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A Hard Day's Night

"The Beatles...starring in their first full-length, hilarious, action-packed film!" (trailer come-on)
Vehicle for the rock-and-roll sensations from Liverpool has John, Paul, George and Ringo arriving in London, attending a party, rehearsing for a television show, meeting fans. Not much in the way of "action", but the plot is easily dismissible, anyway. It's the cheeky impudence of the Fab Four's personalities and their music which makes this a happy event. Gilbert Taylor's stunning black-and-white cinematography still impresses today. Two Oscar nominations: for George Martin's music scoring and Alun Owen's original screenplay. *** from ****

Bohemian Rhapsody

The CliffsNotes version of the making of a superstar...
Rock-bio on the formation of British rock band Queen, led by an incredibly self-assured baggage handler at Heathrow Airport named Farrokh Bulsara, he of the protruding front teeth, a young man disdainful of his Indian-British-Persian heritage. Bulsara lucks into the lead singer's slot with a pub band called Smile in 1970, after the original vocalist leaves for greener pastures; the next thing we know, the band has recorded a self-financed demo and is being eyed by a high-profile manager. This is when Bulsara legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury; he tells his horrified father of this in an incredibly static scene at a family gathering that includes his bandmates and girlfriend (Freddie boasts, "I even had it changed on my passport", as if doing all this was akin to changing one's shirt). Soon, the band has been rechristened Queen (apparently at Freddie's suggestion, though this happens off-screen) and has landed a record deal, finding themselves on tour in the US. This narrative is hurried along at a rapid pace, at the expense of the drama. Though the movie runs just over 2 hours, there's far too little history of the band in favor of concert reenactments and a blurry montage of Queen's rise to prominence. There's also the proverbial scene of Freddie telling his sweetheart that he's bisexual (with the girl giving him the standard "why me?" reaction). The middle portion of the film is the weakest--it's difficult recalling any specific scene from this section in retrospect--but the prologue and epilogue centering on the band's comeback performance at Live Aid in 1985 are pretty fabulous. Rami Malek was an excellent choice to play Mercury; his false front teeth are a marvelous attribute and he's got Freddie's moves down (he actually looks the most like Freddie Mercury in profile or when he's wearing tinted sunglasses--the eyes give the actor away). The rest of the band is equally good: Gwilym Lee as Brian May, Queen's lead guitarist; Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, their drummer; and Joseph Mazzello as bassist John Deacon. Director Bryan Singer probably did his homework and mounted this biography with great interest and care, but the big dramatic scenes are sketchily-drawn. Singer does well by his cast, letting them strut their stuff to Queen's incredible soundtrack, but there's a void in this movie that the music cannot fill. Winner of four Oscars: Malek as Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. **1/2 from ****

I, Tonya

Despite ham-handed attempts to be winking or cute, a ballsy bio
The pretty little ice princesses in skating competitions around Portland in the 1980s find themselves competing with a rough-hewn, cigarette-smoking, foul-mouthed dynamo--one, Tonya Harding--whose specialty is the enviable triple axel. There is one major obstacle for our young heroine: the pristine sweethearts of the ice are walloping her in scores because, as one judge says, strictly off the record, "It isn't all about the skating." Years later, after finishing a dismal 4th at the 1992 Winter Olympics, Harding is granted "a second chance" when it's announced the Olympics will be returning in just two more years instead of four. Cleaning up her act (somewhat), and leaning on her abusive-but-obsessed ex-husband for support, Harding hopes to topple her main competitor, Nancy Kerrigan--a sometime-partyer who otherwise knows how to play by the rules; fate, however, intervenes infamously once Tonya's former-spouse and his low-life buddy decide Tonya needs a little help. Salty, ballsy biography of Harding (Margot Robbie), her tough-as-nails mama (Oscar winner Allison Janney) and her dumber-than-dirt husband (Sebastian Stan) gets the white-trash milieu down right, while the ice-skating sequences are pumped with excitement. Still, director Craig Gillespie goes a little cute on the cheeky asides, opening with 'funny', contradictory interviews of the principals, then flashing back in time to Tonya as a (soft) four-year-old skating under the thumb of her scheming mother. Perhaps Gillespie finally figured out what we surmise by the halfway mark: there isn't enough material here to sustain a feature (perhaps "I, Tonya" would've had more impact as a cable movie?). The director, the screenwriter, Steven Rogers, and the talented cast just about pull it off; you certainly don't end up caring about these unsentimental characters, but that's part of the enjoyment. Nobody needs to poke fun at them or look down on them--these mean, ignorant rednecks are funny enough on their own without any additional maliciousness--and watching them chasing their own tails in search of fame and fortune is the stuff of rich black comedy. Three Oscar nominations in all, including Robbie as Best Actress.


A pro-environment, pro-Indian, anti-government and big business monster movie...calling Billy Jack!
For anyone still doubting the cruelty of show business, consider this tacky thriller was directed by John Frankenheimer, once an A-list filmmaker of merit reduced in 1979 to making a monster movie. Tenement doctor accepts a government job easing tensions in the forests of Maine, where lumber czars are taking land away from the Indian tribe; meanwhile, toxic waste attributed to the business has created its own rampaging monster, which looks like a melting grizzly bear and walks upright like a man. Depressing, distress-laden nonsense. One figures screenwriter David Seltzer had to be kidding; he's so heavy-handed with his messages, he even gives the doctor a pregnant wife afraid to tell her husband of her condition (he thinks there's enough people in the world already!). Good actors Robert Foxworth (looking a bit like Grizzly Adams himself), Talia Shire and Armand Assante are wasted. Assante, the stern, solemn mouthpiece for the Native-Americans, fights everybody in his path and gets kicked in the crotch for his trouble. Seltzer seems to be asking, "Who's worse, the lumber lunkheads or the beast in the forest?" Save a kick for Seltzer, who must have penned this for the paycheck. * from ****


Obviously a triumph of technical achievement...but it is artistry in a vacuum
In a castle by the sea in North East England, a present-day married couple--the husband a milquetoast Englishman, bald with glasses and skinny legs, and his wife a fiery French lass, barefoot in blue jeans and with untamed hair--play unwilling hosts to a wounded American gangster on the run with his partner, who has just expired in the kitchen. The wife berates her weaselly spouse for not standing up to the raspy-voiced intruder, who needs the couple's help pushing his defunct car into the barn and burying his friend. Later, he poses as their caretaker once friends unexpectedly drop by. Interesting directorial effort by Roman Polanski, who also co-authored the screenplay, is beautifully shot in crystalline black-and-white by Gilbert Taylor and features sharply-observed flickers of drama, black comedy, and of nature (as with 1962's "Knife in the Water", Polanski displays an unerring talent for capturing the sea, the changing sky, the gulls in the air and the wind whipping through the sea grass). The picture would seem to have a great deal to recommend it, including fully-invested performances by all the principals, but the long, unbroken takes and the rambling dialogue sections tend to flatten the film out. There's also an unnecessarily bizarre (and unfunny, if it's meant to be comedic) sequence wherein nerdy Donald Pleasence is unable to find his pajamas and his wife dresses him instead in her nightie (complete with mascara around his eyes and lipstick). This is meant, possibly, to show that the husband is easily led into humiliating himself, and also for the gangster to call him a "fairy" and thereby display his dominance. While Polanski, his cinematographer and his production designer ensure a terrific-looking film, the characters remain ciphers (with no intriguing qualities) and the story loses momentum as a result. ** from ****


Cryptic crosswords
Flashy, empty romantic drama-lite has Dirk Bogarde in good form as Sebastian, a brilliant mathematician in London who supervises an all-female staff of cryptologists (or, decoders) to crack complex codes for British Intelligence. The opening scenes featuring job interviews followed by a new group of hires on their first day (including university dropout Susannah York, who has a keen mind for deciphering letters and numbers) are lively and intriguing. Unfortunately, the rather inert affair which develops on the sidelines between Bogarde and a smitten York stops the film's breathless pace in its tracks. It isn't even a romantic affair that we see--neither highly-charged nor a slow-to-blossom union--and it just gets in the way (though it's meant to tie the finish together with a happy ribbon). Another plot, with Sebastian having tendered his resignation but brought back to the fore with a chance to help the Americans decipher a code from a Russian satellite, is just a tease, while the time away from the office (where the heart of the picture really lies) has drained all the effervescence from the narrative. ** from ****

The Evil

Haunted House 101...bumping and grinding in the day and night, courtesy Roger Corman
100-year-old stone castle in the mountains, left alone by Indian tribes (who dubbed the location "Valley of the Devils), is snapped up by married doctors Richard Crenna (sporting a beard) and Joanna Pettet, who bring in their friends to help refurbish it. There's a German Shepherd, too, who senses something rotten down in the basement. Cheap, glum thriller with false scares followed by shocks, and the usual round of dumb humans who are warned to get the hell outta there but don't listen. Pettet sees an apparition on her very first visit, but doesn't think to tell her husband or the realtor. On her second visit, she sees a statue turn its head in her direction, but agrees with hubby Crenna that it was probably a trick of the light. Horror buffs have been down this road multiple times--and there was a glut of similar stories yet to come--so what does this variation have to offer? An interesting estate, a solid (if somewhat colorless) cast and a few good effects. Gus Trikonis directed (and reportedly wrote the original draft); his pacing is brisk, but he hasn't anything new to add to the genre apart from Victor Buono as a pleased-with-himself Prince of Darkness. *1/2 from ****

Simon, King of the Witches

Never write a warlock a bum check!
Andrew Prine is the whole show in this otherwise thoroughly disappointing occult thriller which has a modern-day warlock named Simon, an actual magician of the black arts, living in a storm sewer and befriended by a young hustler with connections to a decadent circle of people. After one of the wealthy naysayers crosses Simon--and writes a bad check for his tarot reading--the male-witch is challenged to exact his revenge (and he must do so or lose his power). His talents also come in handy when his friend needs help seducing a married lady, or when the district attorney and the chief of police come down hard on the local potheads for using, but soon Simon finds himself at the mercy of his own magic. Prine's pithy, hipster-cool approach to the titular role is almost charming at times, that is until Simon is turned into his own worst enemy. Prine is also the only actor in the cast capable of giving a performance, everyone else being an amateur. Director Bruce Kessler spends far too time on the goof-off dopers sitting in front of their TV set watching the news reports--did he run out of material? Also, the special effects (a bowl of roses wilting, a violent rainstorm, a bright red specter) are sub-par. There's also a curious gay vibe early in the movie that is soon proved to be a false lead: Simon's buddy comes on like a midnight cowboy, a streetwise teen-swinger, but is soon revealed to be just a regular boy with a crush on a girl. In the film's worst scene, he sets up a "faggot" for Simon is to use in a ritual to create a supernatural charge, which is played for a nasty laugh yet shows the direction screenwriter Robert Phippeny was inclined to take: put the plot into motion with a 'realistic' portrait of a magician, then undercut the scenario with crude humor and melodrama. *1/2 from ****

VHS Massacre

The demise of physical media still has many fans and filmmakers hanging their heads in sorrow!
What did the death of VHS movies and video game rentals mean to the low-budget, independent filmmaker? A lot, surprisingly. "Mom and pop" video stores around the country, neighborhood institutions for decades, began shutting their doors in the 2000s, taking a hit from Blockbuster, which took a hit from competitor Hollywood Video, which took their hits from the internet, Netflix and "free" downloading and streaming (i.e., piracy). What goes around comes around: VHS killed Beta because it was less expensive, consumers preferred quantity over quality, and adult movies were exclusive to the VHS format. But, as Carmine Capobianco, co-owner of Funstuff Video, says, "The sell-through (the ratio of the quantity of goods sold by a retail outlet to the quantity distributed to it wholesale) dropped the value of the VHS. Walmart killed the video business. Netflix killed the video business. Computers killed the video business." But how many of us are mourning the loss of our VCRs? I can name several favorite titles of mine that never made that journey from VHS to DVD (which, along with Blu-ray, is also slowing in sales). I can also name many instances where the VHS cover-art was superior to that of comparable DVDs. Are VHS tapes collectible like vinyl records? I never thought so. I don't like the picture quality of VHS, I always hated the occasional tracking issues, and they take up too much valuable space. But the fans, movie makers, actors, distributors and radio personalities brought together in this entertaining documentary obviously feel different, as they reflect on the home-viewing market of the '80s with pride, discussing how independent filmmakers flourished during that time having various outlets for their products. For filmmakers today, starting out small and hoping to build a following, there is no money to be made from streaming. Depressing, yes, but...the VHS may make a comeback yet! And if the industry rallies, watch out "Toxic Avenger"! I'll be the first to buy a brand-new VCR, one with a remote to adjust the tracking from my living room sofa. **1/2 from ****

Love & Mercy

"I think it's an acquired taste." .. "Marriage?" .. "Matzah ball soup."
Brian Wilson, the leader/producer/arranger of the popular 1960s group the Beach Boys, stays behind in the US when his brothers and cousin Mike Love tour Japan in order to write songs and lay down instrumental tracks for their next album, "Pet Sounds". His busy, creative life, tinged with bitterness over his tumultuous relationship with his father (whom the band had fired as their manager), is juxtaposed with Wilson's life in the '80s as a shattered man inching his way towards a healthier, more normal existence. Vivid, though exposition-heavy shuffling of episodes in Wilson's life and career, with a fussy, somewhat overblown production design in the '60s scenes (where Wilson is played by the impeccably-cast Paul Dano) counterbalanced by a deceptively bland calm in the '80s (with John Cusack portraying the older Brian as a possible paranoid schizophrenic under the thumb of possessive therapist Dr. Eugene Landry). The screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, "based on the life of Brian Wilson," is well-researched if overwritten; every introduction to somebody new on-screen is followed by needless dialogue covering who they are and what they do. Dano could not be better as the younger Wilson, emulating the musician's budding genius and unassuming ego with an introspective, nice-guy personality (until he's pushed, when he becomes defensive though never arrogant). By contrast, Cusack doesn't fare as well. Whether or not Cusack and director Bill Pohlad were aiming for an impersonation here doesn't matter, as the actor's brand of nervous self-doubts and sad regrets have been well-documented on film, making it difficult to accept him in this role; under different circumstances--say, in a roman à clef--Cusack's performance would be solid, but his casting here (perhaps for box office cache) doesn't quite work. The film is a near-miss, but entertaining on the whole, with terrific recreations of Wilson and LA's the Wrecking Crew making musical magic in the recording studio. **1/2 from ****

Die Screaming Marianne

"Love's not for you, Marianne!"
Susan George plays Marianne, a young go-go dancer in London apt to running away from any man who takes a liking to her; she's not fickle, exactly, she just has a troubled past with men starting with her nefarious father, nicknamed "the Judge." After a fellow picks Marianne up on the road, she finds herself at the altar about to marry him, but enters their best man's name on the marriage certificate instead. This enrages her intended, who turns snitch to the Judge (and Marianne's wicked half-sister) who's in desperate need of a Swiss bank account number that only Marianne knows, an account that houses legal papers incriminating the Judge in various dirty doings. Written by Murray Smith and directed by Pete Walker (who also produced), the misleadingly-titled "Die Screaming Marianne" (without a comma) isn't a horror movie or a suspense-thriller; it's more of a character portrait-cum-criminal melodrama, one that is curiously coy in its violent and sexual matters. George is seen dancing in a bedazzled bikini under the opening credits, but she doesn't dance again, nor does she get much of a chance to create a genuine character. Marianne is unpredictable in all the wrong ways; she's a question-mark whose actions are confusing, confounding and often reach a dead-end (running off from her new husband in the early morning hours, she hitches a ride, stops to rest in the meadow grass, applies for a dancing job, turns it down when the boss asks to "see the goods," and then returns home). Finale at the Judge's seaside spread in Portugal is even odder, with lustful, jealous Judy Huxtable bent on torturing Marianne to get that account number before killing her. Before long, bodies have piled up, corpses have to be identified, the cops are on their way, and we still have no idea who Marianne is. *1/2 from ****


"Unabashed pop"
In 1966, two brothers from Edinburgh, Scotland, Derek Longmuir (drums) and Alan Longmuir (bass)--presumably working-class, though that's only intimated--form a band named The Saxons, playing teen dances with minimal success. Once their first single, "Keep on Dancing", a cover song borrowed from The Gentrys, hit the charts in 1971 (and the executives at Bell Records smelled real money), the sonic polishing began, first with new band members except for the Longmuirs and the songwriting team of Bill Martin and Phil Coulter (who contributed the cheerleader-chant "Saturday Night" to the Rollers' first album, ignored in Britain but eventually a number-one hit in the US). It took the pop band quite a while to become "overnight sensations" in the UK and their homeland--and even longer in America, which didn't catch on until 1976--but the pandemonium among teen and pre-teen girls, as well as chart success on both continents, was short-lived. Derek and Alan are interviewed here, as is lead vocalist Leslie McKeown and guitarist-turned-bassist Stuart Wood, but lead guitarist and chief songwriter for the group, Erik Faulkner, is absent. This points up something that Carl Hindmarch's mediocre documentary doesn't wish to dwell over: that internal unhappiness in the band was so strong, one of its most important players won't even talk about the group all these years later. Made up mostly of news footage, the film almost makes the case for non-admirers of the Rollers that they were strictly a fan-phenomenon and not much of a music group. Perhaps the absence of Faulkner meant that the filmmakers could not spotlight the band's musical output, instead putting the emphasis on screaming girls, police barricades, etc. There's a good story here, but "Rollermania" doesn't tell it, excitement in the streets only taking you so far--as the Rollers themselves soon found out. ** from ****

The House That Dripped Blood

Not-bad horror compendium, its title being more fearful than the product
Four stories (plus a linking prologue and epilogue) centering around an eerie estate in the English countryside that reflects the personalities of its tenants. "Is it haunted?" one potential renter asks. "Not exactly." Denholm Elliott plays a mystery writer whose latest creation, a mad strangler, haunts him at night; Peter Cushing, mourning the demise of his one great love, finds her replica in a waxworks museum in town; Christopher Lee is afraid of his own daughter, an angelic-seeming child with an interest in witchcraft; and Jon Pertwee is a ham actor of vampire films who becomes a real bloodsucker whenever he wears a vintage cloak. With a screenplay by "Psycho" author Robert Bloch (and an uncredited Russ Jones reportedly penning the second episode), the tales are imaginative and entertaining, although not particularly frightening--and not at all bloody. Two vampires rising from their coffins at midnight is about as scary as it gets. TV's "The Twilight Zone" did this kind of thing much better--these chapters are more on the level of "Night Gallery". Fine performances nevertheless, some twists and turns, and a solid direction by Peter Duffell, who doesn't rush things through and shows a sense of humor as well. **1/2 from ****

And Soon the Darkness

Stylishly glum murder-mystery with no great solution
Jane and Cathy, British student nurses on holiday in the French countryside, take a break from bicycling on a dull stretch of road because Cathy, having eyed a gentleman in the previous village, wants to rest (and give him a chance to catch up). The more pragmatic Jane wants to reach the next town before nightfall and decides to head out on her own. Mystery story from screenwriters Brian Clemens and Terry Nation might either be called a compact thriller or a very unimaginative one--it literally goes nowhere but back and forth from town to the woods, into the woods and back out again. The usually-volatile Pamela Franklin has a rather benign role this time; she's curious unfettered upon discovering her friend has disappeared, courteous and polite to the strangers she tries to make conversation with, and not a very good detective or judge of character. The language barrier is a problem with a picture like this: Franklin must keep explaining everything we already know to the French villagers (potential suspects and wayward eccentrics) and we're not sure if they understand her or maybe just think she's insane (and vice-versa). The picture isn't a horror movie--there's hardly any blood shown--and director Robert Fuest guides it along with a sure hand, but it becomes repetitive. Franklin's Jane goes back to search for her friend, she gets a ride into town, she waits for her ride to come back, she hitches a ride back to the woods, she retrieves her bicycle, and then she goes on to the next town. It isn't an exciting film, nor an important one, but it does have an abundance of atmosphere and has been been produced in a very classy manner. The finale is underwhelming. The case does get solved, yet there are a lot of unanswered questions left in the movie's wake, as well as the feeling that Fuest did his very best to enliven this scenario without a lot of help from his writers. Remade in 2010. ** from ****

Blue Rodeo

Matters of the heart told falsely in shorthand
Kris Kristofferson plays a rancher named Owen Whister, with a big old dog named Hopeful and a new lady neighbor, Ann-Margret, whom he greets while riding up on a horse like a polite cowboy out of a Gary Cooper movie: "I live right over yonder, ma'am, give me a holler if you get into any trouble." She's just out of a bad marriage and has a teenage son who was rendered almost completely deaf in a fall (he jumped into a swimming pool to avoid an argument between his parents, but did he realize it was empty of water?). TV-movie treats every obstacle (marriage, deafness, courtship, mother-son relationships) like a speed-bump, something to conquer with love and persistence. The son is 'almost' deaf, therefore he can speak clearly and converse with Ann-Margret so that she doesn't have to spend the whole movie signing (and when she does, it looks like something she might have picked up one afternoon at a PTA meeting). The romance between the grown-ups is sweet if false, like everything else in "Blue Rodeo".


High-toned soap with cowboy hats
Dalva is the granddaughter of a rancher in Nebraska, white but with an Indian heritage, who is discouraged by grandpa in her love affair with the handsome Native-American boy she wants to marry and whose child she carries. Seems gramps neglected to mention when the two kids first met that they were half-siblings (that might have discouraged them from making love in the hayloft!). 30 years after the baby was taken away by adoption authorities, Dalva wants to pick up the threads of her past. TV-made adaptation of the well-regarded book by Jim Harrison is filled with acting talent (Farrah Fawcett in the lead, Rod Steiger, Carroll Baker, Peter Coyote and Powers Boothe in support), but is pieced together by director Ken Cameron into some sort of soggy bucolic valentine, dappled with sunlight and morning dew. Fawcett is still doing the little-girl act she began with 1994's "The Substitute Wife", only worse (lots of over-the-shoulder, fawn-like glances and coy, trembling smiles). Fawcett reads Dalva's journal in voice-over as if the lazy-hazy descriptions of love were poetry, but the whole thing is strenuous and draining. Laurel Holloman, as an outrageous flirt with a shovel-wielding father, livens up the scenario--why wasn't the movie about her?

Messiah of Evil

Murky horror item is stylish on a nothing budget...admirers see it as bizarrely surreal
Troubled young woman arrives in the oceanside town of Point Dune to visit her artist father and finds the residents behaving strangely; her father seems to be missing, so she allows a swinger and his two groupie-girlfriends to stay with her in his big, empty house. Reading her father's verbose diary entries worries the girl, who begins to suspect something inhuman was overtaking him; meanwhile, the streets and shops in town begin to empty out, all except for small groups of people who travel in packs at night "like wolves". Horror movie, filmed in 1971 but not released for two years, was an early effort by the husband and wife writing-producing-directing team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (who, in 1973, would share the screen-writing credit on "American Graffiti" with George Lucas). With help from good cinematography by Stephen Katz, sharp editing by Scott Conrad and a terrific art direction by Joan Mocine and future filmmaker Jack Fisk(e), the picture looks great and has a creeping sense of low-keyed menace and dread. Neither the characters nor performances are developed, however, and it's unclear how we're supposed to take them (I got no reading on leading lady Mariana Hill, for instance, who is--intentionally?--vacant, lifeless). There are two brilliantly-conceived sequences, one in a brightly-lit but abandoned supermarket and the other in a movie house with red seats. Huyck and Katz ran into some trouble with financing during production, yet their movie doesn't feel choppy or unfinished--it works itself slowly on viewers with its foreboding ambiance and voiceovers, underlined by Phillan Bishop's electronic score--yet it doesn't have any wit or sting. The visuals outweigh the writing, which may as well have been an afterthought. Though this project might have been conceived by the twosome after a double feature screening of "Night of the Living Dead" and "Carnival of Souls", the handful of striking scenes are memorably frightening. ** from ****

Ghost Story: House of Evil
Episode 8, Season 1

Voodoo cookies
Intriguing episode from William Castle's hit-or-miss anthology series "Ghost Story" features Melvyn Douglas in a juicy role playing grandpa to deaf-mute Jodie Foster, secretly communicating with her telepathically while on a visit to see former son-in-law Richard Mulligan, his new wife and family. With a grudge against everyone in the household but Foster, Douglas uses cookie dolls to represent the family members, along with a dollhouse mock-up of their home, to manipulate the little girl into doing harm to the others, starting with the housekeeper who senses his evil. Robert Bloch wrote the teleplay, and maybe only he could get away with using cookies as voodoo dolls! Douglas' scenes with young Foster, silent except for a voice-over, are well-directed by Daryl Duke, who allows this strange tale to unfold carefully. It isn't especially scary (few tales from "Ghost Story", later renamed "Circle of Fear", actually were), but with an interesting central idea and a moral at the end: grandpas who play with fire get burned.

Ghost Story: Alter-Ego
Episode 6, Season 1

It's amazing what the id can do...
Homebound youngster with a broken leg conjures up his own doppelgänger to relieve his boredom, but his double has a malevolent side and mischievously substitutes for the child at school. Well-produced but perplexing episode from William Castle's short-lived anthology series "Ghost Story" has an unshakable overlay of Tom Tryon's "The Other" plus other odd touches, such as the boy's nervous-seeming father hesitant about going upstairs to see his own kid. (Miss) Helen Hayes plays the proverbial soon-to-retire schoolteacher, so loyal she walks to the boy's home after school to deliver his homework...and yet doesn't think to alert his parents after the kid expresses a desire to see her dead. Young actor Michael-James Wixted works his carefully-coached sly grins and evil glances for maximum impact, but he's off-putting instead of intriguing. And is there any hoarier device for chills than killing the pet cat?

Vampire Circus

It should be quarantined...
Hammer Films and the Rank Organisation bottomed out with this bloody awful vampire flick peddling death and disease in the 19th century. Residents of a plague-ridden town in Serbia, perhaps under the curse of a slain vampire speared 15 years ago, welcomes a caravan of kinky gypsy performers and their animals who have mysteriously pierced the blockade. Turns out these entertainers are relatives of the dead Count, and have arrived to exact his revenge on those who killed him as well as their children. Ugly-looking picture has acquired a following in the last few years, perhaps due to the casting of Dave (David) Prowse--Darth Vader from "Star Wars"--as a silent strongman. It has an unusual ambiance, but one that doesn't translate to either suspense or scares. * from ****

The Reaping

Exploiting the wrath of God for cheaply-wrought suspense
"The Reaping" is a thriller for people who haven't seen many thrilling movies, meaning it exists merely to spook the easily-scared while utilizing one genre cliché after another (a priest receiving a dire warning, a storm blowing open a door, a child drawing a picture of a mysterious girl, the non-believer whose skepticism is finally shaken and, the biggest eye-roller of them all, the bachelor teacher and the single female professor finding common ground). The professor is played by Hilary Swank, whose fearlessness appears to stem from the fact she's now a spiritual non-believer after losing a child--she's not religious, therefore she goes where angels fear to tread. Her work at a university apparently takes a backseat to many globe-trotting adventures wherein she and her colleague investigate so-called miracles which are soon debunked with scientific fact. Despite two Oscar wins to her credit, nothing about Swank's performance here seems authentic. Whether addressing a lecture hall, interacting with the other characters or whirling around in surprise at a sudden noise (and this movie is very noisy), everything Swank does is canned, telegraphed for a response. There is absolutely no mystery about Swank's Katherine Winter: she is stubborn for effect, she is winsome for effect, she draws out her words for effect, she rattles off statistics to her colleague on a farm full of dying cows for effect. It's bad enough that the movie is supernatural-tinged swill, one using bloody river water and toads falling from the sky to frighten us to the marrow, but it doesn't even have the courage of its convictions. Colleague Ben (Idris Elba) ribs his boss for her lack of faith only to show us that there can be a professional balance between one who believes in God and one who doesn't--and when he kisses the crucifix around his neck upon entering a chapel, that signals us his fate will soon be in jeopardy. Writers Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes, working from Brian Rousso's original story, don't want the audience to miss a trick, laying everything out in maddeningly literal terms. This is End of The World 101...or rather, Plagues for Dummies. *1/2 from ****

Twins of Evil

"Superstition dies very hard here!"
Well-made, if sloppily-edited, vampire/witchcraft horrors from Hammer Films (and distributed by the Rank Organisation!) became screenwriter Tudor Gates' final installment in the "Karnstein Trilogy" (following "The Vampire Lovers" from 1970 and "Lust for a Vampire" from earlier in 1971). Twin teenage girls from Venice, orphaned and now living with their puritanical uncle in Central Europe, are the only 'respectable' lasses in the village who dare bare their cleavage (much to their uncle's dismay). One of the young ladies becomes aroused by Count Karnstein, who worships the devil in his mountaintop castle and has recently been turned into a vampire after resurrecting the corpse of Countess Mircalla (who inexplicably disappears thereafter!). Although exquisitely photographed by Dick Bush, this bloody, sexy outing possibly bites off more than it can chew. As the twins, real-like Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson are beautiful amateurs, while Damien Thomas (an extremely odd-looking actor) makes for a disappointing Karnstein. The one cast member who seems to relish his role is Peter Cushing as the girls' uncle; whether hunting down pagan beauties at night on horseback or grimly extolling the virtues of a God-fearing life, Cushing doesn't play his part for camp, which is all the better. With his jaw firmly stuck out and his eyes ablaze, Cushing is more ferocious than the vampires and about as dangerous, though the filmmakers suddenly go soft on him by the finale. ** from ****

The Castle of Fu Manchu

"He sounded almost Biblical!" .. "That's one book in which you won't find Fu Manchu's name!"
Christopher Lee is almost always worth a look, but this "Fu Manchu" entry (his fifth and final round in the titular role) isn't worthy of Lee...nor any self-respecting actor. International mishmash via Italy, Spain, West Germany and the UK sounds as bad as it looks, with perilous fiend Fu Manchu and his evil daughter terrorizing the planet with an Opium-fueled device that is able to freeze the world's oceans. Never mind political correctness, this chaotic, poorly-dubbed movie is a real shambles, loaded down with stock footage. Unintentionally funny when it isn't deadly dull. * from ****

Wedding in White

Writer-director William Fruet, adapting his play about a 16-year-old Irish wallflower in a Canadian town during World War II who is raped in her own living room by the soldier pal of her visiting brother, has a very limited vocabulary and an even narrower imagination. The wartime period décor is drably evoked, while the characters are of a frustratingly limited intelligence. Fruet has his cast emote and emote until the actors are shiny-faced with sweat. Worst of the offenders is Paul Bradley as the Dougall family's son celebrating being home on leave (Bradley, acting drunk with his mouth hanging open, looks almost as old as Donald Pleasence playing his father). As the wallflower's would-be loose, self-centered girlfriend, screechy Bonnie Carol Case is nearly as bad (and no explanation has been provided as to how these polar-opposites ever became friends, or why Case is so eager to meet soldiers but barely notices the two army men in her own friend's dining room). In the lead, young Carol Kane has been directed by Fruet to stay doe-eyed and vulnerable--with a humiliated look on her face. Still three years away from her breakthrough role in "Hester Street", Kane exudes promise but can't do much to bring shading or subtlety to this overstated scenario. * from ****

The Spirit of '76

Energetic but unfunny
In 2176, futuristic America needs to "Rebuild!" after a magnetic storm. Unfortunately, they have no idea what liberty is, what freedom is, so three time-travelers are chosen to go back to the year 1776 to retrieve the nation's heritage--with only 12 hours on the clock. Even more unfortunately, they don't go back far enough due to a malfunction with the time machine's digital clock, and unknowingly find themselves in groovy 1976 instead. Talents from second-generation Hollywood were involved (including Carl Reiner's son Lucas Reiner acting as director and Roman Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola's son, co-writing the script with Reiner), but the shallow sense of humor displayed here is strictly bush league. Results are amateurish in conception, design and handling, though the cast has some game players. The prologue with an aged Carl Reiner reciting part of the U.S. Constitution is probably the film's brightest moment--after that, this totally obvious movie conceit runs out of have-a-nice-day sunshine. *1/2 from ****

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