Tag Archive: Beatrice Straight

Chiller-poster-2-328x500Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Chiller is only available for rent via Amazon Prime. I have also provided a link below where you can watch the entire film for free on Daily Motion.

Starring: Michael Beck, Beatrice Straight, & Paul Sorvino

Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: J.D. Feigelson

Wes Craven’s Chiller reminds me of Stephen King’s short stories (as an aside, with the exception of The Stand, King’s short stories are better reads than his novels). Those stories typically have straightforward, simple plotlines that cut right to the chase without wasting any words. They don’t dwell on huge character backstories or veer off into the author’s political or philosophical views. These stories are essentially fun, cheap thrills. This pretty much describes Chiller and if you can get past the HUGELY shitty VHS transfer (it is so bad that in one scene you can hear on one of the soundtracks a sound feed that must have been picked up from another channel by whoever recorded the film), Chiller is a fun ride that is best enjoyed with a group of drunk (or high) friends sitting around with absolutely nothing to do on a Saturday evening.

When I first heard of Chiller, the first question to enter my mind was why a director with the presumably big clout that Wes Craven had (he had just released the popular A Nightmare on Elm Street the previous year) would opt to make a TV movie? I mean sure, there was some pretty rock-on shit that was made for TV back in the 80’s (Shogun, North and South, The Winds of War, Burning Bed), but once you have established yourself as a feature film director, you only go back to doing TV if your feature film career stalls out. However those who are familiar with Craven’s work will know that Craven didn’t hold himself above working in television. In fact, Craven has put out some pretty memorable stuff for television, such as the 1980’s version of The Twilight Zone and two other made-for-television films, Invitation to Hell and Summer of Fear.

For someone who didn’t enter the movie business until the late age of 33, Wes Craven has created quite a colorful filmography for himself. He has gone from making visceral 1970’s grindhouse movies like The Last House on the Left (Craven’s first film, which is still one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen) to 1980’s supernatural horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street to the post-modern 1990’s slasher film Scream. Craven’s best work tends to be those films that were made for a low budget. The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Now please don’t interpret “best” to mean that these films are actually good, award-deserving movies. Many of them are not, but they are the best that Wes Craven has put out and they provide, at most, the fun, cheap thrills that I attributed to Craven’s also-low-budget film, Chiller. Again, lest I lose my good-taste-in-film credentials, I really want to stress the fact that Chiller is by no means a good movie. Putting that aside, however, I had great fun watching over-the-top performances from Michael Beck, Beatrice Straight, and Paul Sorvino.

Chiller is about Miles Creighton (The Warriors and Xanadu’s Michael Beck), a young man who died 10 years ago. Refusing to accept the finality of his death, Miles’ mother (Poltergeist’s Beatrice Straight) has his body cryogenically frozen until such time medical technology can advance far enough to bring her son back to life. That time arrives when one night, Miles’ preservation unit malfunctions and Miles’ body begins to thaw out. Miles is rushed to the hospital, where doctors perform an operation that was not possible 10 years ago. The operation is a success and Miles returns back to the land of the living. However, although Miles is successfully resurrected in body, he comes back without a soul.

With Chiller, Wes Craven makes no bones about the fact that the pipe dream concept of cryogenically freezing your body for a later lease on life is creepy as hell. Aside from the fact that scientists have yet to bring back a person to life after cryogenically freezing their body, this controversial process poses very interesting questions for those who believe in an afterlife. Craven explores this idea in a scene where a priest (Goodfellas’ Paul Sorvino) questions how someone like Miles can be brought back to life when his soul has either gone to heaven or hell. The priest asks whether the soul can even be brought back to Earth to its host body and he concludes that it cannot – once the soul has left this world, it is gone forever. The film’s best dialogue exchange follows this scene, in which the priest finally confronts the true nature of Miles Creighton. Expecting to get a description of heaven or hell, he asks Miles what it was like being dead for 10 years. Miles replies that nothing happens when you die – its all just blackness. Michael Beck gives a wonderful delivery of that line and just as fun to watch is the priest’s shocked reaction to hearing that his faith in God may be a sham.

The character of Miles Creighton also represents Wes Craven’s swipe at the mantra of greed that defined Corporate America in the 1980’s. Upon Miles’ return to the living, he takes over his father’s company and immediately begins firing the old people, makes the women screw their way to the top, and cuts all corporate charitable contributions. Miles is a precursor to Gordon Gecko, who came onto the scene just two years after this film’s release.

Let’s face it – Michael Beck was never really a good actor. The only reason he became somewhat famous was due to the cult successes of The Warriors and Xanadu. Those films, in turn, became popular for reasons other than Michael Beck’s performance. I may be inciting the wrath of rabid cult fans of the films I just mentioned, but I would argue that Beck’s best career performance is in this made-for-TV movie. Sure, Beck’s performance is hammy and way over-the-top, but he is after all playing a man without a soul, which seems to be interpreted to mean people who are complete evil assholes. What helps sell the performance is Beck’s cold, calculating, yet handsome, look. In terms of looks, he is perfectly cast. With a movie like this, no one should be concerning themselves with plot holes, but there is one that I absolutely must point out: If Miles has no soul and is therefore, purely evil and uncaring toward his fellow man, then why does he have a soft spot (until the last scene) for his mother? Is Wes Craven trying to tell us that a child’s love for his mother can survive even without a soul?

Speaking of mothers, Beatrice Straight plays Miles’ mom. If you think you don’t know who Beatrice Straight is, then you are wrong. Beatrice Straight played the paranormal investigator in Poltergeist (she also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Network for a performance that is considered the shortest one to ever win an award) and she was one of the best things about that classic film. Straight’s style of acting is one that you don’t see in movies anymore and it harkens back to the acting style that was prevalent in Hollywood before the 1970’s. She, like Michael Beck, also plays up her character in a hammy manner and her character is not very well developed, but she is still a delight to watch.

It is difficult to imagine Paul Sorvino playing anything but a mobster, but he does a fine job as the concerned and reserved priest, who tries to convince Miles’ mother that her son is not the same man she once knew. I mentioned the scene between Miles and the priest, and that is the highlight of the film.

Chiller may not be something I would recommend to the discerning film snob. It does not have the signature Wes Craven gore and blood, it has a shitty VHS transfer, and it is low-budget in a bad, porno film way. However, Wes Craven offers up a straightforward tale that appeals to our very basest levels of entertainment and fun while also giving us a half-baked metaphysical discussion and a critique of 1980’s corporate America. I wish someone would put out a nice, pristine version of this movie with a Wes Craven commentary (like they did with Invitation to Hell).


Poltergeist (1982): Grade: A-

Poltergeist_82posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Poltergeist is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, but it is available through the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Heather O’Rourke, Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubenstein, & Beatrice Straight

Directed by: Tobe Hooper

Written by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, & Mark Victor

Last week I reviewed Man of Steel, a collaboration between Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder to bring Superman back to the big screen (you can read my review here: https://voiceofcinema.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/man-of-steel-2013-grade-c/). The film proves that combining the talents of two talented filmmakers does not necessarily produce a good movie, especially when the filmmakers have widely divergent styles. Every once in a while we see a successful collaboration that bears fruit. One such effort produced 1982’s classic Poltergeist, a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). This collaboration is a point of major controversy that has never been officially settled. According to the rumor mill and as suggested by public comments he made, Spielberg rather than Hooper called the real shots on this movie. Spielberg’s public comments prompted the Directors Guild of America (DGA) to launch an investigation into Spielberg’s statements (DGA rules forbid anyone who is assigned to a movie before a director is fired to take over that director’s role – on Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper was officially the director so Spielberg was not allowed to take over directing).

Personally, I believe that Steven Spielberg basically directed the film. If you are familiar with Spielberg’s body of work, it is impossible to NOT see how just about every frame of this film has Spielberg’s signature touches all over it. However, I do not feel sorry for Tobe Hooper either. Even if Spielberg really made Poltergeist, Hooper still got to be officially credited with directing one of the best horror films ever made.

Poltergeist ranks as one of the truly frightening (and not the jumping-out-of-your-seat variety of fright either) movies I have ever seen. Adding to the film’s fright factor is the so-called behind-the-scenes “Poltergeist Curse” that derived from the fact that four cast members of the film died following the completion of Poltergeist. Those deaths were Dominique Dunne, who played the eldest daughter of the Freeling family; Julian Beck, the old man who played Henry Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side; Will Sampson, who played Taylor, the Native American medicine man in Poltergeist II; and the main star of the film, Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne Freeling.

Set in the brand new suburban residential development of Cuesta Verde, Poltergeist introduces us to the Freelings, a typical middle-class American family. Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a real estate developer and his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) is a housewife who takes care of their three children, Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), the youngest daughter. The story begins innocently enough when late one night the family discovers Carol Anne talking to a static-filled television. The family thinks nothing of it and moves on. Over the course of the next few days (or weeks?) further strange occurrences and foreshadowings begin to occur. Carol Anne’s canary dies, glasses and utensils break and bend, and the kitchen furniture moves by itself. Carol Anne’s ominous warning to her family that “They’re here” is apparently not enough to raise any alarms, but that is quickly resolved when Carol Anne gets sucked through a portal in her closet and she has to speak to her family through the television. The family hires a group of parapsychologists (Beatrice Straight, Martin Casella, & Richard Lawson), who along with a psychic named Tangina (Zelda Rubeinstein), attempt to bring Carol Anne back to the land of the living.

It is difficult to appreciate this today, but Poltergeist did something that was rarely, if ever, done in the horror genre before the film’s 1982 release. Movies about ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon tended to take place in haunted castles, small gothic villages/towns, and generally in settings that most of us plebians do not live in nor can relate to. Steven Spielberg realized that nothing is more frightening than setting a ghost story right in our own neighborhood – namely, a typical California suburban tract home residential neighborhood (and one that looked almost exactly like the one I grew up in).

What’s more, Spielberg’s characters are your everyday nuclear American family – they are the Family Circus. The Freelings are middle class and, this being the Reagan 80’s, the mass consumption and consumerism of our society is on full display in the Freeling household (it is especially prevalent in the children’s bedroom, where the children practically compete for space with the plethora of toys scattered about their room). Spielberg intended for us to see ourselves in the Freelings.

With such identifiable characters and settings, Spielberg created the perfect playground to completely scare the shit out of his audience. He showed us what it would be like if something extraordinary happened in our everyday lives and this familiarity is the essence of Poltergeist’s success.

Horror films love to use children as conduits to bring spirits, demons, and other supernatural beings into our world. The child Damien Thorn in the 1976 film, The Omen (a film also plagued by behind-the-scenes deaths), is one that immediately comes to mind. Carol Anne in Poltergeist is another. The selection of the late Heather O’Rourke to play the character was a stroke of genius casting. O’Rourke had the perfect blend of innocence and a slight hint of creepiness, which I think results from the stark contrast between the poltergeist and the pure, almost saccharine qualities of Carol Anne.

The rest of the cast gives great performances (as is typical in any Spielberg movie) and there is a natural chemistry between all the actors portraying the Freeling clan. Especially noteworthy is JoBeth Williams, who plays Carol Anne’s mom, Diane. Williams exhibits strong maternal qualities in her character and among all the characters in the film, I connected with her the most. Spielberg’s films have a tendency to feature strong mother/maternal characters (E.T., Jurassic Park, A.I.) and Diane Freeling exemplifies that.

Among all the good performances in Poltergeist, the strongest and most memorable ones are those played by parapsychologist Beatrice Straight and psychic medium Zelda Rubeinstein. Both will leave you with an indelible image. Who can forget Tangina’s line (parodied many times over in popular culture) when she finally purges the Freeling’s house of the poltergeist and announces in her sweet, Southern accent, “This house is clean.” One of the film’s best scenes has no horrific images, special effects, or action. It is one of the quietest moments in the film in which Beatrice Straight explains the afterlife and the nature of ghosts to Diane and Robbie. She explains her theories in a way a good storyteller will entrance a rapt audience of children and you almost begin to think the actress truly is a parapsychologist.

Poltergeist does not have an original story and like Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the film’s narrative serves the purpose of presenting us with a roller coaster ride that makes the film more of an experience than anything else. Despite the film’s scant storyline, I still had one big issue with one of its plot points. Given the Freeling’s background, I found it hard to believe that they would seek the help of parapsychologists instead of either calling the authorities or a priest. Steven is presumably a Republican based on his reading of Ronald Reagan’s biography and if the Freelings are meant to represent your typical American family, then I would assume they are fairly religious (or at least non-practicing Christians) and conservative. So with that, I wouldn’t think they would believe in paranormal investigators and psychics. At the same time, since they do end up hiring a group of parapsychologists, I thought it was weird that although they believe in the work of the parapsychologists, Steven is skeptical about Tangina, the psychic.

The film’s storyline moves along at a brisk and interesting pace that continually builds up the story and it builds toward the climax where Carol Anne is going to be brought back to the land of the living. Once we get Carol Anne back, the story falters a bit and heads into monster territory. This climactic portion of the film where the “beast” tries to recapture Carol Anne and the skeletons rise up out of the earth is inconsistent with everything that happened before. Up until these scenes, the filmmakers use restraint in portraying the poltergeist and overall keep the film grounded in as much reality as is possible given the subject matter. When we reach the climax, the filmmakers unleash the talents of the special effects artists at Industrial Light & Magic, perhaps in their belief that a paying audience deserves a bunch of eye candy for waiting so patiently to the end. The climax is not that bad (its certainly far better than what J.J. Abrams does in Super 8), but the film could have done without it.

I happen to believe in ghosts and the afterlife and my personal belief in the subject matter (aside from the film’s devouring tree, the “beast,” and the skeletons rising up out of the ground) of Poltergeist allows me to lend it some credibility. It also contributes to my fear when watching the film, which makes me wonder whether the film has the same fright factor for those of you who do not believe in the supernatural. Even if you do not, Poltergeist is an enjoyable popcorn movie that may not have much in terms of story, but it makes it up with great performances, characters, and spectacle.