Thursday, October 30, 2014

October Quick Picks and Pans – Halloween 2014

Burnt Offerings (1976) Karen Black and Oliver Reed star in this slow burn psychological horror film, based on a novel by Robert Marasco. Marian and Ben, along with their 12-year-old son (Lee Montgomery) and elderly aunt (Bette Davis), find an old mansion in the country for rent (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart are especially memorable as the creepy brother/sister proprietors of the house). The price is great, but there’s a catch. Over the summer, the house begins to take its toll on the family and their collective sanity. Director/co-writer Dan Curtis and writer William F. Nolan do a nice job building suspense about the secret that’s locked away in the attic room upstairs. Burnt Offerings is a product from another era, taking its time to set the mood, and allowing the house to become another character. It doesn’t build to a crescendo of elaborate special effects, but relies on acting, storytelling and a pervasive atmosphere of dread to build tension.

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD

Sugar Hill (1974) With its proliferation of big afros, polyester galore, wide lapels and dated “hip” expressions, there’s no mistaking what decade this movie came out of. Therein resides the charm of this dated but amusing blaxploitation revenge story with a supernatural twist, directed by Paul Maslansky. When Diana “Sugar” Hill’s (Marki Bey) boyfriend is killed by mobsters, she unleashes her vengeance on them, one at a time. Unlike most titles from this genre, however, her modus operandi isn’t a gun or kung fu, but zombies. She enlists the aid of voodoo deity Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who possesses the ability to summon the dead for his bidding. I enjoyed this much more than I ever expected, and hopefully you will too. Can you dig it?

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Shivers (aka: They Came from Within) (1975) This ambitious early effort by writer/director David Cronenberg and producer Ivan Reitman (!) is an intriguing mix of high concept and low budget that borrows heavily from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A high rise apartment complex in Montreal becomes the test bed for a doctor’s experiments with slug-like parasites. The creatures, which possess aphrodisiac properties, invade the residents’ bodies and cause them to go berserk as their libidos run wild. While some of the concepts are clumsily executed, many of the themes that Cronenberg would refine in later films (doctors with a nefarious agenda, body horror, and sexual politics) are on full display. Cronenberg fans and Barbara Steele enthusiasts (watch for her small but memorable role) should take note.     

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Chopping Mall (1986) Don’t expect a lot of surprises from director/co-writer Jim Wynorski’s flick about 30-year-old “teens” trapped in a Southern California mall with homicidal robots (The story’s blatant disregard for the Three Laws of Robotics probably gave Isaac Asimov fits). One of the most novel things is the film’s setting, the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which should be instantly recognizable to ‘80s Valley dudes like me, as well as fans of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Commando. There are a few fun bits with Roger Corman regulars Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov and Dick Miller, but their brief appearances can’t save this from being more than middling entertainment. Nevertheless, it’s a good candidate for bad movie night, replete with scenes of stupid people doing stupid things. In one key example, one of the principal characters comments, “I guess I’m just not used to being chased around the mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.” Indeed.
Rating: ** ½. Available on DVD

Bug (1975) Writer/producer William Castle’s last film attempted to ride the wave of nature-on-a-rampage movies that dominated the ‘70s landscape. When a powerful quake opens a deep trench, a swarm of fire-spewing insects are unleashed from the bowels of the Earth. A high school science teacher (Bradford Dillman) unwisely decides to cross-breed one with a common cockroach, and creates a deadly new super species in the process. Bug isn’t terrible, just painfully dull. On paper, it sounds like good B-movie fun, but the finished product features uninspired bug attacks and too many long spaces of nothingness. Without the benefit of a brisk pace or interesting gimmick to accompany the film, Castle’s swan song falls woefully short.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) By the time the folks at Hammer released this lackluster entry, they were scraping the barrel for ideas. Dracula A.D. 1972 has nothing new to add to the vampire mythos or show, unless you count the “contemporary” setting of 1972 London. While the groovy fashions and dated expressions have a modicum of novelty value, the film is neither exciting nor scary. Christopher Lee begrudgingly returns as the eponymous count, brought back to life (in a plot contrivance derivative of the superior Taste the Blood of Dracula) by overaged teens taking part in a satanic ritual, as movie teens tend to do. In another uninspired twist, Peter Cushing plays the grandson of Professor Van Helsing. For Hammer Dracula completists and masochists only.

Rating: **. Available on DVD


  1. I've had Sugar Hill in my Netflix queue forever. Time to watch it! Thanks for participating in Pre'Ween this year, and have a Happy Halloween!

    1. Fun movie! ... And thanks for inviting me to participate in the Pre'Ween festivities. I had a blast, and hope I can do this again next year! :)