Salute to the Small Screen: ‘Screen Directors Playhouse’

sdpopenerMy generation grew up watching Hollywood classics on television, expanded our tastes through the provocative movies of the Film School Generation, and then witnessed the return to genre–based filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s. I am eternally grateful for this extensive knowledge of movies from different eras, which seems like a shared experience for baby boomers. The down side of this informal education in film studies is that many of us struggle to accept the narrow, limited, and often dumbed-down contemporary fare that the studios now pump out for their beloved demographic of young male viewers. If it weren’t for indie films, or even pseudo-indie films, American filmmaking would be little more than CGI-driven eye candy. In recent months, discussions about the primacy of television over the movies have increased on the Internet, with claims that the small screen has easily out-matched the big screen for meaningful drama, intelligent genre work, and juicy roles for former film stars and character actors. I can’t disagree that television—especially cable—is experiencing a new “golden age,” especially considering the defection of film directors and actors to the small screen.

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Telefilm Time Machine: Home for the Holidays (1972)

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Eleanor Parker in 1972

The holidays can be a very difficult time for some. I know from firsthand experience that when you don’t have any family to rely on or any kind of financial security to speak of Christmas can feel like a national nightmare inhabited by drunken revelers, crazed shoppers and merciless merchants. This is only compounded by what author Anthony Trollope once called “the perils of winter.” More folks tend to die during the winter months than any other time of the year so when you’re coping with the death of a loved one or a life threatening illness the pressure to remain “merry and bright” can become wearisome and demoralizing. I mention all of this because one of my favorite telefilms seems to perfectly capture the darker aspects of the holidays that are so often swept under the rug. Throughout 2013 I’ve spotlighted a few of my favorite made-for-TV movies so it seems appropriate to conclude this unofficial series with a look at HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972), a surprisingly grim and suspenseful Christmas themed thriller that also happens to star Eleanor Parker who recently passed away at the age of 91.

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Telefilm Time Machine: SATAN’S TRIANGLE (1975)

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Kim Novak & Doug McClure in SATAN’S TRIANGLE (1975)

One of my favorite actresses is the beautiful and enigmatic Kim Novak and she happens to be TCM’s Star of the Month. Every Thursday night throughout the month of September you can catch Novak in a number of great films airing on TCM and in celebration of the event I thought I’d devote my latest installment of Telefilm Time Machine to SATAN’S TRIANGLE (1975), which happens to be one of the first made-for-TV movies she appeared in. SATAN’S TRIANGLE has developed somewhat of a cult following over the years thanks to its noteworthy cast and a skilled crew who managed to craft a surprisingly effective little thriller combining elements of classic horror films such as PHANTOM SHIP (1935) and GHOST SHIP (1955) as well as THE EXORCIST (1973) into a spine-tingling original tale set on the stormy seas of the Bermuda Triangle.

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Telefilm Time Machine: Steven Spielberg’s SOMETHING EVIL (1972)

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I recently sat through James Wan’s THE CONJURING (2013). I haven’t particularly liked anything else the director’s done but being a horror film aficionado myself, I assumed that all the critical praise and fanfare the movie was receiving meant that that it would probably deliver a few good thrills and chills. It is being hailed as one of the “scariest movies ever made” in some circles so it couldn’t be all that bad, right? Unfortunately I was very wrong. While THE CONJURING is obviously working some kind of magic on a large percentage of viewers I personally found this utterly predictable throwback to ‘70s horror cinema so clichéd, schmaltzy, devoid of compelling characters, lacking in atmosphere and flat out boring that I almost walked out of the theater midway through the movie. It seemed to be a poorly concocted smorgasbord of jump scares borrowed from much better films (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE EXORCIST, THE HAUNTING, THE CHANGELING, THE BIRDS, HALLOWEEN, THE ORPHANAGE, EVIL DEAD, Etc.) that left me desperately hungry for something more tasty and fulfilling. Afterward I decided to cleanse my palate with a genuine ‘70s thriller about a family tormented by ghosts and combating demonic possession directed by Steven Spielberg called SOMETHING EVIL (1972). This low-budget telefilm rarely gets any attention by Spielberg fans or horror enthusiasts who seem to prefer DUEL (1971) or his later attempt at producing a supernatural thriller, POLTERGEIST (1982). But in some ways I think that SOMETHING EVIL is superior to them both. Why? Read on and I’ll tell you.

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Richard Matheson enters The Twilight Zone

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Richard Matheson was already an established writer in 1959, the year he started contributing to The Twilight Zone. But it took him a while. Over the course of the 1950s he rose from pitching sci-fi magazines on his off hours as a mailman, to adapting his own material to screens large and small. He  sold his first story, “Born of Man and Woman”, to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. After a couple of suspense novels fizzled, he garnered notice with his post-apocalyptic survival staple, I Am Legend (1954). It was his follow-up, The Shrinking Man (1956), that cemented his place in popular consciousness. He ingeniously sold himself as screenwriter as part of the film rights deal to Universal, and he would be a prolific writer for film and TV for decades to come (alongside his novels and short stories). As part of our week-long tribute to Matheson, following his death last month at the age of 87, I’ll be looking at the Twilight Zone episodes he declared to be his favorite, Steel and Night Call, both from Season 5. They present fantastical premises with procedural detail, as he also did with I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, bringing the spectacular down to earth.

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Telefilm Time Machine: The Stranger Within (1974)

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The acclaimed horror and science fiction author, Richard Matheson passed away earlier this week at age 87 and in appreciation of his work I decided to devote my latest installment of Telefilm Time Machine to THE STRANGER WITHIN (1974). This noteworthy ABC Movie of the Week was based on one of Matheson’s original short stories (Mother by Protest aka Trespass), which was first published in 1954. Matheson was also responsible for the script of THE STRANGER WITHIN and even though it might not have the strong cult following of some of his other popular telefilms such as THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) and TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), it does have its own kind of eerie charm.

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Telefilm Time Machine: Death at Love House (1976)

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It’s time for another installment of Telefilm Time Machine and this month I decided to revisit DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE (1976). This macabre love letter to old Hollywood suffers from the same production problems that plague many made-for-TV movies in the ‘70s but it also has a lot to offer classic film fans. Most of the action takes place on Harold Lloyd’s luxurious Greenacres Estate and it features noteworthy cameos by John Carradine, Dorothy Lamour, Sylvia Sidney and Joan Blondell. Part mystery, part fantasy, part romance and part B-grade horror movie, DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE is a smorgasbord of unrefined delights if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for 74 minutes and enjoy the brisk ride.
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Paradise Lost: Top of the Lake

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Approximately every English-language publication in existence has run an “Is Television Better than the Movies” piece over the past few years. I will bravely buck the whims of headline writers and declare I don’t know why we have to choose. For every Louie or The Wire, there are eight billion CSIs, and a similar ratio holds for the silver screen, as long as your definition of “movies” expands beyond Hollywood. Part of the made-up race to declare TV king involves the influx of big-screen talent to the small,  including David Fincher (House of Cards), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Penance) and  Michael Mann (Luck). The most successful auteur-to-TV transition I’ve seen so far though, is Jane Campion’s in her BBC/Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake, starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss. Now available to stream on Netflix, it’s yet another police procedural, but the mystery is incidental to its exploration of the toll paid by women’s bodies in the hyper-masculine backwoods of Queenstown, New Zealand, where a young girl would prefer to disappear than endure it.

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Telefilm Time Machine – Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)

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Film buffs tend to have obsessions. We fuss and fawn over particular actors and directors while attempting to see everything they ever appeared in or produced. One of my own personal obsessions isn’t an actor or a director but it’s a tale I enjoy seeing reimagined over and over again in different languages and in various settings. That tale is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and I’ve seen it retold in many movies of varying quality but I never get tired of it. One of my favorite adaptations of Frankenstein happens to be the 1973 telefilm FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. This lush production runs more than 3 hours long and features a stellar cast of talented players including Michael Sarrazin, Leonard Whiting, James Mason, David McCallum, Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, Agnes Moorehead, Ralph Richardson, John Gielguld, and Margret Leighton. It was directed by Jack Smight (HARPER, KALEIDOSCOPE, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, DAMNATION ALLEY, etc.) and based on a script written by the acclaimed British author Christopher Isherwood along with his partner Don Bachardy. Isherwood and Bachardy took creative liberties with the source material but their teleplay still managed to retain many of the timeless elements that have made Shelley’s story capable of capturing the imagination of readers like myself for nearly 200 years.

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Telefilm Time Machine: That Certain Summer (1972)

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Just three short years after the Stonewall riots took place in New York ABC made television history when they aired THAT CERTAIN SUMMER (1972), the first gay-themed made-for-TV movie. This landmark telefilm is often left out of discussions about gay cinema but its significance shouldn’t be underestimated. This surprisingly smart and sensitive drama is well worth revisiting for the stand out performances, progressive script and Lamont Johnson’s understated and effective direction.

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