Your Money and Your Strife: Held For Ransom (2000)

Dave dusts off a slightly corked vintage from Dennis Hopper’s stack of post-Millennium direct-to-video films.

Did you hear about the movie where Dennis Hopper infiltrates a bus? Or maybe that one based on a Lois Duncan book where a group of teenagers are stalked by a psychopath?

You did? Well, this isn’t either one of those.

This is HELD FOR RANSOM.

Greenlit during the early career of Randall Emmett, a former PA to Mark Wahlberg, and his production partner, George Furla, these two soon-to-be Hollywood heavyweights (they went on to produce Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019)) saw a window of opportunity in the booming post-Scream (1996) trend for teen-centric content. As Emmett told Variety in the fall of 1999:

“We got involved in this project because of the huge successes of so many teen movies recently. We wanted to get into that act, and we have huge admiration for writer Lois Duncan.” [1]

Whether the admiration is mutual is open for debate. Duncan was famously appalled at the way her 1973 suspense novel I Know What You Did Last Summer had been repurposed to fit the slasher template, so I can’t imagine that this adaptation of her mid-’60s teen-fictioner Ransom into a sweaty slice of Floridian exploitation would have exactly enthused the author.

Hopper plays JD, a down on his luck career criminal who’s shacked up in a tumbledown cabin deep in the crocodile infested swamps of the Everglades – think Eaten Alive (1976) lite – where he hatches a scheme to hijack a school bus carrying a quintet of high-schoolers. Dragging his wife, Rita (an under-utilised Debi Mazar), and best bud, John (Paul Dillon), into the setup, he drives them back to his ramshackle abode before demanding a quarter of a million dollars ransom per head [2] for each of the hostages.

Bookended by wholesome narration from kidnap victim Jesse (Kam Heskin), the film sways drunkenly between a cherubic teens-in-peril picture and mean-spirited marshland mayhem, with Hopper revelling in his F-bomb dropping psycho-hick, even if the gaggle of juveniles rarely venture beyond cookie cutter one-dimensionalism. Thankfully, their frantic parents are on hand to lend a little depth and intrigue to the movie; an impressive supporting cast that includes Joan Van Ark, Morgan Fairchild, Timothy Bottoms, and John Getz. All combine to thread some really enticing family squabbles and long-buried secrets through the narrative, picking up the slack from the occasionally flabby abduction scenes.

Director Lee Stanley started out as an actor, frequently appearing in Aaron Spelling productions (he returned the favour here by casting Spelling’s son, Randy) before going on to feature in Bruce Kessler’s ace biker movie Angels from Hell (1968), and John Sturges’ Ice Station Zebra (1968). His directorial career was rooted in documentaries – and award-winning ones at that [3], so much so that Held for Ransom was his first fictional endeavour at the age of fifty-seven.

Shot over the course of three weeks in November 1999 for a $5million budget, Stanley at least has the versatility of cinematographer (and Leicester-born) Steve Adcock to rely on. Fresh off the back of classic EGM programmer Timelock (1996), Adcock has an eye for a sultry-looking sunset, and manages to imbue this DTV’er with some classy cinematic vistas.

Having said that, its Lifetime Channel sensibilities remain stubborn throughout, and despite Stanley’s efforts to inject a little sleaze and savagery, the film’s salubrious core takes the edge off the picture’s level of threat, and ultimately neutralises Hopper’s demented delirium.

USA ● 2000 ● Thriller ● 91mins

Dennis Hopper, Zachary Ty Bryan, Kam Heskin, Randy Spelling ● Dir. Lee Stanley ● Wri. Lee Stanley, Lois Duncan (novel)


[1] ‘Emmett/Furla holds Hopper for Ransom’ by Charles Lyons, Variety, September 16th 1999.
[2] It was only $15,000 per head in the original 1966 novel, but I guess that’s inflation.
[3] Gridiron Gang (1992) won the Outstanding Individual Achievement award (Informational Programming) at the 1993 Primetime Emmy’s.

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