Monday, January 18, 2010

Dir: Dan Curtis

One expects much better from seminal TV horror pioneer Dan Curtis than displayed in this rather throwaway witchcraft yarn. And yet many of the Curtis trademarks (put to such brilliant use in The Night Stalker and ensuing sequel and weekly series) are present: moody and rainy locales (here, Northern California and San Francisco), ominous narration, the slinky female with a dark past (Angie Dickinson) and above all the archetype of the lone investigator, beleaguered by his own personal demons prior to confronting supernatural horrors.

Celebrated author and debunker of occult claims and myths (Roy Thines, a familiar TV horror presence in the 70s to be sure) stumbles across a beautiful widow stalked by the reanimated corpse of her dead husband. All is recounted through flashbacks and the emotionally evocative device of recorded reel tapes left behind after Thines' mysterious disappearance.

And uh, not much else.

For true 70s TV horror completists only.

Like us.

Dir: Steven Spielberg

Just as the public discord and outrage surrounding the carnage of the Vietnam War ushered in a new wave of ultra-violent American horror films, the mass exodus from the nation's urban centers (known racially as "White Flight") was dramatically interpreted/analyzed in countless genre classics. From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Hills Have Eyes to Deliverance to every other TV Movie of the Week, you can be sure bad things happen when city dwellers meet rural folk.

NYC couple (Sandy Dennis and Darrin McGavin) move themselves and two children from Manhattan to Bucks County, PA and the horrors ensuing (while interesting enough) hardly compare with the hellish commute the breadwinner must endure daily. Basically, this is a very, very mild horror telefilm, constructed around the visual flair of a young Spielberg not yet restrained enough to allow story to trump technique. Lots of flashy film school angles and framing nonetheless elevate Something Evil above the
staple primetime fodder provided by the script.

The whole city/country conflict is continually explored whether through chic cocktail parties full of Madison Avenue executives on the newly acquired farm (juxtaposed with a party of locals that seems alot more fun and frankly urbane) or a tenant farmer insistent upon archaic rituals like the bloodletting of chickens. In a fabulous moment typical of the divine Ms. Dennis, Sandy calls husband Darren on the phone to complain of the local farmer's strewing of chicken blood across newly sown fields with the single remark: "Do please speak to him. He's draining a live chicken's blood across the fields again. I can't tell you how distasteful I find it."

Dir: John Llewellyn Moxey

Routine but cozy haunted house flick, suitable for younger children and nervous grandmothers sensitive to violence. With two potential love stories occurring at once ( a trim and fit Barbara Stanwyck and her co-ed niece move into an inherited New England ancestral home dating from the late 1600s) this TV movie also functions as a multi-generational Gothic tale.

The real interest (as always) lies in the details: violent spirit possession, a highly conflicted paramour to Stanwyck (he almost rapes her in the kitchen only to be forgiven with a cursory apology) and appreciated attention to detail in the excellent art direction and realistic set decoration.

What would this sort of genre pic be without obligatory wind machines amping up a full curtain raising (and shredding) conclusion? Check. Or a local expert in the occult and local witchcraft folklore and legends? Ditto. A rarity very hard to find other than through Internet forum links, but worth a batch of homemade buttered popcorn should someone generously share with you.

DYING ROOM ONLY (1973) Dir: Philip Leacock

Far, far better than a made-for-TV thriller has the right to be, Dying Room Only owes most of its chilling impact to an original teleplay from horror maestro Richard Matheson (based on his own short story) and a gritty, nervous performance from an unexpectedly chic Cloris Leachman.

Stranded in a Southwestern desert cafe after the sudden disappearance of her hubby (Dabney Coleman) in a plot device prefiguring by 20 years the Euro horror mega-hit The Vanishing, Leachman confronts some seriously sinister locals while searching for her better half. (In a nice - and strongly acted - characterization against his usual "victim", Ned Beatty plays the heavy).

A sense of isolation, frustration and mounting unease give way to full-blown panic as Leachman learns the dark secrets of the roadside eatery and attached motel, and plot, tone and direction never degrade into predictable cliches or the "softening" conclusions so favored by certain TV movies. Then again this is the 70s, that golden age of filmed dark fables indicative of a nation's upheavals and crises.

WHEN MICHAEL CALLS (1971) Dir: Philip Leacock

Despite a most impressive cast (Elizabeth Ashley, Michael Douglas and Ben Gazzara) and source material (based on John Farris' novel), this TV thriller disappoints. Perhaps because of high expectations from its authorial pedigree and assembled talent. A chilling plot revolving around midnight phone calls from a dead child falls flat on the small screen; whereas numerous other directors open up storylines to the very limits of TV production, Leacock piddles away precious screen time focusing on red herrings and stock devices setting up audiences for the ubiquitous Third Act non-supernatural explanation.

Nice to see a young Michael Douglas play against type and always wonderful to watch Ms. Ashley bring elegance and class to any production she graces, but Gazzaro sleepwalks through the proceedings, clearly dreaming of his next Cassavetes star turn.

To be fair the first 20 or so minutes are rather creepy and the otherwise faulting Leacock can take credit for slow zooms and early atmospherics finely tuned to the dually scary and sentimental notion of contact with a deceased, beloved child.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dir: David Greene

An odd mix of crude sexual innuendos and underlying gender anxieties, this largely forgettable "thriller" never manages to conjure a plot as interesting as its relentless subtext of confusion and anger towards the 70s rapidly changing sexual mores. Three female age groups are represented by a gaggle of broadly drawn characters: a precocious tween tease played by Maureen McCormick (channeling the inner slut we all suspected resided in Marcia Brady), a couple of recent college grads out for an all-around frisky time and an aging mother (Babara Feldon, wondering how she ended on this island and film set) confused by the new roles acceptable to women.

In a fantasy narrative of male wish fulfillment, a playboy (complete with shades and a handy bottle of bubbly) becomes stranded on a jungle island with the above-mentioned group and spends 90 minutes fending off their amorous/pathologically needy/psychotically immature advances, as well as those of a hostile group of native islanders. Both seem to represent the same danger level, and thus the viewer is plunged into a quagmire of both sexist and racist melodrama.

Deadly dull, A Vacation in Hell has little to recommend other than the camp spectacle of a drunken song and dance routine by a very randy Ms McCormick.
Dir: John Llewellyn Moxey

Mystery thrillers disguised as horror films are often great disappointments with their final act reveal of "natural explanations" for supernatural events cheapening the previous 70 minutes. This ABC Movie of the Week however has enough goofy charm to survive the less-than-terrifying climax and denouement (although it veers closer to Scooby Doo territory than even most similar films - much of the final plot element revolves around buried treasure!) and coolly coasts by on the earnest performances of Robert Stack and Vera Miles. Before its end, The Strange and Deadly Occurrence serves up quaint chills through a haunted ranch house, a moaning midnight specter, a shady prison doctor, a shadow-lurking killer and even a mild poltergeist.

As so often with 70s TV movies, much of the fascination and interest lies in the decade's ambivalence to the nuclear family and traditional gender roles. By 1974 TV audiences were wide open and listening to criticisms of the myth of the perfect 50s home, and this questioning of established institutions often took the filmic form of paranormal threats to the family unit. Robert Stack as the protective patriarch proves ineffectual at safeguarding his family, while his seemingly idyllic marriage to wife Vera Miles - and purchase of a "dream home" in the canyons north of LA - also take a beating when confronted with bumps in the SoCal night. Furthermore Daddy's Little Girl (played with bizarre, almost pantomime affectations by doe-eyed Margaret Willock) seems to be in need of psychiatric treatment when she goes borderline catatonic after being attacked by a moving coat stand.

Of course it all ends with a laugh and family group hug.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Dir: Dan Curtis

Produced by Dan Curtis as a follow-up to the wildly successful (and eternal cult classic) Trilogy of Terror (1976). Although far less effective, and marred from the gate with an opening V.O. narration recalling the cheesey opening credits of the 1980s' Tales From the Darkside, a hokey and unnecessary reminder that viewers should be frightened by the proceedings; most contemporary participants would be either bored or laughing at the opening segment. "Second Chance" is a dull, insipid grab at the 70s trend of Depression-era nostalgia (The Sting being a blockbuster example; Curtis Harrington's Whatever Happened to Helen a genre example); a dull and insipid fantasy involving Ed Begley Jr. returning to a more innocent time via the restoration of an antique automobile.

A brief interlude is the Richard Matheson-scripted "No Such Thing As a Vampire", adopted from his sleight micro story. The Victorian period-set vignette however remains a vast improvement from the former tale and cleverly subverts traditional folkloric cliches in service of a modern manifestation of very human jealousy and revenge. The Hammer studio-esque sets enhance the tricky atmospherics, deliberately skewed to throw the viewer off from a trick ending. Sad to watch is veteran B-actor Elisha Cook hamming up the dodgy script.

Like Trilogy of Terror, the real thrills are left - showmanship style - to the final curtain, an unsettling finale entitled "Bobby". Kudos galore should be offered to the campfire classic The Monkey's Paw, but again scriptwriter Matheson delivers a shocking twist to this seemingly sentimental tale of a mother drawn to the occult in an effort to restore her beloved son. Final 15 seconds = genius unsettling horror still owned only by the transgressive and liberal 1970s.

Monday, February 25, 2008


Recently we've considered it right and fair to expand the scope of our fledgling little blog to include not just Made-For-TV-Movies, but 1970s horror television series as well. Hopefully this site can then better represent the full extent of the grooviest decade ever for televised chills. Periodically SSFG will post reviews of episodes from the era's classic - and not so classic - weekly horror-themed shows: Night Gallery, Ghost Story, Circle of Fear, The 6th Sense, Thriller (a British 70s series most often padded with commercials so each episode could constitute a requisite 90 minutes in length and thus qualify as ABC's Mystery Movie of the Week (1972-1974) and Hammer House of Horror in addition to several others. A notable omission is the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, but many sites devoted to the cult classic can be found online.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Gargoyles (1972)
Dir: Bill Norton

So beloved was this ABC TV Movie of the Week, and so fondly remembered and cherished by young people of the early 70s, that a remake (nearly unheard of for a TV movie) was filmed for the straight-to-DVD and budget cable markets. Praised and revered in fanzines and cult movies websites galore, Gargoyles barely holds up under critical scrutiny 30+ years later, with its charms confined to that blissful place of childhood innocence and idolized naivety.

The preposterous plot has an anthropologist (Cornell Wilde) and his Swinging 70s daughter stumble upon a race of long extinct demonic creatures prowling the lonely deserts of the American Southwest. Surely the close proximity to Los Angeles accounts for the dozens of "desert horrors" of that recession-addled decade? Or maybe the sinisterly arid and sparsely populated landscapes reflected a nation's ever-growing trend towards urban living and detachment from rural environments? Probably because the crew set up on a back lot 90 miles east of LA, Gargoyles nonetheless captures the spooky quiet and isolation of the Mojave, not to mention the eccentric overflow of the human race who dwells there ("desert rats", the likes of Scott Glenn as a leader of a biker gang and the marvelous Grayson Hall, stealing every scene she's given as the boozed up proprietress of a lonesome highway motel). Eventually the creatures go on a rampage of sorts, kidnapping the daughter (Jennifer Salt, more than adequate in a role burdened by inane dialogue and zero character development) and retreating to Carlsbad Caverns ( I think). Though pleasantly campy the creature makeup and costumes further weaken a failing film, as does a plot device giving head gargoyle Bernie Casey a nearly human understanding and motivation.

Dir: Jerry Thorpe

Obscure and relatively forgotten little TV movie, The Possessed is among the best of a handful of small screen horrors attempting to cash in on the success of 1973's blockbuster The Exorcist. It is in fact far better than several theatrical releases intent upon the same, including but not limited to: Abby (197), Beyond the Door (1975) and The Godsend (1979). The plot is simplicity itself - a girls' boarding school is beset by mysterious fires of a supernatural origin - but remarkably effective, unmarred even by the proliferation of stock characters (a priest who has lost his faith, the spinsterish headmistress still carrying a romantic torch, ubiquitous naughty schoolgirls, embodied here by the very prototype of the 70s, PJ Soles) and a hurried ending typical of TV climaxes scheduled between commercial breaks. Production values add considerable charm to this thriller, with superb locations, cinematography that is vibrant yet moody, and an overall structure of restrained, growing menace. The wintery shots of the bleak campus and creepy old dorms drip with atmosphere, even further enhanced by an eerie electronic musical score and literate script.

Inexplicably, the second act of The Possessed descends from a tone of restrained dread to a reliance on hokey effects and demonic bodily contortions (yup, the bedeviled headmistress ends up groaning terrifically and vomiting nails). Plenty more however to recommend here, from a strong cast (Joan Hackett, James Farrantino, Diana Scarwid, Harrison Ford and more) to the ambivalence of the final minutes, with a gaping mystery surrounding one of the characters striking an emotional chord with viewers. Try finding all that today in one of the triple-budgeted Lifetime network thrillers.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

SPECTRE (1977)
Dir: Clive Donner

Surely one of the most eccentric telefilms ever aired, Spectre is the disjointed brainchild of Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry. Given free reign by network execs Mr. Roddenberry pens another bombastic tale centered around a quasi-moral theme, in the style so familiar to his disciples everywhere. The structure is more episodic and less developed narrative than to be expected, with set piece following set piece and an only minimal connection tying these loose ends together.

Setting the tone for the campy occult splendours to follow, Spectre's opening five minutes are perhaps its best. Robert Culp is a paranormal investigator attacked at his modernist bachelor pad by a seductive succubus (a hot witch basically). The assault and subsequent destruction of the evil creature is witnessed by Culp's longtime pal and lush of a doctor (Gig Young in one of his final roles), who decides to fly to England to help Culp ferret out black magic practicioners. It seems a high-strung spinster is convinced her older brother is possesed by a demon who's greatest weapon of evil is a louche lifestyle of excessive sexual indulgence. The hoodwinked brother comes off as only marginally creepier than Hugh Hefner (and this guy at least wears French cuffs and slim-cut blazers around the house), and his ancestral home of hedonism only slightly more lurid than Hef's grotto. Turns out there's fire where there's purple magickal smoke, and the alternately suave and bumbling pair are led through a maze (figurative and literal - leftover cave sets from Land of the Lost to be sure) of modern Satanism and ritual sacrifice.

Unfortunately the overlong finale is centered around special effects and make-up artistry so ridiculously bad it nearly cancels the previous hour of offbeat dialouge and plotting. Still, the harpischord soundtrack is charming, the arcane magic rituals and esoteric occult terminology quaintly fun, and especial kudos for an art department on speed when it comes to creating groovy 70s interior kitsch (in a Scottish Baronial pyschadelic manner - think the Beggars Banquet-era Rolling Stones). A horror film with little horror, few chills and no scares, but enough bits of quirky charm to justify viewing. Well, on a hangover day anyway.
Now that Spring Semester is over at Satan's School for Girls, we can't imagine a better place to spend the summer holidays than at CampBlood. Webmaster Buzz has loaded his site with provocative articles, interviews, movie reviews and much more, all enriched by intelligent and witty prose. Check out his Horror for Homos section for a film guide both hysterically funny and comprehensive. Camp Blood is updated frequently, and each visit guaranteed to produce laughs and shivers. Of great interest to SSFG and its fans (uh, Hi Mom) will be the Movie of the Weak, dedicated to our beloved TV thrillers. And don't forget to browse Camp Blood's swag section; the ridiculously low-priced tote bags are totes a beach must for Summer '06.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Dir: John Newland

A real standout film in the field of television horror, despite its cult status Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has yet to be released on DVD. This is most unfortunate given the film's ability to perhaps alter a few opinions on the complete and utter worthlessness of Made-for-TV movies. Rarely has TV tried so hard to actually scare the viewer; production executives tend to prefer non-disturbing and mild horror imagery unlikely to frighten away (yes, intended pun) advertisers. Within this tradition of watered down imagery and theme, Don't Be Afraid dares to buck convention and systematically builds its tale upon dread and the common phobias of madness and emotional isolation. Never taking time out for a prosaic sideplot or corny chuckles, Nigel McKeand's script is a near masterpiece of economical horror screenwriting. Similarly director Newland handles the proceedings with a detached and dark iciness, filling the screen with long shots of the spooky house, an abudance of night photography and screen frames heavy with shadows and blackness. Even the main characters of the film are introduced through voiceovers, disembodied conversations heard over still shots of the empty house interiors; the effect of the House as an entity to itself, and the residents merely visitors in a foreign (and hostile) realm is quite chilling.

The plot is deceptively simple; recounted as a written synposis it hardly hints at the creepiness the actual movie manages to achieve. Kim Darby plays a somewhat lonely young housewife to hubby Jim Hutton's Type-A lawyer with an eye on his firm's partnership. From this crux of quintessential 70s politicized domestic drama, thus the characters are built. Darby's unfulfilled modern woman, aching to express herself creatively and intellectually, is a stereotype of the liberated era, but she imbues the role with such pathos and genuine discomfort the viewer instinctively sympathizes. Her one persoanl wish for her new home is to take over an unused dank studio as a home office for herself, a room of her own, but her husband and the patriarchal handyman (My Three Sons' Uncle Charlie) attempt to discourage her. Eventually she is given challenges such as entertaining her husband's business partners and coordinating décor with an interior designer, but her greatest test seems to be staying sane. Darby begins to hear voices and see tiny creatures invisible to all else. And worse, the creatures turn out to be far from cuddly.

An inspiration for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark would surely seem to be Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 19th century macabre novella The Yellow Wallpaper, with its unhinged heroine obsessing over patterns in the wallcoverings that seem to have a life of their own. Both stories eerily present restless women who first feel trapped in their surroundings, then fatally attached to these interiors grown monsterous. And the two tales share endings evilly ambiguous – Don't Be Afraid of the Dark however climaxes on a tone of such despair and horror, even contemprary audiences may feel moved. As a highlight of 70s TV horror – and TV movies in general – this remains a treat for anyone looking for a spooky night at home. For those who love this genre, it is a treasure.
Dir: Dan Curtis

When movie sequels are spoken of, the tone invariably turns jeering, and smug dismissals are expected from all serious aficionados of the motion picture. And yet our genre of attention here, the horror fim, often gathers steam in spin-offs, unencumbered as it is by the more traditional focus on narrative consistency. The Friday the 13th series didn't introduce the iconic hockey masked figure of Jason Vorhees until Part II (1982). Nearly lovable wisecracking Freddy Kruger only began to really develop his sick one-liner schtick midway through the Nightmare on Elm Street marathon (by which time admittedly he'd devolved into a third-rate Catskills comedian). Similarly, other shlock classics explored more interesting terrain in their sequels, such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), Children of the Corn (1983).

Following the enormous success of The Night Stalker (1972), Dan Curtis and screenwriter Richard Matheson also benefited from returning to the drawing board to craft the excellent sequel, The Night Strangler. Their previous collaboration (they would work again on the seminal Trilogy of Terror ) garnered the highest ratings of any TV movie in over a decade, so expectations should have been low for this hasty afterthought, demanded in part by Nielsen-driven ABC.

Instead The Night Strangler gives us a Carl Kolchak with more motivation, a bumbling, awkward hero beginning to show signs of real life drama under the crumpled suit and battered straw bowler. Again the discredited news reporter is on the scent of a supernatural killer, this time not in seedy Vegas, but a Seattle made seedy despite its verdant exterior. Kolchak's beat is the world of exotic dancers, strip clubs, bums sheltered in abandoned buildings, and this sleazy urban underbelly is given surprising depth and attention here (despite television's preferred idealization of a squeaky clean America). Cameos abound ( The Munster's Al Lewis as a drunk homeless man suffering from hypochondria, Margaret Hamilton chewing scenery in the role of a cantankerous professor of the occult), and the script spends its first half developing mood and tone and nuances of Darren McGavin's Kolchak. The climax is therefore even more unexpected, switching locales as it does to a surreal underground cavern beneath the streets of America's most caffeinated city. Strongly recommended.