From 1973

Brian De Palma’s Sisters is One Hell of a Fractured Psychological Journey

Sisters. 1973. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay by De Palma & Louisa Rose.
Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Barnard Hughes, Mary Davenport, & Dolph Sweet. Pressman-Williams/American International Pictures.
Rated R. 93 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
POSTER
Brian De Palma is a quality filmmaker. That quality hasn’t been kicking around much as of late. Doesn’t discount all the great work he’s done in a lifetime of film. He’s spent much of his filmography emulating Alfred Hitchcock, though not in a way that copies or borrows too liberally. No, De Palma has forged his own way through a wonderful career by using that Hitchcockian influence to dust the edges. There are some much lesser efforts out of De Palma than the masterpieces he’s known for – Sisters is not one of them.
This film has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I bought it up as soon as I could because I’d heard of it for years, always wanting to see it. Then once I had the thing, for some unknown reason, the copy sat lonely, unwatched. When I did view Sisters, I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. Honestly, this is an unheralded classic of psychological horror. Early on in his career De Palma already cemented himself as a natural heir to the Hitchcock throne. The directing, the editing, the Bernard Herrmann score (when he was semi-retired no less), the central performance of Margot Kidder with all its mania and depth; every last piece is like the perfect one for the puzzle. There’s lots of influence here, De Palma clearly emulating his idol in heaps. Rather than feel at all a copy off the Master of Suspense, Sisters was a fresh drop of horror in 1973, tinted with the suspenseful, tension-filled qualities you might have felt from Rear Window or Vertigo. Either way, this is awesome cinema that shouldn’t be overlooked.
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So many great shots. Simple to complex. For instance, there’s a nice shot of shadows on the wall as a door closes that is obviously telling while also chillingly subtle that, along with a bit of score, takes us right into the pure psychological terror De Palma aims for through telling this story. This is just the start.
In a film such as this I have to mention the editing, in combination with the excellent writing. Not long after the shot of the shadows there’s this eerie little moment where the cake is having the names put on it, the icing squeezing out in the names Danielle and Dominique, cut against Danielle having this fit. Just those two names and the way she’s beginning to implode already, these shots perfectly set that up.
Furthermore you’ve got a nice use of split-screen. Certain film fans may not dig that. Others may love it. Personally, I find De Palma uses it appropriately. Because ultimately this is a film that has to do with psychology, fractured identity and perspective, so on. So the split-screen helps give the look a psychological angle all of its own. There’s an overall sense of strangeness that develops, between the various techniques used to tell the story and the story itself, filled with interesting characters and events. I love when the atmosphere of a film matches up so closely with the storytelling, it makes for exciting cinema. Sometimes when a horror, particularly when leaning into the psychological, goes for the grim atmosphere it doesn’t always connect directly to the plot, so much as it’s grim for grim’s sake. Whereas De Palma uses the different techniques to induce a very personal, psychologically driven perspective. In that vein, the story and the filmmaking line up to create an effective cohesiveness. That’s why I find the movie so successful, even as such an early effort by the great director. He showed the film world quickly that his sensibilities as director were well honed already, itching to expand.
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A huge part of what makes the suspenseful moments and the tension work is that juicy, creepy score by none other than Bernard Herrmann; again adding to the Hitchcock influence, the composer having worked on some of his best films. There are absolutely bizarre moments, such as the brutal death of Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) where xylophones and the Moog synthesizer take you to some other plane of existence. Rightfully so. The greatest aspect of Herrmann’s work, as usual, is that it adds a totally whole other character to the film. It is another character. It shapes the atmosphere. These bizarre pieces of music allow De Palma to put us in the headspace of the main character, as she all but literally falls down the rabbit hole of psychological dread.
There’s also a couple genuinely shocking moments. When Philip is stabbed I actually couldn’t believe it. I knew something was coming, and something bad. But this was a really good scene. I’ve seen worse, there’s just something shocking about the moment that strikes so well. Later, the more quiet shock comes in the black-and-white flashback to a time when the Siamese twins are conjoined – or more so it’s a dream on the part of Grace (Jennifer Salt) imagining herself as the twin joined to Danielle (Margot Kidder). A very terrifying moment that doesn’t need to be outright horror to scare. It’s pitch perfect leading into the finale.
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I have to say, Sisters is my personal favourite De Palma film. Hands down. He’s done some other fascinating work. I can’t shake this one. There’s an undeniably unsettling effect to the whole thing. Each moment that pulls you into the psychological viewpoint makes the end of the main plot feel that much more intense. As you draw closer to the finish there’s a sense of impending doom. The suspense De Palma employs, the tension he uses to work his audience over with is brutish at times, in the best sort of sense. In terms of talent you really can’t say that De Palma wasn’t shining nearly right from the get go in his career. Margot Kidder provides an emotional, manic performance as a woman torn apart by the bursting identities instilled in her through the loss of her conjoined twin. She is a great actor and I’ve enjoyed so many movies because of her alone. Not to say she’s the only one, just that her role and performance are the highlight in that arena. You can’t say you love De Palma and not see this one. Seek it out if it hasn’t hit your eyeballs yet. Not sure, after finally watching it awhile back, why I waited so long. This needs to be watched and watched and watched again. There is much to enjoy, much to fear. What an underrated psychological horror is Sisters! Let’s not forget it. Ever.

Electra Glide in Blue: One Motorcycle Cop’s Violent Ride to the Truth of Corruption

Electra Glide in Blue. 1973. Directed by James William Guercio. Screenplay by Robert Boris.
Starring Robert Blake, Billy Green Bush, Mitchell Ryan, Jeannine Riley, Elisha Cook Jr., Royal Dano, Peter Cetera, & Terry Kath. Guercio-Hitzig.
Not Rated. 114 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Mystery

★★★★
POSTER
Disclaimer: certain portions of this review will contain spoilers about the film’s ending. If you’ve not yet seen this underappreciated little gem, I suggest getting yourself a copy before heading any further. You’ve been warned.

This is one unique flick. Robert Blake’s not exactly what I would call movie star material, though on occasion I’ve enjoyed his performances. Later in his career he frightened the life out of me in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. But early on he played an Arizona motorcycle cop named John Wintergreen, a short man trying to compensate, always wanting to be a bigger man than he physically can. He’s a man with something to prove. Electra Glide in Blue isn’t your typical cop crime-drama. There’s a huge mystery element involved, as John finds himself promoted to Homicide finally, his dream, after a case of suicide is debated.
But the most interesting part about this film isn’t even the solid screenplay from Robert Boris. The movie has a nice style, not exactly like all the similar pictures coming out at the end of the 1960s, early 1970s. One time feature film director James William Guercio makes this an interesting, stylish ride. The atmosphere, its look and feel, makes the story that much more interesting. All the while, we question the culture that exists in the background of the lives of police officers, their code, the way in which they tie their identity to a symbolism of law and power. Hard to believe I’d not heard of this until recently. I’m glad to have tracked this down through Amazon. Worth every penny and second. Don’t know why Guercio never directed another film, but sure glad he bothered to shoot this picture.
To Guercio!
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Cop culture is on display constantly and makes us question the bravado and machismo of their profession. The whole construction of masculinity behind being a cop, that romantic ideal. First prominent moment is when John shoots a picture of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper from Easy Rider, using the banner poster they’re on as target practice. Y’know, shootin’ hippies. They are the anti version of what Electra Glide in Blue concerns. That movie concerned two bikers looking for freedom, the actual American Dream. This movie concerns policing the American dream, protecting it, and the concept that you can reach out and take what’s yours, with hard work, a clean conscience. But within the rigid guidelines of the law. At one point later John and another officer pull over a hippie-looking cat, trying to make sure he’s not dealing drugs, or committing a Manson-style murder, I’m sure. So it’s the American dream, under American rule, so on. Not exactly freedom. Just freedom to the law’s liking.
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Before any of that the camera makes it clear that John sees being a policeman as being nearly fetish-worthy. Right at the start, we move through his routine of putting on the uniform, watching his hands do up the shirt, getting himself ready. The camera stays tight, close up. Once more, this happens after John gets his big shot at being a Homicide detective. He trades in the blues for a suit, a nice shirt, boots, of course the hat, so on. Again, this sequence mirrors the beginning. John feels as though it’s all a mirage, even if he doesn’t readily admit this fact. But it’s all a blanket identity, made up out of clothes. That and some swagger; another point of contention for a man of smaller stature. Funny enough, John gets so caught up in dressing for his new detective assignment that he actually forgets to put his pants on, then heads back inside. Easily, director Guercio and writer Boris accomplish so much in a limited frame of time, setting up Wintergreen’s character with these couple sequences paralleling one another. At the same time this likewise opens up the larger themes of the film, in examining cop culture, as well as how its fragile masculinity can often lead to tough places.
Certainly by the end, John is done in because of his idealism. This movie is the anti-idealist cop picture. It works against John that he’s so honourable. His lack of corruption and ideal for the symbolic heroism of police officers is what leads to the film’s violent finale. One that encompasses John and everything he’s about in a tragic sense. Literally, this last scene with John epitomizes the belief that no good deed goes unpunished.
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This entire film looks impressive, each scene is beautiful from landscapes to the shots of the road, to just capturing Blake as this short yet intense cop – we get times that are funny in that respect where the camera crosses from one tall guy’s head to the top of John’s helmet; other times, the seriousness and the strength in Wintergreen comes out in the way the camera expresses his natural acting. Great directorial choices all around. The cinematography itself is so spectacular. Why? Because Conrad L. Hall, that’s why. Already with a bunch of excellent pictures under his belt, Hall brings the depth and scope of his thoughtful lens to this story. Many stretches of road feel as if they might go on forever, the horizon so vivid. The desert surrounding Arizona, the highways between it, the mountains; everything feels atmospheric, the colour rich. We’re even treated to a couple black-and-white shots nearer the end.
However, it’s perhaps the final moment of John Wintergreen’s patrol that catches us so sharp. The movie blood is a bit underwhelming. Aside from that this is a poignant, heavy moment. Hall slows things down to a crawl, all before John comes to a resting stop on the road, sitting up. Then we pull back along the highway from him, his body left all alone in the road, and the camera seems to recede, fading into the distance. One of the best shots I can remember in a long while, honestly. Hall is a master Director of Photography, his talents show in just about every single frame. Some of the best are the final frames, and the opening ones that show us the road (comes full circle at the end), also giving us a look at Wintergreen suiting up, structuring his idealism from the moment we first lay eyes on him.
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I’ve got to say, this is a 4-star bit of work. Electra Glide in Blue (Electra Glide is a type of motorcycle highway cops often used; the in blue part is self-explanatory or should be) is one of the 1970s flicks that somehow slipped past my radar. Certainly I haven’t seen every movie there is, yet at 4,200 and counting there’s not often a real good movie I didn’t at least hear of along the way. This is one of those that fell into obscurity, except in scattered circles. Maybe part of that has to do with the fact Robert Blake really dropped from the spotlight after the murder of his wife, his trial, his acquittal, and finally his being found liable for her wrongful death, ordered to pay $30-million to the children of his wife. That could have something to do with reluctance to run out and blab about Blake as an actor, or even any of his movies. Not sure.
Regardless, Electra Glide in Blue is a fascinating little movie. It’s unexpected, fresh. Never are the characters cliche, even to the point of being weak a couple times. You just can’t get away from the look, the atmosphere, and best are the themes which writer Robert Boris explores. If you get the chance, watch this one. A ’70s diamond, buried under its stars later infamy and wedged at the box office between films like The Exorcist, Bond caper Live and Let Die, The Sting, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Enter the Dragon, Al Pacino acting clinic Serpico, Papillon, Westworld… you get the point. Track this movie down, give it the shot. The film, Conrad L. Hall, surprisingly one-time director James William Guercio, ALL deserve that much.

Altman’s The Long Goodbye is Perfect Post-Modern Film Noir

The Long Goodbye. 1973. Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett; based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, David Arkin, Jim Bouton, Jack Knight, David Carradine (uncredited), Rutanya Alda, Jack Riley, & Arnold Schwarzenegger (uncredited). E-K-Corporation/Lion’s Gate Films.
Rated R. 112 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★★★
POSTER
Robert Altman is forever one of the greatest filmmakers. His innovation in capturing dialogue, his ability to encompass an ensemble cast so easily and effortlessly into solid storytelling, so many things make him a legend. He was simply the best. His movies often end up exploring very human stories, no matter their grandiosity or in some cases weirdness. Always, his focus remained on the human drama of life.
The Long Goodbye is a different case, only slightly. Taking on a Leigh Brackett screenplay, adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel, Altman defies what the genre commands, what the viewer expects. He brings his ironclad style to the front, as well as a natural-feeling, slick performance out of Elliott Gould. The Chandler elements are there, but Brackett’s writing takes the famous Chandler character Phillip Marlowe out of the 1950s, placing him smack dab in the middle of 1970s Los Angeles, though still a man ahead of his time. All these things in their right place make for entertaining viewing. Not only is the film a joy to watch, allowing us the privilege of lapping up great directing from Altman, the story and the characters are vibrant. Like you literally walked into the middle of this film noir, the camera becoming a character in its own right. If you dig Chandler, you’ll certainly find Brackett and her script an interesting journey.
Dive on into a world of cold hearts, warm guns, flaming passion, and smart mouths.
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What do I need a cat for? I got a girl.” This line from a young grocery clerk to Marlowe almost epitomizes the difference between him and all the other men in the story. He’s the only gentle, kind soul, lost adrift in a sea of heartless people without any degree of loyalty. Elliott Gould is perfect. Absolutely perfect. He embodies the laid back, nonchalant nature of what Phillip Marlowe is all about. He’s absolutely paying attention to detail, his whole life is a god damn detail. At the same time there’s a quite an aloof sense about him. Not in that he’s oblivious. Rather, he’s comfortable in his own skin, even if he’s uncomfortable in a situation. Gould can give us the sly Private Eye in Marlowe, while also calling into question the morality at play in a complex performance.
The small details about Marlowe’s character is what makes the movie interesting to watch. Like how he tricks his cat into believing he’s gotten the appropriate brand of cat food that it enjoys, and still the cat won’t eat. “Its okay with me,” says Marlowe. This is an oft-repeated line throughout the film’s runtime, as the plot gets increasingly more bizarre and intense for him, Marlowe almost seems to get more relaxed, more mellow with each passing scene. Because he’s gradually accepting the world is a bit crazy. This all comes to head in the end after Marlowe commits an act that is not a part of the original novel. Brackett changed the ending, Altman said he refused to the movie if they changed her finale. So in a way, this repeated line is how the main character somehow comes to an understanding about the world, insisting it’s okay with him. In the end, nothing is okay, and we find the biggest juxtaposition in where he’s ended up – he wasn’t one of the crazies, he was a sensible and moral man caught amidst so much turmoil, only to land himself right there next to all the madness. An aspect of Marlowe is that he’s not really meant as part of this world (in Brackett’s screenplay), just so happens he’s a Private Eye, so the more he gets caught up in the whirlwind of criminality, the further he must dive into the murky morality of navigating that whole landscape, the less Marlowe is able to hold onto his own morality. This is the ultimate dilemma in which the character finds himself. His actions in the end are against morality, and also driven by morals. Quite a sticky little spot to be in.
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What I love most about the writing is that Chandler was ahead of his time with Marlowe, as a character. So in the original 1950s setting, there’s this sense of Marlowe being a post-modern-type character. Even when the cops show up for their first chat with him early on, he quips: “Oh, is there where Im supposed to sayWhat is all this about?’ and he says, uh, ‘Shut up I ask the questions‘?” The way in which Leigh Brackett writes is he partly keeps the spirit of the novel, the hardboiled fiction of which Chandler was just about king, then at once he gives his own post-modern twist on the genre. So that direct line from Marlowe is the character’s own hint at the subversion of genre.
Brackett was an incredibly screenwriter, as well as a writer in general. She worked on The Big Sleep (another Chandler-Marlowe caper), Rio Bravo, and perhaps most famously The Empire Strikes Back. Often hailed as hugely influential for being a woman writing science fiction in the late 40s and into the 50s onward, which most certainly she was, though I can’t help feel she was also equally adept at writing film noir and crime stories. This is my favourite screenplay of hers, personally. Of course there are a huge liberties taken all over the place. However, why would you expect any different from here? Part of her power was subverting the general expectations. And do you really think Altman was going to direct some straight take on Chandler’s biggest, perhaps most convoluted novel? Not likely.
This brings me to the director himself. He’s one of my top five favourites. Although his genius is well known inside and outside of the movie industry, by those with whom he worked and also those of us that watch his films, there’s still an underrated quality to him. I don’t often enough hear Altman mentioned in the same breath as directors you always hear people talking about. The Long Goodbye is an atypical story for him to tell, but he does so with his typical Altman grace. He films Gould’s Marlowe lazily walking around his apartment, to the apartment next door, to the grocery store and down its aisles, and every bit of his movement, his speech, the way the character almost drags himself through life is captured like any other character out of the director’s filmography. That is to say, he’s captured naturally; a human being in his own element. Brackett brings the idiosyncrasies of Marlowe (via Chandler’s writing) out and adds some of her own invention to give him a decidedly ’70s feel, which work so well with Altman’s directorial choices. The naturalism of his way of filming, the sound design right down to the dialogue (particularly how Gould is recorded; makes you feel close to the character), these elements lend themselves to making a unique slice of film noir cinema.
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This is one ramblin’, gamblin’, 5-star classic. A personal favourite of mine from the ’70s. Altman has a large part to do with it, then you can’t forget Gould for a second. Their talents are enormous in this film noir – or maybe it’s a neo-noir? Either way, fantastic all around. We also can’t forget Sterling Hayden. Ever since I first saw Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove I’ve been captivated by his talent, so as one of a younger generation does I went back in cinema time to revisit some of his other movies, then worked forward – getting to this one. His character is also great, the writer Roger Wade. Hayden channels equal parts Ernest Hemingway and his own creation into one fun persona. He adds an extra element to the whole spectacle. If anything, you’ll love The Long Goodbye for its characters, some slightly typical, though most against the grain. Throw Altman’s interesting techniques and intriguing style of directing, and this is a piece of crime cinema that’s easily up there with some of the best.

William Friedkin Gets to the Pulse of Fear with The Exorcist

 

The Exorcist. 1973. Dir. William Friedkin. Written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel.
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair.
Warner Brothers
Rated 18A. 132 minutes.
Horror

★★★★★ (Movie)
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)

By now, everyone has either seen The Exorcist or knows all about it.  Simply put, it is the story of a young girl who is possessed by some type of demon; her non-believer mother eventually gives in and realises what she needs is not modern medicine, not psychology, but a Catholic exorcism. This is the plot of the film. From there, the wild bits begin.1380897081_1What I’d like to talk about instead of the plot itself are the effects because on the Blu ray release from Warner Brothers there are tons of amazing special features. The best, and my most favourite, is one called “Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist.” This basically features tons of shots from behind-the-scenes, filmed originally without sound  – explained to be because they wanted the extra filming to be inconspicuous to Friedkin who might’ve gotten annoyed had they been dragging more crew around the set than was needed – and over top we get interviews with everyone from Friedkin to Blatty to Blair, to people working on the crew. It’s amazing.
One of the moments I absolutely just died for was when they show two things. First, is a moment where Reagan (Blair) attacks a man.  Friedkin wanted a shot following the man all the way down as he fell to the floor, shot tight looking right at his face, as if from Reagan’s POV. This is brilliance right here. Friedkin clearly has an innovative spirit. We watch as they show the contraption they’d built to do just that one shot— it’s the best thing ever. Second, they show a bunch of shots detailing the house set for the film. I should’ve known, from how some of the camerawork goes, the house was a set, open at the top and such, but just to see them doing actual shots going up the stairs with the rig they’d built to get the camera operators up and down in smooth ways. Beautiful, really, to see all the effort that went into making this film so god damn great.Exorcist11Another aspect worthy of note in regards to The Exorcist is the lighting. At one point on the “Raising Hell” documentary, they talk about the use of wires in the bedroom— for pulling people, as well as objects, around the room in certain shots. It looks perfect on film, but to hear Owen Roizman (D.P.) talk about how he had the wires painted in broken formations of black and white so it would make the wire less visible on camera, it’s an absolute treat! These tiny tricks of the trade are really cool to hear from the mouths of those involved in the production.
Later, we get to watch as Roizman talks about all the wire work, including how they dragged all the furniture around in Reagan’s room during those frenetic scenes. Wild. I knew it had to be practical the way they’d accomplished such shots, to actually see it and watch the process is something special. Roizman has a very nostalgic memory of the production, and a lot of his comments, especially concerning a young Linda Blair and her performance/attitude on set, which seems to be remarkable for such a young actress at the time, are great to hear. These features really help give The Exorcist even more appreciation amongst its fans, and genre fans in general.Exorcist8One of my favourite things about DVD and Blu ray is the fact we get commentary on a film while watching it. Probably one of the best things to come along with the advent of these new technologies. William Friedkin’s commentary on The Exorcist is fascinating and pretty damn informative. Even in the first few moments, Friedkin puts to bed any notions people have about the opening scenes not belonging in the film. He explains why it is there, what it means, and I love it, I understood anyways, though it helps to actually have a director of a film say “this is the reason,” and having it match up with what you thought. Just delightful to hear Friedkin talk about his experience filming the opening of the film in Iraq, how he was there without the protection of the U.S government, and telling us about how he enjoyed the Iraqi people and their hospitality. Hearing the director talk over beautifully framed and perfect looking images on a high quality picture of the film is sublime.
The story works on its own, but Friedkin really hammers it home. The acting from both Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn is on point. Burstyn’s one of the greatest actresses ever to grace the screen. Here, she really excels, as a mother who doesn’t believe in religion or any of that stuff yet soon comes to understand the devil has taken hold of her daughter, seeking out the help of priests. Not many could pull of such a horror role. Burstyn’s so wonderfully natural here.
Blair did a fabulous job as a young girl. Incredible to think she was able to do such a role and give the performance she did. On the Blu ray documentary, she talks about how Friedkin would often shelter her from the reality of what she’d be doing onscreen by joking with her. Friedkin himself talks about it, and it seems they really had a cool relationship, a lot like an uncle and niece sort of thing where he coaxed her into some of the scenes by tickling and teasing. You can tell Friedkin works well with actors and actresses just by how Blair, at such a young age then, was able to work with him and give it her all in a tough role. Combined with the effects and the pure intensity of Blatty’s writing, the performances lift The Exorcist above a lot of trashy horror that was coming out in the 1970s and makes it an absolute masterpiece of filmmaking.1380821626_1The Blu ray release is far beyond the state of perfect. So many special features are available here, you’ll take days and days to get through it. “Raising Hell” is absolutely the best of them all, but there is more than just that. You get a real in-depth look behind the making of The Exorcist. I couldn’t believe how much bang for my buck I got when purchasing this, especially seeing as how HMV recently had it there for less than $10 (the ultimate steal of a lifetime if there ever was one!). It is really worth it if you enjoy the film. You get some great inside looks at the make-up effects Dick Smith pulled off; a master of the trade. Those alone are worth the price of the Blu ray, just to see him work at the craft.
Anyone who has yet to see this, go buy a copy now. If you’re a horror fan especially, don’t sleep on this. When I first saw The Exorcist I was about 15 years old. It didn’t really affect me at the time. However, I still enjoyed it a lot. Years later, I revisited the film, and I couldn’t get over it. For days, the story lingered on me like cigarette smoke. I couldn’t shake it. Burstyn and Von Sydow really pulled me in and rocked my world. The performances and the effects, it all got to me. It’s now one of my most treasured Blu rays, as well as one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. Once again, this is a film that has no hype – the hype is very real, in fact.
And if you don’t get a chill running up your spinal fluid into your brain when you hear the repeated line from early in the film, “Father – could ya help an old altar boy?” then you know what? Check your pulse. Because the rest of us are absolutely terrified.