Saturday, July 29, 2023

When a Stranger Calls / *** (1979)

“When a Stranger Calls” endures primarily for two sequences that bookend a fairly routine middle act. The first, in which a young high school babysitter (Carol Kane) is left alone in a neighbor’s house while a menacing voice hurls ominous warnings over a phone (“I want to feel your blood on me”), is the total summation of a director evoking all the qualities of a thrilling short subject, while the latter manages to play into the same tension as her long ordeal – and the trajectory of the villain – come full circle. But compelled by the success of “Halloween” and the urgings of studio heads who wanted their own slice of the new bloody pie that was teenage slashers, Fred Walton’s material became a full-length feature marred by conflicting values: meandering pacing, unconvincing heroes, implausible setups and a plethora of fairly uninteresting extra characters randomly stuffed in an underwritten screenplay. Yet to watch the film in its entirety is to find an intriguing case study in the differing values of the long and short forms of this medium. Was Walton just too exhausted by wallop of the first and last sequences to really commit himself to something great for a full-length endeavor? The movie is hardly worthless or even insulting – there are, in fact, some passable stuff among all the middle muck – but so brilliant are the opening and closing passages that they deserved more than just an average link in the chain.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Death Proof / *** (2007)

“There are few things as fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful angel.”

There’s little more that can be said of the Tarantino method that hasn’t already been analyzed by countless critics and film historians, but if one were to attempt and condense all his sensibilities into a single opus, “Death Proof” contains just about every trait worth mentioning. Made on a whim along with Robert Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror” as part of their 2007 Grindhouse throwback, the movie is a shameless clash of underground 1970s sensibilities, married by a plot that plays like a spaghetti western and dialogue that has all the sophisticated awareness of blaxploitation. Sometimes, particularly in the slower moments, we sense a twinkle of glee emulating from the material, as if its director has found content that exists just for his sake as opposed to one that he must mold and refine. If the likes of “Kill Bill” or “Django Unchained” are imprinted with his signature, his lone horror film is more like an old tattoo: as much a part of him as he is a part of the culture of underground B-movie shlock that first gave him his creative wings so long ago.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Outwaters / * (2022)

Somewhere in the vacant expanse that is the Mojave desert, four friends with unfledged verbal skills will partake in a sad, confusing ambush in the dark that culminates with lots of screaming and blood splatters, all to be barely spied by a camera lens that is always shooting at unflattering angles while a small flashlight ray attempts to zero in on thoroughly uninteresting findings. That is the central engine behind “The Outwaters,” yet another found footage yarn that comes to us with an even loftier promise: all that is about to happen will defy the very basic notions of this subgenre’s primary formula. Defy it does, but to what end? To confuse and sadden the audience? To get them thinking beyond ordinary horror movie trappings? I would have only welcomed that change. Alas, director Robbie Banfitch, obviously new to the fold of this form of storytelling, finds nothing in the dark other than our collective anger at having been left adrift in a confusing and listless story that ends with few certainties and even fewer solutions. There is nothing to think about on screen, no image to anchor curiosity or theme to create a sense of investment. All that might have been eased by the existence of characters who knew how to discuss their plight, but the movie only gives us simpletons who don’t seem to remember basic emotional cues, much less create a running dialogue about what may be lurking in the shadows of the desert.