Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

People Across the Lake, The (1988) (TV)

... aka: Al di là del lago (Beyond the Lake)
... aka: People from Across the Lake, The

Directed by:
Arthur Allan Seidelman

Neurotic real estate agent Rachel Yoman (Valerie Harper) returns home at dark after a long day at work. She puts in her security code both before and after entering the door, because when you live in a big city you have to have a security system. She then is pretty much ignored by the rest of her family. Her corporate husband Chuck (Gerald McRaney) is always on the phone or has his head buried in the paper and any romantic spark that once was in their relationship has vanished. Her young son Stevie (Gregory Togel) is always in his room listening to rock music. And her teenage daughter Lisa (Tammy Lauren) has the usual teenage daughter bad attitude and refers to her mother as “pathetic” while recommending she see a shrink because she thinks her boyfriend drives too fast. All Rachel wants is to unwind in a nice, hot bath... except the bathtub is filthy because no one's bothered cleaning it. To top off her glorious day, she catches someone peeping in her bathroom window and hits the security alarm. In minutes, their home is swarming with police and pointing neighbors. The problem? Well, the peeper was just an elderly neighbor who claims to have accidentally locked himself out of his house.

Having grown up in a small lake town in the Midwest, big city life in L.A. isn't treating Rachel too well. She's sick of traffic jams, smog, the noise, the thieves, the murderers... And Chuck, who is from the city and should be used to it, is starting to feel the same way and in need of a big change. Against their daughter's objections, the two purchase a waterfront fixer-upper in the small rural town of Lake Tomahawk situated around a large, picturesque lake. Chuck plans on starting a “windsurfing board” business there to cash in on the vacationing tourist crowd who frequent the area. Not long after moving into their new place, the couple start thinking they've made a big mistake moving... especially after Chuck goes for a swim and ends up with a severed arm dangling over his shoulder. Yet when he goes to retrieve the Sheriff (Thomas Peacocke) and returns to the scene where he left the arm, it's suddenly gone.

Denizens of Lake Tomahawk are a mixture of friendly yokels and menacing, weird rednecks who seem to be hiding some kind of secret. They're first warmly welcomed by Malcolm Bryce (Barry Corbin), who shows up to cook them fish and is perhaps a bit too friendly. Rachel is befriended by gossipy ice cream parlor owner Ruth Mortimer (Dorothy Lyman), who clues her in about all the shady types in the area. She makes special mention of Henry Link (Daryl Anderson), a crazed war vet and hermit who doesn't hesitate to pull his gun and threaten to shoot whoever wanders onto his property, as Rachel and Chuck eventually find out. But Ruth's husband Duane (Gary Bisig) and his buddy Eli (Frank C. Turner) really aren't any better and keep trying to bully the family out of town with thinly veiled threats.

Though most of the local law enforcement aren't helpful, Malcolm's nephew, Deputy John (Jeff Kizer), reluctantly tells them that people have been regularly disappearing there for the past fifteen years. Sometimes a body or body part turns up in the lake. Sometimes nothing does. There's some talk about locals being hush hush about everything because they're scared of driving away tourists but one thing's for certain: A killer's been on the loose there for quite some time and no one's really done anything about it. But the Yoman family don't let that little detail keep them from enjoying life! The daughter and son both frequently go out into the woods at night to go camping. The mom takes the son canoeing. And when mom and dad go for a jog and he pulls her aside for a little outdoor nookie, the two are hilariously interrupted by the presence of a rotten corpse.

Writer Dalene Young tries to use a flimsy financial excuse to explain why Chuck and Rachel don't immediately leave town but that's pretty much bullshit. Any decent parent would get their kids out of there ASAP or send them off to live with a friend or relative or something. Ya know, cause there's a killer around and the kids, ya know, could be killed, especially if you're anything like these parents and have no issue with your children wandering around in the woods at all hours of the day or night. Instead, mom decides to play detective and even goes over her possible suspect list with her own children... while they're hanging Christmas decorations! The family begin to sense that someone's been sneaking into their house while they're gone, too, but that doesn't stop them from a smiley, happy family photo sessions montage a scene later. It takes a bloody corpse turning up next to the Pop Tarts in their pantry for them to finally start packing boxes.

What makes a lot of the nonsense above more palatable is that there's a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone to this whole thing and a few lines poking direct fun at how implausible some of the character actions are and thus the writer appears as clued in to the absurdities of much as most viewers will be. So while this is silly and sometimes flat out dumb, there's still enough entertaining stuff going on here (including an over-the-top finale) to make it at least mildly enjoyable. The acting is fine (I found Harper's constant shrieking - she really seems into this - pretty hilarious) and it's also slightly more bloody, violent and twisted than I was expecting for a made-for-TV movie from this time.

Even though he's won a number of major awards over the course of his career (including several Emmy's), and likely much to his own displeasure, director Seidelman is probably best known for Hercules in New York (1970), the notoriously awful film debut of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also made the genre films Echoes (1982) and The Caller (1987). After debuting on NBC in 1988, this was never released on home video here in the U.S., though it was elsewhere. There were VHS releases in the UK, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, all on the RCA/Columbia label. The copy I watched had Dutch subtitles.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Creepshow 2 (1987)

... aka: Creepshow II

Directed by:
Michael Gornick

The EC Comics-inspired anthology Creepshow (1982) was a modest hit in theaters and did good business on home video and TV, so it was inevitable much of the same team would return for a sequel. This was once again produced by Richard P. Rubinstein and Laurel Entertainment. Tom Savini again helped work on the effects and appears in a cameo, though primary makeup fx duties were assigned to Howard Berger, Greg Nicotero and Ed French (Savini was merely a consultant). Original Creepshow director George A. Romero is back, but this time only as a writer and, again, adapting Stephen King short stories, two of which had not yet been published. Unlike the original, which contained five tales plus linking segments and ran two hours, this one only contains three stories and links and runs an hour-and-a-half, though five tales were originally planned. One of the discarded stories (“The Cat from Hell”) was later used for TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE (1990) instead. Tapped to direct this time was longtime Romero collaborator Gornick, who had shot earlier GAR hits like DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and the original Creepshow. This would be Gornick's feature directorial debut, though he'd directed four episodes of Laurel's Tales from the Darkside TV series earlier.

First up is “Old Chief Wood'nhead.” After thirty years running a general store in Dead River near an Indian reservation, elderly Ray Spruce's (George Kennedy) wife Martha (Dorothy Lamour) thinks it's time to finally close up shop. For starters, paying customers are few and far between in the dying desert town. But mostly, the poor locals are purchasing things on credit and have yet to pay them back. Indian chief Ben Whitemoon (Frank Salsedo) shows up with a collection of valuables from his people for them to hold as collateral, but that glimmer of hope is extinguished when Ben's arrogant grandson Sam (Holt McCallany) and a couple of his buddies (Don Harvey, David Holbrook) break in to rob them so they can run off to Hollywood. Both Ray and Martha are needlessly killed in the process. What the robbers don't count on is the wooden storefront Indian chief miraculously springing to life and enacting revenge with arrows, a tomahawk and scalping.

Tale #2 is “The Raft.” Four pot-smoking college kids (Daniel Beer, Jeremy Green, Paul Satterfield and Page Hannah, sister of Daryl) take a trip out to a scenic country lake, which has a grounded raft in the middle. They decide to brave the cold and swim out there to, uh, smoke more weed, I guess, and then find themselves trapped by a flat black creature they describe as looking like a giant oil slick but I describe as looking like a giant garbage bag. Properties of the creature are comparable to The Blob in that it can ooze between cracks and such and then quickly dissolve victims with an acidic substance. One-by-one the “teens” manage to get themselves killed. What this leaves out of the story that would have helped some in the plausibility department (especially with the first kill) is that the creature possesses a mesmeric quality using kaleidoscopic light that it uses to entrance victims.

Finally, we get “The Hitch-Hiker.” Wealthy, adulterous housewife Annie Lansing (Lois Chiles) oversleeps at her lover's place and must rush home late one night so her controlling lawyer husband doesn't get suspicious. On the way there, she loses control of her car after dropping a lit cigarette and accidentally runs over a man (Tom Wright) on the side of the road wearing a raincoat. Instead of helping or going to the cops, she decides to speed on home and pretend like nothing happened. But, much to her horror, the hideously bloodied victim doesn't leave her with that option when he returns from the grave to settle the score.

None of these three tales are really standouts. The first is entirely predictable and basically just zips through three kills (two of which are off-screen) in a non-suspenseful fashion after the initial premise is set up. The second is burdened by a silly / cheap-looking monster, bad acting and unlikable characters. The third gets repetitious and monotonous before it ends. But each story does at least have some merit, especially the Indian design in the first, some good gory / gooey kills in the second and plenty of blood (the undead hitcher gets shot repeatedly, run over and backed over countless times and even has his head smashed against a tree) and Chiles' performance in the third.

Romero's script somehow manages to represent both the best and worst of his screen-writing abilities. The goons in the first story – just like the military men in his DAY OF THE DEAD – are insufferably obnoxious and irritatingly over-the-top. There are better ways to make us hate people than have them maniacally cackle, scream all of their dialogue and overact. On the flip side, this has some instances of unexpectedly witty banter, like the conversation between Annie and her paid gigolo lover (David Beecroft) that opens the third segment. The last story also features King in a cameo as a dimwitted truck driver.

As far as the direction is concerned, Gornick is certainly no match for Romero. The original had a real comic book flair to it thanks to colorful presentation, vibrant lighting and clever use of comic book frames throughout. In between the stories here we mostly get some cheap animation featuring a Crypt Keeper-like “Creep” (voiced by Joe Silver) making macabre comments and a little boy named Billy who religiously reads Creepshow and lures some bullies into a trap where they get eaten by giant, carnivorous plants. Though these bits are OK they're simply not as stylish or memorable as the visual presentation used by Romero in the original. However, to be fair, the original also had twice the budget this film had.

While this didn't completely bomb in theaters (making 14 million on a 3.5 million budget), it didn't come close to matching the success of the first and thus did not prompt other Creepshow theatrical features. In 2006, Ana Clavell and James Glenn Dudelson made the much cheaper and much hated Creepshow 3 after making another unofficial, even more hated Romero “sequel:” Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (2005). You're better off pretending those two don't even exist. There's been talk of a “reboot” for years now but nothing has happened.

A soundtrack album of Les Reed and Rick Wakeman's score is available through Waxwork Records. Also available on the Divimax Special Edition DVD is the 32-minute documentary Nightmares in Foam Rubber, which features lots of behind-the-scenes footage plus interviews with Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger about their fx work on the film. They also discuss Ed French either quitting or being fired (they're a bit vague about it) and how Nicotero should have received his fx credit as he did more of the actual work. It's also revealed that Patricia Tallman (soon to star in Savini's remake of Night of the Living Dead) played Hannah's role during her entire death scene as the lake water was so frigid they needed a stunt woman.

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