Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Careening Back Into the TV-Movie Time Tunnel!

Well, it's been a little while, but I've gone and done it again. I tripped over my own feet into the swirling TV-movie time tunnel! As I have relayed to you here and here, I have an affection for those vintage TV-movies that aired from the late-1960s through the late-1970s. Often lasting a mere ninety minutes (including commercials), they allowed for more elaboration than a one-hour program, but didn't overstay their welcome by being padded out to two hours (the way virtually every TV-movie has been since the dawn of the 1980s.) They also usually contain movie stars who for whatever reason had been handed off to “the boob tube,” but of course in The Underworld we still adore our favorites, even if much of the rest of the world may have moved beyond them.

First up in this round is 1973's Pioneer Woman (the only one of these I watched on a high-def channel and not youtube), the story of a wife and mother (Joanna Pettet) whose husband (William Shatner) suddenly decides to up and move to Nebraska. He's purchased 80 acres of land from the railroad and informs her that they and their two young children will be selling most of their belongings and leaving town for the west.

He's so enthusiastic and driven with fervor (this is William Shatner we're talking about) that she doesn't get the opportunity to tell him that she's just discovered she's pregnant with their third child. It wouldn't matter anyway, though, because the land was already bought without her input. They join a wagon train for the first part of the journey, eventually breaking off on their own.

When they finally reach their plot of land, they discover that home-steaders have been on it for quite a while and they refuse to give it up! They try to drown Shatner while the ladies roughhouse Pettet so much that she loses her unborn child! (Shatner had never even known about it.) Their claim ripped to shreds, they decide to press on to Wyoming where the land is free to those who'll work it.

Once there, they strive to carve out a home for themselves, building a sod house and trying to plow the unforgiving terrain. Eventually, circumstances lead to Pettet being all alone with her kids, with only neighbor David Janssen on hand to offer help (which she discourages for the longest time.) This was the pilot for a series that never came to fruition, so the storyline leaves room for development at its close.
Pettet's children are played by Helen Hunt and Russell Baer. Two more disparate stories could not be told. Hunt, making her very first appearance here, went on to an exceptionally successful career as a child television actress and then proceeded to movies where she ultimately copped an Oscar for As Good as It Gets (1997.) Baer was never seen or heard of again...

Next we have a real hoot. Women in Chains (1972) is a campy, yet still very arresting (so to speak) flick about the underhanded goings on in a women's prison. Parole officer Lois Nettleton is bothered by the unexplained death of a prisoner she'd been working with and asks her fellow employee Penny Fuller to help her go undercover in the prison to look into matters.

She changes her name and hair color and enters the system for a two week stay. On the bus to the institution, she befriends the meek and petrified Belinda Montgomery, who claims to be innocent of the crime she was arrested for. They arrive at the pokey and are faced with severe, bewigged warden/guard Ida Lupino. Wasting no time in demonstrating who's boss, Lupino encourages a mentally-damaged inmate to destroy Montgomery's glasses.

Montgomery and Nettleton's cellmates include the tough, favorably-treated Jessica Walter, her (implied) sexual partner Barbara Luna, the street-wise Neile Adams, the childlike Kathy Cannon and old gal on the block Lucille Benson. Some of you may recognize Adams as the wife of Steve McQueen for quite a few years until he left her for Ali MacGraw. (This part, in fact, signaled a return to the screen for her as her marriage was just breaking up at the time.) It's also a treat to see Benson playing a more downbeat, realistic part rather than the amusingly ebullient ones she is probably best known for.

As Nettleton struggles to piece together what happened to her client, she runs into more and more hassle from Lupino and her minions Walter and Luna. All of the cliched situations from imprisoned women movies are trucked out here, but at least the cast is interesting and the sense of danger is fairly realistic. That danger gets even more profound once Nettleton's friend Fuller, the only person who knows where she is, is suddenly killed! Now Nettleton is in the clink for good until she can convince someone of who she is and why she's there.

This was a retread part for Lupino who had once starred in Women's Prison (1955) as a viciously nasty warden. The producers had first approached Eleanor Parker for this role (who had been Oscar-nominated for Caged, 1950, though she'd been a put-upon inmate in that one.) She opted not to take the part. This scheme, by the way, had been done before in the films Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), in which Dana Andrews framed himself for murder to combat the death penalty but then finds himself in hot water, and Shock Corridor (1963), in which Peter Breck commits himself to a mental institution in order to investigate a murder, but then can't get back out!

Now this next one has long been a favorite of those who watched it as teenaged boys back in 1974, still reminiscing about it and referring to it now. I had somehow never seen it and, based on the cast involved, had some high hopes that unfortunately were not met. Based on a well-received short story by Theodore Sturgeon, Killdozer concerns a six-man construction crew working on an isolated island off the coast of Africa. There to prepare a base camp for an oil rig, they soon run into serious trouble.

As demonstrated in the prologue, a meteor has come crashing into our atmosphere and landed on the small island in question. Years later, when the men begin to clear the land, they come upon it and are immediately affected by its presence. First to fall victim to its deadly intent is a young and slim Robert Urich, who is burned horribly by a blue radiation that emanates from the rock. (Urich had been in a movie, guested on several shows and even starred in a sitcom and yet was not given up-front billing here!)

Foreman Clint Walker hears from Urich what it was that happened to him and is reluctant to share the information with his fellow workers Carl Betz, Neville Brand, James Wainwright and James Watson Jr. The squabbling workmen don't seem to do much beyond complaining, but their problems have only begun. The alien lifeforce from the rock has now moseyed into a massive Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer whose chief aim seems to be wiping them all out one by one!

The mostly sandy, rocky setting of the movie might have been allayed some if the characters ever took Wainright up on his endless suggestions to “go for a swim,” but they never do. All of the killings are just alluded to rather than shown and despite its brief running time, it all winds up rather tedious than tension-filled. The device is rather threatening looking, but the execution of the storyline is not very exciting. The characters don't act in an endearing way, nor are they compelling. So this really is more for the guys who like the endless grinding and clanking of big machinery (Monster Truck Rally types?)
When I stumbled upon this next one, I was delighted because it was an unsold TV pilot starring one of my all-time favorite television hunks. Good Against Evil (1977) played into the then-hot genre of devil worship and possession. The movie begins in 1955 with a pregnant woman (Jenny O'Hara) struggling against a staff of doctors and nurses she fells is hell bent (literally!) on taking her baby. In the vividly presented prologue, she struggles against delivering the child, then when all goes well and she heads to the nursery to see it, a very imposing nurse/nun (Leila Goldoni) prevents her from taking it while a cat scratches at the window casting its shadow on them. O'Hara is dispensed with and the child is ultimately presented to the demonic Richard Lynch, who has an army of people on hand to make sure it is raised to his liking.

Cutting now to 1977, we meet pretty young fashion designer Elyssa Davalos, whose car is hit by a roaming magazine writer played by the gorgeous Dack Rambo. He tries everything under the sun to get her to have dinner with him, from getting her car repaired in one day to sending her flowers to calling to all but stalking her (I'd have gone with no encouragement at all!) She eventually relents and they enjoy a lovely Asian dinner during which she tells him how her entire life has been lucky. After the (unlucky) death of her mother in “childbirth,” she proceeded to success in school and in her chosen field of clothing design (all most likely helped along by Lynch and his band of cult followers.)

The pair begins to date, but there is always an issue. When they try to have their first big kiss, a storm blows the window open. When they go riding, a cat jumps out at Rambo, causing his steed to throw him off and ultimately killing a man who came in to help save Davalos from it. The first time they are about to make love, a cat pounces through the sunroom ceiling, sending glass everywhere! It turns out that she is a virgin and that the two previous men she had any feelings for were killed. When they head to the church to prepare a wedding, it turns cold and the lights go out. Ultimately, we find that she has been carefully raised to become the bride of Satan, so Lynch spirits her off to stay with his wealthy follower Peggy McCay until he can deal with Rambo.

Lynch uses Rambo's old flame, a young widow played by Kim Cattrall (yes, that one!), by having her little daughter placed into a coma and possessed! He tries to make Rambo love Cattrell again and forget about Davalos. Dan O'Herlihy (doing his best Max Von Sydow of The Exorcist, 1972, impression) performs an exorcism on the little tyke. As the story draws to a close, Rambo and O'Herlihy team up to find Davalos and fight Lynch (who they've never seen), this being the premise of a series that never came to be (and in the bargain providing an unsatisfying “ending” for this “movie.”) We just love Rambo, so there wasn't any trouble enduring this, and Davalos (who is the daughter of Dick Davalos) does a great job in one of her better roles. The cast of familiar performers helps, too, and no one could do evil glares like Lynch. However, as a stand-alone film, the result is negligible.

Somehow I managed to come upon 1974's The Disappearance of Flight 412 and, as a diehard fan of movies about airplanes in trouble, it appealed to me at once. However, this is actually a telefilm about a military jet that may have run across a UFO and then goes missing. The chief star (and the only one to really get much of a showcase) is Glenn Ford as an Air Force Colonel. He becomes understandably concerned when a plane carrying four of his men performing a test flight disappears into thin air. The crew includes prolific TV faces Robert F Lyons, Greg Mullavey, Stanley Bennett Clay and the best-known David Soul.

The men are shown being diverted to an unexpected landing site where they are greeted by a passel of imposing, less-than-friendly gentlemen in sunglasses who split them into pairs in rooms opposite one another. Then they are interrogated as to what they saw and experienced during their recent test flight. The interrogators are headed by Guy Stockwell (who never once removes his sunglasses) and other familiar actors like Jonathan Lippe, Jack Ging, Edward Winter and Ken Kercheval (who would later star on Dallas from 1978 – 1991.)

Ford enlists his trusted right-hand man Bradford Dillman to help him figure out what has become of his men. They dig and press to get answers, which are slow and difficult in coming, before finally figuring out where the men are being held. They head there in order to retrieve them, but face a certain amount of resistance from Stockwell, who refuses to supply any acceptable answers.

This TV-movie disappoints on a few levels. For one thing, it's cheaply made with samplings of stock footage and dreary sets. Despite an opening that centers on UFOs, there is never really any exploration of those once the movie begins in earnest. There is also precious little action in it, just a lot of discussion. That said, Ford gives a stalwart portrayal and the cast is littered with familiar performers (veteran actor Kent Smith, in his last role, has two key scenes and even Jesse Vint show up briefly!) Also of interest is the appearance of the sole female in the film. Playing (rather unconvincingly!) Ford's wife is a young lady thirty-two years his junior. It's jarring to witness. However, the actress Cynthia Hayward (whose career was quite brief) was Ford's real-life girlfriend and eventual wife from 1977-1984!
Now this next flick was delightfully cheesy and just the sort of brief, campy thing I love! 1970's Weekend of Terror tells the story of two lamebrained, co-dependent kidnappers (Robert Conrad and Lee Majors!) who have taken a young heiress hostage for a sizeable ransom. While Majors is away, Conrad toys around with her, accidentally killing her! Rather than ditch their plans and get away, they decide to kidnap another girl, make her look like the dead one, parade her around town so that eyewitnesses see that she's alive and then after collecting the money, have the rich uncle who's paying for her arrive at the given site and find the wrong girl!

Concurrently, two nuns, Jane Wyatt and Carol Lynley are at a bus stop awaiting the arrival of their fellow sister, Lois Nettleton. To their eye-popping surprise, Nettleton (who has been on a sabbatical to see if she really does want to remain a sister) trots out of the bus wearing a pleated mini-skirt and brown go-go boots, her blonde hair teased into a messy bubble! (Almost every line of this synopsis screams for an exclamation point. Which I am only too happy to provide! Ha ha!) The trio of sisters heads out across the desert in their ramshackle car, which promptly breaks down when a radiator hose bursts. Nettleton, still in her mod, hip get-up flags down a driver for help, but it happens to be Conrad, cruising the highways on the lookout for anyone who might pass for the dead girl!

Under the pretense of towing them all to a nearby garage, he gets them to “his” house (actually a boarded up and abandoned home) where he soon forces the three ladies into the basement at gunpoint. He and Majors devise their plan in which Majors will take Nettleton out to a wig shop and make her select hair like the dead girl and then take her to lunch where he'll say things to the waitress like, “Louise needs more coffee” as if anyone would ever do that under normal circumstances. (And wouldn't the waitress be just as likely to look HIM over and remember his face?!)

Hilariously, considering that she's playing a kidnap victim, Majors gives Nettleton a dress in the pattern of newspaper print! (See photo below. I'm surprised she didn't tear off little pieces of it that said, “help Me, ive been Kid napped” and slip them to the wig store attendant!) Wyatt has been able to tear away the boards that are blocking a basement window (as Lynley sat there staring at her) and, once back, Nettleton joins them in an escape attempt. However, that proves fruitless. It is then decided that Lynley, not Nettleton, will portray the kidnapped girl. Ultimately, Conrad goes to retrieve the ransom money, but wants to waste the remaining two nuns lest they cause the kidnappers extra trouble, but Majors isn't sure.

It is quite a surprise to see two TV heroes like Majors (of The Big Valley and The Six Million Dollar Man) and Conrad (of The Wild Wild West) playing simple, practically impotent lunkheads. They could be read as homosexual without too much of a leap and can barely keep their hands off one another throughout! Majors has an awful ear-covering hairdo, but Conrad is at his white-hottest and gives us the requisite shirtless scene as he's working on the vehicles. Nettleton brings her usual brand of vulnerable insecurity to what amounts to a pretty silly role. Wyatt is right at home, though has precious little to do, and Lynley is surprisingly very good as a holy sister. The kitsch factor is high, thus so is the enjoyment.

Next we come to 1971's The Deadly Dream, which seemed pretty promising considering the cast of actors present. Lloyd Bridges, an absolute fixture of TV-movies of the 1970s, stars as a research scientist, in contention for a Nobel Prize, who is on the verge of a breakthrough in DNA experimentation. His wife, a clothing designer, is played by Janet Leigh, who sports a number of amusing '70s fashions, two of the get-ups including hot pants. Bridges is plagued by hyper-realistic dreams which take place in installments, like a set of cliffhangers. Every time he wakes up, he has evidence that the dreams are real, though somehow he is never able to convince anyone of that.
His best friend and colleague is played by Carl Betz and his concerned boss is Leif Erickson. Richard Jaeckel plays an imposing figure of mystery and Don Stroud is an alternately friendly and menacing gentleman who appears at one of Bridges' lectures as well as in his dreams as an assailant. (There are several people listed at imdb.com for this movie who DO NOT appear, such as Arlene Dahl.) Bridges' world continues to become filled with danger, confusion and anxiety until he starts to confront that fact that maybe the dreams he keeps having are actually real life and what he thinks is real life is actually a dream!

Bridges does a great job at being exasperated and desperate and Leigh, in spite of some kooky clothes and “interesting” hair, is effective, too. There's a portrait of her on Bridges' desk that is wonderful and very hard (for me anyway!) to locate in real life (or is my real life just a dream?) Jaeckel is stoically threatening. Betz, Erickson and the always-welcome Stroud all do decent work. Somehow, though, the ending left me feeling a little bit shorted since the resolution didn't seem to be fully fleshed out. Maybe I'm just spoiled by today's need to spoon feed an audience everything and not force them to put all the pieces together. I think I just wanted a tad more explanation than what was offered.

A classic example of '70s TV-movie kitsch is 1976 's Mayday at 40,000 Feet! Featuring a stellar cast of quasi-cheesy actors whose careers in show business were in far more danger than that of the aircraft they are traveling in, this is a delight for lovers of amusingly bad movie-making. David Janssen plays a cranky pilot who is distracted by the fact that his beloved wife (Jane Powell!) is undergoing exploratory surgery on her breast while he is 40K feet in the sky. His co-pilot is Christopher George, a responsible guy still licking his wounds from a romance that went south. Flight engineer “Dandy” Don Meredith is a swaggering cowboy, enjoying the benefits of the sexual revolution by collecting stewardesses and other females at every opportunity.

Stewardesses include Lynda Day George (who is NOT paired with her real-life husband Christopher, giving an odd touch to the romantic dynamics of the movie!), Christopher Norris, who only two years prior played a nearly identical role in the big-screen disaster flick Airport 1975 (1974), and the red-haired woman seen in the middle of the bottom row of the photo above. Recognize her? At first glance, one might be tempted to say Judy Carne, but it isn't. This lady was a prominent cast member of a Best Picture Oscar-winner (whose title also had an exclamation point on the end of it!) Yes, this is Shani Wallis of Oliver! (1968.) Also on board the fateful flight are two Oscar-winning actors, both stuck in the mire of late-career trauma. Ray Milland is a disgraced doctor-turned-alcoholic and Broderick Crawford is a U.S. Marshal, in charge of transporting a prisoner from Salt Lake City to Chicago.

The prisoner in question is one of the '70s favorite loony tunes, Marjoe Gortner, who is eventually the reason things head south on the airliner. Additionally, we have Margaret Blye as George's estranged lover, who he's just begun to connect with again, and Harry Rhodes (more commonly known as Hari) as a military officer traveling on board. On the ground is this once-promising actor, now at almost the tail end of his career and trapped under a dreadful wig. Recognize him? That's “the boy next door” from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Tom Drake.

This movie was two-hours with commercials versus some of the shorter ones profiled above (and was released as a feature overseas!), so it runs about 93 minutes, allowing for a lot of dull establishing shots, runtime padding and a lengthy set-up before anything of real interest happens. It's well over halfway through before the airplane faces its crisis. That crisis occurs when Crawford begins to succumb to a heart attack (but he looks so healthy and active?!) and Gortner attempts an escape. He grabs Crawford's .357 Magnum and begins firing recklessly. One shot hits the interior of the lavatory (remember when a mad bomber blew up the can in 1970's Airport?) and tears apart vital tubing needed to steer the aircraft. Another bullet tears through some seats and hits a passenger in the shoulder. In the scuffle, Janssen's leg is injured severely as well.

The flick is pure schlock, but thank God that it and others of its ilk were made so that we can get a look at some of these people during their career decline and enjoy the time capsule it affords, not to mention observe the difference in social mores. Quite notably, in an event that would NEVER happen on television today, Gortner is being held at bay by Rhodes and angrily calls him “the N word” without any fanfare. Incidentally, I was at first flabbergasted that Janssen was married to Powell as they seem from entirely different eras, but she was in actuality only two years his senior. Perhaps I am just not used to seeing age-appropriate romantic pairings in Hollywood products!

The 1975 telefilm Conspiracy of Terror reeks of “unsold pilot” and has quite an uneven tone. It stars Michael Constantine and Barbara Rhodes as police detectives who are married to one another. They are not only an odd-looking couple physically, but she is twenty years his junior. Adding to the diversity between them is the fact that she is Christian and he is Jewish. They exchange a lot of “playful,” quirky banter, most of which is not particularly arresting or amusing, though the actors seem to be trying hard to put the whole thing across.

The storyline is more than a little serious considering the light-hearted byplay between the leads. (After all, her big case is investigating the theft of eight microscopes from a high school!) It involves a suburban community in which dogs go missing, never to be found, and a disproportionate number of killings have also taken place. The ostensibly idyllic community is the scene of yet another death at the start of this movie when a couple visiting a model home are confronted by a corpse! As Constantine struggles to solve that murder, other cases such as a missing pooch and the theft of one family's entire household full of belongings crowds his plate.

Complicating things for Constantine and Rhodes personally is the fact that his father David Opatoshu doesn't approve of his son being a gun-carrying policeman, nor is he very keen on Rhodes for the same reason along with the differences in age and religion. During an awkward dinner (also Constantine's brother Jed Allen and his wife Arlene Martel), Constantine receives a call requiring him to leave for a crime-related meeting and the tension is accelerated even more.

The supporting cast includes several familiar faces apart from the aforementioned Allen (who was on several soaps and guested on countless series) and Martel (who Star Trek fans will recall as T'Pring in a key episode regarding Mr. Spock's rite of passage.) Roger Perry and Mariclare Costello play a troubled couple in the neighborhood and Bob Hastings (the party emcee of The Poseidon Adventure, 1972) and Shelley Morrison (later famous for Will & Grace) play the burglarized couple. Constantine and Rhodes' boss is played by Norman Burton, who was Paul Newman's associate in The Towering Inferno (1974.)

This type of mix involving snappy banter blended with danger and violence is very tough to pull off effectively. The makers of Hart to Hart excelled at it, aided immeasurably by the skill and chemistry of Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers, but it really doesn't quite gel here. The shifts in tone are awkward and the chiefly “character actor” leads unfortunately aren't perhaps right for headlining a show like this, thus it never went any further.

The next pilot movie I watched did go to series, though in a considerably augmented form. Sweet, Sweet Rachel (1971) concerned a wealthy woman (the aforementioned Stefanie Powers) whose husband is drawn to hurl himself out the cliff-side picture window of their mansion to his death on the rocks below. Though she doesn't believe in psychic phenomena, she decides to allow some investigators from that arena to look into the situation so as not to rule anything out. A pair of researchers from a psychic institute (the older, stocky Alex Drier and young, blond Chris Robinson) set out to see what really happened to the dead man.

Powers has an uncle (Pat Hingle) and aunt (Louise Latham) and a cousin (Brenda Scott) who seem to have varying degrees of faux concern to disdain for her, making it hard to determine which of them may have something to do with the situation. Complicating things is the fact that Drier is regularly being targeted by someone with considerable psychic energy who almost makes him jump out the same window and who causes him to wreck his car! An especially tense scene has him unwillingly taking a lit match to the car's gas tank. Meanwhile, Powers is becoming increasingly despondent and unhinged. (She does a lot of screaming in this movie.) Drier continues to try to solve the mystery, but is faced with both real and intangible hurdles all the way.
Drier, who is chiefly known as a newscaster with a strong voice, but who also took on several acting parts later in life, does an effective job. Robinson (perhaps best known for his years as Rick Webber on General Hospital) is almost unrecognizable under his glasses at first. Powers does a creditable job (and was very busy in TV movies of this period.) The most arresting work comes from the always reliable and multifaceted Latham. She really adds meat to the proceedings with her solid work. A truly exquisite mansion adds much to the atmosphere of the movie as well.

The psychic aspects of the story, our “sixth sense” is what survived to create the series The Sixth Sense (1972-1973), which starred the very different (and more conventionally attractive) Gary Collins as the star. Unlike Drier, he mostly worked alone on cases (albeit with a gallery of guest stars who popped up each week, notably Miss Joan Crawford in her very last acting gig. Consider this photo montage a Joan bonus! Even in this last role, our Joan gives 110% and runs the gamut of emotions and expressions. As Collins was not in the episode proper with her, she and he – in a most unusual turn – stepped out of character at the end of the episode and shared a brief chat together as themselves about psychic phenomena!)

I don't know how I wound up on the pilot movie treadmill (though that's what quite a few of these “90-minute” movies were), but the next telefilm on view was called The City (1977.) This one was a Quinn Martin production, Martin being the man behind so many wonderful television programs of the '60s and '70s. Like several of those, this one features narration by the one and only William Conrad. The crime-fighting drama wants to act as if it takes place in an anonymous city, but was more than clearly filmed in Hollywood, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. It concerns two cops with different approaches and backgrounds. Gritty veteran Robert Forster is one and young, optimistic, affluent Don Johnson is the other.

They begin working on an vandalism and assault case in which sweaty, disturbed Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill!) takes a mechanics wrench to the car and the face of one of his service station customers. The case deepens, however, when Hamill proceeds to stalk and harass a famous country singer played by Jimmy Dean, killing another person in the process. Dean is forced to evacuate his wife and son (portrayed by Susan Sullivan and Adam Rich) to their ranch in Malibu because the deranged Hamill will do practically anything to get to him and kill him. (One amusing, but possibly true, moment occurs when Hamill takes a lady cab driver hostage at knifepoint and when she protests that someone might see him, he replies that the people in that town are too interested in themselves to even notice.)

Forster, already exhausted from a prior case, and Johnson comb the city while simultaneously trying to fit together the pieces of the baffling and increasingly complicated case. Others in the cast include their pipe-smoking captain Ward Costello, who ultimately has to join in, and Felton Perry (who played a featured fireman in The Towering Inferno, 1974) as a beleaguered ER doctor. The stars are attractive and it could have been an okay series, but lacked distinction. Hamill gives a really effective and atypical (for him) performance, filmed right after Star Wars (1977), which shot him into the celebrity stratosphere. Sullivan seems far too intelligent and elegant to be the wife of craggy, country bumpkin Dean. Interestingly, Rich (in his second screen credit) and Hamill would later play siblings in the Eight is Enough pilot episode, but a horrendous car crash prevented Hamill from continuing with the series and he was replaced by Grant Goodeve.
The final movie in this round of a dozen (!) turned out to be one of my favorites. 1974's The Strange and Deadly Occurrence tells the tale of a family (Robert Stack, Vera Miles and their teenage daughter Margaret Willock) who've recently purchased a lovely spread of property in a somewhat remote section of land. They have a spacious home, a sparkling swimming pool and even a stable with horses and land to ride them on.

Unfortunately, they start to become plagued by instances ranging from annoying to creepy to terrifying as it becomes clear that someone or something wants to drive them out of the place! One summer night, the thermostat is set on 90 degrees, forcing Stack and Miles out into the yard for some air. Then Willock is screaming her head off because she feels that someone has touched her in her bed. The next night, she is petrified when a dress form she's been working on starts edging its way to her bed.

Things escalate when their kitchen is invaded by a few gophers, the dog they've bought to keep watch is done away with and Miles is trapped in their sauna until made unconscious. Meanwhile, a sweaty, offbeat gentleman (Ted Gehring) keeps making offers on their property, basically asking them to name their own price, and the blasé local sheriff (L.Q. Jones) is inert (seemingly deliberately) in doing anything about anything when it comes to their problems. After a night in which the family is trapped in one room while hearing a variety of scary sounds, they awake to find a horrifying surprise in their pool.

Now Stack is desperate to find out what is behind all this (though, as in so many of these types of films, moving seems to be out of the question!) The finale features an encounter with a presence that is more than a little threatening, enacted by the portrayer of one of the cinema's most reviled and unhinged bad guys (not noted in the opening credits of the telefilm and, thus, a surprise!)

Granite-jawed Stack is very sturdy as the lead in this and Miles (still a knockout at forty-five in a swimsuit and semi-nude in the sauna) is terrific as usual. They share a great chemistry together and just look right as a couple. (They had played husband and wife seventeen years before in an episode of Playhouse 90!) Willock is ever on the verge of being annoying, but finally comes through on the right side. Also appearing are Herb Edelman and Dena Dietrich as friends of the family. These two would later appear on The Golden Girls as Bea Arthur's ex-husband and sister, though Dietrich is better known as the star of a series of 1970s Chiffon margarine commercials in which she played a commanding “Mother Nature.”
I feel sure that I will be back some time in the future with more of these because they are such enjoyable little tidbits, taking just over an hour in most cases, to watch. Though the quality varies from flick to flick, it's almost a given that there will be some sort of hooty treat in each one and for old celeb watchers like me, they are heaven (and then there are the clothes as well!) Take care till next time!

2 comments:

KP Knapp said...

What? No "That Certain Summer"

rico said...

Your scholarly analysis of Robert Conrad's body of shirtless TV movies is admirable!