Horror Film Review: Witchboard (dir by Kevin Tenney)


Oh my God, what is the thing with Ouija boards in movies?

Seriously, nothing good ever comes from using one.  I have seen hundreds of movies featuring people foolishly using Ouija boards and, without fail, it always seems to lead to someone getting possessed by an evil spirit and then killing all of their friends.  Whenever I see anyone using a Ouija board in a movie, I always want to ask them if they’ve never seen a horror movie before.

Then again, despite knowing all the of the terrible things that can happen as a result, I have had a few Ouija board experiences.  For instance, when I was like 13, I asked a Ouija board if a boy named Diego liked my friend Jenny.  The board replied that Diego liked me and Jenny needed to deal with it.  Jenny accused me of manipulating the pointer and basically never spoke to me again but I suppose that’s better than either one of us getting possessed by a homicidal spirit.  Myself, I don’t even believe in ghosts but I still find it difficult to resist a séance.

I guess my point is that it’s easy to laugh at movie characters who foolishly use Ouija boards but the main reason were laughing is because we know that we’re just as stupid as they are.

I recently watched one of the better Ouija board movies, 1988’s Witchboard.  It’s about an angry spirit that might be named David, a skeptic named Jim (Todd Allen), a believer named Brandon (Stephen Nichols), and the woman who they both love, Linda (Tawny Kitaen).  When I watched the movie, I immediately related to Linda, mostly because we both have red hair and everyone in the kept talking about how Linda hardly ever curses.  That’s pretty much the way I am too, though there are exceptions.  For instance, on Monday, the internet was down for 12 hours and I cursed up a storm.  Linda, meanwhile, starts cursing after she has a bad experience with a Ouija board.

Jim (who is Linda’s current boyfriend) and Brandon (who is Linda’s ex) spend a lot of time debating who is to blame for Linda potentially getting possessed.  Personally, I hold them both responsible.  Brandon is the one who brought his Ouija board to Jim and Linda’s party.  Brandon is also the one who contacts the spirit of a boy named David.  At the same time, Jim’s the one who insulted the spirit, which led to Brandon’s tires getting slashed and Brandon storming out of the party.  Brandon left behind his Ouija board, which Linda then used unsupervised.  (Apparently, that’s something you should never do.)  Basically, Jim and Brandon came together to form a perfect storm of testosterone-driven incompetence in this movie.

Soon, people are dying and Linda’s acting weird.  When one of Jim’s friends is killed in a construction accident, Linda is upset to see that Jim didn’t even cry.  Brandon informs her that Jim has “ice water in his veins.”  For his part, Jim just wants to know why Linda is suddenly using so much profanity.  Brandon brings in a medium named Zarabeth (played by Kathleen Wilhoite), who is one of those extremely flamboyant and outspoken characters that you’ll either totally love or thoroughly hate.  (Personally, I liked the character.  Even if she was somewhat annoying, she brought a jolt of life to the film.)  Zarabeth attempts to exorcise the spirit of David and ends up getting tossed out a window as a result.

It’s tempting to just shrug and say, “Well, this is what happens when you mess around with the spirit world,” but Witchboard actually does a pretty good job of developing its characters and getting you to care about what happens to them.  The fact that Jim and Brandon are both in love with Linda adds a bit of unexpected depth to the film’s story.  Does Brandon really believe that Linda is being stalked by a spirit or is he just trying to win her back for himself?  Even the seemingly throw-away detail about Jim’s emotional reticence pays off later in the movie.  And, when that evil spirit does finally actually make a physical appearance, he’s just as creepy as you would hope he would be.

Witchboard is a definitely a film that will be appreciated by anyone who has ever used a Ouija board and felt kind of nervous about it afterwards.

A Movie A Day #177: Murphy’s Law (1986, directed by J. Lee Thompson)


What is Murphy’s Law?

Let’s ask LAPD Detective Jack Murphy.

“Don’t fuck with Jack Murphy.”

Normally, having a law named after you would be pretty cool but it appears that this is just a law that Jack came up with himself.  Having to come up with your own law is kind of like having to come up with your own nickname.  Dude, it’s just lame.  Since Jack Murphy is played Charles Bronson, we can cut him some slack.

Murphy’s Law was one of the many film that, towards the end of his career, Bronson made for Cannon Films.  He played a detective in almost all of them.  Jack Murphy is Dirty Harry without the fashion sense.  He is also an alcoholic who cannot get over his ex-wife (Angel Tompkins) and her decision to become a stripper.  Not only has Murphy managed to piss off his superiors with his bad attitude but the mob is out to get him.  Everyone has forgotten Murphy’s Law.  Everyone is fucking with Jack Murphy.

Jack’s main problem, though, is Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress).  Years ago, Murphy sent Joan to prison for murder but, because it’s California and Jerry Brown appointed all of the judges, Joan gets out after just a few years.  Joan starts to systematically murder everyone that Murphy knows, framing Murphy for the murders.  Murphy’s arrested by his fellow cops, all of whom need a refresher on Murphy’s Law.  Though handcuffed to a young thief (Kathleen Wilhoite), Murphy escapes from jail and set off to remind everyone why you don’t fuck with Jack Murphy.

Murphy’s Law is a typical Cannon Bronson film: low-budget, ludicrously violent, borderline incoherent, so reactionary than it makes the Dirty Harry films look liberal, and, if you’re a fan of Charles Bronson, wildly entertaining.  Bronson was 65 years old when he played Jack Murphy so he cannot be blamed for letting his stunt double do most of the work in this movie.  What’s interesting is that, for once, Bronson is not the one doing most of the killing.  Instead, it is Carrie Snodgress, in the role of Joan Freeman, who gets to murder nearly the entire cast.  There is nothing subtle about Snodgress’s demonic performance, which makes it perfect for a Cannon-era Bronson film.  In fact, Carrie Snodgress gives one of the best villainous performances in the entire Bronson filmography.  There is never any doubt that Snodgress is capable of killing even the mighty Charles Bronson, which makes Murphy’s Law a little more suspenseful than most of the movies that Bronson made in the 80s.

Whatever else can be said about Murphy’s Law, it does feature one of Bronson’s best one liners.  When Joan threatens to send him to Hell, Murphy replies, without missing a beat, “Ladies first.”  Only Bronson could make a line like that sound cool.  That’s Bronson’s Law.

TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.8 “Drive With A Dead Girl” (dir by Caleb Deschanel)


“In our world, he’s a shoe salesman and lives among the shadows.”

— Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in Twin Peaks 2.8 “Drive With a Dead Girl”

As always, this episode of Twin Peaks starts with the opening credits and, after 15 episodes, Angelo Badalamenti’s theme music has never sounded more haunting and the images of life in Twin Peaks — that mix of machinery and nature — has never seemed more ominous.  Things that seemed quaintly beautiful when they were first seen — like the waterfall or that bird sitting in trees — now seem threatening.

The opening credits give us time to reflect on what we’ve seen so far.  We’ve seen the venal Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) repeatedly ignore his own family in the pursuit of money.  We’ve seen Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re) abuse his wife, Shelly (Madchen Amick).  As of the previous episode, we now know Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), previously one of the show’s most sympathetic characters, not only murdered and raped his own daughter but then killed his niece as well.

You have to wonder if Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) still considers Twin Peaks to be “heaven,” just because it’s a town where “a yellow light means slow down instead of speed up.”

We open with an exterior shot of the Palmer house.  We can hear Maddy (Sheryl Lee), once again, screaming for help.

The next morning, the Palmer house is quiet.  Inside the living room, the camera moves over several pictures of Laura.  One is of her as a child.  Another is that famous homecoming photo.  We hear the sound of Leland laughing and immediately notice that there seem to be a lot of golf balls on the floor.  The camera pulls back to show us Leland, wearing a suit and looking disturbing cheerful, practicing his golf swing.

James (James Marshall) and Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) knock on the front door.  They say that they came by to say goodbye to Maddy but Leland tells them that Maddy has already left.  He tells them that she thought they were going to come by the previous night and that she was a little bit disappointed that she didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to them.  Smiling like a father from a 1950s sitcom (and, at this point, it’s definitely not a coincidence that Twin Peaks, as a town, often seems to be a relic of a decade that is often thought of as being both “the good old days” and a symbol of repression), Leland says that they could write to her in Montana if they want.

(Today, Leland would never get away with this.  James and Donna would be texting Maddy like crazy.)

After James and Donna leave, Leland glances in a mirror and sees BOB (Frank Silva) staring back at him.  From upstairs, Mrs. Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), who apparently remembers nothing about the previous night, asks Leland to remember to sign them up for “Glenn Miller Night at the club.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” Leland says, with a big and creepy grin, “I won’t forget.”

Before leaving  for the club, Leland grabs his golf bag out of the closet.  Briefly, we catch a glimpse of Maddy, stuffed inside the bag.

(AGCK!  Seriously, Leland/BOB has got to be one of the scariest things ever.)

In his holding cell, Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) wins my sympathy by 1) being an innocent man accused of a terrible crime and 2) obsessively trying to wipe down the bars of his cell.  Seriously, that’s one reason why I could never handle being arrested.  Put me in one of the filthy cells and I can guarantee you that I’d do whatever I had to do to get out of there.

A cheerful Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) shows up to see Ben and I was happy that he did.  Jerry may be one of the most cartoonish characters on Twin Peaks (and that’s saying something!) but, after spending all that time with Leland/BOB, Jerry’s silliness is a relief.  Jerry has just returned from Japan and he even has a small Japanese flag pinned to his suit.

Jerry explains that, since Leland has been charged with murdering Jacques Renault, he will be handling Ben’s case personally.  (Of course, neither realizes that Leland is also responsible for the murder that Ben has been charged with.)  Unfortunately, Jerry doesn’t appear to be a very good attorney.

However, Jerry is impressed by the fact that Ben has bunk beds, which leads to an odd flashback of Ben and Jerry, as children, watching a woman named Louise Dombroski dancing in their bedroom while holding a flashlight.  (Even as children, Ben wore  suit and Jerry wore a bowtie.)

“Lord,” Jerry says, from the top bunk in Ben’s jail cell, “what’s become of us?”

Meanwhile, Lucy’s (Kimmy Robertson) back!  She shows up with her sister, Gwen (Kathleen Wilhoite), who is telling a long story involving a rusty nail and a purple toe.  (I tuned her out because rusty nails freak me out.)  Lucy asks Hawk (Michael Horse) if he’s seen Andy (Harry Goaz).  Gwen, meanwhile, worries that Hawk “must hate all of us white people after all that we’ve done to you.”

(Did I mention that Gwen had a crying baby with her and how much I was hoping that Gwen would only be around for a scene or two?  She’s kind of annoying.)

At the Great Northern, Harry (Michael Ontkean) and Cooper have just finished talking to the One-Armed Man.  As they walk past the lobby, they see Leland dancing with a golf club.

(Over the course of watching Twin Peaks, one thing that I’ve really grown to enjoy doing is spotting all of the strange guests who appear to stay at the Great Northern.  This episode, the guests appear to be a cross-section of gruff fishermen and Catholic schoolgirls.)

When Harry approaches Leland, Leland apologizes for creating a commotion with his dancing.  “Just call me Fred,” Leland says, which might be a reference to Fred Astaire but could just as easily be a reference to the fact that, at this point, Leland has been possessed for so long that it’s debatable whether Leland Palmer even exists at this point.  He’s either BOB or he’s Fred but he’s definitely not Leland.

Harry tells Leland that they’ve arrested Ben.  Leland says that they’re must be some sort of mistake but then promises Harry and Cooper that he will allow the law to handle it.  Leland stumbles out of the lobby.  As soon as he’s away from prying eyes, Leland starts to cry but then starts laughing.  He is nearly caught by Cooper, who steps up behind him and asks Leland to let him know if he can remember anything unusual about Ben’s behavior on the night of Laura’s death.

(Ray Wise, by the way, gives an absolutely amazing performance in this episode.  I don’t care if this episode aired nearly 30 years ago, give that man an Emmy.)

Harry and Cooper return to the sheriff’s station, where they watch as Doc Hayward (Warren Frost) draws blood from Ben’s finger.  (Twin Peaks was obviously made before DNA testing became commonplace.)

Jerry is there, protesting Ben’s treatment.  It’s obvious that everyone is enjoying making Ben’s life difficult, which actually makes me feel even more sorry for Ben.  Cooper reveals that Jerry graduated last in his class, passed the bar on his third attempt, and that his license has been revoked in several states.  Hey, Cooper — that’s fine and all but Jerry is absolutely right when he says that Ben is being deprived of his constitutional rights.

Cooper tosses Laura’s diary down in front of Ben, demanding to know if Ben knows what it is.  Cooper reads from the diary and tries to goad Ben into confessing.  It’s interesting to watch this scene because it’s hard not to feel that the normally upright Cooper has a hidden agenda here.  Cooper has become a father figure to Audrey and here’s his chance to get rid of Audrey’s actual father.  Twin Peaks is full of bad fathers, both literally and figuratively.

At the Johnson house, Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) listens to that microcassette that he found during the previous episode.  It’s a recording of Ben hiring Leo to burn down the Packard Mill.  Bobby is excite because this is his chance to blackmail Ben.  Meanwhile, Leo (Eric Da Re) spits up all over Shelly and her pretty blue nightgown.  BAD LEO!

At the Double R, Norma (Peggy Lipton) is shocked when her mother, Vivian, suddenly shows up!  Not only does Vivian appear to be rich but she’s played by Jane Greer, who starred in the classic film noir, Out of the Past.  By her presence alone, Greer serves to remind us of the huge debt that Twin Peaks has always owed to the conventions of film noir.

It turns out that Norma’s mom is very critical of both Norma’s cooking and Hank (Chis Mulkey).  It is also revealed that Norma’s mom has married a man named Ernie (James Booth), who appears to still be stuck in the 70s.

Norma says that she’s feeling nervous because there’s a food critic coming and that, with Shelly having quit to take care of Leo, she’s short of help.  “That’s why you made the place look nice,” her mom says.  (Passive aggressive for the win!)

At the Great Northern, the One-Armed Man (Al Strobel) wakes up when his armless shoulder starts to twitch.  “He’s close….” he says.  Unfortunately, the only other person in the room is a nurse and she doesn’t really seem to be paying attention.  The One-Armed Man asks her for a glass of water.  When she leaves the room, she passes a deputy.

Now, we’ve never seen this deputy before so I assume that he’s mostly there so he can be killed later on.  He walks into the One-Armed Man’s room and the One-Armed attacks him from behind.  Bye bye, Deputy Redshirt.  “I’m so sorry,” the One-Armed Man says before climbing out a window.

(Actually Deputy Redshirt is just knocked to the floor and doesn’t die but you can still be sure that this would never have happened to Hawk.)

Hank finally shows up at the Double R Diner, apologizing for being late.  It turns out that Hank has been missing for a few days.  Norma gets mad at Hank but seriously, Hank is the most charming ex-con in Twin Peaks.  Hank gets Norma to forgive him but then realizes that Vivian is working in the kitchen.  Uh-oh!

Pete (Jack Nance) comes by the sheriff’s office and catches Harry birdwatching.  As Pete talked to Harry, I noticed that Harry has a large picture of the other Harry S Truman — the mafia-connected President, old Give ‘Em Hell Harry — hanging in his office.  Pete tells Harry that Josie has left Twin Peaks.  Pete and Harry both talk about how they both loved Josie.  Harry laments that he stood there and watched as Josie left with her assistant.  Pete realizes that the “assistant” was probably Catherine in disguise.  The fact that Harry has yet to realize any of this gives us some insight into why the FBI has basically taken over the role of law enforcement in Twin Peaks.

Andy finally returns to the sheriff’s station and is shocked to see Lucy, holding Gwen’s baby.  Andy sees the baby and, assuming that Lucy somehow gave birth to a 4-month old baby over the weekend, he promptly faints.

Pete sneaks into the holding cells and plays a tape for Ben.  Ben listens to Catherine (Piper Laurie) explaining that she’s alive and that she remembers that Ben was with her on the night that Laura Palmer died.  Catherine is willing to provide an alibi but only if Ben signs over both the mill and Ghostwood Estates over to her.  Pete starts to giggle like a maniac.  (Pete!  I thought you were a nice guy!)  As an angry Ben tears apart his jail cell, another deputy that we’ve never seen before stares in at him.

Meanwhile, Leland is happily driving down a street.  He’s singing.  Sorry, I’m not going to look up which song that he’s singing.  He’d driving rather recklessly, which will certainly bring him to the attention of Cooper and Harry, who are currently driving along the same street.  Cooper is even whistling the same song that Leland is singing, a reminder that Cooper is not quite as upright as everyone thinks.  He has secrets of his own.

(I was tempted to point out that the scenes of Leland driving are shot in much the same way as the driving scenes in Lost Highway but, seeing as how David Lynch did not direct this episode, I’m going to assume it’s just a coincidence.  That said, Caleb Deschanel does a good job of recreating Lynch’s unique visual style throughout this episode.)

Just as I predicted, Leland nearly collides with Harry and Cooper.  They pull him over, right next to the golf course.  As the three of them talk, we hear the sound of golf balls being hit in the distance, and we are reminded that there is a golf bag in Leland’s trunk and that Maddy is currently in that bag.

Leland lies and says that, on the night Laura was murdered, Ben got a phone call and had an angry conversation with someone about a “dairy.”

“A diary?” Cooper corrects him.

“That could be!” Leland says.

Lucy calls for Harry.  While Harry goes back to the police cruiser, Leland asks Cooper if he’d like to see his new golf club.  Leland leads Cooper to the trunk of his car.  While he’s getting the club, Harry shouts that the One-Armed Man has been found.  Cooper looks away from Leland just as Leland sneaks up behind him with the golf club raised…

AGCK!

And yet, I have to admit that I laughed when I saw Leland about to bash the unsuspecting Cooper with that club.  It all comes down to Ray Wise’s brilliant performance as Leland/BOB.  Wise does such a good job of playing the role that we totally believe that he could successfully fool everyone in town.  We know that he was fully capable of killing Cooper at that moment but no one else would ever suspect such a thing to be true.  Even though everyone knows that he killed Jacques, everyone still thinks of him as being Leland Palmer, the somewhat goofy 1950s sitcom dad.

At the police station, Andy has recovered.  Gwen is talking to him about a time that she fainted in the produce section.  “People want terrible things to happen to you,” Gwen tells him, “I know.”  Meanwhile, Hawk leads the One-Armed Man through the police station.

In the interrogation room, Harry, Cooper, and Jerry watch as the One-Armed Man walks in a circle around Ben.  The One-Armed Man announces that “He’s been close but BOB is not here now!”  Jerry demands that Harry either charge Ben or let him go.  That may have been a mistake because Harry promptly steps forward and charges Ben with murdering Laura.

Cooper pulls Harry outside and says that they’re “saddling the horse before we’re ready to ride.”  Now, suddenly, Cooper thinks that Ben is innocent.  Harry tells Cooper that they can’t base the entire investigation on dreams and giants.  They need hard evidence and, what little evidence they have, all points to Ben Horne.

At the Great Northern, Vivian is eating dinner with Norma, Hank, and Ernie and critiquing all of the food.  OH MY GOD, could Vivian be M.T. Wentz!?  While Norma and Vivian excuse themselves to go to the ladies room, we discover that Hank and Ernie were in prison together.   Ernie used to be a gambler but he says that he’s “out of it” now.

That night, in his hotel room, Cooper talks into his tape recorder.  He says that Ben Horne is in custody and that the investigation is nearly done.  The trail, Cooper says, is narrowing but the last few steps are always the most difficult and dangerous.

Someone knocks on the door.  No surprise, it’s Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn).  She wants to come in and talk to the man who will be her new father figure if Ben is sent to prison.  Audrey asks if Cooper arrested her father.  Yep.  Did he do it?  That’s for a court to decide.  (Awww, Dale.  Your faith in the system is so touching, if misplaced.  Never change.)   Audrey says that all she ever wanted was for her father to love her and not be ashamed of her.

I watched that little scene with tears in my eyes, becoming so overcome with emotion that it was a bit of a relief when Cooper’s phone rang.  After answering it, a suddenly alarmed Cooper orders Audrey to go back to her room and lock the door.

At the waterfall, the police are in full force.  Maddy’s body, wrapped in plastic, has been found.

Between Ray Wise’s brilliant performance and that haunting final shot of Maddy, this episode left me exhausted.  As uneven as the second season was, this episode (and the one that preceded it) are as strong as anything seen during the first season.

 

Previous Entries in The TSL’s Look At Twin Peaks:

  1. Twin Peaks: In the Beginning by Jedadiah Leland
  2. TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.1 — The Pilot (dir by David Lynch) by Lisa Marie Bowman
  3. TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.2 — Traces To Nowhere (directed by Duwayne Dunham) by Jedadiah Leland
  4. TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.3 — Zen, or the Skill To Catch A Killer (dir by David Lynch) by Lisa Marie Bowman
  5. TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.4 “Rest in Pain” (dir by Tina Rathbone) by Leonard Wilson
  6. TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.5 “The One-Armed Man” (directed by Tim Hunter) by Jedadiah Leland
  7. TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.6 “Cooper’s Dreams” (directed by Lesli Linka Glatter) by Lisa Marie Bowman
  8. TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.7 “Realization Time” (directed by Caleb Deschanel) by Lisa Marie Bowman
  9. TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.8 “The Last Evening” (directed by Mark Frost) by Leonard Wilson
  10. TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.1 “May the Giant Be With You” (dir by David Lynch) by Leonard Wilson
  11. TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.2 “Coma” (directed by David Lynch) by Jedadiah Leland
  12. TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.3 “The Man Behind The Glass” (directed by Lesli Linka Glatter) by Jedadiah Leland
  13. TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.4 “Laura’s Secret Diary” (dir by Todd Holland) by Lisa Marie Bowman
  14. TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.5 “The Orchid’s Curse” (dir by Graeme Clifford) by Lisa Marie Bowman
  15. TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.6 “Demons” (dir by Lesli Linka Glatter) by Leonard Wilson
  16. TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.7 “Lonely Souls” (directed by David Lynch) by Jedadiah Leland

 

 

 

Back to School Part II #18: Not My Kid (dir by Michael Tuchner)


Not_my_kid

Not My Kid, a made-for-television from 1985, opens with 15 year-old Susan Bower (Viveka Davis) in a car with her friends.  They’re drunk.  They’re stoned.  They’re laughing.  And soon, they’re screaming as the driver loses control and the car ends up getting overturned!  (I’ve had that happen before.  It wasn’t fun but I survived with only a few cuts and bruises.)  Susan isn’t seriously hurt but, at the hospital, it’s discovered that she has alcohol and drugs in her bloodstream.

“NOT MY KID!” her father, surgeon Frank Bower (George Segal), declares.

“NOT MY KID!” her mother, Helen Bower (Stockard Channing, totally wasted in a thinly written role), agrees.

“Totally your kid!” her younger sister, Kelly (Christa Denton), says before then revealing where Susan hides her drugs.  This leads to Kelly getting beaten up by Susan and her drug addict boyfriend, Ricky (Tate Fuckin’ Donavon, decades before playing a hostage in Argo.).

Anyway, neither Frank nor Helen want to admit that Susan has a drug problem so instead, they go to see a smug family counselor who tells them that they are both being too hard on their daughter and that they need to just let Susan be Susan.  That sounds like a good (and easy) plan but then Susan runs away and disappears for two days.  After she’s finally found, stoned and hiding out in the family’s boat, her parents finally decide to send her to rehab.

The rehab is run by Dr. Royce.  Dr. Royce is played by Andrew Robinson and it took me a while to recognize him as being the same actor who played the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry.  Perhaps that explains why Dr. Royce came across as being such a creepy character.  As I watched this movie, I kept waiting for the big reveal where Dr. Royce would turn out to be a murderer or something.  That never happened, of course.  In the world of Not My Kid, the harsh and confrontational Dr. Royce is the only thing keeping the entire teenage population for shooting up heroin.

The majority of the film takes place at the rehab and it gets annoying pretty quickly.  This is one of those places where everything is done as a group activity.  Whenever someone says something, everyone in the group replies with, “We love you, so-and-so.”  When Susan doesn’t act properly ashamed of herself, the group gangs up on her.  “You’re a phony!” someone says.  “You’re full of crap!” another person adds.  “We love you, Susan,” the group chants.

AGCK!  Seriously, the rehab scenes totally freaked me out because it came across less like therapy and more like brainwashing.  I spent the entire movie waiting for Susan to escape and when she did, I was happy for her.  She may have been a self-destructive drug addict but at least wasn’t a mindless zombie like everyone else in the movie!  But then she ended up getting caught by her father and taken back to the rehab.

Meanwhile, her parents are going through therapy as well.  Again, it’s all group therapy.  When Frank tries to talk about how Susan’s behavior makes him feel, someone says, “You’re a phony!’  Another person adds, “You’re full of crap!”  And the group chants, “We love you, Frank.”  Okay, to be honest, I’m taking some dramatic license with the dialogue here but hopefully, you get the general idea.

I mean, seriously — I understand that I was supposed to be like, “Yay rehab!” while watching the movie but the rehab came across more like some sort of creepy cult.  It reminded me of both a Canadian film called, Ticket To Heaven and a Texas film called Split Image.  As I watched Not My Kid, I kept waiting for James Woods to show up as a cult deprogrammer.

Anyway, don’t worry.  Everything turns out well in the end.  This was a made-for-TV movie, after all.  Not My Kid is way too heavy-handed for its own good and it lacks a certain self-awareness.  On a more positive note, George Segal does a good job in the role of Frank.

You can watch Not My Kid below!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #83: Bad Influence (dir by Curtis Hanson)


Bad_Influence_Film_PosterThough it may seem like a lifetime ago, it’s only been 6 weeks since I started on my latest series of reviews.  I am currently in the process of reviewing, in chronological order, 126 cinematic melodramas.  I started with the 1927 classic Sunrise and now, 82 reviews later, I have finally reached the 1990s.

(Of course, when I started this series of reviews, I somehow managed to convince myself that it would only take me 3 weeks to review 126 films.  Instead, it looks like it’s going to take two months.  So, I was only off by 5 weeks.)

Let’s start the 90s by taking a quick look at a 1990 film called Bad Influence.  I have to admit that, when I made out my list of films to review, Bad Influence was not even on my radar.  I was planning on launching my look at the 90s with a review of Ghost.  But then I saw The Avengers: Age of Ultron and I was so taken with James Spader’s performance as Ultron that  I decided to add a few James Spader films to Embracing the Melodrama.

In Bad Influence, James Spader is cast somewhat against type.  He plays Michael, who has a good job and is engaged to marry the wealthy and overbearing Ruth (who, I was surprised to learn from the end credits, was played by a pre-Desperate Housewives Marcia Cross).  Michael should be happy but instead, he feels oddly dissatisfied with his life.  He’s shy and meek and spends all of his time trying to do the right thing and conform to the petty demands of society.

One day, as he’s sitting in a bar, Michael makes the mistake of trying to flirt with a woman who is obviously having a bad day.  When the woman’s boyfriend shows up, he tells Michael to leave.  When Michael mutters that it’s a free country, the man responds by grabbing Michael.  However, before the fight can go any further, handsome and charming Alex (played, somewhat inevitably, by Rob Lowe) pops up out of nowhere, smashes a bottle, and scares the man off.

Michael and Alex become fast friends, with Michael viewing the extroverted and confident Alex as being everything that he wants to be.  (Meanwhile, Alex seems to appreciate the fact that Michael has money and a nice apartment.)  Under the influence of Alex, Michael starts to stand up for himself and even manages to get a big promotion at work.  At the same time, he also ends up cheating on his fiancée (while Alex films them) , helping Alex hold up a series of convenience stores, and beating up an obnoxious co-worker.

Ultimately, Bad Influence is a lot of sordid fun.  It’s a bit like Fight Club, minus the satire and the big identity twist.  (Michael and Alex are differently separate characters.)  Director Curtis Hanson (who is perhaps best known for L.A. Confidential) brings a lot of style to the film’s tawdry fun and keeps the action moving quickly enough that you don’t have too much time to obsess over what doesn’t make sense.

Finally, James Spader and Rob Lowe are just a lot of fun to watch.  Spader turns Michael into a sympathetic protagonist and Rob Lowe seems to be having a blast going full psycho in his role.

Bad Influence is a well-made B-movie and it’s a lot of fun.  You can watch it below!

Back to School #29: Private School (dir by Noel Black)


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In my previous two Back To School reviews, I took a look at two classic teen comedies.  Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Risky Business both used and manipulated the standard teen comedy trappings to tell unusually nuanced stories about growing up.  These are films that used the audience’s familiarity with the genre to tell stories that ultimately challenged the viewer’s preconceived notions and expectations.  Having considered those two films, let us now consider Private School, a film that used all of the standard teen comedy clichés to make a very standard teen comedy.

According to the film’s trivia page on the IMDB (how’s that for an authoritative source!?), Private School was “”was supposedly market researched from stem to stern in order to ensure mass teen appeal”.  And it’s true because there’s literally nothing in Private School that you couldn’t find in almost every other teen comedy released in the 1980s.  In fact, Private School often feels like a compilation of clips from other teen comedies.

For instance, the film tells the story of two groups of three.  There’s the three girls who attend Cherryvale Academy: good girl Christine (Phoebe Cates), bad (and rich) girl Jordan (Betsy Russell), and vaguely asexual tomboy Betsy (Kathleen Wilhoite).  And then there’s three guys who attend Freemount Academy.  There’s a fat guy named Bubba (Michael Zorek), a short guy named Roy (Jonathan Prince) and a nice guy named Jim (Matthew Modine).  Bubba is dating Betsy.  Christine is dating Jim.  Jordan is dating no one because she’s too busy trying to steal Christine’s boyfriend.  Roy is also single, largely because adding a fourth girl would throw off the film’s group-of-three dichotomy.

There’s also a lot of boobs, largely because Private School was made to appeal to teenage boys and you really have to wonder how many of them left the theater thinking that all they had to do to get a girl to disrobe was spill some fruit juice on her dress and then suggest that she take it off.  There’s even a scene where Jordan rides a horse naked because — well, why not?

And then there’s an extended sequence where each of the three boys puts on a wig, a red dress, way too much lipstick and then sneak into the girl’s dormitory because cross-dressing is always good for a few easy laughs. Despite their best attempts to speak in falsetto voices,  Jim, Bubba, and Roy make for three of the least convincing women that I’ve ever seen but, to the film’s credit, that’s kind of the point.  It’s a stupid plan that leads to stupid results.

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Of course, the film is also full of terrible adult authority figures.  And why not?  It’s not like anyone over the age of 18 was ever going to watch the film.  So, of course, Jordan’s father is going to be lecherous old perv with a trophy wife.  And, of course, all of Cherryvale’s teachers are going to be a collection of spinsters and alcoholics.  In the end, the only adult who isn’t a raging hypocrite is the friendly town pharmacist (played by Martin Mull) who, of course, is mostly present so he can make Jim feel nervous about buying condoms.

And, ultimately, Private School is one of those films that wants to be racy and dirty (in order to appeal to teenage boys) while also being sweet and romantic (in order to appeal to teenage girls).  The main plot revolves around Jim and Christine’s plans to go away for a weekend so that they can have sex for the first time and the film actually handles this pretty well.  Matthew Modine and Phoebe Cates both have a really sweet chemistry.  They’re a really cute couple and you hope the best for them.  But there’s just so many complications, the majority of which could have been avoided by Jim not being an idiot.  It never seems to occur to Jim that maybe he’d finally be getting laid if he wasn’t always doing things like dressing up in drag and trying to sneak into the girl’s dormitory.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Private School is a terrible film.  As far as boob-obsessed teen sex comedies go, Private School is actually pretty well-done and watchable.  The cast is likable and director Noel Black keeps the action moving.  Even the film’s nominal villain is likable, with Betsy Russell playing Jordan as being more mischievous than spiteful.  But, ultimately, what makes Private School memorable is the fact that it is so predictable, that it does literally contain every single cliché that one would expect to find in a teen comedy.  This is a film so determined to not bring anything new to the genre that it becomes an oddly fascinated study in how to maintain a status quo.

In fact, perhaps the most innovative thing about Private School is the song that plays over the opening credits.  The song — which is called You’re Breakin’ My Heart and is performed by Harry Nilsson — starts with: “You’re breaking my heart/you’re tearing it apart/so fuck you…”

That’s about as close to being subversive as Private School ever gets.

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Guilty Pleasure No. 11: Terror In The Family (dir by Gregory Goodell)


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For my latest guilty pleasure, I want to take a look at Terror In The Family, a well-intentioned, out-of-control youth film from 1996.

Certain moments of Terror in the Family felt painfully familiar because, much like the film’s main character, Deena Marten (played by — yes, it’s true — Hilary Swank), I went through a period, when I was teenage, where I was seriously out-of-control.  Much like Deena, I would sneak out of the house, I would hook up with guys who were obvious trouble, I had absolutely no impulse control, and I said and did a lot of hurtful and self-destructive things that I still would do anything to take back.  I was 16 while, in the movie, Deena is portrayed as being 15.  The main difference between me and Deena is that I was out-of-control because I was having an undiagnosed manic episode.  Deena, however, is out-of-control because she comes from one of the most dysfunctional family in the history of dysfunctional families.

And that’s why, despite the fact that I can relate to the painful subject matter, Terror In The Family amuses me more than it disturbs me.  Seriously, anything that can be wrong with a family is wrong with this family.

Consider this:

Father Todd Marten (Dan Lauria) spends all of his time down in the basement, making wooden bowls and then taking pictures of them.  Usually, he avoids his family but when he’s finally forced to confront Deena, she ends up smashing his fingers with her bedroom door.  “HOW CAN I WORK NOW!?” he bellows while holding up his bandaged hand.

Mother Cynthia Marten (Joanna Kerns) is an alcoholic who spends her spare time standing in front of a mirror and rehearsing being a disciplinarian.  When Deena flees the house, Cynthia attempts to win her back by bringing her a huge, home-made pizza.  “I made your favorite!” Cynthia drunkenly cries before accidentally dropping the pizza on the floor.

Grandmother Ivy (Nan Martin) is, without a doubt, one of the most evil and unpleasant characters that I have ever seen in a movie.  When Cynthia tries to tell her about the difficulties of raising Deena, Ivy responds by literally punching her in the face.

Deena’s younger brother, Adam (Adam Hendershott), is a talented pianist who deals with his family by playing video games and literally sleeping with a bottle of vodka in his bed.

Finally, there’s Aunt Judith (Kathleen Wilhoite).  Judith seems to be the only stable person in Deena’s family.  That’s mostly because Judith left home when she was young and was apparently some sort of groupie for several years.

With this family, is it any wonder that Deena is spending all of her time with Garrett (Andy Kavovit), her 17 year-old boyfriend who, along with introducing her to drugs and sex, also speaks wistfully of killing his mother and her boyfriend?  Garrett, not surprisingly, has a band and Deena soon finds herself staying out past curfew so she can perform with him at various seedy clubs.  The film blames a lot of Deena’s bad behavior on Garrett but you know what?  Back when I was 15, I would have been totally in love with Garrett too.

Seriously, Deena, you go girl!

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Anyway, with all of this going on, can we really be shocked that Deena eventually ends up swinging a landline phone at her parents and demanding that they stay away?

Terror In The Family shows up on Lifetime occasionally and recently, for reasons that I don’t quite understand, it even turned up on Showtime, playing in between showings of Dexter and The Seduction of Misty Mundae.  It’s worth watching because it really is the perfect marriage of good intentions, over-the-top melodrama, and intense cluelessness.  For the most part, future Oscar winner Hilary Swank gives a good performance as Deena but the best parts of the films are the parts where she joins the rest of the cast in going totally and completely overboard.

The mix of melodrama and hindsight combine to make Terror In The Family into a true guilty pleasure.