Bubba’s Revenge: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981, directed by Frank De Felitta)


Dude, this movie.

Charles Durning plays Otis P. Hazelrigg, a postman in a small town who has an unhealthy interest in a ten year-old girl named Marylee (Tanya Crowe).  When Marylee is mauled and nearly killed by a dog, Otis decides that she was attacked by Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), a mentally challenged man who has the mind of a child.  With Otis and his redneck friends looking to lynch him, Bubba’s mother disguises him as a scarecrow and tells him to stand out in a field and not move.  When Otis and his friends discover Bubba hiding, they all shoot him until he’s dead.  Otis puts a pitchfork in Bubba’s hands and tells the police that Bubba was attacking them and they didn’t have any choice but to shoot him.

Otis thinks that he’s gotten away with murder but he’s wrong.  After Marylee sings a song in the same field where Bubba was killed, Otis’s friends start dying.  One is suffocated in a grain silo.  Another falls into a thresher.  Before each one dies, they report seeing a scarecrow on their property.  Otis thinks that Bubba’s mother is behind the murders but what if Bubba has actually come back to life?

Dark Night of the Scarecrow will mess up your mind, give you bad dreams, and leave you with a lifelong phobia o scarecrows.  It’s that scary.  I remember that they used to frequently show this movie on TV when I was  growing up and even the commercials were scary.  (The part of the movie that always messed with me were the shots of Bubba’s frightened eyes darting around underneath the scarecrow mask.)  Scarecrows are naturally creepy and the movie’s atmosphere is unsettling but the most frightening thing about Dark Night of the Scarecrow is Otis and the redneck lynch mob that he puts together.  Otis is a thoroughly loathsome character and Charles Durning goes all out playing him.  Otis is a civil servant, which gives him some prestige in the town but he uses that prestige to bully Bubba and harass Marylee.  His concern with Marylee especially feels wrong and the movie does not shy away from the subtext of his interest.  The scarecrow might frighten you but you will absolutely loathe Otis and everyone who follows him.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow was made for television but it’s just as good as any theatrical release.   It is also might be the first movie to feature a killer scarecrow.  Several have been made in the years since but Dark Night of the Scarecrow was the first and it’s still the best.

A Movie A Day #270: Prison (1987, directed by Renny Harlin)


In 1964, the state of Wyoming executed Charles Forsythe (Viggo Mortensen) for killing another inmate at Creedmore State Prison.  Forsythe was innocent of the crime but the only other two people who knew, a prisoner named Cresus (Lincoln Kilpatrick) and a guard named Eaton Sharpe (Lane Smith), kept silent.  Twenty-three years later, Cresus is still an inmate and Sharpe has been named the new warden of Creedmore.  When a group of prisoner open up the old execution chamber, Forsythe’s electrified spirit escapes into the prison and starts to kill the prisoners and the guards, one-by-one.  A convict named Burke (also played by Mortensen) understands what is going on but can he get anyone to believe him?

If the idea of an executed murderer turning into an electrified spirit sounds familiar, that’s because the exact same idea was used in Destroyer, The Horror Show, and Wes Craven’s Shocker, all of which went into production and were released at roughly the same time.  Why did the late 80s see so many director making movies about convicts coming back to life after being sent to the electric chair?  We may never know.

Of the four electric ghosts movies, Prison is the best.  Lane Smith is a great villain and Prison makes good use of its claustrophobic setting.  Since Charlie is stalking inmates instead of horny teenagers, there literally is no way for anyone to escape him.  (It never makes sense, though, why Charlie is killing “innocent” prisoners when Sharpe, who hates all of this prisoners, is the one that Charlie is targeting for revenge.)  The best scenes are the ones where the warden desperately tries to force the inmates to confess to the murders so he won’t have to confront the truth about Charlie’s revenge.  Lane Smith, who would later be best known for playing Richard Nixon in The Final Days, acts the hell out of those scenes.

Prison was the first American film to be directed by Finnish director Renny Harlin and it is a hundred times better than many of the overproduced action films that Harlin would later be best known for.  Of course, it’s no Die Hard 2 but I would gladly watch Prison over Cutthroat Island.

A Movie A Day #234: The Final Days (1989, directed by Richard Pearce)


Since yesterday’s entry in movie a day featured Philip Baker Hall playing Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, I decided to use today’s entry to talk about a movie that featured Lane Smith in the same role.

Based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s follow-up to All The President’s Men, The Final Days is about the final months of the Nixon presidency.  The movie begins shortly after the resignations of Nixon aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman and follows Nixon (Lane Smith) as he grows increasingly more isolated and reclusive in the White House.  All the familiar moments are here, Nixon ranting against the Kennedys and the establishment, Kennedy talking about his difficult childhood, and, most famously, Nixon asking Henry Kissinger (Theodore Bikel) to pray with him on the night before his resignation.  The Final Days also focuses on the ambitious men who surrounded Nixon during his downfall and who helped to engineer his eventual resignation, especially Al Haig (David Ogden Stiers).

A lot of very good actors have played Richard Nixon.  Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella both received Oscar nominations for playing him and Philip Baker Hall probably should have.  Rip Torn, John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Dan Hedaya, and Bob Gunton have all taken a shot at the role.  But, in my opinion, no one has done a better job as the 37th president than Lane Smith, who bore about as close a resemblance to Nixon as anyone could without a prosthetic nose.  Even more than Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Lane Smith captured not only Nixon’s insecurity and paranoia but also his provides hints of the great leader that Nixon could have been if not for his own self-destructiveness.

 

A Movie A Day #153: Blue Collar (1978, directed by Paul Schrader)


Three Detroit auto workers (played by Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and Richard Pryor) are fed up.

It’s not just that management is constantly overworking them and trying to cheat them out of their money.  That’s what management does, after all.  What really upsets them is that their union is not doing anything to help.  While the head of the union is getting rich off of their dues and spending time at the White House, Keitel is struggling to pay for his daughter’s braces, Kotto is in debt to a loan shark, and Pryor is lying to the IRS about the number of children that he has.  (When a social worker shows up unexpectedly, Pryor’s wife recruits neighborhood children to pretend to be their’s.)  Kotto, Pryor, and Keitel plot to rob the union but instead, they just discover evidence of the union’s ties to the mob.  The union bosses will do anything to keep that information from being revealed, from trying to turn the friends against one another to committing murder.

Blue Collar was the directorial debut of screenwriter Paul Schrader.  Schrader has said that the three main cast members did not get along during the filming, with Richard Pryor apparently bringing a gun to the set and announcing that there was no way he was going to do more than three takes of any scene.  The tension between the lead actors is visible in the film, with all three of them giving edgy and angry performances.  That anger is appropriate because Blue Collar is one of the few films to try to honestly tackle what it’s like to be a member of the “working class” in America.  While management is presented as being a bunch of clowns, Blue Collar reserves its greatest fury for the corrupt union bosses who claim to represent the workers but who, instead, are just exploiting them.  The characters in Blue Collar are pissed off because they know that nobody’s got their back.  To both management and the union, the workers are worth less than the cars that they spend all day putting together and the money that can be subtracted from all their already meager pay checks.

Since it’s a Paul Schrader film from 1978, the action in Blue Collar does come to a halt, 40 minutes in, for a cocaine-fueled orgy that feels out of place.  While Keitel and especially Kotto give believable performances, Pryor sometimes seems to be struggling to keep up.  Still, flaws and all, Blue Collar has a raw and authentic feel to it, something that few other movies about the working class have been able to capture.  Perhaps because it never sentimentalizes its characters or their situation, Blue Collar was not a box office success but it has stood the test of time better than many of the other films that were released that same year.  Sadly overlooked, Blue Collar is a classic American movie.

 

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Night Game (dir by Peter Masterson)


Apparently, today is the opening day of the 2017 baseball season.  The only reason that I know that is because of my sister Erin.  I don’t know much about baseball, to be honest.  I know that my city’s team is the Texas Rangers and they were once owned by George W. Bush.  I know that Houston has a team called the Astros.  But, really, the main thing that I know about baseball is that my sister absolutely loves it.

So, when Erin asked me to review a baseball movie today, how could I say no?  I mean, I may know next to nothing about baseball but I certainly know something about movies!

For that reason, I’m going to take a few minutes to tell you about a 1989 film called Night Game.  Night Game is many things.  It’s a movies that features a lot of baseball, even though it’s not really a sports film per se.  It’s a police procedural, though the film itself suggests that the police often don’t have the slightest idea what they’re actually doing.  It’s a serial killer film, though its killer is never quite as loquacious as we’ve come to expect in this age of Hannibal Lecter and Dexter Morgan.  At times, it’s a slasher film, though it’s never particularly graphic.  Mostly, Night Game is a Texas film.

Directed by native Texan Peter Masterson, Night Game is like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in that it is one of those rare films that not only takes place in Texas but was actually filmed on location.  To be exact, Night Game was filmed in both Galveston and Houston.  The entire film has a friendly and quirky Texas feel to it.  Masterson may not have been a great visual director (If not for some language and nudity, Night Game could pass for a TV movie) but Night Game is a movie where the plot is less important than capturing the little details of a time. a location, and the people who lived there.  Though Night Game is 28 years old, it’s portrait of my home state still seemed very contemporary to me.  I guess Texas hasn’t really changed that much over the past few decades.

As for the film’s plot, someone is murdering young women in Galveston and leaving their bodies on the boardwalk.  Obviously, that’s not going to be good for attracting Spring Break revelers.  The film doesn’t make any effort to keep the murderer’s identity a secret.  We see his face fairly early on.  We also see that he has a hook for a hand.  Eventually, we do learn the murderer’s motives.  They’re pretty silly but then again, individual motives rarely make sense to anyone other than the guy with the hook for a hand.

Detective Mike Seaver (Roy Scheider) has been assigned to solve the case.  One thing that I really liked about Night Game was that Mike was pretty much just a normal guy with a job to do.  He wasn’t self-destructive.  He wasn’t always drunk.  He wasn’t suicidal.  He wasn’t always lighting a cigarette and staring at the world through bloodshot eyes while the lighting reflected off of his artful stubble.  He was just a detective trying to do his job and get home on time.  After sitting through countless films about self-destructive cops and criminal profilers, the normalcy of Mike was a nice change of pace.

Mike does have a backstory.  He used to play baseball and he still loves the game.  He goes to every Astros home game in Houston.  He’s in love with Roxy (Karen Young), who works at the stadium.  Things are only slightly complicated by the fact that Mike had a previous relationship with Roxy’s mother (Carlin Glynn).  Don’t worry, Mike’s not secretly Roxy’s father or anything like that.  It’s not that type of movie.

Anyway, Mike is such a fan of baseball that he realizes something.  The killer only strikes on nights that the Astros win a game.  And he only strikes if a certain pitcher was throwing the ball.  The obvious solution would be to shoot the pitcher in the arm and end his athletic career.  However, Mike’s too nice a guy to do that.  Instead, he just tries to track down the killer…

And, as I said, Night Game actually isn’t a bad little movie.  Make no mistake, it’s a very slight movie.  At no point are you going to say, “I’m going to remember that scene for the rest of my life!”  That said, it’s a surprisingly good-natured film and Roy Scheider’s performance is likable and unexpectedly warm.  With all that in mind, Night Game is an entertaining and (mildly) bloody valentine to my home state.

Plus, it’s a baseball movie!  I don’t know much about baseball but, if my sister loves it, it has to be a good thing!

A Movie A Day #30: Prince of the City (1981, directed by Sidney Lumet)


220px-prince_of_the_city_foldedIn 1970s New York City, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is a self-described “prince of the city.”  A narcotics detective, Ciello is the youngest member of the Special Investigations Unit.  Because of their constant success, the SIU is given wide latitude by their superiors at the police department.  The SIU puts mobsters and drug dealers behind bars.  They get results.  If they sometimes cut corners or skim a little money for themselves, who cares?

It turns out that a lot of people care.  When a federal prosecutor, Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker), first approaches Ciello and asks him if he knows anything about police corruption, Ciello refuses to speak to him.  As Ciello puts it, “I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners.”  But Ciello already has doubts.  His drug addict brother calls him out on his hypocrisy. Ciello spends one harrowing night with one of his informants, a pathetic addict who Ciello keeps supplied with heroin in return for information.  Ciello finally agrees to help the investigation but with one condition: he will not testify against anyone in the SIU.  Before accepting Ciello’s help, Cappalino asks him one question.  Has Ciello ever done anything illegal while a cop?  Ciello says that he has only broken the law three times and each time, it was a minor infraction.

For the next two years, Ciello wears a wire nearly every day and helps to build cases against other cops, some of which are more corrupt than others.  It turns out that being an informant is not as easy as it looks.  Along with getting burned by malfunctioning wires and having to deal with incompetent backup, Ciello struggles with his own guilt.  When Cappalino is assigned to another case, Ciello finds himself working with two prosecutors (Bob Balaban and James Tolkan) who are less sympathetic to him and his desire to protect the SIU.  When evidence comes to light that Ciello may have lied about the extent of his own corruption, Ciello may become the investigation’s newest target.

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Prince of the City is one of the best of Sidney Lumet’s many films but it is not as well-known as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, The Verdict, or even The Wiz.  Why is it such an underrated film?  As good as it is, Prince of the City is not always an easy movie to watch.  It’s nearly three hours long and almost every minute is spent with Danny Ciello, who is not always likable and often seems to be on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.  Treat Williams gives an intense and powerful performance but he is such a raw nerve that sometimes it is a relief when Lumet cuts away to Jerry Orbach (as one of Ciello’s partners) telling off a district attorney or to a meeting where a group of prosecutors debate where a group of prosecutors debate whether or not to charge Ciello with perjury.

Prince of the City may be about the police but there’s very little of the typical cop movie clichés.  The most exciting scenes in the movie are the ones, like that scene with all the prosecutors arguing, where the characters debate what “corruption” actually means.  Throughout Prince of the City, Lumet contrasts the moral ambiguity of otherwise effective cops with the self-righteous certitude of the federal prosecutors.  Unlike Lumet’s other films about police corruption (Serpico, Q&A), Prince of the City doesn’t come down firmly on either side.

(Though the names have been changed, Prince of the City was based on a true story.  Ciello’s biggest ally among the investigators, Rick Cappalino, was based on a young federal prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani.)

Prince of the City is dominated by Treat Williams but the entire cast is full of great New York character actors.  It would not surprise me if Jerry Orbach’s performance here was in the back of someone’s mind when he was cast as Law & Order‘s Lenny Briscoe.  Keep an eye out for familiar actors like Lance Henriksen, Lane Smith, Lee Richardson, Carmine Caridi, and Cynthia Nixon, all appearing in small roles.

Prince of the City is a very long movie but it needs to be.  Much as David Simon would later do with The Wire, Lumet uses this police story as a way to present a sprawling portrait of New York City.  In fact, if Prince of the City were made today, it probably would be a David Simon-penned miniseries for HBO.

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A Movie A Day #15: Special Bulletin (1983, directed by Ed Zwick)


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“We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a special report…”

Led by veteran anchor John Woodley, the RBS news team is providing continuing coverage of a developing crisis in Charleston, South Carolina, where terrorists are holding several members of the coast guard, a local new reporter, and his cameraman hostage on a small tugboat.  These are not typical terrorists, though.  Two of them are nuclear scientists.  One of them is a social worker.  Another one is a nationally-renowned poet.  The final terrorist is a former banker robber who was just recently released from prison.  This unlikely group has only two demands: that the U.S. government hand over every single nuclear trigger device at the U.S. Naval Base and that RBS give them a live television feed so that they can explain their actions to the nation.  If either of those demands are not met, a nuclear bomb will be detonated and will destroy Charleston.

This made-for-TV movie was shot on video tape, to specifically make it look like an actual news broadcast.  Though much of the movie seems dated when compared to today’s slick, 24-hour media circus, Special Bulletin was convincing enough that, when it was originally broadcast in 1983, it caused a mini-panic among viewers who missed the opening disclaimer:

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Because the movie deals with the threat of nuclear terrorism instead of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war, it still feels relevant in a way that many of the atomic disaster films of the 1980s do not.  Beyond making an anti-nuclear statement, Special Bulletin is also a critical look at how the news media sensationalizes every crisis, with the RBS news team going from smug complacency to outright horror as the situation continues to deteriorate.  David Clennon and David Rasche are memorable as the two most outspoken of the terrorists and Ed Flanders is perfectly cast as a veteran news anchor struggling to maintain control in the middle of an uncontrollable situation.  Special Bulletin won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Special and can be currently be found on YouTube.

Keep an eye out for Michael Madsen, who shows up 57 minutes in and gets the movie’s best line: “That guy’s a total psycho ward.”

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Shattered Politics #28: Maidstone (dir by Norman Mailer)


Rip Torn in Maidstone

Rip Torn in Maidstone

If you ever find yourself on the campus of the University of North Texas and you need to kill some time, stop by the UNT Library, go up to the second floor, find the biographies, and track down a copy of Peter Manso’s Mailer: His Life and Times.  

Back in December of 2007, at a time when I really should have been studying for my finals, I spent an entire afternoon in the library reading Manso’s book.  I didn’t know much about Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer prize-winning writer and occasional political candidate, beyond the fact that he died that previous November and that a lot of older people who I respected apparently thought highly of his work.  Though Manso’s book had been written 20 years earlier, it still provided an interesting portrait of the controversial author.  It was largely an oral history, full of interviews with people who had known Mailer over the years.  As I skimmed the book, it quickly became apparent that, among other things, Mailer was a larger-than-life figure.

For me, the book was at its most interesting when it dealt with Mailer’s attempts to be a filmmaker.  In the 1960s, Mailer directed three movies.  All three of them also starred Norman Mailer and featured his friends in supporting roles.  All three of them were largely improvised.  And, when released into theaters, all three of them were greeted with derision.

Maidstone, Mailer’s 3rd film, was filmed in 1970.  In the film, Mailer played Norman Kingsley, an avante garde film director who is running for President.  Over the course of one weekend, while also working on a movie about a brothel, Norman meets with potential supporters and debates the issues.  And, of course, shadowy figures plot to assassinate Norman, not so much because they don’t want him to be President as much as they want him to be a martyr for their vaguely defined cause.

Just based on what I read in Manso’s book, it’s hard not to feel that the making of Maidstone could itself be the basis of a good movie.  Mailer essentially invited all of his friends to his estate and they spent 5 days filming, with no script. It was five days of drinking, drugs, and bad feelings.

At one point, actor and painter Herve Villechaize (who would later play Knick Knack in The Man With The Golden Gun) got so drunk and obnoxious that he was picked up by actor Rip Torn and literally tossed over a fence.  The unconscious Villechaize ended up floating face down in a neighbor’s pool.  After fishing Villechaize out of the pool, the neighbor tossed him back over the fence and shouted, “Norman, come get your dwarf!”

Eventually, after five days, filming fell apart.  Some members of the cast were okay with that.  And one most definitely was not..

Fortunately, Maidstone is currently available on YouTube so I watched it last night.  Unfortunately, the film itself is never as interesting as the stories about what went on behind the cameras.  Maidstone is essentially scene after scene of people talking and the effectiveness of each scene depends on who is in it.  For instance, Norman’s half-brother is played by Rip Torn, a professional actor with a big personality.  The scenes with Torn are interesting to watch because Rip Torn is always interesting to watch.  However, other scenes feature people who were clearly cast because they happened to be visiting the set on that particular day.  And these scenes are boring because, quite frankly, most people are boring.

And then you’ve got Norman Mailer himself.  For an acclaimed writer who was apparently quite a celebrity back in the day, it’s amazing just how little screen presence Norman Mailer had as an actor.  Preening for the camera, standing around shirtless and showing off his hairy back along with his middle-aged man boobs, Mailer comes across as being more than a little pathetic.  He’s at his worst whenever he tries to talk to a woman, giving off a vibe that’s somewhere between creepy uncle and super veiny soccer dad having a midlife crisis.

It’s an uneven film but, for the first half or so, it’s at least interesting as a time capsule.  For those of us who want to know what rich intellectuals were like in the late 60s, Maidstone provides a service.  However, during the second half of the film, it becomes obvious that Mailer got bored.  Suddenly, all pretense towards telling an actual story are abandoned and the film becomes about Mailer asking his cast for their opinion about what they’ve filmed so far.

And then, during the final 15 minutes of the film, Norman Mailer decides to have the cameramen film him as he plays with his wife and children.  This is apparently too much for Rip Torn who, after spending an eternity glaring at Mailer and undoubtedly thinking about everything he could have been doing during those five day if he hadn’t been filming Maidstone, walks up to Mailer, says, “You must die, Kingsley,” and then hits Mailer on the head with a hammer.

This, of course, leads to a long wrestling match between Mailer and Torn and, as the cameras roll, blood is spilled and insults are exchanged.  There’s a lot of differing opinions about whether this final fight was spontaneous or staged.  Having seen the footage, I get the impression that Mailer was caught off guard but that Torn probably let the cameraman know what he was going to do ahead of time.

Regardless, it’s hard to deny that the pride of Temple, Texas, Elmore “Rip” Torn, appears to be the one who came out on top.  After the fight, Mailer and Torn have a lengthy argument that amounts to Rip saying that he had to do it because it was the only way that the film would make sense while Mailer replies with some of the least imaginative insults ever lobbed by a Pulitzer winner.

(So basically, Rip Torn won both the physical and the verbal rounds of the fight.)

Anyway, you can watch the entire Rip Torn/Norman Mailer confrontation below.

Now, while the fight is really the only must-see part of Maidstone, it still has considerable value as a time capsule of the time when it was made.  You can watch it below!