Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Last Bride of Salem (1974)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: May 8th, 1974

This Toronto lensed shot on video thriller originally aired under the ABC Afternoon Playbreak moniker all the way back in 1974. The Playbreak series, which ran from October 31st, 1973 – February 13th, 1975, was a cycle of 90 minute stand alone episodes that would air once a month, preempting the daytime soap programming, and there were about 4 to 5 episodes per season. The afternoon movie format proved to be popular and many of the Playbreaks won Emmys, including The Last Bride of Salem which garnered an award for TV stalwart Bradford Dillman.

It’s a little sad and strange that Playbreak hasn’t been documented better, it wasn’t until I attempted to research this film that I discovered the series. Luckily, Bride has a bit of cult following and after watching it I can certainly see why. It’s eerie, claustrophobic and well paced. I should also add the score would make any giallo fan's mouth water. There are some decent Goblin-like grooves to be found lurking inside this story of modern witchery!

Bradford Dillman is Matt Clifton, an up and coming artist and doting family man who is offered a chance to stay at a worn-down but large and serene farmhouse so he can create… ahrt! Matt packs up his wife, Jennifer (Lois Nettleton) and daughter Kelly (Joni Bick) and they head out to the serene countryside; only things aren’t quite as tranquil as they had hoped. Jennifer is sure something nefarious is happening to her husband and child, but could it really be an aged old curse taking over their bodies, and preparing Jennifer to become a child bride to Satan? Yikes!

Bride harkens back to the exceptional SOV British series Thriller, which also featured stand alone horror tales. Like Bride, Thriller relied heavily on the less is more tactic of terror. Fairly traditional to the medium during this era, the SOV style really work as far as I’m concerned. Maybe it’s because I’ve been heavily influenced by the look and approach of soaps, but there’s something creepy and effective about straight faced video horror (at least from that period). It works here, because of that particular video polish and because of the strong acting, and just because it’s an eerie story played out just right. In fact, director Tom Donovan and writer Rita Lakin were no strangers to serial world – he directed such shows as Ryan’s Hope and General Hospital and she wrote for the nighttime shows Flamingo Road and Dynasty! Lakin also adapted Death Takes a Holiday into the made for television format and it still remains one of the most haunting and beautiful romance films of that medium. So often this format is considered subpar and certainly the use of video doesn’t help it earn any respect, and that’s a miserable fate for a subgenre so needlessly pushed aside.

And, here’s an oddball piece of trivia: You will spot John Candy as a background character. He appears in a couple of scenes, but the one I remember him in is the ritual scene. I jokingly said, “Hey, it’s John Candy,” and it was!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Black History Month: Generations (1989 - 1991)

When soap operas were a hot commodity in the 1970s and 80s, many high-profile issues came to the forefront of their storytelling. One of the most compelling stories on One Life to Live involved an African American woman who attempted to pass herself off as white as a way to enter into the higher classes. The casting of black actress Ellen Holly in a central role in daytime was marked as a first, and it prompted two other ABC soaps, General Hospital, and later All My Children to feature black actors in prominent roles. (Note: Holly’s story is not one of triumph though, and you can read about her allegations against the show regarding the mistreatment of her and her character here)

They might not always get direct credit, but soaps have often tackled weighty issues while they pursue love in the afternoon. However, they were still a bit behind when it came to building an entire series around a largely black cast. The NBC sudser Generations, which debuted on NBC on March 27th, 1989, may have been a short-lived attempt to bring more diversity to daytime, but they also left behind a nice legacy.

Former Young and the Restless writer Sally Sussman created Generations. Sussman was interested in a stronger depiction of blacks on daytime television and said in an interview, “[W]e're starting from scratch with a core family who happens to be black. That enables us to give them a credibility and importance, a history, that most blacks on daytime don't have.” However, Sussman hoped that her show not only gave black audiences proper representation, but that other audience members also related to stories. In an interview with Soap Opera Weekly, Sussman clarified, ''We're in the business of drama here, not social reformation. I'm not out to change the world. I want to entertain people and captivate them with our characters. What makes people tune in to a soap? Compelling characters, romance and good stories with strong emotional payoffs. Black or white, that's what the daytime audience wants to see - and that's what we're going to give them. In the end, it's all a crapshoot.''

Sussman's hopes for a successful series may come across as modest, but she had lofty ambitions for Generations, and brought in Dr. Troy Duster, a prominent sociologist working as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, to consult. She also made sure the writers worked in an area separated from the actors. Sussman believed that the separation alleviated pressures and allowed the show to maintain some secrecy with their storylines.

And, Generations did tackle many pertinent issues of the late 80s. The story was centered on two families living in the Chicago suburbs, one black and one white. The matriarch of the black family had once worked as a housekeeper for the white family, but through a successful chain of ice cream stores owned by her family, both families now existed on the same economic level. The connections between the families ran deep, and issues arose from these circumstances. Consultant Duster remarked, “In the first generation, there is a maid in the big house… Second generation, the ice-cream parlor owner begins to achieve some kind of entrepreneurial successes. Therefore, the connection between whites and blacks transforms dramatically in two generations… One could even say there’s a metaphor here for race relations in the last three decades.”

The impetus behind Generations came about for a couple of different reasons. One was that, according to the New York Times, Nielsen ratings for soap viewing in black households were quite large. In 1988, black audiences were increasing while other audiences were declining. The incentive to cater to the African American audience was indeed a business decision. However, Sussman and crew strove to give their show a real sense of relevance and identity.

Generations caught the attention of the NAACP who embraced the series and pushed for its success. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP said in an interview, “While it is agreed that African Americans have made some strides in breaking through what was an iron curtain that prevented them from exercising any real power in these industries, it is obvious that a great deal still needs to be done. We are, therefore, in total support in any and all efforts that will accomplish these goals.”

The series brought in a number of well-respected African American actors, including Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Joan Pringle (The White Shadow), Taurean Blacque (Hill Street Blues), Debbie Morgan (All My Children), Kristoff St. John (Young and the Restless) and a then-relatively unknown Vivica A. Fox (Kill Bill). Yet, despite such a high profile cast and a lot of publicity, Generations struggled to find an audience. Critics found the premise and desire to bring a black family to the forefront of daytime admirable, but they also felt many of the stories were the stuff of contrived storytelling, even by soap standards. About a year into its run, the Nielsen’s placed the show last among the 12 soaps that were currently airing. Bringing in 2.3 million viewers is not necessarily horrible numbers in today’s soap opera world, but in 1990 it was nothing compared to the nearly 8 million viewers that its direct competition, The Young and the Restless was pulling in (Y&R remains the top rated soap on television, with an average of 5 million viewers showing up every day). Black audiences made up approximately 20% of the audience, which was roughly equal to the percentages that the other soaps were attracting.

Hooks continued to push for black viewers to tune into Generations, urging the 1700 chapters of the NAACP to lobby for the troubled series. In November of 1990, the show hired Dorothy Lyman, most recognized on daytime TV as Opal on All My Children, to inject new life into the series. She signed a contract only to see Generations cancelled just a few weeks later. There was some protest put out by the NAACP and the show considered whether or not it would have a life in syndicated markets. Unfortunately, this never came to be, although the soap did enjoy a spell of re-runs on BET. Upon cancellation, Generations producer Jorn Winther sadly commented, “I don’t think I’m going to see an integrated show again.”

Flash forward some 20 years or so, where only four soaps remain on daytime network television. I only recently started watching The Young and the Restless, and noticed that the show entertained a diversity in ethnicities, although I don’t know the history well enough to speak to how integrated the characters are. Tyler Perry also has a primetime soap on OWN called The Have and Have Nots, which enjoys a multi-racial cast, and wonderful ratings. Generations may not have been able to achieve the kind of awesome legacies that other long running series have enjoyed, but, like the character Carla Gray on One Life to Live, Generations laid the groundwork for the integration and diversity that would inspire, aptly enough, an entire new generation.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Women of Amazon Instant Video

I guess Punxsutawney Phil wasn’t joking around when he let us know that we had a few more weeks of the cold stuff coming! If you’re like me, you’ve probably become very good friends with your space heater, and have been spending a lot of time watching television. As much as I love living in the past, I am also grateful to be connected enough to the interwebs that my options as a retro loving geek are opened up in so many different ways!

Last year, when it was too hot to go outside, I wrote about The Summer of Amazon Prime, but now that it’s too cold to go outside, I thought I should add some titles for those of us cooped up for the winter. I was thrilled to find that Amazon has added a slew of new titles, some of which I’ve already started reviewing. A lot of these films are on DVD, and while that was another treat to stumble upon, many of TVMs listed are a bit obscure, and this might be the first time they’ve been available for some time. I tried to add links to both the streaming and DVD purchase link, but please forgive me if I missed something!

And enjoy!

I think the TV gods have been listening to my prayers, because Amazon has a great selection of films by some of my favorite small screen actresses. For this post, I decided to focus on the ladies who have a nice chunk of their TVM work available for streaming:

Victoria Principal: I’ll be honest, while I always thought Pamela Barnes Ewing was gorgeous, and Victoria was fantastic on Dallas, I never really took a liking to the character. She seemed a little self-righteous and overly emotional (and not in that fun I-should-be-in-drunk-tank way that Sue Ellen so often was). I was always a little distanced from Pamela’s woes. It wasn’t until later, when I started to watch Victoria’s other work that I really understood what a truly fine actress she is. Although it’s not on Amazon Instant Video, I cannot recommend Mistress enough (and it’s on vhs!). Victoria put in an affecting performance as the ex-kept woman on a downward spiral. After that film, I started to seek out more of her work. In 1989 she moved behind the camera, producing the kinds of films that she wanted to appear in. Amazon is offering a nice handful of them:

Naked Lie: This little potboiler finds Pamela as a prosecutor mixed up with a murderous judge. The judge is James Farentino and he’s a sex-fiend. His voracious appetite for the dirty stuff gets him mixed up with a would-be blackmailer, and it very quickly leads to murder. Naked Lie is lots of fun, and Farentino is particularly great. And it's on DVD!

Sparks: The Price of Passion: I did a big ol' spit take when I ran into this one, because I’m still giggling over Ted Wass’ sexy sexiness in Baby Sister (which I really need to do a write up on). In Sparks, Victoria plays the mayor of a small town. Her almost-affair gets her into some hot water, but that doesn’t stop her from getting to the bottom of a strange series of murders that have been plaguing her town. Not great, but a good time waster. Sparks also features a nice appearance from the great Ralph Waite, who we lost recently. And it's on DVD.

The other two Principal movies that are streaming are Abduction, and Dancing in the Dark. I am hoping to get to those soon!

Lindsay Wagner: Who doesn’t love this gorgeous creature? I’ve recently been revisiting the ridiculous but fabulously entertaining Bionic Woman series (on Amazon Instant Video no less), and I’ve been reminded of just how lovely and charming Lindsay is. I'm a big fan of her TVM work as well, and I was thrilled to see a nice chunk of it featured on the site:

Nightmare at Bitter Creek: Any film that mixes the likes of Lindsay Wagner, Joanna Cassidy and Constance McCashin, with a touch of the handsome Tom Skerritt just has to be good right? Definitely. I adore this survivalist flick that pits a group of city woman, and their drunkard cowpoke guide against a bunch of militant racists who only want cleanse ‘Murrica! Surprisingly suspenseful, Nightmare is my favorite of Amazon’s Wagner offerings. You can buy it on DVD as well.

Babies: I saw Babies when it originally aired in 1990, which is funny because I have absolutely no maternal instincts. I don’t remember why I tuned in, but I’m sure I was heavily influenced by the incredible cast, who include Lindsay, Dinah Manoff, Adam Arkin and Marcy Walker (who is quickly becoming a favorite small screen face). This one is all about the different ways modern families grow, or don’t grow, depending on your needs. It offers a few different viewpoints on motherhood and Lindsay is in fine form. And my god, this woman is gorgeous! Babies is on DVD!

Callie and Son and A Child's Cry are also on Amazon Instant Video, and they are on my list!

Barbara Eden: If you’ve ever visited my blog, I am sure you are aware of my unending love for all things Eden. This lovely actress is one of my all time faves, and I am pleased with the offerings available on Amazon Prime:

The Woman Hunter: It's been eons since I saw this movie (on DVD), but I remember it was fun and stylish and Stuart Whitman looked gorgeous. Must see TV!

Return of the Rebels: Such fun fluff! Read my review here. Return is also on DVD.

Visions of Terror: This is another one I saw a long time ago and haven't had the chance to re-visit. Terror (aka Eyes of Terror) is the sequel to a TVM called Visions of Murder, which also starred Eden as a psychic psychologist! There are a few references to the original film (which is on DVD), but I followed it just fine without seeing the original. Eden looks great too.

The Portrait Series: The films Portrait of an Escort, Portrait of a Showgirl and Portrait of Stripper are not related except by the word Portrait (and semi-connected by Lesley Ann Warren who appears in two of the films), but they are great wanna-be tawdry examples of the more exploitative side of the television movie.

Of the three, I think I enjoyed Portrait of an Escort the most. I’m not sure it’s the best in the series, but it’s the one that had me the most engaged in the story. Susan Anspach is a put upon mom working for no money and for a crap boss. Her co-worker suggests she make ends meet by working for a dating service that is almost exactly what it sounds like… a dating service. Susan is able to dodge sleeping with her clients, and, every now and then she meets a decent guy. However, it’s out-of-work actor Tony Bill that catches her fancy. Only, she doesn’t want him to know she’s an escort and he doesn’t want her to know that he’s being kept by an older rich lady. That sounds like some heavy duty web tangling, right? Well, throw in a psychotic stranger who likes to break into Susan’s apartment and cut up her clothes, and you’ve got one great night of entertainment! Portrait is on DVD.

Portrait of a Stripper is a lot like Escort only this one stars Lesley Ann Warren and instead of working as an escort, this single mom makes her money as a stripper. Well, kinda. She’s a good dancer but the breaks are few and far between. It doesn’t help that her dead husband’s parents want their grandson and have set out to start smear campaign against Lesley. A fantastic photographer but low rent detective is put on the case, and check it out, he falls in love with Lesley. I mean, how could he not? I liked this one a lot too. It’s all very romantic, despite the stripping and spying and Lesley is just lovely in the part.

I like Portrait of a Showgirl, but despite the stellar cast of Rita Moreno, Lesley Ann Warren, Dianne Kaye and Tony Curtis, it’s just not as engaging of a film. This is more of a slice-of-lifer and has a lot of energy but lacks whatever oomph it needs to keep up with the other two Portrait films. Still, it’s a fine time waster, and Rita Moreno is worth a watch in anything. This is on DVD.

If you need more Lesley, you can also watch Family of Spies, a mini-series that is currently streaming on Amazon!

I’m telling you… TV movie heaven!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Are You Lonesome Tonight (1992)

This review was written in conjunction with The Daily Grindhouse's year long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie

Contrary to popular belief, Are You Lonesome Tonight is not a Lifetime movie. The best television for women channel gets a lot of credit for much of the slick, somewhat exploitative, small screen fare, and sometimes deservedly so. However, much of their library was acquired from other networks that had a toehold before Lifetime’s complete stranglehold on saucy TV.

See! I told you it was a USA Original!
Case in point, although Lonesome seems to have garnered its somewhat murky rep from airings on Lifetime, it was a USA Original Movie. Like a lot of the small screen films at that time, it riffed on the big screen sexploitation thrillers such as Fatal Attraction and Single White Female. The underlying theme is sex sells, and it sells well, at least as noted by Laura (Beth Broderick), the suspicious call girl who embarks on a telephone affair with another woman's husband. The film starts with Laura, clad in her sexiest lingerie, engaging in some tawdry phone play with Richard Welles (Henry J. Jordan), a wealthy businessman with a frustrated wife named Adrienne (the ageless Jane Seymour). Adrienne overhears the call and wonders if maybe it’s time to end her marriage. But, before she can confront her husband, she hears a strange phone message from Richard that implies Adrienne may be a widow before she has the chance to become a divorcee.

Adrienne runs into Matt Henderson (a delish Parker Stevenson) at the police station. He's a retired-detective-turned-private-eye. At first, Adrienne is apprehensive about hiring Matt, but c’mon he’s friggin’ Parker Stevenson, and so Adrienne is soon compelled to spend every waking moment with him (smart girl). But not before she digs up Laura (Beth Broderick), the high price call girl who was on the phone with Richard when he was attacked. Does she hold the key to the mystery, or is she the catalyst for Richard’s disappearance?

Matt works a sloppy tux!
Lonesome, which originally aired on January 22nd, 1992, isn't anything you haven't seen before, especially if you watch a lot of erotic thrillers. Like Murder By Night, the small cast makes it easy to tie certain crimes to certain people. But if you don’t go in expecting Hitchcockian twists and turns, you’ll probably enjoy this thriller's gauzy world. Aside from the complete nostalgic mind-trip the film puts the viewer through (paid phone sex? Where's Shannon Tweed?), there are some rather nice touches, mostly seen through Laura and Matt’s navigation through the upper class. Laura is determined to sleep her way to the top of the class system of whatever small and prosperous beach community Lonesome takes place in. Along the way, she mimics the upper class who is paying for her tricks, as seen with her glamorous apartment and luxury gym membership. Unfortunately, she also finds herself mixed up in a world of high level corruption. This isn't the world Laura wants, she wants what Adrienne has, as chaste as it is, but she'll never be able to break into that world despite the big bucks she’s cautiously stocked away. The message seems to be that high level corruption is OK when it’s committed by high level people, and it’s a lot less acceptable when the lower class tries to invite themselves into the fold.

Hello Part Deux!
Matt is the everyman, providing a few fish out of water giggles. Yes, he looks like a GQ model, but that tuxedo is never quite right! Stevenson’s performance is economical but extremely engaging, and he balances out the overt sexuality of Laura and the repressed frustrations of Adrienne. Yeah, I’m biased, but that Stevenson guy, he’s just right.

It's super hard to be lonesome when there's always someone snooping around!
I have seen Lonesome three times, and for whatever reason, the film finally clicked on this last go. The class rivalry was a lot more apparent (thank you, Cultural Studies degree) and I found the dialogue to be somewhat rich and fascinating. Broderick is so great at the beginning of Lonesome, creating a persona of pure S-E-X. Everything is about getting some kind of tingly reaction from her gazers (or listeners), and for a movie that can’t show too much skin, she makes the most of it by exuding an animal magnetism. Once Laura becomes terrified of what may be happening to her, the performance loses steam, but she makes Lonesome a movie to watch. Recommended for a lazy Sunday.

Are You Lonesome Tonight is on VHS

One more shot of Matt in the tux... Amuse me, K?

Monday, February 17, 2014

What I'm Watching Now: Perfect Match (1984 - 1989)

The Australian game show Perfect Match is a combination of a lot of things I love. For one, it’s Australian, and so was my mother! Secondly, it’s a cross between The Dating Game and Love Connection. It also aired in the 1980s, and that alone makes it awesome. And finally, it has an adorable robot named Dexter!

Seriously, did I just die and go to a neon-soaked heaven, where all the men and women have perms and say G’day?

Like, totally.

I was first turned on to Perfect Match via Alistair and Siobhan on their Movies About Girls spinoff podcast, The Down Under Variety Hour. They played clips from the show and without even being able to see all of the aqua-netted awesome, I still knew it was a totally tubular paradise. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, that podcast episode did not pan out and I was left alone with my pastel memories. Tragic, right? Well, my favorite Aussie couple decided to bring back clips and I could have jumped right out of my penny loafers!

Strangely enough, this is the same face I make right after I jump out of my penny loafers!
Perfect Match debuted in 1984 and ran for five glorious years, ending in 1989 and and it enjoyed a brief revival in 2002. Much like The Dating Game (well, exactly like The Dating Game), a contestant chooses an unseen mate by asking a series of questions which will hopefully provoke hilarious responses. It becomes like Love Connection because the winning couple goes on a trip together and then returns to the show to let everyone know if they’ve made a perfect match. Then it becomes like Big Brother when Dexter the Robot calculates each winning couples compatibility. That’s a lot of fuchsia colored leggings and oversized blazers to take in! And I loved it.

The Down Under Variety Hour brought back their Perfect Match segment in honor of Valentine's Day. You can listen to the podcast here. Enjoy! (Note: I was unable to play the podcast on Firefox, but it came up fine in Google Chrome. If you have problems, please try another server) (Note #2: The Perfect Match segment begins somewhere around the second hour, but there's lots of silliness beforehand, so kick up your feet and stay awhile!)

If you want to brush up on the visuals of the show, check out my gnarly and radical Perfect Match image gallery. It will make you squeal, “Like, oh my gawd!”

Here come our hosts: 

Here is someone looking to make a Love Connection, er, I mean find his Perfect Match: 

Here are the choices: 

This girl talked about wanting to spank boys and I loved her for saying so!

This one seemed to want to be on TV more than she wanted the date!

I have a feeling that this girl doesn't take crap from anyone. I love her.

 That's the host standing in a strangely heart shaped middle. It's got to be a perfect match! 

This is Dexter. I love him. 

 Here is the Love Connection segment: 

I bet you had no idea that the lead singer of A-ha was on Perfect Match!

This was not a perfect match, but the set up is so perfectly 80s: 

She said her date was very "excited."

He said his date was too "tragic."

This is Babe. She is looking for a Perfect Match and I hope she found it. 

Here are the hosts trying out what looks like a vaudeville act.

"It was this big! Ha! Get it... umm... this big...Hello? Is this thing on?"

Round Two: This time there are three dudes, and they are cute!

Purple bow ties need to make a serious comeback. Seriously.

I imagine that this guy would be killer fun at a Def Leopard show. Win!

There is not one single thing wrong with this guy at all. 80s Purr-fection!

This is the lucky girl living in 80s game show heaven (and she looks like Eve Plumb!)

Looks like a Perfect Match (and I love her dress)! 

Dexter says "G'day!"