Tag Archives: Donald Pleasence

Phenomena (1985)

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There is one great moment in Phenomena, Dario Argento’s frustratingly Schizophrenic fright flick. In this sequence, which stands head and shoulders above the rest in an otherwise incomprehensible movie, a pet chimpanzee named Inga rushes to warn her human daddy John (Donald Pleasence) that a killer has broke into his house. Alas, John is paraplegic, and as he slides down the stairs on his device built for wheelchairs to let the poor simian in, the killer, cloaked in shadow, pushes the button on the control panel to trap  him on the staircase.

It’s a tense moment, punctuated by the screams of the frightened ape. But the rest of the movie is a shoddy mess, with jarring metal music and terrible acting. This is my first Dario Argento horror film. Maybe I should have started with something else? There are times that Phenomena is so bizarrely put together, like a pastiche of hellish themes and images, that is almost becomes so bad it’s good. Almost. Argento had an amazing idea, but it’s ultimately all for naught. Could this be a classic horror movie actually in need for a remake? Purists would shudder to think of this film being refurbished, but I think it is actually a distinct possibility.

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Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly, in a very poor performance) is a teenaged schoolgirl neglected by her wealthy actor father. She is sent to boarding school at the beginning, and while she might seem like your everyday debutante with too much money on her hands and not enough to do with it, she is anything but ordinary. Firstly, she is much more down-to-earth than the other girls in the academy, but that is not what sets her apart. Jennifer can communicate telepathically with insects, and this might come in handy with a serial killer on the loose. With girls dropping like flies (no pun intended), Jennifer befriends John (Pleasence,) an entomologist studying the part bugs play in the decomposition of corpses. Not creepy at all, right? He also has a pet monkey, who’s kind of important, as she turns out to be much more deserving of the title ‘hero’ than Connelly is.

Phenomena has an abundance of imaginative images and ideas, but ultimately it comes off as an unintentional comedy. Part of this is the acting; while Pleasence is competent at his craft as always Connelly can barely deliver her lines in a convincing manner and the rest of the cast is  just terrible. Heavy metal songs by artists such as Iron Maiden and Motorhead cut into the action at the most unsuitable times, and the film has a definite MTV vibe to it. You practically expect Beavis and Butthead to be commentating in the background. Yeah, Jennifer Connelly is… hot. Motorhead is… cool. Uh-huh-huh. In fact, America’s two favorite idiots would be easier to take seriously than this movie. Forget how powerful Connelly was in Requiem for a Dream. Watching her here is positively painful. It’s like seeing the ass-to-ass scene from Requiem a billion times back-to back. You just want to cry for her. And not because of her aptitude for the craft, either.

The last twenty minutes are almost worth watching just for the crazy turns the plot takes, but they’re not enough to sit through a hole-filled, badly acted, and yes, boring story. Why is this school open when girls are constantly dropping dead? Why does John send Jennifer to find the killer all by herself? Why does the killer kill? No seriously, did someone just happen to overlook the villain’s motivation? Why can Jennifer talk to insects but not larvae? Why does the little boy look like that? The reason for all of these, of course, is because. Because that’s the loony-ass direction the plot takes. Terrible actors, dated music video-style sequences, characters we don’t give a damn about; Phenomena is a muddled mess. It’s high point is that it should provide some unintentional comedy for undiscerning viewers. No wonder the ape was the only one I liked.

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The Great Escape (1963)

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For top-notch wartime action and intrigue, look no further. Even if the ending is a bit of a bummer.

250 men, one elaborate plan; to get the hell out of dodge. The Great Escape is set in a P.O.W. camp in 1943, where hundreds of American and English soldiers are being held indefinitely in the clutch of the  Luftwaffe, a organization originating from Nazi Germany. The men are restless; they are surviving under passable conditions, with livable (if meager) accommodations, but they want to see their families, their wives, their children. moreover, they want to raise some Hell and their refusal to live the servile existence of cattle costs them dearly in the long run.

When a RAF Squadron Leader by the name of Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) with a staggering number of escape attempts under his belt arrives in Stalag Luft III, the P.O.W. camp to end all P.O.W. Camps (guaranteed to contain even the most uncontainable prisoners,) he and stoic resident troublemaker Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) set about quick to forming an escape plan. They and a mass percentage of the prisoners begin to dig a massive hole that will hopefully bring them into the forest outside the camp, and then, hopefully, to freedom. But escape turns out to be harder than they had anticipated. And then there’s that one guy Danny (Charles Bronson) who’s Kryptonite is enclosed spaces; a really inconvenient affliction for a man who’s going to crawl through a long, impossibly tight tunnel to escape captivity to have. On the up side, he’s got his right-hand man and inseparable bosom friend Willie (John Leyton) (though they appear to be more than friends, if you ask me, but that’s just me picking up on subtext *wink*) to help out.

   The Great Escape is almost three hours but it’s still worth watching, just pick a time to view it when you don’t have any other engagements for a good while. What makes it such a good movie is partly that they find important jobs to do even for people who seem initially useless. Take Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) a adorably British birdwatcher and tea drinker whose vision is quickly failing. Turns out mild-mannered Blythe is a pretty good forger and when his sight completely fails, leaving him blind and helpless in a wartime situation, his good friend Hendley (James Garner) takes up the reigns for him and helps smuggle him out of the camp. But even as Hendley leads the virtually sightless Blythe around German towns and landscapes, Blythe is not a burden, because no one would have gotten past square one without his clever forgeries. Everyone, even the men with challenges or who seemingly have nothing going for them, become an asset to the collective.

The movie also has an excellent ensemble cast and seems relatively short at about two hours forty minutes. It’s not as good as Pulp Fiction in that regard (… Fiction being the only movie over two hours I can sit and watch again and again and that will seemingly be over in no time at all). In a world where some eighty minute movies feel like they’re going on for interminable hours, The Great Escape just zips by due to it’s great writing and compelling plot. There is also some actual thought put into the characters (a rarity in adventure films) and they come off as distinct and fresh. The Nazi characters aren’t cartoon villains; there was even one (Robert Graf) who I felt quite sorry for at times (!)

The majority of them are doing their best with the roles given to them in a long, bloody war, they just happen to be fighting for the wrong side. There’s a moment when Graf’s character, Werner, says regretfully that he was taken out of the boy scouts, which he thoroughly enjoyed, to join the Hitler Youth and you are reminded that not every person fighting on one side of a war is a crazy extremist. Think the Confederates in the Civil War were a bunch of slave-owning racists and the union soldiers were saints? Think again! It’s emotionally dishonest to claim any one ‘side’ in a war is the devil incarnate. The Great Escape respects that in that for every evil Nazi in this movie there is another dude who wants to go home almost as much as the P.O.W.’s do.

Although The Great Escape is an old movie, it hasn’t aged a bit since it’s release in 1963. Some films start feeling old or irrelevant in their handling of themes (Hitchcock’s films are a great example, for me anyway) but The Great Escape kept people on the edge of their seat then and it will still keep people on the edge of their seat now wondering how these guys will turn out. There’s that harrowing iconic scene with Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle over a barbed wire fence and lots of suspenseful moments (like Pleasence and Garner attempting to escape from the soldiers by airplane.)

The only reason I can think of that people really wouldn’t like this movie is that society has very short attention span nowadays. It’s quite a long movie. Don’t watch it if your in a rush to just pop the DVD in, see the movie, and then pull it out in ninety minutes flat. It’s got a big, multi layered story with a ton of characters (I couldn’t even identify some of the main characters by the end of the movie,) it’s meant to be absorbed, taken seriously. Apparently this is based on a true story; I can’t think of a better way to honor the men who participated in this elaborate escape than the making of this movie. And considering all the biopics that exploit their subject matter, that is saying something.

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Halloween (1978)

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It may seem unconventional to review a slasher movie called Halloween in the midst of the Yuletide season, but I’ve never been much good at these things, so please, bear with me.

On Halloween night fifteen years ago, a six-year-old boy and very sick cookie named Michael Myers stabbed his older sister to death with a steak knife. Cut to present day, it’s Halloween once more, and Myers is on the prowl again, returning to his native town of Haddonfield, Illinois in search of new blood. The only thing that stands between brainy teen Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and unspeakable evil is the dedicated shrink Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence.) Loomis thinks Myers is sick, incurably sick and he’s determined to stop him from killing again if it’s the last thing he does.

Of course, a killer in a film has to have victims, and these are helpfully provided by Laurie’s ditzy, slutty friends (Nancy Kyes and P.J. Soles,) who go down in a classic scream queen fashion- usually partially or entirely undressed. What Myers didn’t count on was Laurie being a startlingly formidable opponent and knitting needle-assassin, doing her best to keep herself and the kids she’s babysitting (Kyle Richards and Bryan Andrews) alive while Loomis rushes to get there in time.

  Halloween has an absurdly simple premise and it’s done on a modest budget, but it’s one of the most successful horror movies of all time. Why? Well, John Carpenter’s sleeper has a few killer tricks up it’s sleeve, including spooky cinematography, a chilling score, and an extraordinary final girl in Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. It lacks the graphic gore and  showy bodily dismemberment of it’s peers, doing well by keeping most of the carnage to your imagination.

Rather than being a fallible human  opponent or tragic victim of childhood mistreatment (as he is portrayed in Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of the same name,) Michael Myers is a unstoppable force of nature- an entity of almost supernatural evil who is determined to kill… and kill again, no matter how many bullets and sharp implements pierce his malevolent hide.

Poor, long-suffering Loomis has his work cut out for him- and his toil continues for an extensive line of sequels. Myers’ unbeatable and ambiguous nature makes him both a fresh and terrifying villain and a bit of an annoying plot device; a villain who can’t be killed puts Loomis and Strode in a kind of a frustrating position, and the audience in a bit of a bind themselves- what the hell is he? That odd bit of uncanny might be invigorating for some horror fans, but for me it kind of boggled my mind in a bad way, and I tended to annoyance at his invincibility and often wanted to scream “Die, you fuck, Die!” at my big-screen TV.

However, Halloween is a shining reminder that you can make a superior movie with an inferior budget. The actors shine (with the frustrating exception of Nancy Kyes as the more aggravating of Laurie’s two friends, who’s mannered inflection and practiced flaky attitude in the stuff of nightmares.)

    Halloween has it’s truly creepy moments and the film managed to introduce three iconic characters- Myers, Strode, and Loomis, who is dedicated to cleaning up a shitstain of a situation- somebody has to- but is not without his moments of humor, like when he stands outside the Myers house and scares the crap out of some adolescent boys; just for funsies (!)

   Halloween isn’t the best or scariest horror movie of all time, but it’s a vital addition to a genre that doesn’t always contain the most high quality or intelligent movies. For all it’s slashings and demented antics from a masked, seemingly motiveless killer, it is a smart film; it knows what scares you, and incorporates those fears into an utterly ordinary suburban environment, where nice middle class citizens work and play.

The idea, of course, is that if it happened to them, it could happen to you; a chilling concept partially or totally absent from horror films with more fantastical elements. If you have a soft spot for horror but don’t like loads of blood and Hostel style torture over atmosphere and restrained terror, look no further than John Carpenter’s spooky classic, the sleeper that defined a genre. No horror fan’s collection is complete without the movie that started it all.

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