Sisters of Death (1976) review-too dumb to live

If I were to give any unsolicited advice to an aspiring screenwriter it would be this: start with a bang and end strong.

In my experience, a good beginning and conclusion can salvage a complete cinematic misfire, or at least help you forgive some of the glaring problems that dominate a movie’s middle section.

Outside of the newest entry in the James Bond franchise, my most recent encounter with this phenomenon took place during a viewing of Joe Mazzuca’s Sisters of Death (1976), a low-budget horror film that is rife with plot holes, cheap titillation, and bad production values.

However, I couldn’t bring myself to truly hate this film, since there were enough interesting elements at play to hold my attention for 97 minutes (including a really entertaining finale).

Still, I wouldn’t go as far to say that Sisters of Death is some kind of underrated horror masterpiece or anything, since the film often looks and feels like a porno with all the explicit sex scenes taken out.

The plot of Sisters of Death kicks off with a literal bang, where a secret college sorority initiation ceremony goes horribly wrong and results in one of the pledges being shot in the head.

Seven years later, the surviving members of the sorority meet up for a reunion at a secluded compound, although nothing is as it seems.

Once the women realize that they have been trapped by an electric fence, paranoia begins to set in once a mysterious killer starts picking them off one by one.

On paper, this sounds like a perfectly serviceable premise for an exploitation flick, especially with noted b-movie queen Claudia Jennings serving as the main lead.

And like I mentioned before, the opening couple minutes of this film serve as a great hook, where the filmmakers use an ethereal score and sudden burst of violence to set the stage for a movie that’s meant to be equal parts mystery and slasher.

Unfortunately, the script really starts to fall apart as soon as the plot gets rolling, since virtually all of the characters make one bone-headed decision after another, even by horror movie standards.

For one thing, the invitation to this college reunion was sent out by a mystery benefactor, which doesn’t set off any alarm bells for most of the women involved.

The majority of these ladies also find no problem with getting into a car with two strange men who were hired to drive them out into the middle of the desert.

And when they finally arrive at their destination, the sorority sisters are thrilled to find that this shadowy figure has supplied them with champagne and their own bathing suits to enjoy the compound’s luxurious pool area.

This serious lack of curiosity and self-preservation makes you resent these characters before they are even put in mortal damage, which robs the latter half of this movie of any real tension.

And that’s a real shame, since the entire cast are obviously doing their best to work with the material they were given.

Even though the sorority sisters are brainless idiots, the actresses playing them all have great chemistry and really sold me on the idea that they are old friends.

The movie’s screenwriters also do a decent job of imbuing the five main actresses with unique personalities, which helps you at least keep track of all the main characters once they start dropping like flies.

The people behind the camera should be given some credit as well, since they made the wise decision to utilize a lot of long takes to build suspense. 

Combine all these lingering shots with an eerie, atmospheric score and Sisters of Death occasionally resembles the better “Giallo” Italian horror movies that were coming out around the same time, albeit with a fraction of the same directorial skill that was wielded by filmmakers like Dario Argento.

Because as hard as he tries, Mazzuca’s cinematic ambitions are constantly at odds with the poor production values that plague most of this movie.

One of the most glaring examples of this dynamic is the “giant” electric fence that is meant to keep all the main characters from escaping the compound.

While I’m sure the original script for Sisters of Death specified that this fence needed to be 20-30 feet high, what ends up on the screen is a structure that is barely taller than an average man.

As pointed out by YouTuber Robin Bailes, the characters could have easily escaped this deadly scenario if they simply stacked some furniture next to this fence and hopped to the other side.

Instead, the sorority sisters and their two male companions simply wait around like sitting ducks and continue to go about their day and night almost like nothing had even happened, deciding to take hot showers and go to bed in their underwear.

This would have made sense if Sisters of Death was an outright porno, where the filmmakers were financially obligated to crowbar some inorganic sex scenes into the plot every five minutes or so.

But since that never happens, all I’m left with is the cinematic equivalent of blue balls and lingering thoughts like: “why didn’t they stay outside where the killer can’t sneak up on them?”

It also doesn’t help that the movie’s editor was seemingly asleep at the wheel, since I spotted the crew’s boom mic in at least five different shots.

But despite all those shortcomings, Sisters of Death actually manages to pull itself together for the final 10 minutes, where all the various plot threads wrap up in a pretty compelling fashion.

I won’t spoil what happens, but suffice it to say that Mazzuca and his screenwriters successfully threw some curveballs at me that I wasn’t expecting for a film of this caliber.

And while a strong ending isn’t enough to override the film’s many shortcomings, it at least made me feel like I hadn’t completely wasted my time.

Is this a back-handed compliment? Sure. But if the writers of Seinfeld have taught me anything, it’s that glaring character flaws can be forgiven if you leave the audience on a high note.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Wagon Wheels (because the middle is the worst part)

Fun facts:

-Release date: April 19, 1976 (IMDB), August 1977 (Wikipedia)

-According to IMDB, this movie was originally shot in 1972, but wasn’t released until several years later.

-Actress and Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings, who plays the lead character in Sisters of Death, tragically died in an automobile accident on Oct. 3, 1979, only a few years after this movie was released. She was 29 years old.

Sisters of Death marks Joe Mazzuca’s last project as a live-action film director before switching over to being a production manager for several animated TV shows. His filmography includes work on programs like: Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, Muppet Babies, and Dexter’s Laboratory.

Sisters of Death can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.

Perfect Stranger (2007) review-Hitchcock for wine moms

The jury’s still out on whether or not Halle Berry is a recipient of the Oscar curse.

Even though she’s remained a household name to this day, Berry never really lived up to her potential after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for Monster’s Ball (2001).

Rather than using that momentum to further her career as a critical darling, Berry starred in a series of bonafide clunkers instead, including Die Another Day (2002), Gothika (2003), and Catwoman (2004).

That last film even netted Berry a Razzie for Worst Actress, which she famously accepted in person with her Oscar in tow.

While Perfect Stranger (2007) is a few years removed from this famous losing streak it carries that same stench of failure, boasting piss poor box office returns and an even more dismal critical reception (10% on Rotten Tomatoes).

And while I don’t think this psychological thriller is that bad, it’s still crushingly stupid and something that definitely won’t be brought up in any of Berry’s future sit-down interviews with Oprah.

In terms of plot, Berry stars as crusading journalist Rowena Price who decides to investigate wealthy businessman Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis) after her childhood friend (who was having an affair with Hill) turns up dead.

To find the real killer, Rowena goes undercover at Hill’s ad agency and even adopts an online persona to try and seduce him on two fronts.

It’s hard to talk about Perfect Stranger without veering off into the realm of spoilers, since the film’s biggest weakness is it over reliance a ludicrous plot twist that’s meant to prop up the entirety of the story.

Sticking to just the acting for just a minute, Berry’s performance as the movie’s lead is very hit and miss. She’s perfectly serviceable in scenes involving tense intrigue or flirty conversations over drinks. But whenever she’s called upon to deliver a line that’s above a dull roar, Berry can’t help but go over the top and chew up the scenery like she’s headlining a Lifetime Movie.

Thankfully, Giovanni Ribisi picks up the slack in the acting department, since he does a much better job of finding a happy medium between those two conflict tones in a supporting role as Rowena’s closest confidant and secret stalker.

Willis is also surprisingly decent at playing the sinister ad executive, although that’s probably because his dialogue is kept to a minimum.

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On the directing side, James Foley does a good job of emphasizing the lurid subject matter, making sure to crowd the screen with bold colours in every scene involving explicit sex and violence.

And screenwriters Jon Bokenkamp and Todd Komarnicki should be given some credit for trying to tell a story about losing one’s identity in the digital age way before the explosion of social media.

But that’s about as far as I’ll go to praise the writing, since the film’s plot is one long Shaggy Dog story.

While each individual story development isn’t too outlandish, for this kind of trashy thriller anyway, it’s all built on a foundation of sand.

Without going into specific details, the revelation of the killer’s identity and their overarching motivation comes completely out of nowhere and resembles something the producers put together at the last minute to artificially throw savvy moviegoers off the scent.

In fact, according to IMDB, the filmmakers shot three different endings for this movie, each with a different character as the killer, which means the revelation was designed to be a gimmick rather than an organic conclusion.

Unlike a good movie twist, there’s no breadcrumb trail to follow up on after the fact that puts everything in the proper context. Instead, all the audience is left with is a wet fart of a climax that’s meant to shock but not make any sense.

It’s the kind of bad ending that taints the rest of the film, even the parts that are relatively enjoyable.

Suffice it to say, Perfect Stranger is not a modern answer to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Hell, it’s not even on the same level as 2000s M. Night Shyamalan.

It’s basically Hitchcock for wine-moms, where well-crafted suspense and intrigue is replaced by hammy acting, cheap titillation, and soap opera style plot progression.

On that level, this thriller is worth watching just for the fun of picking apart its non-sensical plots threads.

Halle Berry completionists also might want to give this film a look, although their time is probably better spent watching B*A*P*S for the 20th time.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Kinder Surprise (because it’s an appealing shell containing a crappy surprise)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: April 13, 2007

-Budget: $60,795,000

-Box office gross: $23,984,949 (US), $73, 090, 611 (worldwide)

-Film critic Richard Roper ranked Perfect Stranger as his 10th worst film of 2007, right behind Rush Hour 3 and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

-This movie was originally supposed to be set in New Orleans, but the script was re-written to take place in New York City after Hurricane Katrina hit during pre-production.

-Unexpected cameo: model Heidi Klum pops up briefly during a Victoria’s Secret party that is being thrown by Willis’ fictional ad agency.

-After helming Perfect Stranger, James Foley would go on to direct TV for the next decade, including episodes of Hannibal, Billions and House of Cards. He returned to the world of feature films with a vengeance in 2017-18 by directing the second and third entry in the cinematic Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed).

One False Move (1992) review- It sounded better on paper

After suffering through trash like You Got Served, I was pretty excited to pop in Carl Franklin’s One False Move.

Not only is this gritty crime drama a radical departure from anything I’ve looked at so far, but the behind-the-scenes details relating to its production and release is a real heartwarming underdog story that will reaffirm your faith in the power of independent filmmaking.

Shot on a shoe-string budget of $2.3 million and helmed by a then amateur director, One False Move was originally set to go straight-to-video. However, strong word of mouth from critics helped it get a limited theatrical release and strong circulation on that year’s awards circuit.

Legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were some of the film’s biggest cheerleaders throughout this whole process, with the latter praising Franklin’s “powerful” directing and the “extraordinary” screenplay from star Billy Bob Thornton and his writing partner Tom Epperson.

Siskel and Ebert would even go on to name One False Move their first and second favourite movie of 1992, respectively. To put that in perspective, next year both critics would give their number one spot to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

I mention all of this inside baseball malarkey up front because, unfortunately, it’s a lot more compelling than the actual film itself.

Now don’t get me wrong, One False Move isn’t a bad movie. In fact, there are quite a few things to like about it (especially given its humble roots). But nothing about this film really grabbed me on a visceral level.

And I hate to sound like a smug contrarian, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching a standard episode of a 90s cop show stretched out to two hours (albeit with a little more hardcore violence and profanity).

Part of my problem has to do with how the film is structured, since the runtime is divvied up into two parallel plotlines.

One story features a trio of criminals (Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams and Michael Beach) who are on the run from the law after committing a horrific drug robbery in Los Angeles that resulted in multiple homicides.

The second story follows the two detectives (Jim Metzler, Earl Billings) tasked with tracking down these outlaws, who are eventually drawn to one of the suspect’s old stomping grounds in Star City, Arkansas. There, they team up with a local police chief (Bill Paxton), whose boy-scout attitude clashes with big city cops’ approach to law enforcement.

Now, taken as two separate stories, both plots feature plenty of tension, snappy dialog and nuanced performances from the entire cast.

Special mention goes out to Michael Beach, who plays the quiet psychopath “Pluto” with a complex level of menace that really got under my skin.

However, much of the film’s dramatic impact is supposed to come from the interaction between the cops and the criminals and the two groups barely spend any screen time together.

This is especially true for Bill Paxton’s police chief, whose shared history with one of the criminals is a key part of the movie, since it gradually peels away his benevolent façade and reveals a more sinister side of his personality.

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Sounds interesting, right? Well, to bad, because this element is only squeezed into the last 20 minutes, which doesn’t give it any room to breathe.

These shortcoming aren’t helped by flat direction, poor editing in spots and a dated score which relies heavily on harmonicas and what I like to call “90s sax.”

Some might view this criticism as a little harsh, especially considering that One False Move marks Carl Franklin’s first big film project after spending most of his career acting on TV and directing low budget schlock for producer Roger Corman.

But now that we live in film industry that’s filled with dazzling first-time directors like Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), it’s really hard to go back and pass off a simply “passable” job as something that is “brilliant.”

Again, I don’t get any joy in dumping on a small production like this, especially since, from what I could gather, every member of the cast and crew had their hearts in the right place while making it.

Sadly, good intentions alone aren’t enough to convince me that this movie is some kind of hidden gem. The various moving parts on display just don’t end up coalescing as a whole, which left me feeling like the movie ended 10−15 minutes before its story was complete.

But be sure to take my criticism with a golf ball sized grain of salt, since pretty much every professional movie critic under the sun disagrees with me.

Besides, who am I to second-guess the benevolent wisdom of the great Siskel and Ebert?

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Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Lay’s Ketchup Chips (because it’s not for me, but I can understand why other people like it).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: May 8, 1992

-Budget: $2.3 million

-Box office gross: $1.5 million (estimated)

-Despite my reservations about his early work, director Carl Franklin took home a number of accolades from his peers during the 1992−93 film awards circuit, including “Best Director” at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards and the “New Generation Award” at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.

-Two decades later, Franklin managed to carve out an impressive directing career for himself after his initial success in the 1990s. Today, he’s managed to generate steady work for himself on a lot of hit TV shows, sporting directing credits for: Homeland, Bloodline, 13 Reasons Why, and, most recently, Mindhunter. He was even nominated for a Primetime Emmy after helming “Chapter 14” from House of Cards (you know, the episode with the subway).

-This film marks Billy Bod Thornton’s first film writing credit, which would earn him a nomination for “Best Screenplay” at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards. Thornton would eventually walk way with that prize in 1997 thanks to his screenplay for Sling Blade.

-Co-stars Cynda Williams and Billy Bob Thornton got married shortly after filming on One False Move wrapped. They were divorced before the film was released two years later.