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Knight at the Movies: 'Take Me to the River,' horror hags and sequel summer
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Back to Nebraska

The absolute last thing that Ryder ( Logan Miller ), a sullen teenager from California with a thatch of curly golden locks and a permanent pout, wants to do is go with his parents to a reunion in Nebraska. But if he has to go he'll be damned if he's going to apologize for being gay or anything else. Okay, maybe he'll be quiet about the gay thing—for the sake of his mother Cindy ( a carefully guarded Robin Weigert who memorably starred in the sexy lesbian drama Concussion ) who pleads with him for understanding as this is her side of the family. Dad ( Richard Schiff ) just seems to want to get this done.

This fish-out-of-water premise is the opening of Take Me to the River, the debut film from writer-director Matt Sobel, and it promises a familiar dysfunctional family drama—ground is most assuredly covered. Pulling up to the family homestead ( the farm where Cindy grew up ) things are immediately tense. The assembled clan are clearly a conservative bunch and Ryder, with his blazing red short shorts and girly sunglasses, immediately comes under suspicion. But there's a lot more here than the expected homophobia and rigid conservatism. The undercurrent of dread is almost palpable and escalates soon after Ryder—who defiantly moves into the front row of the assembled family photo—goes into the barn exploring at the insistence of his 9-year-old cousin Molly ( Ursula Parker ).

Screams are heard from the barn and, a moment later, Molly appears with a blood stain on her clothes followed in short order by a confused Ryder, who claims not to remember what happened. Cindy's brother Keith ( a frighteningly intense Josh Hamilton ) assumes the worst and isn't interested in Ryder's protests of innocence. Cindy manages to calm everyone down; the next day, Keith shows up at grandma's offering a heartfelt apology and inviting Ryder over for dinner.

It's before, during and after this rather benign gathering—a taco dinner prepared by Keith's wife and their daughters—that Sobel's movie veers off into the darkest of areas. The characters all seem to share a terrible knowledge and in one of the most disturbing scenes in a film I can recall—because of what it implies rather than what it shows—Sobel's strangely compelling scenario lets us in on the secret. With that, we unexpectedly enter the realm of human tragedy. Take Me to the River, no doubt, is going to wildly divide audiences. I think it announces the arrival of a tremendous talent and is not to be missed. The film is having its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. It screens May 27 and 29 as well as June 1.

Horror hags

The news that Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are going to play Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectfully, in a miniseries detailing their feud during the making of 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? set many a gay man's heart aflutter ( this one included ). That certainly included TV horror-meister Ryan Murphy, who came up with the idea and will direct. It's also sure to spur interest in what is sometimes labeled the hag-horror genre—the spate of movies in the 1960s and '70s starring classic Hollywood stars in fright flicks. These included everything from the Davis and Crawford teaming to Barbara Stanwyck in The Night Walker, Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage, Ruth Gordon in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, Davis again in Dead Ringer and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, Tallulah Bankhead in Die Die My Darling and Joan Bennett in Suspiria.

Two movies that often get overlooked in this genre have just been released in sparkling new Blu-ray editions from Shout! Factory. The first is 1965's I Saw What You Did, which bills Crawford as its star; though Crawford is actually given minimal screen time here, she's dressed to the hilt ( with a hairdo and jewels to match ) and plays with her usual intensity. The story focuses on prank telephone calls made by two bored teenage girls who anonymously dial up strangers and menacingly whisper, "I saw what you did … and I know who you are!" The two little pranksters call a man ( John Ireland ) who has just committed murder and he will stop at nothing to find those teenage brats! It's camp stuff, to be sure ( the sitcom-ish '60s score is a hoot ) and while not nearly as fun as Crawford's Strait-Jacket, it still has its share of delightful groaners ( this being a William Castle production, after all ).

The second film is the much better but more obscure You'll Like My Mother, from 1972. Patty Duke stars as a young pregnant widow who trudges ( literally ) through a blizzard to visit the mother of her late husband—a woman she's never met. But the woman who she'd thought was going to be warm and loving ( hence the title ) is the human embodiment of the raging snowstorm outside.

Character actor Rosemary Murphy arguably does her best screen work as the nasty gorgon while Duke matches her in the scenery-chewing department as the seemingly complacent but rather determined daughter-in-law. Complications arise when the storm forces Duke to spend the night in the family manse—a fabulous mansion with lots of mysterious going-ons ( is there a maniac in the house? ) exacerbated by Duke going into labor at the height of the blizzard. Richard Thomas and Sian Barbara Allen co-star in this superb example of the psychological thriller. Composer Gil Melle's score ( he did many Night Gallery episodes ) helps to ratchet up the tension, as does Lamont Johnson's sure direction. The disc includes a new interview with Thomas and Allen.

Summer of sequels

Although summer hasn't officially begun by the calendar, it recently arrived in theaters with Captain America: Civil War, the third ( or is the 10th? ) film in the ever-expanding Marvel movie universe. There's more just up ahead. Case in point: X-Men: Apocalypse, which is the ninth—yes, the ninth—installment of the franchise focused on mutant ( code word for gay ) superheroes and their struggles to coexist with ordinary ( code word for boring ) old humans. Out director Bryan Singer is once again at the helm.

Mutants of another sort are on display in Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Tim Burton 2010's fantasy extravaganza ( this time directed by James Bobin ). Both films open this Friday, May 27. Head on over to my Summer Movie Preview in this week's issue for more highlights of this summer's sequels and offbeat indie fare—all noted from my usual queer perspective.

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