Embracing The Melodrama Part III #5: Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough (dir by Guy Green)


“Only in the movies, baby.” 

— Mike Wayne (Kirk Douglas) in Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough (1975)

Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough (for that indeed is the unwieldy title of this little movie) opens with a shot of two Oscars sitting on an end table.  Those Oscars belong to Mike Wayne (Kirk Douglas), a legendary Hollywood producer who hasn’t had a hit in way too long.  He’s struggling financially.  He may even have to fire his maid (Lillian Randolph), despite the many years that she’s spent making sure he wakes up and remembers to take a shower before leaving the house.  What choice does Mike have but to marry Deidre Milford Granger (Alexis Smith), the world’s sixth richest woman?  Mike doesn’t even mind that Deidre is having an affair with Karla (Melina Mercouri).

That makes sense to everyone by Mike’s daughter, January (Deborah Raffin).  As Mike explains it, January’s name came about as a result of January being born in January.  So, I guess if I was Mike’s daughter, I would have been named November.  Everyone in the film thinks that Mike’s being terribly clever by naming his daughter after her birthday but, to me, that just sounds lazy.

Does January have some issues?  Well, when she returns to America after getting into a serious motorcycle accident in Europe, she greets her father by cheerfully saying, “I hope nobody thinks we’re father and daughter.  I hope they think you’re a dirty old man and I’m your broad.”

Agck!  That sounds like the set up for a Freudian nightmare but instead, the film’s rather blasé about the whole incestuous subtext of January’s relationship with her father.  Mike is soon pushed to the side as the movie follows January as she tries to make a life for herself in New York City.  Fortunately, she’s able to land a job at a magazine, working for her old college friend, Linda (Brenda Vacarro).  In college, Linda was smart and homely but she has since had so much plastic surgery that January doesn’t even recognize her.  Linda’s either found the greatest plastic surgeon in the world or else January is just really, really stupid.

Linda gets all the best lines.  While talking about all of the work that she’s had done, she takes the time to brag that she had everything fixed by her navel, which she declares to be perfect.  When January comments that Linda is beautiful, Linda replies, “And now ugly is in!  I want my old nose back!”

Linda is stunned to learn that January is still a virgin but that problem is solved once January goes out on a few dates with David (George Hamilton), who is Deidre’s cousin.  David and January go out to a club and January is shocked when a random woman throws a drink in David’s face.  Later, January goes back to David’s apartment, which turns out to be the epitome of 70s tackiness.  When January asks David why the carpet and all of the furniture is red, David replies, “I wanted it to look like a bordello.”

Things don’t really work out between January and David but don’t worry!  January soon meets the world-renowned author, Chest Hair McGee (David Janssen)!  Okay, actually his name is Tom Colt.

Tom spends almost the entire movie drunk and acting obnoxious but January falls in love with him.  And, of course, it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s the same age as her father.  No, of course not.  Instead, she’s charmed by the way he slurs the line, “Forgive me, I can’t take my eyes off of your ass!”

January is convinced that she and Tom are going to be together forever.  Of course, Mike hates Tom.  And there is the fact that Tom’s married.  Literally everyone in the movie tells January that Tom is never going to leave his wife but I guess we’re still supposed to be shocked when Tom tells her that he’ll never leave his wife.  He does, however, thank her for allowing “a broken-down old man” to “feel like a stud.”  In the end, nothing really works out for January but she’s such an annoying and vacuous character that you really don’t mind.

Based on a novel by the same author who gave the world The Valley of the Dolls, Once Is Not Enough is a movie that manages to be both remarkably bad and also surprisingly watchable.  Some of that is because the film is a time capsule of 70s fashion, 70s decor, and 70s slang.  A lot more of it is because the cast is made up of such an odd mishmash of performers and acting styles that nobody seems like they should be in the same movie.  Kirk Douglas grimaces.  George Hamilton looks embarrassed.  David Janssen lurches through the film like a drunk trying to remember where he lives.  Alexis Smith and Melina Mercouri chew every piece of scenery they can find while Brenda Vaccaro shouts her lines as if hoping the increased volume will keep us from noticing what she’s actually saying.  Poor Deborah Raffin wanders through the film with a dazed look on her face.  Can you blame her?

Interestingly enough, Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough actually was nominated for an Oscar.  Brenda Vaccaro was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.  Admittedly, Vaccaro does probably come the closest of anyone in the cast to creating an interesting character but I still have to wonder just how weak the Supporting Actress field was in 1975.

Anyway, this incredibly silly and tacky film is a lot of fun, though perhaps not in the way that it was originally intended to be.  Between the nonstop drama, the unintentionally hilarious dialogue, and the weird performances, the film plays out like a cartoon character’s dream of the 70s.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at another silly and tacky film from the same decade, 1978’s The Betsy!

Bronson’s Old: Death Wish 3 (1985, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote Roger Murtaugh, “I’m too old for this shit.”

It has been ten years since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) left New York City and the place has gone to Hell.  It’s no longer just muggers that you have look out for.  Now, there are roving street gangs of directionless teenagers, terrorizing the elderly and forcing them to live like prisoners in their own apartment building.

One street corner now looks like a war zone, controlled by spiky-haired, face-painting punks who look like something from a Mad Max movie.  Manny Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy) rules this street corner, supported by a gang that worships him as if he was some sort of god.  Manny thinks that he is immortal but he’s just targeted the wrong person.  The gang may think that Charley (Francis Drake) is just a defenseless old man but what they don’t know is that, when Charley served in Korea, his best friend was Paul Kersey.

The past few years have been busy for Paul.  He’s killed muggers and rapists in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kansas City and now he’s returned to New York City, to visit his old friend Charley.  Paul arrives at Charley’s apartment just in time to witness Fraker’s gang murdering him.  The gang flees and when the police arrive, they take Paul into custody.

While public defender Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin) tries to figure out why Paul is being held in jail, Paul has a conversation with Lt. Shriker (Ed Lauter).  Shriker remembers Paul as being the New York vigilante and he has a proposition for him.  Paul can kill as many members of Fraker’s gang as he wants, as long as he allows the police to take the credit and reports everything that he discovers to Shriker.  Paul agrees.

In the neighborhood, Paul starts to put Fraker and his gang (one of whom is played by pre-Bill and Ted Alex Winter) in their place.  In a scene borrowed from Brian Garfield’s original Death Wish novel, he uses a used car as bait to gun down two aspiring car thieves.  When Paul gets a new gun, he tests it out on a depraved mugger known as the Giggler.  Though some might call him a serial killer, Paul is soon a hero to the entire neighborhood.  Though Charley may be gone, Paul befriends the other residents of the apartment.  He shows the elderly Kaprovs how to catch anyone trying to climb through their window.  He protects Maria Rodriguez (Marina Sirtis) from the gang.  Best of all, he befriend Bennett Miller (Martin Balsam), a World War II vet who still remembers how to load a machine gun.

(Balsam and Bronson previously co-starred in The Stone Killer, though in that one Bronson was a cop and Balsam was on the other side of the law.)

He also finds time to pursue a relationship with Kathryn Davis.  This is one recurring element in the Death Wish franchise that has never made sense to me.  Paul always has a new girlfriend, despite the fact that almost every woman that he ever gets involved with ends up getting killed.  Paul also only seems to go out with women who would be upset to discover that they were dating a notorious vigilante.  In Death Wish II, he went out with a crusading journalist who was against the death penalty.  In Death Wish 3, he falls for a public defender whose job is to provide legal counsel to the very people that Paul is trying to kill.  After Death Wish 3, Paul would date yet another crusading journalist and, finally, the ex-wife of a notorious mobster.  Maybe Paul should just give up and concentrate on mourning his wife.

Michael Winner returned to direct Death Wish 3 and, this time around, he imagines New York City as being a post-apocalyptic wasteland, full of abandoned buildings and murderous scavengers.  Imagine A Clockwork Orange if Charles Bronson suddenly showed up to shoot Alex and the Droogs.  As played by Gavan O’Herlihy, Manny Fraker is the type of seemingly indestructible bad guy who can actually give Paul Kersey a challenge, something that was missing from the previous films.

The other thing that distinguishes Death Wish 3 is that it was one the only film in the franchise to directly confront an obvious truth.  Charles Bronson was 53 when the first Death Wish was released.  By the time he made Death Wish 3, he was 64 and decades older than the typical action star.  (As way of comparison, Clint Eastwood was 55 when Death Wish 3 was released and was already experimenting with less action-orientated roles.)  By partnering him with Martin Balsam and the other elderly residents of the neighborhood, Death Wish 3 not only acknowledged Bronson’s advanced age but also took advantage of it.  Death Wish 3 is a film where the old folks finally get to teach the young punks a thing or two.  If the other Death Wish films were about one man fighting a lonely war, Death Wish 3 is about a community refusing to be silenced.  The chance to put those kids in their place even seems to perk up Charles Bronson, who gives one of his best performances in Death Wish 3.

Death Wish 3 may have been roundly despised by the critics but it’s the best of the Death Wish sequels.  It made a fortune at the box office so naturally, another sequel would follow.

Tomorrow: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown!

Horror Film Review: The Sentinel (dir by Michael Winner)


Here’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from watching the 1977 horror film, The Sentinel:

Even in the 1970s, the life of a model was not an easy one.

Take Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) for instance.  She should have everything but instead, she’s a neurotic mess.  Haunted by a traumatic childhood, she has attempted to commit suicide twice and everyone is always worried that she’s on the verge of having a breakdown.  As a model, she’s forced to deal with a bunch of phonies.  One of the phonies is played by Jeff Goldblum.  Because he’s Goldblum, you suspect that he has to have something up his sleeve but then it turns out that he doesn’t.  I get that Jeff Goldblum probably wasn’t a well-known actor when he appeared in The Sentinel but still, it’s incredibly distracting when he suddenly shows up and then doesn’t really do anything.

Alison has a fiancée.  His name is Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and I figured out that he had to be up to no good as soon as he appeared.  For one thing, he has a pornstache.  For another thing, he’s played by Chris Sarandon, an actor who is best known for playing the vampire in the original Fright Night and Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Michael’s previous wife died under mysterious circumstances.  NYPD Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) suspects that Michael may have killed her.

(That’s right.  Christopher Walken is in this movie but, much like Jeff Goldblum, he doesn’t get to do anything interesting.  How can a movie feature two of the quirkiest actors ever and then refuse to give them a chance to act quirky?)

Maybe Alison’s life will improve now that she has a new apartment.  It’s a really nice place and her real estate agent is played by Ava Gardner.  Alison wants to live on her own for a while.  She loves Michael but she needs to find herself.  Plus, it doesn’t help that Michael has a pornstache and may have killed his wife…

Unfortunately, as soon as Alison moves in, she starts having weird dreams and visions and all the usual stuff that always happens in movies like this.  She also discovers that she has a lot of eccentric neighbors, all of whom are played by semi-familiar character actors.  For instance, eccentric old Charles (Burgess Meredith) is always inviting her to wild parties.  Her other two neighbors (played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) are lesbians, which the film presents as being the height of shocking decadence.  At first, Alison likes her neighbors but they make so much noise!  Eventually, she complains to Ava Gardner.  Ava replies that Alison only has one neighbor and that neighbor is neither Burgess Meredith nor a lesbian.

Instead, he’s a blind priest who spends all day sitting at a window.  He’s played by John Carradine, who apparently had a few hours to kill in 1977.

But it doesn’t stop there!  This movie is full of actors who will be familiar to anyone who enjoys watching TCM.  Along with those already mentioned, we also get cameos from Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tom Berenger.  There are 11 Oscar nominees wasted in this stupid film.  (Though, in all fairness, Christopher Walken’s nomination came after The Sentinel.)

Personally, The Sentinel bugged me because it’s yet another horror movie that exploits Catholic iconography while totally misstating church dogma.  However, the main problem with The Sentinel is that it’s just so incredibly boring.  I own it on DVD because I went through a period where I basically bought every horror film that could I find.  I’ve watched The Sentinel a handful of times and somehow, I always manage to forget just how mind-numbingly dull this movie really is.  There’s a few scary images but mostly, it’s just Burgess Meredith acting eccentric and Chris Sarandon looking mildly annoyed.  If you’ve ever seen Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen, you’ll figure out immediately what’s going on but The Sentinel still insists on dragging it all out.  Watching this movie is about as exciting as watching an Amish blacksmith shoe a horse.

There’s a lot of good actors in the film but it’s obvious that most of them just needed to pick up a paycheck.  I’ve read a lot of criticism of Cristina Raines’s lead performance but I actually think she does a pretty good job.  It’s not her acting that’s at fault.  It’s the film’s stupid script and lackluster direction.

Halloween Havoc!: GOD TOLD ME TO (New World 1976)


cracked rear viewer

God Told Me To (1976) aka Demon Directed by Larry Cohen Shown: Poster Art

Last year during “Halloween Havoc!”, I took a look at writer/director/producer Larry Cohen’s cult classic IT’S ALIVE . This time around, it’s GOD TOLD ME TO, a  creepily twisted tale tackling mass murder, aliens, Catholicism, and the nature of God himself that could’ve only been made in the paranoiac 70’s, and may be Cohen’s best film.

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There’s a sniper on a rampage in New York City perched atop a water tower. Fourteen people are dead, and police have the scene surrounded. Det. Lt. Peter Nicholas, a devout Catholic who was orphaned as a child and goes to confession daily,  climbs the ladder in hopes of engaging the shooter before he kills again. When Nicholas asks the killer why he’s caused all this carnage, the man simply replies, “God told me to”, then jumps off the tower, plunging to his doom.

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This stage the stage for more bizarre mayhem, starting with a…

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44 Days of Paranoia #15: God Told Me To (dir by Larry Cohen)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, I want to take a look at the underrated horror/sci-fi/paranoia film, God Told Me To.

This film was first released in 1976. At the time of that initial theatrical run, the film was called God Told Me To Kill. That title proved to be rather controversial and the film was promptly pulled from circulation and then re-released under the new title of Demon. However, since Demon was such a painfully generic title, the name change didn’t do much to help the movie at the box office and, again, it was yanked from circulation and the title was changed for a third time.  Under the name God Told Me To, the film was once again re-released.

Not surprisingly, given this chaotic release history, God Told Me To never quite got the attention that it deserved. Over the years, the film has developed a cult following among those (like me) who have discovered the film on DVD or Blu-ray.  But God Told Me To still remains something of an unknown film.

In God Told Me To, Tony LoBianco gives an excellent performance as Peter Nicholas, a tough New York police detective and devout Catholic.  As the film starts, Nicolas is burned out on his job. He’s separated from his mentally unstable wife (played by Sandy Dennis) but can’t bring himself to divorce her and marry his girlfriend (Deborah Raffin) because it would go against his religious beliefs.

Nicholas finds himself investigating a serious of seemingly random murders that all have two things in common.  First, the murderers are all “average” people, the types who would you never expect to commit such terrible crimes.  Secondly, when captured, each murderer dismisses his crimes by explaining, “God told me to.”  As Nicholas investigates, he discovers that every murderer can be linked with a mysterious figure named Bernard Phillips (played the late, great Richard Lynch).

Nicholas’ investigation leads him to discover that Phillips was the product of a virgin birth, causing Nicholas to both question his own religious faith and to wonder wither or not Phillips is just another crazy cult leader or if he might be God himself…

And that’s about all I can tell you without running the risk of totally spoiling the film.  Let’s just say that God Told Me To is one of those films where nothing is quite as it seems.  Since the film establishes early on that literally anyone could be a potential killer, the viewer is forced to watch every character who wanders through the scene, looking for any hint that he or she is about to snap.  This is a film that keeps you off-balance and, unlike a lot of horror films, it  features a twist that’s both plausible and unexpected.

God Told Me To was directed by Larry Cohen, an exploitation veteran who has been responsible for some of the most thought-provoking B-movies in cinematic history. Like many of Cohen’s films, God Told Me To is something of a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.  Both Peter Nicholas and Bernard Phillips prove to be fascinating characters and, during the film’s final third, Cohen takes both of them in unexpected directions.

God Told Me To is one of those films that every fan of horror and cult cinema should see at least once. If you haven’t seen it, now is the perfect time for you to discover it for yourself.

Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind