Lois Duncan

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.

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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!

Wicked Wednesday: I’ve Been Waiting For You (1998)

It’s Lois Duncan month! Why? Because I can!

Actually, this month the latest adaption of one of Duncan’s novels is released later this August. Look it, everyone. I’m being topical!

I love Duncan’s work. She has a fantastic ability to make teenagers suffer. They’re both realistic and surreal, often blending the two seamlessly. Many adaptions of her novels, though, are rather strange.

In a Buzzfeed article from two years before her death, Duncan was supposedly astonished while watching the theatrical version of I Know What You Did Last Summer. In 1989, Duncan’s daughter Kaitlyn was murdered. The distress she put her own characters through no longer seemed appealing.

Seeing added violence to her work was probably all the more appalling.

I’ve Been Waiting For You is an adaptation of Duncan’s final (fictional) thriller. Sarah and her mother move to the sleepy town of Pinecrest, Massachusetts from California.

Sarah has natural abilities to see into the future. On her first day of class, she frightens her classmate by correctly reading his palm. But she finds a kindred spirit in Charlie, the young boy who works at the local crystal shop in town.

It’s through Charlie that Sarah begins to learn the mythology behind her new house, the Lancaster House. He tells her that a woman had once lived in the town, and was burned for being a witch in a place near to her home. Before dying, the witch had vowed to take revenge on the descendants of those that had burned her.

The kids making hell of Sarah’s social life are clearly the descendants in question. They call themselves the Descendants Club. With Sarah’s arrival, they all become nervous. Her natural ‘witchy’ abilities frighten them.

The Descendants tell Sarah more about the witch’s story. She was named Sarah Lancaster. She was taken to jail, and while imprisoned she learned that her lover had married another woman. One night, the couple were murdered. As Sarah had been locked up, she couldn’t possibly be the witch…only she was found in her cell – covered in blood.

Despite the fact that the group terrorise her (and tell her stories that she’s descendant of a witch), she agrees to go to one of their parties. But couple Kyra and Eric want her to be a fortune teller. They hook her up to a wire so she can be fed information about the people whose fortunes she’s reading.

Unbeknownst to her, Kyra and Eric leave after they get bored. Sarah believes she’s hearing their voices tell her what to say, but she’s clearly hearing true fortunes. One of her predictions is a little too close to home, and one of the girls runs away from the party.

The girl is found the next day, seemingly scared to death. But her death only causes the students in Pincrest to suspect Sarah of more horrible business. She becomes the target of increasingly horrible attacks, including one that almost drowns her.

But while Sarah survives, members of the Descendants Club being to dwindle. The suspense builds and the secrets keep getting revealed and ultimately explodes in a pretty fun twist ending.

The heart of the film is really interesting and compelling to watch. Is Sarah really a witch? Or is she merely innocent and targeted because of her powers? The addition of a masked serial killer, though… feels unnecessary.

It’s pretty clear in this adaption that the filmmakers were trying to bank on I Know What…’s success. Throw in a serial killer and lots of death scenes. Grim, yes. But that’s what successful franchises are built on.

As a made-for-TV movie, I’ve Been Waiting For You is pretty low on violence. But it still begs the question: what did the violence add, if anything, to the film? Are viewers so hungry for murder that we can’t handle a simple thriller? Or is it simply the case of an author’s name being tied to an idea of violence that doesn’t really belong to her.

But as far as adaptions of Duncan’s books go. This is one of the most enjoyable ones I’ve seen. The script is a bit corny, but it still perfectly encapsulates autumnal spookiness. For a bit of witchy fun, make sure to watch this one.

Wicked Wednesday: Killing Mr Griffin (1997)


One of my favourite things about being on holiday is being able to get through loads of books I want to read. Also, being in Wisconsin means cheap, used books (which might just be my second favourite thing about being on holiday).

Lois Duncan has been an author I’ve been meaning to read for ages now. Her books are the source material for films like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the made-for-TV movie Summer of Fear, which I wrote about last June. But something about the synopses of her books led me to believe that there was more going on with her stories than these movies made me believe.

So at Half-Price Books I managed to grab Killing Mr. Griffin for $2.95. And I devoured it.

And of course, when I learned that there was a made-for-TV adaption staring my childhood idol Amy Jo Johnson, I was completely on board.

Killing Mr. Griffin was released the same year as I Know What You Did Last Summer. The cynic in me assumed that Killing was released in the wake of the latter’s success. But I was proven wrong. Killing Mr. Griffin was actually released nearly six months earlier. Something about Duncan’s 70’s novels adapted well into the 90’s aesthetic, I guess.

What was surprising to me was how faithful this adaption was. Yes details were changed for added drama, and the setting was relocated from New Mexico to the more-accessible California, but it was the 90’s.

Speaking of changes, the film opens up at the Juniors Pyjama Dance. Because of course. Our star, Susan (Johnson) is one of the outsiders serving punch. She has two good friends, but clearly lives life on the outside looking in. As a joke (this seems really distasteful, but since it’s pre-Columbine it’s…ok?), several Senior boys break up the dance by running in wearing masks and threatening to shoot everyone.

The guns are, hilariously, paintball guns. Ladies and gents, the ringleader is mega-asshole Mark. Learn to dislike Mark. Mark in the worst.

Mark’s enemy in the hard-ass English teacher Mr Griffin. He won’t allow Mark into class when Mark doesn’t enter the classroom before the bell. The teacher actually makes his student beg and apologise before being allowed in.

Though the film tries to make you feel sorry for Mark, it’s pretty hard. For one, his parents are super nice and successful. In the 90’s, everyone was rich in teen movies. Apparently the idea of kids living in ranch-style houses was completely disgusting. But I think that does take away from Mark’s character, making him more of the tired “poor little rich boy” character that anything more complex.

But, you know, Mr Griff is a total jerk!

While Mark’s parents are out for a business trip, he throws a party. It’s then that he tells his friends his idea to kidnap Mr G. The other kids seem less than convinced about the idea knowing that their English teacher has absolutely no sense of humor.

Meanwhile, poor Susan is wandering around, constantly drooling over Mark’s friend Dave (Mario Lopez). When Dave forgets his book for class, Susan tries to help him, but they’re caught and Mr Griffin gives Dave a zero for that day’s work.

While watching the interaction, the cogs in Mark’s head begin to turn. He tells Dave to ask Susan out so that she can be a part of his plan to kidnap Mr Griffin. Dave Reluctantly agrees and invites the girl out for rock climbing.

Mark asks Susan to join them in the kidnapping, and the girl is everything but enthusiastic. But after a lesson in which Mr Griffin is particularly harsh on her, she agrees.

But it turns out that Mr Griffin deeply cares about his students. He’s purpose is to push them to their limits. His wife, a sixth grade teacher, is mostly concerned that his techniques come off as harsh even though he’s good intentions.

The day of the kidnapping arrives and the students take their places. Susan asks Mr Griffin to have a word with her about her performance in his class. He takes a chance and divulges that he thinks she has a lot of potential. They walk out together to his car when Mr Griffin is grabbed by the boys in ski masks. But before Mr Griffin is shoved into his car, he tells Susan to run – still concerned for his safety.

Mark, Dave and their friend Jeff, along with Mark and Jeff’s girlfriends go to a cabin up by a lake. They throw a blindfolded Mr Griffin onto the floor and taunt him with a voice changer. Mark also records the entire thing on his camcorder. They try to get him to agree to being nicer, but he refuses. But Mr Griffin does beg for them to give him his pills back. But none of the kids can find them.

The kids split, leaving Mark alone with him. He continues to taunt Mr Griffin when the voice changer dies. The teacher realises who is behind his kidnapping and becomes angry. Mark then spots his teacher’s pills, but pockets them instead.

He leaves Mr Griffin behind and the friends all agree to tie up their teacher and leave him to “sit and think” for a few hours.

Feeling guilty, Dave goes to visit Susan and tells her what happened. The two go out to the lake to get Mr Griffin but instead find his corpse. The pair panic and retrieve the rest of the guilty party. Ringleader Mark immediately says that they need to bury the body, then take the car to the airport.

The first part of the plan goes without a hitch. But the next day, Mrs Griffin reports her missing husband. Susan is called to the principal’s office where she’s questioned by the police. She says that she saw Mr Griffin get into a car with another woman. When Mrs Griffin shows up, the detective asks Susan if Mrs Griffin was the woman she saw, Susan lies and says it isn’t. But the girl is immediately called out as a liar by Mrs Griffin.

The lie further unravels when Mr Griffin’s body is unearthed by some builders. After the autopsy, it’s revealed that Mr Griffin died because he didn’t take his pills for his arrhythmia. Susan increasingly becomes suspicious about Mark’s part in their teacher’s death. She confronts him about it, and he agrees to meet her at his house to ‘strategise’.

Susan goes to Mark’s house and they begin to talk. But Mark is distracted by the arrival of his girlfriend. Susan hides in the kitchen, but hears a noise coming from Mark’s room. She goes upstairs and sees the footage from the kidnapping playing on Mark’s television. She sees the part where he pockets the pills, and finally realises that the Mr Griffin’s death is Mark’s fault.

She grabs the camcorder and runs, but Mark is quickly onto her. She jumps into Mr Griffin’s car to go to the police when Mark jumps out in front of her, demanding that she stop. After threatening her with a gun, he gets in with her and tells her to go to the cabin.

At the lake, Susan crashes the car. The other friends arrive shortly after, and she shows them the footage. Mark shots Dave. Dave threatens Mark. And finally, Mark admits his part in Mr Griffin’s death.

I do have to emphasis, while this was a pretty good adaption, this film is not nearly as good as the book. I found it hard to read the book at times because of how fond I felt for Mr Griffin. And Susan is a much more sympathetic character than she is written in the movie.

Mark is a fantastic villain. He’s a sociopath and the film unravels him well (despite the minor issues I have noted above). Unfortunately there’s a lot of throw away material in here. But Killing Mr Griffin is still an enjoyable adaption well worth watching – a cut above most made-for-TV movies.

And one last thing, the kids are obsessed with getting Mr Griffin to recite Shakespeare in Pig Latin. No idea why, but it’s pretty damn amusing.