10.18.2020

Lunar Cycle - 70s Cult Horror


Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention.



VAMPYROS LESBOS (1971) - *** out of ****


Directed By: Jesus “Jess” Franco


Starring: Soledad Miranda, Eva Stromberg, Dennis Price, Paul Muller, Heidrun Kussin, Andres Morales, Jess Franco


Genre: Horror/Vampires


Running Time: 89 Minutes



PLOT

An erotic horror tale about a vixen vampiress seducing and killing women to appease her insatiable thirst for female blood.



REVIEW

Jess Franco is a director that has caused many a debate within horror circles. There are some who love his Euro-Trash cinematic art, while others believe Franco is nothing but a hack who disguised pornographic fantasies as horror films. And honestly while I don’t think Franco is a hack director, most of his films aren’t exactly top notch quality. But 1971’s VAMPYROS LESBOS is probably his well known work for a reason - it’s erotic in a tasteful way, well structured, well acted, and just presented in a very accessible way that both sides of the Franco debate can come together and most likely enjoy it.


VAMPYROS LESBOS doesn’t have much substance when it concerns its plot, so there’s not really much I can really comment on it. But the film does follow Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel pretty closely, gender changing certain characters but keeping much of the story intact and easy to follow if you’re knowledgable of the lore. The film does take questionable steps though, like making this sort of a direct sequel to the novel, while having vampires not being affected by sunlight all that much [going against a common trope]. But otherwise, the beats are pretty similar and fun to watch from a different perspective.


Franco’s main focus is obviously using the Dracula story to showcase some eroticism, especially between the two lead female characters. Some may claim this film to be a softcore pornographic movie attempting to be horror, but I think Franco displays the same-sex version of a familiar story in a pretty tasteful and classy way. The scenes where the Countess is dancing seductively in front of what appears to many as a mannequin [but it’s actually a flesh-and-blood human being] may be a bit overdone, but they add to the charisma and appeal of the Countess. Watching the beautiful lawyer, Linda, struggle with her attraction to the Countess while trying to still be faithful to her boyfriend [who Linda’s psychiatrist pretty much believes is a terrible lover for her to want a woman instead] is something I’m sure many people have struggled with in terms of their sexuality - regardless of vampires existing or not. The connection between the two characters is shown mainly through similar dreams involving scorpions and dripping blood, as well as the Countess calling for Linda that leaves Linda in some sort of trance. Yes, the Countess is stalking and probably sexually harassing and manipulating Linda into sex with her, but Linda seems to struggle with her genuine feelings towards the Countess until she realizes what the real deal is. Even though the Countess is technically the more powerful one in terms of her abilities, it’s really Linda who has the real hold on the Countess.


The other characters don’t have as much depth as the two lead characters, but they’re not terribly written either. Dr. Seward is a man who treats the Countess’ patients, not really to cure them but to learn from them how to achieve the power of immortality he clearly covets. Omar, Linda’s poor boyfriend, is pretty much a nothing character who is just there to be a foil for the Countess when it comes to Linda’s affections. Agra is a former victim of the Countess, portraying the female equivalent of the Renfield character. She senses when the Countess is coming near, making her the ideal patient for Seward. She also enjoys writhing on the floor to satisfy her sexual appetite in scenes not meant for children. All these familiar characters are all given characteristics that heighten their sexuality, which will please anyone looking for an erotic horror film like this one.


Jess Franco’s direction is pretty surreal and edited in ways that will make the audience think they’re watching a dream rather than something grounded in reality. The use of close ups in every scene will probably distract non-Franco fans at first, but it becomes easy to adjust to by the film’s end. Linda’s dreams are shot in a haze of sorts, with scorpions, moths, and blood signifying her connection to the Countess. And even those psychedelic jazz dance scenes with the Countess are shot in strange ways, with flashes that alternate between a mannequin and a real-life human being, murmuring voices in the background, and the Countess moving seductively in front of a mirror as Linda and Omar watch on - with great back-and-forth editing between the two parties. There’s something oddly freeing and primal about Franco’s work on this film. While the film is definitely beautiful to look at with bright colors and nice sets and locations that add mood and atmosphere, Franco’s message about sexual repression is pretty evident. Franco never really worked with great scripts, but he definitely had an eye for cinema and creates great shots that explain and explore a character more than words can say, especially in VAMPYROS LESBOS. It won’t please every one, but it does more right than wrong when it counts.


The acting is fine, especially when Soledad Miranda is onscreen as The Countess. Not only is she strikingly beautiful, but she portrays the Countess as almost a victim than a villain - cursed by her immortality and desperate to share it with someone, even if she has to force that attraction. Miranda doesn’t say a whole lot with dialogue, but carries her performance through her facial expressions and body language. Eva Stromberg is also very good as Linda, portraying the constant haze she’s in pretty perfectly. At times, you’re never really sure if the character is lucid, or still in a trance, adding to the surrealism of it all. Dennis Price also does well as Seward, giving the character some layers. There’s a layer of mystery and something sinister in Price’s performance. And of course, Jess Franco plays Agra’s husband - a man who will do anything to make sure no one gets to The Countess’ island, giving us a look at a disgustingly sad figure who has been just as affected by the vampires even though he was never a target.


Overall, VAMPYROS LESBOS is probably the best entry point for anyone interested in Jess Franco’s filmography. While there isn’t really a beefy story to bite into, the elements of surrealism and mystery manage to keep your attention regardless. The themes of sexual repression, obsession, and realizing that living forever isn’t as good as it sounds hit the viewer pretty well, making one think about the Dracula story from a different perspective. The dreamlike imagery may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Franco’s massive use of close ups and jarring editing add a layer of arthouse exoticism that was befitting of Euro-horror at the time. The acting is also good, especially by Soledad Miranda as the vampire Countess who comes across both a villain, and a victim of her immortality and desperation for love. You won’t get much vampire horror out of VAMPYROS LESBOS. But if you enjoy something from the art house mixed with a 70s vibe, a bit of horror and softcore porn, then this film may be worth sinking your teeth into.





BABA YAGA (1973) - **1/2 out of ****


Directed By: Corrado Farina


Starring: Carroll Baker, George Eastman, Isabelle De Funes, Ely Galleani, Daniela Balzaretti, Mario Mattia, Giorgetti, Sergio Masieri, Angela Novello


Genre: Horror/Thriller/Mystery/Witchcraft


Running Time: 91 Minutes



PLOT

Carroll Baker stars in this psychedelic shocker about a mysterious witch who casts a spell over attractive, youthful fashion photographer Valentina Rosselli. Thrust into a world of sadism, Valentina must figure out whether the torture being inflicted on her is because of one woman’s twisted agenda… or a curse known as Baba Yaga.



REVIEW

Even though comic book adaptations have been all the rage, especially during the last couple of decades, the act of adapting a comic book or strip has been practiced much longer than that. For example, 1973’s witch flick BABA YAGA was actually inspired by an Italian comic strip of the same name, adapting Guido Crepex’s work and transforming it into a live-action surreal and sexy movie centered around a fashion photographer named Valentina. BABA YAGA is a film I hadn’t seen prior to watching for this review, although knowing of it through word of mouth and sensual photographs that fit its Euro-trash look and feel. Unfortunately, BABA YAGA has a lot to be desired when it comes to telling an interesting story that would have made this film more popular than it is. But it does have some cool things going for it, making it one to look out for if you ever come across it.


Like I have already stated, what drags BABA YAGA down is the lack of a real juicy narrative that the film definitely tries to aspire to. The set up is your basic “main character is cursed” angle, where witch Baba Yaga is infatuated with Valentina and keeps forcing herself into the photographer’s life - stealing objects to maintain some sort of life essence, jinxing a camera by turning it into a murder weapon, and even offering her an S&M doll that comes to life as Valentina’s personal assassin without Valentina knowing it. These elements feel fresh and fun, as I’ve never seen a horror film like this where just taking a photo of someone automatically murders them, which unfortunately not enough is done with. And the doll coming to life is definitely cool, but I wish it wasn’t just a subplot for the film’s final few minutes as the idea of an assassin doll possibly framing or causing trouble for Valentina would have been a neat narrative to build some drama for the characters. But BABA YAGA is an arthouse type of film adapting a sophisticated comic strip in the best way possible, so I respect the filmmakers for keeping these elements intact and giving the film a different feel from other witch films of the era.


But like I’ve written, BABA YAGA doesn’t do enough with the fresh elements to make them matter all that much in the end. The characters don’t have a ton of depth besides the token roles they’re playing, which is a shame since I think both Valentina and Baba Yaga could have really been fleshed out and made stronger in terms of their relationship. Valentina’s boyfriend and the random models that pop up are there to either save the day or to add to the film’s body count. And with so much stuff thrown at the wall to see what sticks, it’s a shame that none of these elements are given enough time to really add much. I mean, you have a killer camera murdering people! It was tossed away pretty quickly once the characters figured out what was going on. You also have random lesbian scenes that seem to be building towards something, but the film never capitalizes on it. And what was up with all the Nazi dream sequences? Again, an element to the narrative that was actually captivating but didn’t really make a whole lick of sense by the film’s end. I know all this was taken from the comic strip, but maybe 90 minutes isn’t enough time to adapt this kind of film? I hear that 30 minutes was actually edited out of the film for whatever reason, including key scenes that would have deepened the connection between the Valentina and Baba Yaga characters. I don’t understand these studios sometimes. Don’t they realize that people actually care about characterization and depth, especially in a film like this? The narrative does what it can and I was never bored with what I was watching. But I definitely had a feeling of “what could have been”.


What BABA YAGA really excels at is the visual presentation by Corrado Farina. The film is well paced and well edited, never dragging or boring the audience. The film also looks pretty nice, with the locations giving a lot of character visually to the respective characters [mainly Valentina and Baba Yaga]. I think my favorite part of the direction is the insertion of photographs depicting important scenes every now and then. For example, Valentina and her boyfriend make love and instead of watching the scene play out as one normally would, you see the act happening through a series of photographs meant to look like panels from a comic book. Like the comic strip itself, these moments are shot in black-and-white, giving BABA YAGA a classy feel that could have looked sleazy in the hands of another director. And considering Valentina is a photographer, it was a really nice touch to make important moments look like photographs.


The acting is fine. Carroll Baker gets top billing as Baba Yaga, but she doesn’t really stand out as much as one would believe she should. She doesn’t really exude the confident, the sexuality, the sensuality, or the manipulative nature the character should possess. But she’s adequate in the role and makes the most of it. Apparently she was the director’s second choice, as Anne Heywood was hired for the role but pulled out at the last minute to star in 1973’s remake of TRADER JOHN. I wonder how Heywood would have done in the role, but I guess we’ll never know. However, the real star of the film and the reason to watch is Isabelle De Funes. As Valentina, her ability to convey a whole lot just through her facial expressions [those wide eyes] and body language, as well as being a team player when it comes to disrobing and portraying the lesbian angle in a serious way, makes the character she plays extremely watchable and worth investing in - even when you wish the character was written with just a bit more depth. I really liked her performance, as she performed every beat convincingly. And I never knew George Eastman could play someone not creepy, but he does here as Valentina's caring boyfriend. It was actually strange seeing him not only play it straight, but also playing a hero instead of a villain. He did a good job in the role, but I think his personality shines through more in his classic villainous roles.


And special mention to the film’s score by Piero Umilani, bringing a nice jazzy soundtrack to this strange flick. The vibe added much needed atmosphere to BABA YAGA.


Overall, BABA YAGA is a pretty trippy and bold adaptation of Guido Crepex’s comic strip of the same name, almost collapsing on its own ambition to tackle every story element within a short time frame. There’s not much of a story really besides a witch ruining the woman’s life that she’s obsessed with. This narrative flaw doesn’t really allow much of actors or characters they play to really do a whole lot besides act like props for the strange elements the film presents - like S & M dolls coming to life and cameras that murder people. Then again, you have S & M DOLLS THAT COME TO LIFE and CAMERAS THAT KILL. How can one deny a movie experience like that, even if neither element really achieves its full potential? While the story is easy to follow, all these interesting subplots get the shaft because there’s not enough time to focus on them beyond the surface. What saves the film is nice direction by Corrado Farina, as the film moves with a quick pace and even adds elements of the comic strips during important moments in a nice touch and acknowledgment of its source material. The jazzy soundtrack by Piero Umilani, and the good acting [especially by Isabelle De Funes as Valentina] elevate the film, making it one to watch despite a not-so-strong screenplay. Not the best witch film I have ever seen, but it’s a decent piece of Euro-Trash that’s worth a look if you dig some surrealism and mild eroticism in your horror films.






PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974) - ***1/2 out of ****


Directed By: Brian De Palma


Starring: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli, Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, Peter Elbling


Genre: Horror/Comedy/Thriller/Fantasy/Musical


Running Time: 92 Minutes



PLOT

In this rock opera hybrid of Phantom of the Opera and Faust, fledgling singer-songwriter Winslow Leach finds himself double-crossed by the nefarious music producer Swan, who steals both his music and the girl Leach wants to sing it, Phoenix, for the grand opening of his rock palace. After Swan sends Leach to prison for trespassing, Leach endures a freak accident which leaves him disfigured and plans his revenge on both Swan and The Paradise, becoming the Phantom of the Paradise.



REVIEW

A year before THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW began to capture the hearts of midnight movie fans, Brian De Palma released PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE - a a horror-musical he developed in 1969, four years before the director hit it big with the horror-thriller SISTERS. While the songs and the performances aren’t as iconic as ROCKY HORROR, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE has gained quite a cult following within the last decade or so, becoming sort of a Halloween time flick and considered one of De Palma’s best films.


Just from the name, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is obviously a play on THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, taking the basic story and turning it on its head. In a way, De Palma seems to be spoofing THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with the look of Winslow Leach in a glam version of the costume as he haunts “The Paradise” concert hall by scaring and killing anyone in the way of his goal. For a 90 minute film, the writing really fleshes out the characters and the arcs they’re going through with more depth than one would expect in that time frame, considering you have musical performances and other strange elements at play to fill in time. De Palma, using THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA story beats, seems to be criticizing the entertainment industry, especially the music industry and how it uses people and tosses them away when the goal has been met and their services are no longer required. A lot of the time, the songwriter seems to get the least of the credit compared to who sings and/or produces the song. Here, Swan [the evil and greedy producer] is a huge celebrity, taking Winston Leach’s song and creating popular acts by stealing the lyrics and passing them off as if he had anything to do with the songwriting process. Even when Swan dupes Leach [now as the Phantom] in order to stop Leach from ruining his grand opening of “The Paradise” by promising him that he’ll get credit for the songs he’ll write and even using the singer [Phoenix] Leach wants singing them - which doesn’t happen until he has no choice - De Palma seems to be implying that songwriters are nothing but puppets in the music industry, almost having to prostitute themselves in order to get some professional credit. I guess the film and television industry is pretty similar in those tactics at times, which is an interesting theme to express in the mid-1970s considering it probably wasn’t as much of a big deal back then like it has become in the last few years.


The theme wouldn’t work if the characters weren’t written well enough to express it properly. But PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE has memorable characters that continue to hold a massive cult popularity even today. Winston Leach is your usual songwriter who wants to share his music with the world and feels Swan is the producer to make that happen, considering Swan is a media sensation. But when Swan steals his music and doesn’t give Leach credit, Leach goes through a desperate phase that leads him to prison, where he suffers a terrible facial accident before escaping. Because of his disfigurement, he becomes The Phantom of the Paradise, haunting “The Paradise” and killing anyone who is trying to become successful with his songs. While Leach could have been portrayed as a stereotypical monster, he’s treated as a victim who you root for when it comes to getting his vengeance on Swan. He also has feelings for a young singer named Phoenix, who seems to be the only one who sings his music in the way he has envisioned it. Compare that to Swan, who is this 5’2” producer who uses people to have sex with girls, do drugs, and become richer than he probably deserves. He attempts to manipulate and torture Leach every chance he can get, corrupted with a power that Leach soon learns isn’t totally natural. I mean, the man hasn’t aged in 20 years for a reason. We also Phoenix, who is Leach’s muse and one-sided love interest, who is willing to do anything to become a star. She’ll get laid on the casting couch. She promises she’ll do anything to and for Swan to become successful. And when she gets that success, she becomes your stereotypical rock star by snorting coke and doing publicity stunts to maintain that fame. She’s pretty much a VH1’s Behind the Music waiting to happen. And we can’t forget Beef, a wannabe glam rocker who probably wouldn’t pass an American Idol audition even if he tried. Flamboyant and vain, Beef manages to be a highlight whenever he appears. There is a lot of fun depth with the characters, making the narrative an enjoyable one.


Brian De Palma directs a fun film here, and probably a film that’s unlike many of his familiar works. It’s very experimental and more focused on being a comedic rockudrama rather than a straight up horror film. De Palma has never been a director who hides his influences and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE proudly shows it. While it’s mainly a funny take on THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, it also uses elements of FAUST [even naming an album after the play and film], THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY [a character never growing old due to a deal with the devil], and TOUCH OF EVIL [the bomb inside of a trunk]. There’s also a silly homage to the shower scene from PSYCHO, which isn’t surprising since De Palma is a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. You also get the trademarked split screen effect, which I think he would later perfect in his next film CARRIE. And the camera work is just really well done, with everything on the frame meaning something important to the story. I thought the musical sequences, with a lot of 360-degree movements and solid use of color and editing, work really well here. I’m sure many would claim a lot of the camera tricks could be distracting due to the many narrative beats this film takes. And I’ll agree that it’s not his strongest or most confident work as a director. But I enjoy watching it as this musical spectacle that took me away to another place for 90 minutes.


Speaking of the music, the soundtrack is pretty incredible. I believe all the songs were written by Paul Williams, who played Swan in the film. While they won’t stay in your brain like “Time Warp”, the compositions are very solid. “The Hell of It” is a great song I play every October. And I love other songs like “Somebody Super Like You” and “Old Souls”. Jessica Harper, in particular, has a really nice voice and I would rather hear her sing in this than in 1981’s SHOCK TREATMENT. But that’s just me. But I like the mix of glam rock and power pop songs that move the film along. So did the Academy, as it was nominated for both the Golden Globes and Oscars that year.


The acting is solid. William Finley is wonderful as Winston “The Phantom” Leach, really capturing the frustration, hatred and loneliness of a man who just wants to be recognized for his songwriting but never getting his due until it’s too late. It’s a great performance when you can be super tall next to the actor playing your foil and still manage to gain sympathy for being treated as a victim. Finley makes you root for him every step of the way, and he makes what could be a silly costume work really well. Paul Williams is also fantastic as Swan, Leach’s foil. He captures the greedy and conceited music producer type perfectly, bringing a large presence to the role despite his small frame. You want this guy to get what’s coming to him, thanks to Williams scuzzy performance. Jessica Harper is always a delight, and it’s no different as Phoenix. She doesn’t really get a whole lot to do until the final act really, but watching her change from desperate star seeker to corrupted superstar is pretty believable. And I can’t end this review without mentioning scene stealing Gerrit Graham as Beef - obviously a take on the flamboyant and gender bending glam rockers of the time like David Bowie and possibly Gary Glitter. He’s pretty hilarious in how serious he’s willing to ham it up for our entertainment.


Overall, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE isn’t as memorable as THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, which would be released a year later, but it’s still high-quality fun and catchy with Brian De Palma’s virtuoso direction and a solid soundtrack by Paul Williams. I feel the film was a bit ahead of its time, especially with its criticism on the music industry and how it treats the players who create the soundtrack to many of our lives. The influences De Palma uses to fill his narrative [THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, FAUST, PSYCHO and TOUCH OF EVIL] are used really well and the characters are all memorable to keep you engaged from beginning to end. The performances - especially by Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper and scene stealing Gerrit Graham as “Beef” - really bring a lot of charm. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, while not De Palma’s best film, has to be respected for its ambition. It deserves its cult status and “The Hell With It” if anyone thinks differently. 





BAD RONALD (1974) - *** out of ****


Directed By: Buzz Kulik


Starring: Scott Jacoby, Pippa Scott, John Larch, Dabney Coleman, Kim Hunter, John Fiedler, Linda Watkins, Cindy Fisher


Genre: Horror/Thriller/Drama


Running Time: 74 Minutes



PLOT

Ronald Wilby is a maladjusted teen who accidentally kills a young girl whose sister spurned his romantic advances. Ronald’s doting mother decides to protect her son by creating a concealed room in their home in which he will live. When the mother dies suddenly, Ronald stays hidden in the room, even after a new family moves into the home. Ronald uses his secret spaces to spy on the family, eventually taking one of the young girls hostage, with the hope of making her part of his secret world.



REVIEW

Back in the 1970s, the major networks were killing it in the ratings with their TV Movies of the Week. While not every TV movie was a horror movie, the studio did create a few of them that have lasted the test of time. Films like 1975’s TRILOGY OF TERROR, 1979’s SALEM’S LOT, 1973’S DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK and 1978’s DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL are just a few examples that genre fans still talk about to this day, thankfully due to home media. 1974’s BAD RONALD is another example of a classic TV Movie of the Week that was very popular back in the day - and it’s easy to see why with its creepy premise and interesting title character.


BAD RONALD is a film that I would have definitely been attracted to if I had been alive during the 1970s. Just the premise of someone living within the walls of your home without you knowing the danger gives me the creeps and probably happens more than we actually think in real life. I mean sure, how does one sell a home that wasn’t properly inspected or measured correctly for the family moving in to acknowledge that hidden space within their house? I’m sure that’s illegal or lawsuit worthy somewhere. But for the purposes of the story, which was adapted from a John Vance novel, the concept behind the terror definitely works and makes you want to check every single crevice in your home to make sure there are no strangers living inside with you. The idea alone adds a ton of tension and suspense to the film. What does Ronald have planned for this new family that’s moved into his home after his mom died? How does no one here notice all the peepholes in that one particular section of the house? Is Ronald as bad as they say or just misunderstood? When is he found out, what will Ronald do? The best horror stories stem from very simple concepts, which helps BAD RONALD more than it ought to.


Speaking of Ronald, the film’s title may be a bit dramatic. I’m not completely sure Ronald is a bad teenager, but more that Ronald has been put into pretty bad situations he has no idea how to get out of. He’s coddled and sheltered by his very overprotective mother, who happens to be suffering from sort of health issue with her gallbladder. The neighborhood kids bully him for being a bit strange and geeky. All this pent up frustration leads him to murdering a young girl after she makes fun of him, leading to his mother hiding himself behind the kitchen in a secret compartment so the police wouldn’t be able to find him. But his mom passes away from surgery while he’s hidden, still living in his house as a new family arrives. Due to his isolation, Ronald begins to fantasize about a utopian world where he’s king, the youngest daughter in the family Babs is his queen, and the brother of the girl he accidentally killed [and his biggest detractor] is the evil duke would needs to be eliminated. So it’s an interesting take on what should be a creepy villain living inside the walls of a house because Ronald is sort of a victim, even if he did commit manslaughter. And kidnapping. And scaring someone to death.


You know, maybe Ronald is kind of bad…


Thankfully we have a complex main character in Ronald because the other characters are just bland archetypes for this type of story. Besides Ronald’s kooky mom and his damn nosy neighbor, there’s nothing really special about the family that moves in. The parents aren’t much of a presence. The oldest sister has Final Girl vibes, so she’s pretty cool. It also helps that her boyfriend is Ronald’s nemesis, making her close to the situation. The youngest, Babs, is Ronald’s sassy and rebellious obsession, giving Ronald a feisty character to play off of. And the middle sister is just there, probably yelling “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” in a corner to herself somewhere. And the police… well you know how they behave in a horror movie. Not quite geniuses, are they?


The direction by Buzz Kulik isn’t the greatest thing ever, but it does what it needs to do for the most part. I mean, BAD RONALD is a TV Movie of the Week, so it’s already at a disadvantage compared to big screen films. There’s not much of a budget. The presentation plays out like a TV sitcom or drama, meaning it was probably filmed on a soundstage on some studio lot. You get the fade to blacks anytime a commercial was needed. It’s not going to wow any film snob looking for awesome direction. But what Kulik does well is do more with what he’s given, building tension and suspense at times as Ronald peeps at his “new family” and creeps around the house unknowingly while others are inside. And when Ronald needs to chase and stalk after people, Kulik builds a nice mood for those scenes to make them feel sort of unnerving. So I thought Kulik did as best as he could considering his limitations, making a pretty memorable TV movie.


The acting isn’t the greatest, but some actors have their moments. Obviously Scott Jacoby is pretty good as Ronald, really embodying a troubled teenager who has put himself in a terrible situation and is trying to get out of a bigger one with his survival and freedom intact. Jacoby never plays Ronald as evil, but just confused and misguided in terms of his actions and feelings towards others. The character is an odd duck and Jacoby plays it pretty well. Kim Hunter plays Ronald’s overbearing mom, playing the role on the fence of doting mother and crazy parent doing whatever it takes to protect her only child. Cindy Fisher is pretty feisty and a bit whiny as the youngest sister, Babs. Lisa Eilbacher is very likable as the oldest sister, Ellen. I wish she was in the film more because I was living for her Final Girl vibes. And hey - Dabney

Coleman is also in this as the father of the family that moves into Ronald’s home. Too bad he doesn’t get much to do.


Overall, BAD RONALD is fun TV Movie of the Week type that was popular in the 1970s. Despite the creepy premise of an orphaned teenager living within the walls of his home as a new family moves in, not knowing he’s there, the film really isn’t all that scary and plays out exactly how one would think it would. But due to a title character that’s both troublesome, yet sympathetic at the same time, it stands above a lot of the other TV movies that were released from this time period. Scott Jacoby does a good job embodying an awkward and misguided teenager who is a victim of circumstance, becoming more and more unhinged as the film rolls on. The TV movie limitations [budget, location, some of the actors] could have really hindered this movie, but director Buzz Kulik makes the most of it, adapting the John Vance novel and infusing some creepy atmosphere at times - especially in the film’s final act. There are better horror movies of the TV Movie variety, but BAD RONALD is an interesting flick that has something to offer if you need a quick entertainment fix.




9.22.2020

Disturbing Behavior (1998)

DIRECTED BY

David Nutter


STARRING

James Marsden - Steve Clark

Katie Holmes - Rachel Wagner

Nick Stahl - Gavin Strick

Bruce Greenwood - Dr. Edgar Caldicott

William Sadler - Dorian Newberry

Steve Railsback - Officer Cox

Chad Donella - U.V.

Katharine Isabelle - Lindsay Clark

Ethan Embry - Allen Clark


Genre - Sci-Fi/Horror/Thriller/Mystery


Running Time - 84 Minutes



PLOT (from IMDB)

The new kid (James Marsden) in Cradle Bay, Washington stumbles across something sinister about the town’s method of transforming its unruly teens into upstanding citizens.


REVIEW


DISTURBING BEHAVIOR
is a film I hadn’t watched since its theatrical release back in 1998 - a time where the horror genre had finally gained popularity both critically and commercially with mainstream audiences for better or for worse. Even though I’ve watched and prefer THE FACULTY, which was released months after DISTURBING BEHAVIOR and share a similar theme about conforming due to some outside force, I had always wanted to revisit this film to see how well it holds up today. While still an entertaining little movie, watching it this time with a critical adult eye makes me realize how flawed this film is. It’s a teenage version of THE STEPFORD WIVES without the commentary or the justification for its existence, with the studio and producers involved only wanting to cater to the SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER market at the time.


The real problem with DISTURBING BEHAVIOR is the storytelling itself. Or to be more specific, the hack job done to the narrative due to studio interference months prior to its release. Because of the last minute editing, the film comes off as a project that was rushed into development, based on a first or second draft of a screenplay that needed more fine tuning to be a feature-length movie. There are a lot of gaps in terms of narrative, with characters and situations popping up without any sort of explanation as if the producers were in a hurry to tell a story in the least amount of time possible. This is frustrating because there’s obviously a good film here that is trying to say something to the teenage audience at the time by remaking a 70’s satire for a new generation. But in essence, it feels like a series of random events that connect together rather than a fully fleshed out story that deserves our attention.


I’ve never seen the much praised fan-edit or the television presentations of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR - both adding in most, or all, of the deleted scenes to beef up the film and give it much needed depth. But the theatrical version is totally lacking any sort of heart and soul that was probably intended prior to test screenings and this idea to capitalize on the SCREAM craze that brought many back to the genre. This theatrical version is the only one readily available for most of the movie audience, probably not leaving much of an impression unless you’re nostalgic for this era. For a movie focused on unveiling a mystery rather than providing character depth and story motivations to make us care more, the end result leaves us with more questions than answers. Why is this town so accepting of having scientists add implants to their children just so they can be considered good, perfect standards of the community? Where did Dr. Caldicott even think of this idea? Why was his daughter a test subject and why didn’t it work on her? How come only certain teenagers chosen for this project? How come a man is willing to let everyone think he’s mentally handicapped for a bit of piece and quiet? Why are Steve and Rachel considered outsiders, even though both look like they stepped out of a modeling audition and could easily be the most popular and coveted teens in school? Why am I asking so many questions for a film that’s only 84 minutes???


It doesn’t help that the main characters aren’t all that interesting really. Steve seems like a nice guy with a caring sister and parents, who are dealing with their own crap not to see how much Steve is struggling with his older brother’s suicide. But other than that, I don’t know much about him. Rachel is a sassy goth (?) who starts tough and just becomes a damsel-in-distress when she realizes that Steve will save her. Gavin, probably the most interesting character, is the only one who realizes what’s going on and tries to warn everyone about it, which falls on deaf ears. But his character undergoes a transformation midway through the film, disappearing until the very end. Dr. Edgar Caldicott is your typical mad scientist whose hobby is playing God. There seems to be a backstory with him, but the film doesn’t bother telling it. U.V. is the random albino stoner dude, I guess? And Dorian is the janitor who is pretending to be slow so people could leave him alone, even though he figures out what’s going on and how to stop it. All the players are here, but they’re not given any character development that makes us care about them really. I hear the other versions of this film are a lot better because the missing scenes answer a lot of questions about these characters and the situation in general. It’s too bad the studio couldn’t leave well enough alone.



The narrative does have some things going for it. I do like the cafeteria scene where Gavin explains the different groups in school. I think almost every high school setting has certain sections dedicated to the preppies, to the troublemakers, to the geeks, and etc. And there’s a great moment where Gavin, who realizes he’s next to be “lobotomized” freaks out because he realizes his life will be over against his will, even contemplating murder-suicide at one point which Steve saves him from. I also like the unintentionally hilarious moments the film provides. Like, for example, the opening of the film where a guy rips a girl’s head off while she performs oral sex on him because it’s consider “naughty”. This dude also kills a cop, with another cop gladly willing to cover it up. What a great town! There’s also the funny, yet creepy, moment where a teenage girl gets rejected by Steve, only for her to malfunction and slam her own head into a mirror repeatedly, before acting as if nothing happened and moves on with her life. And what about that scene where one of the programmed kids destroys a grocery store by tossing another teen around, with no one really reacting to it as if it’s a big deal? And how about Rachel trying to force her catchphrase, “Razor”, on us for much of the film? What the hell does that even mean? Is she a fan of Razor Ramon? Does she have an urge to shave? Let’s cut that business out, shall we?


And while the film lacks any depth, at least it checks off things that teenagers deal with - such as conformity, hovering and controlling parents, teenage suicide, and lost friendships over time. It would have been nice if the studio allowed the film to flesh these things out, but I guess we have HEATHERS for that, don’t we?


A lot of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR was created by much of the same crew who worked on television’s X-Files, including director David Nutter who directed many episodes of that television show. In some ways, the film feels like an episode of X-Files or other sci-fi shows of the time, just with a bigger budget. The look of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR has a TV movie feel, which kind of adds to the charm of the film since it doesn’t look as polished as its contemporaries. There’s this mysterious and bleak atmosphere and mood throughout the film, which I really enjoyed as it made this town of Cradle Bay [with its fog and gloomy, cloudy look] feel more eerie than what this movie probably deserved. And there are some moments of genuine tension, especially in the final act, that work better than one would think. Unfortunately, it was probably out of Nutter’s hands to hack this film to the version that’s commonly out there, destroying anything Nutter probably wanted to present in terms of characters, the mystery, and just the overall vibe of the town the film is set in. The film is much shorter and moves at the quick pace because of it, but things happen so quickly that we don’t have time to digest the thrill of following these characters solve and survive the mystery that surrounds them. I feel bad for Nutter that his project was taken away from him during post-production just so it could be badly edited into an I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER clone of sorts. At least the music by X-Files composer Mark Snow is pretty subtle and nice.



The acting is more than okay. In one of his early roles, James Marsden does well enough as Steve. The guy photographs really well and his portrayal of the good guy character works. I wish Marsden had more to work with, especially when it came to Steve’s brother’s suicide that should have been more of a focus. But he works with what he’s given. Katie Holmes, who at the time became a huge star due to Dawson’s Creek, is okay as Rachel. I never bought her as a great actress or anything, but she’s cute and can pull off sassy believably. Maybe if she had more to do, I could say more about her performance. Nick Stahl is probably the best of the younger cast as Gavin. The first half of the film works the best because Stahl is a big part of it, coming across as likable, sarcastic, and believably scared for his character’s future. I even thought he played creepy well once he’s transformed into a Blue Ribbon. I wish he was the lead actor and character honestly because he’s the only one that came across as real for me. Nice to see a young Katharine Isabelle as Steve’s sweet sister and Chad Donella as a stoner albino type. The 90s, everyone.


As for the older cast, I think William Sadler came out the best as janitor Dorian. Sadler makes any project he’s a part of better and he seems to be having fun playing such a bizarre character. He even gets to quote Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” at one point, so that’s a thing. Bruce Greenwood doesn’t get a lot to do as the film’s villain, Dr. Caldicott. He pops in and out and comes across as a weak villain, most likely due to the editing that probably took some of his character arc out for whatever reason. Greenwood is a good actor and deserved better. And what was up with Ethan Embry here? Was his role bigger in the Director’s Cut or did they just use cut footage from EMPIRE RECORDS or CAN’T HARDLY WAIT? I feel his character was super important for Steve’s arc, making Embry’s pop-in appearances just come across as jarring and weird.


THE FINAL HOWL


DISTURBING BEHAVIOR
is a film that should have been more of a success than it was, bringing 1975’s THE STEPFORD WIVES and turning it into a teenage thriller for a new generation at the time. Unfortunately, the studio stepped in and butchered an almost two-hour film into one that only runs 84 minutes [including credits], ruining whatever message or satire director David Nutter had planned when he developed the project. The end result is a film that wants to be part of the SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER club, just without any of the depth and character development to reach the thrills and cleverness of either of those two films. You end up not caring about any of the characters or the mystery that’s unfolding because the film feels like a puzzle with missing pieces every five minutes that would have elevated the storytelling and narrative of the movie. And while the TV movie look that David Nutter infuses, as well as an eerie and bleak atmosphere, gives DISTURBING BEHAVIOR a bit of charm, the terrible editing job by the studio ruin any sort of momentum the film could have. Fortunately, the cast - especially by Nick Stahl and William Sadler - is quite good enough to keep you invested. And there are some bizarre moments and bits of dialogue throughout that you’ll end up being entertained by it all. I would really like to see the longer cut of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR because this theatrical version is a mess. It’s not boring or insulting enough to turn anyone off, but it’s a mess that could have been something interesting if outside forces didn’t stick their nose where it didn’t belong. Not worth conforming for, but worth a look if you’re feeling razor for late-90s teenage horror movies. 



SCORE

2 Howls Outta 4




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