There Was a Little Boy (1993) (TVM)

There Was a Little Boy

Hey! She doesn’t want me! Fifteen years after their baby boy was stolen from their apartment, English teacher Julie (Cybill Shepherd) is expecting her second child with wealthy husband Gregg (John Heard). He has never given up on finding Robbie, she accepts his guilt despite it happening on her watch while she was taking a bath. She is teaching in a downtown high school and finds herself forced to deal with a difficult transfer student Jesse (Scott Bairstow) who appears functionally illiterate but is actually gifted and they form an uneasy connection. His own mother Esperanza (Elaine Kagan) is on welfare and ill with a lung condition and they get by with his thieving from the store. When Julie tries to sell off  Robbie’s baby cot, Gregg objects and finds in the base a necklace with a religious medal attached which doesn’t belong to either of them and which they trace to a local Catholic priest who is now gaga and cannot positively identify the owner. However Jesse’s own actions lead Julie in the right direction to find her long-lost son …  I am your worst nightmare:  a politically incorrect teacher who dares to flunk your ass. Adapted by Wesley Bishop from the novel by Claire R. Jacobs, this operates somewhere between Teacher in the Hood and Maternal Melo, The action scenes are well handled, the irony of Jesse’s identity well flagged (it’s not really the point), the trade-off in guilt between husband and wife completely believable, the acting good, and it’s directed by the admirable Mimi Leder who of course proceeded to make those terrific actioners Deep Impact and The Peacemaker before the wheels came off her cinema career for a long time after Pay It Forward. She returned to the fray late last year with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. Hurray for that. And if that doesn’t suffice, how about all those early 90s chintzy couches. I lost a son and a husband. I won’t let that happen again

A Howling in the Woods (1971) (TVM)

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This adaptation of Gothic romance queen Velda Johnston’s novel heralded the reunion of I Dream of Jeannie‘s Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman. In truth, Hagman has a glorified cameo as her husband whom she’s divorcing. Her arrival in Lake Tahoe is not welcomed – the police follow her when she hits town and stepmom Vera Miles cannot conceal her annoyance when she walks in the door of her former home. New stepbrother John Rubinstein sees her as seducible fodder but something is up since Pop never seems to be around. She takes up residence in a cabin and soon gets the distinct impression she’s in danger and there’s that dog howling in the woods  …This NBC TVM has pedigree – adapted by Richard De Roy, directed by Daniel Petrie, scored by Dave Grusin, whose work would be so significant to so many big screen features in the coming years. It operates almost completely in the suspense mode and is all the better for it, with little relief coming from the welcome arrival of Tyne Daly down the cast. Eden does very well as the woman in jeopardy. Just a shame it’s not properly available in a decent format, like a lot of early 70s TV movies.

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976) (TVM)

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This is the VHS cover of a TVM sequel that scares the bejesus out of me – and with good reason. I’ve never been good with diabolism and the actor Stephen McHattie (who I loved since he played James Dean in the 1976 TVM) seems like he really could be the son of John Cassavetes from the Polanski masterpiece. And this was made the same year, so I guess it was kind of a moment for him, as they say.  Little Andrew as his mom Patty Duke Astin calls him is needed for a ritual but she smuggles him out of NYC and then a madam (Tina Louise) does a deal with the coven to take him herself and Patty gets taken away screaming on a driverless bus… Suddenly Andrew’s all grown up and in constant trouble with Sheriff Broderick Crawford and startled by memories of his parents and Uncle Roman and Aunt Minnie are not too thrilled with his behaviour either:  Ray Milland and particularly Ruth Gordon chew the scenery wonderfully as the devilish old pair who chide him over his lack of responsibility to his pop. Their bickering is the best thing about this. His human pop Guy Woodhouse (George Maharis) has carved out a Hollywood career which now looks like it might slide into oblivion thanks to his ingrate son. Andrew’s new female friend, Ellen (Donna Mills) gets him out of a psych ward – well, isn’t that where you end up if you claim you’re the Son of Satan – and strikes a deal with the Castevets … The devil is in the detail, isn’t he.  Sigh. This is not a worthy follow up to a classic. It was adapted from Ira Levin’s characters by Anthony Wilson who worked on Planet of the Apes and The Night That Panicked America (with Nicholas Meyer) He died two years after this was made. Another point of interest for buffs: this was directed by editor Sam O. Steen, who edited Rosemary’s Baby and he is reunited here with cinematographer John A. Alonzo from their teaming on Chinatown, another great Polanski film. Ah, cinema. Not your average TVM then – at least in terms of the talent!

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) (TVM)

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Old houses are spooky, aren’t they? And mine scared the hell out of me and my guests when I first moved in – with floors settling, wind whistling down the chimneys and the TV going on and off of its own accord …  Sally (Kim Darby) moves into her folks’ old Victorian and it’s not long before she’s pulling open the bricked-up fireplace in the basement which she plans to turn into a study despite the carpenter’s advice to leave well alone. He’s been around a long time and knows things about the place. She carries on and soon there are voices calling to her and creatures visiting her and hubby Alex (Jim Hutton) thinks she’s going crazy.She humiliates herself at a dinner for his business colleagues when a creature materialises under the table but only she can see it:  Alex agrees to sell up. When he returns from a trip to San Francisco the realtor has died falling down the staircase and Kim’s got wire scars on her hands – she says the creatures were holding cord when they tripped him up thinking they were getting her … This is of course the legendary cult TVM that inspired Guillermo del Toro to the point where he rewrote it and produced his own version in 2011.  Written by Nigel McKeand and directed by John Newland with editorial supervision by Gene Fowler Jr. There really are creatures living in the house and they want her.Sally! Sally!

Midnight Offerings (1981) (TVM)

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Witching hour again! And this time it’s a witch-off between Little House on the Prairie‘s Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson) and The Waltons‘ Erin (Mary Beth McDonough), a battle that has an incendiary ending.  Anderson is Vivian Sotherland, the spiteful Mean Girl at Ocean High CA who intimidates male teachers sexually and if they don’t succumb she murders them – we enter as she casts a spell that causes one to crash his car, saving her quarterback boyfriend Dave (Patrick Cassidy) from flunking and thereby keeping him on the team. New (motherless) girl Robin Prentiss  (McDonough) has read about his drunken misdemeanour in the local freebie paper but likes him despite her dad’s objections. They’ve moved from Connecticut following a series of unfortunate events – she has powers too, but no idea how to control them. Vivian can’t read her and starts to attack her dad and Dave and nearly kills Robin in a house fire. Dave is on to her scheme and brings Robin to Emily Moore (Marion Ross, Mom from Happy Days!) to help her ward off evil. Mrs Sotherland (Cathryn Damon) didn’t abort Vivian to stop breeding the 7th daughter of the 7th daughter and blames herself for allowing her to go off the rails so she must intervene before another murder occurs … This is clever, intelligent stuff, as you would expect from long-time Rockford Files writer/producer Juanita Bartlett, responsible for the screenplay. Anderson is very well off-cast in the lead but it’s McDonough who has the more expansive role and she is very good. A newly blonde Kym (Sound of Music‘s Gretl) Karath is the hobbled cheerleader and this is a point of interest – she made her debut in Spencer’s Mountain as a three year old, a film that was the first adaptation of Earl Hamner’s book that of course became … The Waltons. And look fast for Vanna White too. Excellent stuff, thanks to the Horror Channel for resurrecting it. Directed by veteran TV helmer Rod Holcomb.

Something Evil (1972) (TVM)

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Between Duel and Sugarland Express, Steven Spielberg made this TVM, one of those seriously scary event-movies that prove the television audience was made of tougher stuff forty-plus years ago.  Adman Darren McGavin along with artist wife Sandy Dennis and two youngsters, Johnny Whitaker and toddler daughter, relocate from NYC to rural Pennsylvania. She is haunted by curious sounds of children crying in the night – and they’re not hers. At least not in the beginning. Old Jeff Corey kills chickens and spreads their blood around the garden, and neighbour Ralph Bellamy (a reference to Rosemary’s Baby) is the diabolist who warns her she’s in the wrong house. Hubby shoots an ad at the house and two of his colleagues die in a car crash leaving the property. He stays more and more in the city and things go from hellish to hell:  that red goo in the masonry jar is not gelatin and a negative of the ad shows a pair of red eyes peering out from the house during the commercial shoot …  While this shows the budgetary constraints, there are enough tropes in the staging and the imaginative shooting style to exhibit some of the traits we now see clearly in the more lauded work of the enfant terrible, who spent 5 years of his career in TV. Sandy Dennis is great as the woman falling apart and who can even bear to think of little Johnny Whitaker levitating? Bring a cushion – for hiding, duh. Written by Robert Clouse.

Summer of Fear (1978) (TVM)

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Aka Stranger in Our House. You know how your parents preferred an interloper to you when you were growing up – and they took over your bedroom, your stuff, your best friend, your boyfriend, your dad … sheesh, it happens to us all. YA author Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer) took it to another level in this movie’s source novel bringing a bereaved cousin into the frame. Weirdly this TVM was directed by Wes Craven and you really wouldn’t know it: he made it between The Hills Have Eyes and Deadly Blessing. It’s a tale of middle class upset with a serious subtext. The book is straightened out to fit small screen requirements by Glenn Benest and Max Keller so you don’t get the full thrust of horror credentials that the provenance would suggest. The bad acting doesn’t help things with both Blair (fresh off both Exorcists and a drugs bust) and her nemesis Lee Purcell (Big Wednesday and 30 when this was shot!) mercilessly upstaged by sidekick Fran Drescher (yikes, that accent!) in a small role while Jeremy Slate is woeful as the besotted dad. But what a joy to see Macdonald Carey (Shadow of a Doubt and TV’s Days of Our Lives) in the role of the university prof who suspects something awry. Craven allegedly shot this to feel like a Polanski paranoia-fest and the dayglo locations in Hidden Hills just emphasise the comfortable nature of the home invasion by this inbred Ozark freak because aside from the horrible scene with the horse the most frightening thing is Blair’s hair.

Satan’s School for Girls (2000)(TVM)

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In the early 1990s, there were two cool girls:  Winona for the big screen, Shannen for the small screen (and they were both in Heathers!!!!).  Beverly Hills 90210 was an obsession! Brenda! Dylan! Hearts and flowers and heartache. Etc. And years later Aaron Spelling kept Doherty working including on this remake of a much-loved TVM made in 1973 (by himself and Leonard Goldberg, his producing partner) which starred two of his future Charlie’s Angels, Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd. The story is somewhat updated from the original screenplay by Arthur Ross, who had a terrific TV pedigree including 8 episodes of the fabled Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Here it’s Doherty playing the girl who suspects her sister’s death at a New England college is not the suicide the authorities claim so she enrolls there to find she may have died at the hands of a sinister Satanic cult called The Five (was Harlan Coben watching?!). It turns out that her particular magic could give the other cult members the power to take over the world. Bien sur (well, it was shot in Canada as some of the street signs indicate…). In order to lure her into their cabal all Hell literally breaks loose. Doherty was of course one of TV’s Charmed sisters (Prue) and this was made mid-stream those series she was in (she was replaced, eventually). It took me a while to recognise Taraji P. Henson (her eyes are different … ahem). The effects are pretty good but not enough to conceal the skeletal  appearance of Kate Jackson who re-appears as the dean in this version. As with Charmed, and The Craft, there was a spate of witchy movies and TV shows in this era but I’d love to see the original, directed by David Lowell Rich. One can but hope that the Horror Channel might retrieve it one of these dark nights. And hey, it’s Ms Doherty’s birthday tomorrow, 12 April:  Happy Birthday Cool Girl!

 

First Do No Harm (1997) (TVM)

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This isn’t really a TV movie outlet but it’s La Streep and Jim Abrahams directing (quite a change from Airplane!), so, like, whatever. Those weird TV channels sometimes yield gems. And in the bigger sphere of Meryl Streep’s career we know that the 90s were a difficult decade – she started with Postcards from the Edge, did an action movie (River Wild) in the middle and ended with Music of the Heart, for Wes Craven of all people. L is for Lost.   The ‘disease of the week’ TVM has long been a staple of US TV schedules but it was really something for the grande dame of cinema to stoop so low. This is an epilepsy story of a small boy, the youngest of three working class kids in Kansas, who suddenly drops from a series of grands mals and complicating issues such as the father’s job change meaning no insurance for 6 months means he’s stuck in a public hospital with a doctor determined to put him on a variety of drugs whose interactions cause horrifying side effects. When Mom tries to kidnap him to take him to Johns Hopkins, the world famous hospital in Maryland where the ketogenic diet is recommended as an alternative to brain surgery and potential retardation, they threaten to get social services in. This all sounds rather like the British case two years ago when a sick child’s parents wanted him out of the public health system to give him a better chance elsewhere and the parents were arrested in Spain. NHS = Nanny State. In reality, a qualified doctor friend of the family here accompanied her and the child went on what appears to be the Atkin’s Diet for 3 years and has been well ever since. The boy is played by a child actor called Seth Adkins, suitably enough, while Pop is the mighty Fred Ward who I met walking along the street in Dublin outside my office 20 years ago. The bigger question for me is what has happened to the writer, Ann Beckett? She started out on Little House on the Prairie, did a half dozen episodes of watercooler seventies show Rich Man, Poor Man and hasn’t been heard of since.