Movies

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• The Stunt Man
• Prom Night
• He Knows You're Alone
• The Island

• The main thrust of a film is usually evident in the first few minutes, and never more so than with 1980's low-quality stuff. Not so with THE STUNT MAN, a work of considerable subtlety that does not easily yield its multiple layers of meaning to an audience. There may be a few scenes that are unduly melodramatic and a couple of others that remain puzzling even after the film is over, but it appears that writer-director-producer Richard Rush has tried with great success not to be obvious. The language uttered by Peter O'Toole is not only literate but Shakespearean in its complexity and density, so that one would have to see the film again to take in its full meaning; much of it is way above the level of a popcorn audience, but that didn't deter the director from keeping it in. Instead of insulting the intelligence of an audience, he titillates and challenges it.

Nothing is quite what it appears to be at first. A man (Steve Railsback) is escaping from the law. He runs across a rickety bridge and is almost run over by a man driving a shining Duesenberg. But the Duesenberg suddenly disappears, presumably in the water, and instead there appears a helicopter. The terrorized fugitive fears that he's going to be accused of the murder of the disappearing man, but the man in the helicopter, who seems to sense every possibility before it happens, sees the fugitive's handcuffs and conceives a plan: disguise him as a stunt man so that he, the movie director (O'Toole), who has just filmed the scene with the Duesenberg, can use him to finish his picture. And so we have one of the most original films about the making of films, set in a context that isn't about films at all. Though Railsback is excellent and takes up more footage, the film belongs to O'Toole for the sustained high energy with which he delivers his quite extraordinary lines.

The film is jolly, yet also serious. It is a puzzle intricately put together, its storyline both subtle and unpredictable. Its theme remains somewhat mysterious; Rush says it is about "inventing and believing in limited views of the truth." But a dozen other themes could be as plausibly assigned to it, and while those so inclined may speculate about what its "real meaning" is, those who have come to see another slapstick comedy may come away having their minds teased, even jolted a bit.

• PROM NIGHT promises to be another exercise in terror and suspense. What it delivers is the most cliché-ridden, ineptly handled story of its kind in a long timeâ€"amateurishly acted, with maddening pacing and rhythm, huge holes in the plot, and an ending that is enough to mystify even an ardent champion of senseless mystery-mongering. This time around the villain wields a huge axe. An axe is what should have been used to cut the celluloid into little pieces so that no one would ever have to suffer the indignity of sitting through this stupid picture.

Yet it is almost delightful compared with its immediate successor in the same genre, HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE. This one is so bad that it doesn't even deserve nasty words to be wasted on it. Maybe if nothing is said about it, it will just quietly go away.

• Any film with the word island in the title is apt to trigger associations of romance and adventure. But not when the film is entitled simply THE ISLAND. This one contains more blood and gore even than the rest of the summer fare, as if determined to shock even those who, through overexposure, have been immunized to it.

As a solution to the old Bermuda Triangle puzzle, it won't really wash. That a group of pirates from the 17th century could have held out there, capturing boats and killing those aboard, and remaining undetected through all this for three centuries, has about zero probability. Still, if one is willing to suspend disbelief about all this and doesn't mind the copious servings of blood, this isn't such a bad yarn. It has quite a bit of tension and some scary moments. Michael Caine displays his usual aplomb, and the scenes involving the brainwashing of his son are well enough done, though the son's conversion to the cult is a bit too quick for credibility. Actually, it's a story that would be very exciting to children, but because of the constant depiction of murder and pillage it is hardly the kind of film that children (at any rate most children) should seeâ€"and thus the film must be rated unsuitable for both groups. The only thing in it that is suitable for both is the rousing background music of Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, of which one can buy a recording for less than the cost of seeing the picture.

John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His special interest is the area of aesthetics.