Friday, November 30, 2012

Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, The (1976)

... aka: La petite fille au bout du chemin

Directed by:
Nicolas Gessner

"How old do you have to be before people start treating you like a person?"

13-year-old Renn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) and her father Lester have just moved to a small New England fishing village. Lester is a reclusive and eccentric published poet who never likes to be disturbed while he's translating or writing. He never seems to leave his study, and he's frequently out of town in New York City or London or some other big city tending to business. At least according to Renn, who spends most, if not all, of her time by herself. She's an extremely intelligent and perceptive girl who home schools herself, listens to classical music, reads Emily Dickinson, cooks all her own meals and teaches herself things like Hebrew. All she really wants is for people to leave her alone. People like Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen). You see, Frank likes little girls... in a way he shouldn't like little girls. And he has no problem conveying to Renn just how pretty he thinks she is. He also wonders why such a pretty, smart girl doesn't have a boyfriend and doesn't go to school like the rest of the kids her age. It's no secret around town that Frank is a "pervert" and child molester, and because he senses that Renn is lonely he starts following her around hoping for more than just a piece of cake to give his kids. But Renn has some deep, dark secrets of her own that Frank may not want to know about.

Frank's mother Cora (Alexis Smith), an uppity, nosy, judgmental, extremely nasty social climber who's leased the home to Renn and her father for three years, begins snooping around after she finds out her son has been there. Not pleased with Renn's standoffish behavior and the fact she's "rude," Cora begins trying to cause problems for them and eventually threatens to kick them out. But that's all solved when she's killed in a freak accident down in the cellar. Renn decides to leave her down there and go about her business like nothing has happened. After all, there's something down in the cellar that caused Cora to panic in the first place and it's something Renn wants to keep hidden. Now faced with the problem of Cora's car parked right in front of her house, Renn lucks out that Mario (Scott Jacoby) happens by on his bicycle. A crippled amateur magician and high school student, Mario agrees to help Renn out of her bind. He takes the car into town and leaves it, then returns for dinner. The two quickly form a bond, Mario gets the secretive girl to open up to him and obligatory young love ensues.

Caught up in a web of deceit, Renn has a hard time keeping her story straight about her father. She'll tell one person he's out of town and another he's in his study working or sleeping and can't be disturbed. Most of the intrigue in this film is discovering just what's going on. Did the father die? Did Renn kill him? Was he ever there in the first place? What secret is hidden in the cellar? These are questions your faithful reviewer isn't going to answer here because that would be to spoil all of the wonderful and clever surprises and plot twists this film offers.

Stripped down, Little Girl is little more than a series of lengthy character interactions. In some regards, it resembles a made-for-TV movie and in other ways it seems derived from a stage play. Thankfully, an extremely good cast and Laird Koenig's excellent and insightful screenplay (which is based on his own novel) makes these scenes plausible, interesting and suspenseful. Sheen is very credible playing a truly despicable and unlikable character. He does a fantastic job getting you to hate his guts by the end of the film, whether it's him using sly tactics to try to bully and blackmail young Renn into giving in to him, or burning her pet hamster with a cigarette and tossing it in the fireplace. Smith - who has just two scenes - is his equal as an icy, domineering witch so concerned with her reputation in town she has no problem covering up for her son's crimes. Jacoby is charming in his role and his scenes with Foster are poignant and seem authentic, and Mort Shuman, also this film's music supervisor and a noted songwriter, scores in a nice supporting part as Mario's uncle; a friendly police officer.

The centerpiece of the film is Foster, though. The young actress (who was the same age as her character during production) starred in this the same year she won critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination) for playing a teen prostitute in Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER. As a result, this particular performance was somewhat overlooked. Regardless, she was a positively perfect choice for playing this clever, precocious character. The part seems almost tailor-made for her, though reportedly Foster disliked the film (and claims to have had problems with one of the producers). Some eyebrows were definitely raised over a nude scene, but it was actually Foster's older sister Connie who body doubled for her.
Filmed primarily in Quebec, Canada (with some footage shot in Maine) and the winner of Best Horror Film and Best Actress awards at the 1978 Saturn Awards.


Mephisto Waltz, The (1971)

... aka: Satan, mon Amour! (Satan, My Love)
... aka: Satan's Transplant

Directed by:
Paul Wendkos

After a four year stint at Julliard, Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) gave up his love for piano playing after getting scathing reviews for a make-it-or-break-it performance. Now a music journalist, Myles has been called to the home of Duncan Ely (Curd Jürgens), the self-proclaimed "greatest pianist alive," to write an article on him. A crotchety, eccentric and mysterious type, Duncan initially seems most interested in Myles' hands. He even wants his sultry daughter Roxanne (the very sexy Barbara Parkins) to see them. Such fine hands. One in a hundred thousand. It isn't long before Myles and his wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset) are hobnobbing with rich and famous sorts - writers, film directors... - at one of Duncan's lavish dinner parties. Duncan even has Myles perform dueling pianos with him. Sensing something is a little off about the whole situation, and also sensing Roxanne has eyes for her husband, Paula decides to call it a night. Before she goes, she's introduced to Duncan's snarling, vicious dog. Later, she'll learn that Duncan's previous wife was killed by one such dog. Maybe even that one...

At the grand opening of Paula's new antique store - which she owns with her friend Maggie (Kathleen Widdoes) - she gets a surprise visit by Duncan, Roxanne and all of their rich friends, who start throwing down tons of money on ridiculous things. Paula grows even more skeptical about them, begins to wonder what their intentions are and just why they're trying to "study" both her and her husband. At a New Year's Eve party at Duncan's, where everyone dresses in animal masks (aside from the dog - who wears a human mask!), Roxanne continues to flirt with her husband and Paula even spots Duncan and Roxanne - who are supposedly father and daughter - making out. She tries to sever ties with them, but Myles isn't having it. Duncan has become like a father figure to him and even confesses he's dying from leukemia. Paula tries to be understanding despite her reservations, but her suspicions continue to grow the more time Myles starts spending with them.

After donating some blood to the cause, Myles comes back to Paula with news that Duncan has passed away. Myles has also come back to his wife a completely different man. That's because his body is now inhabited by Duncan, who - through black magic - has managed to take over Myles' body to extend his own life. And he's not the only one doing it. His whole circle of friends do as well. Use up a body? Just find a new one. No longer so polite and meek, Myles now is picking up right where Duncan left off. Paula is happy at first. Her husband has a renewed passion for her and has inherited a healthy sum of money. However, it isn't long before Paula starts to realize that her husband isn't her husband at all. She must get to the bottom of things, especially after her young daughter Abby (Pamelyn Ferdin) dies from a mysterious illness that seems to be connected to what's going on.

This is a very good major studio (20th Century Fox) horror film. It's a well-made, well-paced, sometimes creepy film that boasts glossy production values, an intriguing storyline and a good cast. The direction and cinematography are both quite stylish: in particular during the dream sequences, which utilize soft-focus, smeared lenses and glimmering light to give them an other-worldly feel. If there's a weak link on the roster, it's a miscast Alda, who isn't fully convincing in his role. Not that he's awful or anything, but one gets the impression a more skilled actor would do a better job separating the Myles and Duncan personas (which nice guy Alda never quite pulls off). Thankfully, it's not all that important. Though billed behind him, this is actually the beautiful Bisset's film and the movie is really about her quest to uncover the truth. The actress makes a fine, likeable centerpiece for all the action. Parkins and Jürgens also give great performances and head up a fine supporting cast, which also includes the busy Bradford Dillman as Roxanne's ex-husband, William Windom as a doctor, Lilyan Chauvin (Mother Superior in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT), Berry Kroeger (NIGHTMARE IN WAX) and Terrence Scammell.

I'm not saying this set the precedent or created such things, but it's hard to watch and not think about films that came after that utilized some of the same exact elements / imagery. For instance, the demon dog (1976's THE OMEN), the celebration of strange animal-masked guests (1973's THE WICKER MAN), the dog with the human face (1978's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) and so forth. Mephisto itself recalls ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) at times in that the husband's ego and gullibility puts him in a dangerous situation with occultists while the wife is the rightfully cautious of the two who senses something is awry.

The title comes from the Franz Liszt composition of the same name. It's based on a novel by Fred Mustard Stewart (adapted by Ben Maddow). Jerry Goldsmith did the score.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Scars of Dracula (1970)

Directed by:
Roy Ward Baker

Entry six in Hammer's long-running Dracula series, this follows HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960; which some don't even consider part of the series because of the absence of both the Count and star Christopher Lee), DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969). Time-lapse-revived by a rubber-bat-on-a-string that spits blood onto his ashes, Count Dracula - looking paler and bit more undead than usual - is back in action and immediately gets to work terrorizing a small village. After a young lady turns up dead, a tavern owner (Michael Ripper) organizes a group of men to sneak over to Dracula's castle for revenge. They trick not-too-bright manservant Klove (Patrick Troughton in a crazy wig) into opening the gates, force their way inside and proceed to burn the castle down with torches and powder kegs. But Dracula has a surprise or two in store for them. Not only does he survive the attack, but he's also sent a legion of rabid vampire bats into the village while the men were away to slaughter all of the women in a church.

Not far away in the neighboring village of Kleinenberg, Sarah Framsen (Jenny Hanley) finds herself torn between the Carlson brothers; the older and more mature law student Simon (Dennis Waterman) and the younger heartthrob Paul (Christopher Matthews), who is extremely popular with all the ladies and always seems to be getting himself into trouble. Because Paul is off messing around with the Burgomaster's daughter, he ends up arriving late for Sarah's birthday party, and soon after gets chased away by the Burgomaster's guards. After leaping into a carriage, he's swept off somewhere into the countryside. One thing leads to another and Paul finds himself at the foot of Dracula's castle, where a mysterious, dark-haired woman named Tania (Anouska Hempel) invites him inside to spend the night. Paul obliges, but gets second thoughts once he meets the Count. Unfortunately, he's stuck there. After allowing himself to be seduced by his hostess (who claims she's being held prisoner there), Paul awakens the next day to find Dracula standing at the foot of his bed with a knife. He stabs Tania to death and then promptly disappears. Trying to escape the castle, Paul finds himself locked inside of Dracula's chamber with no way out.

Since Paul hasn't returned to Kleinenberg, Simon and Sarah show up in the village looking for him. Getting little help from the locals, aside from talkative young barmaid Julie (Wendy Hamilton), who's new in the area and refuses to get swept up in local superstitions, means they're both off to Castle Dracula for a terror-filled night. After they're saved by her cross necklace and a little help from Klove (who's fallen for Sarah), the two manage to escape, head back to the tavern, get booted out again and again find themselves back at the castle for the big finale, getting a little help from a reluctant local priest (Michael Gwynn) in the process. Said finale involves a huge, coincidental stroke of luck to take out the red-eyed vampire count. But never fear, he'll be back again in DRACULA AD 1972.

Undemanding and entertaining, the whole film looks fantastic just like most of Hammer's other films. As a matter of fact, this is perhaps the most visually stylish of all the series, particularly when it comes to lighting. The art direction and cinematography are both top notch and good use is made of matte paintings and models to give the castle a grand scale. Most of the performances are quite good as well, with special mention going out to Troughton, Waterman and Hamilton. Unfortunately, none of that means we haven't already seen this same story numerous times before.

This entry is very much a segue into more 'adult' horror for Hammer. It has more violence than their previous vampire films and even shows a female ass (cheers, Delia Lindsay). Of course, it's downright chaste compared to other vampire films from other countries made around 1970, but it still shows signs of the studio at least trying to keep up with the times. There's a surprising amount of blood in this one, too, which is a welcome addition to their tried-and-true formula. There are impalements, stabbings, some gory vampire bat attacks and a sequence where Klove dismembers a corpse with a cleaver and dissolves the body parts in acid. Moments like these keep the series humming along.

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