Tag Archives: Roddy McDowall

Fright Night (1985, Tom Holland)

So much of Fright Night is humdrum, with the occasional energy pulses whenever Chris Sarandon gets to be vampirish, I didn’t really expect it to get any better. I certainly didn’t expect director Holland to go all out on the special effects or even Roddy McDowall to get such good material. I also didn’t expect Stephen Geoffreys to go from pointless background to constant annoyance; Geoffreys isn’t any good to begin with, so when he gets even worse, it claws. Especially as he gets one of the great effects sequences.

Unfortunately, Holland hasn’t set Fright Night up to be easily saved, not even by effects sequences. Especially not as the technically superior finale lacks much dramatic oomph. Fright Night starts being about William Ragsdale’s curious, then terrified teenager. The part requires someone who can get away not just with being nosy, but a jerk to girlfriend Amanda Bearse. Ragsdale’s got absolutely no charisma. Five minutes in the first act feels like a half hour, as Ragsdale starts to investigate new next door neighbor Sarandon while ignoring Bearse and palling around with Geoffreys. Only it turns out the palling makes Geoffreys miserable and he feels picked on; it can’t be any other characters who pick on him, because there’s no one else in the movie. Holland isn’t interested in directing a high school movie.

There’s the requisite eighties club scene, however. Fright Night does have a club scene. It’s even a good club scene–Sarandon seduces Bearse, while Ragsdale goofs off trying to figure out a payphone. Better photography would’ve helped; Jan Kiesser’s photography is always competent, but never excellent. Still Sarandon and Bearse are good in the scene. Sarandon plays the part of bloodsucker as eighties thoughtful stud well. So well his relationship with his charmless doofus sidekick Jonathan Stark never works. Seeing him have a subplot with Bearse, some character development, it’s nice.

Bearse has a terrible part. She’s got no chemistry with Ragsdale, which would be hard because Ragsdale’s actively unappealing. But she does all right as a reincarnated lady love of a vampire. Of course, it’s kind of creepy since she’s seventeen and Sarandon is forty-three and Holland does nothing to establish Bearse’s character other than her being a prude who’s better that trig than mathematic dummy Ragsdale.

So the two vampire seduction scenes are good. Just a tad too exploitative. Even if you remove the female actor being underage, Holland really doesn’t want to deal with any of the repercussions of the film’s events. Fright Night is a spoofy comedy. It’s also a terrible scary movie. And it’s a special effects spectacular. It’s sometimes exquisite–though in McDowall and Sarandon’s performances. None of the other actors give unqualified good performances; they need stronger direction and Holland apparently doesn’t give it to them. Maybe he’s just in a hurry to the never hinted at special effects finale but even it lacks personality.

The score is another big disconnect. For example, when Ragsdale is suspiciously peeping on Sarandon, Brad Fiedel’s score goes to its synthpop vampire seduction thing. And Holland doesn’t seem to notice it doing nothing for the film or Ragdale’s performance. Ragsdale’s what happens if Billy Peltzer is unlikable.

Oddly enough, the seduction part of the score ends up being the most effective, if only because editor Kent Beyda screws up the rest of Fiedel’s work. Fright Night is not well-edited. Almost never. And, along with the frequent, unchecked bombastic music and Kiesser’s flat photography, the filmmaking itself acts as a barrier. Nowhere near as much as Ragsdale being an unlikable shit (maybe because he’s at least seven years too old for the part), but it does act as a barrier. Fright Night lacks mood. Holland’s all over the place, often competently or better, but his direction is moodless and needs to be quite the opposite.

Also Ragsdale is really, really, really, really bland until Bearse, Geoffreys, and McDowall take over. And Geoffreys is really bland too, but he’s not as damaging the overall experience.

So once McDowall’s part is bigger, Fright Night starts to get better, then it gets good, then it chokes on an epilogue. So after opening too flat to make an impression, Fright Night still ends up being a disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom Holland; director of photography, Jan Kiesser; edited by Kent Beyda; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, John DeCuir Jr.; produced by Herb Jaffe; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring William Ragsdale (Charley Brewster), Roddy McDowall (Peter Vincent), Chris Sarandon (Jerry Dandrige), Amanda Bearse (Amy Peterson), Stephen Geoffreys (Ed Thompson), Jonathan Stark (Billy Cole), Art Evans (Detective Lennox), and Dorothy Fielding (Judy Brewster).


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The Black Hole (1979, Gary Nelson)

The Black Hole is a weird–and bad–movie. American science fiction usually avoids religion, at least literalizing religion, but Black Hole embraces it. Maybe I shouldn’t spoil it. But it’s from Disney too. It’s a Disney movie with Heaven and Hell.

When the film cuts to Maximilian Schell during these sequences, the film feels like a Fellini knockoff. But it’s not. It’s Disney.

There are even terribly designed cute Disney robots flying around and talking in the voices of Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens. McDowell’s not unbearable but the idea of a robot being built to sound like a Western sidekick? It’s idiotic, like most of the film. No one but Schell can endure the dialogue. It’s incredibly bad–all expository for the first half, then the rest of the movie’s a chase and the dialogue’s all declarative.

The declarative is a lot better than the exposition. Robert Forster and Yvette Mimieux can handle the latter. They’re both awful during the first half. Joseph Bottoms, Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine are all terrible throughout; Bottoms being the worst. He never manages a single good delivery.

What makes the film watchable is the special effects. As dumb as the cute robots look, the effects flying them around are fantastic. The miniatures are amazing. The post-production effects–the space ship engines and so on–are awful, but the miniatures are great.

John Barry’s score is half okay, half awful… which is a better percentage than the rest of the picture.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gary Nelson; screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day, based on a story by Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard H. Landau; director of photography, Frank V. Phillips; edited by G. Gregg McLaughlin; music by John Barry; production designer, Peter Ellenshaw; produced by Ron Miller; released by Buena Vista Distribution Company.

Starring Maximilian Schell (Dr. Hans Reinhardt), Anthony Perkins (Dr. Alex Durant), Robert Forster (Captain Dan Holland), Joseph Bottoms (Lieutenant Charles Pizer), Yvette Mimieux (Dr. Kate McCrae), Ernest Borgnine (Harry Booth), Roddy McDowall (V.I.N.CENT.), Tom McLoughlin (Captain S.T.A.R.) and Slim Pickens (B.O.B.).


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Dead of Winter (1987, Arthur Penn)

Loathe as I am to be glib about a director like Arthur Penn, Dead of Winter comes off like a TNT Original Movie. Penn proves himself–with the exception of maybe one scene and even then it’s awkward because it’s Arthur Penn using Steadicam–almost completely inept at directing a thriller. The script’s hardly anything special and maybe a good deal of the problems come from it, but Penn fails to instill any foreboding into the film. There’s some goofy stuff in the last act (another reason it reminds me of a TV movie is how every single development in the climax is utterly predictable–like a stage play with spotlights on important objects or ideas), but the goofy stuff only hurts it a little; insignificant damage.

The opening scene is bad, poorly handled because of details the viewer isn’t supposed to know yet, but Dead of Winter recovers immediately following. Mary Steenburgen and William Russ make a good couple–though their marital status comes as a bit of a surprise later on–and they help the film find its feet. The scenes with Steenburgen as the working actress (soaps and commercials) are good. So good, I didn’t even notice Canada was standing in for New York (which might be Penn’s greatest achievement with this one). Even Roddy McDowell is good at the beginning. Later–everything with Dead of Winter is later, because of how poorly the script handles the big reveal–the script cuts McDowell’s character loose and he gets progressively hammier.

As the plot developed, I got the feeling Penn was going for a modified haunted house thriller. He doesn’t. He plays the entire thing straight and that approach is why it’s a TV movie. It’s not even a glorified TV movie, given the cast. As good as Jan Rubes is in the film as the villain, his best moments are probably off-screen; the script hints at his deviousness, but never shows it.

I really do want to give away the film’s final plunge into risibility, but it is a surprise and Dead of Winter is–kind of–worth seeing. Watching Penn fail is painful, but it’s an interesting flop.

But the biggest problem with the film is the script and its handling of Steenburgen’s character. The viewer is supposed to believe Mary Steenburgen is a complete fool. Not just a complete fool, but a complete fool of a New Yorker who somehow managed not to end up dead in a trash can during her time there. Steenburgen’s character’s so stupid, she’d have trouble opening doors. But, only when it comes to her dupability. The rest of the time it’s Mary Steenburgen and she’s with it.

The character’s guilelessness throughout the film makes the third act impossible to believe, when Dead of Winter gets around to having that third act all thrillers need to have.

It was clear from the start there was something off with the film, but it maintained a decent mediocrity–combined with Penn’s bewildering direction–until the last twenty-five minutes or so. Then it just got worse and worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; written by Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone; director of photography, Jan Weincke; edited by Rick Shaine; music by Richard Einhorn; production designer, Bill Brodie; produced by John Bloomgarden and Shmuger; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Mary Steenburgen (Katie McGovern), Roddy McDowall (Mr. Murray), Jan Rubes (Dr. Joseph Lewis), William Russ (Rob Sweeney), Ken Pogue (Officer Mullavy), Wayne Robson (Officer Huntley) and Mark Malone (Roland McGovern).


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Evil Under the Sun (1982, Guy Hamilton)

As innocuous as Evil Under the Sun can get–and expecting anything else from it seems unintended–the film does have a slightly discomforting feel about it. Perhaps it’s the extraordinary level of benignity, but at times, it really does seem like Peter Ustinov (as Hercule Poirot) is going to be murdered by each and every person in the film. Murder on the Orient Express, not to ruin it for anyone, along with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, makes Agatha Christie suspect. If there’s no good way out, she’ll just push on through… M. Night Shyamalan owes more to her than anyone else, in terms of wasting people’s engagement with a story and characters, anyway.

The difference between an Agatha Christie novel and an Agatha Christie filmic adaptation, as I just got done telling my fiancée, is simple. It’s about the actors, the location, and the running time. Evil Under the Sun runs around two hours and was filmed on a beautiful island in the Mediterranean. Ustinov’s amusing–though not as funny as when Ustinov’s really being funny, Maggie Smith and Denis Quilley have some good scenes, and James Mason has fun. No one’s particularly bad–Diana Rigg’s supposed to be incredibly annoying–though Nicholas Clay’s accent appears and intensifies after a certain point. It’s harmless, even if it isn’t particularly interesting.

Evil Under the Sun has an interesting structure–there’s no murder for the first hour. Then there’s a half hour of questioning, maybe a little less, then there’s a ten minute reveal and the end. While the scenery is pretty and the cast is okay, there’s nothing particularly dynamic about it. The film keeps the audience with the promise of the murder, as I imagine the book does, and offers them little else to do with their time. Guy Hamilton’s direction does very little with interiors–outside it’s pretty, inside it’s boring, but there are two days inside before anything happens and it could use some oomph. After a certain point, deep in the monotony of the supporting cast’s dramatics, I’d forgotten Ustinov was in the movie.

The end payoff, as delivered by Ustinov, makes the experience moderately worthwhile. Certainly nothing to watch again, but not a complete waste. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer wrote The Wicker Man, so he’s obviously capable of a good twist and a good end, but the adherence to the novel really handicaps him….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Hamilton; screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on a novel by Agatha Christie; director of photography, Christopher Challis; edited by Richard Marden; music by Cole Porter; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Colin Blakely (Sir Horace Blatt), Jane Birkin (Christine Redfern), Nicholas Clay (Patrick Redfern), Maggie Smith (Daphne Castle), Roddy McDowall (Rex Brewster), Sylvia Miles (Myra Gardener), James Mason (Odell Gardener), Denis Quilley (Kenneth Marshall), Diana Rigg (Arlena Marshall) and Emily Hone (Linda Marshall).


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