Tag Archives: 4-star

The Seventh Victim (1943), directed by Mark Robson

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Fascinating, exceedingly low-key noir horror film about a young woman (Kim Hunter) whose search for her missing sister leads her to an odd cult of satanists in Greenwich Village.  From the producer (Val Lewton) and writer (DeWitt Bodeen) of Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, so expect the off-beat.  The sister (Jean Brooks) says things like, “I’ve always wanted to die.”  This haunting, depressing film is not recommended for the suicidal.

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Hell House (1971) by Richard Matheson

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When physicist Lionel Barrett asks for a list of phenomena observed in the Belasco house, popularly known as Hell House, it contains about a hundred alphabetical entries, of which the following are the P’s:

“…Paraffin molds; Parakinesis; Paramnesia; Paresthesia; Percussion; Phantasmata; Poltergeist phenomena; Possession; Precognition; Presentiment; Prevision; Pseudopods; Psychic photography; Psychic rods; Psychic sounds; Psychic touches; Psychic winds; Psychokinesis; Psychometry…”

This is, clearly, one badass house. Barrett is the nominal leader of a small group of investigators hired by Rolf Deutsch, its dying owner, whose mission is to establish conclusively whether or not there is survival after death. Barrett doesn’t think so; Florence Tanner, a mental medium, disagrees; and Ben Fisher, a physical medium and the only sane survivor of a previous investigation years before, agrees with Florence — but he’s there less to prove anything to Deutsch than to avenge his previous failure. Edith, Barrett’s seemingly timid wife, is along for the ride.

It’s a wild ride, to be sure. This is not a book that skimps on its supernatural manifestations. Spirit guides, poltergeist activity, possession, teleplasmic extrusions — the list, like the one Barrett receives at the beginning of the book, goes on and on. You want action? You’ve found it.

To Matheson’s credit, it isn’t, however, mindless mayhem. He doesn’t toss a ghost in the house and figure anything goes. Matheson weaves together the personalities of his investigators with the sordid history of the Belasco house to create a believable framework for all the insanity.

Belasco, we learn early, was a man pulled from the pages of something by the Marquis de Sade. He established his house as a haven for depravity, debauchery, and criminality. Torturers and victims alike were tormented beyond endurance; any or all of them could be haunting the house.  Indeed, when the house was finally opened by police, everyone (except Belasco himself) was found dead.

Capturing particular psychologies isn’t one of Matheson’s gifts, but he’s more effective with personalities. Miss Tanner, the touchy-feely spiritualist, sees the house as a groundbreaking case of multiple haunting. She believes she is contacted by one of the spirits, a man not as cruel as the others who desperately wants to be free. She, of course, is desperate to help him. Fisher, remembering his earlier experience, advises her not to open up so much to the forces in the house, but then he is afraid to open up at all. Barrett, meanwhile, has his own ideas about all of this, and spends much of his time constructing a machine that he says will neutralize the house in a matter of minutes. Edith, as an “outsider,” is caught between the confidence of her husband and the evidence of her own eyes. Each of the characters gets more than one nasty surprise as the story progresses.

One of the unusual aspects of this story is that all of Matheson’s characters are good, intelligent people, doing their best in their own ways to deal with the house, and none of them is entirely right or wrong. It’s true that the final revelation is, psychologically, weak, but otherwise the story has a satisfying resolution.

And the build-up is very good, establishing the characters and their internal conflicts, as well as the house itself, which includes a spooky steam room and a profane chapel. Matheson did his homework regarding spiritualism, and Florence’s “sittings” owe much to the history of well-known spiritualists. The research — and the inclusion of Barrett, the scientist, as a main character — keep the book grounded in the real world, even as Matheson uses the house to twist that reality in an evolution of the characters’ various theories.

I can also tell you this: not all of these characters will survive. Which seems fitting for a place called Hell House.

After Worlds Collide (1934) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer

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Perhaps because this novel originally appeared as a magazine serial, it is more of a page-turner than its predecessor. Then, too, cliffhangers were harder to come by in a book that assured us of the end of the world practically from page one. Here, the story is all about the survivors of Earth trying to make a new planet their home.

That planet is Bronson Beta, once the Earth-sized moon of Bronson Alpha. Bronson Alpha, if you recall, was a planet about the size of Neptune that smashed into Earth, utterly destroying it. The collision nudged Bronson Beta out of its orbit, but it was captured by the Sun in an elliptical orbit that, according to the best calculations, would take it nearly as far out in space as Mars and nearly as close to the sun as Venus. That means very cold winters and scorching summers. When the little band from Earth lands, Beta is on its way out.

But the coming cold isn’t their only worry. For one thing, their leader, Dr. Hendron, is showing the strain of his frenzied work to save at least a small portion of humanity. For another, Bronson Beta was previously inhabited, and its domed cities — still powered by some unknown energy — hint at the possibility of surviving natives, who might not take to human interlopers. Most worrisome of all, though, is that theirs was not the only ship from Earth to make it to Bronson Beta. At least one other made it, filled with “Asiatics” mostly (Russians and Japanese), with a few Germans thrown in for good measure, whose intent is to make Bronson Beta their own.

It’s hard to top Armageddon. But the really interesting thing about this sequel is that Wylie and Balmer don’t have to. When Worlds Collide focused so closely on the destructiveness of nature that they were left with an ideal “out” for this book: the destructiveness of mankind. As ludicrous as is the idea of a few hundred people on the surface of a planet the size of Earth making war on each other, it is, sadly, quite believable and, given the circumstances, all but inevitable. The circumstances being, that never will a better opportunity arise for world domination.

Like the first book, the authors mix their themes very well. Rebuilding, exploration and discovery, conflict, and romance — there’s always something going on. I could quibble. I could say the Bronson Betans aren’t as “alien” as they should have been; that the exploration of their cities isn’t nearly as intriguing as, for example, the exploration of the alien ship in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. But that’s what it would be — quibbling. Clarke, after all, had an entire book to talk about one thing; for Wylie and Balmer, it’s but one piece of a much larger puzzle.

It’s a fun adventure and an exciting story and, if it has a flaw, it is that it isn’t, in the end, also a little scary. Without spoiling anything (I hope), let me just say that if you aren’t afraid to wipe Earth out of the cosmos in one book, you shouldn’t be afraid to make your characters work a little harder to make a home of their new planet.

This is a great companion for When Worlds Collide, with all the characters from the first book and even some of the jealousies: Tony, for instance, still wrestles with Eve’s feelings for the rugged and handsome David Ransdall. It also features a few new additions to the cast, far and away the best of whom is Marian Jackson, about whom it is said, “The girl might be mentally a moron; but morons…had their points.” Indeed they do. Hers is a small role, but one of critical importance, and the story always livens up when she’s present.

Under Eighteen (1931), directed by Archie Mayo

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Riveting pre-Code romantic comedy-drama starring barely-18-year-old Marian Marsh as Margie, whose girlish dreams of marriage are assaulted by life on the poorer side of the big city and shattered when her older sister announces she wants a divorce.  “I’ve made up my mind,” Margie says, “that any time I hand myself to a man for life, it’s cash on delivery” — a sentiment that doesn’t sit well with love-struck boyfriend Jimmy (Regis Toomey), but finds favor with rich playboy Raymond (Warren William).  Rife with unpunished immorality and snappy dialogue.  Grim and fascinating, yet also funny and fast-paced.

When Worlds Collide (1933) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer

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All those other apocalyptic books with their puny viruses and piddling nuclear wars have nothing on When Worlds Collide, which is about the smashing of Earth itself into jagged little pieces.

Or it would be — if physics respected the three-act structure.

The book begins with the man who is carrying the fate of Mankind in his briefcase: photographic plates of two large planetary objects — one about the size of Neptune, one Earth-sized — that are on a collision course with the third planet in our little solar system. Yeah, that’s us. And ain’t nothin in the world can stop them. So what is going to happen to our planet is, to coin a phrase, written in the stars from page one. Well, at least there’ll be no more ads for Viagra.

The story — the one with some reasonable margin for error — is about the men and women who refuse to accept this fate. It turns out, you see, that the smaller body is not only about the same size as Earth, but also very Earth-like. If their calculations are correct, it will survive the collision of the other two planets and take up an orbit of its own about the Sun. So it’s just a matter of building a ship that can make the crossing. There’s just one catch: the ship envisioned can only house about a hundred people.

According to the blurb on the back of my mid-seventies paperback, this caveat “touch[s] off a savage struggle among the world’s most powerful men for the million-to-one chance of survival.” You’d think that it would, wouldn’t you? But, if you were anything other than a blurb writer, you’d probably want to read the book first before announcing it to the world. The fact is, no such thing ever happens.

In fact, this is one of the curious things about this novel. I could also have said “quaint.” “Charming” is another matter. It has that old-timey faith in science and scientists as the saviors of our world. It comes by this honestly — it was published in 1933 — but it makes, at times, for some…interesting…developments. For instance, government plays no role in the building of the spaceship. It is conceived by Dr. Cole Hendron (whose honorific is of the Ph, not the M, variety), and he alone gathers about him the people he believes he needs to succeed. He alone will decide who goes and who stays. Meanwhile, the President of the United States rallies the populace to die another day.

That most of “us” have several opportunities to die is determined by the fact that the invading planets make two passes of the Earth, not just one. The first is a near miss. But even a near miss, with the combined mass of Neptune and Earth, is catastrophic. Tidal waves, earthquakes, floods, volcanic activity — the world is torn apart. Well, all but torn apart; the actual rending comes later. In between, reduced in large part to barbarism, the remaining population finds more traditional ways to kill each other.

This is great stuff.

Keeping the home fires burning are Tony Drake and the chief’s daughter, Eve. But theirs is a romance with serious complications. If only a hundred people can survive, how can they justify monogamy? Tony, a simpler soul than Eve, thinks he can justify it just fine; Eve is more realistic. Enter David Ransdell, a real man’s man, whose appreciation of Eve’s charms is not altogether unrequited.

Flipping my paperback over, we find on the front cover the bold statement: “America’s most famous science fiction classic that ranks with 1984 and Brave New World.” Except that this book is largely forgotten and the other two are still considered classics. This, I’m here to tell you, isn’t quite fair. Literarily, no, When Worlds Collide isn’t in the same league. In terms of its vision, though, and its remarkable evocation of utter disaster, it actually is. This is a book in which shit not only happens, it obliterates practically everything.

I’m going to see the 1951 movie later today, but I can already tell you, if ever there was a story ripe for a remake, this is it. And it could be glorious.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), directed by Steven Spielberg

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a very good movie with a gaping hole in the center of it. Not everyone agrees, of course — about the hole, I mean. Ray Bradbury, for instance, called it the greatest science fiction film ever made. It certainly has some of the greatest scenes in the history of science fiction films. There’s the one with electrical lineman Richard Dreyfuss, lost and alone in his truck late at night, who stops to consult a map. He notices another vehicle pulling up behind him and he waves it around. But it doesn’t go around, it goes up. And there’s the one with little Cary Guffey, the young son of Melinda Dillon, who hears noises in the kitchen and goes to investigate. Spielberg turns a scene nearly impossible to render with special effects into brilliant cinema as he keeps the camera on Guffey, whose reactions to the aliens we can’t see tells us everything we need to know about them. And on and on.

Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary and Dillon plays Jillian Guiler, two of several people whose encounters with UFOs leave them obsessed with vague visions of some kind of mountain. The visions are important, they know, but they don’t make any sense. Not until the government stages a chemical disaster in Wyoming, evacuating everyone in the area, and news reports show The Devil’s Tower in the background. Roy and Jillian still don’t know what it all means, but they know they have to go there. Jillian has nothing holding her back because her son, Barry (Guffy), has been kidnapped by the aliens. Roy is free, as well, since his obsession has cost him his job and his family.

The government, meanwhile, is dealing with its own mysteries, like the appearance of the airplanes of Flight 19 in the Sonoran Desert and the abandoned SS Cotopaxi in the Gobi. Flight 19 was a squadron of five Navy Avenger torpedo bombers that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in late 1945. The Cotopaxi, a tramp steamer, disappeared in 1925 with all 32 hands. (Interestingly, the 13 poor slobs in the PBM Mariner flying boat who went searching for Flight 19 and also disappeared get no mention.) What does it all mean?

What it all means is the black hole of this movie. It really means nothing, or anything. I like mystery, but I’m not so fond of mystery for its own sake, which is what we get here. On the one hand, the aliens seem pleasant enough. On the other, they’re kidnappers. Significantly, we learn so little about them that we can’t even guess at their motives. Or, worse, we can, and their motives are so simplistic that it only proves that evolution is wrong, and it doesn’t in fact lead to greater complexity. Show me marvelous aliens and I want something marvelously different about them. I don’t want my kid kidnapped by Mister Rogers.

But what we see here is what we get, and for Bradbury (as well as for millions of others, evidently), that is enough. It’s enough for me to highly recommend this film, for much of what Spielberg shows us is so wonderful, but not enough for it to join the truly great movies already in my heart.

I saw the Collector’s Edition, which is the third and last version of the movie. I had previously seen the other two — the original theatrical release and the Special Edition, which showed the interior of the alien mothership. Proving how well marketing works, Spielberg was allowed to make the Special Edition on condition that he showed the ship’s interior: the distributors wanted a hook for it. I fell for that hook. But Spielberg didn’t like it — he thought the interior should remain (another) mystery — and he was right. Rather, he was right because his vision of the interior was so pathetically bland. Here, in the Collector’s Edition, he has taken out that scene, but kept in other scenes added for the Special Edition, such as the discovery of the Cotopaxi. This edition is unquestionably the best of the three.

Fail-Safe (1962) by Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler

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Quintessential Cold War novel about the prospect of accidental nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When a UFO is detected heading toward America, several bomber groups routinely plot a course for their “fail-safe” points, positions in the sky from which, if given a “go” signal, they can attack Russia. The UFO is identified as a friendly and all the groups are recalled — except one, which, due to a mechanical malfunction, receives its go signal and heads towards its target: Moscow. The action shifts between Strategic Air Command, the Pentagon, the White House, and the bombers. Authors Burdick and Wheeler eschew satire and ridicule, presenting instead a satisfying and realistic portrayal of intelligent, driven, and powerful men who in many ways are at the mercy of the machines they funded, created, and allowed themselves to become dependent on. With a great deal of interesting character-building through backstory that only underlines the cold and impersonal nature of the villain: the system itself and the computers and machines that make it possible. Gripping and suspenseful, this cautionary tale ends unflinchingly.

The authors were sued for plagiarism by British author Peter George based on the many significant parallels of this story to that of his own 1958 book Two Hours to Doom (published in the U.S. as Red Alert). The case was settled out of court. Interestingly, George’s book served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was released the same year as Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Fail-Safe, both movies — the one satirical, the other realistic — having been produced by Columbia Pictures. George co-wrote Dr. Strangelove and had a hand (uncredited) in writing Fail-Safe.

The Firm (1991) by John Grisham

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This is the story of Mitch McDeere, fresh out of law school, who joins a small Memphis tax firm for the money and the perks, only to discover he should have paid more attention to the fine print, such as the fact that no lawyer has ever the left the firm alive.

It’s a legal mystery-thriller that scores high on the first two elements and about average on the third, which makes it a pretty darn good book. Let’s start at the top.

It isn’t about law, but about lawyers (though Grisham cleverly bases the underlying crime of the novel on the only appealing thing about tax law: the many ways of circumventing it). And it’s mostly about Mitch, the rookie, and how he has to prove with his work ethic and hours that his profession really is as important as medicine. Before long, he’s coming to the office at four in the morning and leaving near midnight. This doesn’t sit too well with his young wife, Abby, but the other wives tell her it’s only temporary; after a year or two, he’ll cut back to 70 hours a week or so, and might even take Sunday off. Might.

Grisham, the lawyer, makes all of this fun: the poor, hungry kid trying to make an impression; the solicitous partners; the friendly associates. You know something bad is going to happen to Mitch, and it’s almost funny watching his ambition and greed lead him deeper into the deception of Bendini, Lambert & Locke.

The mystery, of course, is the firm itself, which is sort of like a mini-Stepford. Why does the firm hire only married lawyers straight out of law school, and why only men? Why does it “encourage” children? On the darker side, what about those portraits in the library, the ones of the dead lawyers? How come no one has ever left the firm? The answers aren’t as pleasurable as the suspense (they rarely are), but for all its activity and camaraderie, it’s a creepy place and a good setting.

If Grisham had been an FBI agent instead of a lawyer, I might have liked the “law” a little less and the action a little more, and maybe it would have evened out. That said, Grisham handles the action reasonably well. Yes, Mitch is too smart and yes, the bad guys and the “Fibbies” aren’t always smart enough, but the author avoids some of the most egregious clichés that plague this type of story. To give just one example, remarkably few people die once Mitch joins the firm. Favoring suspense over fisticuffs works very well here. One of the book’s most exciting scenes involves one of the partners, two women, and a copier.

The Firm was a bestseller and that isn’t always a compliment. But in this case, it is. It’s solid entertainment from beginning to end.

Room 237 (2012), directed by Rodney Ascher

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When I was in college, Bill Blakemore published his article about The Shining, and I enjoyed it so much that I made a photocopy of it that I still have to this day.  It wasn’t that I believed what he was saying — that the movie was about the genocide of the American Indians.  What impressed me was his seriousness and the care he had taken to prove his case, a case that rested, absurdly enough, on a few cans of Calumet baking powder.

I might as well admit it:  I love a good conspiracy theory.

Until Room 237, however, I had no idea that Blakemore’s article had spawned a small industry.  The movie presents five interpretations of the film, including Blakemore’s (which, I was pleased to note, had pride of place, being the one that opens the film).  None are as cogent as Blakemore’s (he simply has more to work with since the film, which is set in a Colorado hotel, is full of Native American imagery), but all are fascinating.  In the novel, Stephen King makes much of an incident involving his hapless protagonist, Jack Torrance, when he was coaching the debate team at the high school where he worked.  And the lure of all these theories is that that they are like positions in a debate, albeit positions on the losing side.  The suspense (and, indeed, the humor) hinges on our own interpretation — of how well the debater makes his or her case.

I won’t mince words.  In fact, I’ll use Vincent Bugliosi’s words in referring to the majority of theories cherished by JFK assassination critics:  they’re “as kooky as a three-dollar bill.”

It isn’t long into the movie before Juli Kearns opines that a Monarch skiing poster on one hotel wall depicts not a skier but a minotaur.  We have the “suggestion,” she says, of a ski pole, but it isn’t really there.  Personally, I’d “suggest” that she consult an ophthalmologist.

And then there’s Jay Weidner’s theory that The Shining is Kubrick’s confession to having faked the footage of the moon landings.  I like this one, because it widens the conspiracy to include the government.  Weidner wisely sidesteps the actual landings:  he doesn’t say that we didn’t land on the moon, just that the footage of said landings was faked.  What he doesn’t say, and what I learned only after seeing the film, is that he believes the fakery was necessary in order to “hide the advanced U.S. saucer technology from the Soviet Union.”

But again, these are (one hopes) serious people with earnest opinions.  Director Rodney Ascher lets them tell their stories in their own words, filling the screen with images from The Shining or complimentary scenes from other sources.  He doesn’t judge and he certainly doesn’t ridicule.  He leaves that to us.

And theory aside, some of the information presented is both fun and interesting.  I admit that I never noticed, for instance, that after the mysterious ball rolls to little Danny, playing with his toy cars in a hotel corridor, Danny stands up — facing the opposite direction.  We can tell because the pattern on the carpet is reversed from one shot to the next.  Other examples of odd continuity similarly passed me by.  As did the fact that the hotel itself appears to be, architecturally speaking, an impossibility.

I can buy this, the idea that Kubrick intentionally included these elements rather than that they are merely errors of continuity.  But if he did, I don’t think he did it for any other reason than simply to disquiet the audience on a subliminal level.  Ascher points out — he shows us quite clearly — that in the opening helicopter shots of the VW winding up the mountain road that the shadow of the helicopter is visible.  No one seems to have a theory about why Kubrick allowed this in the film.  Which tells me that there’s general agreement that it’s a “mistake.”  So, yeah, maybe Kubrick added in some of these things on purpose, and then again maybe he didn’t.  Obviously, he wasn’t perfect.

I grew up hearing that “you can prove anything from statistics.”  Well, let me tell you:  statistics ain’t got nothin on art.  Back in high school a friend and I contemplated writing an essay about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and how it was really all about Nazi Germany.  I have no doubt that we could have “proved” it, too, but we chickened out at the last minute.  (Our teacher, when we told her about it, was disappointed that we hadn’t followed through.)  Subjectivity is the mother of interpretation.  That’s why we can have Marxist analyses and feminist analyses and Freudian analyses of the same work.

And just as these various theories are all valid (at least, shall we say, in theory), so, too, on one level, are the viewpoints expressed in Room 237.  I thought an art dealer in one episode of Columbo captured the essence of art very well.  I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “You look at a piece of art and it either does something for your or it doesn’t.”  For the interviewees in this film, The Shining clearly did something.  And while I may think what it did was encourage a certain brand of lunacy, I still respect the effort that is so glaringly on display.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), directed by Tobe Hooper

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It’s kind of funny, 40 years later, to look back and say that the most successful alum from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was its unseen narrator, John Larroquette — and that includes its director, Tobe Hooper. Hooper, of course, went on to direct Poltergeist, but he, like Christian Nyby before him when he worked with Howard Hawks on The Thing (From Another World), was overshadowed by the uncredited influence of the man with the real talent, who in Hooper’s case was Steven Spielberg.

Yet, as narrator, Larroquette gets the movie’s goofiest line. “For them,” he says, referring to the five kids whose lives take a dramatic turn for the worse on August 20, 1973, “an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare.” Part of the reason Chainsaw is so good is that the closest any of these kids get to “idyllic” is a romp to a dried-up swimming hole.

The movie opens with shots of decaying corpses and a radio news report of the dismemberment and theft of corpses at a Texas cemetery. The kids, in fact, are on their way to the cemetery because two of them, Sally and Franklin Hardesty, have a grandfather buried there: they want to know if his grave was disturbed. On the way, a friend reads from a book of astrology, noting that Saturn is in retrograde — not a good sign. They are nearly out of gas. A rest stop for Franklin, who is in a wheelchair, ends with him at the bottom of a ravine. And then, of course, they pick up a hitchhiker.

But this cat is no ordinary hitchhiker. He’s twitchy and weird and sports a large red welt on his face. His greatest pride, it seems, is connected to the nearby slaughterhouse. “I used to work there. My brother did too. My grandfather too. My family’s always been in meat!” His greatest disappointment? That the business upgraded to a bolt-gun for use in killing the animals; he liked it better when they used a sledge.

These early moments are incredibly awkward, partly because of the situation and partly because the actors are all young and inexperienced. But unlike many similar scenes in other movies, they aren’t, for the viewer, embarrassing. They have a genuineness that lifts them somewhere between comedy and horror. The kids are all hippies, without being self-conscious about it. It’s a nice moment when they “naturally” decide to pick up the hitchhiker. The driver slows, giving them a better look at him. One of the girls then notices how strange he looks and urges them not to stop. But by then they are committed. And in the end, it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

This is a bad day from the get-go, and the movie uses that in an almost fatalistic way. The first murder is so matter-of-fact, so quick, that’s it’s almost as if it is just one more thing gone wrong, like driving into a gas station and finding that the pumps are empty. It establishes a sense of helplessness (and hopelessness) that makes everything that happens that much more horrific.

The film’s masterstroke, however, is its use of comedy. Hooper weaves in a surprising amount of comic material, often dark, sometimes gruesome, but always beautifully timed to bank the boiler and keep the film from getting ahead of itself or blowing up too soon. One scene has one of the crazies telling Sally not to worry while he pokes her with a broom handle. It’s flat-out torture, but it’s funny, too, and like the early scenes with the hitchhiker, it’s all too plausible.

This makes Hooper sound like a genius and I started this review by suggesting that he is not. For that conclusion, I refer you to his subsequent work. But for a few months in 1974, he acted like one.