Tagged Rated R

Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man: Fever Dream Memories of Christianity and Paganism

The Wicker Man. 1973. Directed by Robin Hardy. Screenplay by Anthony Shaffer; based on the novel Ritual by David Pinner.
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Water, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunters, Walter Carr, Ian Campbell, & Roy Boyd. British Lion Film Corporation.
Rated R. 94 minutes.
Horror/Mystery

★★★★1/2
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DISCLAIMER: as of this writing it’s been 43 years since the release of this classic, so if you haven’t see it I really don’t even need to tell you about any possible SPOILERS! Yet I do so anyway. This review is going to talk about the ending later. If you head on through expect for that to get talked of openly. This is your final warning.

Upon hearing Robin Hardy passed today, I was torn up. Honestly there’s nothing else he’s done that I’ve particularly been interested in. It’s the influence of his mysterious folk horror The Wicker Man that endeared me to him permanently. When I was young I remember catching this movie on some channel, whether it was Show Case here in Canada I can’t be sure; likely, but not positive. I remember how strange and dreamy the whole thing was, and the way in which its songs mixed into the creepy story to make something altogether different from anything else I’d ever seen at the time. So as an early teen Hardy influenced me greatly with a single hour and a half of film.
There are a few reasons for Hardy’s influential touch. First, it wasn’t until about age thirteen that I finally shed the influence of my Roman Catholic upbringing, after my parents were smart enough to give me a choice – church or not. I saw this movie around age eleven, maybe twelve at most. It was before that choice of mine to stop going to church and taking communion, all that. The religious elements at play in this film were incredibly interesting to me. Second off all, Hardy’s finale is one of the single most horrific sequences of all time. To me it is the epitome of folk horror, including the gradual build up to those moments. This is a successful horror movie that does not rely on an entirely physical element to make things scary. Rather, The Wicker Man pries up your skin and slithers beneath it, both disturbing you and even making you smile (or laugh) from time to time.
One thing’s for sure: imitators be damned, there is NOTHING like this one.
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Shaffer has done some good work other than this film, mainly FrenzySleuthMurder on the Orient Express come to mind. This is his crowning achievement. There’s of course the inclusion of David Pinner’s novel Ritual, but his work together with Hardy made for some terribly interesting story and characters. Forget the simple fact all that folk music thrown in is so unique and fun, Shaffer makes this paganism-styled religion out on the fictional Scottish island Summerisle partly unnerving and also an equal part intriguing. You want to know more, and as Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) discovers more then you sort of want to know less – in the best, mystery-horror hybrid kind of way. I love that there’s a great deal of attention paid to the Celtic traditions, paganism, as well as drops of history here and there. Shaffer uses all kinds of things, such as the Middle English folk tune “Sumer Is Icumen In” (you can find a proper copy of this in A Middle English Anthology edited by Ann S. Haskell) that you’ll find comes at a crucial moment. The song is a terrifying sound to hear when it’s sung. It is also very poignant for that scene, too. If you know a book called The Golden Bough by James Frazer then you can see how much Shaffer drew from when writing this script. What I love is that he creates a purely organic way for us to discover this Summerisle religion alongside Howie. Instead of feeling like a terrible load of exposition, while still being completely expository, the journey on which Howie goes to figure out what’s happening allows us to sift through the pagan island religion with interest. Other screenplays might make that feel boring. Shaffer manages to keep the pacing steady. Then you can also count the interesting musical pieces as a way to make everything feel compelling. Between the unique atmosphere, the songs and the dancing and the pagan-like rituals we witness, all the odd visuals (those first animal masks are horrifying), there’s enough to make this more than weird for weird’s sake.
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Some of the more enjoyable aspects stem from the theme of religion v. paganism, the centrepiece of the screenplay. Howie is a direct parallel to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), whose hippy-like vision of religion appals the lawman, a staunch Christian. There are some genuine looks of horror courtesy of Woodward’s talented acting which really make you see how devastating the idea of pagan worship is to the straight laced, God fearing Christian worshipper. The awful irony is that Woodward’s Christianity leads him into curiousness and duty that is his downfall. That apprehension and judgement becomes a gateway into paranoia. In the end, this Christian paranoia re: heathenism alongside Howie’s dutiful police sensibilities combine in a lethal cocktail of curiosity. Something that’s worth noting is that on his way toward the finale, and his doom, Howie momentarily loses himself in the heathen pagan traditions: whilst wearing the disguise to follow Summerisle and his people, Howie sheds his Christian repression and slaps a few women on the ass gleefully. If only for a second he forgot his devout Christianity and let loose with the heathens. Probably all for the best, as the poor Scottish policeman isn’t long for this world, anyway.
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As I’ve mentioned, The Wicker Man is successfully filled with horror not because of any blood or gore, nor any jump scares. It isn’t due to anything typical. All the fun elements like the songs eventually transform into something treacherous and evil. By the final scene, singing is nothing but a vortex into madness. The masks and the pagan symbols are appealing early on, like the marks of island/small town charm. Later, as Howie discovers himself the ultimate fool – perfectly dressed just like Punch, eternal fool himself – those animal masks and all the nature imagery, it’s positively chilling. Christopher Lee gives a charismatic performance that set him so far apart from the typical Hammer Horror roles it’s amazing, and his determined attitude as Lord Summerisle is nothing if not psychopathic. Likewise, Woodward plays Howie perfectly, and for all his foolishness you truly pity him, especially once he sees the eponymous structure from which the film takes its name. Robin Hardy will always be remembered, fondly, for his weird and wild The Wicker Man. It is not merely a load of hype. It is a fantastic piece of folk horror and an unforgettably unique moment in cinematic history. Relish that. I do, every so often, and as damned often as I can.
We’ll miss you, Mr. Hardy. Thank you for your strange vision; it is forever a fever dream in my memory.

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Killer Casanova Wants to Kiss the Girls

Kiss the Girls. 1997. Directed by Gary Fleder. Screenplay by David Klass; based on the novel of the same name by James Patterson.
Starring Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, Alex McArthur, Tony Goldwyn, Jay O. Sanders, Bill Nunn, Brian Cox, Richard T. Jones, Roma Maffia, Jeremy Piven, Gina Ravera, William Converse-Roberts, Helen Martin, & Tatyana Ali. Paramount Pictures/Rysher Entertainment.
Rated R. 115 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Mystery

★★★★
POSTER This is a film that’s always surprised me. It isn’t perfect, but uses its James Patterson roots and lots of excellent cinematic suspense to make for an exciting ride. Further than that, I’m not a Patterson reader, so I’m not sure if he generally has a dark feel to his writing. You can be sure, though: Kiss the Girls, for all its cop v. serial killer trappings, is a macabre crime story rife with mystery and wreathed with elements of horror. Patterson seems more concerned with the crime elements of his stories than diving too deep on the twisted criminals and killers Alex Cross faces. However, this is one of the Alex Cross films that successfully dips into genuinely eerie territory.
When this came out I was about 11. My mom read a lot of different novels and a wide variety of authors, one of which was Patterson now and then (mainly she and I both gravitated towards Stephen King). In turn, she watched lots of different movies. Usually, she, my dad, and I would sit down on the weekend at least one night and watch a movie together. After this came out, we rented it and watched it together. Though it on the surface may look like a typical crime thriller, this is a little better than the mediocre movies you might have seen sitting on the video rental rack in ’97. I’m sure I rented it more than a couple times back then, enjoying both Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, particularly the latter in her role as a tough survivor of the killer Casanova who helps the former in his quest to bring the man down for good. Eventually I bought the DVD, now I watch it a few times a year. Despite its flaws, Kiss the Girls is a top notch serial killer film that does what it sets out to do: chill at times, and always entertain.
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Ashley Judd is the one whose performance carries the most weight. I do love Morgan Freeman, and I love him as Alex Cross. Judd does the heavy lifting. She plays such a strong female character, which in part is the writing. Although Judd is the one that infuses Dr. Kate McTiernan with so much power. Her strength is immediate, as we’re introduced to her saving lives, boxing, and generally being a kick ass, take charge woman. Later following her escape from Casanova’s grasp, Kate becomes even further transformed. In her weakness as a victim she flips the expectations, subverting our idea of victim and becoming someone even stronger than before. She uses her pain not as a crutch, but rather takes it as an opportunity to toughen, as well as to help the police try catching the man that almost killed her. Without Judd, this role could easily be a weak link.
Similarly, despite the criticism of some, I find Freeman does well with the Cross character. I’ve never read the books, so I can’t judge how it is for the readers who come to this film adaptation. But I like this iteration of Cross. He’s a cool guy in terms of his demeanour, rarely getting too excitable and mostly remaining calculated, thoughtful, as if always one step ahead of his own brain, keeping calm to assess each situation. From the first crime scene where Cross has to talk down an abused woman pushed to murder from killing herself. This sort of initiates us into his world, his attitude and way of thinking, how he operates as a detective. And whereas certain critics I’ve seen review this movie say Freeman doesn’t seem like that hardened kind of street cop who’s seen it all, I’m the opposite – he strikes me totally genuine, someone who has seen everything there is to see, every last imaginable horror and still manages to hold onto a degree of optimism.
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For what might look like a run of the mill crime-thriller out of the mid-to-late ’90s, Kiss the Girls breaks through the mould. This is because the plot gets dark, quickly. In fact, from the beginning of the movie we’re thrust into darkness, a macabre story that starts in the serial killer’s perspective and then follows along with a detective and one of the murderer’s potential victims as they try cracking the mysterious case. Along the way, naturally, there are twists. These come as pleasantly surprising, not telegraphed and expected like so many other similar films. Near the end, a huge reveal pays off lots of the expert suspense to which we’re subjected. Some say the reveal doesn’t work simply based on certain voice aspects (you’ll figure it out after watching), and that’s nonsense to me. This is a nice, scary little twist that I’ve always enjoyed, even after seeing it so many times. Before that when we’re treated to a proper red herring, one that ties into the whole voice aspect mentioned previously, and it makes things quite disturbing. At every step there’s something nasty, layered beneath a seemingly typical story about a talented cop trailing right behind a killer. There’s never anything graphic – this film mainly gets its R-rating due to some cursing and heavy adult themes – but still, there are plenty of times the story and certain characters chill me to the bone.
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I couldn’t care less if Mythbusters ruined the ending: the finale is solid, unsettling, and in a way pretty fun. You’ll likely be surprised by the twist, if not I feel sorry for your clairvoyance. Everything which leads to the conclusion of the film makes for a highly unnerving experience. Sure, some portions of the screenplay can feel cliche or too typical of the crime-thriller genre. Still, Kiss the Girls works hard to feel slightly more horror (mainly on psychological grounds) than you’d expect, and for that it surpasses other films of its kind. With Judd and Freeman pulling out solid performances respectively, and the Patterson material used to great effect, this is a 4-star bit of work I’m always willing to throw on when I’m at a loss as to what I feel like watching. Never fails to entertain.

Deadpool is a Superhero Gone Superbad

Deadpool. 2016. Directed by Tim Miller. Screenplay by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick.
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Karan Soni, Ed Skrein, Michael Benyaer, Stefan Kapici, Brianna Hildebrand, Style Dayne, Kyle Cassie, Taylor Hickson, T.J. Miller, Morena Baccarin, & Gina Carano. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Marvel Entertainment/Kingberg Genre/Donners’ Company/TSG Entertainment.
Rated R. 108 minutes.
Action/Adventure/Comedy

★★★★1/2
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The only thing I’ve ever enjoyed that I know director Tim Miller was involved in is the way underrated 1995 Hideaway. Surprisingly, Deadpool is Miller’s first feature film. Not saying they shouldn’t have done it, but it blows me away they gave him the reins to this adaptation. The bet pays off. While this isn’t nearly what I’d call a revelation, as some people out there would have it be seen.
That being said, Deadpool is absolutely a solid, fun bit of cinema. A superhero movie technically, in category, there’s a bit more to it. The humour is better, obviously more nasty and foulmouthed than others. The action is wild, and at times a bit gruesome in an awesome comic book way. There’s a more interesting structure of storytelling that puts it above the other comic adaptations in Hollywood. Using the Rated R stamp, Miller, with a playfully devious screenplay from writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, crafts one of the best superhero movies to date. I’m not a hardcore comic fan, not for a long time. But the Deadpool comics were some I read, as well as X-Men, Batman, and others. I feel like this adaptation was made not simply for nerds, but with the readers of the comics in mind – and taking into consideration they’re now adults. So away with the campy, light visions of superheroes and the villains they confront. This carves out its own niche.
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For those who don’t know, Deadpool was Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) once upon a time. He had a nice life brewing with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Then, he became riddled with cancer.
Conveniently enough, later he gets recruited to have some experiments done on him. The villainous Ajax – a.k.a Francis Freeman (Ed Skrein) – does it, destroys his face, makes him hideous.
Left on his own, Wade takes up the moniker Deadpool. He hunts down Ajax to try and take revenge for what’s happened to him. What ensues is darkly comedic, foolishness, nasty, and violent, as Deadpool slices, dices, joking his way from start to finish.
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I have to say, above all else Deadpool is subversive. From the very beginning, even the credits are lampooning the seriousness of comic book superhero movies already out there – “Written by the real heroes here” is an awesome touch. But immediately this obviously sets itself apart from the regular pack of Marvel films thus far. The metafiction elements of the Deadpool comics come out quickly. Some of them are misses. One of the early Wolverine/Hugh Jackman references made me laugh out loud. A few of the lines were just crude and not actually funny. A lot of them were pop culture references and gags that definitely worked, and they were in the spirit of today – instead of sticking with references from the period of the comics themselves. The best is that Deadpool skewers the Marvel movies themselves even, or just poking fun at little bits and pieces. My favourite of those is when Colossus says he’ll take Deadpool to see the Professor, to which Deadpool responds: “Which oneMcAvoy or Stewart? These timelines are so confusing.”
The pacing of the film is proper, as we’re almost introduced to the schizophrenia of Deadpool through how many jokes and foolishness are packed tight into the dialogue. I mean, Deadpool is a mile a minute, like the comics. And that’s due to the writing. How we’re introduced quickly to Wade as Deadpool then work back through his story, it’s more interesting than the way we’ve seen the stories of other superheroes in other films. Because the story of Wilson up until he becomes Deadpool is, if we’re being realistic, sort of cliche in terms of comic book characters – we recognize it especially because the whole thing rings bells re: Wolverine, just a different treatment (plus the comics had Wolverine’s blood used in the experiment on Wade, so, yeah). But that’s not a bad thing. Because it’s only that one component, then everything else becomes a subversive, edgy take on superheroes. As well as just downright balls-to-the-wall fun in a Rated R romp. Not that it makes any grand statements. Only that the writing is significantly different, and that’s refreshing. We even get Deadpool commenting on the genre within his dialogue, breaking the Fourth Wall as we go along. Then there are just completely hilarious, laugh out loud lines, such as when Deadpool calls Professor X a “Heavens Gate looking motherfucker” and many more.
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Wade: “Fourth wall break inside a fourth wall break. Thats likesixteen walls.”DEADPOOL
I firmly believe nobody else in Hollywood could’ve played Deadpool. The character is too goofy, too fun, all while being annoying and charming wrapped into one. Ryan Reynolds was almost born to play this one role. He has the physicality, obviously, needed to play a superhero character. And no matter how funny I find Hugh Jackman can be, and James McAvoy too in a sly sense, the material of Deadpool is what allows Reynolds to knock it out of the park. His portrayal and the adaptation of his character to film are equal parts what make this so worthwhile. There are a few misses along the way in the writing, ones even Reynolds can’t save. In the end, though, the energy of his performance is undeniably infectious.
Over everything else, the screenplay for this film is what makes it so spectacular. While keeping certain elements of the superhero movie genre, Deadpool totally subverts it at the same time, making fun while being a part of the gang. It’s the oddball out at the party, just like its titular character. And that’s what makes it wonderful. Because the filmmakers simply go for broke.

WHEN ANIMALS DREAM: A Folklore Tale on Coming of Age

A young girl's transformation from girl to woman is plagued by the folklore and superstitions and closed minds of her small little town.

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Back to the Cannibalism of the Wild West with Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk. 2015. Directed & Written by S. Craig Zahler.
Starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Sean Young, Lil Simmons, Zahn McClarnon, Matthew Fox, David Arquette, Kathryn Morris, and Sid Haig.
Caliber Media Company.
Rated R. 132 minutes.
Horror/Western

★★★★★bone-tomahawk This is a movie I’ve waited a long time to see. Ever since I even heard the name, it intrigued me. In fact, I believe writer-director S. Craig Zahler actually wrote the screenplay about 8 years ago or something crazy like that. So for those of us who follow projects from their early stages in development, this is one of those titles people like myself have eagerly awaited. Then, once Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson (and more) signed on, a year or more ago, the project had me beyond excited.
Westerns can be amazing, if treated properly. There are lots of them out there. Recently I discussed this very same thing while reviewing the Mads Mikkelsen-Jeffrey Dean Morgan Western The Salvation, a film I personally enjoyed. But so many sad, half-hearted Westerns come out, like horror. Part of why I loved Bone Tomahawk is in part because of the blend between horror and Western, two genres of which I’m a huge fan. I fell in love with horror through literature first, then film. Westerns I came to through my grandfather, whose membership to Columbia House and love for John Wayne/Gary Cooper shaped part of my early film viewing life. With a packed cast – including the god damn man Kurt Russell, the chameleon Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson who has talent out the ass – Bone Tomahawk makes the most out of both its Western and horror elements, while not having to fall into every last trope from either genre.
It’s safe to say, this is another modern Western I’ll definitely be adding to my personal collection.
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It’s hard to deny the nasty brutality of a movie like Bone Tomahawk. Particularly when the opening scene has David Arquette’s character cutting a man’s throat; not even efficiently, he slits once, slits another time. After all that, Buddy (Sid Haig) has to finish the man off, crushing his skull. The first two minutes set the tone perfectly. These two men are just killing and robbing, savagely murdering men for nothing more than some books, trinkets, who knows what else – nothing too great. Zahler conjures up a grim atmosphere immediately. Even in the sun baked landscapes Benji Bakshi (who also did the cinematography for the interesting indie Some Kind of Hate recently out) captures there is such an undeniable grimness, it lurks everywhere and casts over every little thing. Then there are the interiors, the Western sets captured in all their gorgeous grittiness.
The string score accompanying so many beautifully realized shots and sequences is fitting. One scene really catches me – as the group of four first depart, there’s a great shot of them all riding and the strings have such a heartbreaking feel. Seriously: this shot belongs in the hall of fame. I can’t shake it. Almost like it foreshadowed every bit of darkness and horror to follow later on, a foreboding moment in time. All the music is courtesy of multi-talented Zahler and Jeff Herriott, whose only feature film surprisingly is this one. Needless to say, they’ve done well. The music adds an extra layer to specific moments, which intensifies things perfectly when required; exactly what a proper score ought do.
Even further, I loved the set design itself, the look of everything. All the main characters were well costumed. I loved Matthew Fox and his get-up, especially one scene when he straightens himself out, putting on his cap then leaving the saloon; amazing. But just little things like the lamps in the bedrooms, the pictures on the walls, so many fine touches such as these made scenes eye-catching. Then the lighting, all around, is perfect. It’s easy for a Western to throw you off nowadays if modernity creeps in too much. Honestly, though, this movie does so well creating the late-1800s atmosphere – the low light of the lamps inside and out around the town, dust/sand battered windows, old bottles of medication and all the pictures, various items on the desks and bedside tables. Such good attention to detail.

Sheriff Hunt: “Ask me about horses again n’ I’ll slap you red
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I love the plot and story of Bone Tomahawk. It’s at times funny, not even darkly but just worthy of a chuckle. The characters are original without being forcibly quirky, also without falling too deep into Western cliche. Furthermore, there’s the aspect of the troglodytes; the fact Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) is the doctor and not as it usually is in the genre a man; Zahn McClarnon plays a Native man whose status among the town isn’t of the lower sort (he wears an awesome suit); and so much more. The dialogue doesn’t come off as someone trying hard to create a Western. Lots of Westerns do fail because their entire style is forced, it doesn’t feel or sound natural when the dialogue is spoken. Yet Zahler writes this well, he’s someone I’ve enjoyed before: Asylum Blackout, to my mind, was a lot of fun and a nice dose of solid horror. Apparently he does well writing about the turn of the century in America, the slow tail end of the Wild West, so it’s easy to see where his talent lies watching this film.
Big favourite of mine here, character-wise, is absolutely John Brooder, played so finely by Matthew Fox; his charm is undeniable, even at times when you’re unsure whether or not he’s being too brutal. The scene with his horse, you’ll know the one – among all the other viciousness of the movie, this actually gets to me emotionally. To see Brooder, uncaring about anyone else other than those around him to which he’s loyal, so upset over the horse is that from which Western heroes are made. And Brooder isn’t the only good character, he’s simply my personal pick. They’re all awesome. Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson in their own respects are also serving the film well here. Wilson’s character is so sympathetic, to watch him try and make it over the rough terrain out to find his wife, all too often hobbling far behind his companions, it’s actually devastating at times. Russell is, as usual, a hard yet smart tough guy, and his facial hair is fucking out of this world. He plays the Wild West sheriff role with plenty of smirky goodness, as well as with the aforementioned tough exterior.
I’ve got to at least make small mention of Richard Jenkins. He gives an interesting performance as the dim-witted but staunchly loyal sidekick to Russell’s Sheriff Hunt. Even the voice Jenkins puts on, it’s much different from many of his other previous roles. Quality acting all around for this movie.
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Sheriff Hunt: “What time is it?
Chicory: “It’s about nine. But it feels like next week.”
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On top of everything else I love so much here, the horror is supremely vicious. In the best sort of sense. Right off the bat with that scene including Haig and Arquette, there’s so much visceral horror happening. For a while, this stuff almost leaves your mind. There are a few ugly bits on the way to the last 40 minutes, such as Arthur O’Dwyer and his leg, the few shootings and a bit of stabbing. But it’s only once the four men on their journey come across the troglodytes and their cannibalism when things get awfully bloody, gory, and downright savage in its bestial nature. Great stuff, in terms of intense horror. Plus, it’s not a CGI-laden piece of work. Zahler doesn’t opt for a bunch of fake looking blood. Instead there’s a wealth of nice practical work here. Also consider that the movie’s budget is estimated under $2-million, so that’s actually truly impressive, like crazily impressive. When so many horrors, and lots of other genre films, fall into the trappings of computer generated boredom, there’s something to be said for a well crafted film crossing Westerns with horror that sticks to practicality.
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Sheriff Hunt: “We’ll make sure all this has value

5 star film. To the bone.
It’s not often these days with newer films, other than maybe a couple handfuls every year, I find myself glued to the screen. But finally having the chance to watch Bone Tomahawk, my attention was captivated from the opening sequence right to the final frames. There is everything here – the tried and true Western feel, a gritty sense of the Wild West, cannibalism, the at times scariness of horror movies, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox in finest form among a cast including other solid performances from Patrick Wilson and Kurt Russell. The adrenaline begins to flow full-on around when the last 43 minutes start descending upon you. Everything prior sets up all the atmosphere and tone necessary for the story to thrive. Everything that follows will keep you reeling, long after the credits roll. See this, or miss out on an innovative Western. Another I can easily say is one of the best in the genre I’ve seen over the past decade or more since the last big, great Westerns like Unforgiven and Tombstone.

Terror Comes Knocking When a Stranger Calls

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.
Crime/Drama/Horror

★★★★★
when-a-stranger-calls-3There 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.
1ae4a02f75d54b0ab8fb74fe7fc70fcdJill 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.
movie-scene2Right 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 SplashStar Trek IV: The Voyage HomePlanes Trains & AutomobilesPoint BreakMr. 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.
8b4a3441e709One 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.
screenshot_1A 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.