Saturday, July 24, 2021

Wednesday Children, The (1973)

Directed by:
Robert D. West

Meet the Miller family. They're your typical upper middle class white bread keepin'-up-appearances couple + two kids. Husband / father Brad (Donald E. Miller) is often away on business, is neglectful and unappreciative ("Spaghetti again?") of his wife, short-tempered with his kids and prefers riding around on his lawn mower to socializing with the rest of his brood. To him, being a good father is limited to bringing in money and spending five minutes a week with his son. That leaves wig-wearing wife Marian (Marji Dodrill) with a bulk of the responsibility when it comes to running the household. She has to take care of the kids, food, shopping and PTA meetings, and obsesses over insignificant things like shoes on the furniture and washing hands because she's desperate for her dreary life to have some purpose. There's additional tension in the marriage as the husband still not-so-secretly pines for his late first wife, Cindy, and even sometimes accidentally refers to Marian by her name. Ouch.

Their youngest son Douglas is pretty much too young to really care either way, but the eldest, Scotty (Tom Kelly), from Brad's previous marriage, is another story entirely. The despondent, eye-rolling Scotty is the one who primarily has to deal with the fallout from his dad and stepmother's shitty relationship. Dinners are awkward and silent whenever the TV and radio are turned off. Scotty mostly just blankly stares off into space and starts behaving strangely. He demands Marian get him milk instead of lemonade, then refuses to drink the milk. At dinner, he requests extra meatballs, then doesn't eat them and just walks away from the dinner table. This all seems like his way of exerting control in an unsure world with unstable adults as well as a means to annoy his stepmother.

At church, Reverend Haines (played by the director) gives a five minute long sermon about the generation gap, parents not being able to relate to their own children and how we're all living in "a sinful world that may be headed to a judgment day at any moment." Mercifully, the babble is cut short when he goes into an (accidental?!) coughing fit and then it immediately cuts to road sign! Temporarily heeding the reverend's advice, Brad decides to try to patch things up with his wife and spend more time with his kids. He takes Scotty out to fly their 400 dollar radio controlled model airplane and gives another lecture comparing flying to being a father. You can't be too hard or too soft on the controls, eh? When he hands over control to Scotty, he crashes the plane. Brad screams at him and grounds him for a month. So much for that.

While pouting in a barn, Scotty meets Mr. Al Fenton (Alan Miskell), whom we immediately know is evil because he has a beard and smokes. Working undercover as a janitor at the church, Fenton starts promising the children of the congregation he will grant them a special power he calls "transferring," which will give them freedom, unlimited toys and candy, money and other such perks. And since the self-absorbed adults / authority figures are all failing these children, they easily fall under Fenton's evil influence. More and more kids join the flock, they start holding secret meetings in the barn and then all of the adults in town start disappearing...

This ultra low-budget amateur film from Wadsworth, Ohio was shot over a few weekends on 16mm with a budget of 13,000 dollars and stars amateur locals (mostly friends and family of the director). Only Dodrill as the mother gives what could be considered a passable performance, followed by juvenile lead Kelly, who's merely OK. Everyone else is awful. The film premiered at John Carroll University (where the director was teaching at the time) and then a version shortened by 20 minutes played on local TV, which is the only print to still be in existence. The original, longer master print is said to have been destroyed in a fire.

Aside from working as a film professor at various colleges (including his alma mater Kent State), the director was also a WWII army veteran, a program director at WJW-Radio out of Cleveland, a commercial director for an advertising firm and an ordained minister who led a church for three decades, which certainly explains the heavy moralizing and religious content here. A self-proclaimed "disciple of Val Lewton," he opted to never show any kind of special effects, blood or violence, so everything horrific or fantastic takes place entirely off-screen. However, he failed to take into consideration that Lewton films worked so well because they had good acting, strong scripts and excellent cinematography; all of which are absent here. The title comes from the old nursery rhyme / children's song "Monday's Child."

At its best, this provides only mild interest; namely in its similarities to the later Children of the Corn (published in 1977), and its setting in disillusionment-filled, mildly-rural, middle class suburbia of the early 70s, where the hideousness of the clothing, hair, home décor and furnishings seemed to match what most Americans were feeling inside at the time.


Abducted (1986)

... aka: Abduction
... aka: El salvaje y su presa (The Savage and His Prey)
... aka: Entführt und gepeinigt (Kidnapped and Tormented)
... aka: Jakten (The Hunt)
... aka: Kidnapped
... aka: Terrore nella foresta (Terror in the Forest)

Directed by:
Boon Collins

In the summer of 1984, 22-year-old American biathlon (a sport combining cross country skiing and rifle shooting) competitor Kari Swenson was working a summer job in Montana when she was kidnapped by father-and-son wackos and wanna-be part-time survivalists, who supposedly were keen on eventually forcing her to be the son's wife. Her traumatic ordeal included her being wrapped in a sleeping bag and chained to a tree for the better part of a day and then being shot in the chest at point blank range with a rifle. A few search party members had stumbled upon the kidnappers' camp, one was shot in the face and killed, while Swenson was shot and left for dead. It wouldn't be until four hours later that the critically injured Swenson was located. Her attackers were tracked down months later, convicted and spent many years in prison, while injuries forced Swenson out of the sport she had already set several records in (she was the highest ranked American biathlete for decades) for awhile, though she was able to recuperate and compete again in 1986. Afterward, she became a veterinarian.

This bizarre true life tale was a top news story nearly four decades ago and thus spawned endless newspaper and magazine articles, as well as books and several film adaptations. The "official" recount of the story was the made-for-TV movie The Abduction of Kari Swenson (1987), which starred Tracy Pollan as Swenson and M. Emmet Walsh and Michael Bowen as her abductors, Don and Dan Nichols. Swenson herself served as technical advisor on that version to keep it as accurate as possible. However, exploitation cinema isn't so keen on the details so there were a number of other Swenson-inspired films hoping to cash in. This Canadian effort managed to beat the TV movie version to the punch by a year. It takes major liberties with the actual story whilst still boasting its "true story" credentials.

College student and long distance runner Renee Aldridge (Roberta Weiss) is out jogging in the foggy woods when she senses someone is watching / stalking her. Before she knows it, armed, grizzled, mentally-unhinged mountain man Vern (Lawrence King-Phillips) jumps in front of her, grabs her by the hair and yanks her into forest. When she puts up the slightest bit of resistance, he slaps her in the face, ties a rope around her neck and keeps plodding along. Vern drags Renee deeper into the woods, threatens her with a knife, whips her with a rope, sniffs her, pats her on the ass and hog-ties her when it's time to sleep so she can't run away. By the next day, there's already a large search party with hunters, dogs and a helicopter out scouring the mountains looking for her.

Vern dishes out psychological torment to his captive while also trying to train Renee for her new life living in the wild. An attempt to run away is foiled when she gets lost in the woods at night, basically circles around to where she ran away from and falls asleep. When she awakens, an amused Vern is sitting there waiting for her and informs her he was tracking her the entire time. He makes her climb up a steep cliff, feeds her raw eggs and even allows her to hold his gun while he scours for food; all in an attempt to build up some kind of trust with her while at the same time proving she's basically fucked out there in the middle of nowhere without him and his survival skills. He even saves her from going over a waterfall after she falls into some rapids.

The two eventually make it to Vern's cabin, where she's tied up, forced to lay on animal skins, is taught how to gut and clean their food and informed she's now in her new home and will eventually learn to like it (and him). When he attempts to rip her clothes off and rape her, he has a premature ejaculation issue and cries afterward. In a major deviation from the actual story, Vern's kindly, crippled, nature-lovin', God-fearin' daddy Joe (Dan Haggerty) shows up insisting they immediately return the girl to her parents. We learn a little about Vern's past in foster homes, prisons and institutions, which have all clearly failed him. And we learn a little about Joe, who is guilt-stricken for failing Vern himself when he abandoned him as a child and left him with his promiscuous, neglectful, alcoholic mother to raise. A high school dropout whose own father died at a young age in a logging accident, Joe is now trying to atone for the sins of his past helping his now-deranged son the only way he knows how: removing him from society altogether.

Haggerty's character has a true disdain for wealthy trophy hunters who rent helicopters just so they can gun down endangered Stone sheep, whom he feels a kinship, and an almost spiritual connection, with. On their way to take Renee back to civilization, they cross paths with one such group of "hunters." Renee panics, tries to run to them for help and a frantic Vern shoots and kills one of the hunting party. Later that night, Vern tries to rape Renee yet again, but is run off by Joe. Their journey toward civilization continues with Vern trying to stake his claim over Renee ("You're mine... I killed a man for you!") and becoming increasingly more angry, paranoid and violent.

This is a bizarre film in that it's pure exploitation by the very definition of the word (trying to cash-in on a real-life crime case) yet one that consistently shies away from being overtly exploitative in ways that may engender it some kind of cult following. It's not accurate enough to cut it as a true crime film, not quite tense, exciting or thoughtful enough to entirely work as a serious movie and not lurid or sleazy enough to work as a guilty pleasure trash flick. It is, however, a solidly-crafted film that manages to be entertaining in spite of its shortcomings and has sincere performances from the cast. Weiss is adequate (though her role is insufficiently developed compared to the male leads), Haggerty is actually quite good here and King-Phillips is mostly effective, though he does slide into camp overacting toward the end.

The film's best attribute is lots of gorgeous Canadian scenery, which is wonderfully framed and shot by Robert McLachlan, who'd eventually move on to a prolific career shooting top TV shows like Game of Thrones and Ray Donovan. The unfortunate part is all that's currently available are dark, murky VHS copies. One hopes that this will be cleaned-up and better presented one day.

Abducted received very wide global video distribution in the late 80s and there were video releases all over North and South America (the U. S. release was from Prism), Europe and Japan. Since then, it's been all but completely forgotten.

King-Phillips and Haggerty both returned in the same roles in the easier-to-find and more exploitative sequel; Abducted II: The Reunion (1995), which was made by the same director and writers (Collins and Lindsay Bourne) and was also shot in British Columbia. In that one, Vern kidnaps and terrorizes three former school chums, played by pouty Italian sexpot Raquel Bianca, real-life martial artist Donna Jason and, most notably, Debbie Rochon in an early starring role before she solidified her status as a B-movie horror queen. Both films were shown on USA Up All Night.

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