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When a Stranger Calls. 1979. Directed by Fred Walton. Screenplay by Steve Feke & Fred Walton.
Starring Carol Kane, Rutanya Alda, Carmen Argenziano, Kirsten Larkin, William Boyett, Charles Durning, Ron O’Neal, Rachel Roberts, Tony Beckley, Colleen Dewhurst, and Michael Champion. Columbia Pictures Corporation/Melvin Simon Productions. Rated R. 97 minutes.
There are many slasher horrors out there – this is not particularly a slasher, but certainly feels like one with the relentless Curt Duncan stalking women in the night, played to eerie perfection by Tony Beckley. So while When a Stranger Calls doesn’t have the big body count, or a bunch of knife murders (et cetera), it does have the familiar feel of a slasher horror movie.
What this Fred Walton-directed dramatic horror has going for it is a keen psychological edge. From the direction, the acting by both Beckley and Carol Kane as the archetypal urban legend babysitter forever immortalized on film, the entire movie is dripping with creepiness, as well as having a few things to say about the views of our society (at least at the time – folding into the 1980s). Regardless if you’re a horror fan or not, this is one classic piece of cinema. To use a tired cliche – it did for babysitting what Jaws did for the ocean. Anyone who’s ever taken care of kids growing up, like myself and lots of other people I know, the fear of being in someone else’s home, alone, with who knows what – or who – just outside the door, it’s all extremely real in When a Stranger Calls. Almost too close for comfort.
Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) heads over to the house of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano/Rutanya Alda). She’s babysitting for the night while they head over for dinner, maybe even a movie afterwards. A little while after Jill starts the night, a mysterious man starts to call her. He continually asks: “Have you checked the children?” Phoning the police, they prove unable to do much for the time being. Soon, Jill finds the man on the phone getting more nasty, violent. When an officer advises her the calls are coming from inside the house, Jill manages to make it outside where Dt. John Clifford (Charles Durning) is already waiting. However, it’s all too late. The children are already dead, at the hands of a madman, a merchant seaman originally from Britain named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley).
Seven years pass, Jill moves on with her life – she’s married, two little kids of her very own. Except now Duncan has escaped from the asylum where he’d been confined. With Clifford on his trail, Duncan wanders the streets. Will he kill again? Question is, really: when was the last time Jill checked her children?
Tony Beckley isn’t the only one acting circles around the usual horror performances here. Both Carol Kane and Charles Durning are fascinating in their own right. But, I can never help boasting about the titular stranger – Curt Duncan.
Beckley is someone I’ve seen in a few other things, not much. Although out of the little I watched, good as the others were, his performance here has got to be the crowning achievement of his career. He takes a role many have played in other movies, from drama to horror. Instead of playing a typical psychopath, there’s something sad and pathetic about this Duncan. Even while you know what he’s done, the horrible things he did to those children, a tiny part of us can see the lonely, child-like thing inside him. I hate Curt Duncan. Yet still I can’t shake parts of him, there’s an essence in him I cannot deny is sympathetic, under all his monstrosity. What it is, I don’t know. Why it affects me, I absolutely understand: Tony Beckley. His mannerisms, his voice at times weird and creepy, others it’s shaky, even the way he walks – all of this has made the character of Duncan into one of the best villains of the 1970s. And I say that considering all genres, not only horror. He is one of those unnerving characters I’ll never be able to shake off.
Right from the first time Beckley utters his iconic, terrifying line, there’s an immediate sense of this film’s excellent score. It has power, quickly the tone of the film is solidified with a dark descent of notes, accompanied by a zoom in close on Kane’s babysitter character. The music is most certainly a big part of the suspense and tension. Like any proper horror, the score is just about iconic as anything else. Composer Dana Kaproff – other credits include 1982’s Death Valley and Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One – has a fantastic ear. The music sort of simmers underneath, then at a few choices moments flares up; loud, brash. It’s an intricate score, moving from quiet to heavy and back again all in such a perfect rhythm with the plot’s movement.
Together with the film’s music, Donald Peterman’s cinematography makes this a gorgeous to look at classic of the late ’70s. Peterman has done a few movies I love, such as Splash, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Planes Trains & Automobiles, Point Break, Mr. Saturday Night and Get Shorty. He has a nice visual style. Here in When A Stranger Calls, the movie has that classic look – that beautiful grain of film sorely missed in a good many pictures these days. But it isn’t just that. The whole opening sequence with babysitter Jill, the tight frames and the zoom in, all the dark shadows; the scenes with Curt Duncan where he spends his time both in the shadows and also lurching around like a shadow himself, the rich and deep look of the nighttime exterior shots. Every last inch of this movie is spectacular to look at. Recently I bought a double feature Blu ray with this and Happy Birthday to Me on it; they each look pristine. To watch this on Blu ray, such nice definition, it’s a true treat. Peterman’s work shows so well.
One major thing I’ve always found interesting about When a Stranger Calls is the aspect of Clifford investigating Duncan and then deciding to kill the man. It’s a timeless theme, the idea of the lawman having to/wanting to cross sides in order to defeat a criminal. There is no doubt this theme is resonant today, in such an age where boy the criminals and the cops are out of control at times (not all the police; definitely some, though). Moreover, isn’t this something we as citizens can relate to? I mean, much as I like to think the death penalty is pointless, much as I try to say stick the murderers and rapists in a cage and let them rot until death… a part of me would probably, in the moment, feel like blowing their heads off if I were in the position of some police officers. A part of me, right now, thinking about someone hurting/killing a loved one would easily kill that person. So, while I look at Clifford’s decisions to try and go after Duncan with the purpose of killing him, and I say to myself – Oh, he’s a dirty cop… – there’s a side of me wanting to say: go for it. There’s only a certain amount of justice in particular situations at a given moment in time. Some times there’s no justice at all. I can say killing another person is wrong, under any circumstance. But I can also admit there are circumstances under which I would kill another person – one of those very few situations being if a man killed my children, or if I was Clifford and confronted with the sickness and depravity of a man like Duncan. Either way, there’s a strong message at play in When a Stranger Calls and it speaks volumes about how the criminally insane are viewed. A big part of the message is that there are times when everyone can find themselves outside the law. There are times being outside the law can prove necessary, too.
A flawless 5 star classic from 1979. This is one of those horror movies-slash-dramatic thrillers I find most affecting, out of any of the movies I’ve seen. There’s something nasty about Tony Beckley, though, he plays the role of Curt Duncan so effortlessly, like watching a true crazy person before our eyes. Add to his performance Charles Durning and Carol Kane, a couple nice additional smaller ones to boot. Plus, the look and sounds and feel of each frame are downright masterful. Once again, When a Stranger Calls doesn’t have the blood or the slasher body count. On the contrary, it’s the character study of a man with deep psychological wounds, his obsessions, and the people caught up in the whirlwind of his psychosis from the victims to the bystanders to the ones chasing him down. It’s a mad, mad world, and this is one damn mad ride. Always on the top ten of my favourite horror films, especially the ones from the ’70s and ’80s. The Blu ray release I picked up has no special features, but I’m still satisfied simply because of how amazing it looks and how darkly majestic the score sounds in high definition.
Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers. 1989. Directed by Dominique Othenin-Girard. Screenplay by Shem Bitterman/Dominique Othenin-Girard/Michael Jacobs.
Starring Donald Pleasence, Danielle Harris, Ellie Cornell, Beau Starr, Jeffrey Landman, Tamara Glynn, Donald L. Shanks, Jonathan Chapin, Matthew Walker, Wendy Foxworth, Betty Carvalho, Troy Evans and Frankie Como. Magnum Pictures Inc./The Return of Myers/Trancas International Films. Rated R. 96 minutes.
The Halloween series gets worse after the 4th installment, even lots of people might say that was a bust. Me, I enjoyed it. Starting with this film, Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers, the brutal psychopath reality of Myers himself began to be diluted. Though I love the connection between Michael and his niece Jamie, the writers tried to go too far into the supernatural aspect of Myers – he always had a sort of inhuman, or superhuman quality about him, but it was best left a mystery like in the original; he was pure evil.
With this sequel, the series starts on a long descent into obscurity. Though, I did love the remake and partly enjoyed its sequel from Rob Zombie, even if many hated it and loathe him for even touching Halloween. But as far as the original series itself goes, after this one it gets pretty bad, embarrassing almost. This movie doesn’t have full coherence at its side. That being said, I do love the suspense and tension still present in Michael’s character, his lurking and his casual sneak behind the scenes unnoticed. And it’s always nice to see Dr. Loomis, no matter how cranky a bastard he may be after all these years hunting evil.
One year following the events of Halloween IV, Michael Myers (Donald L. Shanks) has survived the shootings of the previous year’s Halloween night. Little Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) has gone mute after attacking her own stepmother. She’s confined to a children’s hospital, treated for her psychological trauma. It becomes apparent to Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) that Jamie is exhibiting a type of connection, a mental link with her uncle Michael. As the psychotic slasher kills his way back to try and finally kill his niece, Loomis and the other Haddonfield residents try to band together in order to safeguard the lives of those who matter most from walking evil.
But as he’s so often proved before, nothing seems a match for Michael Myers. He is the living, breathing, walking presence of death. He will have what he wants.
Michael Myers is a feral, savage beast. He coldly kills the man who looked after him once collapsing after coming out of the river. Not that I expected any less, but still – cold blooded. Starting with the previous film, Halloween IV, Michael already started to exhibit pretty harsh, violent strength. From the beginning with Carpenter he was always an unnaturally strong slasher, but in the last movie the savagery of his kills began amping up. There was already the thumb through a guy’s forehead. Here, it isn’t only the intensity of the kills themselves, there’s an even worse sense of Michael’s vicious nature coming out. He’s becoming a worse evil than ever imagined, if that’s entirely possible. So, one of the positive things I can say about this sequel is the fact Michael sort of changes, at least in a slight sense, as a horror movie slasher. Okay – it’s not huge literary character development. Could be worse, though.
Then there are some excellent little sequences full of fear. For instance, when Jamie (Harris) is running through the hospital, thinking uncle Michael is right on her tail and trying to kill her, there’s a good deal of suspense and the heart gets pumping. Of course she’s only imagining it, and the big jump comes as you almost expect Michael to be there. Instead it’s a maintenance man, a nurse behind him, each looking for Jamie. I thought that was a solid scene, subverted expectations.
Another scene I liked is when Tina (Wendy Foxworth) goes out to the car, expecting her boyfriend Mikey (Jonathan Chapin), only unbeknownst to her it’s actually Mikey Myers in the mask she bought – it was super tense, I honestly didn’t know how the scene was going to go and I constantly feared for Tina’s life, every step of the way. Really effective few moments, even tied up with Jamie and her strange psychic connection with Michael, because there are moments cutting to and from Jamie/Tina which make it all the more nervous for the audience.
On top of that, I do like the Thorn Cult people prowling around. Adds something extra. While I’m not a fan of the supernatural-ish angle happening, their presence is definitely creepy. Seeing one of them walk out after Loomis heads downstairs in the old Myers house, another passes out onto the street in another shot between the Jamie/Tina ordeal – I find it dark and foreboding. I guess the positive aspect of this, what I’m trying to get at is, that if Myers and his story has to be continued with these sequels, it’s at least interesting the writers tried to conjure up a backstory with more depth than originally intended. Not saying it’s better than just the faceless slasher, the mysterious psychopath. But if it’s got to be kept going, at least make it interesting and a little fresh.
An important aspect of this movie is the fact Danielle Harris was a great actress at such a young age. Even with the silliness of the psychic link between her character and Michael, she did a wonderful job. The fact Jamie was mute for the first half of the film made for some interesting acting, which I enjoy to the fullest. She brings across the struggling, traumatized little girl in Jamie so well. I still find Harris to be a quality actress, even a good director now, even if the films she acts in aren’t always the best. At an early age, Harris was able to prove herself and add something interesting to Halloween V in a slightly bland sequel.
Aside from Harris’ performance and the handful of creepy scenes, there’s not a whole lot else going on. The kills are decent here and that gives the movie something else to rely on. Most of the acting holds up, but it’s really Harris and Donald Pleasence – of course – who hold up that end of the bargain. If the writers hadn’t leaned into the psychic connection it may have been better: the whole cult thing was cool, it just should’ve been turned into something different other than what it later became in further sequels; I always imagined it cool if a cult began to worship Michael instead of what started to happen after this movie. I love all the Jamie-Michael stuff, but it wasn’t best served being turned into a supernatural thriller style plot device.
I can’t rate this Halloween installment any lower than 3.5 out of 5 stars. It is nowhere near any of the best this series has to offer. Still, though, I think there are some good moments of suspense, lots of tense scenes. Instead of jump scares this film relies on a nice performance from Danielle Harris, the return of Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis, as well as a slow pace. If the story were better I could’ve definitely given this a half star (or more) extra. However, the plot in this movie begins to make the series get silly and bad as the sequels push on. Either way I don’t feel this movie deserves the hate it gets, nor is it a masterpiece. It’s just a fun sequel despite its flaws.
Kristy. 2014. Directed by Oliver Blackburn. Screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski.
Starring Haley Bennett, Ashley Greene, Lucas Till, Chris Coy, Mike Seal, Lucius Falick, Erica Ash, James Ransone, Mathew St. Patrick, and Al Vicente. David Kirschner Productions/La Sienega Productions/Electric City Entertainment.
Rated R. 86 minutes.
There’s nothing absolutely unique to Kristy. I can’t say there’s anything I’d call overly innovative, honestly. Yet something about the film draws me in. I’ve seen it three times in total now. There’s nothing to dissect, nothing to unpack and pick apart, nothing to examine. But each time I viewed Kristy, something lingered in me about this horror movie I could never fully shake. At least not for a couple days.
People look at the movie and see it as cliche-ridden, predictable horror with situations we’ve seen a million times before. I’m not saying director Oliver Blackburn reinvented the wheel on the genre. Nor am I trying to claim Anthony Jaswinski’s script is revolutionary, it doesn’t take horror and turn a mirror in on itself or bring new light to the tropes of the genre, anything in that sense. Simply put, I find Kristy just a good old fashioned horror movie. The difference which makes me think it’s better than the rest? A kick ass lead character, who is female and who doesn’t merely survive on instinct, she wills her survival into existence. Then takes some more.
At college trying to live her own life, Justine (Haley Bennett) works scrubbing dishes while studying her ass off to get good grades. During Thanksgiving, her boyfriend Aaron (Lucas Till) heads off to spend time with his obviously rich family, as does her roommate Nicole (Erica Ash) at the very last minute when her father suddenly gets time off from a political campaign.
Virtually alone – except for the groundskeeper, a young man named Scott (James Ransone), and sparse security including the friendly Wayne (Mathew St. Patrick) – Justine finds herself walking the halls, listening to music, studying, and generally passing away time. Though, Nicole left behind her BMW offering it to Justine in case she needs to get away from campus.
When Justine takes the car out for a drive and stops at a convenience store, one nice gesture towards a girl named Violet (Ashley Greene), who rudely declines, turns into a night of absolute terror and a horrifyingly tense struggle for survival.
An immediate thing I noticed, then saw again more the next two times I saw the film, is how at the beginning of Kristy, the college campus has this beautiful, bright visual sense about it. Even while Justine finds herself alone across the entire college, there’s still this brightness everywhere she goes. Blackburn chooses to film much of everything in the first 15-20 minutes in this way, making the college and Justine’s life seem pretty relaxed. Along with that, there’s a pretty good little montage sequence where Justine goes through the motions, passing time swimming and bouncing around the lonely, empty halls with her headphones playing “Pumpin’ Blood” by NONONO as it bleeds out into the film’s soundtrack itself.
Then once Blackburn moves further into the screenplay, we start to get a mood shifter in terms of visuals. We see Justine go out at night, then things figuratively and literally get foggy. She drives through fog, almost like a barrier as she leaves the enclosed safety of the college campus gates into the real, terrifying world. You can almost look at it in the metaphorical sense: once you leave college/university, real life is there, real will fucking get you.
Because this is where Justine’s life changes, at the convenience store. This is also where the tone of Kristy links back to its grim opening sequence. Real life outside of the college campus clashes hard with Justine. Worst of all is the fact Justine herself is not the “Kristy” the antagonists are searching out to taunt, torture, and kill. She is not the rich type girl, but only drives her friend’s car (most likely a car her friend got from her parents). Funny enough, Nicole, the roommate with the BMW, is more the type Violet (Greene) and her crew are trying to find. There’s a tragic and scary irony in that. Especially considering the fact Justine even tries to befriend Violet by paying for the latter’s items at the store.
Passing through this point, the land of no return. Things get legitimately suspenseful, tense, and downright frightening at times moving forward. I love the interaction at the convenience store/gas station with Justine and Violet, then the clerk is thrown into the mix, as well. There’s great tension in that scene, which I found thick enough to bite. Great stuff and a well-written scene. This is the setup leading into the film’s real meaty bits.
A notably unsettling scene happens when Justine goes back to the dorm rooms at one point; as she goes by the wall of one room, unbeknownst to her, has all the pictures scratched up, specifically the eyes. I thought it was a brief and real eerie shot. This slowly ratcheted up the tension, adding to Justine’s fear without her even knowing.
In conjunction with creepy scenes like this one, I love the score composed by François-Eudes Chanfrault; his excellent work has included Alexandre Aja’s High Tension, Inside, and Vinyan. The amazing music goes along SO WELL in certain scenes that it’s hard to deny its effects. Moments when Justine finds her life threatened, when the danger is most real, the music swells and sort of throbs at you. In quieter moments the score lulls you in and captures you, the emotions onscreen jump into your head and into your chest. Chanfrault has a knack for incredible music and I think he is a definite asset here.
What really does it for me throughout Kristy‘s meagre 86 minute runtime (including the credits/post-credits scene) is the central performance of Haley Bennett as Justine. Not only her performance, I think Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay has a great character in Justine. She’s a vulnerable, scared young woman in the beginning whose lonely Thanksgiving on campus turns into a nightmare. By the end of this psychologically daunting horror movie, I found myself almost fist pumping because of how kick-ass this woman had become; she had inside her, just like the intellectual side of herself coming out through class and study, this venomous and visceral side which was required in order to cast out these predators. They hunt her down, thinking she’s someone she is not, and she also becomes – in a sense – someone she is not in order to overcome their savagery. I think an important part of Kristy – not just why I like it – is the fact Justine starts off in a position of weakness, but really takes charge and becomes a tougher, stronger person after coming out the other side of a bloody, haunting situation. Justine reminds me of the Erin character from Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett’s You’re Next, yet without the same background, and in a sense a bit cooler.
This leads me to the fact I love the finale of the film, so incredibly much. Again, nothing innovative or absolutely fresh, I simply find it hits all the right notes and really becomes this visceral experience. With Justine, we walk through this hell-like evening, or more like run and fight, until she essentially snaps and becomes the hunter instead of prey. She takes on these murderous masked psychopaths and there’s this awesome quality to her redemptive scenes I find really powerful, in terms of horror. I think some might fin the first 40 minutes a little slow pace, which I personally don’t mind. To those viewers I say: hold in there. The next 44 minutes are pretty spectacular, in my opinion. This portion of Kristy truly grips me, as the action and horror get more and more intense, barreling towards a nice finish.
And make sure you check out the scene after the credits.
With some real amazing horror moments and a strong female lead in Haley Bennett, Kristy is a 4 out of 5 star film in my books. Tons of modern horror aims to be scary yet doesn’t hit the mark, as well as the fact we don’t often see a lot of horror movies where the lead female characters are anything but simple survivors, based on the merit/lost lives of others or a lot of lucky; Kristy is at times terrifying and always sees the character of Justine as someone who is willing to fight, to work, to really strive towards conquering the fear and obstacles surrounding her.
Check this out. Honestly, I think it’s worth the time, even if only for the final half hour. Plus I find the ending/post-credits scene intriguing with the idea from the beginning – of an online type of cult, people killing these “Kristy” substitutes in order to “kill god” as they put it. Very wild and weird and horror-ish fun.
There’s some great character in the screenplay, as well as genuine moments of horror and terror, in equal amounts. Maybe this is not for everyone. For me, it’s a movie I can watch over and over again obviously. Hopefully it might strike others in a similar way, chilling and thrilling to the end.
A bit of Christmas sneer when a psychopath takes captive his perfect Christmas dinner guest.