Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Return to Cabin by the Lake (2001)

This review has been posted in conjunction with the Daily Grindhouse's year long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie.  

I’m a huge fan of sequels, especially #2’s! I have been known to adore Friday the 13th Part 2, Jaws 2, Halloween 2, and even Expendables 2 at least as much as the originals (and sometimes even more), so after revisiting Cabin by the Lake earlier this month, I was excited to check out its follow-up, Return to Cabin by the Lake, which originally aired about one year after Cabin on August 14th, 2001. I was also surprised that I had a copy taped from the original airing (mostly because I have no memory of doing this), and I instantly wanted to turn in my TV Movie Lover badge™ when I realized that the tape has sat unwatched. For thirteen years! I’m sure that’s not a record, but it is definitely poor form for someone like me. So, the best way to rectify the situation was to gear up the trusty ol’ VCR and take Return to Cabin by the Lake for a spin.

In the sequel Judd Nelson reprises his role as the murderous Stanley Caldwell, and his life story is on its way to becoming Hollywood’s next blockbuster. This new film (titled Cabin by the Lake, of course) is following the screenplay he wrote in the original while also exploring the murderous writer’s potential real/reel life motivations. In short, was he abused as a child or is he just, as one character suggests, “A psycho who got off on chicks' clothes and horticulture?”

Presumed dead, Stanley worms his way onto the set and by assuming different identities he basically kills his way to the top, eventually becoming the director (how’s that for a metaphor). Stanley is drawn to Alison (Dahlia Salem), the screenwriter who’s been brought in to rework his script, and he guides her writing, driving her to really explore Stanley’s darker traits (some of which he doesn’t even understand), as he systematically picks off crew members.

Written by Jeffrey Reddick (Final Destination 1 – 5), Return has all the traits of those early days of meta-horror. It is self-aware, it sarcastically comments on the very industry that created it, and it has a few other nice post-modern touches (for example, the obnoxious 2nd Unit director also has the last name Reddick), but despite a few flashes of inspiration, it lacks the awesome aesthetics and tension of the first film.

The first Cabin was compelling because Stanley’s “final girl,” Mallory (Hedy Burress) is fascinating and strong. She challenges Stanley and questions his motives (which are never truly revealed); she got as much into his head as he got into hers and it created a marvelous tension throughout the second half of the film. Unfortunately, although Alison is not a bad character (and honestly, she is one of the only tolerable people in the entire film), she doesn’t work as well against Stanley (even though they end up more simpatico by the end), leaving the film feeling kind of flat. Plus, Nelson does not look like he’s having nearly as much fun as he did in the original. As far as I’m concerned, when Nelson is having fun, I’m having fun. It’s a rule.

The written word is still an important element in the sequel. Pages from his reworked script, which he tacks onto the wall, replace the graffiti the victims left behind in Stanley’s prison in the original. Alison asks of Stanley “Who are you… What are you?” and he responds with pages from his own edits of her screenplay. She then reveals, “It says here they are really dead… What does that mean?” Stanley blandly replies, “It means they’re really dead.” This scene represents the biggest issue I have with Return - There are no subtleties in the story. It is what it is, but what it is is not much at all.

There’s nothing really wrong with Return. In fact, it’s a decent little time waster, but I think I may have had higher expectations because of my recent viewing of the excellent original film. Could this be the first sequel I won’t watch more than the first? Perhaps.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ed Nelson: One Cool Cat

This has been a bad week for film and television lovers. We’ve lost a few of the greats, including Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall. Williams threw us all for a horrible loop, and in some ways, softened the blow of the loss of Bacall, who lived to the age of 89 and, by all accounts, had a full and wonderful life. Character actor Ed Nelson also passed away this week at the age of 85, and like both Williams and Bacall, he enjoyed a long and fruitful career. He’s probably most known for playing Dr. Michael Rossi on the night time soap Peyton Place, but to me he'll always be that guy. You know the one, that actor who shows up in everything. That actor who makes whatever show or TV movie he is appearing in that much better because he’s in it. For most of my life, Nelson was just that guy. And I loved him for it.

But, he was more than simply a handsome, silver haired character actor, and I wanted to commemorate his life by throwing out some interesting facts about a man who deserves to be celebrated.

Nelson mulls over the issues in the 1974 TVM Houston, We've Got a Problem
Here’s a few things you may not know about Ed Nelson:

While filming Peyton Place in 1966, Nelson felt he might be suffering from fatigue and had himself checked out by a doctor. They found a small tumor on his lung – one that had been overlooked by another physician three years prior. It was recommended that Nelson have surgery immediately, but he put off the procedure for three weeks so the Peyton Place filmmakers could figure out how to work around his absence! What a trooper. The I’m-not-a-doctor-but-I-play-one-on-TV actor missed five weeks of work.
Christopher and Ed Nelson pose with Dorothy Malone in this newspaper promo for Murder in Peyton Place
Ed has six children, and his son Christopher appeared with his father in the 1979 TV reunion movie Murder in Peyton Place. The younger Nelson said, "This was just like a homecoming to me, even though I wasn't involved in the series. I knew everyone well, and they treated me well."

Ed was married to his wife Patsy for 63 years! He knew that marriage required a lot of hard work and in a 1964 interview the actor said, “My wife and I talked a bit about the future after I made the Peyton Place pilot, and the things that could happen to me if the show is a success. But we refuse to believe that success could destroy our happiness. Carelessness or indifference destroys happiness, and neither of us plans to be careless or indifferent.”

Nelson had his own talk show in 1969! Simply titled The Ed Nelson Show, one of his most (in)famous guests was Nathan Leopold, who along with his confidante Richard Loeb, killed a young man in an attempt to commit the perfect crime. Their story inspired the Hitchcock thriller Rope, and on Nelson's show Leopold spoke candidly about his time in prison.

Ed appeared alongside Suzanne Pleshette in three different projects: The TV Movies Along Came a Spider (1970) and Help Wanted: Male (1982), as well as an episode of the series Channing titled The Potato Bash World (1963).

According to Wikipedia, in 1999 Nelson returned to Tulane University to finish his undergrad degree, and graduated at the age of 71. (This is my favorite piece of trivia!)

Nelson goes medical again in the 1979 TVM Doctors' Private Lives
In 1972, Nelson ran for city councilman in Los Angeles, but hit a strange snag when another candidate demanded to be offered the same amount of airtime. This meant that when the actor appeared in a TV movie for 12 minutes, one of his opponents requested that he be given an equal 12 minutes of airtime to discuss his political viewpoints! This, of course, did not sit well with Nelson, who said his time on the small screen shouldn’t count because he’s not portraying himself. He said, “It’s unfair that they can give political views when I didn’t in my Night Gallery appearance.”  (By the way, I have no idea how this story played out, does anyone know?)

Nelson was a Roger Corman regular in the 1950s and was the monster in Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters!  

William Conrad has some questions for Ed Nelson in the 1980 TVM The Return of Frank Cannon
Read more about Ed Nelson at It's About TV and The New York Times.

Rest in peace, Mr. Nelson. You are loved and already missed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My Very Best Friend (1996)

Network: CBS
Original Air Date: March 27th, 1996

If you had asked me two years ago who my favorite Angel was I would have said (without one iota of hesitation), “Sabrina.” I was hot and heavy for Kate Jackson’s snappy dialog delivery and awesome turtlenecks. She’s a legend. But now that I’ve been revisiting one of my favorite beautiful-women-fight-crime shows, I’ve found myself drawn to the more quietly charming Kelly. Jaclyn Smith brought a lot of strength and character, and I don’t know why I didn’t originally recognize it, but this girl is fearless! From the pilot movie where she has an incredible mano-a-mano dialogue showdown with Bo Hopkins, to getting shot up with smack by Cameron Mitchell, this is one lady that does not stay down for the count. Plus, her hair is fab!

I also enjoy a Jaclyn telefilm every now and again, although I’m probably not as passionate about her TVMs as I am about Kate’s 70s output. But close. There’s some real winners in there, like Family Album and Before He Wakes. What can I say? I live for this stuff. But I would also have to admit that Jaclyn’s performances can be hit or miss, such as her not-great-turn as the amnesiac wife in Married to a Stranger (although I will watch it whenever it’s on TV), and I always go into a Jackie Smith movie with a grain of salt. That said, I was happily thrilled not just with her performance in My Very Best Friend, but also with the TVM itself which is gorgeously melodramatic and an awful lot of fun.

Smith is Dana, a woman who should have it all. From the outside, it certainly looks that way. She’s gorgeous, has a glamorous modeling career, and to top it off, she also has a dedicated best bud that she can always turn to. That friend is Barbara (Jill Eikenberry), an attractive, but far more down to earth woman in a rocky marriage. Ever since college, Dana and Barbara have shared everything – and I do mean everything, including men, but don’t tell Barbara that! Barbara is actually very unaware of Dana’s many dark secrets, including an undying obsession with Alex (Tom Irwin), who just happens to be Barbara’s husband! When Dana loses her own spouse (of about one day!) in an “accident,” her fixation on Alex goes into histrionic overload and Barbara’s rocky marriage looks like it’s about to get a lot worse.

Directed by Joyce Chopra (Smooth Talk), My Very Best Friend has all the ingredients that I want in a mid-90s telefilm: predatory beautiful people, yachts, lies and deception, and snow. I’m telling you, it has everything! And, like icing on cake, Smith is absolutely glorious as the gorgeous bad girl who will stop at nothing to get Alex into her clutches.

Lindsay Harrison and John Robert Bensink’s amusingly twisted teleplay (based on a story by Michael I. Miller, Patty Obrow White and Robert Glass) sets up the friendship well, but never takes itself too seriously, taking every opportunity to let Smith flaunt her unabashed villain skills. She’s absolutely terrific – and seems to be having terrific fun – as the back-stabbing-man-stealing-murderer. Not only is she stealing men, she’s stealing scenes! Eikenberry has the unenviable task of playing the straight guy but she’s manages to not look like an idiot when the stuff starts to hit the fan. No easy feat in a film like this, and her performance helps make the somewhat far-fetched premise seem a bit more palpable.

The only real problem I have with My Very Best Friend is the awkward conclusion, that upon further inspection makes little sense. But it's a minor quibble indeed, because this is the kind of 90s thriller that sets out to make the viewer squeal, “Oh no you didn’t,” and to that degree it’s a grand success.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

My Vacation in Hell

Hello everyone!

Things here have been crazy busy in that insane way that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. I've had to neglect my favorite spot on the web (i.e. here) so I could actually participate in the real world, which honestly, is never my first choice.

First of all, I'm preparing for grad school, which starts next month (fingers crossed) and secondly, I just moved to another state (again) and am still knee deep in boxes labelled VHS. It's just that kind of summer. It makes me so sad that I haven't had a chance to write about all the great TV movies I've been watching, but things have settled a bit, so I am hoping to get in a post or two in the next few days. Fingers crossed.

A look at one of the movies I'll be reviewing soon
In the meantime, I have had a couple of other things show up on other must-stop-web-spots:

Check out my Christmas in July post that I did for Christmas TV History. In fact, check out all the posts. It was great fun to be a part of the whole thing (and now that I live in Texas, I'm already missing the upcoming snowy winter I would have had in Pittsburgh).

Also, the wonderful guys at Kindertrauma posted an article I wrote on my favorite Shark Attack movies. Stop by and take a bite! Ha! I got a million of 'em (well, really, just that one. It just seemed like the thing to say).

And, you can always stop by MFTVM's facebook page, which I update often with lots of neat TV Guide images and trivia. Or, you can hang out on my twitter, which I don't update often, but do use to have a chat or two about soaps (and host a live tweet every now and again), if you are up for it! Thank you all for sticking with me, and I promise, lots of fun TV stuff is coming your way soon!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Cabin by the Lake (2000)

This review has been posted in conjunction with the Daily Grindhouse's year long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie.  

Having just read Switch by William Bayer (the novel was turned into the 1985 CBS miniseries Doubletake), along with a completely unrelated but recent viewing of the USA Original Cabin By the Lake, I’m somewhat fascinated by the horror-filmmaker-turned-serial-killer angle that is so prominent in both works. In some ways it’s a little offensive, insisting that people who make horror films create similar terror in real life. But, let’s face it, it makes for good reading and cinema! While Switch was a bit of a letdown (the main murder mystery is downplayed in favor of the protagonist’s love story and his desire to take down a corrupted boy in blue), Cabin by the Lake revels in Stanley’s (the terrific Judd Nelson) research for an upcoming genre film, and wonders why it has to be so damn gruesome!

Stanley Caldwell is one odd duck. He sends a blank manuscript to his pleasantly maddening agent, Regan (Susan Gibney), and is, in general, a straight-faced sort, who “jokes” about drowning a girl for material, and then really drowns a girl. With a weight on her foot, she plunges to the bottom of the lake, and joins an almost beautiful array of dead bodies, clothed in (literally) flowing frocks with hair swaying along with the current. It evokes the same kind of horrifyingly poignant imagery as Dario Argento’s underwater city/tomb in Inferno, and it sets the tone for this gorgeous and oddball thriller.

This watery graveyard serves as Stanley’s muse for his newest script, Garden of Flesh. (Every writer should research their material, right?) Well, he’s coming to the end of the story and needs to find a victim who is unlike the earlier, easier targets. That’s when he meets Mallory (Hedy Burress). She’s cute but different, and quietly strong. In short, she'd be perfect Final Girl material... if Stanley had wanted any of the victims to live! In the sort of small talk you sometimes make with a stranger, Mallory mentions to Stanley that she doesn’t like the water, making her an interesting subject for studying! Whoops. 

Later in a car “accident,” Stanley abducts Mallory and throws her in the back of a van that has the words, “I’m the Guy Your Mother Warned You About” written on police tape. But Mallory is defiant, all the way up to the trip that was supposed to lead to her underwater death. Luckily, and quite by coincidence, she is saved by cutie pie cop Boone (Michael Weatherly), proving she is more of a foe than Stanley had counted on (well, and luckier, definitely luckier). And now the hunted becomes the hunter as she helps the cops close in on the murderous screenwriter.

Cabin by the Lake is self-aware horror (this film has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek thanks to David Stephens witty and intriguing script) combined with old-school Italian giallo aesthetics. The end result is gorgeous and gripping. Composer Frankie Blue, whose tunes remind me just a bit of Portishead, stands in for Goblin, and adds to the already moody proceedings.

Ever since Judd Nelson went killer in the 1989 film Relentless, I’ve always been a little afraid of him. He does bad just too good. He’s equally menacing here, but more sedate, and perhaps even scarier because Stanley thinks very little of what he actually does, and his only emotions seem to arise from his fascination with Mallory. In the empty room Stanley holds Mallory hostage in, she writes on the wall, “You don't scare me,” and when he’s able to kidnap her again she adds the addendum, “Do I scare you?” Stanley only understands the written word, and it terrifies him that she can plainly state her defiance as well as he can compose a screenplay about murder. She is at his core but he can’t seem to get to hers.

Their relationship provides an interesting match of wills, and helps Cabin by the Lake maintain an edge. This is my first viewing of the telefilm since it originally aired on February 1st, 2000 and I have to say, it has stood the test of time. It’s still morbid but funny, engaging and suspenseful. And to get back to the original conundrum about filmmakers as the epoch of evil, there are other film industry types shown throughout Cabin by the Lake and they run the gamut of greedy, artistic and just plain fun. Stanley somehow missed the part that horror films are about making fiction seem real instead of just making fiction real. Good going, Stanley!

This great little telefilm was followed by a sequel in 2001, which I have not seen but am hoping to review for my next USA World Premiere Movie post!