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.
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.
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.
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.
And remember folks--let that little fucker walk home. It's good for him, and better for you.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
"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.
"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.