Wednesday, December 16, 2009

All the Kind Strangers (1974): or, Ignore Your Better Nature

Horror movies have a lot to teach us. Not just folklore, myths, and legends, but practical stuff, things you can apply to your everyday life. For instance, they teach us you should never be part of a group of people who plan an elaborate prank to embarrass the weirdo in your town/class/camp, since such plans always tragically backfire and lead to your clique's bloody deaths. They teach us that when you're getting threatening calls from a mouth-breathing psycho, they're always coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE. They teach us that whenever you hear a strange noise at night or see a meteor crash nearby, it's NEVER a good idea to go investigate.

But perhaps the biggest, most overwhelming lesson that modern horror movies have to teach us, the one that they come back to again and again as if they can't emphasize the point enough, is this: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Or, as I like to phrase it, "Being nice to other people is for suckers."

That's definitely the take-away lesson from Burt Kennedy's 1974 made-for-TV movie All the Kind Strangers. That, and never make a DVD cover without watching the movie first.

Photojournalist Jimmy Wheeler (the inimitable and un-mustachioed Stacy Keach) is on a cross-country road trip from New York to California, looking for new subjects on which to turn his lens. On a country road five miles from the nearest town he espies a tow-headed waif slogging along the side of the road, toting a bag of groceries almost as big as he is. Loosing the compassion and kindness in his big, beefy heart, Wheeler pulls over and offers the kid a ride to his backwoods home.

"Come on kid, work it! Give it to me!"

The kid's name is Gilbert, and he's happy to accept the ride, pointing the Keachmobile down a bumpy dirt road into the deep dark heart of hillbilly darkness. Wheeler is more worried about the possible damage to his brand-new, SEVEN THOUSAND DOLLAR car occassioned by passing through a shallow creek than he is about the kid's vague, elusive answers to pleasantries about his parents, a materialism and lack of curiosity he'll soon come to regret.

They roll up to the family farmhouse just as a thunderstorm is rolling in, and in gratitude for the ride Gilbert invites Wheeler to stay to supper. Keach declines, ready to get back out on that open road, but the kid is insistent that he come in and meet the family. Said family consists of six other children ranging in age from 5 to 18, the most notable being 15-year-old sharpshooter John (teen heartthrob Robby Benson, who seems to equate "hick accent" with "tardspeech"), 16-year-old Martha (Arlene Farber) , who is mute, pubescent, and horny, and oldest brother Peter (John Savage of The Deer Hunter and Godfather Part III fame), an intense, glowering teen who rules the rest of the family with an iron fist.

"We ARE saying 'cheese'."

Gilbert has already told Wheeler that their mother died birthin' Baby, the youngest ("Ma died when he was born, so he didn't get no other name."), so The Keach is understandably confused when Peter introduces him to "Ma" Carol Ann (Samantha Eggar of The Brood and Demonoid), busy makin' biscuits in the kitchen. Realizing immediately that this hot young lass with an English accent CAN'T be the mother of this particular brood, Wheeler pumps her for info, getting nothing but top-volume pleasantries from the obviously frightened woman. Secret messages in the flour only serve to confirm his (and our) worst fears:

"Help...I'm out of buttermilk!"

Yes, what we have here is basically Children of the Corn meets Texas Chainsaw Babies--the odd, violent, hickish family with no parents has made a habit of kidnapping kind strangers and forcing them into the roles of "Ma" and "Pa," keeping them prisoner with locks on the outside of the bedroom doors and a pack of ominous, snarling hounds who've been trained not to let them leave the property. It's not long before Peter has sunk Wheeler's car in the deepest part of the swimming hole and started encouraging him to discipline the other kids like a good Paw should. The other cars in the water along with a closet full of differently monogrammed clothes lets Wheeler know he can and will be replaced if he refuses to live up to his parental responsibilities.

Director Kennedy does a good job of generating a lot of ominous suspense in the early going here, aided by excellent performances from Keach and Savage. Every word from young Peter's mouth is tinged with barely concealed menace, and as the difficulties of his situation become more and more apparent, Keach vaccilates between fear and outrage, using his Mean Daddy voice to intimidate the kids as much as he can while trying to figure a way out of this mess. Also worth noting is the evocative score by Ronald Frangipane, which effectively juxtaposes country-fried folk tunes with dissonant, Kronos Quartet-style stings to create an oppressive, dangerous-feeling atmosphere. Some nice directorial flourishes (such as hand-held pov shots during Keach's escape attempt) and creepy, shadowy lighting in the old house at night also help matters.

Also interesting, though not developed as much as I personally would have liked, is the tension between Peter and his oldest siblings, John and Martha. The mute sister is clearly in the throes of silent teenage passion, and imprints on Keach as more than a daddy figure, IYKWIM. Her longing gazes over dinner and clear jealousy of Keach's bonding with Eggar are well drawn, and Arlene Farber is to be lauded for creating such a complete, complex character with only facial expressions and body language. And while Benson's performance is a bit clunky and Gomer Pyle-ish for my tastes, his idolization of his older brother and desire to become the man of the house as well ring true.

"Mind if I call you Sugar, Daddy?"

Unfortunately the tension can't be sustained throughout, as the rest of the flick involves no less than three failed escape attempts by Wheeler, who gets lost in the woods and returned by shotgun-bearing Pete and his pack of hellhounds between commercial breaks. The threat of violence, so palpable in the early going, never materializes into anything truly menacing, and when it becomes clear that nobody's going to get offed, the air goes out.

Still, there are a few cool scenes scattered here and there--for instance when Martha sneaks one of Gilbert's pet rattlesnakes into Carol Ann's room in hopes of removing her as sexual competition. Also suitably tense is a 12 Angry Men-style "vote" the children hold to decide whether to keep their new parents or get rid of them and go hunting for newer ones.

Stacy Keach is great here, as he often was--he plays Wheeler as a basically selfish person who's clearly congratulating himself on doing such a nice thing for a kid, only to get angry and confrontational when his kindness is rewarded with kidnapping and imprisonment. The real force in the flick though is Savage, whose steely expression and quietly menacing line deliveries make him a believably deadly villain. Eggar doesn't really bring much to her role here, though, and Robby Benson's "aw shucks" performance is mostly embarrassing (though not as embarrassing as his plaintive vocals on the movie's folksy theme song, which plays over a montage of Peter stalking angrily through the cornfield). The dogs, however, deliver a knockout performance. Them's some scary mutts.

"Not tonight, John-boy. I got a headache."

As usual with made-for-TV fare from the 70s, All the Kind Strangers feels a lot more polished and serious than similar stuff we get nowadays, further cementing my belief that the 70s were the golden age of Straight-to-Network filmmaking. Still, the film's anticlimactic non-ending and lack of any delivery on its meticulously built threat of violence keeps it from attaining the giddy heights of Bad Ronald or This House Possessed. A C-average, 1.5 thumbs rating for this one.

And remember folks--let that little fucker walk home. It's good for him, and better for you.

"No, I don't have a moustache in this flick. Why on earth would I want to grow a moustache?"


Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying the difference between DVD Cover Keach and 1974 Keach, because I thought he must have looked a heck of alot younger if the movie came out in the 70's (I think the cover looks like it's from the late 90's early 00's, maybe!). LOVE the breakdown of 'things we learn NOT to do from horror movies." Stopping by a houseful of kids in the middle of nowhere with no momma is certainly going in my rule handbook!

The Duke of DVD said...

I see that the theorem I postulated decades ago still holds true: Any film with Stacy Keach in it is not only worth watching, it is a must-watch.

I also see that my newly-invented theorem that says any movie consisting of mute, pubescent and horny teens will undoubtedly be reviewed by the Vicar is holding true right out of the gate.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Nicole--indeed, both The Keach and John Savage are considerably older in the cover art than in the film--both even have different hair colors! The house reflected on the knife blade looks like the one in the actual movie, though, so I can only assume the dvd artist thought he or she was "improving" things.

I'd be interested to hear some of the other things people have learned from watching horror movies. "Don't Go In the House," "Don't Look in the Basement," "Don't Answer the Phone"--all sage advice. I wonder if there was ever a horror flick entitled "Keep Your Feet Off the Furniture"?

Anonymous said...

Following are 3 rules of general safety I've picked up from my otherwise mis-spent hours engrossed in horror movies. I think you'll agree that each is indeed sage advice. See if you can identify the movie that inspired each.

1. Never, ever inject dead things or girlfriends with glowing green fluids -- even when it seems like a good idea at the time.

2. It is most strenuously advised that all uptight Christians abstain from visiting island enclaves of practicing pagan agricultural professionals in the year following low crop yields.

3. Immediately following a traffic accident, underdressed Italian actresses should carefully circumvent remote country villas. If confronted by "evil twin/alternate universe" versions of themselves, all parties to said accident are advised to depart the vicinity immediately and proceed to a place of known safety, or another movie.

Anonymous said...

Geo -- I especially like #2 in your list about Christians visiting pagan communities!

The rule I've learned is that if the house you just bought loses money, attracts and absurd amount of flies, and makes you or anyone in your family think the're seeing dead people -- leave it. Now.

Also, if the new guy/girl next door is incredibly attractive but either disappears during the full moon OR only comes out at night, has strangers come over that never leave, and weird dining habits, they're either a werewolf or a vampire and you should never spy on/stalk them or get involved in their business.

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