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Lechuguilla (pronounced Lech-ah-GEE-ah) [caver]
I write film scripts and IMDb film reviews.
Wheels of Terror (1990)
Hokey And Laughable
It starts out okay; I like that compressed visual depth of field, as it evokes a distortion of reality, consistent with the story's theme. But oh how this film quickly deteriorates.
Driving a school bus for a living, Laura (Joanna Cassidy) is a single mom who has moved with her teenage daughter to a small, presumably quiet rural town to get away from big city crime. Much to her chagrin, an ugly yellowish old car with windows that apparently are tinted, as you cannot see inside, terrorizes Laura and her daughter, then terrorizes the whole town. The first half is marginal at best, as the script trends cliché-ridden and borrowed, and characters are superficial. Then comes that dreadful second half.
The script is written so that at the midpoint plot turn, Laura, driving the school bus, gives chase to the evil car, which has just kidnapped Laura's daughter. The chase "scene" expands to almost the entire second half, some 35 minutes. It's just Laura in the school bus and Laura's daughter kidnapped inside the car.
Sometimes the school bus chases the car. At other times the car chases the school bus. It all depends on where in the plot you arrive at, after you have used your remote to fast-forward through all that chase redundancy. The ending is as hokey and laughable as any ending I have seen. We get dust flying through the air, lots of frenetic background music, screaming, silly maneuvers, explosions, and vehicles that are so durable that even after falling off a cliff, they still return with purring engines and tires that never go flat.
The editing, stunts, and photography in the chase scenes are actually quite good. And Joanna Cassidy is a fine actress. But the script's plot structure is way too unbalanced. The action is not believable. And the film comes across as a rip-off of James Brolin's movie "The Car" (1977). "Wheels Of Terror" might have had some degree of credibility with a vastly rewritten script. As is, it's not worth watching unless the viewer is interested in learning the technical aspects of filming a chase scene.
Gone in the Dark (2014)
Professional Quality Short About Real-Life Terror
This award-winning film opens with a twenty-something man named Charlie (Wes McGee) tied up on the floor of a house. A flashback then recounts events a few minutes earlier that led up to the opening scene. Charlie and his former wife, Shannon (Lindsay Wolf), and their small boy have just finished dinner; it's night. Charlie takes out the trash. When he returns, the unthinkable happens. It's like some terrible nightmare. But this dream is real.
Set in southern California in 1977, and based on a real-life event, "Gone In The Dark" gives viewers a glimpse into the lives of California residents terrorized by an unidentified rapist and killer, known as the "Original Night Stalker". This man murdered at least ten people. To this day his identity remains unknown.
The film's script is tight and effective; character names are fictional. Direction, casting, acting, prod design, editing, and sound effects are all fine. If I had to render a criticism it would be the color cinematography, which is a tad darker than needed for interior scenes. Also, some of the background music is unnecessary, especially in the segment when Charlie takes out the trash. Sounds of crickets and a far-off barking dog are quite enough to maximize suspense.
Even though the runtime is just 15 minutes, this film is a high-quality production. The story exudes not only suspense but also mystery, and the implied outcome is poignant and disturbing.
You will find very little news coverage of the crimes of the "Original Night Stalker". The mainstream press refuses to cover them. Even most California residents are unaware that this serial killer stalked their state, from Sacramento south to Orange County. Who was this killer? Is he still stalking California or some other part of the U.S.? "Gone In The Dark" conveys some of the fear he instilled on those he chose to terrorize.
Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960)
Set mostly in the slums of Chicago in the late 1950s, this intense drama tells the story of several adults trapped in depressing lives from which there seems no escape. So they bundle their good intentions in hopes of shepherding a fatherless teenager named Nick (James Darren) into a more hopeful life. Shelley Winters plays Nick's mother, Nellie. And Burl Ives plays the Judge, a man who somehow allowed his love of alcohol to derail his judicial career. A few others add to Nick's improvised family.
Although Nellie would probably be considered the lead character, the film could almost be described as having an ensemble cast, given that each of the main performers has scenes independent of Nellie. The script is talky but tight; dialogue largely drives the plot forward. Themes include dignity and self-determination despite apparent hopelessness.
Consistent with these themes, interiors are mostly drab and bleak; alcohol and drugs figure prominently in these peoples' lives. B&W lighting trends low-key and mostly low-contrast, though side lighting adds a hint of noir in some scenes. The score consists of intermittent elevator music that's very soft and nondescript. Ella Fitzgerald's piano playing and singing mirrors the softness of the background music. Casting is perfect. The main players all give topnotch performances.
Based on a novel, this film gets off to a somewhat slow start but the drama picks up, and builds to a theatrical climax. It's been awhile since I have watched a film with such a good script, particularly in the second and third Acts. And with a great cast and terrific performances, "Let No Man Write My Epitaph" makes a highly favorable impression.
Gripping True Life Story
As the true story of cult leader Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, "Guyana Tragedy" is one of the most powerful movies ever made. The script is structured around Jones. The film begins and ends in Jonestown, with frequent and sometimes lengthy flashbacks to previous periods in his life.
As a kid in Indiana he preaches to fellow kids; then as an idealistic and charismatic young preacher in California, he works hard to build a church, and seems sincerely interested in helping the needy and the downtrodden. Yet, despite his efforts, he feels persecuted by enemies, resulting in his action to lead his followers out of the U.S. to "paradise" in the jungles of Guyana, wherein he morphs into a delusional, controlling madman.
With no sensationalism of any kind, the final thirty minutes, set in Jonestown in 1978, are as riveting and potent as any I have ever watched.
Powers Boothe gives a mesmerizing performance in the title role, helped along by strong support performances from Ned Beatty, Veronica Cartwright, Randy Quaid, and Diana Scarwid. The cast is large and there's not a weak performance to be found.
Sets and costumes are detailed and realistic for multiple time periods. As one would expect, the film has lots of gospel songs; otherwise, background music is largely absent, enhancing realism. If I had to make one criticism it would be the color cinematography. Images sometimes seem a bit blurry and less sharp than they could have been.
The runtime is lengthy but the entire story is gripping. What makes it so powerful is that it is true. And that ending is explosive.
Lust for Gold (1949)
The Lost Dutchman Mine is a fascinating legend from the 19th century. Gold is said to be buried somewhere in the Superstition Mountains, near Phoenix, in the Arizona desert. If this film had really been about the legend, it could have been as poetic and mysterious as the old song by Walter Brennan, "Dutchman's Gold".
Alas, the film script, while it is set in the right geographic location, veers away from the legend too much and into a dreary love triangle between three scoundrels. That's my main complaint. The opening narrator, Barry Storm (William Prince), is not the main character. Storm appears in the first and third Acts, both rather brief relative to the middle Act. Storm's purpose is mainly to introduce the film's two big "stars".
This middle Act features Glenn Ford and Ida Lupino. They play two of the three scoundrels in the love triangle. None of this middle Act has much to do with the Lost Dutchman legend, except as backstory, which is told in one very long flashback, and initiated by a minor character. The length of this flashback is way too long, making it dreadfully disconnected from the first and third Acts.
Another problem is that, despite the claim that this is "the true story of the Superstition Mountains", I found it hard to tell which elements of the film were actually true and which were fictional. I had to research the topic afterwards to determine that an earthquake apparently did occur during the time period, as the film suggests. But the true-life existence of some characters is highly questionable. Also, the main geologic landmark in the area, Weavers Needle, looks nothing at all like it is portrayed in the film. Thus, the film is as frustrating and confusing as the legend. The best Act is probably the third, which has some good suspense, as two characters fight one another on a high cliff.
B&W photography and acting are acceptable. Production design is largely irrelevant. Background music consists mostly of nondescript elevator music, common in old movies. I dislike the casting of Glenn Ford and Ida Lupino, which conveys the impression that the film is really intended as a career vehicle for these two Hollywood actors.
To enjoy this film, one needs to forget the legend of the Lost Dutchman, and focus instead either on the obvious theme of greed in the Old West or the casting of two big-name "stars", as some viewers always do.
The Thirteenth Guest (1932)
A young woman named Marie Morgan (Ginger Rogers) arrives at night at a presumably vacant old house, and is quickly murdered by person unknown. A private detective named Phil Winston (Lyle Talbot) proceeds to investigate, with the help of an annoyingly grumpy cop and his bumbling sidekick.
As the whodunit plot moves along, various characters reveal the backstory, involving a rich old man who invites thirteen guests to a dinner party at which time he will announce who inherits his estate; problem is the old man dies at the dinner without revealing his secret.
The main problem is a script that is so convoluted that it's almost impossible to figure out the puzzle's solution. Once known, the solution is not remotely believable, and there are significant plot holes. Still, there's enough suspense to keep the viewer watching despite a substandard script. Dialogue comes across as stiff and stilted at times but there are a few good lines.
Before the killer's identity is known, this person appears in a few scenes wearing bizarre garb that covers his/her body completely; the costume makes the person look a little like spider man. The film's prod design is cheap looking. Most of the action takes place indoors and mostly at night.
Casting is acceptable except for the presence of Lyle Talbot who just doesn't have the mystery persona of someone like Sidney Toler or Warner Oland. Indeed, if the film had been made as a Charlie Chan thriller, I think it would have been better.
For all its faults, "The Thirteenth Guest" is worth watching once, owing to adequate suspense in a spooky old house with hidden rooms and a masked killer. Overall, it's an average whodunit for the era in which it was made.
Murder by Natural Causes (1979)
Perhaps The Best TV Movie Ever Made
Writers Richard Levinson and William Link wrote some great scripts in the sixties and seventies, including some for Hitchcock. A psychological thriller that first aired in 1979, "Murder By Natural Causes", is arguably Levinson and Link's best work. With twist upon twist upon twist, and subtle dialogue clues scattered throughout the plot, it's a film that fans of suspense thrillers need to see, as an example of superior script writing.
Forty-something and wealthy entertainer Arthur Sinclair (Hal Holbrook) wows audiences with his mental telepathy skills as he seemingly reads peoples minds. Allison (Katharine Ross) is his attractive thirty-something wife, a person with a roving eye and a desire for riches. What kind of story do you think this setup suggests? Can you guess how the film ends? Don't bet on it.
The film could easily be transformed into a stage play since most scenes take place indoors on sets. Production design is adequate. Intermittent background music is at times spooky, and there are a couple of scenes wherein the music is reminiscent of the shower scene in Hitchcock's "Psycho", shrieking and shrill. Good editing keeps the plot flowing nicely for the most part, though the middle Act trends a bit talky in a couple of scenes. Color cinematography is adequate. Casting and acting cannot be improved upon.
All film elements come together perfectly in that final sequence when a character walks in the front door of Aruthur's big house. The dialogue here is entrancing. Camera movement is faultless. And that final scene where the camera moves in close to a character's eyes is breathtakingly dramatic. It's one of the great final sequences in film history.
It's too bad this film never received a theatrical release. It is far better and more entertaining than most major Hollywood thrillers of the last fifty years that I have seen. The film won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for best television film of 1980. One might even assert that "Murder By Natural Causes" is the best TV movie ever made. I probably would not argue with that assessment.
Beyond the Reach (2014)
The Most Dangerous Animal
This low budget, outdoor thriller tells the story of a physically strong but emotionally damaged young desert tracker named Ben (Jeremy Irvine) who accompanies an arrogant client named Madec (Michael Douglas) on a hunt to shoot bighorn sheep in the desert wilderness of the American southwest.
Madec is your typical corporate villain who reminds me of J.R. Ewing in his swagger and lack of ethics. With Ben as passenger, Madec drives his 6-wheel drive, obnoxious looking Mercedes SUV, with monster wheels, and complete with microwave, out across the desert. When Madec creates a problem on the hunt, Ben must decide how to handle the situation, which propels the plot through most of the film.
The interesting theme here of stalking human prey reminds me of the classic 1932 movie "The Most Dangerous Game", with a similar theme and villain.
The script of "Beyond The Reach" has some problems. The middle Act is repetitive and way too strung out. The film's ending is disappointing; it looks tacked on, a climax borrowed from a different movie. And throughout the film, plot holes render a somewhat unrealistic story.
Cinematography is acceptable. A wide-angle lens captures the expansiveness and loneliness of the desert. The one production design worthy of comment is the old prospector's desert hideout, kind of neat with its string of light bulbs and that old-fashioned music.
"Beyond The Reach" is a reasonably good film about a young man who becomes prey to a modern human villain more dangerous than any animal in the wilds. The ruggedly beautiful landscape renders interesting visuals. And though the script is imperfect, it's good enough to merit at least one viewing, especially for viewers who enjoy outdoor thrillers.
A History That Never Occurred
From start to finish, it's a satire on American history and TV documentaries. The real history is deliberately twisted to show viewers what America might have been like today if the South had won the Civil War. Fake historians recite fake commentaries; fake visuals show action that never occurred or is taken out of context; actors act out characters that never lived. Even the commercial breaks are fictional and presume that slave life is part of America in the twenty-first century.
I thought the commercials were funny and clever. Examples include a TV sitcom called "Leave It To Beulah", about a Black maid in a White household. Another commercial advertises "The Shackle", an electronic product put on slaves so that their owners know where they are, at all times. The funniest, though, is "The Slave Shopping Network", where two bubble-headed White ladies advertise Black people for sale; the commercial is funny because it is so outrageous.
The history lesson, however, I found boring. Structured like a documentary, its visual images and its various commentaries go on and on in excruciating detail. I'm just not that much of a history buff to spend all that time trying to digest a history that never happened. Further, the viewer really has to know the real history in order to know which characters, scenes, and legacies are bogus, since this false history is a twisted version of real history. In particular, I found the "John Ambrose Fauntroy" character annoying.
The film's visuals and sound compare favorably to real documentaries. Background music is appropriate. Casting is generally acceptable, but the narrative suffers from some overacting. The cast is very large, consistent with a long drawn-out historical drama, showing lots of different people from different historical periods.
Even though the South lost on the battleground, its values seem to be still embraced by many Americans; that, I think, is the theme of this film. I just wish the satire could have been presented more succinctly and with less confusion. "C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America" is built on a clever premise. It will be most appreciated by viewers with a thorough knowledge of the real American history.
The Wizard of Mars (1965)
A Humorously Loquacious Wizard
This low-budget film from 1965 is set in the distant future of 1975. It tells the story of an American spacecraft with four people on-board that crash lands on Mars. There's a kind of twist at the end that renders this synopsis somewhat incorrect. The story actually has a theme to it, which relates to the passage of time. And there are a couple of references to "The Wizard Of Oz".
But overall, it's a slow moving boring affair that tests the viewer's patience. The character named Charlie, second in command, looks like a high school dropout who joined a circus. Much of the dialogue has each crew member informing another crew member of technical information that all four should have known about long before they ever left Earth. All this talky exposition is for the benefit of the viewer, of course. The woman, named Dorothy, whimpers: "Steve, what are we going to do now?" Responds Steve: "We'll have to run for it" ... a crew of real knowledgeable astronauts there.
On Mars, lots of screen time is spent just wandering around their surroundings, making stupid comments and asking dumb questions. In these sequences, the dialogue occurs while the camera is quite some distance from the characters, giving the impression that the visuals were shot first, with the dialogue superimposed in post edit.
Later, they encounter live beings, sort of. And the wizard finally makes an appearance well into the second half. When he does, he speaks in English, conveniently, and his voice has an echo chamber quality to it. He launches into a laughable, loquacious monologue that goes on for a tortuous four minutes. It's one of the more humorous parts of the film.
Special effects look cheap, though I did find the reddish, pink colors marginally convincing, given this is the red planet. Casting and acting are poor. Dialogue is awful. Scientific credibility is nonexistent. At least the script made an effort to create some thematic heft. And for me that's what saved "The Wizard Of Mars" from being a total cinematic disaster.