Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Terror on the Beach (1973) (TV)

Directed by:
Paul Wendkos

It's been a trying year for the Glynn family, so dad Neil (Dennis Weaver) organizes an end-of-the-summer family trip for his wife Arlene (Estelle Parsons) and two college-aged kids, DeeDee (Susan Dey) and Steve (Kristoffer Tabori). They hit the road in their yellow Open Road camper van on the way to the secluded "Dune Beach" for a weekend of camping, fishing, clam digging and some much-needed family bonding. Like with most other families, some deep-seeded issues and inter-generational conflicts arise that needed worked out. Steve has just completed his first year of college but wants to drop out, much to the horror of his father. Neil has been working so hard he's been neglecting Arlene and she perhaps needs more attention than ever because both of her kids are now out of the house and she has no clue what to do with herself. And DeeDee, who's resigned herself to the role of playing peacekeeper and adopted a goody goody routine around her folks, has had a taste of women's lib in school so now she has a hard time relating to her homemaker mother. It seems everyone's been fighting and arguing a lot recently and Neil's hoping the trip will be a good chance for the family to reset and get their bearings. But like they always say, there's nothing like clashing with a group of desert-dwelling psychos to bring a family closer together. Just ask the Carter family from The Hills Have Eyes.

Before they even reach the beach, the Glynn clan have two run-ins with a strange group of aimless, obnoxious hippies whose mode of transport are some dune buggies and a vintage fire engine. They first run them right off the road and then fool them into thinking they're broken down just to annoy them. Steve wants to go to the police immediately, but Neil (who the thugs dub "Mr. White Bread") suggests they just ignore them and go about their business. After the family arrive at the beach, things quickly begin to escalate. The hippies crash their dinner and eat their food, destroy their campsite, ogle DeeDee in her bikini and scare Neil by dressing a mannequin in his daughter's clothes and lying it face down in the water. By the time Neil finally decides to pack up and get the family out of there, they discover the radiator cap from the camper has been stolen so they can't go anywhere. The goons then proceed to terrorize them all night long into the next day; blasting wild animals sounds using radio equipment, hiding a microphone and playing back their personal conversations, tipping over the van with them in it and chasing them around the dunes with their buggies trying to run them over. Neil finally must confront the gang face-to-face in order to protect his family.

Terror on the Beach is one of many films from the decade with an "It's either you or them" mantra and featuring a mild-mannered "normal" pacifist driven to violence out of sheer necessity to protect himself, his loved ones and / or his way of life. These kind of movies; spearheaded by the success of such films as Straw Dogs (1971) and Deliverance (1972), were extremely popular at the time. Beach also brings in another popular 70s theme: the violent hippie cult; something else common in this post-Manson family era. Minus the cannibalism and gore, this is actually extremely similar to the aforementioned The Hills Have Eyes, with a vacationing middle class family being terrorized in a dusty, desert area and having to become the aggressors in order to survive. Because it was a made-for-TV movie, the thrills are tame, the bad guys don't seem as threatening and it doesn't have the luxury of graphic violence for impact like many of the theatrical releases. Nevertheless, the film manages to say what it wants to say and do so in an intelligent yet far less exploitative manner since it depends largely on its cast and a multi-layered and thoughtful script by Bill Svanoe.

Unfairly demonizing the generally peaceful youth counterculture (who were given quite the bad rap by Manson and company) was a trap many of these films fell into and this likewise presents the 'bad guys' in a one-dimensional fashion and refuses to characterize any of them. However, this is effectively counteracted by giving the children - not their parents - the upper hand in dealing with the hippies. They are, after all, still within the same peer group, so it makes perfect sense. Steve wants to go to the police before things get out of hand, and he's right. They should have and would have if not for Neil's outmoded way of dealing with matters. When the hippies manage to get the mom and daughter alone, it's actually the daughter who knows how to calmly and effectively handle the situation so it doesn't get out of hand, not her flustered mother. It's also worth noting that it's an act of undeserved compassion on DeeDee's part that ultimately saves her family, not the violent retribution of her father. The film allows both kids the opportunity to be defiant of the ideals and expectations of the past generation, but in a non-violent and positive way, and is uncommonly well-rounded in exploring its subject matter, which elevates it above many similar tales. The shooting locations (California's Pismo Beach) are very nice as well, and the cinematography is above par for a 70s TV movie.

The cast includes Scott Hylands (who also did a great job playing psycho in the vastly underrated DADDY'S GONE A-HUNTING [1969]) as the sociopath hippie ringleader Jerry, Michael Christian (who went on to play the title role in the exploitation favorite Poor Pretty Eddie [1975]), drive-in movie goddess Roberta Collins (who's completely wasted here as one of the hippie chicks), Jacqueline Giroux (ditto) and 80s women-in-prison staple Carole Ita White (also of TV's "Laverne and Shirley"). This CBS TV Movie of the Week has never officially been on VHS or DVD, though there are black market copies available and it turns up on the Fox Movie Channel on occasion.


Stage Fright (1987)

... aka: Aquarius
... aka: Bloody Bird
... aka: Deliria
... aka: Sound Stage Massacre
... aka: StageFright: Aquarius
... aka: StageFright: Theater des Todes
... aka: Théâtre de la peur, Le (Theater of Death)

Directed by:
"Michael" (Michele) Soavi

The same year he was second unit director on Dario Argento's similarly-themed OPERA (1987), Michele Soavi made his own stage theater-set slasher flick called Deliria. For the American release it was re-titled Stage Fright, which caused a little confusion with another 80s slasher flick with a theater setting from Australia called Nightmares (1980), which had also been issued on VHS as STAGE FRIGHT. Regardless of what title people saw it under (Aquarius, The Bloody Bird and Sound Stage Massacre were just a few of the other titles), it was the film that put the director on the radar of horror fans worldwide. Prior to this, he'd been mentored by a whole host of notable Italian horror / exploitation filmmakers; serving as an actor, writer and / or assistant director on films made by Lamberto Bava, Lucio Fulci, Joe D'Amato and others. It was the Argento connection though that echoed strongest; the two men had worked on over half-a-dozen projects throughout the 80s, and inevitable comparisons were drawn between Soavi's visual style and Argento's. Argento however was not at all involved in the production of Soavi's feature film debut. He'd actually been recommended for this job by D'Amato, who also produced the film. The screenplay was from "Lew Cooper;" an alias for sometimes actor / sometimes writer George Eastman, who's probably best known to horror buffs for playing the cannibal-killer in THE GRIM REAPER (1980); another D'Amato film.

The action centers around a minor stage production at a small theater called "The Night Owl," which is being put together by director Peter Connors (David Brandon). Peter is desperate for a hit (and money) and has concocted a "controversial" story line about a killer in a giant owl headdress who is raped by one of his resurrected female victims. He's also a pretentious prick who constantly screams at and berates his cast and crew and demands more "Sex... S-E-X!" from his nubile lead actress Alicia (Barbara Cupisti), who's at her wit's end with him. Other expected theater types are around, including sleazy / pushy producer Ferrari (Piero Vida), backstabbing diva Laurel (Mary Sellers), Peter's harried assistant Mark (Martin Philips), bitchy queen Brett ("John Morghen" / Giovanni Lombardo Radice), dancer Corinne ("Lori Parrel" / Loredana Parrella) and Sybil (Jo Ann Smith) and Danny (Robert Gligorov), a couple of actors dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. After Alicia injures her ankle, she and wardrobe mistress Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) sneak off to the nearest hospital to get it treated. They end up at a mental asylum instead, where psycho Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who murdered sixteen people and chopped them up into little pieces, is being temporarily housed. Irving manages to kill an orderly, escapes the building and hides out in the backseat of Betty's car when they head back to the theater.

Not long after they return, Betty is found outside with a pick-axe through her head. The police are called in to investigate but there's no trace of the killer anywhere, so the show must go on. Peter decides to make some alterations to their play to cash in on the publicity of both the escaped murderer and Betty's murder, and rushes to get it all started. With a few police officers (played by Mickey Knox and the director) stationed outside just in case, Peter organizes an over-night practice session with his chief cast and crew. Naturally, the killer hasn't really gone anywhere and is just hiding out inside the theaters waiting to strike. He murders the guy playing the killer in the play, steals his owl mask and then begins bumping everyone off one by one. No one can get out of the building because there's just one exit (gee, talk about your fire hazards); an impenetrable steel door that can only be opened by a key that has turned up missing.

Though the film has its fans, and its moments, overall it's mostly just an average, watchable, unexceptional film in its category. For the entire first hour we're treated to little of interest: the plot is ordinary, the dialogue is terrible, the characters are annoying / unlikable stereotypes (not helped any by the awful English dubbing) and the whole thing plays out in an extremely predictable fashion. There's a great music score (from Simon Boswell), decent cinematography and art direction and some blood to help us along, though. Numerous victims are stabbed, a few are axed, an eyeball gets gouged, an arm and head get chopped off, a body is sawed in half, someone is set on fire and, since the theater also happens to have a woodworking shop inside, the killer even manages to get his hands on an electric drill and a chainsaw. Once everyone but our heroine is killed off, the film begins to improve significantly, with nicely stylized and composed shots and some suspenseful cat-and-mouse moments. Particularly good is a sequence where our heroine is under the stage trying to quietly retrieve a key wedged in a crack while the killer sits in a chair right above her with the theater's feline mascot Lucifer sitting on his lap.

Other scenes in the final half hour are lessened somewhat by idiocy. A good example is when the killer corners Alicia up on some scaffolding, gets knocks off and is left dangling from a wire and trying to climb back up. Our heroine, who has an axe in her hands, frantically begins chopping the wire when she could just as easily chop him and end it all. After the killer falls, she just drops the axe for no reason and walks back down to where the psycho is,  completely unarmed. A final "shock" scene was also grafted on at the very end that's really lame.

Though Stage Fright cost less than a million dollars to make, it was a theatrical flop in Italy. Here in the U.S. it received a very limited big screen release in 1989 before being issued to VHS later that same year by Imperial Entertainment. Anchor Bay was the first to get it out onto DVD and it has since been released on numerous other labels. Soavi went on to make La chiesa / The Church (1989), La setta / "The Sect" (1991; U.S. title = The Devil's Daughter) and the cult favorite Cemetery Man (1994), but has since pretty much bowed out of the horror genre. He even passed up the opportunity to direct From Dusk Till Dawn in 1995 during his hiatus and now mostly directs Italian TV movies.

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