[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 1 – The Amityville Horror (1979)

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Cast: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Murray Hamilton

Screenplay: Sandor Stern

117 mins. Rated R.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Music, Original Score

 

Another year, another set of horror movies. Welcome back to the 31 Days of Horror. Let’s get started with what is considered a classic of the horror film world, the start to what is likely the longest running horror film franchises in history (in terms of actual quantity of releases): The Amityville Horror. The franchise ended up spawning 12 more official installments with numerous other films which utilized the Amityville name for brand recognition, but all of it starts back in 1979 with the first film, directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, Question 7), based on the novel by Jay Anson, which in turn is supposedly based on the true story of the Lutzes. Now, I’m not here to discuss the validity of this “true” story. That’s not my area. I’m here to talk about the film. I’ve said it before, but in the grand scheme of things, nobody cares about the book and nobody cares about the true story when they see a movie (yes, some people do, but we are dealing with the outliers and not the trend here). When people see a movie, they are there for entertainment through story and character. Now, let’s decide if The Amityville Horror is able to provide that.

In 1975, George (James Brolin, Traffic, TV’s Life in Pieces) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder, Superman, Black Christmas) have purchased a home in Amityville, New York. As they settle in with Kathy’s three kids from her previous marriage, strange incidents begin occurring around the new home. Father Delaney (Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night, On the Waterfront), brought in to bless the home, becomes violent ill and experiences an ill will in the house. Kathy notices George’s frequent waking up at 3:15 every morning, and his slow mental deterioration from the man she married. As they learn about the house’s horrible past, it becomes clear that a malevolent force wishes death upon them.

My primary criticism of The Amityville Horror is that I just don’t find it scary, even in the tonal sense. The idea of someone going crazy in their own home, as George finds himself, is gripping, but I don’t get the sense of anything really causing it other than a feeling. I would contrast his character arc with that of Jack Torrance in both the novel, The Shining, and the Stanley Kubrick film. In Stephen King’s novel, Jack is seen as a man struggling with himself and his vices. His slow descent into madness feels believable because we see what is driving him mad and how it ties to his background. In Kubrick’s film (which is very different in its characterization of Jack), we see a man already on the tipping point of insanity who really pushes himself over the edge. Both interesting takes on this type of character arc, but in Amityville, we are presented with George Lutz, a seemingly normal man who goes a little wacko because of…something. Sure, I can understand a feeling, a stress over trying to father three kids who aren’t his by blood, the financial strain of new homeownership, but I never felt like the connection between these elements is made. George just gets a little crazy.

The only characters in the film that gave me a sense of the house’s evil were Father Delaney and Kathy’s aunt, a nun. Both of them related the unusual events in ways that made me feel like this was an evil home. Delaney’s reaction is shown, while the nun’s is merely told to us, and I felt that both worked. In fact, I would say that Delaney’s blessing scene, which occurs very early in the film, is the most frightening sequence. A man of God is trapped within the house’s walls, and he has been caught off guard by a sense of evil he’s never felt before. A similar idea is played with as the nun later relates how sick she became just be being in proximity with the home.

I would have like the film to focus more on the financial instability of the Lutzes through all this. This is not an uncommon critique. In fact, much of the dialogue of the film is connected, in one way or another, to finances, but I don’t think Rosenberg, as a director, marries this with the paranormal activity taking place. Financial strain is a very scary, very real pain that many, including this writer, have experienced. It’s just as scary as a haunted house, and the idea that the mental state that money problems bring being used as a supernatural target is very unnerving. I just never felt like we got there in the narrative.

Beyond all that, the film is simply too long. The climactic finale is quite thrilling, but getting there is kind of a slog. There are great scenes that build the tension, and then there are moments where all of that tension is lost in a bungled narrative that focuses on the wrong elements.

Thankfully, we are treated to Lalo Schifrin’s powerful score which keeps the story somewhat blanketed in an eerie and unhappy layer. Where the story fails, the score succeeds, at times being the only consistently strong element. Without the score, the film could collapse in on itself.

As I mentioned, this is not to say the film doesn’t have merit beyond the score. There are things to like, but there are also a fair amount that doesn’t work. The Amityville Horror lies in the middle of things, never being as great as its reputation, but never being immemorable among the hundreds of spooky house movies littering the past several decades. It’s merely okay, good for an initial viewing but little more than that.

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Oscar Madness Monday] Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon

117 mins. Rated R.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Effects, Visual Effects
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Art Direction – Set Decoration

IMDb Top 250: #53 (as of 4/29/2020)

 

Recently, in April, Alien fans everywhere celebrated Alien Day on 4/26 (as in LV-426, the moon where the Facehugger Eggs are first discovered in the original film), and it seems like a great time to revisit that very important film, one that changed many minds about the strength of horror films and sci-fi films.

The commercial transport ship Nostromo is returning to Earth with Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt, Contact, Lucky) and the other six members of the crew in stasis sleep. They are awoken by the ship’s computer it detects a transmission coming from a nearby moon. The crew sends a team down to discover the origins of the transmission, and what they uncover on the planet is more horrifying than any of them have ever known.

This comparison has been made many a time, but Alien shares a lot with Jaws. Now, everyone is going to say that the less-is-more comparison is obvious, but I’m looking at it from a different angle. The use of darkness and perspective in particular highlights all of the strengths of the film, particularly in their central monster. Director Ridley Scott (The Martian, All the Money in the World) understands what will work and what won’t, and he utilizes his tools well. Looking at some of the behind-the-scenes photos of the film, and particularly the xenomorph (played by Bolaji Badejo) showcase that this movie could’ve looked damn goofy, but the way it was shot and the way it was lit helps to focus the mood of the film, and it still, to this day, looks gorgeous as much as it looks gruesome.

Actor John Hurt on the set of “Alien”. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

The cast is fantastic, with specific emphasis thrown toward Sigourney Weaver (Avatar, Ghostbusters II) as Ripley, the warrant officer, and Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 1066: The Battle for Middle Earth) as Ash, the science officer. Everyone gets at least one great moment in the film.

The script is very strong and runs along very smoothly. This movie just cruises along, with no extra fat. Looking at Alien as a screenplay, it could very simply boil down into a slasher film as the xenomorph moves through the ship trying to pick off the crew one-by-one, but thankfully, the Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, The Return of the Living Dead) screenplay is stacked with flavor and atmosphere that Scott was able to play off of.

Ridley Scott’s strong directing and Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay combined to make a truly excellent atmospheric horror film. This is one that has aged like a fine wine, and it features some incredible set pieces, including the dinner scene with John Hurt’s (1984, The Elephant Man) intense performance is still one of the most shocking movie moments of all time. This is a movie that shows that not everything needs explaining and that, in fact, some films are stronger without all the answers. Stick with the Theatrical Cut as Scott’s Director’s Cut no longer makes full canonical sense within the confines of the xenomorph’s life cycle, but both versions of Alien are well-worth your time.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, click here.

For my review of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, click here.

[Stephen King Day] Salem’s Lot (1979)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Cast: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres

Screenplay: Paul Monash

184 mins. Rated PG.

 

Today, we look at the second official adaptation of Stephen King’s work in Salem’s Lot, from director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist). Salem’s Lot premiered in a 2-part miniseries back in the late 1970s, and I watched the complete cut of the film in order to best collect my thoughts. Let me be clear, this review is for the 184-minute cut of the film as opposed to the shortened European cut released to cinemas after its US release.

Salem’s Lot is the story of Ben Mears (David Soul, Filth, TV’s Starsky and Hutch), successful novelist, who returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine to write a book on the Marsten House, a creepy old house on the hilltop at the edge of town. Mears discovers that the house has already been rented out to Richard K. Straker (James Mason, North by Northwest, Lolita), a mysterious new resident who is planning on opening an antiques store in town with his absent partner, Kurt Barlow. After moving into a boarding house, Mears quickly becomes acquainted with the townspeople, especially the attractive Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia, Die Hard, TV’s Parenthood). Mears also strikes up a friendship with a former teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres, All Quiet on the Western Front, Battle for the Planet of the Apes). But all is not well in Salem’s Lot. People start going missing while others come down with a mysterious illness. Mears and company suspect the true cause is something far more horrific when victims appear with two puncture wounds on their necks and the truth behind the small town makes itself known.

Now, I thoroughly enjoyed the original Stephen King novel on which this movie is based, and while I enjoyed the adaptation, you can easily tell the budget is not where it should be. This being fairly early in Tobe Hooper’s career, it is pretty obvious that he doesn’t have the tools in place to make this film what it needs to be. I liked David Soul’s portrayal of Ben Mears, and the chemistry with Bonnie Bedelia’s Susan Norton works well enough. I even enjoyed James Mason’s take on Straker. Fred Willard even appears in a small role as the slimy real estate agent who resides in Salem’s Lot.

The losses in the film comes from the tone and the excitement. Hooper seems to be checking off important scenes that build narrative but the actual fear and horror are so few and far between that the film just doesn’t have that…uh, bite.

There’s also a decision in the design of our main vampire (okay, he’s on the cover, deal with it) as a Nosferatu-type misses the mark of the character and becomes fairly flat and without villainy. He’s creepy to be true, but it seeks to remind viewers that this has been done before, and better.

Salem’s Lot appears to appeal to fans of the source novel in more ways that a general audience, but it is missing that classic Stephen King feeling in favor of exposition overload. It’s just missing that fear and horror, so much so that the PG rating becomes a slap in the face. This is one I would only recommend to fans of the novel. All others need not apply.

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, click here.

 

 

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Mad Max (1979)

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Director: George Miller

Cast: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, Roger Ward

Screenplay: James McCausland, George Miller

88 mins. Rated R.

 

Legends get passed down from generation to generation, but a legend is only as good as the storyteller who tells it. The storyteller can make a legend. The storyteller can break a legend. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson, Braveheart, The Expendables 3) is the stuff of legends, as is the series that defined his status.

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In Mad Max, the first in the series created by George Miller (Happy Feet Two, Babe: Pig in the City), we meet Max Rockatansky as a normal man. In the later films, he is presented as a myth, but here we see Max as a vengeful and angry man looking for justice in a world that no longer contains it. He plays cat-and-mouse and mouse-and-cat with the malicious Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Moby Dick, Sleeping Beauty) as he loses everything close to him.

It’s hard to discuss Mad Max without spoilering a lot, but I’m going to try to get through it. George Miller absolutely commands this film and creates a wild and wily experience with some truly incredible action sequences. He also creates a likable flawed hero and a disturbed monstrous villain in Toecutter.

What sets Mad Max apart from the later films in the series is that the sequels are told from someone else’s perspective, whereas Mad Max is an origin story to a legend. It creates a character that is relatable as he slowly becomes larger than life.

Mel Gibson isn’t at his best here, but his skills develop as his performance progresses. George Miller gives him plenty to play with, though.

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Mad Max is worth seeing for its insanity. This film is pure insanity. It is the weakest of the franchise to this point, but it works as an origin story and a story of revenge very well. No one will tell you it is perfect, but it is the strangest cheese that sometimes tastes the best.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

[Happy 35th Birthday!] Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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Director: Robert Wise

Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins

Screenplay: Harold Livingston

132 mins. Rated PG for sci-fi action and mild language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Art Direction – Set Direction
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Effects – Visual Effects
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Music, Original Score

 

When Firefly was cancelled prematurely, fans fought hard to have their show brought back in any way, shape, or form. Eventually, the powers that be granted us Serenity. People tend to forget that the same thing happened on an even grander scale over twenty years prior when Star Trek, about a five-year mission into space, ended abruptly after only three seasons. When, many years later, the idea came about to resurrect the Enterprise for a feature film, fans were ecstatic. If only they knew. If only they knew…

startrekthemotionpicture1979c

Star Trek: The Motion Picture picks up with the completion of the Enterprise’s five-year mission. Several members of the crew have gone on to other work. That is, until a mysterious presence in deep space in a massive cloud of energy destroys several Klingon ships and has its sights set for Earth. Recently promoted Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner, TV’s $#*! My Dad Says, Escape from Planet Earth) takes over command of the Enterprise from its new Captain Decker (Stephen Collins, TV’s 7th Heaven, The Three Stooges) and joins up with Spock (Leonard Nimoy, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Land of the Lost) and the rest of the crew to discover its origins and, if need be, destroy it.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was put together with one big mistake. It tries to be two things. It tries to stretch out its television show length without adding enough in, and it tries to be 2001: A Space Odyssey. It tries and fails. This movie is a mess. I feel as though screenwriter Harold Livingston didn’t know enough about the series to craft a meaningful new chapter. I feel as though Gene Roddenberry was unwittingly burying his work under layers of convolution. I feel as though Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) didn’t understand what he was doing.

The cast performs admirably, and there isn’t a whole lot of issue to be had with the cinematography. What really kills this film is the editing and pacing of it all. My God, it just doesn’t end! I think they finished this film 35 years ago and that’s how long I’ve been watching it! There are sequences, like Spock’s infamous spacewalk, that are meant to build tension but just end up pooping out on trying to be spectacular.

The score here is pretty sweet, and serves to invigorate the series for future installments, but it does little to invigorate this tale.

And what’s the deal with those costumes? My girlfriend said it best. It looks like these characters are heading to a Star Trek-themed sleepover and are wearing their pajamas. Terrible look, which was thankfully rectified for the sequels.

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All in all, Star Trek: The Motion Picture gave us Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and in that way, I am grateful. Unfortunately, it also gave us Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and in that way, I am angry. This is an entry which does nothing to enhance the series it is in. Best to just skip to Khan.

 

1.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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