Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hold On Tight! It's the TV-Movie Time Tunnel!

Well, ever since I did that recent profile of the 1977 TV-movie It Happened at Lakewood Manor, I've been caught in a whirlpool of vintage television nostalgia. I tend to eschew most modern-day fare anyway, but in researching Manor, I stumbled onto a channel filled with complete TV-movies from the late-1960s and the 1970s and dove in head first. I've hardly come up for air except to come to work!
The compact format (about an hour and fifteen minutes apiece) and the combinations of stars make these “must see TV” for me and at that length, most of them go down like butter. Today, I'm going to point out which ones I have indulged in thus far and give capsule reviews of them as well. You can click on the telefilm's name in order to be taken to it in its entirety.

The first one I watched was 1975's Satan's Triangle. In it, Doug McClure plays a coast guard rescuer who boards a disabled sailboat (within the Bermuda Triangle) that has several dead men scattered about and one very frightened Kim Novak!

In flashback, we learn what has transpired on the boat, the other passengers including Jim Davis (soon to become Dallas' Jock Ewing), Ed Lauter and the recently rescued Alejandro Rey (of The Flying Nun) as a beleaguered priest. Meanwhile, randy McClure finds himself sexually drawn to (the still-alluring) Novak. I appreciated that this movie wasn't afraid to focus on some darker elements (some older TV-movies shy away from serious violence and graphic death), including a not-so-happy ending.

Next up was 1970's Night Slaves. This was a must-see thanks to having hunky James Franciscus and the one-of-a-kind Lee Grant as its stars. (I could, quite honestly, watch five straight minutes of Grant from this era – hungry to prove herself again after being blacklisted – merely thumbing through a phone directory and occasionally uttering a name, if I had to!) It begins as something of a precursor to Tom Berenger's 1991 film Shattered, with Franciscus enduring a severe auto accident and then waking up with partial amnesia. He is unaware that Grant was on the verge of leaving him for his best friend Scott Marlowe.
In a tenuous moment of concern for him, she accompanies Franciscus on a “relaxing” getaway to a small town only to get there and find that every single night, the townspeople get up from their beds and board cattle trucks which take them away for four hours at a stretch! What's worse is that Grant becomes one of them and doesn't even realize it. I've spoiled precious little as this is only the beginning of the story. Also in the cast are Leslie Nielsen as the sheriff, Andrew Prine as the village idiot and Tisha Sterling (Ann Sothern's daughter) as a flirty, childlike resident of the town.

Now this next one quickly became a favorite, even though some people dislike it as too close a copy of the 1961 Hammer film Scream of Fear, written by the same man. He even admitted that he plagiarized himself, but it didn't affect my enjoyment of the movie because it stars Barbara Stanwyck, still radiant in the wake of her four-year stint on The Big Valley. The movie was 1971's A Taste of Evil.

How can anyone resist the notion of Stanwyck playing the mother of another Barbara, Barbara Parkins (of Valley of the Dolls fame), on a beautiful estate where someone is trying to drive Parkins out of her mind?! Parkins (despite having played in Dolls four years prior and having starred on Peyton Place for years as a married woman) is supposed to be nineteen!!! It seems that she was sexually assaulted on the grounds of the mansion several years before, but can't recall who did it. Now she's back and is confronted with a sloppy, drunken stepfather (William Windom) and a new doctor (Roddy McDowall) hired by her mother. Her only real ally, apart from Stanwyck, is the doddering gardener Arthur O'Connell.

Stanwyck, decked out in an array of Nolan Miller ensembles, looks dazzling and gives a really meaty performance. Anyone who enjoyed her on Valley ought to get a kick out of this as it's from basically the same era. Everyone else in the movie does well, too, though. Rip-off or not, I found this to be quite memorable.

Disaster fanatic that I am, I next segued into that arena for a three-film mini-marathon. First up was 1969's Seven in Darkness. This one comes with a fairly irresistible premise. A small airplane carrying about fifteen or so passengers (all but maybe a handful are blind!) crashes into treacherous mountain terrain, leaving no survivors except for eight sightless people. How in the world can they escape and find their way to safety?!

The passengers include handsome Sean Garrison, a snarly Milton Berle, Dina Merrill, Barry Nelson (a pilot the following year in Airport), Arthur O'Connell & Alejandro Rey (both disaster club members thanks to The Poseidon Adventure and The Swarm, respectively), Tippy Walker and, Cinderella herself, Lesley Ann Warren. As the title suggests, at least one of these folks isn't able to make the entire trip.
I love the look of this movie (the clean, vivid, richly saturated type of film stock used), but was let down by certain aspects of the script and by some of the acting. Fascinating as it all sounds, I wound up losing interest about halfway through it because it seemed implausible and the acting somewhat unnatural. Newman is, to my mind, excruciating in his performance and Garrison very wooden. Berle is occasionally unintentionally funny. Warren sings a song in the beginning and I was startled that it was actually not too awful as most of them tend to be in these cases. I wanted to love it, but it counted as a miss for me in the end.

The second disaster flick was one I'd heard much about over the years, 1972's A Short Walk to Daylight. (I've linked to a part one of a "multi" on this one, due to the poor quality of the full movie version.) This gritty movie concerned a small clatch of New Yorkers who are riding a subway late at night when an earthquake hits. They find themselves trapped underground and have to rely on a street cop (James Brolin) in order to make it to safety. Among the survivors are Ironside's Don Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln, Brooke Bundy (annoying in an almost supernatural way!) and Laurette Spang (later of Battlestar Galactica) making her debut.
Most of the people who make up the survivors are hard to like, but somehow over the course of the movie, the better part of them manage to ingratiate themselves with the viewing audience, at least to some degree. Brolin does pretty well and Mitchell isn't bad. Lincoln probably wins the acting honors of the piece. It's a fairly harrowing scenario and generally well-handled. If it sounds at all familiar, the concept was ramped up and expanded into the Sylvester Stallone action film Daylight in 1996.

Rounding out the trio is 1975's The Last Survivors, a remake of 1959's Abandon Ship!, which had starred Tyrone Power. This one has Martin Sheen as second purser aboard a cruise ship who is forced into a leadership position when the vessel sinks and he is placed in charge of a terribly overcrowded lifeboat. With a storm threatening to send the lifeboat into the depths as well, he has to make the gut-wrenching decision as to who can stay aboard and who will have to depart and drown.

The copy of this particular TV-movie is so dark that I practically had to guess who I was listening to in some cases (and the cast list is pretty deep with now-known names in tiny parts.) Among the stars are Diane Baker, Tom Bosley, Bruce Davison, Anne Francis, Christopher George, Philip Baker Hall, Andrew Stevens and a very young Leif Garrett.

Based upon a true story (but updated from its original 1800s time frame), it really is a horrifying situation. To its credit, the telefilm doesn't shy away from the agonizing process placed upon Sheen (which also makes this a less traditionally “entertaining” sort of movie, unlike, say, cheese like Cave-In!, Fire!, Flood! or the like.) It winds up doing a pretty decent job of examining human nature, too, particularly in its court room finale.

By now starved for more 1970s Barbara Stanwyck, I next turned to The House That Would Not Die, a 1970 ghost story that has her moving into an inherited home that had belonged to a relative of hers. This time out, she has a niece in tow (played by The Exorcist's Kitty Winn) and becomes close to a male neighbor Richard Egan. Young Michael Anderson Jr provides the love interest for Winn.

The mid-18th century era house seems haunted. Not only do doors open and shut and can voices be heard (not to mention plenty of wind!), but sometimes the occupants begin to act outside their normal scope (such as when Egan plants a very forward and physical kiss on Babs in the kitchen!) It all starts to turn dangerous after a while, though I didn't wind up enjoying this half as much as A Taste of Evil. One definite plus are the two scenes involving psychic Doreen Lang (famous for playing the distraught diner patron in The Birds who verbally assaults Tippi Hedren and screams dementedly.) She really gives it her all in this rather tiresome tale.

Now this next one was intriguing... 1971's Revenge starred Miss Shelley Winters as an off-center San Francisco mother who captures businessman Bradford Dillman in an attempt to punish and perhaps even kill him because of his alleged affair with her daughter. The incident has led to the girl's demise and Winters is determined to seek, well, revenge!

In a parallel storyline, Dillman's wife Carol Rossen is desperate to figure out what's happened to him and eventually heeds Leslie Charleson's advice and turns to hotshot psychic Stuart Whitman. Thing is, he's not really very interested in helping her and she finds herself developing her own heretofore recessed psychic instincts as a result!

At only 74 minutes, this is tight. It could have used even more development between Winters and Dillman (and if you're a Shelley fan as I am, you begin to resent some of the time devoted to Rossen when the same could be going to Miss Method herself!) Still, it's a remarkably suspenseful little flick that leaves some of the questions unanswered, forcing the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about some parts of the story.

Next was a candy box of a thriller called Death Cruise from 1974. This is like The Love Boat meets Ten Little Indians, with three couples winning all expense paid trips on a luxury liner only to find that they're being bumped off one at a time! Richard Long (of The Big Valley and Nanny and the Professor) and Polly Bergen play one couple. An older duo consists of Tom Bosley and Celeste Holm while a younger pairing is Edward Albert and Kate Jackson (who were a true-life couple at the time.)
Newly-hired ship's doctor Michael Constantine finds himself trying to unravel the mystery as stoic captain Cesare Danova looks on. The combination of personalities involved is rather fascinating to behold. Long, sadly, dropped dead of a heart attack not long after filming this. Bergen shows off a very fit and sexy body in a series of midriff-baring ensembles. Jackson (then known more for Dark Shadows and The Rookies) seems impossibly young. I saw through the major plot twist, but still enjoyed another one at the finale. Perfect unchallenging entertainment!

1973's Outrage was far more serious. Allegedly based on a true story, it has affluent Robert Culp and his wife Marlyn Mason facing the wrath of a quintet of restless, delinquent youths who take pleasure in vandalizing and terrorizing an upscale community. The ruffians (one of them played by Nicholas Hammond of The Sound of Music!) pour garbage into swimming pools, drag race down the streets, throw paint on homes and generally cause an unending nuisance. When Culp tries to stop them, he finds out how truly horrible they are capable of being.

What's worse is that none of the parents seem to care and the police are impotent regarding the situation. One of the few people to take a stand is Culp's feisty black maid Beah Richards, who hysterically takes after the gang with a garden hose (but it works!) This movie, which predates Death Wish by a year, is disturbing enough, but then it goes down that road I really loathe about many 1970s and '80s movies... it uses harm to an animal to tug at the heartstrings and this instance was tough to take.

By the time Culp opens up a can of whoop ass (actually on the boys' property rather than them, much to my regret), we're all pretty much on board with him! Urban (and suburban) revenge flicks saw a zenith in the '70s as folks began to tire of the increasing crime and disrespect shown by a new wave of thugs. This movie became somewhat oppressive to endure because of the helplessness (and, yes, was often unintentionally amusing, especially where Mason is concerned), but was worth seeing.

The latest telefilm that I've watched was one of the most enjoyable of all. From 1971, Death Takes a Holiday was an update of a 1934 Fredric March film (which had been a play before that.) In it, Yvette Mimieux is a gorgeous young lady who is saved from drowning by a mysterious stranger (Monte Markham) who has appeared on her family's private island getaway. Charmed by him, she invites him back to their compound where they are in the midst of an annual vacation, deliberately shut off from the outside world and its news.

The family, an obvious nod to The Kennedys, includes wheelchair-bound Melvyn Douglas, Myrna Loy, Kerwin Matthews, Priscilla Pointer, Colby Chester, Bert Convy and this young lady. Recognize her at all? Then thirty years old, it is one of less than ten on-screen acting performances that she gave before turning her attentions elsewhere.

Her parents were both actors (and her half-siblings gave the field a couple of unsuccessful stabs, too!) The daughter of Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan, this is Maureen Reagan!

I admit that I prefer elegant settings and clothes in a movie above the gritty, so I really enjoyed this beautiful (filmed on location), glossy TV-movie, loaded with familiar faces, some of them handsome. Regardless of that and its considerable tweaking from the original, though, this is still a very thought-provoking and philosophical little movie. It examines a subject that even now is disturbing to many people – death.

Another thing I loved about this (and many of the other films I've touched on today) is how it offers discarded cinema stars the chance to show the world that they still had plenty to share. Douglas and Loy both are positively wonderful here. Mimieux, still very much a viable big-screen leading lady then, was able to use TV-movies to escape the popcorn fare like Skyjacked (1972) and The Neptune Factor (1973) which paid the bills and show off some acting chops.

This might be one of Markham's best roles ever (The Golden Girls fans will recall him as Blanche's gay brother in two episodes.) Even Convy does well, though, like most of the rest of the family members, he is given very little to do. And what a thrill to see the dead-sexy Chester in a larger part then he often received (and in some nicely-snug trousers!)

These movies of the week may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for me they have been a wondrous trip back in time and a terrific opportunity to see actors and actresses whose clout at the box office might have dimmed, but who could still adroitly command a screen.

And, though I didn't point out every last one (there are at least sixteen just in this sampling), they also heavily feature those stars who worked in the 1970s disaster movies I'm always blathering on about. This makes revisiting these little flicks extra fun for me.

True, to a contemporary viewer unfamiliar with them, they may seem quaint, slow, simplistic and in some cases cheap (and due to the rarity and lack of availability, sometimes the picture quality is terrible), but to those who were youngsters when they first aired, they create an instant sense of nostalgia.  Many people who've seen a particular movie of the week can recall vivid images and, more importantly, deep feelings from the project decades later. I'm not done watching these movies and may return in the future with another batch.


NotFelixUnger said...

Fun post! I vaguely recall seeing some of these movies on TV. Now that I'm addicted to YouTube 70s and 80s TV movies I can see them all over again.

I was never a big Bert Convy fan but after seeing his pictures here I do remember seeing him in tight slacks during the 70s did make my heart race.

I also faintly remember Monte Markham in several roles [not only GG] including Clint in Dallas and thinking he was one hot dude. Yes, a departure from my norm, but what is that old saying about some people changing their mind? :-)

joel65913 said...

Wow Poseidon you've made it through quite an impressive array of films so far! I do remember some of them, the Kim Novak one and Taste of Evil in particular.

I haven't had the time to watch nearly as many although I did jot some down to make sure I could catch them later. I have been able to watch three so far of varying quality.

The first I watched was one that you have also. Death Takes a Holiday and I agree it was the best so far. It was one that I watched when it was originally broadcast and it made enough of an impression that I remembered a great deal of it. Monte Markham was very good and very gorgeous as well as being fond of very snug clothing! Myrna and Melvyn both got their moments to shine and the story was very well done, far better than that awful remake Meet Joe Black. Grade A

Next up was The Screaming Woman with Miss Olivia de Havilland herself. Excepting Olivia the cast of this was not nearly as good as Death Takes a Holiday. It was a standard thriller but Livvy made it worth watching and she was suitably desperate. The biggest surprise came when the credits rolled and the wardrobe was by Edith Head! Unfortunately she was not at the top of her game here and the clothes were unremarkable and made Olivia look frumpy. Still it was worth catching. Grade B-

Lastly was one I watched on impulse while cleaning. A comedy called Call Her Mom with Connie Stevens as a fraternity house mother!! It was....hokey, day glow bright, silly, mindless and rather stupid but still not horrible. The cast was a veritable who's who of falling stars: Van Johnson, Gloria de Haven, Jim Hutton, Charles Nelson Reilly and Corbett Monica. Connie with that awful two tone blonde shag she favored in the 70's, horrendous clothes and silver white eye shadow is a walking cartoon but full of moxie as a proto feminist still it's a total puff piece. Grade C

One interesting side note is that it was the highest rated TV movie the year it was shown with something like a 45 share and would have gone to series except the head of the network didn't like Connie Stevens so rejected the project. Can't imagine that happening today when a rating like that would be a dream come true for any network.

Another great thing about the movies on youtube, they still have the original logo for the ABC movie of the week which pleased me and took me right back as soon as it popped up. Also two of the films were tagged with commercials from the period, one with Cybill Shepard for Clairol and another for Ray-ban with a then unknown Cindy Williams.

Don't know if you've run across this one yet Poseidon but one of the films, called Linda, stars Miss Stella Stevens from right around the same period that she starred in The Poseidon Adventure. Of course it went right on my list to watch soon!

Poseidon3 said...

NotFelix, I don't know why, but I didn't even know Monte was on Dallas at any point. I know him the most from "Airport '77," of course, but also recall he had a pretty good role in the now-obscure Trish Van Devere film "One is a Lonely Number."

Joel, Thanks for the additional capsule critiques of these movies of the week. That's fascinating, too, about Connie and her aborted TV series attempt. I know I'll be back again with more of them. They're just too irresistible! I actually did watch Linda several years ago. Believe it or not, I think that one is actually out on a cheapo DVD. Occasionally, one will be (like David Janssen and Angie Dickinson's "A Sensitive, Passionate Man" or Cloris Leachman's "Death Sentence.") I just eat these up...