It may be wrong but just wait until you see a handsome young pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford playing a girl's school biology teacher having an affair with with Wheezy (Ann Dusenberry- above) a foxy female senior. Not only that, he previously had an affair with the headmistress, Louise (Joan Hackett). To his credit, Ford plays him not as a slimy creep, just a normal guy who/s both a good biology teacher whose eye for the ladies ("you're so foxy," he tells Wheezy. Ffoxy' was the ultimate compliment in the 70s) has complicated his life to the point he's planning on transferring to an all-boy's school at the end of the term. Standing at his chalk board, young and handsome in his professorial sport jacket, you may be reminded of a very similar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which also had him chalking the board as young female students swooned behind "I love you" eyelids. But this Ford isn't playing a third world-looting "hero" who just awkwardly looks away. Instead, he's a looker in both sense of the word, a relatively nice easily led-astray man headed to a date with spontaneous human combustion.
Largely forgotten today, in the 70s the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion used to be right up there with the Bermuda triangle, Bigfoot, pyramid power, demonic possession, telekinesis, and ESP. One of these girls or teachers has been starting fires all over the school with her unconscious mind (maybe she's not even aware she's doing it), or there's a free-floating demon lurking around and it likes to start random fires. Or--as Louise insists with increasing desperation--it's all just a series of coincidences. Enter a priest struggling with his faith sent by God to exorcise the firebug demon out of whomever has been... Possessed.
Welcome to the 70s TV movie, where gore was out while sex--even between students and teachers--was OK since censors kept you from actually seeing it, thus maintaining its innocence (1). You can't get much more 70s TV movie than Wheezy flirting with pre-Han Solo after school or riding her bike around the hallway with impunity since her mom is also a teacher, all without being a bitch, or overly nice, or a victim. She's just real, and trying to get out of a burning dorm room but the door is mysteriously locked.
Of course there still has to be an Exorcis-m and that means a priest struggling with his faith, pea soup vomit, blackened teeth, demonic mocking laughter, and mothers at the ends of their emotional ropes. But the fire thing is unique, as is the female ensemble acting, which before it devolves into Exorcist territory, is downright Cukorian in its naturalistic rapport and clever, overlapping dialogue (was some of it improv'd?), evoking Stage Door and The Women only more naturalistic. Even the co-starring students (look fast for PJ Soles!) are believably wrought, never shrill or cliche'd even when the material around them begins to line up in the Exorcist clone zone. Hackett and her sister (and Wheezy's mom) and fellow teacher Charlotte Nevins especially share such lived-in rapport you wish they would just keep their scenes going and forget about the ex-priest angle. They and the girls all live in the dorms or nearby so there's plenty of time for padding around the darkened hallways on stocking feet, intimate whispering in empty classrooms, the cinematography a brilliant shade of Godfather gloomy...
Ford's death plus the fires in the chapel that burned the popular girl, and the fires in various dorm rooms, add up to something the shellshocked Louise can no longer explain as coincidence. Enter James Farentino as a Jason Miller-y ex-priest / recovering alcoholic who's back from the grave to fight evil! (Farentino would have fought a new demon every week, if this was a hit and picked up as a series) and Eugene Roche as a Lee J. Cobby-detective lurking in the wings, still looking for a human culprit.
The men arrive and then what? The loads of fire effects seem to be enough until the Exorcist-ripping climax, so what else is on this movie's mind, besides casting a kind of gloom and doom over a bunch of women until a male authority figure comes to rescue them?
Another notable thing about 70s TV movies: they were by and large, aimed at mature adults of both genders, so even horror movies found plenty of time for rocky marriages, dangerously attractive single men, ambivalence about child rearing, and nervous breakdowns, the kind of thing that don't exist on TV today, not even on Lifetime. Parents are now either saints, absentee, or abusers. Adult sexual relationships have devolved into foreplay-skipping smash cut rutting sessions followed by alienation (IFC, FX, AMC) dangerous obsession (i.e. Lifetime) , or shameless 'feels'-mining (This is Us). Horror is dominated by frazzled cops or high school or college students, generally all falling into cliches. But in the 70s, especially in TV movies, relationships are mature without need to start shilling about their Emmy-worthiness to Variety. Maybe it's true that the constant lessening of censorship has fostered constant lessening of maturity and sophistication. Today a movie like The Possessed would ease up on the female bonding and crisis management, vilify Ford to the point of caricature, and pour on the blood, screaming, and CGI, all while Farentino mansplains and shouts and waves his cross vigorously. The Possessed by contrast, doesn't judge anyone; it's too busy fleshing out a bunch Bechdel-scoring female educators and well-meaning students doing lots of slow emotional base-touching via measured, unhurried scenes. Hackett especially gets whole chunks of the film to run the emotional gamut. In one memorable monologue she moves from denial to fear to reversion to childhood, to even hitting on Farentino, all perfectly modulated, dramatic without being (overly) soapy or theatrical.
Farentino meanwhile just stands there, blankly bearing witness to these monologuists like a standing shrink. His sad eyes and baleful stare indicate these girls better take evil seriously and believe everything he says, even if he hasn't said anything. Maybe he understands that the role of a patriarchal authority figure is often just to stand there and look like you know what you're doing, ideally without saying anything (since you don't) or doing much at all. In grand female demographic-courting fantasy, the women of The Possessed are here to talk and the men are here to patiently listen, without interrupting, and then do their damn job without mansplaining beyond the cryptic notion that "evil doesn't need a reason." I also like that he's a recovering drunk and confesses he was disciplined for "lusting" in the past. He's complicated, more by human weakness than spiritual doubt. It's not really enough, of course, to differentiate him from Father Karras and all the others, but it helps.
Alas, aside from all that, The Possessed really has no idea what to do aside from the firestarting for its grand exorcising climax. Squaring off with the demon, poolside, while the gaggle of girls and teachers look on aghast, Farentino seems frozen in impassivity, giving the demon that same baleful stare with which he's been looking at everyone else. The demon just laughs, and makes mocking noises. Occasionally Farentino feebly waves a cross or the demon projectile vomits the traditional split pea soup in his face like an old clown siphon gag. But whole minutes, of just impassive staring on one end, and demonic laughing on the other, seem to tick by before the writers can think up a hasty resolution. (Spoiler alert only in the 70s could a big hug followed a jump in the pool defeat evil).
It's worth noting the similarities between this and Satan's School for Girls (from over at ABC, four years earlier) are just as obvious as the similarities to The Exorcist. Possessed's all-girl school is in "Salem Oregon" while the Satan's is set in "The Salem Academy for Women." In each the headmistress cracks under the strain of all the deaths and 'accidents' and reverts to childhood. I'm sure there's more. But what sets them apart is the level of patriarchal presence and 'this is serious' moodiness. The Possessed's students emote to beat the band, freaking out and melting down while the priest and the cop try to re-establish patriarchal hierarchy (their version of 'order) thus draining the school of all the vivacious life it had before the fires started. Satan's students and faculty don't mope or snivel and there's nary a parent, priest or a cop to be found (aside from a few early scenes). Satan's girls have no time for dour patriarchal officiating, faith-doubting, standing around, or melting down, they have a wine party to go to, thrown by a cool art teacher who says they should "condemn nothing; embrace everything." And they do. There's no hint of a Ford-style affair going on with Roy Thinnes' hip art teacher but there doesn't need to be. It wouldn't be condemned if it did, so it doesn't carry any emotional heft. He can throw a wine party for the students and faculty, and no one bats an eye.
That's why I love Satan's School for Girls, but I only like The Possessed you know, as a friend. The type of friend you like but whose dorm room but don't want to hang out with, not when there's a you-know-what down the hall.
|The clear winner is....|
Another cracked gem from Curtis! This is, as you might guess, about a woman with a red hourglass birthmark above her bikini line who kills men and drains their precious bodily fluids. The question is on everyone's mind when approaching a film like this is: just how spidery is she? Is she just a metaphorical black widow, ala that 1987 Deborah Winger movie, or is she actually a giant spider, like in the work of Louise Bourgeoise, or does she have a girl's head on a giant spider body, ala the end of the original The Fly, or is she the reverse, a normal girl with a spider mask on, like Susan Cabot in The Wasp Woman?
It could be any one of the four, or even them all, you have to se the whole movie to find out, and it's worth it! Even with James Franciosa as a private detective.
See, Franciosa witnessed the fiancee of Donna Mills leave a bar with a strange female, and now her fiancee is dead, and gruff homicide detective Vic Morrow suspects her since her father died in a similar fashion. Franciosa quickly finds himself confronted with the supernatural, and an uncooperative trying to downplay it. Franciosa should really take notes since he seems to have trouble toning down his smarmy energy for TV. Luckily he gets help on both fronts from Roz Kelly (i.e. Pinky Tuscadero!) as his New Yawk accent secretary who has to do most of his deducing, and she should be the star as she plays off and contextualizes Franciosa's downtown schtick. She should be the star! Also, Patty Duke, who shows up as Mills' fraternal twin sister and when Duke is around you better stand back and let the woman work. Instead we get Franciosa bouncing through the usual parade of strange, familiar characters. There's Sid Caesar, Max "Wojo" Gail, Bryan O'Byrne, Hard Boiled Haggerty as a boxer (naturally the clue trail leads him to a boxing gym). Finally he winds up covered in tarantulas and dust until rescued by Jeff Corey as some kind of shaman, spooning out an old Native American legend that says a girl who survives the bite of a black widow spider, can turn into a spider every full moon to kill men and drain their blood--a Cat People + werewolf + vampire + spider fusion.
Can the killer be her sister (Duke), the crazy mother (June Lockhart) they keep hidden away, or the sinister housekeeper (June Allyson) who eyes both girls with trepidation? OR -is there another Lockwood hidden in the attic? When Donna Mills rescues a tarantula and affectionately releases it on the beach, Franciosa suspects even she might be Valerie and not know it. (As Roz says, "you ever seen Three Faces of Eve?"), Meanwhile, the killings continue, and the full moon has one more night.
Donna, Roz, June, June, and Patty Duke are all great, showing their master ham status. Really, I wish we spent more time with them (especially my favorite over-actress, Patty Duke) than following 'excited terrier who thinks he's a cool cat' Franciosa around the usual gumshoed track.
No offense meant to Anthony Franciosa, by the way. When he's cast in a more ambiguous role, i.e. a in Dario Argento's Tenebre or The Long Hot Summer he's just right, and he proved he could even be the calm as he was in Tennessee Williams' Period of Adjustment, where the unbearable ham was Jim Hutton). But when he tries to cozy up to Mills, he has the suave subtlety of a greyhound bus. On the plus side, he also brings the NYC method to bear, shading in subtle changes of character as he goes from rationalist skepticism to credulity and belief in the supernatural, with in-between stages usually glossed right over by more traditionally trained hams.
Love Franciosa or hate him, or just kind of tolerate him, Curse of the Black Widow is still worth checking out. The women are all very fetching in their wide leg pants' suits and turtleneck sport coat combinations (mid-70s autumnal, my favorite look/era/season). And Roz is believably downtown and hip in ways Franciosa only dreams of. And there are other distinctly-70s motifs: as Andrew Pragasam points out how often Valerie's sexual come-ons are rebuffed by the men she pursues, antithetically reflecting the permissiveness of the era (men could actually say no to fooling around, a rarity in movies of today).
I'm also happy to say that once she reveals herself in full, the "widow" does not disappoint. The climactic battle is longer and more vividly choreographed than usual for these entries (even if it ends the same way as 90% of TV monster movies) and the final shot of the coda brings it all back to our beloved Spider Baby. So if you love that movie, as well as Mesa of Lost Women, A Chine Odyssey Part 1, Kiss of the Tarantula, Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman, and Arañas infernales (and if you don't, you got an appalling lack of mental problems) get set for 100 minutes of spidery action (a two-hour time slot!) that no amount of method smarminess can't squash.
I am sure I must have seen this in its original broadcast, or wanted to (maybe it ran against football, which my dad automatically pre-empted the evening roster for, to all our chagrin). Nothing great but a nice relaxing journey to take for fans of snowy Colorado peaks and bloody monster havoc (a snowy white bigfoot, though no one uses the Y-word) Since it's post-1975, there's no origin story about why the monster has picked this time and place for a killing spree (since Jaws didn't have one) or attempt to humanize him (like Bruce in Jaws, he's a mindless rampaging monster).
However, just like every post-Exorcist demonic horror film had a a priest struggling with his faith, post-Jaws monster films had to have a mayor or lodge owner more worried about losing the tourist trade than their lives. In place of slimy Amity mayor Murray Hamilton, Snowbeast has Sylvia Sydney as the owner of the mountain ski resort, tish-toshing her concerned 'heard the howling / seen the tracks' manager grandson (Robert Logan). Sydney brings a warm smoker's warmth to the role that makes her decisions seem far less cardboard slimy than Hamilton's, and there's another woman in the cast as well! The still-foxy Yvette Mimieux shows up at the lodge with her downhill racing gold medalist (now unemployed) husband Bo Svenson, so he can hit old buddy Logan for a job (but will Logan hold a grudge since Bo stole Yvette from him?). Sheriff and gravelly macho man Clint Walker (where hath the Clint Walkers of the world gone?) rounds up the central cast in more or less the Robert Shaw role. After more slaughter piles up, Logan is determined than ever to close the beaches, I mean the slopes. But the beast needs to smash his hairy hand through a gym window and grab a girl's hair right in front of her Sylvia's glassy saucer eyes before she finally agrees there's a serious issue. Luckily that happens fast.
You bet it's written by an auto-piloted Joe Psycho Stefano!
The miracle of 70s TVMs like Snowbeast is that the pace is so relaxed that it all seems natural and friendly, even as it runs through its plot on double time so it can be all over in 75 minutes. There's no gore or nudity but no time to waste on dull filler, i.e. the hand through the window, in front of numerous witnesses, spares us at least three scenes of Sydney stubbornly refusing to admit there's an issue, and Clint trying to pin it all on a passing hobo or something. We also get to skip three scenes of romantic misunderstanding and jealousy when Bo walks into a diner right in time to see Logan and Mimieux in a friendly kiss (after agreeing to be friends). It's a trite coincidence all but inescapable in soapy films, but surprise! The two men make eye contact and Bo just gives him a faux-angry look. They're buddies and he's not the last bit genuinely suspicious, again helping 'X' out three pages of trite emotion so we can get to the good stuff. It's little things that, setting up a cliche only to then duck around it at the last minute, finding a shortcut to the next big mauling, leaving us feeling most relieved.
The result, 74 minutes (most all TVMs were made to fit in a 90 minute time slot) of solid 70s TV monster movie, nothing special, but good just the same. If you can't have Christopher George as your sheriff, Clint Walker is your next best choice. That said, you might roll your eyes when Logan, Svenson, Walker and a still-foxy Mimieux all head out into the monster's turf (the 'aboard the Orca' section of the film, in Jaws-speak), set up a perimeter, standing guard all night around their truck, pump action shotguns at the ready, only to drop them and run into the mountains the moment they see the 'snowbeast' charging down hill towards them. They don't even squeeze off a single round! What's worse, they don't even comment on it amongst themselves once they stop their panicked bolting. I mean no one even mentions that they all had working guns and just dropped them at the first sign of the thing they came there to shoot. It's a bizarre and unsatisfying moment. I mean, their fingers were literally on the triggers! Instead all three drop their rifles, run up the snowy mountain, and left Clint Walker-- pinned under the truck-- to die.
It's pretty shady, or maybe bad writing, or they worried it would be anticlimactic to have the beast just get blasted to ribbons before the boat even has time to sink, to paraphrase Jaws terminology.
Oh well, that was the 70s TVM too: actual human emotions and reactions. It all might strike us as odd today, when actual human emotions and reactions are artificially amplified or censored to appeal to splintered demographics. Like the difference between the original Night of the Living Dead--in all its crude improvisational glory--and something overly produced and artificial like the Resident Evil series.
I guess, in the end that's why some of us keep coming back to these 70s monster TVMs. We can't get this level of maturity and easygoing open-hearted laid back realism in horror movies made today (or even the 80s for that matter) and we can't get action scenes where people are actually doing action, which means they shoot but can miss, they have guns but might run and drop them in a panic, they might panic in the face of danger, or avoid it altogether. It's like the difference between a guy playing acoustic guitar on the street, who occasionally drops a note or misses a lyric vs. a guy pressing a button on his Casio and playing a perfect, pre-recorded synth melody. Both have their place, but only one feels like home.
So many of these 70s TV movies have women in the main role that when a film is all men in the cast, it's quite a special event. Here an all-male construction crew are the only population of a small uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere, working on clearing some space for a hotel--you know, doing excavation with a massive crane, a portable generator and.... oh yeah, a bulldozer that makes the mistake of breaking open a large mysterious rock, possibly a meteor that came to earth millions of years ago. Hmmm, whatever was in that rock is represented by a ghostly glowing blue light-- has jumped ship, like an electrical spark that moves out of the rock and into the shovel. With its descriptive says-it-all title, you can imagine what happens next. Their entire camp gets bulldozed into a wasteland ---radio, food, weapons, sleeping bags, workers, booze (luckily not all of it)--
Hmmm - an all-male cast trapped in a remote place, with no means of egress or way to reach the outside world, up against a faceless alien--unearthed and awakened after perhaps millions of years--that can jump from one form to another? Was this an inspiration for Carpenter's The Thing? You would think it would be following the blueprint of Duel (which was a big ratings and critical hit) but instead it looks off to the classics in both directions, and--unusual for a 70s TV movie--keeps it lean, stripped-down, no flashbacks or crosscuts to worried wives at home or unscrupulous corporate types making angry phone calls back on the mainland and all that crap--just a cast of six tough dudes squaring off against a tough-ass bulldozer.
The cast is full of great grizzled and/or familiar faces: James Wainwright, Carl Betz, Robert Ulrich, James A. Watson, Neville Eaten Alive Brand. TV Western mainstay Clint Walker (we could use a man like Clint on today's movie scene) is the taciturn ram-tough crew boss trying to keep the truth from his men, i.e. that an unknown force has possessed their bulldozer and keeps rolling over everything and everyone and killing nearly every human who tries to turn it off. Their numbers already small, dwindle.
Me, I missed it when it premiered in 1974 (as far as I know, I was only seven), but I do remember hearing about it in school, and everyone laughing thinking how easily we could outrun a bulldozer. Yeah but Killdozer has thought about that. so what if there's nowhere to run to, because you're stuck small island and wherever you are, it's gonna find you and flatten you. No hiding in the palm trees, it will just run over them, no hiding on a small hill, it can either climb up, slow and inexorable, or start leveling the hill. And the first thing that damned 'dozer does is run over most of your food and supplies and the radio so you can't call for help? Then what? No more laughter. To escape Jaws all you had to do was get out of the water. to escape The Car, you can hide out on holy ground, but on a small sandy island, you don't have sustainable options. You have to sleep sometime, and god help you if you're pinned under something or make the mistake of trying to roll under the treads to escape.
And if he lives, how is Clint going to explain all the property destruction and death to his bosses on the mainland? He's been already reprimanded once, for drinking. (He doesn't react kindly to a surviving whiskey bottle, but he doesn't pour it out either - if he did. we wouldn't be having this conversation). It's an interesting character trait. He has two things to worry about, and the feeling of woe as to how to explain all the destroyed and expensive construction equipment in a way that won't sound like boozy fantasy. He may never have to find out.
Certainly we won't, at any rate. When the 74 minutes are up, we're whisked back to our own reality, ready for bed or a piss break. No pain, no gain, no fuss. Just man vs. amok machine, and--like a 70s John Henry, kicking its ass, then fade to black. Roll credits.