Wicked Wendesday

Wicked Wednesday: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

My parents instilled a great love for classic movies in me. My dad Hitchcock, and my mom the classic musicals and dance numbers of Fred Astaire.

Somehow, in this post-world war film, we manage to merge both things.

The Spiral Staircase is a classic of gothic film. It’s beautiful in its dark candle-lit scenes and period costumes. But even more interesting is it’s fantastic imagery that verges on experimental.

The story is one done many times since: Helen, a selective-mute woman must defend herself in a threatening world. When a crazed serial killer goes after women with “afflictions”, she appears to be next.

Much of the film’s plot revolves around men telling her what to do. Leave the house, don’t leave the house. But many have their own motives. The elderly woman she cares for seems to know more information than she’s unwilling to share with Helen.

The story weaves in and out of dream sequences (including a beautiful dance number) and sinister visuals of close-ups of eyes and people lurking in shadows. It’s slightly jarring, but is a great way of seeing into Helen’s psyche: isolated, threatened, and yet dreaming of having a perfectly lovely life.

The mystery unfolds beautifully, and though slightly-predictable, is still thrilling to watch.

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Wicked Wednesday: The Night Dracula Saved the World (1979)

I caved into Halloween mania early this year. I say ‘early’ but really, Halloween season always begins on August 1st. But around the Brits I have to pretend to be sensible when really my whole house is decked out.

It’s been a super manic week, so watching something like The Night That Dracula Saved the World was exactly what I needed.

The made-for TV short film originally aired on ABC as The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t. It’s a much-more apt name than the VHS title, but a name will sell anything these days, right?

The story is a strange mash-up of everything you’d find at a cheesy Halloween party and a lesson about the origins of the holiday. Dracula has called a conference at his castle in Transylvania with all the other monsters. Before they arrive, he and Igor watch the news together, in which a newscaster claims that Dracula wants to end Halloween.

Dracula is offended (“Halloween is my national holiday!”), but he allows the conference to go forward anyway. When all of the guests arrive, they learn that Dracula called them together to warn them that they are no longer scary to children.

The other guests seem pretty offended, but the Witch reveals she simply doesn’t give a crap. She announces to the group that she quits, and will be refusing to fly across the moon on Halloween night – the action that sets off Halloween (apparently). She tells the others that she’s tired of the ugly girl jokes, and she really just wanted to be the leader of the monsters.

Dracula refuses, and the witch flies off to her home. Dracula and the other monsters follow her the next night, and break in believing she doesn’t have any magic.

But she’s a witch, so of course the lady has magic. She sends the others running in circles before locking herself safely in her room. Dracula tries to reason with her, offering to agree to her conditions: her face will be on the monster posters, she’ll have shared leadership of the monsters, and to go disco dancing every night.

Dracula agrees, but the Witch immediately redacts her agreement to fly over the moon. But when a pair of local children arrive, they tug at her heartstrings, reminding her of the true meaning behind Halloween: candy and costumes.

The Witch agrees to the children’s pleas and flies over the moon to mark the start of Halloween. Afterwards, the monsters all have a disco. And why? Because this short is clearly insane.

The Night Dracula Saved the World is a really cute piece of nostalgia. The costumes are a bit hokey, as if they were bought from a costume shop, but it’s all really sweet, weirdly. It’s apparently a holiday staple for a lot of kids who watched it on the original ABC run and later on the Disney Channel during the 80s and early 90s. And I can see why, the random-ass disco in the end might be my favourite thing I’ve ever seen in a Halloween movie.

This is the perfect little 25-minute movie to put anyone in the Halloween spirit. Watch it, disco, and keep on thinkin’.

Wicked Wednesday: Dead of Night (1945)

I had heard a lot about Dead of Night before watching it. It is a much-loved British film that makes it on to many ‘best of horror’ lists. To be honest, I was pretty convinced I was going to love it. Tell me it’s an influence for Twilight Zone and I’m sold. But it’s the right era of film I like, and I do love a well-done anthology.

But with most things that are heavily hyped, it’s almost always a disappointment. Dead of Night is pretty entertaining in it’s separate parts, but doesn’t work completely as a whole.

The framing story revolves around a group of people at a farm a house belonging to a psychologist. An architect arrives, saying he already has seen the people and the house in his dreams. The man, Walter Craig, continues to unsettle the people by making predictions that come true.

Psychologist Elliot Foley doesn’t believe Craig, so the other guests share their own stories of the supernatural.

A race car driver tells his story of how a ‘dream’ of a man in a horse-drawn hearse saved him from getting on a bus that crashes. A young girl talks about seeing a ghost at Christmas.

There’s a story about a haunted mirror that possesses others, and one about a man who haunts his former-friend after they argue over a woman.

The last story is probably the most creepy just because it’s about a ventriloquist and his dummy. Everyone hates ventriloquist dummies, and this is probably a source of that all.

There’s a nice twist at the end, which makes watching the entire film worth it. I personally enjoyed the race car driver’s story the best. The hearse bit reminded me of Burnt Offerings, so it’s pretty easy to see how influential this film was.

The golf buddy story is pretty silly. It’s comedic tone doesn’t blend very well with the others. There is some very good atmosphere at times, but doesn’t carry through the entire movie.

It’s a classic for a reason, though. And I imagine it will impress and entertain most classic movie fans. For me, the biggest sin was failing to make me feel anything at all.

Wicked Wednesday: Down a Dark Hall (2018)

Give yourself four weeks of terrible movies, and eventually it pays off.

Down a Dark Hall is the latest attempt to adapt one of Lois Duncan’s thrillers into a film. And this is my far the most successful at capturing Duncan’s intended message and tone.

Young Kit is a “special” girl, who is probably more trouble than she’s worth. She gets into trouble, claims things no one else believes, and refuses to let her therapy work. As a last resort, her mother and step-father sent her to Blackwood Boarding School. She and four other girls (all trouble in their own ways) are introduced to a world of art, mathematics, literature and music.

Initially, they’re all as talented as most teenagers – not at all. They struggle through their complex work, but soon enough certain girls begin to show an affinity for certain subjects. Izzy suddenly becomes a math genius, despite admitting that she nearly failed algebra the previous year. Sierra takes to painting, and Ashley takes on the writing skills of Romantic poet. Kit herself becomes a bit of a piano protégé under the tutelage of the super-hottie Jules, the son of Blackwood’s headmistress Madame Duret.

Slowly the girls become obsessed with their work, but Kit senses something isn’t quite right. She begins losing large chunks of her memory, finding herself at the piano when she can’t remember how she got there.

One night, Ashley screams in her room, and when the girls find her, she’s panicking, saying “Elizabeth” wasn’t with her anymore, but a man. When going to Ashley’s aid, Kit sees a figure disappear into the shadows in a corner. She then admits to the girls that she had a vision of seeing her father on the night he died.

The girls, excluding the extra-dour Veronica, all admit to having similar paranormal experiences. And at that point, things at Blackwood only get worse.

Kit and Veronica eventually team up to research Duret’s past. They learn that the girls are being used as vessels so that long-dead artists and great-thinkers can use their bodies to continue their work.

But even when Kit confronts Madame Duret about it, some of the girls are okay with it, finding ‘fulfillment’ for the first time. Though those girls are hardly aware that their bodies and minds will be used up without their permission.

The conclusion is a bit silly (though I’ll leave that out), but I think the first three-quarters of the film are pretty great. I was still surprised by it, despite having read the book. The twist still stands up and remains a feminist allegory.

Down a Dark Hall is easily the best adaptation of a Lois Duncan novel (yes, perhaps even dethroning Summer of Fear). It manages to update Duncan’s 1974 novel without sacrificing anything the story was truly about. Yes there are ghostly things occurring here, but this is ultimately about a girl learning she deserves to have full autonomy over her body.

Yes it can be a bit silly (it does come off as Twilight-era at times). I certainly wouldn’t call it perfect, but it does work with it’s own magic. Director Rodrigo Cortés does a wonderful job of creating a gothic atmosphere inside Blackwood. Much of this can be attributed to the absolutely stunning piano numbers from Víctor Reyes. Like nearly all of these adaptations of Lois Duncan’s novels, It throws in a higher body count than its source material. But it does make every death have some sort of weight, and it actually works.

This might fall into the “guilty pleasures” category. That is, if I believed in such a thing as that.

Wicked Wednesday: I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer (2006)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call ‘a bit of a reach’. But when it comes to Lois Duncan adaptations, I pretty much refuse to watch I Know What You Did Last Summer ever again. I’ve been that movie too many times, especially for something I don’t even like.

But we’ll skip I Still Know… and jump to this direct-to-DVD sequel that’s essentially a reboot/rehash of the first film. To begin with, I Know What You Did Last Summer isn’t very true to the source material. The use of the Fisherman urban myth and the slasher-style is completely unique to the film. Well, I say unique but this is a kindness to the film, but you get what I mean.

Since Lois Duncan month has gone as badly as it could have gone, why not watch a film with a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Is it possible to enjoy watching yourself burn?

I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer is exactly what you’d expect. I mean, exactly. No surprises here. There are even less surprises considering it plays so much into the previous films’ formula so much.

A group of kids spend their last summer together before some go off to college. Yes they’re all irritating. No they don’t have personalities beyond their stereotype’s calling card. The group all go to the local carnival, where local idiot Colby tells the legend of the Fisherman. As the group of friends walk around the carnival, they’re attacked by a man with a hook in a slicker.

On of the friends, PJ, manages to get cornered by the Fisherman on the roof. He dives off, seemingly dead.

ONLY IT’S A PRANK, GUYS! And the five friends are all in on it. Hilarious! Only not so hilarious when they realise that the prank has gone wrong. Instead of landing on the stack of mattresses, PJ lands right on a pipe. Some sort of convoluted thinking leads the remaining four to all agree never to tell anyone about the prank! Even though it would obviously be ok. They wouldn’t get manslaughter or anything. They’re apparently all worried that the whole town will hate them but they hate the town so what does it even fucking matter!?

The film jumps to a year later. And we all know that means every one will be dead before the end of the week. Amber is our head girl. She receives the obligatory “I know what you did last summer” text, and runs around the gather up the gang. But the gang aren’t so chummy anymore. The death of their friend and their secret have come between them.

And then, you basically know how this is going to go. They all get picked off one-by-one in vaguely interesting ways. Leaving just the final girl and her boy. But in a kind of weird twist, the Fisherman is revealed to just be the Fisherman from the other movies. And he’s supernatural now – literally becoming the legend. So he’s Michael Myers level of invincible, which is such a bad choice.

The film is even lazy enough to wrap up the same way as the other films. A “oh god she’s not going to live” jump scare at the end. Definitely didn’t see that one coming…

Anyway, I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer is bad but at least it meets expectations. It’s more boring than anything. It tries so hard to find into the formula that it makes itself pretty much redundant. It also commits the usual sins – namely filling in those plot holes. Like why is the Fisherman in Colorado? There isn’t even a lake!

I won’t even bring poor Lois Duncan into this. But I can say I’m pretty happy to be reaching the end of this ‘Lois Duncan month’. It’s been terrible. Really terrible. 

On a different note. My favourite thing about this movie is probably the DVD cover. For one, it weirdly admits one of the main actors. Was he really that embarrassed that he didn’t want to be seen? There’s just some random chick instead. I assume she’s some girl who appears in the beginning of the film? Either way, she really serves no purpose in the film and really shouldn’t be on the cover.

And clearly, who ever did the photo editing really hated Torrey DeVitto. Poor girl. But at least she’s so unrecognizable that she can just keep claiming that she was never in this film to be begin with.

Wicked Wednesday: Held for Ransom (2000)

“It can’t get any worse,” she thought. Oh but it did, it did.

Held for Ransom is pretty much a culmination of things I hate in movies. The era, the dialogue, the setting, the characters. Dennis Hopper and Debi Mazar are in it. They should be two saving graces, but they’re especially terrible in this. I believed in you, Dennis, and you only let me down.

In fairness, this is probably the first direct-to-video movie I’ve watched for Wicked Wednesday. They’re a different sort of beast to made-for-TV. Not that there is anything wrong with that (though it usually is a mark of quality), but it was ‘distributed’ by Blockbuster Video. What does that even mean? Don’t they technically distribute everything they rent out?

Anyway, from the title alone you can guess the premise, plot and ending. A bunch of spoiled/stupid kids are on the school bus home when they realise they are being kidnapped. They are held for ransom by a couple (Hopper and Mazar) who keep them holed up in a cabin in a swamp.

The parents of the children are forced to scrape together the ransom money. None of the children are to be released until the ransom has been paid for each child. The teens do make their attempts to escape, but they aren’t very bright, so they keep getting caught.

Jesse is the main character. Sort of. She narrates the film occasionally, but she’s not very memorable. That’s mostly because she’s poorly written and actually doesn’t even much screen time. When she kisses a boy at the end, I’m mostly just forced to guess what boy it is because they all look pretty much the same. They have zero chemistry and about three lines together.

ROMANCE!

The kids eventually get out. Surprise. There’s a tiny little twist at the end where one of the dads ends up being in on the kidnap plot. He tells his daughter that she wasn’t meant to be on the bus. The real target didn’t get on the bus that day because she was with her boyfriend.

While it’s kind of a fun twist, it’s pretty poorly thrown together. And again, I was mostly asking myself who the hell is this guy? 

Very little is done in general to make you care about the characters. Probably because there are so many of them. Between the kidnappers, the parents and the teens there’s a pretty big cast. I could understand where a book version would be easier to follow because you could remember names. The background stories given to most people in the film is pretty basic, and thus pretty difficult to remember.

There’s also very little suspense for a thriller. Heck, they don’t even kill anyone off! If you’re going to go down this ‘edgy’ route with a Lois Duncan adaptation – fucking commit!

Ransom was first published in 1966 and was Duncan’s first thriller novel. It’s not one I’ve personally read, but it’s pretty safe to say that this adaptation was probably not what Duncan had in mind when writing this book.

It’s garish, crude, and has a pretty poorly written script. There is no trace of Duncan’s style anywhere on this film. I imagine many of her plotlines were in the movie, but everything felt so rushed (it’s under 90 minutes) I almost couldn’t follow what anyone was talking about. For example, there are two brothers and one apparently has killed someone in a driving accident but was never blamed. This only comes into the movie at the very end and means absolutely nothing!

Give it a miss. Forget about it. Throw it away. Burn it. Close down that last Blockbuster. Whatever.

Wicked Wednesday: Don’t Look Behind You (1999)

We continue into week two of Lois Duncan month with yet another made-for-TV movie. This one was made the year after I’ve Been Waiting For You, but looks about eight years older, and is a lot more shit.

Don’t Look Behind You is actually a pretty decent novel. It’s about a girl’s family forced into Witness Protection due to her father’s work with the FBI. But ultimately (like many of Duncan’s novel) it’s about a teenager learning the harsh realities of the world. Particularly that her actions have actual consequences.

Unfortunately, this little bit of Fox Family TV is trash fire that throws all that out the window. The book’s ending (kinda spoiler) is not exactly a “happy” one. It’s a realistic one. Here? Well, there’s nothing the father of a white family can’t do!

Jeff Corrigan works in the offices of a shady businessman who is smuggling weapons in drugs in Mexico. While trying to leave work with a hidden floppy disc of information, he’s caught by his boss Eric Loftin. He discovers that Jeff is wearing a wire and is talking to the FBI. The FBI agents swoop in to save the day, but Jeff is shot in the shoulder.

Loftin’s crew will do anything to make sure that Jeff can’t testify against him in court. This seems slightly irrelevant. Wouldn’t the FBI have all of Jeff’s/Loftin’s conversation recorded if Jeff was on a wire? How does technology work? How do courts work?

Anyway, Jeff’s family (now estranged) are herded together and taken to the bureau where they learn about Jeff’s heroics. He and his wife Liz had separated months ago, with Jeff claiming that his FBI contact, Ellie, was his girlfriend.

But since the family are at risk, they tell them that they must stay under FBI supervision. This means that Jeff’s daughter April can’t go to the prom. This is obviously much more upsetting than someone trying to kill her father.

The girl really doesn’t have a concept of reality. Loftin escapes during his prison transfer. And for some reason, she thinks its still a good idea to try calling her boyfriend from her house.

Loftin’s Russian/German/British?/vaguely Eastern European hackers manage to trace the call. They tap April’s boyfriend’s phone, able to trace any future calls from April.

Of course April is silly enough to continue to try contacting her boyfriend, and her family are attacked at a hotel. Because of the attack and Loftin’s escape, the FBI put the Corrigans into Witness Protection (or Witness Relocation – whatever).

The Corrigans move to their new town and see their new home. It’s of course a cute mid-Century modern home with lots of the original features. But there is some dust, so it’s apparently a hell hole.

Mr and Mrs Corrigan reignite their passion. April pines for her boyfriend who would only be cute in the 90s. Oh and there’s a son who serves no purpose.

But one night April tries to run away, and calls her boyfriend when she gets back to her house. Which, again, if the family were put into Witness Relocation, surely their house would have been sold and not sitting there for April to return to, but WHATEVER.

Loftin and his cronies pick up April’s call to her bf and realise she’s off on her own. They use April’s stupidity against her family, luring them and Ellie to the Corrigans’ home. But thankfully Ellie shoots Loftin. Not before Jeff can’t show off a little bit. Then the family decide to hang out back at their home!

Hooray! Everything is happy. Despite the fact that if there was one supplier, Loftin was just a link in a giant chain. I give the Corrigans about one week before they’re all murdered in their beds. But hey ho. They’re going to Europe for a two-week holiday!

This has to be one of the most irritating made-for-TV movies I have ever seen. In fact, it’s hands-down the worst. It’s not only cheese and poorly written, but it’s an insult to its original material.

Unfortunately, since the film decided to shift the focus from April to Jeff, I sort of don’t care what happens at the end of the movie. The girl is given no character arc. No redemption or lessons learned. She’s just a brat that gets whatever she wants. Oh, I guess she had to cut her hair.

But the movie is so hellbent on convincing you that Jeff is a great guy. That Jeff ultimately did the right thing. In reality, this should be much more ambiguous. Maybe Patrick Duffy had a clause in his contract that he needed to be the hero at all times. Something stupid needs to explain it.

Don’t Look Behind You could definitely a “so bad it’s fun” sort of film. If you haven’t read the book, it could certainly be seen that way. When you get irritated enough to go all MST3K on it, it’s at least worth giving credit for that. It has bad line-delivery, outlandish plots, outlandish plot holes, a bad script and cheap sets.

This is a piece of crap, but hopefully this is as bad as it gets.

Unnecessary fun fact: baddie Loftin was played by German actor Dominic Raacke, who was in Cannibal Ferox!