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.

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!