Friday, July 15, 2022


Like many Gen-X-ers who grew up watching 70s network TV with the family, I am a child of the occult. The TV Movie of the Week on Friday nights, the ABC Tuesday Night Movie, or whenever,  and sometimes NBC, and even other times, CBS, this was our arcane nourishment. The devil, telekinesis, witches and ESP all blasted into our collective ken via the adult box office--Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, and Carrie--and filtered down to the kids through watered-down TV movies and lurid covers for paperbacks we were too young to read yet (though we tried). Ouija boards were sold in toy aisles from Sears to the local 5&10. We pretended crosses would burn us and that we could be telekinetic if we concentrated hard enough. We revered the name of Adrian (used in both The Omen and Rosemary's Baby, Adrian became to default name for Satan's offspring, male or female).  In hindsight, the occult seemed a natural outgrowth of late-60s hippie fashion--post-Manson but pre-Satanic panic--the frocks and robes, the colors, symbols, flowing garments, pagan statues, strange tapestries, drugs, incense and candles--it was all there in the wind. Even my own aunt lived in a commune. I still remember walking through all the beaded curtains as a six year-old kid, seeing all the cats, all the mattresses on the floor, all the long-haired dudes smoking... whatever they were smoking, hearing the weird music and seeing how horrified it made my parents to see it. I loved it. 

That was the 70s, man. Evil wasn't evil unless it was threatened. Don't bully Adrian, or us, and no one dies from floating knives. 

ABC - October 29, 1976

Yea, though I only got to see the first half hour or so, I remember LOOK WHAT'S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY (1976) vividly as it infested my childhood dreams like a pleasurable fever for weeks. And I remember the flak it received the next day at the playground from the kids whose parents let them see clear on to the bitter end. I only saw the first 1/3 and it was amazing. Adrian getting burnt by the cross, what an image. I don't know why that was such a turn-on to my nine year-old brain. I imagined having telekinesis and being allergic to churches for years afterwards. We all did. 

As a grown-up, though, the bad reviews this TV movie has made me stay away for decades. I finally saw it only last week (as I'm in the midst of a 70s TV movie phase) and was in paroxysms of tacky so-bad-it's-sublime joy from beginning to end. I mean, Patty Duke as Rosemary, shouting "Why?! WHY?" to the heavens ala her memorable final scene in Valley of the Dolls? Rosemary hiding out with five year-old Adrian at a run-down Jewish funeral home, shouting at the scattered old mourners to "Pray! Pray! Pray!" while the evil Castavets try and locate her and Adrian with their minds? Rosemary freaking out in a trailer with worry Adrian may have killed two kids, serving him milk with one hand while preparing to knife him with the other? Winding up trapped on a Satanic greyhound with no driver? And that's all just "Book One!"  It's all downhill from here, but what a ride!

Book Two flashes forward ten years or so. as Adrian is now played by Stephen (Pontypool) McHattie, whose wide, curled smile and hooded stare simultaneously evoke Rutger Hauer, Bo Hopkins, and Jonathan Turkel (what a combo). He drives fast, lives at a mansion/casino with his Satanic guardian (Tina Louise), i.e. the devil's den, but has a Christian (angelic) best friend named Peter (David Huffman) who keeps urging him to pray in church instead of lusting after women (there's a definite gay vibe). Most importantly, Peter urges him to flee his corrupting guardian before his big 21st birthday, as if sensing the ceremony in store. For some reason Adrian can wear a cross against his skin now, and he contemplates it like some strung-out Jesus freak (whereas in Book One he was burnt by one - no explanation how he's suddenly immune, then again a lot of stuff goes unexplained here). It's weird that the Christ option would be subversive, but we're in the devil's house--there's gambling!--cute cocktail waitresses, decadent paintings, slot machines (the only evidence of gambling) and rock bands seemingly 24/7. 

Of the original cast, only Ruth Gordon returns, as the sweet old lady Satanist Minnie Castavet; Ray Milland takes over as her husband, Roman; George Maharis takes over from John Cassavetes as Rosemary's no-good (now ex-) husband Guy, who is now a big star in LA. He's told by the Castavets he better come to the casino for Adrian's birthday, as he is needed for a big ceremony, which will either initiate a full possession from his father the devil and/or they will sacrifice him, and then his body will be inhabited by the devil. Or something. Like a lot of this movie, details seem vague and contradictory. 

Well, even if it's never very clear but who cares? I love that Milland and Gordon are dressed like, and for the most part behaving like, ordinary elderly tourists coming to visit Guy in LA, then trekking out to the casino like retirees to Vegas. I love that while Adrian's Satanic ceremony goes on in one room in the casino, right through the door there is a band rocking out and assorted young people dancing, oblivious, as if it's nothing more than a craps game. The association is that rock music is evil, that the devil is seeming to draw power from it. These old folks are, in short, cool/. Roman even tokes a joint (he has to "stay with the times")! 

Throughout the three "books" the set and setting is always unique, strange, not quite right, as if the art direction was done by a fundamentalist Christian schizophrenic after six rewrites. For example, it's jarring to see Adrian argue with his guardian and/or Roman in the other room at a weird Satanic initiation then leave and walk right back into the casino/bar (basically a typical TV bar/restaurant set, but adorned with big unmanned slot machines), full of guests and/or gamblers, where his Christian boyfriend sulks at the bar and keeps pushing him to leave. You would think for something this important the Satanists would at least like to study the guest list. The best they can do to get rid of this white-wearing buzzkill (he "flunked out of divinity school") is have him be attacked by a falcon in his car (falcons were very 'in' at the time). But that's not a debit. I like the feeling of disassociation, as it's very dream-like.  Though the circulating print is muddy as heck, the Book One scenes of Rosemary dragging Adrian down dark, deserted, windy, lightning-choked city streets has a surreal, almost Argento-esque nightmare interiority. There is never the feeling we're in any definable reality, especially when nearly everyone Adrian runs into, aside from Peter and his mother, seem 'in on it.' Who is this weird Christian Adrian is hanging out with, and why do Rosemary and Adrian run without thinking twice into the trailer of Tina Louise in Act One? Why would she suddenly trust a complete stranger? In Book One, why does child Adrian take to the street at Roman's telepathic command, only shout his own name to the heavens? Did the writers forget his name (since Rosemary prefers to call him "Andrew"?) What's the deal with Rosemary's obsession with giving Adrian milk? First Rosemary tells a lady on the bus he doesn't like it, then in the trailer she's forcing him to drink some from Louise's fridge, getting ready to stab him with her other hand at the same time. Was there an early draft where they'd know he was evil if he refused to drink it? And why does Rosemary freak out so much over whether Adrian killed someone? I mean she freaks out, as if his taking a life would somehow damn the good side of him. But who cares, really? If you can love the bad writing and if you don't expect it to measure up remotely close to the original, you can fall into a swoon at the sublime mess that is. I mean, you've got Patty Duke threatening to kill Adrian over the phone, and with a vicious insanity in her voice where you know she means it. Duke goes for broke. Nearly every line is delivered at pich-perfect overwrought hysteria. 

The 21st birthday party/ceremony is the real showstopper--and your reaction to it will indicate whether you like this movie as much as I do. In order to prepare Adrian for his magical rock and roll birthday initiation/possession, the Satanists first drug him, then lay him out on the dining room table, and paint him up like a glam rock mime. I kid you not, right down to the white face, red cheeks and lashes.  Once this is done, McHattie does a ridiculous kind of 'stick puppet with loose strings' mime performance (indicating the devil not being used to moving around in a human body, one presumes) before sashaying out of the room and into the dancer-packed other room, where the band is getting down and dirty. ("Let him go to the music," counsels Roman). In a cool tracking shot, Adrian dances his way through the throng and up to the stage where he stars blankly out at the crowd and does a weird little two step rock shuffle (believe it or not, McHattie actually lends his spastic dancing scene a certain level of pouty Jim Morrison meets beatnik Frank Gorshin cool). 

The Christian boyfriend, meanwhile, sensing what's going on, in a kind of Footloose-prefiguring moment, tries to unplug the amps and stop the party! Stop the music! The sight of this white clad idiot freaking out and trying to save Adrian's soul by running up, unplugging the amps and telling everyone to stop dancin is so deadpan ridiculous it has to be meant tongue-in-cheek, like some Jack Chick tract enacted by the Anton LaVey players. The music keeps going, even without the cords, and Peter is ushered outside, where he's electrocuted by Guy and ends up being thrown against the window like a lit-up Christmas angel on the electric cross, right where Adrian is doing his devil strut/dance! Adrian-- made-up like a glam rock mime, and succumbing to the devil's music--gazing at his friend plastered against the window, all lit up like a tacky electric Jesus (see top). What a moment! I jumped out of my easy chair and started singing Satan's praises.  

 Book Three finds Adrian in an insane asylum with amnesia (and blamed for Peter's death). A cute doctor/nurse (Donna Mills) looks after him. He's got fragmented memories of who he is, and has some idea he can work some mystic powers if he escapes, but the place--run by the cult--is locked up tight. Or so it seems. It's pretty easy to escape with Mills' nurse's help, though, in fact we go right from her agreeing to help to them driving away and eventually hooking up in a hotel tryst.  Meanwhile the forces of Roman and Guy are converging. They either want Roman's soul or his body or something and it leads to a rather anticlimactic motel parking lot hit and run. Or does it?

If you come to this mess looking for a legit sequel there's no doubt you'll roll your eyes early and often. Come to it expecting a hilarious WTF extravaganza, and be delighted for all eternity.  Sure, the writing is inconsistent and fractured. Sure, we never learn a lot of missing pieces. Then again, that was part of the uncanny aspect of the original. There we only ever saw things from Rosemary's point of view and as kids we understood very little of it --other than that old people are creepy and we shouldn't trust them. The deals and so forth were all done behind her back so everything was inferred (and on TV, no doubt, the dream/ceremony/rape was severely cut). As kids we didn't like Rosemary's Baby --it was too slow and adult. We didn't get it.  Now that we're adults we get it, yet we we can look at Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby and feel like a kid again, i.e. not getting it, even while there's nothing there to get. We're mature, but sometimes that's a curse all its own. 

McHattie as Adrian (note subliminal devil horns)

ABC - January 14, 1975

Satan's got a triangle / so big and so wide (at the hypotenuse). A lot of Gen-X TV movie bloggers were awakened to the 'call' of film criticism when this film scared the hell out of them as kids. Kindertrauma's Unkle Lancifer for example relates a very vivid and relatable tale of how screwed up it made his sleep patterns for months (here). Me, I never saw it in its original airing that I know of. Since I was only eight I probably had to go to bed before the ending even if I did, and without the ending it all kind of just goes nowhere a kid might willingly follow. In fact, the first twenty minutes of the film consists solely of watching two Coast Guard pilots (Doug McClure and Michael "Let's be careful out there!" Conrad) circling over a floundering yacht and then lowering McClure down in a little basket as the sound of the chopper blades soothes and lulls any boy who would have been me, and the whole thing has a laid-back kind of procedurally organic flow that modern movies would never have the patience to detail today. But that was what made the 70s cool: McClure and Conrad are actually up in this chopper, for real, and someone, either McClure or a stunt man, really is being lowered in that basket. Today of course it would all be done with a green screen, doubtful there'd even be a real helicopter. This ain't today.

Eventually, after surveying the corpses scattered about on deck and below (one of which appears to be floating), McClure heads down to the main cabin and swills some rum with the one survivor (Kim Novak!), the dazed mistress of a now-deceased millionaire sportsman and the sole survivor of this ill-fated deep sea fishing excursion. What is the incredible story of how this all happened? An approaching front necessitates the chopper depart until the next morning. McClure sleeps over on the craft so Novak (there's freaky things going on with the chopper engines) so she will have some time to tell the tale, and let nature, booze, mirrors, Dutch angles, mirrors, and the seducing sound of the waves work their magic in the process.

Bermuda triangle mystery movies with ghost ships and one survivor to tell the tale in flashback were a dime a dozen in the 70s, but here it's the cast and the moodiness that make it one of the more memorable TV movies of the whole era. It's got everything -- casual sex, thunder storms, electrical failures, salty seawater splashing onto the camera lens, booze, a marlin, a seductive and very adult mood (horror movies were still aimed at adults), and a series of strange macabre 'accidents' and a hot priest.  I like that the interior of the yacht looks like an occult book store and that Novak pours booze like a man and wears a vaguely witchy purple Von Furstenberg-style peasant dress (with a cross necklace). Her flashbacks to the sportsman (Jim Davis) and find him angry at having to give up a hooked marlin to rescue a priest (Alejandro Rey) drifting out at sea in the distance. He's very competitive. Dios mio! The sailors insist they pick the man up but almost immediately regret it ("from the moment he came aboard," notes Novak, "a strange lightning started"). Soon they're lost "a hundred miles from anywhere, stuck in this horrible place they called the Triangle, no crew, no radio, the engine wasn't even working..." And all because a priest? Dios mio.

The crew abandon ship. The rest of those aboard die one-by-one until just the priest and Novak are left. She makes a play for him, but he clings to his moldy faith. He's tempted, or is he just interested in her soul?  Either/or, soon he's dead, when deciding he needs both hands to shoot a flare gun from high on the mizzenmast (he must not have heard you can just point and fire from the deck). 

What a tale! It's never clear why you have to cut fish loose when rescuing priests, but Doug mansplains all the other freaky occurrences and deaths as merely the result of storms and bad luck. He also proves he is no priest. This was the 70s after all, where sex was something consenting adults might do together after a few drinks on a boat, and no professional impropriety or awkwardness after (i.e. the encouraged crew-passenger trysts on The Love Boat). 

Though never dull--even that 20 minute opening chopper circling--it's a nice slow burn for a truly nightmarish pay-off that would have scared the dickens out of me as a kid just as bad as it scared Unkle Lancifer had I been allowed to stay up late enough to see it. Good sportsmanship prevents me from revealing the disturbing secret. I can tell you that there's a cool weird kind of seductive spell going on even in the more placid moments, and it's all really shot out at sea, at least the exterior stuff is, and even in the cabin sequences you can feel the boat rocking.  That final image: those eyes and that smile, linger in the mind forever. Just know this: if there is a devil, he's got a triangle all his own. And you'd do best to not to go there, even with Kim Novak still looking sultry and bewitching even in 1975.

CBS - November 21, 1972

No one comes to prime time TV movies for the climate. To save money, the sand-blasted scrub of LA (Bronson Canyon in particular) becomes the setting for 90% of the exteriors shown on prime time, especially in the 70s. Gargoyles is no exception, except in the way it uses the desert as a site of sand-blasted timeless weirdness where reptile-like bird demons might come flying in to set fire to your shack any time of the night.  Though 90% of 70s occult TV movies have some precedent at the box office (i.e. The Exorcist or Carrie), Gargoyles is totally unique unto itself. The fractured narrative, strong characterizations, unusual father/grown daughter central relationship, wordy monsters (the lead one especially loves to pontificate), a ridiculous climax, and a fast, kinetic action movie-style pacing. 

If you've driven ever, way out in the middle of a desolate desert in the hot of the afternoon, without another car in sight for hours, and you just know that heat exhaustion and dehydration could set in long before another car drives by if your car breaks down. In such a place lives 'Uncle Willie' (Woodrow Chambliss) an old drinking man who keeps a strange horned humanoid skeleton he pieced together out in the wilderness in his garage. Cornel Naked Prey Wilde stars as the toupee-wearing dad who travels with his grown daughter (Jennifer Sisters Salt) all the way to Uncle Willie's shack to see it. That same night, while they pass around the bottle, the living versions sweep in to claw through the old coot's corrugated shack, climbing over Dr. Mercer's car as he and Diana try to escape, starting a massive fire and chasing them to a nearby small desert town, trying to retrieve the skull of their ancestor which has been swiped by the Wilde on the way out. See.. to make it valid, Wilde needs evidence, a habeas corpus, and the gargoyles don't like to leave their dead behind. You won't know how to root for as the dad risks his life and his daughter's by refusing to part with his gargoyle memento mori. Eventually the head gargoyle (Bernie Casey) whisks Diana off to the secret gargoyle cave (Bronson, I presume) in response, and demands she teach him to read. Cue backstory!

Bernie Casey as the head gargoyle
 Even if the gargoyle suits (early work by future legend Stan Winston) aren't terribly convincing (one looks a bit like Sam the Eagle from The Muppets), each one is different and they are fun in a strange sort of way. It would have worked better had they been able to stay in the shadows, building up mystique, but there's no time. Within minutes of passing the bottle back to Uncle Willie we're zipping along in the momentum of, say, The Terminator or Jeepers Creepers (which is also about a winged demon creature who only hatches periodically, like a cicada, and who pursues a male-female pair across the middle of nowhere while vividly-etched locals gape wild-eyed and soon start dying while to help). 

And the cast! Grayson ("Don't make me take steps, Mr. Shannon!") Hall is great as the boozy motel manager knows right where the sheriff keeps his whiskey bottle and grabs a belt after running into his office before relaying her shocking story (gargoyles trash her place trying to get their bodies back). Scott The Right Stuff Glenn is a cool, helpful biker (his laconic Gary Cooper-meets-Kevin Costner sex appeal is pretty undeniable even in this early role). His gang joins the search to rescue Diana along with the sheriff and a few deputies on horseback for the big climactic battle that evokes, in more ways than one, a western white man vs. Native American battle. Pretty crazy stuff, all in all, with the LA desert doing its magic work as far as creating a sunbleached sense of desolation and post-macho self-reliance  Apparently temperatures out there topped 100 degrees during the shoot, which makes those poor stuntmen in those heavy suits all the more heroic.  

I don't remember Gargoyles' initial airing (I was only five) but I did catch it on an early Saturday morning creature feature UHF channel a few years later. I remember being confused by the dialogue (the lead gargoyle talked way too much) and unimpressed by the monster suits (especially the ridiculous unflapping bat wings that somehow manage to lift these heavy characters off the ground). Maybe my expectations were too high (I'd heard it was sooo scary). And--for better or worse--the mythology and orientation of these creatures doesn't add up: how can they lay such giant eggs when they're normal human-sized? Are they the good guys --oppressed and attacked for no reason by humans throughout the centuries?--or bad (their big plan is to multiply exponentially and wipe out humans as the dominant race on the planet)? We're supposed to feel warmth when a child gargoyle hatches and is welcomed into the arms of its parent, but then root for Scott Glenn to burn them all alive? I didn't get it. 

Now, all grown up in the age of CGI, I'm much more forgiving of such ambivalence and conflicted emotion. Especially now that it's all restored in HD it's much more inviting (I like the red gels in the caves in particular, see above), and that the gargoyles are neither all good or all bad, as emblematic of the complexities of our natural and unnatural order as the 70s can make it. Maybe we'll never get that regain the decade's laid-back and (some might say recklessly) unsupervised sense of wild-child innocence but, thanks to the internet, we can always knock a few back with Grayson Hall, gaze longingly into Glenn's brown eyes, and cheer the posse of bikers, cops, and bewildered locals as they ride off into the hellish 100 degree heat, all in the name wiping out a small tribe of disenfranchised outcasts with nothing more than a half-can of gasoline and a whole mess of divide-crossing gumption. 


Dir. Curtis Harrington
ABC - Feb 26, 1974

"How harmless are our little bees."

In case you were born in a barn, Curtis Harrington is one of the guiding lights of the 'old battleaxe' post-Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? horror genre, giving work to dozens of older stars throughout the 70s in TV and big screen films reference and revere the Hollywood classics (especially Hitchcock's) while lighting them up with hothouse soap histrionics, ala Lillian Hellman or Tennessee Williams. Everything is never all that it seems with Harrington. Sometimes he can get downright ridiculous (as in Devil Dog: Hound of Hell) but he can also approach the cultist sublime (The Cat Creature). Here we're supposed to get a typical 70s killer bee attack movie (ala The Savage Bees and Terror from the Sky), but instead we get the tale of a matriarchal-ruled family winery, with Gloria Swanson (the part was written for Bette Davis but her doctor vetoed it- we can dream) as the hammy Boer immigrant matriarch (her ill-advised Nordic-sounding accent really shows up her limitations as a sound-era actress) who sees that their vine's tender grapes--brought over from South Africa by her own ancestors--are well-fertilized by her own stock of African (i.e. killer) bees. No one who messes with Swanson or her dynasty is safe from her unconsciously-orchestrated bee attack, nor is anyone who even witnesses something they shouldn't (like bees). But what can the suspicious sheriff do, arrest the bees? And now her prodigal grandson (Edward Albert) is visiting with his new girlfriend (Kate Jackson), and Swanson feels quite threatened again! Part Jessica Tandy in The Birds (only with bees) and part Morbius in Forbidden Planet with his monster from the Id, Swanson is not the type you'd want as a grandma-in-law. She's very possessive of her boys and clearly doesn't see the need for them to reproduce on their own. 

That said, Kate isn't going anywhere and kudos to Jackson and Harrington that her character is never quite 100% trustworthy despite Kate pouring on that signature warmth. In the Harrington-verse, every woman has a killer inside her--even Kate Jackson--has a gold-digging sociopath as well as a warm-hearted angel inside her.  Not cowed at all by the threats and coldness in the air, she tells Swanson her pilot father taught her "how to maneuver around in tight places" and basically shocks her into having a heart attack during one of their tete-a-tetes. Soon Swanson is dead and when Kate presumes she was killed by the bees that covered her body the boys all laugh and we hear their laughing echo in Jackson's paranoid ears. And at the end, well, we're not really sure who Kate Jackson's character is at all. And it's clear from these boys' attitude just how relieved yet flummoxed they are by their sudden freedom from their domineering matriarch. Only what of the bees? What will they do now? 

No spoilers but it all leads to a truly surprising great ending that steers this particular killer bee TV movie far afield from the traditional eco-horror/disaster movie variety and more towards something like The Godfather or Now, Voyager. With his keen camp sensibility, Harrington is just using the public's then-pervasive fear of a killer bee invasion as a jumping off point, to make a chamber piece about family and trying to become an in-law, but with bees in it. And if you've felt, as I have, that The Birds should have ended without news reports that the birds were attacking everywhere, taking the matriarchal 'monsters from the id' angle out of the equation in the process, then you'll love Harrington puts that angle right back in.  These bees aren't multiplying and running amok across the country. In fact they're not going anywhere. And to survive all you have to do is stand very still and not bat around the air in a panic. As her funeral ends in a massive bee attack (a great moment has an altar boy swatting at a bee on a funerary bouquet with his big golden cross) the three brothers just wait until everyone else has run off and just walk casually out of the church, talking like nothing happened.  

With dialogue written and spoken in a very tight pattern of back and forth, kind of Mamet-like, this quick-moving film offers very little in the way of empty small talk--nearly every line has multiple meanings--helping deliver the movie over many of the usual boggy bumps that often reduce soapy TV movies with rich bitch dynasties down to one small murder or haunting before each commercial followed by more denial and gaslighting in between (with boggy sheriffs and endless puttering). This one moves so fast it seems like a short. I would have loved a sequel! (Dear Studios, please remaster and release this movie so it's not just a YouTube smudge, which is currently the only way to see it - Amen)

Hurrah, say I, for Curtis Harrington, the Tennessee Williams of 70s TVM horror!


To find all these movies and more online, visit my specially curated YouTube List: 70s TV Movies of Death!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...