Monday, October 5, 2015

Jeepers Creepers! TV Features! A Retrospective on Classic Made for Television Movies and the Halloween Season, Part I (1970-1973)

This article was originally written for Film Threat around 2005-2006. It is an article I am very proud of, because it served as one of the major kickstarters for starting my blog, and it fed my passion for research and preserving history and watching scary TV movies!

Flash forward ten years (egads!), and here I am, still indulging in the scariest time of the year. I thought this piece should be republished, and I hope you enjoy it.

That said, I did write this a decade ago, and I'm sure some of the writing is stilted (in fact, I know it is), and I've probably missed some faves, so feel free to leave a comment below. Also, the list was so long I've chopped it into three parts, 1970-1973, 1974-1976, and 1977-1980, which I'll be posting throughout the month.

Finally, this list, which I am expanding to the 1980s will be a hot talking point on an upcoming podcast episode. So again, feel free to leave some feedback and join us in the discussion.

By the way, did you know my podcast is on iTunes?

Let's go!


Picture it – October, 1970. You’re a latch key kid not yet of age for the grindhouse circuit but old enough to appreciate the horrors of the night. The world still had eight years to go before John Carpenter would unleash his timeless classic, Halloween, which featured, by the way, two kids totally engrossed in watching scary movies while lovely babysitters were being slaughtered across the street. That scene featuring little Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards) totally terrified of - yet still absorbed in  - The Thing encompasses the same sort of passion I have with the genre. But like I said, it’s 1970 and there was no Halloween and horror hadn’t really gone mainstream yet. Still, the three networks understood the plus of exploiting exploitation. Sure they had to meet the confines of the censors, and had to deal with smaller budgets and shorter timelines, but, working under those conditions produced a creativity that has endured over the last three decades (note: now four!). Some of the best small screen genre films arrived during that tumultuous decade, so this list will run from 1970-1980.

READERS BEWARE: This article may cause massive fits of nostalgia.

The Old Man Who Cried Wolf 
Originally aired: October 13, 1970 on ABC
Directed by: Walter Grauman
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Martin Balsam, Ed Asner, Diane Baker

After he and his friend are attacked, Robinson awakes to a conspiracy when he’s told his friend died from a heart attack. Determined to prove murder, Robinson must also tangle with well-meaning family members who think he’s senile. Although Robinson has seen the killer, unfortunately, the killer has also seen him…

Edward G. Robinson has never looked more distinguished and he gives the performance of a lifetime. More than a just a thriller, Old Man delicately handles the topic of senility and dignity but the engrossing murder mystery and disturbing ending keep it firmly in the genre.

The House that Would Not Die 
Originally aired: October 27, 1970 on ABC
Directed by: John Llewellyn Moxey
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Kitty Wynn, Richard Egan

The great Stanwyck dipped her feet into the Halloween-time waters in this classically told ghost tale about a duplicitous General during the Revolutionary War who is accused by his daughter, Aimee, of helping the British. She leaves her father to elope and never returns. Two hundred years later, the ghost of the heartbroken general can still be heard calling “Aimee, come home,” through the dark woods at night. Stanwyck inherits the house and begins to hear the General’s impassioned cries for Aimee, but is there something more sinister to his haunted cries for a lost daughter?

Based on the popular Barbara Michaels book, Aimee Come Home, House is an Aaron Spelling Production. The name Spelling usually conjures up images from the era of Jiggle TV but before he turned ABC into the Aaron Broadcasting Channel, he made several fine genre TVMs, filled with stars and a distinct air of class.

Sweet, Sweet Rachel
Originally aired: October 2, 1971 on ABC
Directed by: Sutton Roley
Starring: Stephanie Powers, Bradford Dillman, Alex Drier

Stephanie arrives home just in time to see hubby taking a spill out the window of their cliffside estate. Shortly after he takes a header into the rocks, loopy Rachel seeks the help of a portly parapsychologist and his blind assistant, who seek answers to crimes perpetrated by the supernatural.

Rachel was a pilot for a series that sadly never got picked up (and was later re-tooled and turned into the Sixth Sense). As it stands, it’s a lush and weird horror movie with tons of potential. Although many of the possibilities are realized in some awesome set pieces, there is still some great, campy swinging 70s moments guaranteed to make you smile. And Ms. Powers has never been more beautiful.

A Taste of Evil 
Originally aired: October 12, 1971 on ABC
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, Roddy McDowell

Another Stanwyck exclusive, she returns to the small screen again as the mother of the mentally fragile Parkins, whose character suffered a traumatic rape as a child. After spending several years in an institution, Parkins returns home and begins hearing voices and seeing things no one else does. Is she still haunted by her early harrowing experience or is someone determined to force her back into an institution?

Like one of Moxey’s best movies, Home for the Holidays the director showcases his superior skills in building a mounting sense of suspense. And the opening is a chiller. Very dark for its time. (Click on title for a review, and click here to check out what I've dubbed the Moxey Twist!)

In Broad Daylight
Originally aired: October 16, 1971 on ABC
Directed by Robert Day
Starring: Suzanne Pleshette, Stella Stevens, Richard Boone

Boone plays a recently blinded actor who finds out his wife (Pleshette) is having her way with another man. He uses his newfound disability to plot the perfect murder. Another fun Aaron Spelling potboiler, he uses his top-notch cast to carry the over-the-top premise home. Good suspense and an ultra-hot Stella Stevens, who could ask for anything more? (Update: I finally saw this one around 2013, and quite liked it. A definite recommend from me!)

Death Takes a Holiday 
Originally aired: October 23, 1971 on ABC
Directed by: Robert Butler
Starring: Monte Markham, Yvette Mimieux, Bert Convy

A remake of the 1930’s classic, Death is a lush, romantic film with a dark edge. Markham plays the Grim Reaper, and falls in love with the lovely Mimieux. He longs to know what humans feel and decides to spend the weekend with her at a family reunion. This throws the earth’s natural balance completely out of whack, especially Mimieux’s family. A grim yet beautiful and compelling drama deliberately paced and wonderfully shot. Markham proves that he could have been a great leading man, if only Hollywood had recognized his talents. Modern-gothic romance at it’s absolute best.

A Little Game 
Originally aired: October 30, 1971 on ABC
Directed by: Paul Wendkos
Starring: Diane Baker, Howard Duff, Ed Nelson

The small screen’s contribution to the kids from hell genre, Christopher Shea plays the boy who decides if he can’t keep his mom single, he'll make her a widow. This Halloween movie was written by Carol Sobieski who also penned the excellent TV remake of Diabolique, titled Reflections of Murder. Sadly, A Little Game remains a rarity in the wonderful world of TV Horror.

Originally aired October 10, 1972 on CBS
Directed by: Lee Katzin Starring:
Monte Markham, Telly Savalas, Barbara Anderson

Who loves ya baby? Monte Markham plays a quiet professor who finds he has the power to see the future when he touches someone. He envisions a terrorist bombing but can’t see the bomber’s face. With the help of Kojak, they set about catching a cunning would-be killer while Markham learns to deal with his new power.

Short Walk to Daylight 
Originally aired: October 24, 1972 on ABC
Directed by: Barry Shear
Starring: James Brolin, Don Mitchell, James McEachin

What’s a holiday without a disaster flick? After a devastating earthquake in New York City, Brolin must lead a pack of strangers through the cavernous subway tunnels to higher ground. Of course they run into the usual challenges before they reach the outside world. This compact movie, running a mere 74 minutes was lengthened for syndication; the longer version explains away the earthquake as a terrorist attack!!! This is must for anyone who wondered what Tom Willis (Franklin Cover) from The Jeffersons actually did before that show.

Isn’t It Shocking?
Originally aired: October 2, 1973 on ABC
Directed by John Badham
Starring: Alan Alda, Louise Lasser, Ruth Gordon

Quirky small town horror with a sense of humor blacker than tar, Shocking is an engaging oddity about the murders of several elderly folks in the town Alan Alda is the sheriff of. The killer’s weapon of choice – a machine that generates heart attacks from its victims. Alda is superb and Louise Lasser is his perfect match. Bonus points for making the adorable Ruth Gordon not only truly loopy but the oldest Final Girl in the history of horror! A must see.  (Click on title for review)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Originally aired: October 10, 1973 on ABC
Directed by: John Newland
Starring: Kim Darby, Jim Hutton, William Demarest

For many of us who grew up watching horror on the boob tube, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark remains a cherished memory. Kim Darby plays the frumpy, serious and presumably repressed housewife who inherits a house. While remodeling, longtime handyman Demarest begs Darby not to open a bricked-over fireplace. Of course that fuels Darby’s frigid fire and she opens a doorway to hell. Some will say Afraid hasn’t aged well, but I think the simplistic story line, downbeat ending and weird demons make it a classic. It might not resonate so well with newbies but certainly brings back great memories for those of us lucky enough to catch it during its original run. (Click on title to see the posts I did for a Dont Be Afraid of the Dark Week a few years ago)

Originally aired: October 30, 1973 on ABC
Directed by: Lee H. Katzin
Starring: Arthur Hill, Diana Muldaur, James Stacy

A remake of Roy Ward Baker’s 3-D thriller Inferno, in this update Muldaur plays the unhappy cheatin’ wife, who along with her home wrecking (but certainly sexy) boyfriend, leaves her hubby (Hill) to rot in the desert. Hill, on the other hand has some survival tactics up his sleeve as he fights the elements to exact revenge.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Doctors' Private Lives (1978)

Network: CBS
Original Airdate:March 20th, 1978

During promotion for the soapy telefilm Doctors' Private Lives, the film’s star, John Gavin said, “Barbara [Anderson] plays my wife, and Donna [Mills] plays a widow with whom I become involved. But only physically and emotionally. It doesn’t go any deeper than that.”

If I could insert the sound of a car braking right here I would. As is stands, I just have to giggle at Gavin’s comedic response to starring in one of the most overwrought melodramas I’ve seen in some time. In his defense, Gavin does not play it tongue in cheek during the film, and it’s all the more entertaining for the straight-faced, and genuine performances from an amiable cast of wonderfully familiar faces.

And anyway, Gavin had me at Donna Mills.

Gavin is Dr. Jeffrey Latimer, a gorgeous and successful professional married to the equally sublime Frances (Barbara Anderson looking ridiculously divine), who is just as ambitious with saving the world as he is with saving lives. The one hiccup in an otherwise perfect relationship is that they have no children. This obstacle doesn’t seem like that much of an issue, until Jeffrey embarks on an extramarital affair with Dr. Beth Demery (the perfectly perfect Donna Mills), a widow who can’t fight her attraction to Jeffrey (I don’t blame her). Strangely, and maybe sadly, Jeffrey loves his wife, but has an affair just because he can. The scoundrel (and he's our hero)!

While all of this is going down (insert dirty joke here), Dr. Mike Wise (Ed Nelson, dusting off his Peyton Place dialog delivery) is dealing with a divorce and the generation gap, which is driving his son Kenny (Leigh McCloskey) away from medical school. Kenny has an adorable girlfriend named Sheila (Robin Mattson), who quickly throws him over for his dear old dad, creating even more tension in the house. And in-between all of this, people die, there’s blackmail and an airplane full of Korean orphans (!) crashes! If that’s not an overflow of awesome, I am not sure I know what is.

Yessir, from the ski slopes to the operating room to the bedroom, Doctors' Private Lives is one of those glamorous 1970s telefilms that I live for. It’s got philandering, conniving, and well to do professionals who wear the best clothes, drink the best wine and sometimes deliver the best lines. Although, admittedly, I was surprised to see it was released in 1978, only about one month before Dallas premiered, setting the bar for high drama. Dallas is far more nuanced and complex, but Doctors makes the best of what is has, and what is has is pretty good. Along your journey through soapland, you’ll catch John Randolph as Mike’s gregarious uncle, Elinor Donahue as Mike’s grumpy ex, and Anne-Marie Martin as a sexy nurse secretly romancing her friend’s man. And for the record, Randy Powell, who went on to Dallas, plays one of the worst extortionists ever. That's how you do it!

And I’m apparently not the only one who feels this way. Doctors' Private Lives was successful enough that a 4-part followup mini-series aired the following year, featuring much of the same cast, and the addition of another familiar Dallas face, William Smithers, who played the contemptible Jeremy Windell. It makes the whole affair feel full circle (emphasis on affair).

And remember, in an era of car chases and gun fights, Gavin points out, “[There’s] no violence in this show, except in the bedroom.”

‘Nuff said.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Made for TV Mayhem has a Podcast!

Made for TV Mayhem goes next level!

After a long summer of tinkering with this thing called technology (what's an audacity?), we were finally able to sit down and record our premiere episode. So please join me, Nathan Johnson of the Hysteria Continues podcast, and Dan Budnik, co-author of Bleeding Skull: A 1980s Trash-Horror Odyssey, and Some Polish-American Guy Reviews Things as we discuss our three favorite TV movies!

There were a few recording hiccups, and we aren't on iTunes just yet, but you can access the show here, and visit the podcast's website here. There is contact info if you'd like to let us know what your favorite made for television movies are (or you can always contact me at the email addy listed on the right hand sidebar).

The blog isn't going anywhere, but I wanted a separate space to share with my co-hosts, and we'll be adding a little bit of content to go with the shows.

And enjoy!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Savages (1974)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: September 11, 1974

As I’ve written before, Andy Griffith was a badass. He was, without a doubt, one of the most powerful presences of the golden age of the telefilm (and beyond, check out Gramps if you need further proof). Like so many television actors from this era, he used the TV movie format to shed his good guy image and brought in several dark performances along the way. And while I have some personal favorite picks (Winter Kill just might be at the top of my list), it would be hard to deny the pure menace he exudes in Savages, a small and suspenseful desert lensed thriller that positions Griffith as a sociopathic lawyer turned hopeful game hunter, who decides that man just might be the most interesting trophy, indeed.

Based on the award winning 1972 young adult novel (!) Deathwatch by Robb White, Savages is about a man named Horton Madec (Griffith), a seemingly amiable attorney looking for a weekend in the wild with nothing but a guide and his guns to keep him company. After his original escort cancels, Madec hires Ben Campbell (Sam Bottoms), a young and handsome geology-student-and-man-of-the-desert and the two head towards parts unknown. Too eager to hit his prey, Madec accidentally kills the local loony miner and asks Ben to help him cover up the crime. But this is Ben’s friend… plus Ben has this thing called a conscious, so Madec has to take matters into his own hands and decides that two murders are just as good as one.

Forcing Ben to remove his shirt, shoes and socks, Madec abandons the student in the middle of nowhere and then follows him at a safe distance to make sure the sun and lack of water gets to Ben before he can get to the main highway. But Ben is a survivor and knows the desert, so it’s only a matter of time before the tables are turned. However, that spinning table turns yet again, and proof of Ben’s innocence may rest solely on a missing slingshot. Only in the movies, my friends.

Shot in the Mojave Desert in 120-degree heat (105 in the shade!), Savages was a bit of a struggle to film. In an article that appeared in a few different papers, there is mention of how the Red Rock Canyon, which is a state park, forbid the building of roadways into the mountains, so the trek to get the equipment and talent to the right locations proved to be an arduous task. It was well worth the effort though, because the long shots of sandy nothing generates a tense atmosphere as we watch poor Ben journey through No Man’s Land.

Griffith is at the top of his game here, sporting an evil mustache and a wicked smile. All of that Mayberry goodness is consumed by one of the most narcissistic characters the actor has ever played. And that’s saying something, if you’ve seen his “I’m a hippie with money” performance in Pray for the Wildcats. Bottoms is also quite good, if a bit restrained, and mostly holds his own against the formidable talent around him.

Although there are a few other supporting characters, Savages concentrates on the cat and mouse games, which takes up most of the film. There are a few truly nail-biting moments, so despite the somewhat absurd (and lucky for Ben) ending, it’s still worth a journey into the desert of Savages to catch this entertaining battle of the wills.

Best TV Guide ad. Ever.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Must See Streaming TV Movie of the Week: The Classic Edition!

Holie Molie! Two incredible early seventies Movie of the Weeks are currently streaming over at Shout Factory TV! You can check out Gargoyles and Born Innocent for free! Of course, I don't have to go into why you should see or revisit these incredible movies, so I'll just throw out a couple of links along with a few words:

Gargoyles (1972): This ABC Movie of the Week is a spooky monster classic, featuring Bernie Casey as a terrifyingly suave gargoyle who thinks mankind places second in the chain of command! Click on title for my review, and click here to watch Gargoyles!

Born Innocent (1974): This brutal classic made its debut under the NBC World Premiere Movie moniker, and was the most popular made for television movie to air in 1974. However, it was followed by controversy and subsequently became the subject of a court case involving the rape of a nine year old girl. Yet, despite the negative attention, Born Innocent remains part of the canon of the small screen thanks to its relatively unflinching look at innocence lost and a corrupt juvenile rehabilitation system. Click here to watch Born Innocent.

And thanks to Kindertrauma for mentioning Shout Factory's streaming site yesterday. They also have some great non-TVM choices, but seriously, who wants that?!? Regardless of what you end up watching, please support legitimate streaming websites and enjoy!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Missing are Deadly (1975)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: January 8, 1975

I guess when you watch (and re-watch) as many TV movies as I do, it’s inevitable that titles and stories will blur together. Just the other day I made a total fool of myself during a conversation about Terror on the 40th Floor because I thought the movie they were referring to was the USA original Nightmare on the 13th Floor.

Boy, did I feel stoopid.

And, yet again, I recently thought I knew all about The Missing are Deadly because I had a copy of The Dead Don’t Die. Ummm, OK. So, the second I pushed the play button on Deadly I realized I had once more mistaken one title for another… and frankly, I’m not cool with it. I need my TVM street cred the way others need water. But life is a learning experience… Then I saw the names Ed Nelson and Leonard Nimoy, and the world was OK again. At least for the next 74 minutes. I’m not really sure I knew much about this movie, aside from the title (which I obviously was only half familiar with), and was surprised that this Nimoy flick had not been on my radar. It’s quite fun, if insubstantial.

Ed Nelson is Dr. Margolin, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who has traded in his microscope to deal with the bureaucracy behind medicine, and is now essentially a PR guy for a state of the art laboratory. This lab is run by the cutting edge Dr. Durov (Leonard Nimoy rocking the hazmat suit), who is obsessed with finding a cure for “Mambosa Fever.” Although he’s been asked to postpone his research, he is secretly infecting rats with the disease and then injecting another virus into them in an effort to kill the Fever.

Meanwhile (or "later that same day" depending on your choice of comics), at Margolin’s home everything is a wreck. Even though he lives with his kids, Margolin is an absentee father who spends all day and night at his lab. His oldest son, David (George O’Hanlon Jr.) is essentially raising his little brother, a teenager named Jeff (Gary Morgan) who thinks he’s an alien and eats rabbit food! Everyone calls him “special,” but I think they meant annoying. Certainly, Dad thinks so, and wants to send Jeff off to a school that can handle delusional-alien-wanna-be rabbit-pellet-dieters.

So, for their last weekend together, David whisks his girlfriend Michelle (Kathleen Quinlan) and Jeff off to the forest for a weekend of bonding. But first he stops off at Dad’s lab where Jeff steals an infected rat. Before you know it, Mambosa Fever is spreading throughout the city!

That’s some kind of set-up! Honestly, my synopsis probably takes longer to read than it does to watch. At 74 minutes, it’s all fairly brisk and the bulk of the film involves Durov and Margolin racing to find a cure, and desperate to locate Margolin’s kids before it’s too late. The wrap up is absolutely predictable, and the film just sort of ends as quickly as it starts.

Yet, while Deadly is admittedly a mostly forgettable entry in the ABC Movie of the Week lineup, it has some things going for it. For one, there are no bad guys. The villain in this TVM is the Fever. Even Mr. Warren (Jose Ferrer), the corporate suit paying for the lab, is all about taking responsibility, notifying the public and offering services to the infected. And he doesn’t have to be coerced into it either! Like the movie Heatwave, which I reviewed recently, Deadly wants to see the best in people. Kind of makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. So either that’s a good sign, or I just contracted Mambosa Fever!

And of course, the cast is great. Both Nelson and Nimoy are given little meat to chew on, but they play off each other beautifully. Ferrer has a fairly thankless role, but he’s always a treat, and Quinlan finds herself trapped in the mountains yet again, after Where Have All the People Gone in 1974. Oh, and you might not see her through the hazmat suit, but keep an ear out for Marla Gibbs as a nurse! I can only give Deadly a light recommendation, but fans of the ABC Movie of the Week certainly know what they are signing up for, and those who know the drill will enjoy it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Invitation to Hell (1984)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: May 24, 1984

While I’ve always felt Invitation to Hell was the least of Wes Craven’s first three TV movies (he directed four telefilms in all, along with some episodic television), it’s still an interesting and fantastical (well, preposterously fantastical) look at the excessiveness of the 1980s. It also plays heavily on the destruction of the family from outside forces – this force being a gorgeous Susan Lucci as a female Satan! We call that a win.

Robert Urich is Matt Winslow, a hard working family man who swaps Midwest winters for the temperate rolling hills of a suburban community in Southern California. He gets a job with a place mostly referred to as “The Company” and his life goes upscale fast. In fact, the Winslow house is brimming with gadgets and new, expensive things. But, despite the posh surroundings, the family (mostly Matt’s wife, Pat, played by the lovely Joanna Cassidy) long to find entrance into “The Club,” or rather, the more aptly titled, Steaming Springs, which is the playground of the In Crowd. It’s also a gateway to hell, but I mean, other than that, this is everything they’ve ever wanted (again, you know, minus hell). Cars, big houses, a feeling of stability, and the loss of their soul. Oh wait. That last part wasn’t supposed to be part of the bargain.

At work, Matt is developing a fairly ludicrous “space” suit that will allow someone to get close to the core of the earth, which works out nicely since, you know, hell is down below, ya dig? But it’s mostly a plot point and a way to concoct a rather outrageous and aesthetically oh-so-80s version of a trip to Hades.

The meat of the story revolves around excess, consumerism, the desire for acceptance and a deep need to project the right image. Some of the dialogue is surprisingly clever and telling, and Urich is great as the fraught family man who seems to be the only one who can see through Jessica Jones’ (Lucci) otherworldly and sinister charm. Invitation was Lucci’s prime time telefeature debut and in an interview to promote the movie Lucci stated that she felt the film had a “realistic” vibe. This is a statement I’ve always struggled with because, let’s face it… Invitation to Hell is absurd. And I don’t mean cheeky and over the top… I mean the story is ridiculous, That’s not an insult, but you do have to stretch your suspension of disbelief quite a bit to get into the weird premise.

However, as already mentioned, the underlying themes are fascinating and definitely comment on the unabashed yuppie-ness of the decade, while also mingling the high concept with a strong sense of nostalgia for the 1950s (also an eighties trope). So, in short, the viewer has to walk an extremely fine line with Invitation, as it uneasily mixes allegory with melodramatic family dynamics, but it does feature a stunning Susan Lucci in lots of great outfits. And, the gorgeous and much missed Robert Urich is there to help you through some of the flaws.

While I still feel this my least favorite of the “Craven Three,” I’ve watched Invitation more than Chiller or Summer of Fear (in fact, I think I’ve watched this movie three times since 2015 started!). I’m really drawn to the look of it, Urich’s likable persona and the way it creates an insane universe where Lucci is a sexy Beelzebub and Soleil Moon Frye is a possessed demon child. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Invitation to Hell is on DVD (and for cheap!)

And here's an image gallery of some Lucci awesomeness: