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: 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Heatwave (1974)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: January 26th, 1974

Summer is just around the corner, so why not dive right in with… Heatwave? Yeah, probably not the best movie to watch before the onslaught of the scorching season. But it was raining the other night and it just seemed like the right movie at the right time. And wouldntyaknowit? Heatwave is pretty good.

Ben Murphy is Frank Taylor. He’s working in the financial sector, but is in one of those I-have-to-wear-a-tie-but-get-paid-crap type of positions. It makes him cranky. He has an adorable wife named Laura (Bonnie Bedelia). What she lacks in cranky she makes up for in pregnancy. She is about to P.O.P. Life is tough for everyone in L.A., but this down and out couple are splitting at the seams because of the heat, and decide to take a break and head for the hills. Unfortunately, their car is stolen and the heat is just as intense on the picturesque mountains as it is in the city. The baby arrives, and then the real problems start.

Disaster movies on the small screen were not an unusual occurrence in the 1970s. In fact, the Master of Disaster, Irwin Allen shrunk the scope and made a few decent timewasters, including Fire, Flood and The Night the Bridge Fell Down. He didn’t have a hand in Heatwave, and maybe that’s a good thing because the filmmakers took Irwin’s more grandiose flourishes down a notch, shrinking the cast and chaos, bringing a more intimate story to the forefront.

The movie starts in Los Angeles, and, certainly, if done right, watching the residents go insane in the heat might have been really incredible. But instead screenwriters Peter Allan Fields and Mark Weingart (based on a story by Herbert F. Solow, who also produced) focus on the hapless Taylors, who frankly see no end to their woes. I was surprised by how human the film was, and how it rejected only showing people at their worst, opting to place a nice little rainbow across the blazing sun (as the eternal optimist, I related).

The cast is full of familiar, likable faces, including the gorgeous Murphy who unsurprisingly rocks a pair of glasses, and who manages to stay a good guy even when his disposition is vinegarish. Bedelia is easy to root for, and while I think I prefer her more enigmatic turns in Sandcastles and Then Came Bronson, she makes the most of the beleaguered mom-to-be role. But the big draw here is catching the great character actors David Huddleson, Lew Ayres, John Anderson and Dana Elcar. The telefilm seldom had the luxury of big budgets, total artistic freedom or long shoots, but they almost always had extraordinary performers, who brought oodles of charisma to the plate. Huddleson is the standout as the maybe-heartless opportunist trying to cash in on the misery of others, but everyone is great to see, and their presence definitely brings the film up a notch.

Director Jerry Jameson brought four small screen disaster flicks to television in 1974 (along with Heatwave, he also helmed Terror on the 40th Floor, Hurricane and The Elevator)! Obviously no stranger to claustrophobic catastrophes, Jameson was a pro at generating an oppressive atmosphere within the brisk 74 minute running time. Certainly, Heatwave is not going to bring about world peace, but it is fairly engrossing, and a nice way to spend an afternoon. Just bring a cool glass of water with you!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Summer of MeTV Blogathon: Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983)

It's that time of the year again! This retrospective is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out the blogathon's complete schedule, and you should visit MeTV's awesome schedule too! And watch the shows! Enjoy!

Laverne DaFazio and Shirley Fenney were originally introduced on the wildly popular sitcom Happy Days in the season three episode A Date with Fonzie (O.A.D. 11/11/1975). As Cindy Williams said, the characters looked like they “dated the fleet,” and Fonzie even politely refers to the duo as “more boisterous than I usually like.” Richie thought they were edgy because Laverne drove without insurance (and beat up Shirley!). They easily stole the show with their hip swinging, easy action ways and soon got a chance to carry a series in 1976 when they were given their own spinoff. 

Williams and her costar Penny Marshall had been writing partners in the years leading up working together as actors, and their chemistry was off the charts. While they lost a bit of the trampy innuendo from that Happy Days episode (well Shirley did, Laverne remained a bit aggressive, but in a more innocent way), they played off each other perfectly as best buds in working class 1950s Milwaukee. Focusing on broad physical comedy and wild, cartoonish adventures, Laverne and Shirley became an iconic series that traversed the cultural landscape known as ABC Tuesdays back in the 1970s (where they stayed for the first three seasons, and then returned in 1980 after a few months of ratings woes). ABC's late 70s Tuesday night line up was seminal. During this comedy heyday, the schedule looked a lot like this (with some variations depending on the season, mostly in the 9:30 slot):

Fall 1978:  
8pm: Happy Days 
8:30 pm: Laverne and Shirley 
9pm: Three’s Company 
9:30pm: Taxi 

Promo for ABC's 1978 Tuesday Night lineup: 

And, it was not unusual to see Laverne and Shirley hanging out around the top of the Nielsens, often scoring higher ratings than Happy Days (furthermore, on January 10th, 1978, the girls scored the “largest audience for any TV sitcom ever” with The Mortician, boasting a rating of 37.6, which means they were seen in approximately 27.4 million homes, with an audience of over 60 million viewers! Holy guacamole!). It was hijinks galore and as the show expanded its physical humor shenanigans, it grew not just in popularity but the series also nurtured a devoted fanbase (i.e. me). To its credit (and frankly to the credit of all of ABC’s Tuesday night lineup during the late 1970s), the humor remains wildly relatable and laugh out loud funny.

These types of Nielsens numbers were not unusual for the dynamic duo!
That’s not to say all of America was in love with the put upon working class duo, as noted by a really stuffy critic for the Miami News named Bill von Mauer. I don’t mean to pick on this writer exclusively, but he obviously missed the components that made this show work. One of which was placing two strong (if somewhat overly romantic) women in diverse leading roles that allowed them to exercise their enormous gift for comedy, amongst a fairly male dominated lineup of funnymen, er, people.

A seemingly improvised moment from the Season 2 episode Steppin' Out
von Mauer wrote that he “worried about America,” and felt this show only spoke to “the male viewer with a beer can in one hand and a cigar in the other who sits in front of the tube in his undershirt. By his side is his female counterpart, the woman who still has her apron on, hasn’t done her hair for a week and throws back her beer right from the can the way her husband does.”

I think Laverne's expression speaks to how I feel about Mr. von Mauer's sentiments.
It’s such a strange statement, considering how many sitcoms that dealt with the lower classes of America during the 1970s appealed to a fairly diverse, and large, audience. And as a non-beer guzzling pre-teen during this era, I felt the show really spoke to strong females who may be trapped in a sort of 1950s ideology that basked in middle class Leave it to Beaver living, but who still felt they had the power to exercise choices. If they hadn’t, Shirley would have married Carmine and we would not have a long running series.

Hang in there, baby! We've got your back!
I also feel compelled to note that Laverne and Shirley also ran during the same era as the iconic female detective series Charlie’s Angels, and as a fan of both I can say I am glad that I grew up in a world where I could worship both Kelly Garrett and Laverne DaFasio.

The original Angora Debs, minus Rosie Greenbaum.
But even without the cultural critique, the fact still remains that Laverne and Shirley were completely relatable as flawed but good people who wanted the best for themselves. No amount of pratfalls was going to break them up, and like so many twenty-somethings from any era who are experiencing living as an adult for the first time, they found family with each other. And that’s what keeps drawing us back to Milwaukee and, eventually to Los Angeles, where the series hit a couple of bumps, but still managed to spin gold when it could.

Keepin' it real
I was beyond ecstatic to see that Laverne and Shirley and Carmine, er, I mean Marshall, Williams and Eddie Mekka, are curating the episodes that MeTV will be airing over the summer. And I was inspired to come up with my own list of faves. While this could change at the drop of a hat (except for my number one pick, that will never change!), here are the first five episodes that instantly came to mind.

Life in Hollywood was downright strange!
Sidenote #1: You may notice my picks are very Laverne-centric. Shirley also had her share of relatable problems and foibles, but deep down I’m just a milk and Pepsi girl.

Sidenote #2: My choices are also a little boy-centric as well because I’m basically just as boy crazy as Laverne!

And away we go... 

The bed that eats!
5. Dinner for Four (OAD 12/5/1978): Dinner for Four has the girls working at an event for veterinarians, which is being held at the Pizza Bowl. Laverne and Shirley are, of course, on the make and meet up with handsome doctors Rob (Denny Smith) and Jeff (Jeffrey Kramer, probably best known as Deputy Hendricks from Jaws, or as the captain of my heart). When the two vets invite Laverne and Shirley over for dinner the girls break a date with Lenny and Squiggy only to find that their "dates" want the girls to serve dinner, not enjoy it!

Lenny and Squiggy let you know when you've hurt their feelings!
A lot of Laverne and Shirley episodes are filled with bittersweet moments where the girls realize that whatever that week’s particular dream is, it is just not going to happen. But along the way, they encounter a man-eating bed and Laverne proves that revenge is better served with lasagna (keyword: served). The girls make peace with Len and Squig, dust off their egos and move on to their next adventure.

Cigarette or cracker? Shirley doesn't care!
4. Guinea Pigs (OAD 1/18/1977): Because the girls can’t afford to attend a high-class cocktail party, they sign themselves up as scientific experiments (at the behest of Lenny and Squiggy, which is your first clue it’s all going to hell in a handbasket). After 48 hours of pure torture, where Laverne has to stay awake for two days straight and Shirley has to eat dirt (!), they finally arrive at the party, and are definitely worse for wear!

Who wouldn't want to vodeo-do under the table with this guy?!?
One of my favorite moments of this episode comes at the end when Laverne crawls out from under the table with gorgeous Charles, who is played by Richard Young from Friday the 13th Part V! See I told you I was boy crazy. This episode also features an almost unrecognizable Kip Gilman, and even more cartoonish looking Harry Shear as a man with an acquired taste for dumplings made out of mud!

Royally awesome!
3. The Debutante Ball (OAD 5/9/1978): This episode always makes me misty because it’s all about dignity and pride. When it is discovered that Lenny is heir to a Polish throne, he is invited to an awesomely royal shindig and asks Laverne to be his date. They score their outfits from a wax museum and do their best to fit into the elite party. After a little public humiliation, Laverne seeks shelter in the woman’s room, and Shirley comes to her rescue.

All washed up? Never!
There’s very little to not love about this one. While it’s laugh out loud funny (Laverne’s major pratfall is both hysterical and heartbreaking), it’s equally as sweet, first with Lenny’s crush on Laverne and then with the handsome duke who openly admires Laverne’s dignity. I am actually getting choked up now. Go Laverne!

2. Why Did the Fireman…(OAD 2/4/1980): This episode is perhaps one of the most iconic of the series. For one, it features a super swoon-worthy Ted Danson as a dashing fireman who sweeps Laverne off of her feet. And it’s also a great example of how tragic moments on sitcoms never make it to another episode. After Laverne loses the great love of her life in a fire, she has to come to terms with the tragedy.

**sniff sniff**
Why Did the Fireman… features Phil Foster, who played Laverne’s pop, Frank in an uncharacteristically quietly powerful moment where he compares Laverne’s grief to when he lost his own wife, and he doesn’t shy away from the depth of sadness Laverne is about to endure. Which makes it all the more ironic that the series never refers to Danson’s character again. This also happens in the episode The Slow Child when we learn that Mrs. Babish (the great Betty Garrett who rocked capri pants) has a learning disabled daughter… then poof! Issues begone! Still, Fireman is terribly romantic and heartfelt, and it gives an early glimpse into Danson’s magnetic onscreen presence. Swoon! Swoon! Swoon!

Did I say swoon? 

No caption needed.
1. Laverne and Shirley Meet Fabian (OAD 11/17/1977): Speaking of swoon... After missing out on tickets to see Fabian in concert, and after dealing with Rosie Greenbaum's (Carole Ita White) obnoxious bragging (P.S. I adore Rosie!), our put-upon duo attempt to sneak into Fabian's hotel room and meet him. Unfortunately, they are quickly discovered and try to hide on Fabian's window ledge. Of course, they are soon discovered, but Fabian has a kind heart... and kissable lips. And let's face it, he turns me loose!

Ha! I'm here all week.

It was Laverne and Shirley who introduced me to singing idol Fabian, and it’s hard not to love his sense of humor in this episode. When he starts singing, it's like watching a mini-recreation of The Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and is one of the highlights of the series for me. As I've said before, I've always felt a little bit like these lovely ladies, from boy craziness to doing it my way, and this episode gives the girls their just dues, and like the theme song says, they are making their dreams come true!

Tune into Laverne and Shirley every Wednesday night this summer on MeTV!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Must See Streaming TV Movie of the Week: Betrayal (1974)

Network: ABC 
Original Airdate: December 3, 1974 

A Griftin’ n’ a driftin’. 

That’s the game Jay (Sam Groom) and Adele (Tisha Sterling) are into. And, while I wouldn’t recommend that lifestyle for everyone, it seems to be paying off for the dangerous couple.

The Scam: Adele (or Gretchen as she is known elsewhere) finds lonely old ladies who need some help around the house, and worms, er, warms her way into their good graces, and then Jay steps in and holds the woman hostage until they pay for their freedom. While this scares the bejeezus out of most of their victims (and leaves them broke), it turns deadly when Eunice (the great Lucille Benson still being accidentally funny in a serious role) realizes that the couple are in cahoots. After they off the old lady, the stakes are raised, and the next payoff is looking rather good when Adele hooks up with Helen Mercer (Amanda Blake), a self-made woman who needs someone to help her handle her business affairs. However, things take yet another turn when Adele comes to look up to, and like, Helen, and now she wants out of the game for good.

Based on the novel Only Couples Need Apply by Doris Miles Disney (she also wrote the novel that the excellent TVM Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate was based on), Betrayal was just one of four small screen features that Gordon Hessler directed in 1974! It’s not my favorite of this batch, but I thought Betrayal was quite good, with a few truly suspenseful moments and strong acting from both Sterling and Blake. Like a lot of Hessler’s television films, Betrayal is small in almost every sense of the word. Small cast, limited locations, and light on subplots, this telefilm is brisk, if a bit insubstantial, and is a decent way to spend 74 minutes.

However, what I tend to enjoy most about a Hessler joint is the atmosphere, and that’s largely missing from Betrayal. It certainly would have benefited from a little more mood and perhaps a bit more tension. But, it does its best to keep things ticking, and the story is helped along through the formidable Blake in her TV movie debut.

Yessir, after nineteen years as Miss Kitty on the forever-running Gunsmoke, Blake decided it was time to hang up her bar wench gear, but was far from retiring. It took her only three short weeks after leaving the series to sign up for Betrayal. The actress maintains an air of strength and integrity and it’s easy to see why troubled Adele starts to look outside of a life of crime. Helen, who… in an interesting twist… has also killed before, is at a different but somewhat similar crossroads as Adele. So, while she is unaware of their deeper connection, Adele is not and it’s understandable why the two click so quickly.

The rest of the cast is great, with Groom putting in an especially sleazy performance as the suave but violent Jay, who, despite his own grave circumstances, has the last, morbid laugh.
Not to be confused with the same titled 1978 TVM starring Sterling lookalike Lesley Ann Warren, Betrayal is currently streaming on Amazon Instant Video and is available on DVD.

Friday, April 17, 2015

An Update! An Announcement! Links!

Dude, it’s like I’ve been away for, like, ever.

Who knew graduate school was so intense? Well, OK, everyone knew, but I went on believing I could handle it all. Then, some personal problems got in the way, and here I am, weeks after my last blog post. But I do promise, I have not been away from the world of TV movies, even if I haven’t been able to review them. Here’s what’s up:

The big news is that I am going to be hosting a podcast dedicated to retro television! We will be concentrating on the television movie genre, and have lots of fun in store for all you small screen fanatics! Look for our first podcast in August or September.

My co-host will be the groovy Dan R. Budnik, co-author of Bleeding Skull: A 1980s Horror-Trash Odyssey, and owner of the blog Some Polish American Guy Reviews Things. Dan is awesome, loves TV movies and is super excited to spend some time discussing our favorite titles.

Did you know Dan was on Twitter? Well, you do now.

He's also a Happy Days expert. True story.

A few other awesome people, who I hope can make every podcast, will join us. But we know life is crappy sometimes, so for now they are going to be credited as Special Guests. Aaron Spelling would be proud (and more on them as time draws near).

Elsewhere in Amandaland (hey, if Shonda Rhimes can have land, so can I): 

Did you know I have a fun facebook page that is updated almost daily? While my blog will always be my BFF, the fb page has been a good buddy while I am away. Please stop by and check out all of the TV Guide ads, discussions and links to my archived reviews. (I also have a Twitter that totally gets ignored).

Or, did you know that I helped out a little on Spectacular Optical’s first publication Kid Power? This awesome book looks at all kinds of children’s treats made for both the big and small screen. I offered some images and my proofing and fact checking skillz to the chapter on Afterschool Specials.

Afterschool Specials, you say?

Need I say more?

I thought so. 

I am also part of a fun horror movie roundtable for Podcastmania, and we have a facebook page. Stop by for a little blood and gore.

And, yes, I'm still hanging out with The Movies About Girls crew. We are not podfading!

And finally, I am working on another TVM-centric project, which is moving rather slowly (thank you, life), but I’ll have an update on that endeavor at a later date.

I know. I. know. The next few months are looking pretty cray-cray, but I will be getting a little time off in May, before my summer semester gets rolling. Egads! I’m already burnt out. But I’ll do my best to get some new content up. Seriously guys, for now, please visit the facebook page. There are a lot of great like-minded TV lovers over there waiting for your input!

One of us… 
One of us...