Monday, June 30, 2008

Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977)

Network: CBS
Original Air Date: December 28th, 1977

Merry Christmas CBS! A fork load of deadly tarantulas take over a small town in this groovin’ little made for television animals amok flick.

Two coffee exporters (played by Tom Atkins and Howard Hessman!) pick up a load of beans and some illegal aliens from Ecuador and unwittingly also give some poisonous spiders a ride into the good ol’ U-S-of-A. The smugglers and the smugalees are attacked and the plane crash lands in a small Californian town. Due to an unfortunate series of accidents, the tarantulas are unleashed and begin wreaking havoc on various citizens of the community.

Typical of the animal amok genre, there’s a good body count, and although played down, most of the deaths retain some brutality or shock to them. I love the death of the kid because it’s so unexpected.

What I found not to be so typical of the genre was that although there were some naysayers, there really is no bad guy - human-wise that is. The culprit remains the spiders and most of the town rallies together to fight them. It’s a nice touch and helps the characters feel more natural. Sure, Evil Mayor Douglas (Bert Remsen, who is also the overbearing manager of the orange factory! Wow, talk about a small town!) walks around scarily with his cane and threatens to have people arrested, but in the end he does off up his hand. We love the Mayor!

Released the same year as Kingdom of the Spiders, both arachnid amok flicks have nice pacing, unaffected dialog and lots of spider attacks, making them far more entertaining than a lot of the other animals attack flicks (theatrical & otherwise) that skimped on the action and/or interesting characters.

Hats off to Deborah Winters as Cindy Beck as well. Deborah is probably best known to horror fans as the blonde teacher in The Outing. I hardly recognized her with her Dorothy Hamill haircut and was unaware that she had done much beyond that supernatural slasher. She’s good here in what might have come off as another annoying woman in peril role. In fact, the whole dang cast in fun to watch and I really enjoyed seeing Charles Siebert from Trapper John M.D. play a sleazy lothario. I know, it’s hard to believe, but his unbuttoned shirt oozing with machismo offered lots of amusement. So there! 

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Sex Symbol (1974)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: September 17th, 1974

Connie Stevens does a vague interpretation of Marilyn Monroe in a movie with less vague intentions of capitalizing on the movie star's tragic death. The Sex Symbol takes place over one loooooong, lonely night in one desolate room. Kelly Williams (Stevens) is a soon-to-be washed up starlet, haunted by her demons and her past, is drinking her way into oblivion while re-living some of the more sordid details of her life. Sometimes she calls her distant shrink who only wants her to go to sleep, sometimes she gets a call from her ex-husband (William Smith doing Joe Dimaggio, but wimpy) or sometimes she just sits there thinking.

Could Marilyn Monroe's last night on earth been quite this... dramatic? I guess it's possible, but man, this movie isn't satisfied unless it's going so over the top that it comes down and goes back over again! Shelly Winters plays Williams arch nemesis, a nasty gossip queen who presents the lives of the rich and famous on a local news program. Apparently Winters can either make or break your career (and she does both here), but with such a sordid and bitchy personality, you have to wonder why anyone would hang out with her to begin with! She flits in and out of William's life either making nice or terrorizing the poor, stupid blonde. Also, Williams' "secretary" has a vaguely lesbian crush on Williams as displayed in the back massage scene (YIKES!). Seems everyone wants a piece of her, and much to her chagrin, she's willing to give it!

Not a great movie by an standards - it's slow and the Williams character is more annoying than sympathetic - it's still a pretty entertaining little pot boiler. Stevens can be hysterical when she gets hysterical and the scenes where she keeps trying to call her dad are hilarious. The men who play her lovers are surprisingly nice guys, and although the film does portray Williams as a victim, she's a victim at least in part because of how she has decided to live her life - not what someone else has done to her.

I can't imagine there's a lot of similarity between Williams and Monroe as Monroe's death exposed a true sadness within the actress whereas with the Sex Symbol you're kind of relieved when all is said and done. So you certainly won't get depressed watching this movie and you might even get a few laughs going too.


Fantasies (1982)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: January 18th, 1982

Fantasies came out all the way back in 1982. It kind of stayed there too. I don't remember a lot of re-runs in syndication or elsewhere, which is a shame since this movie captures so much of what I loved about that decade.

I was all of 11 years old and a big General Hospital fan when Fantasies first aired. I was also watching One Life to Live, which is now "my story" but was less intense on it back then. Imagine what a treat it was when this movie first aired, featuring actors from both shows. The ones I remembered most were Robin Mattson (who also had a nifty TV Movie career going at the same time) and Stuart Damon as Red Herring #1. Robert Woods who still plays Bo Buchanan on One Life to Live also makes a quick appearance as well as Peter Bergman (All My Children) and John Gabriel (Ryan's Hope). Suzanne Pleshette stars as Carla Webber who is obviously modeled after General Hospital's creator, Gloria Monty, all the way to her nickname "The Dragonlady". Her icy cold, but steely sexual performance is pitch perfect, even when the script fails her.

The film itself is presented like a thriller, but it does cross over into slasher territory, although the violence is played down. There is some interesting commentary on the effect television has on its audience, giving us an early glimpse of how it is now, with reality and fantasy mixing thanks to the overbearing eye of the paparazzi and the genre of reality television which continues to blur the line.

Well shot and acted, Fantasies is beautiful to watch. The people are damn near perfect (especially Suzanne) and the story is fun and continually engaging. Cult actor Barry Newman (Vanishing Point) makes a good love interest for Pleshette and overall, the film works mostly because of the actors. The story, although a good whodunit, acts as little more than a set up for suspense. There is this one ponderous scene featuring Pleshette being attacked by the killer. The doorbell rings and the killer runs away. When she answers the door, a delivery boy hands her a package and says "I hope I didn't interrupt anything," and Pleshette sarcastically responds "You'll never know," before closing the door and staying in the apartment alone! Wow. That's just got television movie written all over it, I tell ya!

Fantasies is definitely a fun trip back in time and has unjustly been hidden away from the audience it deserves.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Deadly Lessons (1983)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: March 7th, 1983

An appealing cast and a nice little slasher premise have made Deadly Lessons one of the golden chalices of made for TV horror. Unfortunately, it's not all you would have it cracked up to be.

The ever adorable Diane Franklin is Stefanie, the newest (and apparently poorest) member of a prestigious all girl boarding school. Although she's a good student with a clean record, Stefanie finds herself in the summer program with the more rebellious girls. In fact, the student body is down right skeletal - in more ways than one. With nary two dozens girls, the students start turning up dead or missing and it's up to spunky Stefanie to figure out what is going on... before it's too late.

Image from Captain Cracker

The school setting is great and the cast is simply amazing. Early performances from Bill Paxton, Rick Rossavich, Ally Sheedy and Renee Jones mix with the likes of Donna Reed (!), Larry Wilcox, Tara Erickson and Nancy Cartwright among others.

Too bad the story is dull, dull, DULL. Very little actually makes sense, especially the reactions of some of the students after the murders. I think the director had some idea what he was up against because he piles on so much music, it's sensory overload. The score is downright hilarious with it's overtly melodramatic tones, but it does keep you awake.

When all is said and done, Deadly Lessons certainly isn't the worst TV horror movie ever made. Not by a longshot. The word here is unfulfilled. There was great potential in Deadly Lessons and a lot of what shines through is the cast's eagerness to put on a good show.

Sooner or Later (1979)

Network: NBC
Original Air Date: march 25th, 1979

In the unspoken language of “you know it’s going to be a good movie” dictionary (of unspoken words, of course!), any 70s Made for Television Movie that not only references Mandingo, but also references seeing it at the drive-in, is a pretty good indicator that you’ve picked a winner.

Case in point, Sooner or Later is just such a film. Far bolder than most TVMs of today, this movie not only suggests Mandingo as an awesome make out movie, but it also supports the relationship of a 13 year old Jr. High student and a 17 year old up and coming rock star. Oh, and it just keeps getting better…

Rex Smith is Michael Skye, the lead singer of The Skye Band who are already playing at malls all around upstate New York. Channeling a bit of Rod Stewart and a whole lotta Mick Jagger, Michael has the moves and a beat in his heart. He meets Jessie (the adorable Denise Miller), a newbie teen who has learned the art of looking like a drag queen. These powers come in handy when she needs to get made up to pass herself off as a 16 year old. After seeing him perform, she unknowingly becomes one of his guitar students. Upon their first meeting, he wraps himself around her and her guitar from behind and softly says “Let me do the fingering”. Uh yeah, this was on TV!

It’s a sweet romance, but the guilt is building up in Jessie and during a spirited make out session during, you guessed it, Mandingo, the truth comes out. Can he love a girl so much younger, if also that much wiser?

Sooner or Later is a fantastic movie. Written by Bruce and Carole Hart, who also penned the theme song to Sesame Street (!), this movie manages to be charming if completely preposterous. The fact that film actually supports the young lovers’ relationship definitely raises an eyebrow, but it’s handled in a very restrained manner, while still being slyly sexy. I mean c’mon, Rex Smith kind of oozes of sex, doesn’t he?

The Babysitter (1980)


Network: ABC
Original Air Date: November 28th, 1980 

Even at its most sedate (and this is a fairly subtle movie), The Babysitter could still be dubbed... The Crazysitter! That's right. I said it. This nanny is two sticks short of a fire and loving it. The beautiful Stephanie Zimbalist is Joanna Redwine, an enigmatic stranger who gets a job babysitting Tara Benedict (Quinn Cummings). I use the word "babysit" loosely, because this girl is a bit too old to always be seen with a doll! Her dysfunctional but well-to-do parents are played by Patty Duke and William Shatner. Mr. Benedict is a workaholic while the missus enjoys hitting the bottle during her more lonely times. At first Joanna is a godsend. Lovely, hard working and kind, she sort of takes over the Benedict family without much notice (or perhaps they just didn't care...), but then she starts manipulating the family and pitting them against each other. Their neighbor, Dr. Lindquist (John Houseman, great as always) begins to figure things out, but then guess who winds up dead? So, it's just a matter of time before this babysitter goes over the edge...


Visually, this film is quite romantic. The settings are lovely and it's obvious that the Benedict family have done quite well for themselves in their large lakeside home. Zimbalist is just breathtaking, even when she gets a little nasty with her employers. The soft focus lens of the shoot just adds to the dream like quality of it all.


Shatner and Duke are great and in two reigned in performances. There's not a lot of over the top here (minus one stabbing scene that is kind of overdone). Only Quinn Cummings comes across as a little annoying, which is in part due to the nature of her sheltered character (think back to the dolls I mentioned). And Zimbalist does a good job of keeping her character a mystery throughout.


The director of The Babysitter was Peter Medak who also helmed the excellent Canadian flick The Changeling. Although this film isn't nearly as creepy, he uses the same subtle approach to the oncoming horror.


Like most television movies of this time period, there is not a ton of action but there's a great eerie feeling that creeps through the movie keeping it interesting.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Gargoyles (1972)


Network: CBS
Original Air Date: November 21st, 1972
A totally offbeat monster movie, Gargoyles isn't for everyone but it is for some of us.

Cornel Wilde plays Dr. Mercer Boley, an anthropologist whose specialty is debunking things that can't normally be explained. Along with this voluptuous daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt), they head off to Mexico to investigate one Uncle Willie (Woody Chambliss) who claims to own the bones of a monster. Once at Willie's budget "freak museum", the Boley's humor Willie but feel that they have been bamboozled into a trip that will lead them nowhere. Then, after the sun sets, winged animals begin flying overhead before attacking Willie's house. There is a fire and the Boley's escape while Willie perishes with his collection of atrocities.

A gang of bikers are arrested for the crime and although the Boleys attempt to get them released, neither is quite willing to own up to exactly what happened. Later, they are pursued again by the angry gang of winged monsters and as they attempt to escape, they accidentally hit one of the gargoyles, killing it.

That's when revenge becomes oh-so-sweet. The gargoyles steal Diana into the night and its up to Mercer and whomever he can get to tag along (think biker gang), to save his daughter from the evil clutches of the ... dun..dun...dun... Gargoyles.

A pretty neat little movie with wonderful costumes, the downside of Gargoyles is quite simply the pacing. The story is fun, if a bit unfulfilled, but the direction leaves our actors with tons of dramatic pauses and just plain ol' gaps between the action. Bernie Casey is superior as the head Gargoyle, even if all we get is his concealed body in a costume. He's menacing as hell and the way they fixed his voice is mesmerizing.  Grayson Hall is hilarious as the motel owner whose idea of a pick up line is to talk about horrible car accidents! A young Scott Glen plays the head biker and he's easily the most charismatic human (not Gargoyle mind you!) in the movie.
Gargoyles enjoyed an extremely limited vhs and DVD release, making it not at all hard to find anymore. Still, I'd rather see it on a local station's afternoon movie, but we can't always get what we wish for, now can we?