Honestly, wasn’t it inevitable that Amanda By Night would review Murder By Night? Kind of kismet, right? And, now that Made for TV Mayhem is currently in a co-celebration with the Daily Grindhouse’s USA Original Movie retrospective, it would seem the time has finally come. I chose Murder By Night as my first entry because it’s the first USA Original Movie I can remember watching. I recall that the commercial was unquestionably enticing, featuring a hunky Robert Urich caught up in a web of mystery, secrets and murder. What’s the word I’m looking for? Oh yeah… S.O.L.D.
The story revolves around a serial killer who likes to dispatch his victims with a hammer (yikes). After stalking a woman in a parking garage, she manages to get away, only to roll her car over another one (and then get the hammer!). The explosion thrusts a random jogger, who just happens to be on the scene, against the wall, and when he awakes he has no memory of who he is or what he may have seen. Based on what little the police have been able to muster up, this jogger is Allan Strong (Robert Urich), a successful but reclusive restaurateur who lives in a crazy cool apartment filled with crazy cool art.
The detective assigned to the case is Carl Madsen (Michael Ironside), a tough as nails sort of bloke who keeps telling Strong he’s a witness, but he’s really suggesting that Strong may actually be the killer. Strong also has a police psychiatrist assigned to him, and she is the gorgeous and kind Karen Hicks (Kay Lenz). Of course, even though Strong has no idea who he is or even if he is a killer or not, she takes him as a lover. I mean, he is Robert Urich! As the film progresses, the audience is given a few nightmare sequences which may be less a dream and more of a direct serial killer POV via Strong’s hazy maybe-recollections of the assaults. It doesn’t take long for our favorite jogger to begin to suspect himself as the culprit.
Murder By Night debuted on Wednesday, July 19th, 1989, and was just one of the 24 original movies that USA picked up for that season. And, it was only the 4th tele-film to air in what would become a prolific series of original productions for the cable channel. While it’s got a heavy late 80s feel to it (the sexy sax that accompanies a dinner conversation with Ironside and Urich seems a bit displaced), it also has that wonderful old-school 70s TVM feel. The subject matter – a convoluted murder mystery told in a somewhat claustrophobic setting – definitely harkens back to many of the elements I adore about the oldest made for TV movies.
Murder By Night has a small but great cast. The only other regular character is Kevin Carlisle (Jim Metzler), the jovial building super who loves to cook and play chess. So, since we only have four cast members, and a few overt clues, it doesn’t take long to figure out who did what to whom, but the actors make the whole venture worthwhile. Also, as mentioned above, this is a somewhat polished production, and looks slick although it was probably shot on a small budget. Director Paul Lynch, who also helmed one of my all time favorite horror films, Prom Night, fills the film with lots of atmosphere, and while the murders aren’t very violent they are effective (just like in Prom Night). His old musical co-hort, Paul Zaza (also from Prom Night), does a good job with the score, which is a mixture of dreamy sax and eerie chords.
The film was shot in Canada, and the crew does their best to give the location a grimy, New York City kind of feel. Kay Lenz once commented in an interview that to make Toronto a passable version of NYC the crew brought their own garbage to spread along the streets! She said the garbage was re-used in several scenes, which is both gross and so very eco-friendly.
Murder By Night will always remain close to my heart because of the context with which I first viewed it. I will never forget the TV spot and my eager anticipation of seeing a new-ish thriller with Robert Urich. It also opened my eyes to the then-new world of the USA World Premiere Movie, and it is probably the reason I started to venture over there more often, discovering Commander USA, Saturday Nightmares and USA Up All Night. I’m not sure there was ever a better channel!
Murder By Night is available on vhs.