Sunday, October 30, 2016

TV Terror Blogathon: The House that Wouldn't Die (1970)

Just in time for Halloween, this post was part of the Terror TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. There are tons of creepy reads ahead, so check out what's scary to others in the association by clicking here. Oh, and enjoy! Let's roll...

Network: ABC
Original Airdate: October 27th, 1970

Although it has been many years since I read Barbara Michael’s excellent Ammie, Come Home, which The House that Would Not Die (aka The House that Wouldn't Die) is based on, I remember it as a chilling and fascinating novel. Michaels, whose real name was Barbara Mertz, earned a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago before becoming a best selling author, writing under the names of Michaels, and Elizabeth Peters. As Michaels, she often dove into Gothic ghost stories, brilliantly weaving her knowledge of the research process she had developed while acquiring her doctorate, incorporating the fascinating “brick and mortar” historical interrogation methods into the mystery solving her characters engaged in. The ABC Movie of the Week adaptation, written by Henry Farrell (a fellow novelist who also penned the screenplay for the excellent TVM The Eyes of Charles Sand) somehow manages to maintain some of the authenticity of that process while also indulging in the many supernatural thrills that made the novel so compelling.

A look at a similar(ish) color scheme used in the TVM's foreign artwork and a later release of the novel:

Barbara Stanwyck makes her telefilm debut as Ruth Bennett, an elegant and independent woman who inherits a beautiful but remote house from a distant relative. Taking her lovely niece, Sara (Kitty Winn) along for the ride, the duo decides to set up house for a bit, but soon find out something is already living there. 

That’s the basic premise of this simple but suspenseful ghost tale that also interweaves some charming romance elements (along with a few rapey ones, but we’ll get to that) for Ruth, and a professor named Pat (Richard Egan, also making his TV movie debut), as well as for Sara with a cutie pie named Stan (Michael Anderson Jr., and his moustache). Following the original storyline beats of Ammie, House kicks of quickly with a nifty séance, before embarking on a slow burn film about possession, lost love, and grief, leading to a surprisingly moving ending.

The hauntings, which are classic even by the standards of 1970, begin early on, as a male voice cries “Ammie, come home,” in the wee hours of the night. Soon after, Sara takes a peculiar turn, becoming terrified of Pat, who is also acting curiously, and sometimes violently when inside the house. Based on my memory, the novel and film depart mostly in terms of the location. Ammie takes place in the busy and stately D.C. neighborhood of Georgetown, where the neighbors are literally yards away from the chaos. House is out in the middle of no man’s land, where help isn’t simply a scream away, feeding into a real sense of seclusion. While the more urban setting of Ammie works wonderfully in the novel, I really like the isolated locale in House.

Like most telefilms, House is not overtly violent, but manages to bring on the creep factor in several scenes. One of the most jaw dropping ones occurs relatively early when Pat forces himself on Ruth. It is an uncomfortable moment meant to express that Pat is no longer himself, but it does tap into some very real fears of that pushy date you dread but have probably encountered. Ruth somehow manages to forgive Pat, and that he is being taken over by a spirit helps the audience also come back to loving him, but that scene still stands out as a realistically terrifying moment.

And, House has atmosphere to spare. Going back to the location, the howling winds that rattle around the house give the film a sense of unease. The séance is, like all séances are in my opinion, awesome, and Winn is excellent as the possessed victim. There are a few supporting characters, but House relies heavily on the four leads to carry the film. Stanwyck and Egan are the standouts as the couple fighting off ghosts while sometimes fighting off their feelings for each other, but with pros like that, can anyone else expect to upstage those two? Well, Stanwyck’s gorgeous oh-so-seventies wardrobe almost does. It’s the height of middle aged glamour and she looks beautiful showing off one majestic frock after another.

Majestic frocks: 

Spelling and Stawyck actually had a long and fruitful history together, beginning in 1968 with the Zane Grey Theater episode Trail to Nowhere, which Stanwyck appeared in and which Spelling produced. Afterwards, the two worked on The Dick Powell Theatre episode Special Assignment (1962), before Stanwyck made her telefilm debut in House. Afterwards she got a bit more sinister in the 1971 TVM A Taste of Evil, and then in 1973 starred in The Letters. She also played Toni in the gender bending Charlie’s Angels episode Toni’s Boys and then took a gig as Constance Colby on both Dynasty and in The Colbys. Stanwyck had already put in years of spellbinding professional work, but her more fanciful gigs with Spelling are memorable and wonderful. TV looked so good on her, and Spelling loved working with classic Hollywood, and did right by them (if I do say so myself).

But let's not forget the other man behind the camera, John Llewellyn Moxey, who also directed Stanwyck in A Taste of Evil. The journeyman director knew how to make more out of less, and he maintains an economical but genuinely claustrophobic ambiance, especially in the possession scenes. There is something so charming about House, but in all honestly, it isn't just nostalgia that makes this film a true ABC Movie of the Week classic, it's just really simple and solid, almost perfecting that dark and stormy night watching that made so many of the MOWs so damn entertaining. In short, the goods are for real.

I was surprised to read that Ammie is actually a part of a trilogy of novels Michaels wrote, which is known as the Georgetown trilogy. According to this great article by Natalie Luhrs on Pretty Terrible, in the follow up, titled Shattered Silk, Michaels brings back Pat and Ruth, although the novel now follows another one of Ruth’s nieces named Karen who finds herself solving an old murder mystery. The third novel, Stitches in Time doesn’t keep it in the family, instead making the protagonist a friend of Karen's named Rachel, and involves a cursed quilt. Honestly, you can't go wrong with the novel or its small screen adaptation. It's creepy good times for the Halloween season! 

Newspaper promo for The House that Wouldn't Die

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Must See Streaming Movie of the Week: Mind Over Murder (1979)

Network: CBS
Original Airdate: October 23rd, 1979 

In 1979, the Golden Age of made for television horror movies was arguably in the rearview mirror, but that’s not to say that good genre TVMs weren’t on the horizon. We still had a few years to go until one of the ultimate small screen chillers, Don’t Go to Sleep (1982) traumatized anyone with a pizza cutter. And somewhere in between the classic ABC Movie of the Week and the  unexpected post-seventies classics like Sleep were some solid genre entries, many of which seemed to have fallen off the radar. Of course, incredible telefilms such as Salem’s Lot (1979), and 1981’s Dark Night of the Scarecrow are bona fide classics, but there’s plenty of little films that aired during this declining era that seem all but forgotten. Good but not great films like Night Cries (1978) and The Babysitter (1980) were finding their way to the networks, and Mind Over Murder actually falls somewhere closer to the greats, despite its relatively obscure status.

Deborah Raffin is Suzy, a model, dancer and a somewhat popular commercial actress known for her dancing hamburger spots! She’s also a touch psychic and things go all weird when she meets a friend for a drink and finds the world going hazy, eventually coming to a complete stop… except for one menacing figure who eyes her creepily from a bar stool. Mostly shrugging off the weirdness, Suzy has another “vision,” later that same night, this time while watching an egg slowly roll out of the fridge, smashing on the kitchen floor. The voices and rumbling sounds accompanying the cracking egg eventually leads her to believe she predicted the terrible plane crash that becomes front page news on the next day’s morning paper.

Her arguably adorable boyfriend (and live in mate) Jason (Bruce Davison) becomes far less loveable when he refuses to put any weight into Suzy’s creepy phantasms, even after she’s able to prove that the voices she heard during the infamous egg incident belong to the doomed crew in the cockpit. Luckily, she’s met Ben (David Ackroyd), a handsome flight investigator who sends her to Dr. Povey (Christopher Cary). His psychic research suggests that Suzy is somehow going to make a physical connection with whoever sabotaged the plane… and maybe he’s creepy and bald, just like the guy Suzy saw at the bar. What she doesn’t know is that the killer is as in tune to her as she is to him, and he’s getting closer to her each day.

Shot under the title Are You Alone Tonight, Mind Over Murder is weird. The psychic visions are off-putting and eerie, and Andrew Prine as the above referenced crazy guy is freaking terrifying. When a very sweaty and crazy-eyed Prine, listed in the credits as the “Bald Man” kidnaps Suzy and attempts to entice her by flexing his wiry and lean muscles (no joke), it’s strangely effective in its gross factor (and I never thought I find Mr. Prine icky). In fact, the kidnap scenes make up most of the last quarter of the film, and there are near rapes, punchings and other uncomfortable moments that could have very well derailed an effective thriller but work because the talented actors put you in a terrifying world without resorting to exploitation tactics.

Yes, as this is a TV movie, it is (thankfully) quite restrained, although it remains gripping throughout. The overall film is suspenseful and unsettling and written in a way that makes Suzy incredibly likeable and reasonable despite her outrageous situation. The late Raffin was always a strong leading lady, and she brings just as much sympathy to her character here as she did in Nightmare in Badham County, both of which feature the actress in really dark and seemingly impossible situations.

Ackroyd is fantastic as well, and makes a great love interest for Raffin. Their blossoming romance doesn’t deter from the psychic focus of the film, but it provides a nice break between all the bleak and peculiar. Also, Robert Englund shows up as Ackroyd’s workmate, making me wonder if The Bald Man vs. Freddy Kruger could ever be a thing. Ah, to dream!

Director Ivan Nagy also made the excellent but also difficult to watch A Gun in the House (1981), and the decent thriller Jane Doe (1983) before he moved into adult films with titles such as Trailer Trash Teri and Izzy Sleeze’s Casting Couch Cuties. Oh my! He was also associated with Heidi Fleiss and served time for bookmaking. His infamy might outlive his small screen merits, but he did turn in some solid little TVMs in his day. Mind Over Murder is one such film.

Mind Over Murder is currently streaming on Amazon Instant Video. Watch it!!! 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium, 1964-1999... Edited by Yours Truly!

Anyone who visits Made for TV Mayhem certainly has a deep affection not just for retro television, but also for the classic Movie of the Week. In the 1970s, the ABC MOW was churning out film after film, and while that phenomenon only lasted for a few years, the idea of the TVM as an event, as something to stay home for, remained through the rest of the seventies, well into the nineties. Part of the love for the made for TV movie is, of course, nostalgia, but telefilms also tapped into current issues, and brought them into our living rooms night after night. Some movies were forgotten about, while others became fondly remembered classics. British publisher Headpress seeks to reconcile our memories of the obscure, as well as the bona fide hits in their new book Are You in the House Alone? Growing up with Gargoyles, Giant Turtles, Valerie Harper, the Cold War, Stephen King, and Co-ed Call Girls: A TV Movie Compendium, 1964-1999, which I edited.

Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium, 1964-1999 (its truncated title) is a book of reviews and essays about network made for television movies. Essays span several topics, ranging from reunion TVMs to the telefilm’s response to sexual assault. And, there are hundreds of reviews covering the most talked about TV movies to some of the most obscure titles. The contributing authors are passionate about the topic, and we did our best to uncover as many of the dusty corners of the small screen as we could.

The book’s official street date is April 6th, 2017, but there will be a special launch for Are You in the House Alone? in November at Monster Fest in Melbourne, Australia. The film festival will be held between November 24th-27th, and I will be there, along with some of the book’s contributors, including Kier-La Janisse, who is the director of MF, and a noted film programmer, writer, and Editor-in-Chief of Spectacular Optical, as well as authors John Harrison (Hip Pocket Sleaze: The Lurid World of Vintage Adult Paperbacks), and Lee Gambin (Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film). Also joining us will be John’s wife, stuntwoman and actress Marneen Fields, who has appeared in everything from The Spell to The Calendar Girl Murders! We’ll be discussing the enduring legacy of the made for television movie and capping off the evening with a screening of Bad Ronald! You can read more about Monster Fest here, and their press release for their events can be found here.

Here's a peek at the cover of Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium, 1964-1999:

After Monster Fest, a hardcover version of the book will be immediately available through Headpress’ website (link to come), but it will not be obtainable through general retailers until April 6th, 2017. This book has been a labor of love, not just for me, but for all of the writers as well as Headpress. I, of course, will keep everyone up to date on any events or signings, but please mark your calendars for April 6th, or if you are in Australia, come to Monster Fest, pick up the book and say hello! Would love to meet you!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Visions... (1972)

Network: CBS
Original Airdate: October 10, 1972

On the surface it would seem Professor Mark Lowell (Monte Markham) has an enviable life. He’s a well to do academic with a gorgeous and doting girlfriend named Susan (Barbara Anderson). Unfortunately, he’s also haunted by disturbing psychic visions that he cannot control. Things take a turn for the worse when he unwittingly taps into a mad bomber who is terrorizing Denver. Mark goes to the police with his visions and concerns, only to find he’s been named Suspect No. 1. The skeptical Lt. Phil Keegan (Telly Savalas) is certain Mark is toying with authorities while he lays giant bomb devices throughout the city. But, the story takes an interesting twist when Mark is cleared early on, and begins collaborating with Keegan in an effort to stop a reign of terror.

Shot on location in Denver, Colorado, and using many recognizable locales as potential bombing sites, Visions is a stylish and suspenseful television movie. Directed by Lee H. Katzin (The Voyage of the Yes, and the theatrical What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice), this TV movie is refreshing because it strategically sets up a fairly standard thriller, and then twists it around early on when Mark is cleared of the crimes. Aside from it decidedly trying to move away from what outwardly looks like a customary police procedural where the cops are looking in the wrong place, it also allows Savalas a chance to show a little range as a hard-boiled cop who becomes sympathetic to Mark’s plight.

Strangely, while I was watching Visions, the telefilm Beg, Borrow or Steal kept popping up in my head. But it was really not so strangely, it turns out, because both films were written by Paul Playdon, who has a real knack for ramping up these little films until they reach an almost nail biting apex.

The always-reliable Markham is very good, although he admitted to struggling a bit with the role, stating, “I’m trying to show someone actually undergoing a frightening psychic experience. I don’t want to overdo it but I want to communicate a measure of a man’s terror… One part of you is always waiting for the unknown terror… You have this powerful contrast of police frantically trying to avert a disaster on the basis of wispy clues from a guy they’re not sure is all there himself.”

While the reason for the Mark’s connection to the bomber is never made clear, there are similarities between the characters. Markham presents Mark as an even-keel but troubled character. His visions are mostly out of his control, and he hides his extrasensory perceptions from his girlfriend. But he’s also compassionate, and perhaps that’s why he’s able to tap into the madman’s mind, because he too is struggling with a pain he’s let fester inside of his gut.

Although Visions was shot before Savalas would make his debut as Kojak in 1973, the actor was quite busy shooting films in Europe, and landed in Denver, during a whirlwind era of work. He had just completed Reason to Live, Reason to Die and then headed back to Rome after shooting Visions to begin work on The Devil is Taking Away the Dead (which is presumably the working title for Lisa and the Devil). He doesn’t show one ounce of fatigue, giving audiences a good glimpse at what the charismatic actor was going to do with the soon-to-be-legendary Kojak. Markham would also take on a new series in 1973, when he was cast as the New Perry Mason. Unfortunately, it did not last long, and was cancelled in 1974 (Confession: I thought it was a good show, but I did miss Mr. Burr immensely).

Visions ran against another really good small screen thriller, Night of Terror, starring Donna Mills and Martin Balsam, as well as a run of a 1965 theatrical film with Sean Connery titled The Hill. What to choose, what to choose?

Visions was released on DVD as Visions of Death.