Horror on the Lens: The Screaming Woman (dir by Jack Smight)


Today’s horror on the lens is The Screaming Woman, a 1972 made-for-TV movie that’s based on a Ray Bradbury short story.

Olivia de Havilland plays Laura Wynant, who has just returned home from a stay at a mental institution.  Soon after her arrival, Laura starts to hear a woman crying for help.  Laura becomes convinced that the woman has been buried alive on her property but, because of her debilitating arthritis, she can’t dig the woman up on her own.  And, because of her own mental history, no one believes her when she tries to tell them about what she’s hearing!

The Screaming Woman features screen legend Olivia De Havilland giving a sympathetic performance as Laura.  It also features two other luminaries of the golden age of Hollywood — Joseph Cotten and Walter Pidgeon — in supporting roles.  It’s a good little thriller so watch and enjoy!

(And of course, I should mention that the great Olivia De Havilland is still with us, 103 years old and living in France.)

A Movie A Day #325: Damnation Alley (1977, directed by Jack Smight)


Anyone who has seen Damnation Alley knows that the only thing that matters is the Landmaster.

Damnation Alley has a slight plot.  A nuclear war has knocked the Earth off of its axis.  The skies are green and purple.  The scorpions are huge and the cockroaches eat humans.  Crazed survivors are living like savages, attacking anyone that they come across.  When a radio signal seems to indicate that there might still be civilization in Albany, four military men (George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield, and Kip Niven) decide to drive across the country to check it out.  To reach Albany, they will have to cross an inhospitable stretch of land called Damnation Alley.  They will be making the journey in two Landmasters, amphibious vehicles that provide RV comfort with the extra advantage of a rocket launcher.  Along the way, they fight scorpions, roaches, and pick up some extra passengers (Dominique Sanda and Jackie Earle Haley).

The radioactive sky looks cool but otherwise, the scorpions and the cockroaches are all obviously fake and no one in the cast makes any effort to do more than recite their lines.  But no one who has watched Damnation Alley cares about any of that.  We just want to drive a Landmaster.

There is nothing that the Landmaster cannot do.  It  can speed across desert sand.  It can tear up city streets.  It can break through walls.  It can turn into a boat.  It can fire missiles.  It also appears to be bigger on the inside than the outside, just like the TARDIS.  Either that or whoever did the set design for Damnation Alley was not detail-oriented.

Despite the awe-inspiring Landmaster, Damnation Alley was neither a critical nor a box office hit.  It was one of two science fiction films released by 20th Century Fox in 1977.  The other one was Star Wars, which was a good movie but didn’t have a Landmaster.

As for the Landmaster itself, it currently resides in California and has appeared in a handful of other movies.  Sadly, it missed out on the opportunity to appear in any of the Smoky and the Bandit movies.  Burt Reynolds driving a Landmaster?  That would have been box office gold.

Right, Burt?

A Movie A Day #308: Number One With A Bullet (1987, directed by Jack Smight)


Number One With A Bullet is the story of two cops.  Nick Barzack (Robert Carradine) is so crazy that the all criminals have nicknamed “Beserk.”  (Who says criminals aren’t clever?)  Nick’s partner, Frank Hazeltine (Billy Dee Williams) is so smooth that jazz starts to play whenever he steps into a room.  Nick keeps a motorcycle in his living room, wants to get back together with his wife (Valerie Bertinelli), and has an overprotective mother (Doris Roberts).  Hazeltine is Billy Dee Williams so all he has to worry about is being the coolest man on Earth.  Their captain (Peter Graves!) may want them to do things by the book but Nick and Hazeltine are willing to throw the book out if it means taking down DaCosta, a so-called respectable citizen who they think is actually the city’s biggest drug lord.

It is natural to assume that, because of the whole crazy white cop/centered black cop storyline, this movie was meant to be a rip-off of a well-known film starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover but actually, Number One With A Bullet was released a week before Lethal Weapon.  As well, while Carradine’s Nick is almost as crazy as Mel Gibson’s Riggs, it is impossible to imagine Billy Dee Williams ever saying that he’s “too old for this shit.”  Williams is having too good a time listening to jazz and picking up women.  Whenever Hazeltine shows up, Number One With A Bullet feels like a Colt 45 commercial that somehow costars Robert Carradine.  Whenever the film is just Carradine, it feels like an unauthorized sequel to Revenge of the Nerds where Lewis gets really, really pissed off.

Number One With A Bullet is a Cannon film and entertaining in the way that most late 80s Cannon films are.  There is a lot of action, a little skin, and some dated comedy, much of it featuring Robert Carradine having to dress in drag.  There is also a mud wrestling scene because I guess mud wrestling was extremely popular back in the 80s.  They may not be Gibson and Glover but Carradine and Williams still make a good team and they both seem to be having a ball.  For fans of cheap 80s action films, there is a lot to enjoy in Number One With A Bullet.

Insomnia File #26: Rabbit Run (dir by Jack Smight)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, at one in the morning on Wednesday, you were suffering from insomnia, you could have turned over to TCM and watched the 1970 film, Rabbit Run.  That’s what I did.

Rabbit Run is the epitome of a dumb lug film.  In a dumb lug film, a male character finds himself living an unfulfilling life but he can’t figure out the reason.  Why can’t he figure it out?  Because he’s a dumb lug, with the emphasis on dumb.  Usually, the viewer is supposed to sympathize with the dumb lug because he doesn’t mean to hurt anyone and everyone else in his world is somehow even more annoying than he is.  Typically, the dumb lug will have an emotionally distant wife who refuses to have sex with him and who is usually portrayed as being somehow at fault for everything bad that has happened in the dumb lug’s face.  (Want to see a more recent dumb lug film than Rabbit Run?  American Beauty.)  Ever since the silent era, there have been dumb lug films.  In particular, male filmmakers and critics seem to love dumb lug films because they allow them to pat themselves on the back for admitting to being dumb while, at the same time, assuring them that everything is the fault of the wife or the girlfriend or the mother or the mother-in-law.

In Rabbit Run, the dumb lug is named Harry Angstrom (James Caan), though most people still remember him as Rabbit, the high school basketball star.  Harry’s life peaked in high school.  Now, he’s 28 and he can’t hold down a job.  He’s married to Janice (Carrie Snodgress), who spends all of her time drinking and watching TV.  He has a son and another baby is on the way.  One day, when the pregnant Janice asks him to go out and get her a pack of cigarettes, Harry responds by getting in his car and driving all the way from Pennsylvania to Virginia.

When he returns to Pennsylvania, Rabbit doesn’t go back to his wife.  Instead, he drops in on his former basketball coach (Jack Albertson) and begs for advice on what he should do.  The coach, it turns out, is more than little creepy.  He also has absolutely no practical advise to give.  He does introduce Rabbit to a part-time prostitute named Ruth (Anjanette Comer).  Rabbit quickly decides that he’s in love with Ruth and soon, he’s moved in with her.

Meanwhile, there’s all sorts of little things going on.  Rabbit gets a job working as a gardener.  Rabbit befriends the local Episcopal minister (Arthur Hill), even while the minister’s cynical wife (Melodie Johnson) tries to tempt Rabbit away from both his wife and his mistress.  Rabbit both resents and envies the sexual freedom of the counter culture, as represented by his younger sister.  And, of course, Janice is pregnant…

Rabbit Run is based on a highly acclaimed novel by John Updike.  I haven’t read the novel so I can’t compare it to the film, beyond pointing out that many great works of literature have been turned into mediocre movies, largely because the director never found a way to visually translate whatever it was that made the book so memorable in the first place.  Rabbit Run was directed by Jack Smight, who takes a rather frantic approach to the material.  Since Rabbit Run is primarily a character study, it needed a director who would be willing to get out of the way and let the actors dominate the film.  Instead, Smight overdirects, as if he was desperately trying to prove that he could keep up with all the other trendy filmmakers.  The whole movie is full of extreme close-ups, abrupt jump cuts, intrusive music, and delusions of ennui.  You find yourself wishing that someone had been willing to grab Smight and shout, “Calm down!”

(On the plus side, as far as the films of 1970 are concerned, Smight’s direction of Rabbit Run still isn’t as bad as Richard Rush’s direction of Gettting Straight.)

James Caan actually gives a likable performance as Rabbit, which is good because Rabbit would be totally unbearable if not played by an actor with at least a little genuine charisma.  There’s nothing subtle about Caan’s performance but he makes it work.  You never like Rabbit but, at the same time, you don’t hate him.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing subtle about the rest of the cast either.  Something rather tragic happens about 80 minutes into the film and, as much as I knew I shouldn’t, I still found myself giggling because Carrie Snodgress’s performance was so bad that it was impossible for me to take any of it seriously.  Even worse is Arthur Hill, as the minister who won’t stop trying to help Rabbit out.  I eventually reached the point where, every time that sanctimonious character started to open his mouth, I found myself hoping someone would hit him over the head and knock him out.  Among the major supporting players, only Anjanette Comer is allowed a chance to be something more than just a sterotype.  Like Caan, she does the best that she can but ultimately. this is James Caan’s movie.

It’s a disappointing movie but it did not put me to sleep.  Give credit for that to James Caan, who is the only reason to see Rabbit Run.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season

 

Horror On TV: Twilight Zone 2.17 “Twenty-Two”


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“Room for one more, honey!”

Agck!

This classic episode of the Twilight Zone originally aired on February 10th, 1961. It was written by Rod Serling, directed by Jack Smight, and stars Barbara Nichols.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes


Happy birthday, Ray Bradbury.

4 Shots From 4 Films

Fahrenheit 451 (1966, directed by Francois Truffaut)

Fahrenheit 451 (1966, directed by Francois Truffaut)

The Illustrated Man (1968, directed by Jack Smight)

The Illustrated Man (1968, directed by Jack Smight)

The Martian Chronicles (1980, directed by Michael Anderson)

The Martian Chronicles (1980, directed by Michael Anderson)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, directed by Jack Clayton)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, directed by Jack Clayton)

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #45: Double Indemnity (dir by Jack Smight)


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Nothing can make you appreciate a classic film more than by watching a really bad remake.  As proof, I would offer up the 1973 made-for-television version of the classic 1944 film Double Indemnity.  The original Double Indemnity is a classic example of film noir, one that remains intriguing and powerful over 70 years since it was first released.  The remake features the exact same plot as Double Indemnity and a few of the original’s scenes are recreated shot-by-shot but it just does not work.

Part of the problem is that the remake is in color.  In fact, since it was made in 1973 and for television, it’s in very bright and somewhat tacky color.  Bright and vibrant doesn’t work for film noir.  You need the shadows and the visual ambiguities that are unique to black-and-white.  If the original Double Indemnity was full of secrets and mysteries, the remake is all on the surface.  There are no secrets to be found in this remake.

That goes for the cast as well.  In the original, Fred MacMurray made Walter Neff into the epitome of the bored, post-war American male.  You watched him with a certain sick fascination, trying to figure out what was going on behind the blandly friendly facade.  In the remake, you know that Richard Crenna is a serpent from the minute he first appears.  If MacMurray’s Walter was motivated by ennui, Crenna’s Walter is just bad and therefore, far less interesting.  Meanwhile, in the role of Phyllis, Samantha Eggar has none of Barbara Stanwyck’s ferocious determination.  Instead, Eggar’s performance is curiously refined (which is another way to say boring).

Probably the most interesting thing about the remake of Double Indemnity is that the role of Keyes is played by Lee J. Cobb.  Cobb actually gives a pretty good performance and, unlike Crenna and Eggar, he’s actually entertaining to watch.  In the original film, Keyes was played by Edward G. Robinson and was roughly around the same age as Walter.  They were contemporaries and friends and that made the original’s ending all the more poignant.  In the remake, Cobb is quite a bit older than Crenna and, as a result, their relationship feels more paternalistic.  It’s almost as if Crenna is the prodigal son who has betrayed his father and who tells his story as a way of begging for forgiveness.

But that’s probably reading too much into the remake!  For the most part, the remake of Double Indemnity is bland and boring.  The best thing about it is that it’ll make you love the original even more.

As for how I ended up watching the remake of Double Indemnity, it was included as an extra on my DVD of the original.  Watching them back-to-back, as I did, really serves to make you appreciate Billy Wilder as a filmmaker.

Ghosts of Christmas Past #4: Twilgiht Zone Ep. 47 “Night of The Meek” (dir by Jack Smight)


A Christmas episode of the Twilight Zone?  Yes, such a thing does exist.  In Night of the Meek, an unemployed man (Art Carney) is given a chance to be Santa Claus.  This is a wonderful episode that truly captures the spirit of the season.

Night of the Meek was written by Rod Serling and directed by Jack Smight.  It was originally broadcast on December 23rd, 1960.

Horror On TV: Twlight Zone Ep. 54 “Twenty-Two”


Tonight’s televised horror story is Twenty-Two, the fifty-fourth episode of The Twilight Zone.

First broadcast on February 10th, 1961 and written by Rod Serling, Twenty-Two tells the story of a dancer (Barbara Nichols) who is in the hospital, suffering from fatigue.  As she tries to recover and get out of the hospital in time to catch a flight to Miami, Nichols finds herself having a reoccurring nightmare.  In her dreams, Nichols goes down to the morgue and is told, by a smiling nurse, “Room for one more, honey.”

This episode seriously freaks me out!  Perhaps it’s because I’m a dancer who, in the past, has suffered from fatigue or maybe it’s because I’m scared of flying but this episode scares me to death.  Though the episode’s final twist may have been spoiled by far too many inferior imitations, Twenty-Two, as directed by Jack Smight, manages to perfectly capture the feel of a nightmare.

It’s the perfect episode for an October night.

Film Reviews: The Airport Terminal Pack


 Sometimes, you have to be careful which films you choose to watch over the course of the day. 

Such as, last Friday night, I heard the news that Jill Clayburgh had died and I ended up watching An Unmarried Woman.  This, along with the fact that I also watched the Black Swan trailer, led to me dancing around the house in my underwear, en pointe in bare feet, and doing a half-assed pirouette in the living room.  And I felt pretty proud of myself until I woke up Saturday morning and my ankle (which I don’t think has ever properly healed from the day, seven years ago, that I fell down a flight of stairs and broke it in two places) literally felt like it was on fire.  That was my body’s way of saying, “You ain’t living in a movie, bitch.  Deal with it.”

So, come Sunday, I decided to play it safe by watching something that I was sure wouldn’t lead to any imitative behavior on my part.  Since I had previously reviewed Earthquake on this site, I decided that I would devote some time to the movies that started the entire 1970s disaster movie genre — Airport.  Watching Airport led to me watching Airport’s three sequels.

I was able to do this largely because I own the Airport Terminal Pack, a two-disk DVD collection that contains all four of the Airport films and nothing else.  There’s no special features or commentary tracks.  That’s probably a good thing because these films are so extremely mainstream that I doubt the commentary tracks would be all that interesting except to people who love “Me and Jennings Lang had the same lawyer…” style stories.

The movies are a mixed bag of ’70s sexism, mainstream greed, and casts that were described as being “all-star” despite the fact that they featured very few stars.  They’re all worth watching as time capsules of a past time.  Some of them are just more worthy than others.

Below are my thoughts on each individual film in the collection…

Airport (directed by George Seaton)

First released in 1970, Airport was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including best picture), broke box office records, and started the whole 70s disaster movie trend.  It also has to be one of the most boring, borderline unwatchable movies ever made.  The fact that I managed to sit through the whole thing should be taken as proof that I’m either truly dedicated to watching movies or I’m just insane.  Take your pick.

Anyway, the film is painstakingly detailed account of the every day operations of an airport.  Yeah, sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?  Burt Lancaster runs the airport.  His brother-in-law Dean Martin flies airplanes.  Both of them have mistresses but we’re told that’s okay because Lancaster’s wife expects him to talk to her and Martin’s wife is cool with him fucking around as long as he comes home at night.  I would be tempted to say that this is a result of the film having been made in 1969 and released in 1970 but actually, it’s just an introduction to the sexual politics of the typical disaster film.  Men save the day while women get in the way.  And if you think things have changed, I’d suggest you watch a little film calledf 2012

The only interesting thing about the film is that Lancaster’s mistress is played by Jean Seberg who, ten years earlier, had helped change film history by co-starring in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film Breathless.  Nine years later, after years of being hounded by the American press and the FBI for her radical politics, Seberg committed suicide.

Airport 1975 (directed by Jack Smight)

As opposed to its predecessor, Airport 1975 is actually a lot of fun in its campy, silly way.  This is the one where a small private plane (flown by Dana Andrews, the star of the wonderful film noir Laura) collides with a commercial airliner.  The entire flight crew is taken out and head stewardess Karen Black has to pilot the plane despite the fact that she’s obviously cross-eyed.  Luckily, since Black is a stewardess, she has a pilot boyfriend who is played by Charlton Heston.  Heston talks her through the entire flight despite the fact that she was earlier seen trying to pressure him into not treating her like an idiot.  Anyway, Heston does his usual clench-jaw thing and if you need a drinking game to go with your bad movie, just take a shot every time Heston calls Black “honey.”  You’ll be drunk before the plane lands.

There’s some other stuff going on in this movie (for instance, Gloria Swanson appears as “herself” and doesn’t mention Sunset Boulevard or Joseph Kennedy once!) but really, all you need to know is that this is the film where Karen Black acts up a storm and random characters keep saying, “The stewardess is flying the plane!?”

Odd trivia fact: Airport 1975 was released in 1974.

Airport ’77 (directed by Jerry Jameson)

In Airport ’77, a group of art thieves attempt to hijack an airplane which, of course, leads to the airplane crashing into the ocean and somehow sinking down to the ocean’s floor without splitting apart.  The crash survivors have to try to figure out how to get to the surface of the water before they run out of oxygen. 

In this case, our resident sexist pilot is Jack Lemmon who has a really ugly mustache.  He wants to marry head stewardess Brenda Vaccarro.  Vaccarro doesn’t understand why they have to get married to which Lemmon responds, “Because I want a wife and kids!”  The film also gives us Lee Grant as a woman who is married to Christopher Lee but who is having an affair with another man.  She also drinks a lot and dares to get angry when she realizes that the airplane is underwater.  While this sort of behavior is acceptable from Dean Martin, Charlton Heston, and Jack Lemmon, the film punishes Lee Grant by drowning her in the final minutes.

Technically, Airport ’77 is probably the best of the Airport films.  The cast does a pretty good job with all the melodrama, the film doesn’t drag, and a few of the scenes manage to generate something resembling human emotion.  (For instance, when the blind piano player died, I had a tear in one of my freaky, mismatched eyes.)  Unfortunately, the movie’s almost too good.  It’s not a lot of fun.  Everyone plays their roles straight so the silly plot never quite descends into camp and the key to a good disaster film is always camp.  This film also has the largest body count of the series, with most of the cast dead by the end of the movie.  (And, incidentally, this film did nothing to help me with my fear of water…)

The Concorde: Airport ’79 (directed by David Lowell Rich)

The last Airport movie is also the strangest.  Some people have claimed that this film was meant to be a satire of the previous Airport films.  I can understand the argument because you look at film like Concorde and you say, “This must be a joke!”  However, the problem with this theory is that there are moments of obvious “intentional” humor in this film (i.e., J.J. from Good Times smokes weed in the plane’s bathroom, another passenger has to go to the bathroom whenever she gets nervous) and none of them show any evidence of the type of wit and outlook necessary to come up with anything this silly on purpose.  Add to that, the film’s story is credited to Jennings Lang, a studio executive.  Studio execs do not take chances.  (Plus, the actual script was written by Eric Roth, who went on to write the amazingly humorless The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

No, this film is meant to be taken seriously and oh my God, where do I start?

Our pilots are George Kennedy and Alain Delon.  The head stewardess (and naturally, Delon’s girlfiend) is played by Sylvia “Emanuelle” Kristel who, at one point, says, “You pilots are such men!”  “Hey, they don’t call it a cockpit for nothing, honey,” Kennedy replies. 

Meanwhile, Robert Wagner is trying to destroy the Concorde because one of the passengers is his girlfriend who has proof that Wagner has been selling weapons to America’s enemies.  So, he attempts to blow the plane up with a guided missile and when that fails, he sends a couple of fighter planes after them.  Kennedy responds by opening up the cockpit window — while breaking the sound barrier mind you — and firing a flare gun at their pursuers.  

After this, there’s stop over in Paris where Delon arranges for Kennedy to sleep with a prostitute who assures Kennedy that he made love “just like a happy fish.”

The next day, everyone returns to the exact same Concorde — despite the fact that just a day earlier they’d nearly been blown up by a squadron of fighter planes — and take off on the second leg of the flight.  Let me repeat that just to make sure that we all understand what this film is asking us to believe.  After nearly getting blown up by a mysterious squad of fighter planes, everybody shows up the next morning to get on the exact same plane.

Oh, and it never occurs to Wagner’s ex-girlfriend that Wagner might have something to do with all of this.

Now sad to say, Concorde is the one of those films that’s a lot more fun to talk about than to actually watch.  It should be a lot more fun in its badness than it actually is.  Still, the movie has just enough camp appeal to make it fun in a “what the fuck…” sorta way.

And that’s how the Airport series comes to an end.