doesn't want them there, but why? ...Well to be honest the why isn't all that interesting. No great twists and turns, nothing too unusual or imaginative. Pretty commonplace actually. Also it renders some of what has gone before even more unlikely than it already was. Doesn't matter much though, as this is pretty small scale stuff with little in the way of ambition, just standard tightly composed TV movie thrill-chiller territory. The ending wraps everything up in suitably suspenseful fashion there are some good scares and the acting is on the mark. Robert Stack (Airplane) plays the head of the house well, determinedly hanging on in the face of the unknown but still considerate towards his wife and daughter, never brash nor intemperate but not weak either. The sort of guy you can relate to really. Vera Miles (Psycho) is equally good as his wife, somewhat more cowed by affairs but never hysterical or even especially nervous, holding herself together for the good of all. Margaret Willock comes off well as the daughter of the piece as well, the sort of role that usually drags but she manages to be perfectly likable. They work well together, and their convincing mounting fear gives the jolts that little extra push. As far as the jolts go, they are all fairly tame but a couple make their mark well, and the whole affair is boosted by quality direction from veteran John Llewellyn Moxey (City of the Dead), including various adeptly gripping sequences of fluid, roaming point of view camera-work rather similar to that of a slasher. So, as it all comes together, a decent diverting affair with some fine moments. Like most of its ilk it isn't likely to make too much of an impression on latter day audiences, being the sort of thing that mostly just freaked out kids watching it when it first aired, but its very much a solid affair and well worth a watch for fans of the eras TV chiller programming.
Night Slaves (1970)
Pleasant but unremarkable science fiction drama
So this one middle class businessman seeming type named Clay Howard wants to drop out of the rat race, and after a little celebration, Splat! Ka-pow!, near fatal car crash. He winds up with a metal plate in his head and his wife and he go on a bit of a recuperation vacation. Stopping in a small town, they stay a couple of nights, enjoy pleasant rural company and good food at the local diner, purchase a lovely Art Deco lamp for a song at a local antiques store, then head on their way having experienced a delightful rest in rural Americana. Actually, there's weird sh!t going on. Sorry to disappoint fans of films about cookery and antiquing, this probably isn't for you. Though thinking about it, like cookery and antiquing it does offer some interest and mild thrills, so maybe it is a good recommendation. But yeah, weird sh!t is going on. I have to give Night Slaves some credit, it goes for some thing different to the many devil cult/political conspiracy/murder set up explanations so popular at the time, though not entirely original it does make a nice change. Also interestingly, the mystery of what's going on plays out with intrigue rather than menace, an enticing but inconsequential puzzle that largely avoids the standard escalating paranoid tension. It's a film favouring reason and acceptance, an approach that raises some moral problems that are never resolved but does give it a nicely unconventional yet very much of its time vibe. On the other hand the general lack of tension means that the film is far more likely to bore people, and the actors have to work harder. Happily the cast do well in selling events, James Franciscus may not bring much depth to Clay but his matinée good looks and easy charm make him a pleasant protagonist, and he is neatly balanced out by Lee Grant as his fretful and nervous wife, cagily watching a situation play out that she never even intended getting into in the first place. The two have good chemistry and an effective charge to their more dramatic moments, and the rest of the cast support them well, most notably Leslie Nielsen as the local Sheriff, a sturdy and realistic type who wants no trouble, just to get to the bottom of things, as well as oddball character acting legend Andrew Prine as a local weirdo who ends up playing a bigger role than expected and the lovely Tisha Sterling as a mysterious girl who may hold the key to proceedings. So the cast and the general interest of the film hold it together for a pretty solid 70 minutes or so, but it isn't the most memorable, thought provoking or exciting of films. Probably only recommended to science fiction and made for television buffs, and not at all bad as such, just a little above average.
The Deadly Dream (1971)
Decent though sadly flawed science fiction thriller.
As my experience of the era grows I find that early 70's made for TV genre fare mostly tends to follow the same pattern, a modish premise well wrought at a youth friendly yet still often scary level, with tight, self contained storytelling reminiscent of classic pulp short writing. Deadly Dream is a bit of an anomaly in that while its basic story is slim and contained, the underlying concepts are enough to power a serious minded science fiction feature if the right hands took hold of them. Mind manipulation, conservative versus utilitarian approaches to the future, concepts of pre-crime prevention and the strange and chilling permeability of the walls between sleep and our reality, there's a whole lot going on in Deadly Dream, so much that for all its basic thrills (and it does contain one genuinely shocking and intense sequence towards the end), one is left wondering that it might have been a lasting classic rather than the obscurity that it is today. This disappointment aside, there's plenty to like about Deadly Dream. It moves like a bullet, with intriguing incidents mounting a sense of paranoia with grace as well as speed. Though predictable, there's a cold, unnerving vibe to it that works well and the general lack of compromise to the tale does the vibe justice. The main players do very well with Lloyd Bridges as the lead, a scientist hopeful and determined but buckling steadily as his drive comes up against that which he cannot understand. Janet Leigh is equally fine as his wife, confusion curdling into fear, slowly harrowed yet never without an underlying sympathetic support. Then there's effective menace from Don Stroud and Richard Jaeckel, and more sympathy from Lief Erickson as an older scientist, cautioning but helpful and kind. So with the general actorly commitment and solid direction this is a decent little thriller, but the gap between what is and what might have been is so great its a difficult film to fully like. Worth a watch then, but don't set your expectations too high.
Haunts of the Very Rich (1972)
Slow but classy TV horror with a potent punch
Another well honed TV horror production here, in fact possibly my favorite so far of my present quest. Haunts of the Very Rich is one of those films that rather defies reviewers, the climax is all important yet a cliché set in stone even in its own era, to comment on how the film becomes truly effective would spoil it for those who didn't already figure it out, and to say much about the hints and murmurs of chill that come before would spoil those little details for those who guessed what was going on from the outset but still aimed to be surprised by the films smaller mechanisms. Most of the reviews here make the film somewhat to obvious, so I will simply say that the plot sees seven strangers journey to a luxury resort, wherein the luxury soon becomes something else entirely. The film thrives on character and precisely measured tension, taking some two thirds of its runtime to move up through the gears before the final surge. The writing is often melodramatic, but the cast sells it very well, Lloyd Bridges touching as a lothario with an actual heart, slick superficiality slipping away in likable fashion, Cloris Leachman falls in convincing love, Anne Francis pulls off powerful dejected pathos, Edward Asner brings class to what could have been a bland cliché and Moses Gunn hits the right mellow yet subtly devious notes as the resort host. Now all this class goes a good distance towards keeping the film a solid watch, but it has to be said that things really don't get too noteworthy until the 50 minute mark or so. There are creepy vibes but only one or two jolts, things really are pretty subdued and get going just in time to stave off tedium. However when it all does come together the film becomes a rather terrific affair, genuinely chilling and surprisingly emotional, an ideal reward for what has come before. So all in all this one may not be perfect but as far as its kind go its pretty darned spiffing, essential viewing for TV horror fans and just plain pulp enthusiasts (for the classic story and unexpected touches). So a solid 7/10 from me, but will obviously not be to all tastes.
She Waits (1972)
Nice little melodramatic TV chiller
While falling very much on the melodrama side of things as opposed to aiming for much in the way of overt shocks or scare tactics, She Waits holds together pretty well in its way, building pleasurably to a suitably fraught final block. The plot is simple, David (Ilya Kuryakin) McCallum takes his lovely new wife home to see his mother and work through some of his own issues, only for said mother to stir up the past and his wife's own neuroses into a foaming brew of the possibly supernatural. Actually for much of the time the film could simply be called something like The Menace of the Meddling Mother In-Law, as generally the point of whether or not something paranormal is going on is kept ambiguous, while the fact that the mother is doing no good is beyond question. Still, a quality turn from Dorothy McGuire keeps her character interesting if not beyond cliché, one gets the feeling of genuine fear and torment roiling away inside her, the feeling that she really is doing what she thinks best and exists in a sphere of isolation permitting no outside force to change her mind. It's a decent performance and she has great chemistry with Patty Duke as the beleaguered new wife Laura. Duke captures very well a sense of restless curiosity, steady mounting insecurity and eroding personality, malleable mind within fragile beauty. David McCallum on the other hand is very much a weak link, his acting borders on the somnambulant for most of the film, only developing a noticeable pulse and positive action in the final block, in which he does redeem himself somewhat. The scares are too thin on the ground and the details of the plot are left rather undeveloped, not that I mind having the nitty gritty left to the imagination but I definitely prefer to have a few more hints. Still, there are a few chills and the flowing camera-work gives a nicely foreboding atmosphere to the dark and daunting house in the the majority of the films action is set. Overall I'd say this is a worthy little diversion for fans of this sort of film, though it lacks much in the way of spectacle or thrills and isn't even all that tense, it keeps fairly compelling with its drama and is an admirably sincere and serious entry in a genre which was well on its way to collapsing into the swamps of camp long before this film was made. A fair 6/10 from me, though definitely a film for those already predisposed to enjoy it.
She Cried Murder (1973)
Rather splendid, speedy and simple thriller fun
It's pretty rare that I watch simple, straightforward thrillers, let alone particularly enjoy them, so She Cried Murder was quite a treat to me. As simple as they come, without a speck of fat, this is lean, keen stuff even by made for television standards, clocking in at around 66 minutes in length, a good six or seven minutes shorter than the average. The action starts immediately with model Sarah Cornell witnessing a man push a lady to her death in front of a subway train, and her nightmare really begins when encounters said murderer later, the nefarious individual being rather keen to keep her quiet after having seen her see him. From then on the film takes the form of a constant chase, mixed with a dash of paranoia and a few explanatory digressions providing context without slowing down the main pulse. The lovely Lynda Day George makes a good fist of the main role, she isn't the most convincing as an actress but looks the part and throws herself into the action with an agreeable determination that grows effectively frayed and desperate as her pursuer proves frightening tenacious. Telly Savalas is excellent as said pursuer, playing things low key, soft faced and even superficially charming, he menaces through the contrast of his actions and demeanour rather than playing things up as a baddie and is all the better for it. Nobody else really has big enough roles to make an impression, but Mike Farrel (BJ from M.A.S.H.) does have a nice turn as a sympathetic police officer. There's little more to say about this that would stray into the realms of spoilers, but director Herschel Daughtery does a sterling job with both the pace and set pieces, there are several moments of seat edge suspense and the finale is a minor marvel. At times the film is even somewhat reminiscent of Italian gialli, though the film only very seldom approaches the same heights of style and has almost none of the same twisted verve. As one might expect of a made for television production things are rather tame, and there are one or two nagging loose ends, but on the whole this is a splendid ride, one that never wears out its excitement and is hence well worth a look for vintage thriller fans.
The Dead Don't Die (1975)
Quality and genuinely creepy TV horror minor gem
A solid step ahead for director Curtis Harrington and writer Robert Bloch from their collaboration on The Cat Creature, The Dead Don't Die is a delightfully unhinged and at times surprisingly chilling supernatural mystery, hearkening this time back to the 1930's but doing rather better in capturing the anything goes pulp serial atmosphere of that time. The story has Navy man on leave Don Drake on a mission to clear his brother's name, said brother having been executed for apparently killing his wife. On the trail he gets warned off by strange beauty Vera LaValle, and comes to find that something really rather bizarre is going on. Now although it's been more than a decade since I read Bloch's original story so I can't compare writing and adaptation, but Harrington expertly captures the surreal and melodramatic night- realm of great 20th century horror. Barely any scenes take place in daylight even when the timeline seems to indicate that they should, but the film makes all this night-time scrambling seem perfectly natural, as if the film takes place in some strange, half dreamt but grimly real region where light itself is unnatural and solutions or escape fleeting. Though the story ultimately comes down to traditional zombies stretched into a slightly ill conceived conspiracy, the general atmosphere and smattering of creepy details (like skin crawling dance marathon moments) brings the film into quality disturbing psychotronic territory. The generally great performances do a great deal as well of course, George Hamilton bringing things together as a rock solid, faithful and committed man steadily harrowed by strange circumstance, Reggie Nalder giving real heft to a traditional ghoul role, Ray Milland wearing his tired, worn and corrupt character with easy style and not a little sympathy, and Linda Cristal evocative as the haunted beauty of the film. The pace is somewhat measured and the set pieces (such as they are) evenly spaced, so those seeking swift gratification will surely be disappointed, and the sadly fairly poor quality of most copies of the film currently in circulation may well put off others, but for the dedicates of this kind of cinema, The Dead Don't Die is a definite winner. It's a great example of traditional zombie horror at a time when the Romero paradigm was close to taking over, the cast is classy and the scares still resonant despite the lack of any gruesome or outré shocks. All in all a solid 7/10 from me, highly recommended to fans of this sort of thing.
The Cat Creature (1973)
Classy and fun if unremarkable TV horror feature
The first made for television collaboration between Psycho scribe and all round pulp horror titan Robert Bloch with classy b-horror veteran Curtis Harrington, The Cat Creature is a charming if inconsequential affair that neither reaches the levels of its influences nor surpasses its status as a made for television production, but is still perfectly good stuff for a dull afternoon left sparing. The outlandish plot sees an antique theft from a deceased collector result in the release of a murderous acolyte of the Egyptian cat goddess Bast, and cop Lieutenant Marco teaming up with Professor Roger Edmonds to figure out what's going on. Then there's occult shop owner Hester Black and her assistant Rena Carter getting involved in things as well. The vibe hearkens back to horror and detection stories of yesteryear, particularly the 1940's and Cat People, with a measured pace and restrained action as well as certain pleasing subtleties. Director Harrington pulls off a few effectively creepy stalking sequences and deploys the titular beast in fun if slightly repetitive fashion. Fortunately the story has a few twists and turns so things never get dull, although they fail to get all that heated either. The cast is fairly well handled and thread things through nicely, Stuart Whitman is suitably gruff and no nonsense as Lt. Marco, Meredith Baxter paints Rena in sympathetic shades of confusion, fear and yearning, while David Hedison takes a while to warm up and loose his awkwardness but is still likable as Prof. Edmonds, a classic academic good guy figuring things out with open-mindedness and learning. Best though is Oscar winner Gale Sondergaard as Hester, crooked and controlling, time soured and radiating low key negativity yet at the same time open and helpful. She steals every one of her scenes and brings an unaffected old fashioned class to things that is perhaps the films greatest asset. It's just a shame that the film doesn't really have enough in the way of atmosphere or shocks (being rather tame even by made for television horror standards), so for all that it has in the way of style and vacant likability it just isn't all that compelling. Certainly watchable, but definitely a film for fans of television horror of the era rather than more casual fans, who may quite reasonably be bored and unimpressed. As a fan of such horror then I give The Cat Creature 6/10 and partially recommend it to other such fans, but it is far from essential.
Robowar - Robot da guerra (1988)
Bruno Mattei does Predator, results are predictably awesome
There was very little chance of this film not being badass. A combined rip-off of Predator and Robocop directed by hack trash grand wizard Bruno Mattei and starring veritable Colossus of kick-ass charisma Reb Brown in the Arnie role, along with Massimo Vanni looking like Chuck Norris and the always reliable Jim Gaines, and a script by husband and wife super-scribes Claudio Fragasso (Troll 2, Zombie 4: After Death)) and Rosella Drudi. Oh and our Claudio is also the guy in the robot suit, credited under his regular pseudonym of Clyde Anderson. Anybody reading this already knows whether this film is for them or not, people generally are either Mattei fans or have sh!tty taste. But for your sake dear reader I shall go on, lest you not be quite convinced. The pacing is the only drawback here, the film takes a little while to really get into the groove so during the first third there's mostly the dialogue to go on. Fortunately the dialogue is worthy of Mamet, my favorite line being probably "You walk like a ruptured duck" . Clearly a film that should be shown to screen writing classes as an example of how to get this sort of thing right. The action is pretty steady when it gets going though. Things tend to alternate between people and trees being shot up real good, and trees and huts being blown up real good, with occasional people being blown up real good for varieties sake. Oh and there is a bit of knife work, but I don't know that I'd describe it as real good. It's OK though.Basically if you like films full of people walking around in the jungle and shooting at trees with occasional explosions and a robot that speaks in comically mangled digital gibberish then this is a film for you. I like all of these things, so Robowar was definitely a film for me. It even musters up occasional pockets of genuine excitement and suspense in amongst the hilarity and repetition, with a climax that is more affecting than one might expect. There's no gore other than mangled corpses and a severed limb, and no sleaze which definitely hurts things, but as far as goofy action trash aimed at the undemanding goes this is definitely a winner. Not as good as the classic Strike Commando mind you, but in Mattei rip off terms this is pretty darned decent. Way better than Shocking Dark at any rate. So watch it folks!
Trappola diabolica (1988)
Inferior but fun light hearted sequel to a classic
Well, I would have hoped a director as mighty as Bruno Mattei might be one to break the curse of inferior sequels. Sadly not, but he does his best here with the odds stacked against him. This time around he doesn't have the incomparable Reb Brown, massive amounts of firepower and corresponding bodycount nor hysterical emoting, and his various "inspirations", tend to be lighter (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone, Lethal Weapon as well as Rambo 2 and other jungle actioners), so really the ultimate product was bound to be flawed, and it is, but it still pretty much rocks so its all good. Brent Huff takes over the Mike Ransom role, and while he lacks the stately magnificence of Reb Brown does a solid job, a smart, rough and tumble tough guy who can come into his own when the going gets hard. Mary Stavin plays a bar owning partner and love interest of sorts, bold, brassy, badass and not to mention beautiful she proves an ideal counterweight to the macho end of the scale. Italian schlock regulars Massimo Vanni and Ottaviano dell'Acqua (Rats: Night of Terror) appear as well, but the most plaudits go to the great Richard Harris. The cosmos only knows what strange wheels turned to put Richard Harris in a Bruno Mattei film but he gives it his all, a turn of authority and dignity forged in total commitment, he plays the material as if it were Oscar worthy and the effect his marvellous, his scenes tremendously entertaining. The star power can't entirely distract from the fact that the film is a bit too light hearted, and doesn't have quite enough action, explosions, wannabe gruelling violence or deranged tilts at pathos to be truly great, there are certainly classy bits (often involving useless ninjas) but overall there's a slightly underpowered feel to things. Still, I can't say as this isn't pretty solid entertainment. You'll laugh, you'll roll your eyes, you may in some small moments feel your pulse start to quicken but most importantly, you'll likely won't feel bored. So worth a watch for fans of this sort of thing.