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.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: The Haunting of Sarah Hardy (1989)

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

It is Strange that The Haunting of Sarah Hardy ran in May of 1989 instead of October, because this moody and fun telefilm has the Halloween season written all over it! Shot in Oregon at the Pittock Mansion (but with the estate’s borders made to look like it was perched on a seaside cliff), Sarah is all about atmosphere. The wonderfully gloomy skies and twenty-two-room estate give the film oodles of ambiance (Morgan Fiarchild’s pink sweaters help the cause greatly as well). Aesthetically, this is a grayly lit mood piece; story wise, Sarah is a surprisingly dark tale of loss, guilt and betrayal. Morgan wise, it is all kinds of awesome. In short: S.O.L.D.

Many a creepy ghost tale is built on childhood trauma. But perhaps none did it as obnoxiously as The Haunting of Sarah Hardy, which features a tragic but annoying opening sequence where a funeral turns intensely sinister after her crazy mother walks into the ocean and drowns herself (drama queen!). Luckily, Sarah grows up to be Sela Ward, a more likable version of young Sarah, and life seems to have picked up for her. She’s recently married a hunk of a man named Austin Hardy (Michael Woods), and her lifelong friends, Lucy (Morgan Fairchild) and Allen (the oh-so-gorgeous Roscoe Born) are still thick of thieves (maybe). But despite enjoying a few years of normalcy, Sarah is still haunted by her past, which seems intent on destroying her.

Sarah has had a tragic life. It gets a little more tragic as the film goes along. We feel bad. And that’s important. Sela Ward keeps Sarah likable and sympathetic. While everyone in her life seems sincere and loyal we know at least one of them is on the make, but there are enough twists and turns so that when the story goes into more obvious spots, it also keeps the viewer on their toes in other places.

One of the things I like most about the USA World Premieres is that, while they were producing movies at the end of the "Big Three" network's telefilm run, a lot of their productions felt as old school as those classic Movies of the Week from the 70s. The ghost stories and other traditional tales always stand out to me because it seemed like USA was taking a page out of the TVM history book, and, if not necessarily putting any kind of unique spin on it, gave this tried and true formula a slicker, updated look. Don’t get me wrong, I will always be drawn to bell bottoms and sideburns (and not with any kind of hipster irony either), but when USA sets out to do the classic small screen thriller right, they rarely let me down.

The cast in Sarah is wonderful. The late Polly Bergen has a fun red-herring role as the priggish Miss Stepford (the last name must be a clever nod). Bergen really enjoyed the part but said they originally tried to tinker with the character, feeling she needed to be more glamorous. In an interview Bergen remarked, “Did you see that makeup? They sent me the script, and I was immediately caught up in playing this little old lady with support stockings and sensible shoes and wire-rim glasses. So they decided to glamorize the part. My agent said, “They don’t precisely want to pay you dollars, but they’ll give you a Giorgio Armani designer wardrobe.” I said, “Wait a minute. I want my money. Let them keep the wardrobe.” So I played it the way it was originally written, and I got my money besides.”

Bergen really does play down her mature beauty and is excellent as the cold fish maid who may know a little more about what’s going bump in the night than she originally lets on. (Note: There’s a lot of things go bump in the night in this movie, and that’s no complaint!)

I don’t remember watching Sarah when it originally aired on May 31st, 1989, but did catch it some time later, and taped it. Having forgotten most of it, I revisited a few years ago and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Giving it another go this past week, I was surprised yet again (as I had forgotten the excellent twist ending, which is mildly predictable but still effective). This is a beautifully atmospheric old school chiller. And one that is well worth spending a little of your Halloween time with. It definitely gives out more treats than tricks.

My only real issue with this late 80s telefilm is that, after all is revealed, not much makes sense. I’m not looking for every loose end to be tied up, but most of the ghosting, scheming, sneaking and duplicity seems to have been for naught… for everyone! If only someone had given that tortured Sarah Hardy a break!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Legend of Lizzie Borden gets a new DVD release date!

When Lizzie was announced earlier this year and then pushed back to August of 2015, many of us wondered if this incredible telefilm was ever going to see the light of day. It's been in limbo hell for, like, ever, a damn shame for such a highly regarded made for television movie. It looks like things are moving though, and the release date has been pushed up to October 7th, 2014! You can put in a preorder at Amazon here. Also, Cinedigm has this page in place for the upcoming release.

OMG, I think we're here folks! Order it now!

And, maybe now we can move on and get Liz Montgomery a Lifetime Achievement Award! Geesh!

Image courtesy of Cinedigm

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Maternal Instincts (1996)

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

Maternal Instincts is notable for a couple of reasons. For one, Delta Burke (who also served as Executive Producer) goes for the gold in a fun bad girl turn. But, even cooler, if we can go back to January 17th, 1996 for a minute (or forever… I remember liking it there), Maternal Instincts marks the second night in a row that a new Delta Burke TVM premiered. The first film, A Promise to Carolyn, was a somber CBS production based on a true crime case about two sisters seeking justice for their other sister’s death (at the hands of a wicked stepmother, no less!). For Maternal Instincts, Burke takes a 180 and can be seen moving from abused stepdaughter to a desperate wannabe babymaker whose infertility sparks an interesting but flawed stalking thriller.

Burke is Tracy Horton, a barely contented housewife who is married to a not horrible but somewhat controlling husband. She spends her days working as a volunteer in the maternity ward of the local hospital, and seeking medical aid in getting pregnant. Her doctor, the serious but caring Dr. Eva Warden (Beth Broderick from Are You Lonesome Tonight) performs a typical procedure to help Tracy, but along the way discovers the patient has ovarian cancer. Tracy’s husband, Stan (Tom Mason) gives Dr. Warden consent to perform a hysterectomy, hoping it will save Tracy’s life. Unfortunately, Tracy goes from hysterectomy to hysteria, and once she finds out she’s been denied a chance to have a baby, her family, friends and the good doctor become targets of vengeance.

After "accidentally" murdering Stan things go from bad to worse when Tracy finds out Eva is pregnant (Random TV trivia note: Mason was knocked off again just two months later by Jaclyn Smith in My Very Best Friend… this guy had no luck in 1996). The bulk of the film revolves around Tracy’s crazy antics as she anonymously terrorizes the doctor. From filling Eva’s syringes with cooking oil (!) to falsifying her patients’ records, Tracy is set on ruining Eva’s life. But the desired outcome is fuzzy: Does she want Eva to miscarry or does she want the baby for herself? I guess when you are this crazy you don’t really know what you want anyway (at least that’s my pat response to my own question!), but a little guidance on her ultimate motivation would have been nice.

Maternal Instincts was met with mixed reviews when it originally aired. Honestly, it is indeed an inconsistent telefilm that has been made a little better over time, thanks to numerous reruns on Lifetime that have allowed audiences a chance to review Burke’s spirited un-Suzanne-Sugarbaker-like performance (although, if Suzanne had been cheated out of beauty pageant title, it’s not so hard to imagine a similar response).

Burke knew she was stepping out of the audience’s comfort zone, and in an interview to promote Maternal Instincts she said, “[W]hen I had this chance to play this fascinating character, of course I had to say yes… We tend to think that a maternal instinct is impelled by love. But here we have a woman whose obsessive need for a child has somehow distorted those instincts and turned her into a hate-filled human being.”

The actress dives in headfirst and keeps the whole project afloat; and, lets face it, it looks like Burke is having the time of her life slinging wrenches, pushing shopping carts into pregnant women and running down good looking architects. However, while I do enjoy watching Burke go bonkers, there is still a much better film somewhere inside of this just waiting to be born (ha! I got a million of 'em).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Sins of the Mind (1997)

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

Strange But True: Mike Farrell, who stars in Sins of the Mind, co-wrote the muddled, but oh-so-70s jiggly-tastic TV movie Ebony, Ivory and Jade (starring Bert Convy, no less!).

Not That Strange but Still True: Farrell served as an executive producer on this USA Original film.

And Totally Strange and Probably Not True: If you go by the logic of Sins of the Mind, hot girls who get hit on the head become sex addicts.

OK, I am pretty sure that last statement is patently false, but it made for a good hook, and leads me to my review of the wild, weird, and intriguing Sins of the Mind; a movie that was not even registered on my small screen lovin’ radar until recently, when Kent from the Movies About Girls podcast mentioned it on one of the shows (he told me it was must see TV). When I saw it was a USA Original I thought, “Hey, I can exploit this tidbit for my own purposes.” And here we are. So let’s get started:

There once was a good little girl named Michelle (Missy Crider). She was wholesome, a wonderful daughter and an up and coming (and employed!) artist. That all changed when she was in a car accident that nearly killed her and left her with brain damage. No worries, though. As far as the doctors can forsee, there will be a need for therapy but Michelle should make a full recovery. Which she does. Unfortunately, the doctors did not detect that the injury has made her a slave to her own impulses. At first Michelle just seems less censored and spunkier (keyword: spunk) and perhaps she is now a girl with a good appetite. But that appetite hungers for more than food and before you can say, “What’s the number to Nymphos Anonymous?” Michelle is having sex with almost any man who doesn’t seem to mind taking advantage of a girl with brain damage. And that, my friends, turns out to be a lot of guys!

But that’s (almost) not what Sins is about. Sure, there’s plenty of the tawdry to be found – Michelle becomes a prostitute for a spell and also has to attend a group therapy session full of rapists and other seamy types. The other “sin” Sins is commenting on is that of the illusory suburban family ideal. On the surface it would seem the household is merely blind to Michelle’s erratic nature, but as the film progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that they simply do not want to deal with the issues Michelle’s problems bring into the family. From raging sibling jealousy to a “live by my rules or get out of the house” discipline style, Michelle is lost in a family that desperately aches to exist inside a Norman Rockwell painting.

In fact, Rockwell is name dropped during an intense dinner scene. While Michelle and her “Uncle” Frank (Robert Pine, giving off a sleaze vibe early on) squirm in their seats after being discovered in the act by Michelle’s sister Allegra (Cyia Batten, of the Pussycat Dolls!), the parents continue to eat, drink and be merry until Allegra finally stomps off in disgust - a moment which cannot be ignored.

This would seem to be the makings of solid soap storytelling if it were not for the fact that Sins is touted as a true story. And that’s where it all goes hinky, folks. The performances are top notch, with Mike Farrell (who signed on first as a producer and had not intended to appear in the film) and Jill Clayburgh bringing home the bacon, adding depth to a fairly ludicrous situation (I was squealing “Oh my god!” at various moments - in a good way). Unfortunately, there is a lingering air of - for lack of better words - women hate. It’s not misogynistic; Sins does its best to make us feel for Michelle and even though she longs to be an object of desire, she is never treated by the film as an object of ridicule. But she is only redeemed through the love of her father, the help of a male psychiatrist (which might not seem unusual, except the female psychiatrist proves to be utterly worthless), and the understanding of other males who just happen to be sex offenders! The mother and sister are portrayed as virtuous but petty and, if you are Jill Clayburgh, sometimes drunk. Yes, we get it, in Middle America alcoholics are more acceptable than sexaholics. It is unfortunate that Michelle finally learns to circumvent the longing for male desire, but constantly turns to men for other forms of support.

That said, Sins is one damn good watch. As I said earlier, the acting is fantastic, and Crider is phenomenal in the lead role. She is childish, vampy and confused all at once. The bigger her hair gets, the worse off she is (thank you, nineties TV). Aside from a few questionable moments (hey, is that a nymphomaniac sitting on her daddy’s lap?), she remains a captivating and sympathetic character.

Sins is directed with sensitivity (and an ability to create a salacious TV-PG scenario) by the great James Frawley, that man behind The Muppet Movie, and many episodes of The Monkees. He, and screenwriter Sharon Elizabeth Doyle do a commendable job of creating a metaphor out of Michelle’s sex addiction, making it feel less sleazy than it probably should have.

And one last random fact: Sins, which aired on June 11th, 1997, ran against a rerun of Bionic Ever After?

Life is strange sometimes. Make it stranger and watch Sins.