Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Thrillers - Hal Horn ""

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - Hal Horn

Hal Horn is an institution here at Rupert Pupkin Speaks. He is always Mr. Johnny-On-The-Spot with a great list of truly underappreciated cinema from a man who clearly adores it. I love his blog, The Horn Section( and give it my highest personal recommendation, so scoot on over there!

It is strange to think of any Hitchcock film as ‘underrated’, but this oft-overlooked entry qualifies.  Aircraft factory worker Robert Cummings is accused of sabotage after a plant fire.   Cummings rightfully suspects Norman Lloyd as the real culprit, but no one believes him.  He’s on the run, and on his own to investigate the crime, a search that takes him cross-country from Glendale, California to New York City.  Unsurprisingly for a 1942 film, the battle between tyranny and democracy is a running theme, ending up a suitably symbolic location, the Statue of Liberty.  Hitch wanted Gary Cooper for Cummings’ role, but the future sitcom star (LOVE THAT BOB) was a more than adequate replacement, with Priscilla Lane equally effective in a role intended for Barbara Stanwyck.  The budgetary constraints imposed on Hitchcock by Universal actually work to the film’s advantage; SABOTEUR provides as much tension as Hitchcock’s better-known thrillers.  Always somewhat underrated himself as a film actor (KING’S ROW and THE BLACK BOOK were among his top-notch efforts) Cummings later co-starred in the director’s DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954).

Patty Duke pops up twice on my list, with this entry reuniting her with MY SWEET CHARLIE director Lamont Johnson.  This was one of her few theatrical features of the 1970’s.  Pregnant Duke travels to Minnesota to meet her late husband’s mother Rosemary Murphy for the first time (!).  Murphy is ice-cold to her, openly suspecting that the baby is not her late son’s.  Then a blizzard leaves Duke stranded at the home for several days, during which she finds several things amiss with her in-laws: Murphy is actually her sister in law, her husband’s mother is dead, and Murphy’s son Richard Thomas is a serial rapist and murderer hiding out in the mansion.  Noted mainly for his television work, Johnson does a superb job with the claustrophobic atmosphere in the mansion.  YOU’LL LIKE MY MOTHER is hard to find: it’s an excellent candidate for “Why the Hell isn’t this on DVD Yet?” that I need to get around to.  To date, it has received only a VHS release in 2000, the tail end of the videocassette era.  Worth searching out.

THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, a dozen years earlier and made for TV.  Doctor William Shatner and wife Patty Duke are new to Seattle (via Chicago) and need a live-in nanny for daughter Quinn Cummings.  Without consulting her husband, Duke hires eighteen year old Stephanie Zimbalist, who initially has a very positive impact.   Shatner begins investigating Zimbalist’s background, while the nanny ingratiates herself to Duke and Cummings and begins her subtle divide and conquer scheme.   Oh Hell, you’ve seen the 1992 theatrical film, so you know how it goes.   The constraints of being made for TV hurt a bit, but this one still has the irresistibly familiar premise and a great television cast, which also includes John Houseman.  Directed by Peter Medak (ROMEO IS BLEEDING).

How many re-watchables has Kurt Russell made?  Probably as many as any leading man of the last three decades.   This early Jonathan Mostow effort echoes THE VANISHING POINT and Spielberg’s DUEL, as Russell loses wife Kathleen Quinlan in the desert without a trace, rightly suspecting seemingly friendly trucker J. T. Walsh of foul play.  True, you’re more likely to be aware of this one than the others on this list, since it actually opened at number one at the boxoffice in May 1997 and has been popping up on Starz recently.  While derivative, it’s entertainingly so, with Mostow showing his chops pre-TERMINATOR 3.  

I know, I’ve mentioned this overlooked Kate Hudson starrer before, but it remains under the radar.  From screenwriter Ehren Kruger (THE RING), this minor Hoodoo classic also co-stars heavyweights Gena Rowlands and John Hurt.  THE SKELETON KEY is a pleasant surprise on first watch, and stands up to repeat viewings, with just a few more creepy details emerging in the dialogue each time.   Plenty of stormy nights, creaky attic doors, and scary old records: Hell, it even manages to make The Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” sound spooky.   The denouement makes much of what preceded it even more frightening in retrospect.   Currently streaming on Netflix Instant, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you should.

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