Horror Film Review: House (dir by Steve Miner)

Yesterday, I didn’t get to watch or review any horror films because the air conditioner at the house stopped working.  While I know that a lot of people up north think that AC is a luxury that’s going to destroy the world, I live in Texas and an air conditioner is a necessity down here.  So, if that leads to glaciers melting and me getting a lecture from some obnoxious little brat …. well, fine.

Anyway, we were able to get the air conditioner fixed.  It took a while but it’s now working again.  Once the AC was again blowing cool air into the house, I started to think about how it could be worse.  I mean, the house could be haunted.  We always tend to assume that ghosts are going to be nice but really, there are some nasty ghosts out there.

Take the 1986 film, House, for instance.  House stars William Katt as Roger Cobb, a horror author who needs a best seller.  Cobb is dealing with a lot.  He’s wife (Kay Lenz) has left him.  His son has vanished.  His aunt has recently committed suicide, leaving behind her house.  On top of all that, Cobb is still haunted by his experiences during the Vietnam War, when he was forced to leave behind a gravely wounded soldier named Big Ben (Richard Moll).  Cobb wants to write about his Vietnam experiences but his agent is aghast.  No one wants to talk about the war!

So, Roger moves into his aunt’s old house.  He was originally planning on selling it but, for whatever reason, he thinks living in an abandoned house that drove its last owner to suicide will be a good idea.  Roger thinks that living in the house will help him finish his book.  The House has different ideas.

Soon, Roger finds himself dealing with a series of incidents that feel as if they were lifted from other, more cohesive horror movies.  In a scene that feels like it was inspired by the Evil Dead, his wife turns into an otherworldly creature and tries to attack him.  Weird gremlin creatures, which could have come from Troll or Ghoulies, keep showing up and trying to kidnap an obnoxious neighbor child.  Roger’s neighbor (George Wendt) thinks that it’s possible that Roger is a murderer and that he’s buying his victims out in the backyard.  Even worse, a decaying and pissed off Big Ben starts to show up.

House is an occasionally likable attempt to mix horror and comedy.  Most of the comedy comes from Roger’s attempts to keep anyone else from noticing just how crazy things have gotten in the house.  (Disposing of a demon’s body turns out to be not as easy as one might imagine.)  William Katt does a good job with selling the comedy, though he never quite convinces you that he’s a best-selling horror author.  That said, the horror aspect is far more interesting, if just as a metaphor for Roger’s PTSD.  At its best, the film suggests that the house is feeding off of the lingering trauma of Roger’s war experiences.  It’s an interesting idea but not one that’s really explored as much as you might like.  Unfortunately, the film struggles to balance the horror and the comedy.  Just when it really starts to scare you, it remembers that it’s supposed to be a comedy.  Sam Raimi would have been the ideal director for House.

That said, House is entertaining, if a little bland.  If nothing else, watching it made me feel better about my own house.  My air conditioner may have gone down for a few hours yesterday but at least it didn’t open a portal to Hell.

Fast-Walking (1982, directed by James B. Harris)

Frank Miniver (James Woods) is the prison guard that everyone calls Fast-Walking.  He’s involved in almost every vice that a man living in a small town in Oregon can be involved in.  He takes bribes.  He usually shows up for work stoned and what he doesn’t smoke, he sells to the prisoners and the other guards.  He’s got a second job, running a trailer park brothel behind his cousin’s general store.

Frank’s cousin, Wasco (Tim McIntire), has been incarcerated and he expects Frank to help him take over the prison.  At first, Frank has no problem working with Wasco and letting his cousin have free reign of the cell block.  Wasco has soon established himself as the most powerful man behind bars.  When a black power activist named Galliot (Robert Hooks) arrives at the prison, Wasco wants to arrange for him to be assassinated.  Meanwhile, Galliot has offered Frank even more money to help him escape from the prison.

While Frank tries to keep both sides happy and make off with some money for himself, he’s also sleeping with Wasco’s accomplice on the outside, Moke (Kay Lenz).  Originally, Wasco ordered Moke to seduce Frank in order to keep Frank in line but, as Moke and Frank’s relationship continues, Wasco starts to get jealous and starts plotting to put Frank back in his place.

Fast-Walking is a gritty film that features a good deal of dark humor.  Unfortunately, the film’s many different parts never really come together and the film never strikes the right balance between comedy and drama.   James Woods is perfectly cast as Frank and the underrated Kay Lenz does wonders with an underwritten role but Tim McIntire is a less than ideal Wasco.  McIntire was a good actor but, physically, he’s all wrong for a character who is supposed to be so intimidating that he can walk into a prison and automatically take it over.  Wasco is written and played as being such a cartoonish character that it’s difficult to take him or his plots seriously.  The movie works best when it’s just focuses of James Woods’s nervy performance and Frank’s attempts to keep the other prison guards (including M. Emmett Walsh) from discovering his own racket.

Drive-In Saturday Night 4: WHITE LINE FEVER (Columbia 1975) & HIGH-BALLIN’ (AIP 1978)

cracked rear viewer

Breaker One-Nine, Breaker One-Nine, it’s time to put the hammer down with a pair of Trucksploitation flicks from the sensational 70’s! The CB/Trucker Craze came to be because of two things: the gas crisis of 1973 and the implementation of the new 55 MPH highway speed limit imposed by Big Brother your friendly Federal government. Long-haul truckers used Citizen’s Band radios to give each other updates on nearby fueling stations and speed traps set up by “Smokeys” (aka cops), and the rest of America followed suit.

Country singer C.W. McCall had a massive #1 hit based on CB/trucker lingo with “Convoy”, and the trucker fad was in full swing. There had been trucker movies made before – THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, HELL DRIVERS, and THE WAGES OF FEAR come to mind – but Jonathan Kaplan’s 1975 WHITE LINE FEVER was the first to piggy-back on the new gearjammer…

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Bronson’s Rich: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987, directed by J. Lee Thompson)

To quote The Main With No Name, “When a man’s got money in his pocket, he begins to appreciate peace.”

Two years have passed since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) last visited and cleaned up New York.  He is back in Los Angeles, the president of his own successful architectural firm.  Now a rich man, he has retired from killing criminals, though he still has dreams where he shoots muggers in parking garages.  Paul has a new girlfriend, journalist Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz).  When Karen’s teenage daughter, Erica (Dana Barron), dies of a cocaine overdose, it’s time for Paul to get his gun out of storage and blow away a drug dealer.

Shortly after shooting that drug dealer, Paul finds a note on his front porch.  “I know who you are,” it reads.  Paul then gets a call from a mysterious man (John P. Ryan) who identifies himself as being a reclusive millionaire named Nathan White.  Nathan explains that his daughter also died of a cocaine overdose.  He wants to hire Paul to take out not just the drug dealers but also the men behind the dealers, the bosses.  Using his vast resources, Nathan has prepared a file on every major drug operation in Los Angeles.  He offers to share the information with Paul.

“I’ll need a few days to think about it,” Paul says but we all know he’s going to accept Nathan’s offer just as surely as we know that Nathan White has an ulterior motive that won’t be revealed until the movie’s final twenty minutes.

For the first time, Paul is no longer just targeting muggers and other street criminals.  This time, Paul is going after the guys in charge and trying to bring an end to drug trade once and for all.  (The idea that the best way to win the war on drugs was just to kill anyone involved in the drug trade was a very popular one in the late 80s.)  L.A.’s two major drug cartels are led by Ed Zacharias (Perry Lopez) and the Romero Brothers (Mike Moroff and Dan Ferro).  Along with their own activities, Paul and Young work the turn the two cartels against each other.

It’s not just the criminals that have changed in Death Wish 4.  Paul has changed, too.  Paul used to just shoot criminals and run away.  In Death Wish 4, he gets more creative.  He sneaks into Zacharias’s mansion and bugs the phone so that he can keep track of what’s going down.  When it comes time to kill a table full of drug dealers (one of whom is played by Danny Trejo), Paul doesn’t shoot them up.  Instead, he sends them a bottle of champagne that explodes when they open it.  By the end of the movie, Paul is blowing away the bad guys with a grenade launcher!  How many former conscientious objectors can brag about that?

The biggest difference between Death Wish 4 and the films that came before it is the absence of director Michael Winner.  Winner and Bronson had a falling out following Death Wish 3 and, as a result, Winner had little interest in returning to the franchise.  Instead, Winner was replaced by J. Lee Thompson, who had already directed Bronson in several other Cannon films.  As a result, Death Wish 4 is less “heavy” than the previous Death Wish films.  Whereas Winner’s direction often felt mean-spirited and exploitive, Thompson plays up the film’s sense of airy adventure.

Though it barely made a profit at the box office and has been dismissed by critics, Death Wish 4 is an enjoyable chapter in Paul’s story.  If you’re looking for mindless 80s mayhem, Death Wish 4 gets the job done with admirable efficiency.  It would have made a great ending for the franchise but Bronson would return to the role one last time.

Tomorrow: Death Wish V: The Face of Death!

A Movie A Day #65: Hitler’s Daughter (1990, directed by James A. Contner)

Ted Scott (Patrick Cassidy), a White House press aide, is contacted by his former professor, Dr. Bauman (Donald Davis).  Bauman gives Ted a file that he claims will prove that not only did Adolf Hitler have a daughter but she was subsequently smuggled into America and is now on the verge of occupying the White House.  Ted thinks that Bauman’s crazy but then Bauman is murdered and Ted is framed for the crime.  With both the police and the bad guys after him and with time running out, Ted must now figure out who is Hitler’s daughter.  Is it Sharon Franklin (Melody Anderson), the famous TV anchorwoman who is having an affair with a Senator?  Is it Patricia Benedict (Veronica Cartwright), the wife of the Vice President?  Or is it Senator Leona Crawford Gordon (Kay Lenz), who has just been put on the opposition party’s presidential ticket?

Hitler’s Daughter was originally made for the USA Network and, throughout the 1990s, it would frequently air late at night.  As far as the film’s quality is concerned, Kay Lenz was beautiful as ever but otherwise, Hitler’s Daughter was a typically forgettable low-budget made-for-tv thriller, complete with bad guys who can shoot everyone but the main character, exploding cars, and villains who carefully explain their plans before trying to kill the heroes.  It does end on a down note, with almost everyone dead.  This probably seemed edgy in 1990 but it seems predictable today.  Exactly ten years after this otherwise forgotten movie aired, Hitler’s Daughter was briefly again in the public spotlight a group of online conspiracy nuts claimed that Hillary Clinton was trying to suppress the movie’s release on video would harm her chances of getting elected to the Senate.

Far better than the movie is the novel on which it was based.  Written by Timothy B. Benford, the literary Hitler’s Daughter is an entertaining and enjoyably pulpy page turner.  Benford was the former police commissioner of Mountainside, New Jersey when he wrote Hitler’s Daughter in 1983 and the book touched with an nerve with at least a few readers.  According to a story in The New York Times, shortly after the novel was published, Benford woke up to discover a wooden swastika burning on his front lawn.  The movie stick closely to the book’s plot but never translates what worked on the page to the screen.

What Lisa and the Late Night Movie Crew Watched Last Night #107: Prisoners of the Lost Universe (dir by Terry Marcel)

Last night, I gathered with about 17 friends over at SyFyDesigns and we watched an obscure little fantasy film from 1983, Prisoners of the Lost Universe.


Why Were We Watching It?

We were watching it because we are the late night movie crew and that’s what we do.  We watch movies and we watch them late at night and, since we are all intelligent and snarky people, we have a natural tendency to pick movies with titles like Prisoners of the Lost Universe.

(Add to that, since Prisoners of the Lost Universe is in the public domain, it has been included about a dozen different Mill Creek Box sets and it’s also on YouTube.  So, it was an easy film for everyone to watch.)

What Was It About?

News reporter Carrie (Kay Lenz) is interviewing Dr. Hartmann (Kenneth Hendel) when a sudden earthquake hits California.  Dr. Hartmann stumbles into an interdemensional transporter and disappears!  Then Dan (Richard Hatch) stops by Hartmann’s house and he stumbles into the transporter and disappears as well!  And then, after that, Carrie stumbles into the transporter and she vanishes!  Why is everyone in this movie so clumsy?

Anyway, Carrie is transported to the Lost Universe, which looks a lot like South Dakota.  (Actually, the movie was made in South Africa so apparently, South Africa also looks a lot like South Dakota.)  Carrie wanders around for a little while and spends a while talking to herself about how much she hates being in the Lost Universe.  Part of Carrie’s problem was that she was wearing high heels.  If you’re going to visit South Dakota, South Africa, or the Lost Universe, be sure to wear sensible shoes.

Eventually, Carrie is reunited with Dan and they meet a lot of other citizens of the Lost Universe.  They meet a green man.  They meet a gigantic cave man.  They meet a bearded thief.  They also meet a tribe of angry people who all have glowing red eyes.  When they’re climbing up a mountain, Dan offers a helping hand.  “Take your hand off my butt!” Carrie snaps back.  They’re not exactly Hepburn and Tracy.

Finally, Carrie is kidnapped by an evil warlord who happens to be played by John Saxon.  The warlord has a dueling pistol with him that he uses to enforce his will on everyone else in the Lost Universe.  He explains that it was built for him by a sorceror from another universe.  Any guess who that is going to turn out to be?

Anyway, it’s up to Dan to rescue Carrie and hopefully end the tyranny of John Saxon.

What Worked?

Prisoners of the Lost Universe is one of those otherwise forgettable films that suddenly becomes the most entertaining thing in the world if you’re watching it with the right people.  Last night, I watched it with the right people and our natural wit and snarkiness elevated the entire film.

Beyond the snarkiness, John Saxon made for a good and fun villain.  And I liked the Green Man.  He had an above-it-all attitude that was very entertaining.

What Did Not Work?

To be honest, it’s really a very bad movie.  If I hadn’t been watching this movie with 17 other snarky and talkative people, I imagine I would have been bored out of my mind.  If Prisoners of the Lost Universe had been produced by Crown International Pictures, it probably would have been a lot more fun.

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

I have a feeling that if I accidentally got transported to the Lost Universe, I’d probably be wearing high heels as well.  And I’d probably complain a lot.  Who wouldn’t?

Lessons Learned

Why go to the Lost Universe when you can just go to South Dakota?

Back to School #13: American Graffiti (dir by George Lucas)

Well, this is certainly intimidating.  I know I’ve said this many time before but it deserves to be repeated: it’s often a hundred times more difficult to review a great film than it is to review a merely mediocre one.  When a film fails, it’s usually easy to say why.  The acting was bad.  The directing was uninspired.  The plot didn’t make any sense.  Or maybe the film has been so overpraised that you, as a reviewer, are almost obligated to be tougher on it than you would be with any other film.  However, it’s never as easy to put into words just what exactlyit is that makes a movie great.

Take the 1973 Best Picture nominee American Graffiti for instance.  I could tell you that this is a very well-acted film and that it features an ensemble of very likable performers, many of whom subsequently went on to become stars and celebrated character actors.  Then again, you can say the same thing about countless other films.


I could say that director George Lucas does such a good job putting this film together that it’s hard to believe that he’s the same man who would later be responsible for all three of the Star Wars prequels.  Then again, I could also say the same thing about how odd it is that the same man who directed the entertaining Final Destination 5 was also responsible for the far less enthralling Into The Storm.


I could tell you that the film serves as a valuable time capsule in that not only does it feature a loving recreation of small town America in the early 60s but that it’s also a chance to see what Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Charles Martin Smith all looked like when they still had hair.  But then again, I also praised The Young Graduates for being a time capsule as well.


Let’s face it — it’s difficult to define the intangible qualities that make a film great.  Often times, it’s a case of simply knowing it when you see it.  I’ve seen American Graffiti a few times.  The last time I saw it was at a special Sunday showing at the Alamo Drafthouse.  And, on that early Sunday afternoon, the theater was packed with people who had paid for the chance to see the 40 year-old film on the big screen.  I’m 28 years old and it’s significant that, while the majority of the audience was older than me, there were quite a few people who were younger.  American Graffiti is one of those films that obviously spoke to audiences when it was first released and continues to speak to audiences today.

As I mentioned in my review of Rebel Without A Cause, films about teens tend to age quickly and, often times, one generation’s masterpiece will turn out to be a later generation’s joke.  When a film like Rebel or American Graffiti survives the test of time, it’s because the film has managed to capture a universal truth about what it means to be young and to have your entire life ahead of you.

American Graffiti takes place over the course of one long night in Modesto, California in 1962.  The film follows several different characters, the majority of whom have just graduated from high school.  What these characters all have in common is that one phase of their life has ended and a new one is about to begin.  Over the course of that one night, all of them are forced to say goodbye to their past identities and, in some instances, are forced to face their future.

Curt and the Pharoahs

For instance, there’s Curt (an amazingly young Richard Dreyfuss), a neurotic intellectual who spends the night trying to decide whether or not he actually wants to leave for college in the morning.  Complicating Curt’s decision is a mysterious blonde who mouths “I love you” at him before driving away.  While searching for her, Curt finds himself unwillingly recruited into the Pharoahs, a somewhat ludicrous small town gang that’s led by Joe (played, in hilariously clueless fashion, by Bo Hopkins.)  Curt, incidentally, is my favorite character in the film.  He’s just adorable, which admittedly is not a reaction that one often has to Richard Dreyfuss.

(Curt is also featured in one of my favorite scenes, in which he smokes a cigarette with a lecherous teacher named Mr. Wolf.)

Cindy Williams, Ron Howard, and Charles Martin Smith

Curt’s sister (Cindy Williams) is dating Steve Bolander (Ron Howard).  Steve is the former class president and, unlike Curt, he’s very excited about leaving home.  Ron Howard gives such a likable performance that it actually takes a few viewing to realize just how big of a jerk Steve really is.

Terry and Debbie


And then there Terry (Charles Martin Smith) who wears big glasses and has bad skin.  Terry gets to spend the night driving around in Steve’s car and manages to pick up a girl named Debbie (Candy Clark).  For Terry, this is his night to actually be somebody and what makes it all the more poignant is just how obvious it is that Terry will probably never get another chance.  Though he may not realize it, those of us watching understand that this is literally going to the be the best night of Terry’s life.

(Incidentally, much like Ron Howard, Charles Martin Smith would go on to become a film director and gave the world the amazingly sweet Dolphin Tale.)

John Milner

And finally, there’s John Milner (Paul Le Mat).  John is a little older than the other main characters.  He spends most of his time in his car, driving around and getting challenged to race.  He’s the epitome of late 50s/early 60s cool, with an attitude and a look that he obviously borrowed from James Dean and Marlon Brando.  Over the course of the night, he is forced to deal with a bratty 13 year-old stowaway (MacKenzie Phillips) and a mysterious challenger named Bob Falfa (played by a youngish Harrison Ford, who wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a country twang).

Harrison Ford in American Graffiti

The film follows these characters through the night and then, at the end of it, we get the famous epilogue where we discover that all of the male characters have pretty much ended up exactly how we thought they would.  In some cases, that’s a good thing.  And in other cases, it’s not.  It’s a good ending that’s kept from being great by the fact that none of the film’s female characters rate so much as even a mention.

So, what else can be said about American Graffiti?

It’s a great film.

Isn’t that enough?

American Graffiti