Sunday, 12 March 2017

TV movie-mania!



Did a marathon of Kolchak - the Night Stalker (1974-75) and the two preceding TV movies, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973). I tried watching Kolchak a few years ago, and found it tonally all over the place. A little sweet here, a little sour there. Watched it again, and my opinion changed, I suppose. The two TV movies I hadn't really seen before and they're great - Darren McGavin is brilliant, world-weary, believable and likeable, and Simon Oakland as his boss, Vincenzo is great as this newspaper editor being forever stymied by the authorities. Dan Curtis produced both and took over from John Moxey to direct the second, and Richard Matheson adapted them from the book by Jeff Rice. Good cast. We're talking the likes of Carol Lynley, Elisha Cook, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins and Kent Smith (more on him later) in the Night Stalker, and in the Night Strangler - John Carradine as the wonderfully named Llewellyn Crossbinder and Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West herself as an old posh, rather sinister exposition-giver. The first film is set in Vegas, and Kolchak is a journalist who seeks out this series of murders, and no one believes him when he finds it's a vampire. It looks good, very cinematic, because it's shot on location, it doesn't have a sort of set-bound backlot TV aesthetic, like most TVMs. The vampire, Janos Skorzeny, played by Barry Atwater is interesting. Unlike Curtis' previous vampire, Barnabas Collins in "Dark Shadows", he's mute, very animalistic, similarly styled but he's not a suave creature, he's just out for blood. As the series shows, vampires in this universe seem to be humanoid but they're animal-minded, they're hissing anti-social creatures, bats in human bodies, essentially. The Night Strangler is similar, but they go for a different tack. Here, the titular menace is Richard Anderson, before his role as Oscar in the various Bionic series as a 144-year-old immortal alchemist lunatic strangling belly-dancers in Seattle, and man, Seattle looks great. They also shoot in the old Underground Seattle, of which I was previously not aware, which does exist - streets from before the Great Seattle Fire that now lie underground. And they are atmospheric, they're creepy, they're the perfect place to set such an idea. You also have good performances. Wally Cox's cameo is a strange, weedy little newspaper archivist is great, Curtis directs with flair, and it was again a hit, after the original broke all ratings records for a TV movie at the time. And ABC wanted a series, but Curtis wanted another movie, the Night Killers - which sounds great. Vincenzo and Kolchak are now in Hawaii, where polticians are being replaced by androids controlled by aliens who plan to use the subterfuge as a means of allowing an invasion to take place. Sadly, ABC got their way. Out goes Curtis and Matheson, in goes Universal, and we get Kolchak: the Night Stalker, wildly seen as one of the great sci-fi series, despite one series, an influence on the X-Files, and yet...
Kolchak: The Night Stalker just isn't as good. It's thankfully not as bland as McGavin's sub-Exorcist hounted house drivel "Something Evil", despite that film being directed by a certain Mr. Spielberg. McGavin and Oakland return, but everything else is different.  We're now in Chicago, which yes, is atmospheric, full of character, but it gets samey. I wish they could have changed it, so every episode, we're in a new locale. Because now in the series, Chicago is a Hellmouth-ish magnet for all sorts of weirdness. We have new characters. We get a camp, waspish rival named Uptight Updyke, a sweet old lady columnist named Emily/Edith (it depends on the episode) and Keenan Wynn as a recurring cop. And yes, it has a great cast of guests - the likes of Scatman Crothers with a bad Haitian accent, Mary Wickes as a scientist, Tom Skerritt as two monsters and Phil Silvers amongst others.

Sameyness is a problem. Too many of the villains are mute stalkers, be it an immortal Jack the Ripper (again memories of "The Night Strangler"), a spiritual force, a killer robot (created by a female scientist named Leslie Dwyer, whom everyone thinks is male, presumably because of her Hi-De-Hi! star namesake), a female vampire, a zombie, a werewolf, et cetera. Climaxes are usually at night, with brief glimpses of the monster, and usually, the monsters have cool designs. And there's a lot of sinister female, attractive but evil characters, including Dark Shadows' own Lara Parker basically reprising her Angelique character, Cathy Lee Crosby as a Greek Hecate-worshipper (hence as exposition guy, George Demosthenes Savalas - Kojak meets Kolchak) amongst others. There are some interesting ideas, a Bedknobs and Broomsticks-style walking suit of armour, and the episode "The Horror in the Heights" is probably the most fun. A neighbourhood full of elderly people is being targeted by some unspeakable horror. Swastika are appearing all over the place, Abraham Sofaer has opened up an Indian restaurant inside this mostly Jewish area, and Phil Silvers appears post-Follow That Camel as one of the residents. It turns out Sofaer is in town to hunt down the Rakshasa, a Hindu spirit which takes on the form of those its victim trusts, i.e. cops, husbands, wives, milkmen, hates Swastikas and can only be killed by crossbow. It is a fun episode, and perhaps it shows that Kolchak really should have had him touring the world. Imagine, Gargoyles in Paris, leprechauns, banshees and IRA men in Ireland, the Lambton Worm... A missed opportunity.

I was also watching Dan Curtis' Dracula (1974). Shot in Britain, it looks lovely, with some additional shooting in Yugoslavia. Palance brings some menace, Nigel Davenport is good as Van Helsing, the design and cinematography by Oswald Morris is better than some Hammer stuff, and yet it pre-empts the whole Coppola thing, i.e. Vlad the Impaler, the "Dark Shadows"-ish idea of reincarnation of a lost love in the form of Mina, and even the title - "Bram Stoker's Dracula". It feels lacking. Dracula should be more beastly. And Mina and Lucy are miscast, slightly too old. Simon Ward looks a bit lost. But John Challis, before his fame as Boycie in "Only Fools and Horses" makes a cameo. He told me on Twitter that Dan Curtis was nice to him, during their brief time on set together.

Talking about Kent Smith, I was watching, perhaps re-watching on the recommendation of Matthew Coniam, Curtis Harrington's The Cat Creature (1973). It's a TV movie from the period, and slightly more archetypal of the genre. It's set bound, it's full of ageing, past-it names (Gale Sondergaard, Keye Luke, John Carradine again, Keye Luke) and younger but still fairly veteran figures like Stuart Whitman and David Hedison. It begins with Kent Smith, thirty years after his role as "Oliver Reed" in Cat People (1942), finally being killed by a cat-lady, or a cat that jumps out of a sarcophagus, because this is a TV movie and they don't have the budget for full-body costumes (see 1977's Snowbeast for a Yeti conveyed through some close-ups, hairy hands and lots of POV). We learn that this is Meredith Baxter, before her sitcom fame in "Family Ties", as a mysterious, attractive young woman named Rena who has some weird connection to an amulet. It's fun. And the ending with Baxter swooping about in Egyptian dress, camping it up, with bat-wing sleeves is something to be witnessed.

Similar is the Aaron Spelling-produced Cruise into Terror (1978) which cashes on Bermuda Triangle mania, The Omen and disaster movies. Dirk Benedict, John Forsythe (as a priest in a bitter, sexless marriage with Lee "Lily Munsters Today/Catwoman #2" Meriwether), Christopher and Lynda Day George, Ray Milland (as an archaeologist who believes the Egyptians went to Mexico and helped the Aztecs), Stella Stevens (in one of several post-Poseidon maritime terror roles, see also The French Atlantic Affair) and Hugh O'Brian are among the cast of luminaries, finding in the Gulf of Mexico, Milland's treasured Egyptian-Aztec tomb, which we learn contains the Antichrist born the same day as Jesus, in suspended animation. It's slow. TV movies work better as 75 minuters not 90 minuters/2 hours including ad breaks. It takes over a half an hour for the treasure hunt to begin and almost an hour for the tiny papier mache sarcophagus to be recovered. It is also full of POV shots, evil suggested by huge red lights/eyes. Milland and Forsythe are the highlights, arguing over exposition and following the trail of "Sir Richard Littenhurst". The insidious child carries out Omen-ish drownings, causes women to go mad, and it peters out with an inferno and narration by Forsythe asking us if there is a Devil... Shoddy, ropey, sporadically fun, and with a proper Goldsmith knockoff for its score, all sub Ave-Satani chanting over what sounds like knock-off Bela Bartok.

I also watched a bit of Dan Curtis' similar Curse of the Black Widow, with Patty Duke (Harrington's first choice for the Cat Creature) as a spider-woman, but it was 100 minutes, which for a TV movie of that style, a bit of a chore.

TV movies of the suspense/horror genre I do enjoy. Some can be samey, i.e. Taste of Evil - a remake of Hammer's Taste of Fear with Barbara Parkins, Roddy McDowall and a rifle-toting Barbara Stanwyck being terrorised by unlikely rapist Arthur O'Connell, or all those post-Carrie teenage girl ones e.g. The Spell (1977), Shelley Winters sorority witch yoke The Initiation of Sarah (1978) Wes Craven/Linda Blair/Lois Duncan joint Summer of Fear (1978), a film which has a clever twist where we think Lee Purcell as Blair's cousin is just your average US TV teen played by a 30-year-old, but isn't - and the Dennis Quaid/teen date rape Afterschool Special-y antics of Channel 5 favourite "Are You Alone In The House?" (1978).

The weirder ones are usually the better, i.e. 1973's Scream Pretty Peggy - Bette Davis as a woman "who never learnt to bake"  keeps mad daughter Jennifer apparently locked up in house under pretence she's in "Europe".  Peggy, an eager, ultra-plucky slightly annoying art student comes to work as housekeeper. Loaded guns are kept in drawers. Davis tries to get Peggy out, even though she's besotted with her idol, who just happens to be Davis' sculptor son (Marge Simpson's dream-husband Ted Bessell) who spends all day making statues of Lovecraftian monsters. We think it is going to be a sort of distaff Beast in the Cellar via House of Wax...
 Except Jennifer's being impersonated Psycho-style by Jeffrey in a wig and nightie, gets shot by Mum and is crushed by one of his own statues, which turns out to be Jennifer encased in amber. It turns out that he killed Jennifer, because he was in an incestuous relationship with her and she was engaged to someone else, and had to kill all his girlfriends because "Jennifer" wouldn't let him go. Davis blames herself, . Written by Jimmy Sangster and Directed by Gordon Hessler. Fun, suitably ridiculous and suitably played.

The House That Would Not Die is 1970, pre-Exorcist, but has Kitty Winn from that film as the young lead. Has Stanwyck dressed like the Don't Look Now dwarf while Richard Egan attacks her with a knife. Possession means you talk in an English accent. It's mostly long seance scenes, and kind of watchable.

Spelling-produced slasher Home for the Holidays (1972) where Jill Haworth (with dyed black hair), Eleanor Parker  and Sally Field as the various daughters of Walter Brennan are terrorised by a killer in a sou'wester. Julie Harris appears as housekeeper/second wife who everyone thinks is the murderer, because she poisoned her last husband or something, around the time she became the USA's Hylda Baker in Thicker than Water, short-lived adaptation of Nearest and Dearest. Overdone meldorama, again like House That Would Not Die by John Moxey. There's also a crazy woman-child, and lots of red herrings. It's kind of fun, but like a lot of these films, slightly too full of arguments between ageing starlets and/or up and comers who not always went onto better.

Watched others - The Devil's Daughter -where Shelley Winters (as Lilith) and Abe Vigoda arrange marriage for a young woman and play Poundland Castevets who cry "you are your father's daughter". Robert Foxworth plays youthful hero. does a dry run for his role in Damien: Omen II. Jonathan "Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows" Frid plays the servant/fiancee. It's sensationalist enough to be watchable. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.
Also saw bits of Winters' "daughter in prison" weepie "A Death of Innocence" by Joseph Stefano.It didn't catch my attention.
How Awful About Allan (1970) - starring Anthony Perkins, basically feels like a pilot for a 1970s TV series - The Adventures of Norman Bates, i.e. Psycho reduced to a bland 70s cop show aesthetic. Kent Smith appears again. He seems to crop up everywhere.
Then, there's also duff phone-calls-from-the-dead rope When Michael Calls (1972) with Ben Gazzara as "Doremus Connolly" and "Special Guest Star" Michael Douglas, at the beginning of his career  when he was still just Kirk's son. It's slightly creepy and the denouement is suitably daft, but like a lot of these films, bland, similar to the likes of Dean Stockwell-vs-teacher Jane Wyman "The Failing of Raymond", 1972's The Screaming Woman - which is 78 minutes of Olivia De Havilland screaming back at a screaming woman buried alive, She Waits (1972) with Patty Duke terrorising David McCallum, Along Came A Spider where Suzanne Pleshette dons a bizarre fur-hat/blond wig to enact revenge, the "trapped alone" likes of The Victim (1972), that John Carpenter one the name of which escapes me, etc.  Usually, everything is boiled down to generica.

Killer Bees (1974) has Gloria Swanson with three layers of headwear, hat, headcsarf, Princess Leia buns. Highlight is a scene where bees rise out of a coffin and attack a funeral mid-sermon -  "land of milk and honey". Otherwise quite bland. It's about bee-human hybrids and features less desert-based bee-car chases than the dire "town under attack" Savage Bees (with Ben Johnson fighting bees after fighting locusts with Katherine Helmond and Ron Howard in the not-very-horror-y "Waltons meets James Herbert" period drama Locusts!) and its Swarm cash-in sequel Terror Out of the Sky, which features Efrem Zimbalist running the "National Bee Center".

Also watched Kate Jackson in slow steel-drum soundtracked "fake travel company" 10 Little Indians on a cruise Death Cruise (1974) and Death at Love House (1972) where Jackson and Robert Wagner, investigating the latter's father's ex-lover, long-dead Golden Age Hollywood queen/witch Lorna Love meet the likes of John Carradine, Joan Blondell, Dorothy Lamour and Sylvia Sidney. Needless to say, Lorna Love isn't long-dead. It's entertaining for it old Hollywood tribute, shot in Harold Lloyd's house too.

Killdozer (1974) was okay, not weird enough, felt like a bad day at my dad's workplace. I read a comic based on the original story - about a killer bulldozer posessed by alien influence, and seeing bunch of a middle-aged has-been blokes in a quarry needs more energy, really.

Devil Dog Hound of Hell (1978) features Martine Beswicke leading a cult who look like the Family from the Omega Man but fresh. Richard Crenna, Yvette Mimieux and the Witch Mountain kids adopt cursed puppy. Family start painting satanic pictures, and the dog doesn't appear in its horned form till the end, in the night. It's very Kolchakesque, as in the series not the TV films. So not as good as the artwork, though the end has a great shot - of superimposed flames around the dog. A lot of these films only get watchable at the end, i.e. Satan's School For Girls.

Watching 1972's Gargolyes - Bernie Casey quite creepy as the lead 'goyle. Wonder did his performance influence the cartoon? And the flying effects are quite cool in their tattiness- looks like being carried by a raven Father Ted-style. better than the myriad "woodlands/desert chase, usually with moon in the title" TV films it nearly resembles, that I found samey, mainly because despite being Irish, I'm not a western fan. 

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