Horror On TV: Suspense 2.5 “Dr. Violet” (dir by Robert Stevens)


I think it’s fairly safe to say that wax museums are inherently creepy.

I mean, don’t get me wrong.  If I see a wax museum off of the side of the road, I’m definitely going to visit it, if just so I can find the Hall of Presidents and give the finger to FDR.  (It’s a long story.)  But that said, wax museums are definitely not some place where you would want to get accidentally locked in.

Well, in tonight’s episode of Suspense, that’s exactly what happens to one unfortunate college student.  AGCK!

This episode originally aired on October 4th, 1949 and it has a very impressive cast that will be familiar to anyone who has ever spent a few hours watching TCM: Anne Francis, Hume Cronyn, Ray Waltson, Evelyn Varden, and Mike Kellin are all featured.

Enjoy!

Spring Breakdown #1: Midnight Express (dir by Alan Parker)


Since it’s currently Spring Break, I figured that I would spend the next two weeks reviewing films about people on vacation.  Some of the films will be about good vacations.  Some of the films will be about bad vacations.  But, in the end, they’ll all be about celebrating those moments that make us yearn for the chance to get away from it all.

Take Midnight Express, for instance.  This 1978 film (which was nominated for six Oscars and won two) tells the story of what happens when a carefree college student named Billy Hayes decides to spend his holiday in Turkey.

When the film begins, Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis), is at an airport in Turkey.  He’s preparing to return home to the United States.  His girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle), informs him that Janis Joplin has just died.  When Billy responds by making a joke, Susan accuses him of not taking anything seriously.  What Susan doesn’t realize is that Billy actually has a lot on his mind.  For one thing, he’s got several bricks of hashish taped around his waist.  He purchased it from a cab driver and he’s planning on selling it to his friends back in the United States.  Unfortunately, Billy’s not quite as clever as he thinks he is.  Because of recent terrorist bombings, the Turkish police are searching everyone before they board their plane.  Billy finds himself standing out in the middle of the runway with his hands up in the air, surrounded by gun-wielding Turkish policemen.

Billy finds himself stranded in a country that he doesn’t understand, being interrogated by men whose language he cannot speak.  An enigmatic American (Bo Hopkins) shows up and assures Billy that he’ll be safe, as long as he identifies the taxi driver who sold him to the drugs.  Billy does so but then makes the mistake of trying to flee from the police.  In the end, it’s the American who captures him and, holding a gun to Billy’s head, tells him not to make another move.

Soon, Billy is an inmate at Sağmalcılar Prison.  He’s beaten when he first arrives and it’s only days later that he’s able to walk and think clearly.  He befriends some of the other prisoners, including a heroin addict named Max (John Hurt) and an idiot named Jimmy (Randy Quaid).  Billy watches as the prisoners are tortured by the fearsome head guard (Paul L. Smith) and listens to the screams of inmates being raped behind closed doors.  After being told that his original four-year sentence has been lengthened to a 30-year sentence, Billy starts to degenerate.  When Susan visits, Billy end up pathetically masturbating in front of her.  When another prisoner taunts Billy, Billy bites out the man’s tongue, an act that we see in both close up and slow motion.  If Billy has any hope of regaining his humanity, he has to escape.  He has to catch what Jimmy calls the “midnight express…..”

Midnight Express is a brutal and rather crude film.  Though it may have been directed by a mainstream director (Alan Parker) and written by a future Oscar-winner (Oliver Stone), Midnight Express is a pure grindhouse film at heart.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the film.  The camera lingers over every act of sadism while Giorgio Moroder’s synth-based score pulsates in the background.  When Billy grows more and more feral and brutal in his behavior, it’s hard not to be reminded of Lon Chaney, Jr. turning into The Wolf Man.  The film may be incredibly heavy-handed but it’s nightmarishly effective, playing out with the intensity of a fever dream.

As for the cast, Brad Davis wasn’t particularly likable or sympathetic as Billy.  On the one hand, he’s a victim of an unjust system, betrayed by his own country and tortured by another.  On the other hand, Billy was an idiot who apparently thought no one would notice all that hash wrapped around his chest.  That said, Davis’s unlikable screen presence actually worked to the film’s advantage.  If you actually liked Billy, the film would be unbearable to watch.  Before Davis was cast, Dennis Quaid and Mark Hamill were both considered for the role.  If either of those actors has been cast, Midnight Express would be too intense and disturbing to watch.  For instance, it would be depressing to watch Dennis Quaid rip a man’s tongue out of his mouth.  You would be like, “No, Mr. Quaid, you’ll never recover your humanity!”  But when Brad Davis does it, you’re just like, “Eh.  It was bound to happen sometime.”

For more effective are John Hurt and Bo Hopkins.  Hurt and Hopkins both have small roles but they both make a big impression, if just because they’re the only two characters in the film who aren’t either yelling or crying all of the time.  While everyone else is constantly cursing their imprisonment, Hurt is quietly sardonic.  As for Hopkins, we’re supposed to dislike him because he’s with the CIA and he sold out Billy.  But honestly, no one made Billy tape all that hash to his chest.  Finally, you’ve got Randy Quaid and Paul L. Smith, who both glower their way through the film.  Smith is wonderfully evil while Randy Quaid is …. well, he’s Randy Quaid, the loudest American in Turkey.

Midnight Express was such a success at the box office that it caused an international incident.  There’s not a single positive Turkish character to be found in the entire film and it’s impossible not to feel that the film is not only condemning Turkey’s drug policies but that it’s also condemning the entire country as well.  The Turkish prisoners are portrayed as being just as bad as the guards and even Billy’s defense attorney comes across as being greedy and untrustworthy.  Watching the film today can be an awkward experience.  It’s undeniably effective but it’s impossible not to cringe at the way anyone who isn’t from the west is portrayed.  In recent years, everyone from director Alan Parker to screenwriter Oliver Stone to the real-life Billy Hayes has apologized for the way that the Turkish people were portrayed in the film.

Despite the controversy, Midnight Express was a huge box office success and it was nominated for best picture.  It lost to another controversial film about people imprisoned in Asia, The Deer Hunter.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #55: The Tenth Level (dir by Charles S. Dubin)


10thlevelI first found out about the 1976 made-for-tv movie The Tenth Level while I was doing some research on the Milgram experiment.  The Milgram experiment was a psychological experiment that was conducted, under the direction of Prof. Stanley Milgram, in 1961.  Two test subjects were placed in two separate room.  One test subject was known as the “Learner” and he was hooked up to a machine that could deliver electric shocks.  The other subject was the “Teacher.”  His job was to ask the Lerner questions and, whenever the Learner gave an incorrect answer, the Teacher was supposed to correct the error by pushing a button and delivering the electric shock.  With each incorrect answer, the shock would get worse.

Of course, what the Teacher did not know was that the Lerner was an associate of Prof. Milgram’s and that pushing the button did not actually deliver a shock.  The Lerner would intentionally give wrong answers and, after the Teacher pushed each subsequent button, the Lerner would groan in pain and eventually beg the Teacher to stop.  The test was to see how long the Teacher would continue to push the buttons.

The study found that 65% of the Teachers, even when the Lerner stopped responding, continued to push the buttons until delivering the experiment’s final 450-volt shock.  It was a surprising result, one that is often cited as proof that ordinary people will do terrible things if they’re ordered to do so by an authority figure.

The Tenth Level is loosely based on the Milgram experiment.  Prof. Stephen Turner (William Shatner) is a psychology professor who conducts a similar experiment.  Turner claims that he’s looking for insight into the nature of blind obedience but some of his colleagues are skeptical.  His best friend (Ossie Davis) thinks that Turner is mostly trying to deal with the guilt of being a WASP who has never had to deal with discrimination.  His ex-wife, Barbara (Lynn Carlin), thinks that the experiment is cruel and could potentially traumatize anyone who takes part in it.  Turner, meanwhile, is fascinated by how random people react to being ordered to essentially murder someone.

Eventually, a good-natured carpenter/grad student, Dahlquist (Stephen Macht), volunteers.  At first, Turner refuses to allow Dahlquist to take part because he’s previously met Dahlquist and Dahlquist is a friend of one of Tuner’s assistants.  However, Dahlquist literally begs to be allowed to take part in the experiment and Turner relents.

Unfortunately, the pressure of administering shocks proves to be too much for Dahlquist and he has a 70s style freak-out, which essentially means that the screen changes colors and everything moves in slow motion as he smashes up the room.  As a result of Dalquist’s violent reaction, Turner is called before a disciplinary committee and basically put on trial.

The Tenth Level is an interesting film.  On the one hand, the subject matter is fascinating and, if nothing else, the film deserves some credit for trying to seriously explore the ethics of psychological experimentation.  On the other hand, this is a film from 1976 that features William Shatner giving numerous monologues about the nature of man.  And, let us not forget, this is William Shatner before he apparently developed a sense of humor about himself.  That means that, in this film, we get the Shatner that inspired a thousand impersonations.  We get the Shatner who speaks precisely and who enunciates every single syllable.  And let’s not forget that Shatner is paired up with Ossie Davis, an actor who was never exactly subtle himself.

The end result is a film that is both thought-provoking and undeniably silly.  This is a film that will make you think even while it inspires you to be totally snarky.

(Also of note, John Travolta supposedly makes his film debut in the Tenth Level.  Apparently, he plays a student.  I have yet to spot him.)

You can watch it below!

Embracing the Melodrama #25: The People Next Door (dir by David Greene)


people_next_door

For the past week, I’ve been reviewing — in chronological order — fifty of the most, for reasons good and bad, memorable  film melodramas of all time.  I started with a film from 1916 called Where Are My Children? and now, as we reach the halfway mark, we also reach the 70s.  There were several reasons why I wanted to start the 70s with the 1970 drugs-in-the-suburbs melodrama, The People Next Door.  First off, not many people seem to have heard of it and I always enjoy discovering and sharing previously obscure films.  But, even more importantly, The People Next Door stars Eli Wallach, the great character actor who recently passed away at the age of 98.  Needless to say, Wallach is great in The People Next Door but then again, when wasn’t Wallach great?

At first glance, the Masons appears to be your typical suburban family.  Patriarch Arthur (Eli Wallach) may be a bit strict but he works hard to provide his family with a good life.  Wife Gerrie (Julie Harris) may seem to be a bit nervous at times but she still works hard to maintain a perfect home.  Son Artie (Stephen McHattie) may have long hippie hair and he does devote a lot of time to his band but otherwise, he seems to be a good kid.  And then there’s 16 year-old Maxie (Deborah Winters), who is blonde and pretty and overall the ideal American girl.  Even better the Masons live next door to the friendly Hoffmans, perfect David Hoffman (Hal Holbrook), his perfect wife Tina (Cloris Leachman), and their perfect teenage son, Sandy (Don Scardino).

But guess what?

Nobody’s perfect!

Arthur is actually a smug and overbearing bully whose constant bragging hides his own dissatisfaction with how his life has turned out.  He is jealous of his son’s future and his over protectiveness of his daughter takes on a distinctly disturbing tone as the film progresses.  Arthur is also having an affair with his secretary (Rue McClanahan).

Gerrie knows about Arthur’s affair but chooses to look the other way.  She goes through her day in a haze of smoke provided by the cigarettes that she is constantly smoking.  Like Arthur, she cannot understand her children.  Unlike Arthur, she does realize that she doesn’t have all the answers.

Artie may be a good kid but he feels totally and thoroughly alienated from the rest of the family and, because of his long hair, he is the constant subject of Arthur’s abuse.

And then there’s Maxie, who everyone believes to be perfect and wholesome until one night when she’s discovered tripping on LSD.  Arthur immediately assumes that Artie must have given his sister the drugs and kicks Artie out of the house.  However, what Arthur doesn’t realize, is that Maxie is actually getting the drugs from clean-cut Sandy.  Sandy doesn’t use himself but he has no problem with dealing.

To Arthur and Gerrie’s shock, Maxie tells them that she’s been using drugs for a while and she’s sexually active as well!  When Arthur subsequently discovers Maxie snorting cocaine and living with a naked biker, it’s naturally time for everyone to get into family therapy.  Unfortunately, the therapy doesn’t really help that much and soon, Maxie is again dropping acid and dancing naked on the front lawn…

As you can probably guess from the description above, The People Next Door is one of those families-in-crisis melodramas where everything that possibly can be wrong with a family is wrong with this family.  It’s always easy to dismiss well-intentioned films like this and The People Next Door has its share over-the-top moments.  But, at the same time, the film actually works better than most of the Suburban Hell melodramas of the early 70s.

That’s largely due to the performances, with Eli Wallach in particular giving an explosive performance as an all too plausible monster and Hal Holbrook and Cloris Leachman very believably bringing to life another family which turns out to be not quite as ideal as they first appear to be.  And then there’s Deborah Winters, who starts out as being so mannered that you think she’s going to give a bad performance but then, as the film progresses, you realize that Maxie is the one giving the performance because that’s the only way she can survive her “perfect” family.

I first came across The People Next Door on YouTube and, considering how much I love exposing people to obscure films, I was really looking forward to sharing it with you on this site.  But guess what?  In the three weeks between me watching this film and me staring this post, The People Next Door was taken down from the site.  I guess somebody is really dedicating to protecting the copyright on a film that hardly anybody in the world has actually heard of.

So, unfortunately, I can only share the trailer.

Watch it below!

Embracing The Melodrama #22: The Incident (dir by Larry Peerce)


The Incident

The 1967 film The Incident could just as easily have been called Train of Fools.  Much like Ship of Fools, it’s an ensemble piece in which a group of people — all of whom represent different aspect of modern society — find themselves trapped in their chosen mode of transportation and forced to deal with intrusions from the outside world.

That intrusion comes in the form of two sociopaths who have decided to spend the entire ride tormenting their fellow passengers.  The more dominant of the two is Joe (played by Tony Musante, who would later star in Dario Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage), who the film hints might also be a pedophile.  His partner is Artie (Martin Sheen), who is less intelligent than Joe but just as viscous.  (And yes,even though he does a good job in the role,  it is odd to see an intelligent and reportedly very nice actor like Martin Sheen playing a character who is both so evil and so stupid.)

Among the passengers:

Bill (Ed McMahon) and Helen (Diana Van Der Vills) are only on the train because Bill refused to pay the extra money to take a taxi back home. Now, they’re stuck on the train with their young daughter who, in one of the film’s more disturbing scenes, Joe starts to show an interest in.

Teenage Alice (Donna Mills) is on a date with the far more sexually experienced Tony (Victor Arnold).  When Joe and Artie start to harass her, her date proves himself to be pretty much useless.

Douglas McCann (Gary Merrill) is a recovering alcoholic who, before Artie and Joe got on the train, was spending most of his time scornfully watching Kenneth (Robert Otis), a gay man who previously attempted to pick Doug up at the train station and who will eventually fall victim to one of Artie’s crueler jokes.

Muriel Purvis (Jan Sterling) resents her meek husband, Harry (Mike Kellin) and see the entire incident as another excuse to cast doubts upon his manhood.

Sam and Bertha Beckerman (played by Jack Gilford and Thelma Ritter) are an elderly Jewish couple who, over the course of a lifetime, have already had to deal with far too many bullies.  Sam’s attempt to stand up to Joe and Artie results in both he and his wife being trapped on the train.

Arnold (Brock Peters) and Joan (Ruby Dee) are the only black people on the train.  Arnold, at first, enjoys watching the white people fight among each other and even turns down a chance to get off the train because he finds it to be so entertaining.  But finally, Joe turns on him as well.

And then there’s the two soldiers, streetwise Phil (Robert Bannard) and his best friend, Felix (Beau Bridges).  Felix speaks with a soft Southern accent and has a broken arm.

And finally, there’s the bum.  When we first see the bum (Henry Proach) he is asleep.  He doesn’t even wake up when Joe and Artie attempt to set him on fire.

One-by-one, Joe and Artie attack and humiliate every single person on the train.  The other passengers, for the most part, remain passive.  Even when some try to stand up to Joe and Artie, their fellow passengers don’t offer to help.  It’s only when one last passenger finally stands up to the two that the rest of them show any reaction at all and even then, it’s not necessarily the reaction that anyone was hoping for.

The Incident, which shows up on TCM occasionally, is a heavy-handed but effective look at what happens when good people choose to do nothing in the face of evil.  Joe and Artie can be viewed as stand-ins for any number of distasteful groups or ideologies and both Tony Musante and Martin Sheen are believable as dangerous (if occasionally moronic) petty criminals.  For that matter, the entire film is well-acted with the entire cast managing to bring life to characters that, in lesser hands, could have come across as being one-dimensional.  The entire film basically takes place in that one subway car but fortunately, the harsh black-and-white cinematography and the continually roaming camera all come together to keep things visually interesting.

The Incident may not be a great film (it’s occasionally bit too stagey and, after watching the first 30 minutes, you’ll be able to guess how the movie is going to end) but it’s still one to keep an eye out for.

Martin Sheen in The Incident