The Queen Of Spades (1910)
Original title: Pikovaya Dama. While much of Russian society, including most of his fellow-officers, gambles for high stakes, German (Pavel Biryukov) cannot afford to play and only looks on. German is one of those who has heard the strange stories of the elderly Countess (Antonina Pozharskaya), and her possession of “the secret of the three cards”, which gives her power at the gambling-tables. As the Countess walks past him, German takes up and contemplates the three cards in question, as his friends laugh mockingly. At a ball given by the Countess, German is approached by two masked figures, who each torment him with three cards. That night, German steals into the Countess’ room, first pleading with her for the secret of the three cards, then threatening her with his pistol. To his horror, the Countess dies of fright. The next night, however, German is visited by the spirit of the Countess—and learns the secret of the cards… Adapted and directed by Pyotr Chardynin, this silent film is evidently the first of many attempts to film the the famous short story by Alexander Pushkin. The story itself, though sometimes classified as horror, is rather a morality play with supernatural overtones. This fifteen-minute version, like many early silent adaptations of literary works, assumes that the viewer is perfectly familiar with the source material, and is therefore occasionally hard to follow if you’re not. (In fact, this version may have been based upon Tchaikovsky’s opera rather than the original story.) However, the central plot-thread is there – just barely – with German getting an object lesson in being careful what he prays for; although the parallel plot concerning German’s exploitation of Liza (Aleksandra Goncharova), the Countess’s granddaughter, is confusingly handled. The acting in The Queen Of Spades is broad (to say the least), the special effects rudimentary, and the camera completely static—giving us some weirdly compressed scenes, particularly “the ball”. However, the attention to detail in the art direction and costume design is striking. Available prints of this film are in remarkably good condition.
The Queen Of Spades (1916)
Original title: Pikovaya Dama. An all-night gambling-party takes place at the home of a Russian officer called Narumov. It is remarked that German (Ivan Mozzhukhin), though he watches the play so intently, never touches a card; he explains simply that he cannot afford the risk. When the games end and the gamblers gather to drink and laugh, Narumov proposes a toast to the health of his grandmother, the Countess Anna Fedotovna (Yelizaveta Shebueva), whose birthday it is, and then proceeds to tell a strange story… As a young wife, the Countess (Tamara Duvan) accumulated huge gambling-debts which her husband, the Count (Polikarp Pavlov), would not pay. In desperation, the Countess turned for help to the Count Saint-Germain (Nikolai Panov), who revealed to her the secret of the three cards which, played in a particular order, would ensure success at the tables. In this way the Countess was enabled to recoup her losses and pay her debt… German becomes obsessed with this story: he begins to haunt the street outside the Countess’ house, then starts a cynical courtship of the old lady’s ward, Lizaveta (Vera Orlova). By these means, German gains access to the Countess’ room one night, first pleading with her for her secret, then threatening her. To his horror, she dies of fright. The next night, however, the Countess’ spirit appears to German—and tells him what he wants to know… This second filming of The Queen Of Spades, made six years after the first, was directed by Yakov Protazanov, who also adapted Pushkin’s short story with Fyodor Otsep. Running just over an hour, as opposed to the 1910 version’s fifteen minutes, this is necessarily a more detailed and thoughtful rendering of the tale. Nevertheless, it is bound to disappoint as a genre film: the emphasis is equally upon the back-story of the Countess and German’s manoeuvring to obtain her secret once he hears her story; the approach to both plot-threads is rather leisurely. It is therefore approximately three-quarters of the way into the film before the confrontation scene occurs, with German’s subsequent use of his ill-gotten knowledge necessarily rather rushed. However, it is an interesting exercise to compare the two first two versions of The Queen Of Spades, and the advances made in film-making technique over the intervening six years. The camera is still static here, but Protazanov uses movement within the frame and interesting angles to open up his action; while the art direction and costumes are again first-rate. The cast generally is afflicted with distracting black-rings-around-the-eyes makeup; but though Tamara Duvan overdoes it as the young Countess, and Ivan Mozzhukhin (no doubt intentionally) is a bit flamboyant as German, the rest offer quite natural performances, with Vera Orlov perhaps the best as the unfortunate Lizaveta. The uncredited actor playing Narumov is also good. The film’s special effects are rudimentary, with Yelizaveta Shebueva making an amusingly solid “spirit”; and while some superimpositions are used well during the main plots, those meant to represent German’s mental torments are unimaginative. However, the film does give us a large and rather creepy spider-web, complete with an adorable fake spider.
(See also: 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
Lightning Hutch (1926, 10 chapters)
In his efforts to obtain the formula of a new and deadly poison gas, Professor Kosloff (Sheldon Lewis) recruits Clifford Price (Eddie Phillips), a young man of high social standing but no money. Price takes Kosloff to an evening party hosted by Hugh Thornwall (Gordon Sackville), the inventor of “Thornite”, where he learns that the maidservant, Marie (Violet Schram), is another of Kosloff’s agents. Meanwhile, Kosloff sees clearly that Price is in love with Diane Winter (Edith Thornton), the sister of Janet Thornwall (Virginia Pearson). An agitated Janet greets with relief the arrival of Larry Hutchdale (Charles Hutchison), an ex-Secret Serviceman whose professional exploits won him the nickname, ‘Lightning Hutch’. Observing Janet’s emotional state, Price manages to eavesdrop on her conversation with Hutch, and learns that he has retrieved for her some compromising letters. Seeing that these might make a handy weapon, Price orders Marie to steal the letters. Meanwhile, Hutch presses Diane to announce their engagement, but she resists, telling him she isn’t ready to settle down. Discovering that her letters are missing, a frightened Janet alerts Hutch, whose attention is drawn to the suspicious behaviour of Price and Kosloff. Recognising in Hutch an obstacle to his plans, Kosloff has him abducted; and while he manages to escape this first trap, Hutch is later framed for robbery-homicide—meaning that while he fights to prevent Kosloff obtaining the gas formula, he must also evade the police… This silent serial is a strange mixture of the good and the bad—the latter getting in the way of full enjoyment of the former. To take its most obvious weakness first, Charles Hutchison was neither of the right age nor the right physique for the role of ‘Hutch’, and this lends a jarring edge to what would otherwise be some impressive action set-pieces, and an uncomfortable one to Hutch’s romance with Diane. Of course, since Hutchison also directed this, his inappropriate casting isn’t altogether surprising. (Actually, almost everyone here is too old for the part they’re playing: perhaps Hutchison was trying to hide a tree in a forest?) The other main problem with Lightning Hutch is the plot itself, which is just too full of the genuine stupids for the viewer easily to go along with it—my personal favourite touch being the police considering Hutch’s fingerprints on his own property conclusive evidence of his guilt in the theft of some valuable bonds and the killing of their owner. You’d think as an ex-Secret Service agent Hutch might be given the benefit of the doubt – or at least have some influential connections – but instead the script hangs him out to dry in order to create a scenario in which he is constantly chased by some astonishingly incompetent police officers even as he chases Kosloff and Price. In addition to this, there’s the fact that Janet’s compromising situation is treated as a matter as serious as the poison gas itself—such that her decision to hand over to the bad guys the formula for a gas “capable of destroying the human race” (!!!!) in exchange for her letters basically passes without criticism. Lightning Hutch also boasts an all-too-typical bit of serial-absurdity when Kosloff, having fallen for Diane for no discernible reason, gets her into his clutches in order to force upon her—lawful matrimony —gasp!! But if you can overlook its various plot idiocies, Lightning Hutch offers compensation in the form of some seriously good surrounding material, including a great deal of striking location shooting in and around San Francisco, which opens up the action and keeps this visually interesting. Mixed in with this is some impressive stunt-work—some of it real, some of it faked; some of it Charles Hutchison and some of it not; but all of it imaginative. However, perhaps the most startling thing about Lightning Hutch is the absence of the cheating cliff-hanger! – with most episodes concluding with Hutch in imminent danger, and the next opening with a reasonable (or serial-reasonable) escape-scene; while one episode concludes, unexpectedly, with Hutch’s attempted rescue of an abducted Diane failing outright. And finally—we really can’t close this without mentioning the main villain’s highly suggestive name: “Boris Kosloff”…
The Crooked Circle (1932)
The team of amateur criminologists led by Colonel Walters (Berton Churchill) succeeds in exposing and capturing a member of the criminal gang known as “the Crooked Circle”, whose members meet wearing masks and are unaware of each others’ identities. The Crooked Circle draws lots to decide which is them is to take revenge by murdering Walters; the task falls to the gang’s one female member… Brand Osborne (Ben Lyon) is due to resign from Walters’ team due to his engagement to Thelma Parker (Irene Purcell); Walters introduces to the rest Osborne’s replacement, Dr Yoganda (C. Henry Gordon), a Hindu mystic. A message is sent to Walters warning him that he is fated to die between midnight and on o’clock… At Melody Manor, Walters’ new home on Long Island, housekeeper Nora Rafferty (Zasu Pitts) is terrified when she learns of the house’s dark history, which includes murder and a violin-playing ghost. The criminologists agree to meet at the Manor to protect Walters, but Osborne is delayed when an enterprising criminal (Robert Frazer) persuades Officer Crimmer (James Gleason) to arrest him. However, everyone – including Crimmer – eventually gathers at Melody Manor where, at midnight, the clock strikes thirteen, the lights go out—and Walters disappears… This horror-comedy directed by H. Bruce Humberstone is one of a seemingly endless series of “old dark house” pseudo-thrillers produced in the early days of sound; though of course the genre already had a long history, through the silent era. You may well end up wishing The Crooked Circle was a silent film too, because whatever potential it had as either a comedy or a thriller is drowned out by Zasu Pitts’ non-stop whining and shrieking—all meant to be funny, of course, but trust me, it isn’t: poor Zasu was basically the white female equivalent of the era’s “cowardly Negro” construct, and played this role to a greater or lesser extent in any number of films (and as a consequence ended up as the model for Olive Oyl). Even James Gleason, who could be very funny, overplays his hand here as the irascible cop on the case. It’s a pity that the screenwriters didn’t get the balance better, because there are a few really promising touches in The Crooked Circle, including a plot in which almost nobody is precisely who they seem to be; but most of this gets lost amongst the comedy schtick and the endless array of sliding panels, secret passages, and people disappearing and reappearing at regular intervals. The cast is full of familiar faces, though few of them really make an impact: C. Henry Gordon as an unlikely “Hindu” and Irene Purcell as seeming society-girl Thelma get the best of it, with the rest tending to get overwhelmed by the scenario. Those with a higher tolerance than me for the shrieking-and-running-around brand of comedy may well enjoy The Crooked Circle more than I did—which is not to say I didn’t find any of it funny: I did; just not anything that was meant to be funny. This, for instance, in the wake of the discovery of Walters’ body, was apparently intended seriously:
Carter: “By the way, Brand, before you got here tonight, a queer-acting hunchback brought in a basket of tomatoes.”
Osborne: “That’s strange!”
The Crime Of Dr Crespi (1935)
Based upon The Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe (and admits it, which films don’t always). Dr Andre Crespi (Erich von Stroheim) is the head of the Taft Clinic and a renowned surgeon. When former colleague Dr Stephen Ross (John Bohn) is severely injured in a car accident, his doctors agree that Crespi is the only one who might be able to save his life. This places his wife, Estelle (Harriet Russell), is a difficult position: Crespi was once desperately in love with her, and still blames Ross for coming between them. Despite this, Crespi responds to her pleas for help and saves Ross’s life with his surgical skills. It seems at first that Ross will recover fully; however, after being given an injection by Crespi, he suddenly fails and dies. Two days later, however, Crespi enters the hospital morgue to find Ross just coming out of a catatonic state. Crespi gloats over him, telling him that he to be punished at last—and that further injections will ensure that he remains “dead” through his own funeral, and wake again only after he has been buried… Though it runs only for just over an hour, The Crime Of Dr Crespi is still too long: it would have worked as a half-hour TV episode, but as it stands everything but the central plot-thread is just tiresome padding. It is painful watching Erich von Stroheim toil away in a low-low-budget B-film like this—though of course, he’s also the reason you do watch it; and to his credit he seems amused by the proceedings rather than contemptuous. Director John Auer fully understood the one attraction of this production, too: whole minutes pass while the camera watches Crespi / von Stroheim do ordinary things like fill out paperwork. And as long as The Crime Of Dr Crespi stays focused upon the obsessed surgeon taking his revenge on his perceived rival, it is sufficiently entertaining—though rather flat and dreary until we reach the funeral scene, when suddenly we get an unexpected outbreak of Germanic artiness. Meanwhile, Crespi’s subordinate, Dr Thomas (Dwight Frye, playing a “normal” character but still getting treated like crap), has become convinced that Crespi murdered Dr Ross—setting up the film’s only other highlight, an hilariously casual body-snatching sequence: “Well, how long will it take?” Dr Arnold (Paul Guilfoyle) demands impatiently, when Thomas proposes that they dig Ross up for a quick autopsy, and shove him back in with others none the wiser if it turns out they’re wrong…
(Pay no attention to the IMDb’s summary of this film: if this were accurate, it would be getting a full review: A crazed scientist invents a serum that induces a catatonic state in whoever it is injected into. He uses the serum to paralyze his enemies, so that he can bury them alive.)
Crimes At The Dark House (1940)
On the goldfields of Australia, a man is murdered as he sleeps; his killer takes from his possession a distinctive signet-ring, and a letter announcing that the man’s father has died… At Blackwater Park in England, the staff prepare for the arrival of their new master, Sir Percival Glyde (Tod Slaughter), who has not been at the house since he was a boy. The new baronet meets with his attorney, Mr Merriman (David Keir), and is appalled to learn that his late father left him some fifteen thousand pounds in debt. Merriman then hastily reminds Sir Percival of the agreement made between his father and his friend Mr Fairlie (David Horne), that there should be a marriage between himself and Laura Fairlie (Sylvia Marriott), Fairlie’s heiress-niece. Sir Percival’s relief is short-lived: his next callers are Dr Fosco (Hay Petrie) and a Mrs Catherick (Elsie Wagstaff), the latter of whom was once the baronet’s mistress, and bore his child after he departed for Australia. Fosco is the head of a private asylum, where the unstable Ann Catherick (Sylvia Marriott) is usually confined; and he has come to warn Sir Percival that the girl – who harbours a violent hatred towards her father – has escaped… If the activities of any one individual ever defined the expression “an acquired taste”, it might be the films of Tod Slaughter, who spent the 30s and 40s transferring Victorian melodramas (in which he had first made his name as an actor, when they were revived on stage in the early 20th century) to the silver screen. “Larger than life” barely covers it—as in this bizarre adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ famous sensation novel, The Woman In White: “bizarre” because while the outlines of the novel are there – more faithfully than in some more recent adaptations – in Crimes At The Dark House the emphasis of everything has been shifted, making Sir Percival Glyde the centre of the story, and – and this is the unforgivable part – reducing the novel’s two best and most memorable characters, Count Fosco (here Dr Fosco) and Marian Halcombe (here Marian Fairlie, Hilary Eaves), to mere supporting characters; and in the latter case, an unnecessary one. But there is really only room for one in any Tod Slaughter melodrama: the actor chews the scenery with complete abandon, chuckling and twisting his moustache as he plots and seduces and murders his way through the rest of the cast; all that’s missing is a booing and hissing live audience. It isn’t all fun, though: the film exploits the British censor’s tolerance for this sort of crime drama (strange, given the contemporary objection to supernatural horror), and dwells with leering glee upon both the unfortunate Laura’s wedding-night, and Sir Percival’s later attempted rape of Marian. But generally speaking, the novel’s plot is allowed to play out, with the additional twist of Mrs Catherick recognising “Sir Percival” as an imposter: Fosco becomes the baronet’s accomplice as he schemes to get his hands on his wife’s money, a plot which exploits the physical similarities between Laura and the unstable Ann Catherick; while Laura’s lost love, drawing-master Paul Hartwright (Geoffrey Wardwell), teams up with Marian to try and expose Sir Percival and right his numerous wrongs…
Cleopatra’s Daughter (1960)
Original title: Il sepolcro dei re (The King’s Tomb). During the Egyptian civil war, Shila (Debra Paget), the daughter of Cleopatra, is sent away to the ruling family of Assyria. Many years later, when Assyria is conquered by Egypt, Shila is captured along with the other members of her foster family; and while the rest are executed, Tegi (Yvette Lebon), the Queen-Mother of the weak, neurotic Pharoah Nemorat (Corrado Pani), persuades her son that a marriage with Cleopatra’s daughter will both secure his position and bring Assyria under full Egyptian rule. Shila herself wishes only for death, but is persuaded to endure her position by Resi (Ettore Manni), the court physician. Meanwhile, Kefren (Erno Crisa), Nemorat’s counsellor, plots against him with his mistress, Tyra (Andreina Rossi). Shila and Resi fall in love, which drives her to even greater coldness towards Nemorat. Her rejection of him provokes an outburst of brutal violence against her, and then a breakdown. Seizing his chance, Kefren poisons Nemorat—who dies denouncing Shila, and demanding that she be immured alive in his tomb… The first thing to understand about Cleopatra’s Daughter is that its English-language version bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Italian original, which has nothing to do with Cleopatra or her fictional daughter, and is in fact set some 2500 years earlier than Cleopatra’s reign, during the time of Keops / Khufu, who brought about the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The second thing is that I watched it in the dreadful P&S / dubbed Mill Creek “Warriors 50-Pack” version, so you’ll excuse me if certain details are fuzzy. As it stands, the first half of Cleopatra’s Daughter is fairly dull and angsty. The film picks up pace, however, over its second half, when it becomes a fairly amusing melding of The Egyptian and Land Of The Pharoahs. When Shila is – more or less accidentally – framed for the murder of Nemorat, Resi conceives a desperate plan to save her. Permitted to see Shila as a doctor, he slips to her a drug that will put her into a death-like state, persuading her to “confess” to the murder and then seemingly commit suicide. His plan to substitute a body goes wrong, however, and the still-living Shila is entombed with Nemorat in the Great Pyramid—forcing Resi into partnership with a band of thieves and tomb-robbers… The last section of Cleopatra’s Daughter is entertaining and suspenseful, combining Resi’s race against time to save Shila with the robbers’ race against time to rob Nemorat’s tomb before their efforts are discovered; the various subplots underscored by an almost-running joke in which Resi’s plans are repeatedly complicated and thwarted by others’ refusal to believe he’s doing all this just for love of Shila. The second half of the film also contains two of its better performances, one from Robert Alda (in his second film after his relocation to Rome) as Inuni, architect of the Great Pyramid and the only one who knows how its many blind alleys, secret passages and death-traps may be navigated; and the other from a young Rosalba Neri as the only female member of the band of tomb-robbers. Ettore Manni is solid as Resi, but Debra Paget has disappointingly little to do as Shila, other than look beautiful and distressed.
Conqueror Of The Orient (1960)
Original title: Il conquistatore d’Oriente. A vast territory is under the cruel control of Dakar (Paul Muller), who uses ruthless methods to keep the populations of the provinces under his rule in subjection, and exacts draining tributes. These are usually in the form of gold or jewels, or conversely the products of the district; but Dakar is startled and delighted when his appointed rulers of one province bring as their tribute the Princess Fatima (Irène Tunc). Dakar begins making plans to consolidate his position via marriage to Fatima, despite her violent opposition and the warnings of his loyal concubine, Dinazar (Gianna Maria Canale), who finds herself cast aside. Meanwhile, in a fishing village, young men clamour for instruction in arms and archery from the elderly Omar (Fosco Giachetti), who rumour insists spent his youth as a soldier. Omar’s star pupil is his own adopted son, Nadir (Rik Battaglia). In the palace, Fatima is assisted to escape by her loyal maidservant, Katiscia (Tatiana Farnese): the plan succeeds, but leaves an unconscious Fatima drifting down the river in a boat. She is rescued by Nadir: an act that sets in motion a sweeping revolt against Dakar… Conqueror Of The Orient is a reasonably entertaining example of this sort of Arabian-Nights-ish actioner, but so completely obvious in everything it does that you’re left to wonder why anyone bothered to make it in the first place. Of course the throne of a wise and considerate ruler was usurped by an evil tyrant; of course Nadir and Fatima fall in love; of course the “humble fisherman” turns out to be the long-lost son of the previous ruler; of course he was rescued as a baby by his late father’s loyal retainer, and raised in ignorance of his birth, until – of course – the moment came for him to lead a revolt against Dakar. In fact the only remarkable thing in all this is how long Omar leaves everyone to suffer under Dakar’s cruelty before revealing the truth: Nadir isn’t exactly a spring chicken when he finally takes up his father’s sword and begins building an army. But perhaps it is exactly because of its tepidness that Conqueror Of The Orient doesn’t ultimately feel the need to be mean to anyone but Dakar, avoiding the usual raft of sacrificial deaths among the supporting characters, and even providing a new love for the mistakenly loyal Dinazar. In the end, the main attraction of this inoffensive time-waster is its collection of familiar Euro-film faces: Rik Battaglia as Nadir, Paul Muller as Dakar, Gianna Maria Canale as Dinazar, and Aldo Pini as the head prison guard, among others.
Conduct Unbecoming (1975)
Two young second lieutenants, Arthur Drake (Michael York) and Edward Millington (James Faulkner), travel to the North-West frontier of India to begin their probationary term in the army. Both are the sons of military men who served with the same regiment; but while the middle-class Drake embraces his father’s traditions and plans to build a career, the aristocratic Millington admits frankly that he intends to get himself out of the regiment and back to England as quickly as possible. To Drake’s horror, he is as good as his word, doing everything he can to antagonise his senior officers—including putting himself in the way of Marjorie Scarlett (Susannah York), the beautiful widow of a regimental hero. The two young recruits continue along their separate paths until the night of a regimental ball, when – hysterical and dishevelled – Mrs Scarlett claims that Millington attacked her. Conscious of the scandal that would result from an open court-martial, as well as the damage to Mrs Scarlett’s reputation, Captain Harper (Stacy Keach) convenes a “subaltern’s court”: an unofficial trial conducted amongst the officers of the regiment. When Drake is appointed to defend Millington, he infuriates the other officers by doing his best; a sardonic Millington must explain to him that “the honour of the regiment” requires, rather, that he do nothing. Drake’s own sense of honour will not permit this, however. As the trial proceeds, Drake makes two major discoveries: that Millington will not, as he supposes, merely be discharged from the army should he be found guilty, but kept in the regiment on perpetual punishment—something that turns Millington’s attitude from flippancy to desperation; and that the attack upon Mrs Scarlett was not the first such in the district, the other occurring long before he and Millington arrived… Barry England’s play, Conduct Unbecoming, was a hit in the West End before becoming a modest one also on Broadway: the latter perhaps a surprise given the play’s very British antecedents and its bitterly sour focus on Empire, the Raj, and the profound ugliness that may hide behind words such as “tradition” and “honour”. For what is, effectively, a courtroom drama, the play proved strangely difficult to transfer to the screen, with screenplays by Terrence Rattigan and Bryan Forbes being rejected before an adaptation by Robert Enders was filmed by Michael Anderson. As a courtroom drama, Conduct Unbecoming has the usual attractions, which in this case include the situation of an inexperienced lawyer rocking the boat by not playing by the rules: the scenes in which Drake succeeds in forcing his infuriated fellow-officers to accept the arguments he is making in defence of Millington are among the film’s strongest. Ultimately, however, this is a strangely muted production that somehow never puts enough emphasis in the right places, leaving the viewer too often missing the point or drawing the wrong conclusions; while the story’s strange climax seems to come out of the blue. In particular, the attack upon Mrs Scarlett is poorly staged—both in respect of how much time has passed between when we last see her with Millington and when she bursts into the ballroom, and (incredibly enough) what has actually supposed to have happened to her: it is well into the trial before the viewer understands that she is not making an accusation of rape; that when she says “assault”, that’s what she means. (And this, in turn, is indicative of how very often a soft-pedalling euphemism is used in this context.) But neither, and even more critically, is the viewer aware that Mrs Scarlett has in fact been physically injured in the attack; though the nature of those injuries are understandably concealed until Drake forces them into the light of scrutiny. Possibly this is simply the result of poor acting by Susannah York, or poor direction by Michael Anderson, but the initial implication seems to be that Mrs Scarlett has messed herself up and is making a false accusation for some reason of her own, which of course significantly influences the viewer’s interpretation of Millington’s “trial”. However—once all this has settled down, a genuinely horrifying tale of misogyny and racism emerges, with Drake able to prove that a similar, though even more serious, attack occurred several months earlier, upon an Indian woman, the young widow Mrs Bandanai (Persis Khambatta)—and that, because the victim was Indian, it was merely hushed up. Furthermore, both Mrs Bandanai and Mrs Scarlett were attacked by a man wielding a sword, in a way that mimicked the regiment’s favourite mess-hall game of “pig-sticking”… For all its faults, Conduct Unbecoming is generally well-acted by an excellent cast, which includes Trevor Howard as the regiment’s colonel; Richard Attenborough as the loyal Major Roach, whose testimony turns the trial on its head; Christopher Plummer as the arrogant Major Wimbourne; Michael Culver as Lt. Fothergill, the “prosecuting attorney”; James Donald as the reluctantly testifying doctor; and Rafiq Anwar as the regiment’s Indian attendant, whose loyalty to the memory of Drake’s father makes him “break ranks” by revealing the attack upon Mrs Bandanai. However, the surprise packet here is a strangely cast Stacy Keach (presumably the old “American actor to sell a British film” trick), who both maintains his accent and gives a strong performance as Captain Harper, whose initial determination to destroy Millington gives way to a genuine attempt to rehabilitate the honour of his regiment. Though made chiefly at Shepperton Studios (and looking it), the opening parade-ground scenes of Conduct Unbecoming were filmed on location outside Islamabad, the play’s original setting.
Death On The Nile (1978)
Heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is approached by her best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow), about a possible job for her fiancé, Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale). Some time later, a wedding takes place—but it is between Simon and Linnet… The news of Linnet’s marriage – which gives her control of her fortune – is like a bombshell for her American trustees, one of whom, Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy), decides to “accidentally” meet her in Egypt, where she and Simon are honeymooning, in the hope she will be distracted enough to sign certain papers without reading them… Meanwhile, the honeymoon is being painfully disrupted by the distraught Jacqueline, who follows and harasses the couple wherever they go. Simon and Linnet make double-plans, overtly travelling in one direction while they make their escape in a paddle-steamer up the Nile. However, to the dismay of the Doyles and the embarrassment of everyone else, here too Jacqueline appears. One night, in a drunken rage, she shoots Simon, wounding him in the leg, before collapsing in hysteria. She is carried to her cabin and put under the care of a nurse, who gives her a sedative and stays with her all night. Consequently, Jacqueline has an iron-clad alibi when, the next morning, Linnet is found shot dead… Coming only second in the rush of Agatha Christie adaptations to hit the big screen in the late 70s and early 80s, this version of Death On The Nile benefits from sticking reasonably close to its source novel, as well as from its location shooting in Egypt. That said, there is a distinct tendency here both to over-simplify and to over-do: the plot and the characterisations are both stripped down, while the screenplay by Anthony Shaffer tends to spell everything out in minute detail—which has the result of dragging the film out to unnecessary length, and allowing the viewer to dwell on the more logistically questionable details in the plot. (Although, needless to say, the cobra smuggled into Poirot’s cabin did NOT originate with Agatha; and where did he / she / they get a cobra from, anyway??) This was Peter Ustinov’s first outing as Hercule Poirot, and right from the outset there is a note of burlesque in his characterisation; and if his Poirot is not as much of a buffoon here as would later be the case, there are still moments that make you wince (Poirot tangoing after dinner?); although the most objectionable thing is a lightness of tone, particularly in the detective’s attitude towards the murder, that is completely out of place. Ustinov is joined in this by Angela Lansbury, who overacts shamelessly as alcoholic novelist, Salome Otterbourne. The way that Linnet is depicted is also problematic: rather than being dangerously tunnel-visioned due to her life of privilege, she has been dumbed down into just a bit of a bitch. (I was – unreasonably? – annoyed by the mispronunciation of her name: it’s LIN-et, you ignoramuses, not Lin-ETTE!) The rest of the cast is generally effective, although the supporting roles have been reduced and some of the characters melded—leaving us with Bette Davis as the wealthy and respectable – and secretly kleptomaniacal – Mrs Van Schuyler; Maggie Smith as her resentful nurse-companion, Miss Bowers, whose family was ruined by Linnet’s father; David Niven as Colonel Race, on hand to keep an eye on Andrew Pennington; Jack Warden as clinic-head Dr Bessner, who Linnet had denounced as a quack; Olivia Hussey as Rosalie Otterbourne, whose mother was being sued by Linnet for defamation; Jon Finch as would-be social revolutionary, Mr Ferguson; and Jane Birkin as Louise the maid, who has blackmail on her mind…
The Mirror Crack’d (1980)
There is great excitement around the village of St Mary Mead, where Gossington Hall has been rented by film director Jason Rudd (Rock Hudson) and his actress-wife, Marina (Elizabeth Taylor). Furthermore, the grounds of the Hall are to host a charity fete marking the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Though she attends, Miss Jane Marple (Angela Lansbury) falls and injures her ankle, and is sent home. She is therefore not present when tragedy strikes, and a local woman, Heather Babcock (Maureen Bennett), is taken ill and dies after meeting Marina. When autopsy proves that the cause of death was an overdose of barbiturates, Scotland Yard assigns to the case Inspector Dermot Craddock (Edward Fox), who also happens to be Miss Marple’s nephew. One of the main witnesses is Cherry Baker (Wendy Morgan), a young woman who does housework for Miss Marple, but was also hired to serve drinks to the special guests at the fete who were invited into the house. It is Cherry who first speaks of a strange moment when, while Heather Babcock was telling her a lengthy anecdote, Marina suddenly froze, staring blankly at something – or someone – on the staircase. It is also Cherry who provides a crucial piece of evidence: that Heather’s own drink was spilled, and that the one she swallowed had been intended for Marina… The Mirror Crack’d walks a line between its more serious predecessors and the increasingly camped-up adaptations of Agatha Christie which followed it (in which latter category we can place Evil Under The Sun, considered in the previous update). On the whole it is played straight, much to the film’s benefit; but at the same time there is an air of burlesque around any scenes which actually deal with actors and film-making—and this includes the black-and-white pastiche which opens the film itself. Likewise, though The Mirror Crack’d is certainly guilty of stunt-casting, clearly more thought has been put into this than usual; and in fact the casting of Elizabeth Taylor as Marina gives the film a weird meta-quality, since it is fairly evident that Agatha had Liz’s private – or at any rate, personal – life in mind while writing the novel (maybe with a soupçon of Marilyn, too). However, the co-casting of Taylor with Rock Hudson is effective, since the mutual affection of these old friends is very apparent; while the film also offers Kim Novak as Marina’s co-star / frenemy, Lola Brewster; Tony Curtis as hard-nosed producer, Marty Fenn; Geraldine Chaplin as Jason Rudd’s assistant, Ella Zielinsky; Edward Fox as Inspector Craddock; and of course Angela Lansbury as Miss Jane Marple—one of all too many inappropriate castings of that particular character. (That said, the novel is dedicated to Margaret Rutherford, surely the most improbable Miss Marple of all!) In addition, the opening pastiche features a number of British character actors including Anthony Steel and Allan Cuthbertson; and a young Pierce Brosnan gets a single, dialogueless scene opposite Elizabeth Taylor (and is “clasped to her bosom”!). While for the most part The Mirror Crack’d follows its source novel, it also dwells at considerable length upon the film in production, and the bitchy sparring between Marina and Lola—and to make time for all this, the screenplay strips away most of Agatha’s misdirection, making it rather too obvious what is going on.
Tomie: Rebirth (2001)
Award-winning artist Kamata Hideo (Oshinari Shūgo) paints a portrait of a girl called Tomie (Sakai Miki). During a sitting, Tomie begins to wander around Hideo’s studio: she finds a number of photographs of Kitamura Hitomi (Endō Kumiko), the girlfriend of Aoyama Takumi (Tsumabuki Satoshi ), one of Hideo’s best friends. When Hideo snatches the photos away from her, Tomie retaliates by ruining her portrait—prompting Hideo to stab her to death with his palette knife… When Takumi and Hosoda Shun’ichi (Kikawada Masaya) arrive, they find Hideo cradling a sheet-covered body in his arms, and whispering that he loves her. That night, Takumi and Shun’ichi bury the body in the woods… With Hideo withdrawn and silent, Shun’ichi arranges a party at a restaurant to try and snap him out of it. Suddenly, the lights go out. Takumi and Shun’ichi go to speak to the manager, and in their absence an uninvited girl arrives and seats herself next to Hideo. “Tomie,” he whispers incredulously. “Murderer,” she whispers back… As the party falls apart, Takumi and Shun’ichi go looking for Hideo, who they left being sick in the bathroom—and find blood spilling from under the door of his cubicle… Written by Fujioka Yoshinobu and directed by Shimizu Takashi, this third entry in the series based upon the manga by Itō Junji is quite distinct in both look and tone from the previous films, Tomie and Tomie: Replay. In the casting of Sakai Miki, the film-makers seem to have been striving for a less other-worldly, more “human” Tomie; the film itself, rather than the pseudo-mystery of the previous two entries, is chiefly about the impact of Tomie upon the relationships of those touched by her. Somewhat contradictorily, however, this film has no hero or heroine: there are only the guilty and their victims. (Since the film is evidently striving for an emotional impact, it is annoying that the screenplay is so lax about properly introducing the characters and their connections to one another.) Shimazu Takashi’s most significant artistic choice in Tomie: Rebirth is to downplay the gore in favour of a focus upon the grotesque; and while there are one or two bloody scenes – and while Tomie’s severed head again plays a prominent role – the film’s most memorable imagery is built around the various partial incarnations of Tomie as she regenerates herself. While the dominant tone of Tomie: Rebirth is a sense of loss, these scenes help to weave a thread of sick humour through the tragedy—most notably in the, ahem, bonding activities of Shun’ichi and his mother. The other addition to the series at this point is an expansion of the ways in which Tomie can attack her victims: not merely as her own self, whether in whole or in part, but via anything upon which she has left a trace of herself—including in this case her damaged portrait, smeared with her blood, and even her lipstick…
The Demons Among Us (2006)
Also known as Demonsamongus. Joe Melton (Nathaniel Kiwi) moves to the small Victorian town of Miranda Falls and begins looking for a job. He inquires about a position at the local service station, where he meets attendant Kylie Fitzgerald (Laura Hesse). Later, Kylie must console her friend and co-worker, Sally Winters (Hollie Kennedy), whose brother, Jack (Michael Russo), died recently in a traffic accident. That night, Joe is woken by strange noises and, to his horror, discovers a distorted, bloody-mouthed figure attacking his cats. He bolts in terror into the night, seeking help, and eventually stumbles into the house of his nearest neighbours, the Winters, where he finds the parents and their surviving two sons gruesomely slaughtered. In his panic, Joe trips and falls, covering himself in the victims’ blood. Meanwhile, having failed to get her mother on the phone, Sally hurries home, where she discovers the bodies of her family. Racing back to her car, Sally sets out for Kylie’s house. On the way, Joe emerges from his hiding-spot in her back seat. Sally stops the car and runs, ignoring Joe’s desperate pleas of innocence. He pursues her into the woods—where both of them are confronted by the sight of the bloody-mouthed demon, who Sally recognises as her dead brother, Jack… This independent Australian horror movie is (like last entry’s Hidden, only more so) difficult to treat fairly. On one hand it was clearly made with a lot of enthusiasm, but on a painfully small budget—and in fact was shot on weekends over a period of two years, as friends and family could make themselves available. On the other— Possibly in order to disguise his budgetary limitations, writer-director Stuart Simpson resorted to every imaginable camera and design trick in this film, the results being what can only be described as Extreem Artiness. There’s barely a frame in The Demons Among Us that hasn’t been tampered with, whether by colour-drain or over-saturation, split-screens, focus tricks, extreme close-ups, superimposition, shaky-cam, night-vision, and a dozen other things I’ve ever forgotten or can’t put a name to. Coping with this – or not – is likely to be a highly individual thing. Personally I found the visual tricks less irritating than the film’s almost non-stop referencing of other films and film-makers, though this was probably done in a spirit of admiration. Another problem is that a heavy-handed satire / criticism of “consumerism” (possibly riffing on They Live?), which for most of the film seems shoehorned in and out of place, eventually turns out to be “the point”. (Begging the question of why the demons didn’t just make contact directly…?) With all this going on, most of the cast is given little chance—except for Nathaniel Kiwi, who spends the film trying desperately to be Bruce Campbell; the rest, as you would expect, range between adequate and painful. Meanwhile, the film’s gore effects are plentiful and wholehearted, if not always convincing. The Demons Among Us was filmed in and around Diggers Rest, a suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne (which is not actually as rural as this makes it look), and there is a definite pleasure – at least for some of us – in seeing a familiar horror scenario playing out in the Australian countryside, and stuffed full of local details—from blue police-tape, to ubiquitous allusions to Victoria Bitter, to Christmas decorations in the middle of summer, to yabbie races under the opening credits—which, as Stuart Simpson puts all of his “special thanks” upfront, go on for some considerable time…
(In the interests of fairness, I tried to put this aside, but—as you may imagine, the cat subplot did this film no favours with me; and nor did the roadkill during the credits, which was a bit too Wake In Fright for my liking…though I suspect it was rather a reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre…)
As a teenager, Christy Westcot (Nora Zehetner) is involved in a car accident that leaves her older sister, Vanessa Locke (Carly Pope), barely alive after suffering horrendous burns. Vanessa hangs on to life for several months before dying, while Christy undergoes psychiatric care… Years later, Christy returns to the town of Edgemont for a funeral—still on medication for her mental-health issues, and using her art as a way of dealing with the dreams and visions of her sister’s accident which still plague her. Christy is invited to stay with her brother-in-law, Dr John Locke (Matthew Settle), and his young daughter, Amy (Jessica Amlee); although John’s mother, Mrs Locke (Gabrielle Rose), makes it clear she isn’t welcome. Christy bonds with Amy, who tells an unnerving story of “the dark thing” she insists lives in the house, and which enters her bedroom at night. Increasingly, Christy must deal with the frequent visions and blackouts brought on by her return home—and also with her illogical but persisting fear that Vanessa was buried alive… Beneath is a film that suffers badly from an identity crisis. There’s actually a decent mystery buried in it somewhere—but unfortunately it doesn’t want to be a mystery, it wants to be a horror film, and therefore sacrifices the framework necessary for the former in favour of a deluge of “visions” that are not particularly scary, and which finally just get in the way of the plot. They’re also a cheat, inasmuch as every time Christy gets stuck for what to do next, she “has a vision”. This focus on the booga-boogas leaves Beneath lacking what might have made it work, or at least work better—such as a better delineation of the social prominence and power of the Locke family, which the viewer is left to infer, and which is required to explain the behaviour of just about everyone else in the film. We also needed more than one throwaway line of dialogue to justify the ridiculously convoluted layout of the Locke house! (The real question, though, is why, given their estrangement since Vanessa’s death, John bothered to let Christy know about the funeral?) Although it finally manages a few interesting touches, Beneath is fighting an uphill battle from its opening trauma scene, the logistics of which are just too stupid. None of the characters – Christy included – behave in a remotely credible way; and the whole thing finally devolves into a tiresomely familiar chase-and-jump-scare scenario, notable only for the film-makers’ ignorance of – or disinterest in – the actual physical capabilities of the human body. This is also one of those films that proves that recent things can seem much more dated than those of decades earlier: its dropped-jaw attitude to the fact that Amy has a digital camera!!, and that Christy’s Nokia can take photos!! and be used as a torch!! is pretty damn hilarious…
Framed For Murder (2007)
During a violent altercation with her abusive husband, June Baldwin (Elisa Donovan) knocks him down with a statuette before fleeing the house with her baby. When the police subsequently investigate, they find Tony (Donovan Reiter) dead of two savage blows to the back of his head. Though she swears that she did not kill him, June recognises that she has no chance of beating a murder charge and accepts a deal for manslaughter… Eight years later, June is released, and moves in temporarily with her sister, Claire (Susan Walters), and her wealthy investment banker husband, Jason (Perry King). June tells Claire that, at last, her bipolar condition is under control, and that she is ready to start her life over, including being a mother to Sam (Steven McPhail), who is visiting California with friends. June explains to Claire that, although she is longing to be with him, she is not sorry that Sam is away at the present moment—as she has every intention of proving to him and the world that she did not kill his father. Claire is supportive of June’s resolution—but as soon as her sister leaves the room, she tampers with her medication… Framed For Murder is a silly if not unentertaining made-for-TV thriller. The best thing about it is that it is doesn’t try to hide the fact that Claire is the villain, since it is obvious to the viewer from the first moment we lay eyes on her. (Though my first guess, that her scheme was about possession of Baby Sam, was altogether wrong.) Instead, the film gives us parallel plots, with June trying to clear her name, and Claire doing everything she can to stop it happening. It soon emerges that Claire and her lover, landscape gardener Nick (Kevin Jubinville), are planning on murdering Jason and framing June for the crime. However, when June’s efforts to work out who else could have had motive for murdering Tony begin to bear fruit, an exasperated Claire persuades Nick that they cannot afford to have any questions raised about June’s guilt and/or mental condition, and that they must eliminate the potential threats posed by Tony’s former secretary, Karen (Sophie Gendron), who has information about his many infidelities, and Diane Desalvo (Lisa Langlois), a private investigator… If you’re going to watch Framed For Murder, it should be for the increasingly ridiculous plot, certainly not for the acting. Despite her situation, June is an oddly unsympathetic protagonist—partly because of Elisa Donovan’s unconvincing performance, partly because of the poor way she’s written, and partly because the film-makers convey June’s deteriorating mental condition chiefly by mussing her hair up. Susan Walters is a lot more fun as Claire, eyes glinting as she plots murder and the ruination of her sister—who, we learn in one of many absurd touches, she always hated for the extra attention won by her bipolar disorder (mental illness is such an unfair advantage, isn’t it?). The two male leads are both pretty awful; but Lisa Langlois as the P.I. and Claire Brousseau as June’s ex-con friend, Charlie, are better in their supporting roles.
Hallowed Ground (2007)
Stranded with car trouble in the isolated Midwestern town of Hope, Liz Chambers (Jaimie Alexander) finds herself the focus of unnerving interest from the townspeople, but is greeted as a kindred spirit by fellow-outsider Sarah Austin (Hudson Leick), a tabloid journalist. As they eat, Sarah tells Liz excitedly about the town’s strange history, in which a deranged preacher named Jonas Hathaway (Nick Chinlund) conducted ritual sacrifices to protect the crops, dressing his victims as scarecrows and crucifying them in the cornfields to drive away the crows that he believed had been sent by Satan. Subsequently having a vision of the Rapture, Hathaway had the townspeople take refuge in a shelter built beneath the cornfields. However, when a child was sent out to gauge the state of the world, she brought back men from the neighbouring town who, discovering the crucified victims, retaliated in kind on Hathaway before burning him alive. Now, Sarah concludes, there is a bare patch of ground where nothing grows—but where the spirit of Jonas Hathaway continues to wait… Sarah persuades Liz to accompany her to Hathaway’s farm, where she intends to take some photographs to support her story. Once arrived, the two women are disturbed by the number of crows present—alive and dead. Nevertheless they seek out the bare patch of land where Hathaway is supposedly buried; there, they hurriedly construct a scarecrow from materials brought along by Sarah and raise it on a rough wooden cross. Afterwards, they briefly separate, leaving Sarah alone with the scarecrow—which begins to move… Hallowed Ground is a fair but often painfully derivative horror movie which suffers from the over-familiarity of its material and a scenario that is both overcrowded and under-utilised—the latter illustrated by the fact that the summary above is (i) merely the back-story to the main plot, and (ii) delivered as written, as an indigestible info-dump, rather than via Liz and Sarah finding things out in-story. It takes too long for the film settle down into what we eventually recognise as its main plot, which concerns an attempt to resurrect Jonas Hathaway in the flesh via his possession of a baby born to – you guessed it – “the chosen one”. Surrounding this we have details stolen from both The Children Of The Corn and Harvest Home; a killer-scarecrow subplot which despite its supernatural elements seems to have wandered in from any old slasher movie; endless scenes of people running through cornfields; and one of my least-favourite clichés, the apparently trustworthy person who – oh, surprise! – turns out to be One Of Them (and a raving psycho, to boot). Hallowed Ground is also bookended by some truly awful CGI, particularly at its climax involving a deadly flock of crows. However, the film is not entirely without merit. It has some creepy scenes and images, even if perhaps these don’t have as much impact as they should. Liz is a strong and resourceful heroine, in whose survival the viewer becomes invested – without any guarantee of it – while her own back-story trauma, also over-familiar, is handled more lightly than usual. A bonus is the appearance of Chloe Grace Moretz as another of the town’s potential victims; and if she isn’t given as much to do as we would like, she’s fine in her limited role. Meanwhile, Ethan Phillips has an amusingly embarrassing turn as Hope’s current preacher and, potentially, the father of Jonas Hathaway’s vessel-baby—although not if Liz has anything to say about it…
Something Beneath (2007)
Despite the bizarre, unexplained death of a worker during construction and the attempts of a scientist, Dr Walter Connolly (Brendon Beiser), to highlight the environmental damage being caused by the project, the Cedar Gate Conference Center is completed and opened. Its first attendees, ironically enough, are the “Clean Earth” group, led by crusading priest, Father Douglas Middleton (Kevin Sorbo), who annoys celebrity activist, Mikaela Strovsky (Brittany Scobie), by not choosing her as his key-note speaker. Given that unwanted honour, the shy, geeky Eugene Herman (Rob McLaughlin) wanders off into the surrounding woods to practice his speech. There, he brushes against a tree, and finds his hand stained in a strange, black slime. Almost immediately he has a bizarre experience in which he finds himself lost in a huge forest, struggling against a terrifying asthma attack as the earth itself seems to consume him… The following morning, Father Middleton alerts event coordinator, Khali Spence (Natalie Brown), to Eugene’s apparent disappearance. She in turn assigns the resort’s head of security, Jackson Deadmarsh (Peter MacNeill), to find him—which he does, discovering Eugene’s body in the woods, his face contorted with terror… Meanwhile, while recording a vlog in her room, Mikaela is splashed with black slime from her bathroom tap—and begins to suffer a series of terrifying hallucinations… Knowledge is power, they say, and in my own case I knew to lower my expectations about Something Beneath from the moment I saw the names of Robert Halmi Sr and Robert Halmi Jr in the opening credits. The, uh, powers behind the previously considered Eye Of The Beast and Black Swarm, the Halmis have been responsible for a clutch of cheapie science fiction / monster movies whose most notable feature is their habit of declining to explain the appearance of their central menace. Something Beneath at least offers the suggestion that its slime monster was “always there”, and was only brought into conflict with Homo sapiens via the latter’s increasing environmental depredations. That said, both this film’s pro-environmentalism and its parallel eee-vil capitalism attitude are completely perfunctory and insincere; as indeed is its “Native Americans can fix anything” anti-climax. The first two-thirds of Something Beneath wander between the embarrassing and the confusing, with painful scenes involving Paris Hilton expy Mikaela (whose obsessing filming of herself dates this production, not in itself, but because the others find it weird) and hunky priest Father Middleton (who sets all the women blushing, first for one reason, then the other) interspersed with overlong hallucination inserts in which, supposedly, those infected are confronted by their “worst fears”. (These people have some really boring worst fears, including one guy – speaking of “dated” – taken out by House Of The Dead zombies.) However, the action finally settles into something watchable once the main characters figure out what’s going on and must find a way of dealing with the slime creature. It helps, too, that Dr Connolly reappears at this point in the story (if he wasn’t mad before, he is now); while the monster itself, though its conception outstripped the budget’s ability to realise it, is quite creepy and effective—if perhaps a bit over-familiar for those who know their science-fiction history. Kevin Sorbo and Natalie Brown are generally likeable as the leads, despite the cack-handed OMG I’m hot for a priest! subplot; while Peter MacNeill, Blake Taylor (as doomed plumber, Reggie) and Brendon Beisner lend fair support.
Quote: “It’s a massive, fluid, multi-celled entity whose separate parts can move independently or articulate into a single network: what’s not to love?”
The Grim Sleeper (2014)
South Central Los Angeles, 1987: a woman is shot in the chest and left for dead; but she does not die… Twenty years later, though employed as a fact-checker at the LA Weekly, Christine Pelisek (Dreama Walker) has ambitions as a journalist. Through her friendship with Bob Lesser (John Cassini), who works in the coroner’s office, Christine gets wind of a list of unsolved murders stretching back many years, which are being reinvestigated by the LAPD. She begins investigating on her own account, and discovers to her horror that several recent murders have exactly the same modus operandi as a number of cases from the 1980s—suggesting that a serial killer has been operating in South Central LA for more than twenty years. Christine persuades her editor (Susan Ruttan) to let her pursue the story; and though at first her actions bring her into conflict with the LAPD, finally Christine teams up with Detective Simms (Michael O’Neill) to track down the killer… If you’re thinking of watching The Grim Sleeper, it may help you to know that this is a Lifetime movie about a serial killer: you can imagine the results. This is one of those awkward “true story” productions where almost everyone’s name is changed, and a number of fictional characters introduced, often in a way that seems disrespectful to the real-life victims; and though the outlines of the case of Lonnie Franklin Jr are presented accurately enough, what the screenplay does in its details is more than a little uncomfortable. A major aspect of this story is how long it took the LAPD to pay enough attention to the string of murders of black women to even realise they were connected (several of the early victims had their files marked NHI—“no human involvement”); but while The Grim Sleeper is rightly critical of this, it soon backs away from anything really confrontational in favour of a joint focus on The Gruff Cop Who Really Does Care After All and The Spunky Girl Reporter…or in other words, it reproduces exactly what happened in real life: it sidelines the impact of the murders on the black community, and that community’s reaction, and keeps its focus on its white characters! Mind you—the film doesn’t ever seem to realise that it’s doing it, or how very patronising some of this feels. Otherwise, the film’s main flaw is that it lacks any sense of time passing: an investigation that took three years, and which required a breakthrough legal ruling regarding the use of familial DNA searches before it bore fruit, seems to be unfolding over days or weeks. I can’t imagine how crime-reporter Christine Pelisek felt about having her work linking the two crime sprees, and her involvement in the eventual capture of Franklin, dumbed down into this you-go-girl Lifetime production…but because this is a Lifetime production, you better believe we’re not going to escape this drama about the pursuit of one of the longest-operating serial killers in America’s history without single-girl Christine being reassured that she “deserves love” and will find it one day…
(Lonnie Franklin Jr was arrested in 2010; The Grim Sleeper was produced in 2014, while he was still awaiting trial, and therefore carries an innocent-until-proven-guilty disclaimer. Franklin was convicted in 2016 of ten counts of murder and one attempted murder; although it is now believed the apparent thirteen-year hiatus in his crimes which gave him his nickname was no such thing, and that his other victims have simply not been found—probably because, since he sometimes used dumpsters to dispose of bodies, they ended up in the LA County landfill…)
The Murder Pact (2015)
Camille (Alexa PenaVega), an aspiring singer-actress, is humiliated when her Broadway audition is cut short, and she is told she was only invited in the first place because of strings pulled by her successful male-model boyfriend, Will LaSalle (Beau Mirchoff). Despite her disappointment, Camille attends a gathering at the prestigious college attended by herself, Will, and their friends, Rick (Michael J. Willett) and Annabel (Renee Oldstead). She is unable at first to find Will—who is up on the roof with a furious Heidi (Madeleine Dauer), with whom, unbeknownst to Camille, he had a one-night stand. When Camille arrives with Rick and Annabel, there is a scene that ends with Heidi breaking through a railing and falling to her death. Appalled, the others quickly agree on a story meant to exonerate them from any involvement. They do not realise that Heidi’s roommate, Lisa (Sara Kapner), has witnessed the entire incident and has photographs of the four of them at the scene. Threatened with exposure, the friends must decide whether to tell the truth about Heidi’s death, to give in to Lisa’s blackmail demands—or to resort to murder…Though it picks up across its second half, the first stretch of The Murder Pact is a pretty gruelling experience—not least because this section of the film has a weird tone about it, as if for some reason it expects us to feel sorry for these vapid, entitled, thoroughly mean-spirited individuals as they rapidly escalate from covering up what was more or less an accident to contemplating premeditated murder. Similarly, it starts out looking as if Lisa will be our protagonist—until she decides that, justice for Heidi be damned, she’d rather have a big, fat, cash payment. And as, subsequently, Lisa is stupid enough to meet privately with the people she’s blackmailing, it’s rather hard to feel sorry for what happens next… In the wake of Lisa’s “disappearance”, Will, Camille, Rick and Annabel try to pick up the pieces of their lives—but then a series of strange events begins to shake their sense of security, and it becomes clear that either someone knows what they did, or Lisa isn’t dead after all… The Murder Pact is a deeply stupid film, but not, when all is said and done, without some entertainment value; although this revolves chiefly around the comeuppances that pursue the obnoxious central quartet. However, in order to enjoy this, it is necessary to switch your brain off—or at least not to think too much about the “explanations” offered for the story’s more improbable moments. On the whole, the cast is adequate, mostly because the actors are asked to do little but be hateful to one another and everyone else. That said, Alexa PenaVega seems out of place here—not so much as the group’s vacillating, Julie-James-ish character, but rather since we are given reason to believe that Lisa’s labelling of Camille as a “social-climbing gold-digger” isn’t entirely without some basis. John Heard turns up for a single scene as Will’s ruthless millionaire father, furious not because his son is a murderer, but because he hasn’t covered up his crime effectively enough; while Ethan Phillips has a small supporting role as one of the kids’ professors…who, we conclude, has signally failed in teaching them any ethics.
(Turning this into one-half of an Accidental Ethan Phillips Double-Bill! – though I’m not exactly hitting the high spots of his career. Or am I…?)
The Night Stalker (2016)
The law firm representing a man on Death Row and scheduled for execution believes that the murders for which he was convicted were in fact committed by Richard Ramirez (Lou Diamond Phillips), “the Night Stalker”. Lawyer Kit (Bellamy Young) receives permission from the authorities to meet with Ramirez, hopefully to win his trust and bring him to confess to the crimes. Kit is an expert on Ramirez, her interest in him dating back to her own adolescence during his reign of terror; and her meetings with the convicted serial killer bring memories of her youth flooding back—some of them painful and disturbing. Nevertheless, Kit makes a connection of sorts with Ramirez, who forces her to make a difficult decision when he will only tell her what she wants to know in exchange for learning some secrets from her past… The Night Stalker was directed by Megan Griffiths, who also adapted Philip Carlo’s The Night Stalker: The Life And Crimes Of Richard Ramirez, on which this was supposedly based—although it would have been more honest to say that one-half of it was. That half is a film worth watching, offering a thoughtful consideration of the social conditions that produced Richard Ramirez and, while by no means excusing his crimes, demonstrating that he was pretty much doomed from the outset. But unfortunately, the focus of The Night Stalker isn’t really the Night Stalker at all. Rather, this film foregrounds what is, in essence, a crossing of The Summer Of Sam with The Silence Of The Lambs; and while the former aspect is not without merit, giving us glimpses of a mid-80s California community gripped by its consciousness of the uncaught killer in its midst, the latter is tiresome and ultimately rather distasteful. Behind her cool career-woman persona, Kit is (of course) a bundle of neuroses and secrets; and it takes very little time in Ramirez’s company before her façade begins to crack… The Night Stalker is confusingly structured, jumping from character to character, and time-frame to time-frame, often with insufficient scene-setting. Kit herself is unappealing, though the most objectionable thing about her plot-thread is its underlying suggestion – in 2016!! – that, Oh my God she’s single there must be something wrong with her!…and of course there is. Lou Diamond Phillips is effective as Ramirez, however, leaving us with the sense that a powerful biopic could have been built around him; though, alas, this is definitely not that film.