AKA Grassland, Hex, The Shrieking
DIRECTED BY: Leo Garen
PLOT: A group of WWI veterans motorcycling through the plains of Nebraska encounter two sisters, daughters of a Native-American shaman. When the antics of the gang get a bit rowdy, one of the sisters hexes the group and the members die in strange ways.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: See the “Comments” for the argument… but if the ad campaigns below (click to enlarge) don’t convince you, then you’re obviously not into Weird Hippie Westerns.
COMMENTS: Despite the plot description, Charms is not quite the undiscovered horror gem that some might hope for. In fact, it pretty much defies any sort of expectation that one would take from its logline—which, considering the history of this film, is quite fitting. This movie has gone through several title changes. Originally called Grassland (it had a short debut under that title), it was retitled Hex and got a second brief release in the U.S. and in Europe under that new name. Then it was pulled from release and shelved by its studio, 20th Century Fox, and went relatively unseen until the early 90s, when it was released on VHS and LaserDisc under the title The Shrieking. It turns up on DVD in 2006 under its current moniker.
The screenplay was originally written in the 1960s by Doran William Cannon (Skidoo, Brewster McCloud), who sold it to Leo Garen, an off-Broadway theater director who moved into film and television. (Garen was an associate producer of Norman Mailer’s 1970 experiment Maidstone, and later co-wrote 1986’s Band of the Hand). Garen went through several drafts with screenwriters Vernon Zimmerman (Fade to Black, Unholy Rollers) and Steve Katz (“The A-Team”); Garen and Katz were eventually credited with the screenplay while Cannon and Zimmerman got story credit.
That’s quite a mish-mash, and the film certainly shows signs of too many cooks in the kitchen… but ultimately, its largest flaw (and also its charm, get it?) is that it’s a product of its time, when artistic amalgamations were encouraged to bring in the Youth Audience (who made Easy Rider and its ilk box-office successes). And while Charms is not a great film, it can certainly be argued that it is a weird one.
At first the film appears to be a period Western when the two sisters Oriole (Herazo) and Acacia (Thompson) are seen loading up a wagon to pick up supplies from the nearest town. When they see a group of motorcyclists crossing the prairie, it’s a dissociation from expectations that this will be a typical Western, which is topped by another dissociation that takes place at the climax of the film. The tone varies so much from comedy (the gang’s adventure in town, involving racing a local with a very early precursor to the ‘hot rod’) to terror (the hexing) that it can’t really be said to be a horror film. It’s a rather laid back (seriously—there’s not a lot of action here, and an extended sequence where one of the sisters introduces the bikers to “loco weed”) story of two groups of characters: a group of WW1 “young veterans” tooling around looking for kicks (the Easy Rider influence) and of two sisters with mystic powers, one light and the other dark.
Ultimately this melding of European artistic sensibility with a straightforward commercial premise doesn’t quite work as well as one would hope, as borne out by Fox not really knowing what the hell they paid for and shelving the film after two brief releases didn’t work out. But there are some tasty elements present, including the cast… anything featuring Carradine, Glenn and Busey as bikers at the start of their careers is definitely worth a look. The cinematography by Charles Rosher (3 Women) is also noteworthy and provides some beautifully haunting moments.
The budget release DVD can probably still be found on auction sites like eBay, and the film can be viewed via Amazon Instant Video.