LEADING LADIES: BROOKE ADAMS

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Brooke Adams in 1978.

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at the careers of lead actresses in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today it’s Brooke Adams, who, if you’ve seen the outstanding 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, you’ll definitely remember her performance as one of the contributing factors to it being such a great movie.

The Philip Kaufman directed INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) is one of those rare instances where the remake is as good or arguably better than the original. There are many reasons for this. Among them, Kaufman’s direction, a truly unforgettable chilling ending, and a fine ensemble of actors, including Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy. I saw this at the movies when I was just 14, and it instantly became a favorite. I also immediately became a fan of Brooke Adams.

Here now is a partial look at Adams’ career, focusing mostly on her genre credits:

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971) – Nurse (uncredited) – Adams’ first appearance on the big screen, an uncredited bit as a nurse, in this tepid horror movie by director Gordon Hessler, featuring Herbert Lom and Jason Robards. Based on the Edgar Allan Poe story.

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) – Party Guest (uncredited) – another uncredited bit in the Robert Redford version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel.

SONG OF THE SUCCUBUS (1975) – Olive Deems/Gloria Chambers – plays the lead in this TV movie about a modern-day rock star haunted by the ghost of a Victorian era musician.

MURDER ON FLIGHT 502 (1975) -Vera Franklin – part of an all-star cast in this TV movie about a series of murders on a jumbo jet, featuring Robert Stack, Ralph Bellamy, Sonny Bono, Fernando Lamas, Hugh O’Brian, Walter Pidgeon, and receiving most of the hype at the time, Farrah Fawcett.

SHOCK WAVES (1977) – Rose – stars alongside Peter Cushing and John Carradine in this low-budget thriller about Nazi zombies.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) – Elizabeth Driscoll – my favorite Brooke Adams role. Stars alongside Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy in this superior retelling of the classic Jack Finney story. The best part of Adam’s performance here is that she does fear very well and captures how unsettling it would be to be caught up in such a dire situation as the imminent invasion of the pod people.

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Brooke Adams, Donald Sutherland, and Jeff Goldblum about to get some bad news on the telephone in one of the many tense moments in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978).

CUBA (1979) – Alexandra Lopez de Pulido- co-stars with Sean Connery in this romantic adventure by director Richard Lester.

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Sean Connery and Brooke Adams in CUBA (1979).

THE DEAD ZONE (1983) – Sarah Bracknell – David Cronenberg’s effective adaptation of Stephen King’s novel stars Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, and Martin Sheen. A good role for Adams, as she plays Sarah, the former girlfriend of Walken’s Johnny Smith. When Johnny awakes from a coma, five years have passed, and Sarah is now married to someone else. Jonny also finds that he now possesses an unusual power. Excellent horror flick!

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Brooke Adams and Christopher Walken in THE DEAD ZONE (1983).

THE STUFF (1985) – Special Guest Star in Stuff Commercial – appearance in Larry Cohen’s campy horror comedy, starring Michael Moriarty.

SNAPSHOTS (2018) – Patty – Adams’ most recent screen credit, in this drama co-starring Piper Laurie.

All told, Brook Adams has 66 screen credits. A lot of these have been on television.

Born on February 8, 1949, Adams is still actively acting. She has been performing on both the big and small screen since 1963, with her first big screen performance happening in 1971. For me, I’ll always remember Adams for her riveting performance as the very frightened Elizabeth Driscoll in the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

Well, that’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed this edition of LEADING LADIES and join me again next time when we look at the career of another lead actress in horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019) – Adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft Story Decent Enough

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COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019), filmed in 2019 but just getting its U.S. release here in February 2020, is based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name, and tells a tale of a meteorite which crash-lands on the property of a family’s farm, poisoning the land and water surrounding it, as well as the people, and if that wasn’t enough, completely messes with the space/time continuum.

Sound like a crazy trip? That’s because it is! And if you want further proof of just how trippy this one is, look no further than its cast, which includes Nicholas Cage as the patriarch of the farm family and Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame as their oddball neighbor.

And while the film is a visual tour de force, taken as a whole, it’s far from being a complete package, as its story is uneven at best and the special effects while colorful are often cheap-looking and unimpressive.

In COLOR OUT OF SPACE, Nathan Gardner (Nicholas Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), their teen daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), teen son Benny (Brendan Meyer), and young son Jack (Julian Hilliard) have all moved to a secluded farmhouse in Arkham, Massachusetts to get away from it all, to basically live off the grid and raise alpacas. Everyone seems happy enough, except for rebellious Lavinia, who wants nothing more than to escape her family and the isolated farm.

But when a meteorite crash-lands on their property, things change. For starters, their personalities are affected, especially Nathan’s and Theresa’s who both become more belligerent around their children. Young Jack hears voices coming from the well. Time changes, as it’s dark one moment, light the next, and they find themselves off- kilter, in an almost dreamlike state as their grip on reality begins to shift.

Furthermore, a young man tasked with studying the water tables in the area, Ward (Elliot Knight) determines that there’s something wrong with the water, that it’s poisonous. As things grow more bizarre, strange mutations start taking place, and suddenly in this dreamlike state the Gardners find themselves fighting for their lives.

For the most part, I liked COLOR OUT OF SPACE. It tells a decent enough story, although it doesn’t really push the envelope enough to fully do justice to the source material. The film is unrated, and in spite of some scenes that try to be gory, the film doesn’t ever really get all that disturbing or scary.

Once the meteorite has crashed and is doing its thing, the colors at the farm and throughout the surrounding wilderness are fun to behold, but the actual special effects aren’t so great, and in fact they’re rather cheap looking. What should be some of the more disturbing effects, scenes where beings are mutated together in horrifyingly twisted creatures, come off instead looking like inexpensive cousins to the effects seen way back when in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982). Carpenter’s classic is 38 years old, and the effects in that movie are better than the effects here.

The actual story remains more bizarre than frightening. Screenwriters Scarlett Armaris and Richard Stanley, who also directed, do a good job setting up the mystery but afterwards never go for the jugular.

Nicholas Cage has a field day as papa Nathan Gardner, and for most of the film, he was my favorite part. Madeleine Arthur is also very good as recalcitrant daughter Lavinia.

The rest of the cast is satisfactory. And if young Julian Hilliard with his big eyeglasses looks familiar acting terrified, it’s because he did the same thing with better results on the Netflix TV show THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018).

COLOR OUT OF SPACE works better as a science fiction movie than a horror movie, although it certainly tries hard to be the latter, thanks to some gory scenes by director Richard Stanley. Unfortunately, these scenes don’t really resonate. With their cheap look, they play more as high camp, but other than Nicholas Cage’s performance, the film isn’t all that campy.

I wish COLOR OUT OF SPACE had been better. As it stands, it’s a many-hued science fiction flick with aspirations of being horrific, but it falls slightly short of this goal. Still, if you like this sort of thing, you definitely want to check it out, especially if you’re a fan of Nicholas Cage.

At the end of the day COLOR OUT OF SPACE is just decent enough to satisfy its niche audience.

—END—

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019) – Takes Its Horror Tropes Seriously

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SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019), the new horror film based on the books Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Stories to Chill Your Bones (1991), all by Alvin Schwartz, hits all the right marks, especially if you’re a fan of traditional genre horror.

We’ve been fortunate in recent years to have seen a good number of highbrow artistic horror movies make their way through the cinemas, films like GET OUT (2017) and this year’s MIDSOMMAR (2019) for example, films that raise the bar and do more with horror than just revisit standard tropes.

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is not one of these movies. Instead, it hearkens back to these standard tropes and then proceeds unapologetically to deliver the goods. There are decent scares throughout SCARY STORIES, mostly because it takes its subject matter seriously, in spite of the fact that the stories deal with the supernatural, scarecrows that come to life, undead corpses back for revenge, and creepy monsters from childhood nightmares. A lot of filmmakers would have taken this material and turned it into high camp. That’s not the case here. The stories are told in deadly earnest. I liked this.

Give credit to director Andre Ovredal. Not only does he craft some spine chilling scenes here, but better yet, he builds suspense. So many horror films I see these days surprisingly struggle with building suspense. They’re a series of scary scenes that fail to build into anything cohesive, leaving endings that simply fall flat. Ovredal avoids this pitfall by making each subsequent story scarier than the previous one, and with some effective editing, saves the best stuff for last. I really liked how this one was constructed.

Likewise, I loved the script by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, and Guillermo del Toro. It tells a gripping story with real characters and situations, in spite of the heavy dose of supernatural creatures. I also loved the dialogue.

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK takes place in  the fall of 1968. While kids are gearing up for Halloween, the real world is dealing with the war in Vietnam and the election of Richard Nixon as president.  On Halloween, high school friends Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) decide to trick or treat one last time as the following year they’ll be off to college, but rather than candy, they’re more interested in pranking their school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). When that doesn’t go well, they flee from Tommy and his buddies and seek refuge in a car in a drive-in theater whose lone occupant is a teen Ramon Morales (Michael Garza) who’s not from town.

They become friends with Ramon, and since it’s Halloween decide to take him to their local haunted house, the Bellows House, where legend has it children had disappeared there. The story goes that years ago the influential Bellows family had a daughter named Sarah who they kept locked in a room, and who told visiting children horror stories through the walls, stories that would come true and claim the lives of the children.

Stella and her friends break into the abandoned house, and amazingly, they not only discover Sarah’s secret room, but the book with her stories, seemingly written in blood. Stella, who loves horror stories and writes them herself, takes the book with her, but it doesn’t take long for her to realize this was a bad idea, as she watches in disbelief as a story writes itself about one of her friends, and the next thing she knows that friend disappears.

Gulp!

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is completely predictable and doesn’t really present anything horror audiences haven’t seen before, but that doesn’t stop this movie from being scary and fun. And that’s because everything in this one is expertly handled and taken seriously.

The story where the scarecrow comes to life is as creepy as they come. I especially enjoyed the look of the scarecrow.  I also enjoyed the look of the other creatures in this one. Even though Guillermo del Toro only worked on the screenplay and didn’t direct this movie, the various creatures here have del Toro written all over them.

The young cast also acquit themselves quite nicely. Zoe Margaret Colletti is excellent in the lead role as Stella, as is Michael Garza as the young stranger in town, Ramon Morales. I also enjoyed Gabriel Rush as Auggie and Austin Zajur as Chuck. Austin Abram was also memorable as bully Tommy.

A couple of veteran actors round out the cast. Dean Norris plays Stella’s father, and Gil Bellows plays the local police chief.

And don’t let the fact that SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is based on a collection of children’s horror stories fool you. This is the real deal. Sure, it’s rated PG-13, and so it’s not a heavy hitting R rated horror flick.  But it is a well-written, directed, and acted horror treat.

And yes, its supernatural elements really aren’t all that believable, but because everyone in this one both in front of and behind the camera took it seriously, that doesn’t really seem to matter. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK really works, from beginning to end. And it even sets itself up for a sequel and does so in a way that makes perfect sense and is not based on some silly tacked on ending where the monster suddenly jumps back to life. There really isn’t anything silly about SCARY STORIES.

I went into SCARY  STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK not really expecting much, but I left the theater pleasantly surprised.

I highly recommend SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. It’s one of my favorite horror movies of the year so far.

—END—

 

 

 

PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956)

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Hey, good lookin!

Huh, me? Are you talking to me?

If you are, you best mean what you say. The Gill Man is not known for having thick scales—er, skin.  And yes that is the Gill Man in the photo above, otherwise known as the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

We all know the iconic look of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, one of Universal’s classic monsters, but in the photo above, that ain’t it!  And that’s because in the third and final Creature movie, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956),  a group of scientists perform surgery on the creature, in a misguided attempt to make him more human.

There are three Creature From the Black Lagoon movies. The first and the best, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), was followed by two sequels, which while not as good as the original, were highly entertaining in their own right, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956).

The most memorable part of the third film is that the Creature’s look changes in the second half of the film, as seen in the photo above, and that’s because evil scientist William Barton (Jeff Morrow) attempts to change the Gill Man into an air breather for reasons which never make much sense, but that’s okay. After all, he’s an evil scientist. He’s not supposed to make sense.

The surgery also seems to give the Creature some bulk, and that’s because after the surgery, the gill man was played by the very large Don Megowan. And if you want to see Megowan without the Gil Man make-up you can check out the neat chiller THE WEREWOLF (1956) in which Megowan played the hero, the town sheriff. Anyway, this new gill man on land is a hulking figure who appears much more monstrous in size than when we saw him underwater.

I like all three CREATURE movies, and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US is probably my least favorite of the three, mostly because I prefer the classic underwater Creature. That being said, the on-land Creature is certainly scary looking, and I wouldn’t want to bump into him while walking along the beach at night, that’s for sure!

And while the Creature never perishes on-screen, it’s assumed that he finally dies at the end of THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, because the film ends with the Creature returning to the ocean, only now he doesn’t have gills anymore, and so most likely he will drown.

Then again, the Creature is not stupid. For all we know, rather than drowning, he simply turned around and came back ashore.

But where did he go afterwards, you ask?

For the answer to that question, let’s turn to the fictional side of this otherwise nonfiction article:

There are a number of theories. Rumor has it that he settled in the woods of North America and started the Bigfoot craze. Others believe he went on to enjoy a successful career as a Hollywood stuntman. And still others believe he simply settled down and opened his own seafood restaurant, Gillman’s Fish and Chips Shack.

Whatever his fate, he was never seen on the big screen again, and that’s no fiction!

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TARANTULA (1955)

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Don’t you just love furry little critters like— tarantulas?  No?  Find them a bit scary and repulsive, do you?  Well, then you’ll just cringe at the colossal star of Universal’s TARANTULA (1955), a spider so big it can step on a house!

TARANTULA is one of the best giant monster movies from the 1950s.  It’s certainly the finest one produced by Universal Studios.

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) is called to the coroner’s office in the small town of Desert Rock, Arizona, by his friend Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) to investigate the death of a man found in the desert.  The victim resembles a man they know, Eric Jacobs, but his facial features are swollen and contorted.  Hastings believes Jacobs’ symptoms resemble the disease acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland, but this doesn’t make sense to Hastings since the disease takes years to develop and Jacobs wasn’t showing any symptoms just days before.

When Jacobs’ employer, the eminent Professor Gerald Deemer, (Leo G. Carroll), arrives, he insists that Jacobs was indeed suffering from acromegaly, and he refuses to allow an autopsy on the body.  This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Hastings, who finds the diagnosis wrong, and Deemer’s behavior baffling.

Yep, Deemer is the town’s resident mad scientist, and he lives just outside Desert Rock in a huge mansion, complete with a laboratory full of oversized animals in cages, including a tarantula the size of a dog.  When yet another malformed insane human attacks Professor Deemer, the laboratory is set on fire and destroyed, but not before the tarantula escapes from the house.  This hideous human also injects an unconscious Deemer with some unknown drug, before collapsing and dying himself.

Later, when a new assistant arrives in town to work for Professor Deemer, the beautiful Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), Matt Hastings accompanies her to Deemer’s place, where he learns all about the professor’s research.  Professor Deemer is attempting to stamp out world hunger by using atomic energy to create a “super” food nutrient, which he has injected into various animals, and as a result they have grown in size.  Hmm.  Supersized fried chicken!  Yummy!

Deemer tells Steve and Matt that his lab was destroyed in an accidental fire, and he believes all his caged animals were killed.  He doesn’t realize that his tarantula is free in the desert growing bigger by the minute.  When next seen, the spider is gigantic, the size of a house, and it’s hungry, eating everything in its path, including horses, farms animals, and people.

Eventually, the giant tarantula sets its hairy sights on Desert Rock, and suddenly the town has to scramble to defend itself against the humongous marauding arachnid.

TARANTULA is one of my favorite giant monster movies.  First off, the screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley presents a story that is more creative than most.  There’s more going on in TARANTULA than just the basic “giant bug on the loose” storyline.  There’s all the mystery surrounding Professor Deemer’s research, and the strange misshapen men lumbering in and around his property, which adds some genuine intrigue to the story.  Screenwriter Berkeley also penned the screenplay for two other Universal monster classics, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957).

Director Jack Arnold, who directed several genre movies, including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), is at the top of his game with TARANTULA.  He creates some memorable scenes.  One of my favorites occurs at night at a farm, when suddenly a group of horses begins to grow very nervous.  In the distance we see a darkened hill, and very slowly, onto that hill from the other side, creeps the massive tarantula.  It’s one hair-raising scene!

Another effective scene has Steve walking back and forth in her bedroom, not noticing the enormous tarantula through her window as it makes its way towards the house.  She doesn’t notice until the beast is on top of the house, literally!

And the tarantula looks terrific, as it’s menacing and scary.  I’m sure the special effects team was helped by the black and white photography, because with shades of light and dark, the tarantula fits into its scenes naturally and realistically.  The special effects team did a phenomenal job in this one.

The make-up on the acromegaly victims was done by Bud Westmore, and it reminds me a lot of the work he did on ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958), as his monstrous creations in both these movies resemble the folks in the desert in TARANTULA.

There’s also an effective music score by Herman Stein.

The cast is decent enough.  Though I’m not a huge fan of John Agar, his performance in TARANTULA is one of his best. He makes his Dr. Matt Hastings a very likeable fellow, and rarely has he seemed more natural in front of the camera.  I just want to know what he keeps inside his briefcase.  It must be valuable, because young dashing Dr. Hastings doesn’t go anywhere without it, even grabbing it before he runs out the door!

Playing Sheriff Andrews is character actor Nestor Paiva, who appeared in a ton of movies and TV shows over the years.  I’ll always remember him as Lucas, the captain of the Rita in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955).

Leo G. Carroll, another veteran of movies and television, is also very good as Professor Deemer.  Carroll appeared in many Alfred Hitchcock movies, including NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and SPELLBOUND (1945), and he played Alexander Waverly on the 1960s secret agent show THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).

And for added fun, Clint Eastwood appears unbilled in one of his first roles as an air force pilot leading the attack on the tarantula, arriving just in time to save the folks of Desert Rock from the deadly arachnid.

Do you feel lucky, tarantula?”

—END—

(Originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association in July 2012).

 

LEADING LADIES: ZITA JOHANN

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Boris Karloff and Zita Johann in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

Zita Johann only had eight screen credits, but one of them is well-known to horror fans.

When she starred opposite Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932) she delivered one of the great performances in a Universal monster movie. Her portrayal of Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnated Princess Anckesen-Amon, was mystical, mysterious, tragic, and very sexy.

And in terms of classic horror, that’s all she wrote. It was one and done for Johann, which is too bad, because she was really good in THE MUMMY.

Here’s a partial look at Johann’s film career:

THE STRUGGLE (1931) – Florrie – Johann’s film debut is in this drama about alcoholism, the final feature directed by D.W. Griffith.

TIGER SHARK (1932) – Quita Silva- Romance directed by Howard Hawks, also starring Edward G. Robinson and featuring J. Carroll Naish.

THE MUMMY (1932)- Helen Grosvenor – one of Universal’s best monster movies. Slow-paced but eerie to its core, this Karl Freund directed thriller features a remarkable performance by Boris Karloff as the living mummy Im Ho Tep, who, once resurrected, seeks out the mummified body of his former love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon.

THE MUMMY is really a tragic love story. Im Ho Tep’s life is shattered when his forbidden love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon, dies at a young age. When he tries to resurrect her using the Scroll of Thoth, he’s found out and sentenced to death. He meets a horrifying end as he’s buried alive.

Centuries later, in 1921, his mummified body is discovered and accidentally resurrected. He resurfaces in 1932 and helps archeologists unearth the tomb of the mummified Princess Anckesen-Amon, in the hopes of once more bringing her back to life.

While attempting to do so, he discovers Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who’s the splitting image of Anckesen-Amon. Convinced that Helen is Anckesen-Amon reincarnated, Im Ho Tep seeks to kill her and bring her back to life so they can live together for all eternity.

THE MUMMY also features the phenomenal make-up work of Jack Pierce, and fine supporting performances by Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, but it’s Boris Karloff and Zita Johann who drive THE MUMMY.

Johann’s wide eyes and dark features give her a sensual, mysterious presence. She makes for a strong, independent female character, and she’s convincing as the reincarnated princess.

In THE MUMMY, Johann delivers one of my favorite performances by an actress in the Universal monster movies.

RAIDERS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1986) – Librarian – Zita Johann’s final screen credit in this 1980s zombie flick.

Zita Johann was born on July 14, 1904 in Austria-Hungary. Before acting in the movies, she performed on Broadway starting in 1924.

In THE MUMMY, she and director Karl Freund did not get along. According to Johann, Freund went out of his way to make her life miserable on set. That being said, Johann did develop the reputation for being a difficult actress to work with. Evidently, she turned down lots of scripts, which may explain why she made so few movies.

I wish Johann had made more movies. Her performance as Helen Grosvenor has always been a treat for me and one of the best parts of THE MUMMY. Watching Johan portray Grosvenor, you’ll easily see why Karloff’s Im Ho Tep was in love with her.

Johann passed away on September 20, 1993 in Nyack, New York at the age of 89 from pneumonia.

Zita Johann – July 14, 1904 – September 20, 1993.

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING LADIES column and will join me again next time when we look at another leading lady from horror cinema.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: STEPHANIE (2017)

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Shree Crooks as STEPHANIE (2017)

STEPHANIE (2017), a horror film about a little girl facing an unknown horrific threat all by her lonesome almost works.

Almost.

What stops this flick from ultimately succeeding is a lack of courage on the part of the filmmakers to take this story to the deepest dark places it should have gone. Instead, we have a plot tweak midway through that changes everything, and the film is worse off for it.

When STEPHANIE opens, young Stephanie (Shree Crooks) is home alone, occupying herself with her imaginary stuffed animal friends, getting into mischief as any child would do left to their own devices. She attempts among other things to cook and clean on her own, running afoul of every day threats like broken glass on the floor while walking barefoot. You’ll wince even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  Just why she’s by herself we’re not exactly sure, although there seems to have been some sort of apocalyptic incident that has wiped out at the very least the population around her.

One night, as she brushes her teeth and plays in front of the bathroom mirror, she hears a strange noise coming from the darkness. She knows what it is. Evidently, there is some sort of “monster” which enters her house at times, and to escape, she has to hide and remain silent. She hears the monster foraging throughout the house, growling and sniffing for prey, and then it leaves.

Adding to the mystery there’s also a dead body in her house, Stephanie’s brother, who seems to have succumbed to whatever malady wiped out everyone else. Stephanie it appears is immune. But then one day, Stephanie’s parents return, and while she is overjoyed to see them, she suddenly wonders why they left her alone in the first place.

And it’s at this point in the movie where the plot changes, and from here on in, things just  don’t work as well because the story enters territory we’ve all seen before and any innovative freshness the film possessed earlier disappears.

Which is too bad because the first half of STEPHANIE is really, really good, and the biggest reason why is the performance by young actress Shree Crooks as Stephanie. I hesitate to give such high praise to such a young actress, but she’s so good here she’s nearly mesmerizing. Early on, when she has the run of the house, she’s fun to watch, and later when the monster invades, you share in Stephanie’s terror. Crooks does fear really well.

So, early on the story had me hooked. I wanted to know why Stephanie was alone and just what kind of monster kept breaking into her house.  And I cared enough about young Stephanie that I was ready to watch a film about just one little girl on her own having to square off against a monstrous threat.

But ultimately this isn’t the story STEPHANIE has to tell. Her parents arrive home, and the inevitable plot twist isn’t up to snuff and only serves to steer the story into familiar territory, which is far less satisfying than what had come before it. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, STEPHANIE ends up being just a standard horror movie.

Frank Grillo and Anna Torv [recently of Netflix’ MINDHUNTER (2017-19)] play Stephanie’s parents, and while there’s nothing wrong with their performances, they unfortunately appear in the film’s inferior second half.

The screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski tells two different stories, and I enjoyed the first story much better than the second. The first half of the story with Stephanie home alone works so well I was really looking forward to seeing how she was going to deal with the monster in her house, but that confrontation never happens.

Director Akiva Goldsman sets up some suspenseful scenes early on, especially when the monster invades the house. Goldsman also deserves plenty of credit for capturing such a powerful performance from such a young performer. Shree Crooks completely carries the first half of the movie all by her lonesome.

Later, when the story pivots, the scares are much more standard, the results more predictable.

STEPHANIE did not have a theatrical release and was instead marketed straight to video on demand. I saw it on Netflix.

As it stands, it’s not a bad horror movie, but based on the way it started, it had the potential to be something very special, if only the initial story had been allowed to develop.

In spite of this, Shree Crooks delivers the performance of the movie. She’s terrific throughout, and she’s the main reason to see STEPHANIE.

—END—