Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: The Cover Girl Murders (1993)

This review has been posted in conjunction with the Daily Grindhouse's year long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie.  

What I like best about The Cover Girls Murders is that the vhs cover reminds me of my crazy salad days working at a video store. I can’t even remember how many generic but still enticing images like this filtered across my checkout desk. I do not recall this particular film being a part of our admittedly light collection, but I did pick up the movie a few years later when video stores were still king and movies with titles like The Cover Girl Murders had the potential of irresistible charm. Yes, I was a fan of Baywatch and yeah, I thought maybe, just maybe, this movie was going to be like a sun soaked Friday the 13th (or at least Ten Little Indians dressed up in a bikini). I was in for the long haul. However, that sandy slasher was not to be and while I give the Cover Girl Murders a spin every few years (because I’m a sucker), my opinion that this is one bland flick has not changed much in the last fifteen years or so. At least I'm consistent.

This wonderfully creepy image really has nothing to do with the film
I guess The Cover Girl Murders is of note because the screenplay was co-written by Doug Barr (based on a story by my old UCLA Extension teacher Brian Taggert!), and Barr co-starred with one of Cover Girl's main draw, Lee Majors on The Fall Guy. And, it also features two actors who starred in television adaptations of famous movies: Vanessa Angel of Weird Science and Adrian Paul of Highlander. Both are fine in the film, and Jennifer O’Neill is perhaps too good for the material she’s been saddled with, but wow. This one is just… it’s just.

Ahem, I think you are supposed to point the camera towards the model...
In a newspaper article lovingly titled USA: The Trash Channel, San Francisco Chronicle’s John Carmen snubbed the network, denouncing much of their 1993 lineup (including the excellent Rubdown, Caught in the Act and this film). The intrepid reporter surmised that “While a living can be made for a time low-balling and low-browing the audience, sooner or later the public and advertisers develop allergies to shoddy merchandise.” Normally, I would be outraged by such comments, and I will defend Rubdown til… we’ll it’s rubbed down (not as dirty as it sounds)…but it’s really hard to make a case for The Cover Girl Murders. You win this round, Carmen!

Is anyone behind the wheel of this movie?
Admittedly, the premise is absolutely enticing… A bunch of bikini models, a magazine mogul, a hot photographer and a couple of other potential victims arrive on an almost deserted island to do a photo shoot for a magazine that may be on its last legs if this swimsuit edition (or was it calendar?) doesn’t bring in some hard (on), honest money. Unfortunately, an unknown assailant has other ideas…

She totally just read the script
Despite the (mostly mild) deaths of a few models, the fashion shoots continue, leading to a rather hysterical scene featuring the drop dead real life model Beverly Johnson looking pretty upset while a cheeky Adrian Paul coaxes, "C'mon, you know you want me."

Models go BOOM!
By the way, did you know models are combustible? Neat.

I don't know who you are, or why you needed to be there or what purpose you were serving... but I love you.
By the way Part II: Did you know it was possible to make a movie with less than ten characters stranded on a remote island getting picked off one by one and still intersperse a guy with no dialogue or reason for being in most of the major scenes? To say this guy was the heart of the film is an understatement.

Lee just read the script too
Intriguing, no? But the story, the pacing, some of the acting (and definitely the dialog), and that hackneyed "twist" leaves way too much to be desired. And truthfully, I don’t really have any words for this one, so why not enjoy a few sun soaked stills, and if you are really interested, view at your own risk.

File Under: Werk It

Confession: I’m sure in a few more years down the road, I’ll be picking up my trusty vhs copy and thinking, “Maybe this will be better than I remembered.” I’m a small screen masochist!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, Bad Ronald!

Bad Ronald turns 40 years old today! Can you believe it? (Don’t worry Ron, you still look like a teenager!) All these decades later, and he continues to resonate with horror fans and TV movie buffs. His story put a spin on the old haunted house tale; the memories inside the house might be haunted but that ghost is alive! The gritty oh-so-70s voyeuristic vibe is hard to deny, and despite its adherence to the strict standards and practices of television, Bad Ronald is a completely harrowing trip down the rabbit hole (if that hole was located at the center of your house). 

There are soooo many reasons why I love Bad Ronald and it's not just me... Kindertrauma partnered up with Made for TV Mayhem for a celebration! So please stop on by and check them out. For now, here are a few reasons that I am crazy nutso cuckoo for Mr. Wilby:

Scott Jacoby is a a god. True Story: Coming from an interesting line of actor siblings (his brothers Billy and Bobby are just as cool), Scott led the way by making a name for himself in such hot cult items as Ronald, The Little Girl who Lives Down the Lane and Rivals (aka Deadly Rivals). He won an Emmy for his heartbreaking portrayal of a young teenager who discovers his father is gay in That Certain Summer, and it was those kinds of award winning performances that drew us to him. Willowy, and beautiful for sure, but Scott is also immensely talented (please come back to us!).

(Note: Kim Hunter is pretty cool too!

But I'm getting off topic... The beginning of Bad Ronald is painfully realistic: Despite how much I want to rail on Carole Matthews myself, she is truly an innocent victim. She's a brat too, but what can you do? Then again, Ronald doesn't start out as a cold-blooded killer either (if you ignore the novel which is much darker). He’s a sad sack, and unfortunately, utterly relatable.

Although some of the kids at my school were kind enough to not call me names directly to my face, much like Ronald, I felt weird. I was also an outsider who set their unreachable heights on the cool, cute and popular kid. Seeing the hip teens taunt Ronald and then witnessing the poor sod slowly going mad is like watching my teenage nightmares unfold before my very eyes. Isolation and geekdom walk hand in hand all too often, and even if we are the cool kid, these moments are not reserved for the local nerd (or so I've been told).

Ronald is a rat in a cage: Throughout his forced sequestration, Ronald begins to take on more and more animalistic characteristics. It starts with the mousy apple nibble right after Carole’s death, and follows through to Ronald literally living in a cage, curious but unable to seek companionship. He becomes a social experiment for the audience. This is a murderous teenager’s version of The Yellow Wallpaper.

Atranta Rules: I've promised myself that if I ever came into some serious cash, I was going to have someone come to my mansion and replicate the paintings from Ronald’s cage… er… room. Novelist Jack Vance (aka John Holbrook Vance) was primarily a science fiction writer and he injects a little bit of that far off fantasy land through Ronald’s art, which is translated perfectly on screen.

I’m always fascinated by the creation of Princess Vancetta. When we first see her, she is fully formed, but without a face. Ronald completes the drawing before Vancetta lookalike Babs moves in, but you can see how much care he went into creating his “perfect” woman. And he goes back to her, adding touches of flair when he longs to escape.

What's most interesting though is that while he envisions himself as Prince Norbert, the prince looks nothing like him. Ronald is completely disassociated from himself. I think here we might feel that Ronald is no sociopath, his problem is that he feels too much! Who can’t relate to that?!?

Of course, Babs would never have dated the creepy Ronald Wilby, but there is an instant connection – she is the first one to feel his presence in the house. They are instantly aligned in a way that only complete madness can bond together. The most disturbing romance ever? Perhaps. OK, and a little one sided...

Who doesn’t adore watching the comeuppance of a nosy neighbor: There’s something to be said for having the ability to scare someone to death! Take that, Mrs. Schumacher! I love that Ronald's only response to her death is, “They’ll blame this on me too.” I guess Ronald is starting to broach that sociopath thing!

And, of course, the Money Shot:

Bad Ronald was one of the first movies I reviewed when I started Made for TV Mayhem. You can read that post here, and you can read my review of the excellent novel this TVM was adapted from here.

Bad Ronald also got a high ranking on my top 10 list of the TVM's creepiest characters!

Happy Birthday, Bad Ronald! I know the Woods and the Matthews don't look too kindly on good ol' Ronald, but we love him, don't we?

Bad Ronald Art!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Television Madness at the Packard Campus Theater! Check out these two Thriller episodes on the big screen!

Oh. My. Gawd.

This Friday, October 24th, the Library of Congress is showcasing two episodes of the excellent 1970s British series Thriller at the Packard Campus Theater in Culpeper, VA. The whole shebang starts at 7:30 and they are screening In the Steps of a Deadman and I'm the Girl He Wants to Kill!

The Packard Campus Theater is located at:

19053 Mount Pony Road
Culpeper, VA 22701-7551

Their phone number is 202-707-5840.

More info about the theater's fantastic programming for October can be found here (totes drool-worthy). And you can read this marvelous piece by Cary O'Dell, who is hosting the event, on the wonders of Thriller here.

Oh yeah, and check out my review of Dial a Deadly Number.

Gulp. I could die.

Why did I ever leave the D.C. area?!?

If you can make it to this event, please report back. I need to live vicariously through you.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sandcastles (1972)

Network: CBS 
Airdate: October 17th, 1972 

I’m a sucker for romance. And the soapier the better, I say. I was surprised to find out earlier this week that I actually do have soapy limits, and Sandcastles comes pretty darn close to pushing the boundary that separates sentimental melodrama from overwrought hysteria. But by the end of it all, I was a gooey mess of snot and tears, so, you know, job well done!

Bonnie Bedelia is Jenna, an overly romantic orchestral musician living in Los Angeles. She spends way too much time fantasizing about an angelic blonde man, who she believes is her destiny and one true love. Unfortunately, she’s concocted this guy in her head. But… On the other side of California, near San Francisco, lives a drifter named Michael (Jan-Michael Vincent), an angelic looking blonde man, who has no idea that he’s someone’s great love. He’s a drifter, living mostly wherever he can find a job that will put a roof over his head, but will also allow him the freedom to roam if he so chooses. Currently, he’s hooked up with a good-natured restaurateur named Alexis (Herschel Bernardi), aka Papa Bear, an eccentric and thoughtful man who has come to love Michael as the son he never had. But Michael’s wayward spirit gets the best of him and after Alexis raises some much needed money for his business, he gives $20,000 to Michael to deposit at the bank. For reasons even unknown to Michael, he hits the road with the money, but quickly has a change of heart and calls Alexis’ wife Sarah (Mariette Hartley) to let her know he’s coming home with the cash.

Unfortunately, the ride he hitches out of town just happens to be with a slimy opportunistic alcoholic named Frank (Gary Crosby). This leads to a horrible car accident that creates an intersection between everyone’s lives. Jenna, who happened to be on her way to Frisco is the woman who holds a dying Michael in her arms. But his ghost soon returns to the beach near Alexis’ restaurant, because this is where he’d spend his days building gorgeous sculptures in the sand, and he soon starts a relationship with Jenna. Drawn to her own fantasy world and the (now literally) angelic Michael, she refuses to recover the money that Frank still has in his car. She knows that if she helps Michael fulfill his responsibilities to Alexis, he’ll be able to make that last journey, leaving her forever.

Directed by Ted Post (Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate, The Baby), Sandcastles is more famous for its filming technique than it is for the story. It was the first small screen film to employ the single camera videotape method. In an attempt to save money, the film was shot with a Norelco, in Malibu and at the CBS Studio Center. However, the equipment was too new and expensive, and the process too time consuming and faulty. Eventually the video was transferred to film, giving Sandcastles a bit of off-putting effect for some viewers, who commented that the aesthetics lent itself more towards episodic television than a movie. Nevertheless, the overall eeriness of the story and the beautiful locales make Sandcastles a truly wonderful time capsule.

Shot in twelve days, with much of the story unfolding amongst crashing beach waves, Post joked in an interview about the difficulty of getting the sea to “act” on command. He must have gotten the ocean to listen though because he caught some exquisite footage and produced a moving portrait of haunted people, ghostly love and learning to let go.

Still, Sandcastles doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings, it wants to yank those suckers right out of your chest, and there are a few overly syrupy and talky moments throughout the film, where everyone only speaks of love. But, dammit, it works. Maybe it’s because Michael is so emblematic of the times – a leftover from the hippie movement whose universal dream of peace and love dies when he does. At the same time Jenna continues to believe (and rightly so as it turns out) that love doesn’t have to end, coincidences can mean something greater, and moving on doesn’t mean leaving anything behind.

Bedelia is wonderful in the role as Jenna. Her fantasies and idealism keep her from venturing out into the real world, and the actress captures that sweet innocence of the romantic daydreamer, almost achingly so. It doesn’t hurt that Vincent is at his loveliest as well, with a thick blonde mane and a tummy you could bounce a quarter off of. **Swoon**

But this is really Bernardi’s film. Alexis is thoroughly tormented by Michael’s disappearance, but refuses to believe he’s stolen the money outright. Alexis can’t come to terms with this alleged betrayal of his “adopted” son, and, then his death, and he nearly comes to deadly blows with Frank (and definitely beats the crap out of him!). The loss and anger is palpable, and carries the film from outright melodrama to tragedy. Despite his roaming nature, Michael has a profound ripple effect, impacting everyone’s lives. I think I'm getting misty again...

Michael's sandcastles and sculptures are an overt metaphor. The ocean constantly destroys them, and he has to keep rebuilding them, much in the same way everyone has to rebuild their lives after Michael's death. The overall message about enjoying life and beauty in the moment because they could disappear in the blink of an eye is timeless, and Sandcastles tells this story well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: High Desert Kill (1989)

This review has been posted in conjunction with the Daily Grindhouse's year long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie.   

Just like the characters in High Desert Kill, I was a witness… I was there… yet, I still don’t believe what I saw… I wonder if I will even be able to recount the story properly.

Maybe I should start here:

Before I even attempt to decipher this strangely intriguing 1989 sci-fi/adventure/thriller thingamabob, let me throw out some film references, which may or may not clear things up. High Desert Kill feels like Pray for the Wildcats meets Snow Kill if they went Into the Badlands. And sure, if you want to throw in a Predator along the way, I won’t argue with you… And you know what? I'll see your Predator and raise you A Nightmare at Bitter Creek while we're at it.

Does that help? OK, let's try this: High Desert Kill is a mixed bag of small screen suspense blended with a touch of tentacle-esque sci-fi (maybe that’s a Cthulhu reference?)… And Marc Singer. Is it must see TV? Probably not, but it is mesmerizing in its own bizarro world way.

Anthony Geary is Dr. Jim Cole, a pretty serious guy who enjoys spending one weekend a year exercising his macho muscles with his two best buds, Brad and Paul (a bug-eyed machismo afflicted Marc Singer and the sternly handsome Vaughn Armstrong). Unfortunately, Paul recently passed away in a strange electrical accident (!), so his male model nephew (!!) Ray (Micah Grant) is taking over the hunting buddy role. Once this motley trio is placed firmly out of society’s reach and into the wild, they run into a curmudgeonly grizzled professional hunter named Stan (Chuck Connors), and the four attempt to forge a relationship based mostly on who can arm wrestle the best.

However, this is not a simple beer-guzzling-look-how-big-my-gun-is weekend. Someone else is stalking these campers, and It has the ability to control their minds, bringing out the, ahem, beast within. This makes them drink a lot, screw the neighboring womenfolk, as well as eat raw bear liver! Is it an ancient curse? Is it a ghost? Is something in the water? Is it alien mind control? Did I just see Chuck Connors and Marc Singer make out with the same woman… at the same time…?

I. Don't. Know. What. Has. Happened. To. My. Brain.

High Desert Kill is absolutely one of the weirdest films I have ever seen. It’s got some mind-boggling moments (the infamous party scene is the stuff legends are made of), but it’s also fascinating and, at some points, quite effective. The location shots are gorgeous and through most of the film, the nuttiness works in its favor. But I’m still not sure what the point is. At times it seems Marc Singer's only intention was to prove how buggy he could make his eyes. And a blood-smeared Geary chowing down on bear liver is… ummm, something.

Based on the title and the above referenced party scene (which, by the way, made my Top 10 OMG moments in small screen films), I thought High Desert Kill was a slasher film, and it definitely hits a few of those beats: People are dragged away in the middle of the night, there's random body placement in a weird ancient ruin, and so on. But then it switches gears, and switches them again... and again... and the brain goes plop.

The reason why any of High Desert Kill works is because it was directed by the stalwart Harry Falk (his last directing credit, actually), a self-assured but primarily episodic director who brings a sense of style and tension to much of his work (OK, maybe The Flying Nun isn’t so tense, but work with me). The cast is also good, with Geary coming in a little subdued, which probably anchors Singer’s more emphatic (but fun) performance. Connors, of course, is great, even if he’s not given a whole heck of a lot to do. But the surprise here is Grant, who is undeniably likable and charming despite the fact that he’s the top male model for High Desert Fashions! I mean, you're sure that guy is going to be a jerk, right? You are so wrong.

High Desert Kill was met with mixed reviews. TV Guide loved it! Entertainment Weekly did not. However, both were kind with their critiques, which is something that is mostly missing on the viewers' reviews on the IMDb page. Maybe it's because we're looking for something to make fun of. Don't get me wrong, there are indeed a few hysterical hijinks in this strange concoction, but it's also genuinely earnest even if T.S. Cook's screenplay (based on a story by Mike Marvin and Darnell Fry) is all mish-moshy and lacking reason.

So what do we have? A brain melting genre bending script that aims too high and ultimately lacks a clear focus, a game cast, a competent director, a fashion shoot, something that looks like a giant roach, a force field that covers a Pueblo Indian ruin, actresses with the last name Birdsong, disappearing horses, guys who pull out guns in the middle of the gym, and lots of whiskey. Maybe not a good time for everyone, but definitely worth a go if you are interested in seeing how the direct to video market may have influenced the small screen fare of the late eighties.