So much atmosphere, so little substance
A boy tries to survive a hippy freak out – of sorts
School teacher Harrison Smith told the true version of this story to his class and they said it should be a movie. So he wrote the script and sold it to Expressway Productions and Breaking Glass Pictures in Philadelphia. Apparently, directors Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni couldn’t wait to get their hands on it. What they did with the screenplay is another matter.
Staring Cloris Leachman of 70’s comedy fame, the veteran actress delivers as Glady’s, the sharp talking grandmother with a gentle heart, and this is one of her greatest performances – no, I’m not kidding. Her counterpart, Bev Appleton (Hiney) plays her moderately curmudgeon of a husband, and does so with abandon. Even little Joshua Ormond as star Steven, does a darn good job. Finally, Louis Morabito (Eugene) plays the creepy young man that will have you constantly looking over your shoulder. Yes, there are others that round out the cast, but most fail to shine. Faust Checho, as Steven’s father, is far too stiff and Tara Reid, who barely appears in the movie, phone’s it in – from long distance. Why Diane Heery and Jason Loftus casted Reid and Checho is beyond logic. Yes, they wanted a name in Reid, but she failed to deliver by any means. In fact, one gets the notion that she just wanted to collect her paycheck and get the hell out of there – and she got top billing.
In this tale, Ormond plays the role of eight-year-old Steven (Harrison Smith), and serves as the witness for all things bizarre in 1973 eastern Pennsylvania. During the fallout from the Manson trial, hippies are viewed with a truly skeptical eye before they wither out as a counter-culture, and the slumming group of hippies taking refuge in an abandoned amusement park beyond Glady’s and Hiney’s cornfield, seem to be feared as much as despised by the locals. Steven lives temporarily with his odd grandparents while his estranged parents try to determine their next move as a couple. In the meantime, Steven lets his imagination run wild with thoughts of Godzilla and Wacky Packages. This means, when he finds something horrendous beyond the cornfield, no one comes close to believing him (how cliché). Yet, as the tension mounts and mayhem comes closer to the family farm, the grandparents find truth in his tales.
Though some seem to love the subtlety and slow pace, others are quick to condemn. Regardless, most agree that Harrison Smith’s true life story is far weaker than what the script offers. So where did the filmmakers go wrong?
It certainly wasn’t with Daniel Watchulonis’s cinematography. He nailed ever shot and presented a fabulous picture in both composition as well as color. Besides Leachman and Appleton, Watchulonis is one of the main reasons this movie worked. His lighting touches are brilliant, and it’s clear he can rival anything Hollywood has to offer.
The main problem was the story itself. Granted, there was tension, but it was often short-lived or not strong enough. Even the climactic end seems half-baked, letting the audience off too quickly because the filmmakers and screenwriter didn’t go that extra step. And I’m not talking about gore or violence, we just needed to know the characters were in true danger – and not being poked at from a distance with a dull stick. At one point, we have the sensation that there is a sort of homage to Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS (1971), but the wave of suspense tends to be a ripple instead of a tsunami.
Strangely enough, the filmmakers shot scenes at the old Bushkill Park in Easton, just a few miles from my home. I even pass by the location of Smith’s grandparent’s actual farmhouse when I rush out for eggs and yogurt. Again, Watchulonis captured the unnerving essence of the abandoned establishment, and it’s a shame Mattera and Mazzoni couldn’t capitalize on his mesmerizing work.
Regardless of its shortcomings, this is an excellent example of how wonderful a low budget film can look, and may prove a vital tool for all young and first-time filmmakers – just make sure you have the right actors in place and a story that delivers. Otherwise, as a low budget dream collaboration, I hope for director Lance Weiler, THE LAST BROADCAST (1997) and HEAD TRAUMA (2006), to work together in the future.
2.5 out of 5 stars