Monday, August 13, 2018

Babysitter’s Nightmare (The Ninth House, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Lifetime ran a “premiere” movie called Babysitter’s Nightmare and then a relative oldie from 2017 called The Bachelor Next Door — I’m not sure why Lifetime chose these as double-bill partners unless it’s that actress Brittany Underwood was in both of them, in a supporting part in The Bachelor Next Door and as the lead in Babysitter’s Nightmare. The plot of Babysitter’s Nightmare, written and directed by Jake Helgren and set in Los Angeles (though our only real clue as to the latter is the mention of Lankershim Boulevard, famous as the location of Universal Studios), deals with nurse Daphne Hart (Brittany Underwood), who’s just been fired from her hospital job because a child she was supposed to be caring for died under her watch. She protests that the responsibility really lay with the attending physician, who sent her out for coffee and then himself turned away from watching the monitor and getting to the child in time to save its life. But she gets laid off anyway and the experience leads her to leave the city and break up with her boyfriend, resident physician Jeremy (Mark Grossman), who’s training to live up to the old joke, “What do you call a person who thinks he’s God? A schizophrenic. What do you call a person who knows he’s God? A doctor.” She moves to L.A. and gets a live-in job taking care of Toby Andrews (Jet Jurgensmeyer), son of a well-to-do couple who are leaving town for a month to visit family. Toby is staying behind because he has an intense fear of flying; he’s also diabetic and requires regular insulin injections, so Daphne figures it’s not just a babysitting job and will tap into at least some of her skills as a nurse. 

She’s encouraged to take it by her African-American best friend back at the hospital, Dr. Kaci Washington (Shanica Knowles) — and of course the moment we realize the heroine’s best friend is Black we can start measuring her for her coffin. The film starts with a prologue whose connection with the main action doesn’t become clear until much later: another young blonde woman with a live-in babysitter job is awaiting the arrival of a pizza delivery person — we hear enough of her end of the phone call between them to realize she’s expecting more from him than pizza — and later we learn that she was found in the hills, murdered. Daphne soon realizes she’s being stalked by the same pizza guy, who turns up unannounced the day after he’s delivered to them claiming that she overpaid him and asking her to do lunch with him sometime, and other things start to happen to indicate that she’s being stalked. At one point a young dark-haired woman named Audra (Arianne Zucker) shows up and says she is a newly assigned worker for the Andrews’ maid service, which explains why she has the key to the place, only later on Toby’s mother Karen Andrews (Reagan Pasternak) says in one of her ongoing phone calls to Daphne that they’ve never used a maid service. Kaci comes out to visit Daphne and the two of them find themselves menaced inside the Andrews’ big house by a sinister, unseen assailant. Daphne’s ex Jeremy also shows up, but the mystery assailant — who wears a hood and a black cloak that resembles the legendary Grim Reaper, though without the scythe — sneaks into his car while he’s exploring the house, and when he returns to the car the killer strangles him with a leather cord and leaves him in his car in front of the house. 

In the end the killer traps both women in the house and turns out to be [spoiler alert!] not the twitchy pizza guy but Audra, who was the mother of the child who died in the hospital under Daphne’s care and who determined to avenge herself against everyone she held responsible for the death, including her own babysitter (the earlier victim) as well as Daphne. The three women use a variety of weapons against each other, and at one point Audra breaks a wine bottle to get a sharp instrument with which she can stab Kaci — though Kaci makes it to the next-to-last act (it usually doesn’t take that long for Lifetime writers to dispatch the heroine’s African-American best friend) and when she dies it’s not from Audra stabbing her with one end of the broken bottle, but Audra knocking her over until she picturesquely falls on the shard of the other end. In the end Daphne manages to knock out Audra and eventually the police, called by Karen Andrews after Daphne’s frantic pleading for her to do so, come and save the day. There’s also a cute guy playing a cop, Gavyn Michaels as Officer Chase, who shows up when Daphne makes a 911 call and then feels embarrassed that it’s just the maid (and it’s only much oater, of course, that both she and we realize it’s the principal villainess posing as a maid!), and for a moment it looked like they were setting the cop up as a replacement boyfriend for Daphne once Jeremy got killed, but they didn’t go there and in the end Daphne decides to move back to her home town, Atlanta, and go back to medical school to become the doctor she really wanted to be. Babysitter’s Nightmare is pretty routine stuff, though the final half-hour is a quite nicely honed, almost wordless tale of suspense and terror; a pity Helgren’s writing before that is pretty slovenly and by-the-numbers Lifetime formula!

The Bachelor Next Door (Michael Feifer/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Bachelor Next Door was also pretty routine, made up by writer/director/producer Michael Feifer from bits and pieces of previous Lifetime scripts about romantic obsessives carrying unrequited torches on heroines for over a decade. In this case the obsessive is Donnie Bradford (Michael Welch), who suddenly turns up in the home next door to the main couple, Alex (Haylie Duff) and her live-in boyfriend, investment advisor Gavin Barnett (Steven Bruns, who throws the usual Lifetime formula “off” a bit by being better-looking overall than Michael Welch, though one scene with the three principals together reveals that Welch has the bigger basket). Alex is an aspiring artist and Gavin wants them to get married, but Alex is holding off because she wants an independent career and doesn’t want to be just a “wife.” The house next door is owned by an older couple, William and Cindy Bradford, and Donnie claims that he’s their nephew and is essentially house-sitting for them. This film contains a prologue, set in 2007 at a university in Colorado, in which someone sexually assaulted Alex and someone else pulled him off her — though we’re not told until the very end just who did what to whom in this incident. All we really know about it is that Alex still has nightmares in which she flashes back to it.

Alex meets Donnie when he happens to come along with a fire extinguisher and puts out a fire in their kitchen; she proclaims him her “hero” and Donnie gradually insinuates himself more and more into their lives, doing home repairs and dating Alex’s sister Sage (Brittany Underwood — see, I told you she was in this movie!). The four of them spend time at a deserted mountain cabin (not another deserted mountain cabin in a Lifetime movie!), at which Donnie comes on to Sage, though when they get together and are about to have sex Donnie blows it with her by saying, “I’ve always loved you, Alex.” So Sage catches on that this guy is just using her as a proxy for her sister. Somewhere along the way Gavin proposes to Alex, who accepts, only Donnie decides to break them up by stealing an earring from Gavin’s boss, and former lover, Jennifer Green (Preeti Desai), and writing Gavin a fake e-mail, ostensibly from Jennifer, stating how glad she is that Gavin has finally decided to resume their affair. Naturally Alex is pissed off and mega-jealous about this, and she and Gavin have a fight which ends with Gavin getting in his car and chasing after Donnie. Donnie spots him and calls the police, saying that he’s being followed by a road-rage driver; Alex tries to call Gavin and get him to turn around and come home, but too late: Gavin is arrested, taken into custody and interrogated by an avuncular Black police detective (Kim Estes). Eventually Gavin is able to sort out the misunderstanding, get the detective to realize Donnie set all this up for his own reasons, and get Alex to accept that whatever he had with Jennifer is long over and he has neither resumed it nor shown any interest in doing so. So Donnie sneaks up behind Alex with a cloth containing a knockout drug and uses it to kidnap her and take her at gunpoint to the deserted mountain cabin (you just knew it was going to end at that deserted mountain cabin, didn’t you?), which he’s picked as a location because it’s out of cell-phone range.

Both Gavin and the police have caught on that Donnie really isn’t the Bradfords’ nephew — he set them up to burn to death in a car accident and simply took over their home — and the detective traces Donnie back to college in Colorado in 2007. We’ve assumed all along that Donnie was the man who tried to rape Alex way back when, but in fact [spoiler alert!] Donnie was actually the one who saved Alex from being raped by Johnny, a frat boy who also had the hots for her, and Gavin, who was also at that college, saw the incident but didn’t intervene because he didn’t see the attempted rape and thought it was just two frat boys beating each other up as part of a hazing ritual. Donnie had a crush on Alex even before he rescued her, and him saving her from a rapist turned that crush into a lifelong obsession. (Kudos are in order to Feifer’s uncredited makeup person for making Michael Welch look a decade younger, considerably nerdier and acne-ridden in the flashback sequence.) Ignoring the good advice of the detective to stay out of it and let the local police handle the situation, Gavin drives up to the cabin with a gun of his own; he shoots Donnie in the chest, Donnie fires back at him and misses, and then Alex gets the gun away from Donnie and uses it to drill him with a clean shot to the forehead, so when the cops arrive Donnie is already dead. An epilogue set a year later shows Gavin and Alex finally getting married. The Bachelor Next Door is in the middling run of Lifetime movies, so predictable and clichéd (except for that neat reversal over what really happened back in 2007) one pretty much guesses what’s going to happen an act or two in advance, though it’s not as dementedly silly as some of Feifer’s scripts have been and it works O.K. within the formula. Michael Welch’s superficially charming and blessedly restrained performance as the psycho also helps, but for the most part this is a pretty forgettable film.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Ready Player One (Warner Bros., Amblin Entertainment, De Line Entertainment, Dune, RatPack, Village Roadshow Pictures, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the Blu-Ray disc of the 2018 film Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline based on Cline’s novel of the same title, which Charles and I had both read and enjoyed. The film was considerably changed from the book — despite the presence of the original author as one of the screenwriters — but the basic outline of the plot remains the same: in the U.S. in 2045, conditions for most people have deteriorated so much that they live in “stacks,” essentially giant columns of old trailers stacked on top of each other. Real life has become so oppressive and dull that most people spend most of their time online in an overarching virtual-reality simulator called “OASIS,” invented 20 years previously by reclusive computer genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance, dressed so baggily and unsexily it’s hard to remember this guy has a very large and blessedly uncut cock — I know that because I’ve seen him in the film Intimacy, a sort of Last Tango in Paris knockoff in which he got to go full-frontal quite a lot) and his former business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Cline has admitted that the obvious parallel with Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak was intentional, though a lot of the material has the gloss of fiction — it seems that at one point Halliday had a crush on a woman named Karen, screen name Kira (just about everyone in this movie has an online OASIS avatar as well as a real name), only he was too shy to get to first base with her and she eventually married Morrow just before Halliday forced Morrow out of the company. Early on in the film we see a video Halliday left to be shown after his death (I suspect Cline was basing this at least partly on Timothy Leary and his decision literally to broadcast his death online) in which he declares that there will be a worldwide contest in the OASIS to find three hidden keys and an Easter egg (computer slang for a message or object hidden in a program), and the first person to find all these items in the OASIS will inherit the entire system from him. This, of course, has attracted the attention of the villain, CEO Nick Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) of the sinister company IOI (which stands for Interactive Online Industries), who have thousands of staff members toiling away at Halliday trivia looking for clues to the keys and the egg, which are hidden and accessible only to people with an extensive knowledge of 1980’s cultural trivia. (As Ernest Cline readily admits in one of the bonus featurettes, he was a teenager in the 1980’s and therefore remembers and experiences the culture of that period with the sort of nostalgic glow I bring to anything from the 1960’s.) 

Charles and I were both disappointed that one of the most powerful sequences in the novel — a duel between hero and villain within the 1980’s video game Joust — didn’t make it into the movie, though I suspect many of the differences between book and film were based on what rights could or couldn’t be cleared. Ready Player One isn’t the film either Charles or I imagined when we read the book (for one thing, I had wanted the real-world scenes outside the OASIS to be filmed in black-and-white, with only the OASIS scenea in color, to reflect the drabness of real-world existence in the film’s 2045), and a friend of mine who liked Blade Runner: 2049 as much as I hated it said one of the reasons he liked Blade Runner: 2049 is it undermined the convention of the “quest” narrative in which the chosen individual finds the magic object or completes the task that redeems all. Certainly Ready Player One is a classic “quest” narrative in which the hero Parzival (on-line avatar of Wade Wells, played engagingly if not brilliantly by Tye Sheridan) uses his knowledge of video games, 1980’s culture and Hallidayiana to conquer the villainous forces of IOI and win the prize. By picking the name of the hero of the Holy Grail quest story in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s prose poem (a fascinating work in its own right because it’s one of the few first-person accounts from the Middle Ages of just what it was like to be a knight) and Richard Wagner’s opera, Cline underscored the “quest” part of the narrative and the extent to which his hero is the “Chosen One,” though for someone who at the start of the film resolutely refuses to “clan” with anyone else he ends up with a group of confederates with whom he sticks, including his girlfriend Art3mis a.k.a. Samantha (Olivia Cooke) whom he meets and falls in love with in the OASIS long before he’s met her in the real world, along with Aech, a young Black woman who’s assumed the avatar of a Black male in the OASIS (Lena Waithe); and two Asian-American kids, teenager Daito (Win Morisaki) and 11-year-old Sho (Philip Zhao) — though Daito died midway through the novel, in its most tragic scene, all five of the modern musketeers live to the end of the movie and they take over the OASIS as a joint enterprise, turning it off two days a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) so people will regain some involvement with the real world and try to better it instead of just retreating into the fantasies of the OASIS. 

Some of the changes between book and film seem to have been dictated by rights issues, some by director Spielberg not wanting to come off as a total egomaniac (he had the writers cut way down the number of references to films he directed or produced), and some simply to bring the effects budget closer to something resembling reason — though even so the movie’s post-production effects work took so long that Spielberg was able to make a whole other movie, The Post (the recent drama about the Washington Post acquiring and publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971), while waiting for the various effects houses to finish all the special-effects shots. There was potential for an even more interesting movie in Ready Player One the book, but the film as it stands is quite good, engagingly entertaining in the best Spielberg manner. I did have one quibble: the sequences in the OASIS looked just too video-gamey, with the actors taking on the cartoonish appearance of game characters — real video games in 2018 have a greater visual clarity than much of this movie and I had imagined the OASIS delivering state-of-the-art resolution comparable to that of a digitally shot movie. According to a “trivia” post on imdb.com, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shot the “real” parts of the movie on film and the OASIS scenes in digital to establish the sort of visual contrast between the worlds I would have wanted to do by having the real-world scenes in black-and-white — and in one sequence in which the heroes fool the villain by hacking into his OASIS feed and thereby presenting him a scenario he thinks is real, Spielberg expected the fact that this sequence was shot in digital to give it away to the audience. Ready Player One is also an example of the anti-corporate tic that still runs through a lot of popular entertainment; despite the takeover of virtually all our lives by giant corporations, the popular artists of the world still take enormous amounts of corporate money to produce these at least mildly anti-corporate entertainments. Just as I was beginning to see the Frank Capra parallels in this plot, writers Penn and Cline hammered them home by quoting the line from It’s a Wonderful Life, “No man is a failure who has friends.” 

In some ways Ready Player One is a Libertarian fantasy of the heroic entrepreneur who creates an alternative universe and his heroic-entrepreneur successor who saves it from a corrupt bureaucracy — like The Hunger Games, Ready Player One can sustain both a Libertarian reading and a quasi-socialist one in which the capitalists are the bad guys and the heroic radical the good guy (and one of the most chilling aspects of Ready Player One is the off-handedness with which Nick Sorrento orders and carries out the destruction of the “stacks” in which Wade lives, just to eliminate him as a rival to the contest — he survives because he’s somewhere else when the attack occurs, but the aunt who had raised him and her asshole partner get blown up). It’s also ironic that Wade’s home base is Columbus, Ohio, which also figures in Omar El Akkad’s American War as the new capital of the United States (this book is also set in the late 21st century and describes a future in which climate change has eliminated much of the California coast, including Los Angeles and San Diego, and all of Florida except for a few scattered high bits that survive as islands; what’s left of the U.S. government passes a law providing for the death penalty for anyone who still uses fossil fuels; and as a result Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, along with South Carolina and Texas, secede and form the “Free Southern State,” resulting in a 20-year civil war and a bioplague that kills millions since both sides in the war use bioweapons) and figured in the recent special Congressional election in Ohio, in which Republican legislators split Columbus between two Congressional districts to keep them both reliably in Republican hands, only a Democratic challenger was able to mobilize enough voters from Columbus and its suburbs to come heartbreakingly close to defeating the Republican in a district that went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 11 percent. Who knew that Columbus would suddenly become a focal point for American politics both in fiction and in real life?

Monday, August 6, 2018

A Sister’s Secret (Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched two Lifetime movies, including a “premiere” of something called A Sister’s Secret that is so obscure imdb.com doesn’t even have a page for it yet. I had to glean what information I could about it from Lifetime’s own Web site and a page at https://www.earnthenecklace.com/lifetime-movies-sisters-secret-cast-plot/. A Sister’s Secret is billed as starring former dance music diva Paula Abdul, though she plays the supporting part of Aunt Rose Abbott, who raised twin sisters Elizabeth and Kallie Abbott (both played by Margaret Ann Florence) after their parents were killed in a car crash in 1995. There’s a prologue set at a high-school swim meet in which one of the sisters substitutes for the other in a relay race and helps their school win it, then ogles the cute guy Rick (I don’t know who played him but he’s easily the cutest guy in the film!) who’s hanging out on the diving board even though a comic shot after the sisters leave shows him just jumping off the board, not really diving. The point of this prologue is to establish that no one can tell the sisters apart, though there’s one scene of them together that gives us the main difference between them: one of them loves salsa, the hotter the better, while the other can’t stand the stuff and will poop in her pants if she tries to eat it. I had thought the writers were putting this in on the Anton Chekhov principle that if you introduce a pistol in act one, it has to go off in act three, but no-o-o-o-o, the filmmakers just get their little gag out of this plot point and then dump it completely. The film flashes forward (though we don’t get Lifetime’s usual chyron telling us how many years forward) and Kallie is still living in the sisters’ original home town of Fayetteville, Georgia and is married to an excessively dull and not terribly attractive man named Grady (Donny Boaz) and has had two kids by him. Elizabeth has met a man named Jackson and is working with him in a big office in Atlanta, where they’re partners in an investment management firm. They’re not partners outside the office, though Jackson clearly would like them to be. Elizabeth and Kallie get together one weekend for a visit to Aunt Rose, and out of the older woman’s earshot they make a deal to swap each other’s lives for one week. Elizabeth presents this to Kallie as a lark and expresses concern about what’s going to happen if Kallie’s husband Grady wants to have sex with her. “Don’t worry,” Kallie says. “We haven’t done that in years.” The two make the swap, with Kallie driving off in Elizabeth’s Porsche while Elizabeth takes Kallie’s nondescript something-or-other back to Fayetteville.

Only things turn dark when Kallie decides to use her new-found freedom to go for a night on the town, doing Atlanta’s club scene and getting cruised by a hunky Black D.J. Alas, she’s followed out of the club by another Black man, a sinister, bearded figure named Dylan Fried, and he runs her down with his car, killing her. It turns out that Elizabeth actually knew this might happen and conceived of the swap of identities with her sister in hopes it would save her life — which it did, but at the cost of Kallie’s. Aunt Rose notices the imposture right away but Grady and the kids are clueless, and Elizabeth settles into Kallie’s life of domesticity — while back in Atlanta, Dylan Fried crashes Jackson’s office and demands the return of money Dylan invested in Jackson’s company. Jackson says he no longer has it — he had warned Dylan the investment was speculative and there was a chance that he would lose it all, which indeed happened — but Dylan isn’t the kind to take no for an answer. He responds by pitching Jackson through the big window of Jackson’s office, killing him, then he starts typing on Jackson’s computer. I thought at first he was hacking the computer to get the money back, but it turns out he’s writing a note so police will read it on Jackson’s computer and think Jackson committed suicide. Back in Fayetteville, Elizabeth gets wind of Jackson’s death and realizes his killer will be targeting her next as soon as he realizes he ran down the wrong sister back in Atlanta. She’s approached by a woman cop who’s investigating the deaths of Jackson and Kallie, who doesn’t realize that Elizabeth isn’t Kallie but does notice something “off” about her responses, as if she’s concealing something. Elizabeth eventually breaks down and tells Grady her real identity, and like the boor he is he responds by throwing her out of their house — only Dylan Fried finds their redoubt in the country and starts stalking them.

Eventually the principals learn from a TV news broadcast that Dylan himself has been murdered, but there’s a white guy Dylan was working for who shows up at the country cabin where the principals are staying, and there’s a big fight scene in which the bad guy gets killed — we never find out what illegal enterprise he and Dylan were involved in, but we really don’t need to know — and afterwards one of the return-to-normalcy scenes Lifetime is so big on, in which Elizabeth and Grady have reconciled, they’re clearly attracted to each other, and Elizabeth is about to tell the kids (ya remember the kids?) she’s really their aunt, not their mother, but Grady and Aunt Rose pull them away to go fishing just in time … and there’s a title indicating that Grady and Elizabeth got married nine months later, they told the kids the truth “when they were old enough,” and they’ve been together for 20 years since. The opening credits had proclaimed this film was “inspired by a true story,” but what it comes off like to me is a combination of the 1940’s films A Stolen Life and Hollow Triumph. A Stolen Life, directed by German expat Curtis Bernhardt and co-starring Bette Davis, Bette Davis and Glenn Ford, featured Davis as lookalike twins; the bad Davis seduces Ford away from the good Davis, then tries to kill the good Davis in a rowboat on a lake, only the bad Davis dies instead and the good Davis tries to “steal” her life as Mrs. Glenn Ford. Hollow Triumph, also known as The Scar, was directed by Hungarian expat Steve Sekely and featured Davis’s friend and co-star Paul Henried as a petty criminal who murders and then impersonates a psychiatrist who looks just like him, except for a scar just below his lower lip, only to find out that the psychiatrist was heavily in debt to illegal gamblers who are out to kill him, and therefore Henried’s character is in more trouble in his new identity than he was in his old one. A Sister’s Secret comes off as decent entertainment but no more, O.K. in the usual Lifetime manner but offering no particularly unique or compelling twists on their usual formulae.

The Wrong Cruise (Hybrid/Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After A Sister’s Secret I stayed with Lifetime for a repeat showing of one of their recent “premieres,” The Wrong Cruise, which judging from the title and the basic premise I thought was going to be a modern-day version of the marvelous 1934 film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, a combination murder mystery and musical set on an ocean liner with the obvious frisson that the other characters can’t escape from the killer since they’re all together on a ship in the mid-Atlantic. Instead it was a depressingly ordinary thriller set mostly on land — La Paz, Mexico, to be exact — and deals with middle-aged African-American woman Claire Turner (Vivica A. Fox) and her daughter Skylar, generally called “Sky” (Sidney Nicole Rogers). Some months before the film starts, Claire’s husband was killed in an accident, and ever since then Sky has been acting up in school — in the opening scene we see her punch out another girl in P.E. because she’d been bullying a third girl, but since she remains silent on why she hit the bully, she gets a two-week suspension and the threat of expulsion if she’s ever caught acting out of line again. Claire has already booked a three-day cruise down the West Coast to Baja California, Mexico, and she takes Sky along as planned mainly because she doesn’t want to let her daughter out of her sight. Unfortunately, some sinister people are on to their identities — we know that because we’ve seen a scene of otherwise unidentified hands doing a search on a computer and turning up the Tanners’ identities — and so they go on the cruise facing danger to which they’re oblivious.

It turns out they’re being set up by a gang of three crooks, Dante (Andres Londono), his young ward Rico (the genuinely hot twink Adrian Quinta, who deserves a shot at better roles than this), and the cruise director Pat (William McNamara), who’s willing to sell out his passengers for a third of the take. (Actually it was only supposed to be 20 percent, but midway through the plot Pat holds out for more.) Their first task is to seduce their pigeons — Dante manages to have sex with Claire and Rico with Sky — we get the impression that this is the first time Claire has had sex since her husband died and the first time Sky has had sex at all — and the next morning Dante offers, while the ship is stopped at La Paz, to take Claire out for a day trip on his sailboat. Only he pretends that the motor is broken and strands Claire out in mid-sea, then gives her drugged champagne and when she comes to reveals that he’s actually kidnapped her for a nefarious purpose. Meanwhile Rico offers to take Sky to the police, but instead drives her at night to an out-of-the-way location where he and his confederates are going to hold her and threaten to kill her if Claire doesn’t pay them the $1 million in life insurance she got from the death of her husband. We also learn the significance of the scene we saw at the opening — a blonde woman frees herself from rope bondage — that the Terrible Trio have done this sort of thing before and at least four women have “disappeared” from earlier cruises on the same line. It seems that Dante, the ringleader of the three, originally was just after the money but as he’s done this more often he’s become more openly sadistic, having fun psychologically torturing their victims and then killing them, despite Pat’s protests that this will blow the whole thing if his cruise line becomes notorious for having middle-aged women mysteriously disappear on every voyage. Rico has a crisis of conscience which better, more sensitive filmmakers than the ones we got here (director David DeCoteau and writers Jeffrey Schenck, Peter Sullivan and Nick Everhart, all old Lifetime hands) might have made into a real dramatic issue instead of an annoying affectation, and my expectations that Rico would eventually turn state’s evidence against the gang and give the Mexican police the evidence needed to bust them were dashed when Dante, realizing Rico can no longer be trusted, off-handedly kills him just after he’s ambushed and shot both Pat and Pat’s girlfriend, who had come out to the deserted country cabin (not another deserted country cabin!) to rendezvous with him.

The filmmakers do one genuinely creative thing with their story: in the last half-hour Dante off-handedly surprises and kills a Mexican cop and then puts on his uniform and impersonates him (it’s been established previously that Dante speaks both English and Spanish perfectly), so for the last half-hour of the movie Claire and Sky are fleeing through Mexico while they’ve been reported to the authorities as fugitives from justice who killed a Mexican police officer. Alas, there’s a continuity glitch as the car Dante has stolen from the real cop he killed says “Policia Estatil” (State Police) while the jacket he’s wearing, ostensibly stolen from the real cop Dante killed, reads “Policia Municipal” (City Police). There’s also a bad mistake in that midway through their flight Claire and Sky stop at a Gilmore gas station in the interior of Baja and make off with the station owner’s car — all Mexican gas stations are run by the state-owned oil company Pemex (Petroleos Mexicanos) and carry the Pemex logo. Nonetheless, The Wrong Cruise takes on a Kafka-esque aspect as the heroines are fleeing not only from a psycho killer impersonating a Mexican cop but from the real Mexican cops — though when they’re finally caught by genuine police they persuade them ridiculously easily that they’re innocent and Dante, whom Claire has killed by smashing his head in with a wrench, was the real bad guy. The Wrong Cruise, like A Sister’s Secret, is a pretty ordinary Lifetime movie, and the only interesting visual effect director DeCoteau and cinematographer Ben Demaree get is some interesting color changes as Dante is seen in the alternating blinking blue and red lights of the police car he commandeered. As I said, this would have been a more interesting movie if it had all taken place (aside from the establishing scenes) on the ocean liner instead of on land — at the end officials from the U.S. consulate show up and offer the Tanners a flight back home — and the gimmick of having the bad guy pose as a cop makes the last half-hour a bit more powerful than it would have been otherwise, but this is still pretty ordinary to-the-Lifetime-pattern filmmaking, not offensively bad but nothing special either.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Killer Twin (Pender Street Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” was Killer Twin, originally shot as A Sister’s Obsession — for once Lifetime’s retitlers came up with something that was actually an improvement — which was basically a reworking of the Bette Davis vehicles A Stolen Life (1948) and Dead Ringer (1964), in which La Davis was cast as a good twin and a bad twin and one Davis literally tried to take over the other Davis’s life. This time the killer twin and her non-killer sister were played by Lindsay Hartley, who’s hardly in Bette Davis’s league as an actress but at least was competent and believable, and she and director David Langlois restrained the scenery-chewing so as bad twin Amber Sheridan she was believable instead of florid, while she actually seemed more suited to the role of good-twin Kendra Collins Walker. The multiplicity of last names is explained by a prologue set in an orphanage in Seattle (we could tell it was supposed to be Seattle because the first thing we see is an aerial shot of the Space Needle, and since this is Lifetime and the production companies are Reel One Entertainment and Pender Street Pictures, I instantly guessed — correctly — that writers Dave Hickey and Jenna Brister laid the story in Washington state so it could be filmed just across the border in British Columbia, Canada). The place is run by Eunice (Bronwen Smith), an imperious petty tyrant, and it makes Jane Eyre’s Lowood look like A. S. Neill’s Summerhill by comparison.

Eunice’s charges — at least the only two we get to meet — are sisters Kendra (Elise Irwin) and Amber (Amelie Irwin) Sheridan (though we don’t learn their last name until almost the end of the film), who are supposed to be three but looked more like five to me. Eunice cozies up to Kendra but treats Amber hatefully, and when a wealthy couple, Mr. and Mrs. Collins, comes to the orphanage looking for a child to adopt (in the usual tradition of Lifetime couples they’ve tried reproducing au naturel but she’s miscarried), Eunice presents them Kendra but lies to them and says she’s an only child — thereby breaking not only ethical but legal rules as well, since the law in Washington state (at least according to this movie) is that twins can only be adopted together. So Kendra gets a nice home with a well-to-do family and a classy career as a teacher, while Amber lives at the orphanage until she ages out at 18 and then becomes a petty crook, making her living (at least as far as we can see) by stealing high-end cars and selling them to a chop shop. The film flashes forward with a typical Lifetime chyron, “30 Years Later,” and 30 years later Kendra has just been named Washington’s Educator of the Year. She’s got her picture taken receiving this honor, and Amber sees the photo on the front page of a throwaway local paper and immediately starts hatching her revenge plot. She goes back to the orphanage and confronts Eunice — who, even though she was supposed to be a homely woman in the first place, still should have been made to look older than she did in the prologue set 30 years earlier — who refuses to give her access to the records of her sister’s adoption. So Amber simply kills Eunice, knocking her to the floor and then smothering her with a pillow, though incredibly when the police find the body they and their medical examiner miss all the evidence of strangulation and determine Eunice died from a fall. 

Meanwhile, Kendra not only has a prestigious career (at least as prestigious as any career in K-12 education ever gets in the United States!), she’s also married to a drop-dead gorgeous hunk named Dane Walker (Jason Cermak), and we blessedly get a lot of nice shots of the two of them together in bed, with him topless and showing off a nice musculature. For once the “good husband” in a Lifetime movie is being played by someone genuinely sexy instead of the usual lanky, sandy-haired mediocre actor who generally gets these parts, and though one might suspect that somewhere along the way the evil sister seduced her good sister’s husband and got him to participate in her plot, blessedly writers Hickey and Brister didn’t go there. Instead they establish that Dane has actually got Kendra pregnant, so after years of joshing that she’s been taking care of other people’s children but hasn’t had any of her own, Kendra is aout to do what her adoptive mom was not and reproduce au naturel. Amber traces Kendra to her home and breaks in — Kendra hears her and calls the cops, but they arrive too late to catch the burglar — and she takes care not to steal anything tangible except for little things that wouldn’t be missed immediately, like her invitation to a dinner at which Kendra as Educator of the Year is supposed to give a presentation, and her safety-deposit key (which, as Charles noted, looks like an ordinary Schlage-style house key and not a real safety-deposit box key). But she does go through Kendra’s wallet and note down all her credit-card information, which she uses to max out all her accounts so the next time Kendra goes shopping, all her cards are declined and she has no idea why. Fortunately, the police — or at least the one police officer we see, Detective Nick Mahoney (Peter Flemming) — is smarter on the uptake than most Lifetime policemen, and he makes the connection between the burglary at Kendra’s home and the identity fraud against her. 

Then Amber starts posing as Kendra in public, and though she’s studied enough of Kendra’s public record she can convince people up to a point, she constantly gets tripped up by not knowing intimate details of Kendra’s life. When she shows up at Kendra’s bank to loot the safety-deposit box of the heirloom jewels Kendra’s mom Janet Collins (Candice Hunter) gave her — and which Kendra wanted to recover so she could wear them during her mom’s impending visit to celebrate her upcoming grandmotherhood — the bank officer, Marvin (Nelson Wong), inadvertently exposes her by thanking her for recommending that seafood restaurant where Dane proposed to her — and Amber doesn’t know its name. Marvin threatens to report her as an impostor, and Amber takes up the safety-deposit box itself and hits him over the head with it (blunt objects seem to be her preferred weapons through most of the film, though she’s also strangled someone and later she uses a knife). All this is captured on the bank’s security video, so not only are both Kendra and the police aware that there’s someone out there who looks like Kendra who’s impersonating her for criminal reasons, they have a pretty good idea who that is — even though Kendra had repressed any memory of even having a twin until she starts having dreams that flash her back to the orphanage and enable her to put two and two together and figure out who her impersonator is and what her motive is. Amber keeps giving herself away, and at one point Kendra’s best friend Monica (Bethany Brown), the typical Lifetime heroine’s African-American best friend who catches on to the villain’s scheme but gets killed before she can tell anybody, confronts Amber, notices she’s “off” and, you guessed it, gets killed by Amber with a knife before she can tell anybody. The finale occurs when Amber sneaks ground poppyseeds into a fruit basket being sent to Kendra — Amber is deathly allergic to poppyseeds and, as her identical twin, Kendra is too — and Kendra eats the tainted fruit and is hospitalized. Sure that she has killed Kendra, Amber impersonates her at the education banquet, gives Kendra’s speech, and then tries to make it with Kendra’s husband Dane in the kinky soft-core porn scene we’ve been expecting all movie — only Dane notices that Amber is missing Kendra’s birthmark, catches on and breaks off the proceedings before he’s had the chance to penetrate her. 

The finale occurs after Amber learns via an intercepted e-mail that Kendra is still alive, and she goes to her home to finish the job after first confronting Kendra’s adoptive mother Janet and asking why Janet and her late husband didn’t adopt her, too. Janet protests that she didn’t even know Amber existed, and they would have had no trouble taking a second child if they had, but it’s too late: Amber clonks Janet with the nearest blunt instrument and leaves her to die — though as things turn out, she doesn’t — and then she goes to Kendra’s and Dane’s home for a final confrontation (Kendra left the hospital early with Janet when they learned from a TV news show that Monica had been killed), with Amber armed with a kitchen knife and Kendra with a baseball bat. The two have a big fight scene (though I suspect director Langlois used doubles extensively to create the illusion of Lindsay Hartley fighting Lindsay Hartley) which ends with Kendra — stop me if you’ve heard this before — pitching Amber off the staircase rail and sending her plunging from floor two to floor one, though Amber survives and Detective Mahoney arrives on the scene in time to arrest her. The finale takes place Six Months Later and features a visibly pregnant Kendra with Dane watching TV coverage of Kendra’s latest career advance — she’s been promoted to superintendent of her school district — and then cuts to a scene of Amber in prison watching the same scene on a jailhouse TV and telling the other prisoners in the room to quiet down so she can hear the sound. One of her fellow prisoners, a diesel-dyke type with a killer Mohawk, says, “That woman looks an awful lot like you!” The End. Killer Twin is a pretty good Lifetime movie, though throughout it one’s reminded of all too many other movies that did these tropes better — and frankly I think I would have liked it better if one of the sisters had killed the other early on and then been forced to continue the imposture: in fact, at one point I had thought that Amber would kill Kendra, successfully take her place, then have the moment of truth occur later when everyone realized that “Kendra” was not about to have a baby!

General Electric Theater: “I’m a Fool” (MCA, Revue Productions, CBS-TV, aired November 14, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I watched two intriguing episodes of the General Electric Theater TV show, which ran from 1951 through 1962 and was a key element in the political evolution of its host, Ronald Reagan. It put him in touch with General Electric and in particular its fanatically Right-wing CEO, Harold Boulware, who hired Reagan not only to host the TV show but to tour GE’s plants and give suitably “inspirational” talks to its workforce. Later, after Boulware retired, his successors let Reagan go because they thought his talks were getting too openly political and towing too much of a Right-wing line that wasn’t exactly what they wanted their workers to hear from their bosses. These both came from late 1954 and we were watching them as part of the three-DVD boxed set of James Dean’s television appearances, and though they came from the same program the two shows were dramatically different in their levels of inspiration and accomplishment. Both came from Los Angeles, where Dean was living following the completion of his first featured film role, East of Eden, but before the movie had been released. The first was an adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s 1924 short story “I’m a Fool,” about a young man from a farm (so once again Dean was playing the farm kid he was for real) who heads for the (relatively) big city of Sandusky, Ohio to try to get a job as a “swipe,” basically the kid who cleans the horseshit out of the stables at a racetrack. He meets a philosophical old Black man named Burt (Roy Glenn, who actually turns in the best job of acting in the film!) who agrees to hire him, and Dean’s character (he’s just referred to in the cast list as “The Boy” and we never learn his real name) applies himself and works his way up enough to the point where, though he’s far from affluent, he can pose as at least a semi-rich kid enough to impress the guests of a fancy hotel. There he meets the genuinely affluent Wilbur (Leon Tyler), his girlfriend Elinor (Gloria Castillo) and their friend Lucy (Natalie Wood — so she worked with Dean before they made Rebel Without a Cause together!). “The Boy” is instantly smitten with Lucy — and she with him — but to impress her he makes up a phony story about being a rich kid from Marietta, Ohio. The two spend a day together before Lucy’s train is scheduled to leave at 10 p.m., and as “The Boy” realizes that Lucy is literally the girl of his dreams, the girl he’s always wanted to marry and settle down with, he desperately tries to get the chance to tell her he’s been lying about who he is and reveal his real identity — but he runs out of time, her train arrives, and she promises to write him — but of course the only address she has for him is the one for the phony identity he’s given her. 

I haven’t read the original Anderson story since I was in high school, but as I remember it took place just a short time after the events its narrator is recounting, and I believe the central character did have a name. Arnold Schulman, who adapted the story for TV, decided not only never to tell us the James Dean character’s real name but to have the framing sequences take place about 20 years after the main events and be narrated, on screen, by Eddie Albert as James Dean’s older self. (Since Dean died so young we don’t have a genuine older version to compare him to, the way we have the genuinely old Orson Welles to compare to how he was made up in the later scenes of Citizen Kane, but I sincerely doubt James Dean would have grown up to look anything like Eddie Albert.) Director Don Medford and production designer John Robert Lloyd worked out a quite creative design for the film that allowed the actors to walk between the story’s main locales — the rural community where Albert-as-Dean is living and from which he reminisces the events of the story, the farmhouse Dean leaves to seek his fortunes in the big city, the racetrack where he works, the hotel lobby where he meets Lucy and the fairgrounds where they spend most of their day together à la Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Maytime — which are represented by sets of such Spartan stylization one is reminded of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. More recent live telecasts of major musicals have adopted this simple strategy of telling a story with multiple locales in live TV by allowing the actors to walk from one set to another so they can all be standing at once, but in 1954 it was a rare and unusual gimmick that adds to the poignancy of this story. It also includes at least two scenes in which the flashback scenes are shown on a process screen while Albert stands in front of it narrating his memories: one of the rare times a process screen has been shown on film, especially in a movie that is not itself about filmmaking. 

This film stands out among most of the items in the Dean TV box not only because it’s based on a story by a recognized major author (and its tale of bittersweet romantic tragedy with elements of comic absurdity is very typical of Anderson’s work) but because in a way it prefigures Dean’s role in his very last film, Giant. Though Dean’s character in Giant would become genuinely rich, not merely posing as rich as he is here, in the later stages of “I’m a Fool” his character grows a moustache because he thinks it lends him dignity (as Jett Rink grew one in the later scenes of Giant), and the point of the story is that he remains the same bitterly alienated person he always was no matter how much wealth and status, real or imagined, he pretends to, and in particular he blows his one chance at happiness and a normal family life. Dean’s performance is excellent — what imdb.com reviewer Martin Hafer heard as Dean “tend[ing] to mumble and occasionally flub[bing] lines” I heard as Dean playing a poseur whose mumbles and stumbles are those of the character sustaining an imposture and not sure how long he can keep it up. “I’m a Fool” was one of the few Dean TV shows that was shown again as a memorial after his death, and the soundtracks from it and Dean’s final TV performance, The Unlighted Road (a Schlitz Theatre presentation oddly not included in the box, though it’s available on YouTube; Dean made it between Rebel Without a Cause and Giant and it was therefore the last Dean performance actually seen by a public audience during his lifetime), were taped off the air by someone who released a bootleg LP of them which Dean’s 1970’s biographer David Dalton was able to obtain a copy of and therefore fill in accounts of these entries in Dean’s otherwise then-lost body of TV work. It seems incredible that no one realized shortly after Dean’s death that his corpus of live TV constituted an important part of his legacy and therefore it was not only artistically but commercially a good idea to make a conscious effort to save it all. Instead it was considered just more of the flotsam and jetsam of the live TV world, and what survived did so pretty much by accident.

General Electric Theater: “The Dark, Dark Hours” (MCA, Revue Productions, CBS-TV, aired December 12, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the next General Electric Theater from the James Dean TV box — originally aired December 12, 1954, a month or so after “I’m a Fool” — was considerably less interesting. It was called “The Dark, Dark Hours” and I suspect writers Henry Kane and Arthur Steuer deliberately gave it that title because Paramount was about to make a film of Joseph Hayes’ successful, and similarly plotted, novel The Desperate Hours, with Humphrey Bogart as an escaped convict who leads a home-invasion robbery and Fredric March as the father of the family whose home Bogart and his two fellow gangsters, one of whom is mortally ill from a shoot-out, invade. An imdb.com “Trivia” contributor states that the same script had previously been done on another TV show, Suspense, called “I’m No Hero,” aired June 20, 1950 with Hume Cronyn, of all people, playing James Dean’s role as a gangster who crashes the home of a doctor demanding treatment for his sidekick, fatally injured in a shootout, and threatens both the doctor and his wife with a gun if the doc fulfills his legal obligation to report a gunshot wound to the police. The doctor, who in the 1950 version was someone named Mark Roberts, is played here by … Ronald Reagan, who not only hosted this version of General Electric Theater but also starred in it as Dr. Joe (his last name isn’t given on the credits), who’s awakened one night by a visit from Bud (James Dean) and his sidekick Peewee (Jack Simmons, a quite talented actor who holds his own with Dean — what happened to him? He got a part in Rebel Without a Cause but then nothing in the industry until he executive-produced an Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey movie called Madame Wang’s in 1981 and then got interviewed for the documentary James Dean: Forever Young in 2007 — and with all these connections one wonders if the homoerotic body language between him and Dean in The Dark, Dark Hours was purely coincidental). 

Peewee has just been shot by police after he and Bud broke into a store and then fled by car (all of this established by stock footage on film in what was otherwise pretty clearly a live show), and the two invade the doctor’s home. In vain Dr. Reagan protests that he really isn’t a surgeon, doesn’t have the expertise in removing bullets from bodies, and in any case Peewee really should be looked after in a hospital, especially once doc determines that he’s lost so much blood he really needs a transfusion. Dean, who had turned in such a sensitive, beautiful performance a month earlier on this same series in I’m a Fool, here seems on autopilot: “Oh, well, another punk kid gangster. I know what they want, and I’ll deliver it.” He shouts, he blusters, he waves his gun around and he wakes up not only Dr. Joe’s wife Betty (Constance Ford in a role that really needed someone more like Donna Reed) — Joe enlists Betty to help with the operation even though Betty faints at the sight of blood, and Betty wants to throw the pan of hot water in Bud’s or Peewee’s face but Joe insists that they stoically survive the invasion as best they can because … well, he’s no hero. The commotion wakes up Joe’s and Betty’s daughter, who wanders into the living room and wonders why these two strange young men are there and one of them is holding a gun on her dad — though she seems oddly nonplussed by the whole experience instead of freaking out and panicking the way one might expect a girl of her age (especially a TV character) to do — and the show moves to a close when Betty tries to grab Bud’s gun, only Bud is too fast for her; later Joe announces that Peewee is dead, and in a final sequence that’s supposed to represent Joe finding his courage at last he’s able to overpower Bud and get him to drop the gun, then chew him out for being a punk coward helpless in the face of a real man. 

In a way Reagan’s worm-turning weirdly anticipates what happened to him in his political career, in which he was at first dismissed as a lightweight but turned out to be an effective leader who succeeded in pushing American politics dramatically to the Right. It’s also worth noting that on these General Electric Theater shows Reagan pronounces his last name “RAY-gun,” the way it was pronounced in his political career; there was a brief mini-controversy since in his actor days a lot of people had called him “REE-gun,” and Reagan himself got a mild amount of public criticism when he insisted that the name had always been “RAY-gun” and the other pronunciation was a mistake. What was most disappointing about The Dark, Dark Hours is not only that it was a far more prosaic story than I’m a Fool — its derivations not only from The Desperate Hours but the 1935 Warners programmer Dr. Socrates (starring Paul Muni as a doctor who gets awakened in the middle of the night to treat gangster Ward Bond; his wife/assistant/nurse gets shot and killed but he goes on to a career as doctor to the gangsters until he finally regains his conscience and gets them captured or killed) and its 1939 remake King of the Underworld (with the doctor sex-changed into a woman, played by Kay Francis, with Humphrey Bogart as the gangster — thereby making the 1941 Maltese Falcon a “doubles” movie since Bogart starred and Bond played the small role of a cop) —but it’s told in a far more ordinary way. Though it had the same director (Don Melford) and production designer (John Robert Lloyd) as “I’m a Fool,” it’s staged on simple, relatively realistic but cheap-looking sets — just about the whole story, after the filmed introduction, takes place in Dr. Joe’s living room and it’s clear the writers yielded to the convention of live TV of having everything take place in cramped, enclosed spaces instead of the artful way of doing a live TV show with a variety of locations Melford and Lloyd had worked out for “I’m a Fool.” 

About the only distinction of “The Dark, Dark Hours” is that writers Kane and Steuer made the Dean and Simmons characters essentially beatniks — though the beatnik craze didn’t really start until the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957, two years after Dean’s death (and On the Road would have made a great film vehicle for Dean if he’d still been alive!), one can hear both men spitting a lot of jazz slang at each other, including “crazy,” “man” (as a particle) and “cool,” and Peewee demands to hear music on the radio while he’s being operated on and even tells Bud to find a jazz station — which, amazingly, he does, playing quite advanced music for a TV show in 1955, including a Jackie-and-Roy style bop vocal duet and a quite moving version of the Don Raye-Gene de Paul song “You Don’t Know What Love Is” featuring a Parker-esque alto sax (my guess would be Phil Woods) that’s also heard over the closing credits. It’s interesting that the two forms of music Dean is known to have liked are progressive jazz and Black R&B — one of Dean’s friends interviewed by David Dalton recalled Dean’s joy when Black singer Lavern Baker’s recording of “Tweedle Dee” started moving up the charts, followed by his frustration when the white cover by Georgia Gibbs caught up with and overtook Baker’s — and the use of jazz in this show only underscores the bizarre and totally unwitting irony of Dean and Reagan working together: Dean the avatar of the 1960’s who didn’t lived to see them but was one of the people who set the model for youth alienation and rebellion (one of the most fascinating aspects of Rebel Without a Cause is that after the chickie-run his parents want him to lie about it and cover it up, and it’s Dean’s character who wants to ’fess up and admit the truth of what happened, the way young people in the 1960’s confronted the social evils of racism, sexism and warmongering their parents either accepted or covered up) and Reagan who built his political career on upholding the values of the 1950’s against the rebels of the 1960’s. 

To add irony on top of irony, the General Electric Theater shows were produced by MCA, whose logo here is their initials over a map of the world and the proclamation that the initials stood for “Management Corporation of America.” MCA originally began in the 1930’s as a talent agency that handled big bands — the initials back then stood for Music Corporation of America — and in the 1940’s they expanded to represent Hollywood actors and soon pioneered the so-called “package deals,” in which an agency would put together a writer, director and cast from their talent list, have them develop a story and then sell the package to a studio on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. MCA also started Revue Productions, a TV subsidiary that went beyond managing and packaging and actually produced shows (the most famous was Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and in 1959 in order to do that better they bought the physical plant of Universal Studios. Within a few years they had absorbed all of Universal and were therefore both a major studio and a talent agency — until 1962, when President John Kennedy’s Justice Department brought an antitrust suit against them and forced MCA and its principal shareholders, Lew Wasserman and Jules Stein, to give up the agency. Reagan had such a close business association with MCA, first via their representing him as a film actor and then hiring him to do this show, that when he became president of the Screen Actors’ Guild he made a deal with the studios that was widely considered a sweetheart contract: it specified that from 1959 on actors would get residual payments for reuse of their work, but to cover the years before that the studios would make a lump-sum payment to the Guild. It was a controversy that dogged Reagan through much of his political career as a lot of labor people suggested it showed Reagan had always been anti-union — even though he answered by accurately pointing out that he was the only labor-union president in history who had ever become President of the U.S. and saying that meant he couldn’t possibly be anti-labor in his policies.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Cheerleader Nightmare, a.k.a. Cheerleader Killer, a.k.a. Teen Drone Stalker (Reel One Entertainment/Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a Lifetime “premiere” movie at 8 p.m. last night that was actually surprisingly good. It was released under the title Cheerleader Nightmare but imdb.com lists it as Teen Drone Stalker and gives Cheerleader Killer as an alternate title, and it’s so new that though imdb.com lists a director (Danny J. Boyle, not to be confused with the Danny Boyle who made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire) they don’t credit any writers and they list the cast members but don’t identify them with their roles. The leading characters are Sophie White (Taylor Murphy), a high-school girl with long blonde hair and a disinterest in participating in the Cleveland High School cheerleading squad even though her mom Paula (Melissa Ponzio) is the school’s cheerleading coach. (One of the interesting things about this movie is that it makes being a cheerleader seem like almost as hard work as being a football player; the teams exercise similarly.) Instead she’s pursuing photography, and her mom is saying that’s fine but she really needs an avocation that will teach her how to participate in a team rather than something she can do on her own. About the only acquaintances she’s made in her high school are her boyfriend, football team captain Tyler (Johnny Visotcky, who’s tall, rail-thin and has an oddly angular face reminiscent of the young John Carradine; he’s O.K.-looking but really isn’t physically credible as a football player); and Mikey (Jeremy Shada), her partner in the school’s AV lab where they have access to a red helicopter-like drone that can take photos of people around the campus and essentially spy on them. The moment we see Jeremy Shada, with his boyishly cute appearance, we immediately conclude that he’d be a far better match for Sophie than Tyler — especially since we also see Leah, head of the school’s cheerleading squad, making a play for Tyler with lines like, “The head cheerleader is supposed to go out with the captain of the football team — it’s like a law of nature!” We also learn that Tyler’s father is in prison for armed robbery and that he himself has a couple of minor infractions on his record, but he’s trying to put all that behind him and help the school win football games so he can get a scholarship and go to college. 

Things heat up when Leah mysteriously disappears after a wild party; later her body is found in the woods surrounding the community (the name of the school may be “Cleveland High” but the locale is a typical affluent suburban bedroom community, not a major city, and the long shots representing the houses are some of the most preposterously obvious model work ever passed off in a movie — as if the director had his 12-year-old son build them out of balsa wood) and the film basically becomes a whodunit. Sophie insists that Tyler couldn’t have done it because … well, even though he has a police record and he’s the son of a criminal, she’s in love with him and she trusts him. Instead, against the opposition of her mother who thinks that this will put her at risk, Sophie teams up with Mikey to investigate the crime herself (interestingly, no official police officers are ever seen in the film, though we hear a siren indicating their presence at the end). At first they suspect Riva (Raleigh Cain), who took over as head cheerleader after Leah’s death and always wanted the job — she even hung a doll with a noose around its neck in Leah’s locker and attached a note to it saying, “Your days are numbered” — but when Riva’s ankle bracelet turns up at the scene of the crime (a staircase at the party house where Leah was pushed to her death, following which her killer moved the body and dumped it in the woods) Sophie and Mikey realize that’s too pat a clue and someone stole Riva’s bracelet and planted it on the scene. Meanwhile, Sophie’s mom Paula is receiving condolences from Coach Parker (Sean McNabb), who runs the school football team, and where I thought this was going was that Coach Parker had a crush on the underage Leah and killed her when she resisted his advances.

Instead [spoiler alert!] Tyler turns out to be the killer after all — he and his friend Ryan (John-Paul Howard) are seen driving in Ryan’s truck plotting how to cover up the crime when Mikey spies on them with the drone. At one point Tyler and Ryan hijack the drone and use it to spy on Sophie, figuring that if they can’t pin the crime on Riva they’ll make Sophie the fall girl, but what they don’t realize is that Mikey has a master connection on his computer and all the video the drone records goes to an account on the “cloud” where Mikey can access it all. He had previously used this feature to document that Tyler and Leah were having an affair behind Sophie’s back — which understandably turns Sophie against Tyler, though she still can’t believe he’s a killer — and he recovers the data stolen from his personal computer, the video footage the drone shot at the party. It turns out that Tyler and Leah got into an argument — Leah wanted Tyler to commit to her and definitively break with Sophie, but Tyler took the typical bullheaded-male attitude of “No one’s going to tell me whom I can or can’t fuck,” and pushed her down a flight of stairs in a fit of anger, thereby killing her. The climax occurs at Sophie’s and Paula’s home — mom, upset that Sophie ignored her demands not to socialize with anyone unsupervised and kept investigating the case, counterproductively confiscates Sophie’s cell phone and thereby nearly misses the warning Mikey sent containing footage he’s shot with the drone of Tyler and Ryan plotting how to cover up the murder. She finally gets the message while Tyler is in their home; he came ostensibly to apologize to Sophie and see if she wanted to resume their relationship, but really to kill both Sophie and Paula if they insisted on doing something stupid like turning him in to the police. Tyler corners Sophie at the top of a flight of stairs and threatens to push her down them, but she manages to escape long enough that Paula can hit him in the back of the head with a frying pan, knocking him out and rendering him unconscious until the sound of sirens and the sight of flashing lights lets them and us know that the police have finally arrived.

Cheerleader Nightmare is actually one of Lifetime’s best recent movies; not only does director Boyle have a flair for suspense but the writers, whoever they are, have created genuinely interesting and conflicted characters who act, for good or ill, from recognizable human motives. It’s a quite chilling movie and one that keeps the viewer’s interest, and it’s also quite ably acted — especially by Taylor Murphy in the lead, who plays the role matter-of-factly and with quiet determination; and Johnny Visotcky as the killer, who wisely avoids portraying him as a psycho — even though the hint that he’s a criminal because he’s inherited it from his dad rubs me the wrong way. All in all, Cheerleader Nightmare is a quite capable piece of work and one of those diamonds in the rough that keep people like me watching Lifetime movies! It’s also an interesting exploration of just how much modern technology has made everyone’s — especially everyone who’s a teenager in a relatively affluent community, and therefore comfortable with and having full access to the technology — life an open book; you can’t have a clandestine affair anymore with all the security cameras and that damned drone (which practically becomes its own character in the film) spying on you all the time.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Last Woman on Earth (Filmgroup/American International, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) was of two movies that made an obvious double bill because of the similarity of their titles: Last Woman on Earth (1960) and The Last Man on Earth (1964). Last Woman on Earth was produced and directed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures in association with his own company, Filmgroup (one word, though an Allied Artists TV reissue spelled it as “Film Group”), and was based on a script by Robert Towne — who was also in it, more on that later. Towne went on to a distinguished career as a writer and a less distinguished one as a director — his best known credit was probably the screenplay for Chinatown (though he wrote an at least partially happy ending and director Roman Polanski changed it to a nihilistic one, much to Towne’s disgust), and he’s one of the many talents both in front of and behind the camera who went from a Corman apprenticeship to a major career. Last Woman on Earth was apparently a project Corman threw together because he was already organizing a location trip to Puerto Rico to shoot Creature from the Haunted Sea and he wanted to get the most bang for his buck while there by making a second film — the way he would allow Francis Ford Coppola to shoot his first film, Dementia 13, with the same cast and crew as his own production The Young Racers; and why he would squeeze two days’ extra work out of Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson by finishing the 1963 version of The Raven early so he could make another film with them, The Terror. 

 It helped that Towne’s plot features only three on-screen (live) human characters: New York financier Harold Gern (Anthony Carbone), his wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones Moreland) and his tax attorney Martin Joyce. The performance of the actor playing Joyce is credited to “Edward Wain,” but that was actually a pseudonym for … Robert Towne. It seems that he hadn’t yet finished the film by the time Corman and his crew were set to leave for Puerto Rico, so Corman had to bring him along so he could finish the script on the spot. Rather than pay for two people to come to Puerto Rico, Corman decided to save plane fare and living expenses for one by drafting Towne to play the part himself. Like Blake Edwards in Frank Wisbar’s 1940’s “B” Strangler of the Swamp, Towne’s performance proves that his real talent lay in writing, not acting. It also is an early indication of the flaw that would sink a lot of Towne’s later major productions: a gift for pseudo-profundity which led him to write things that pretend to intellectual sophistication but really don’t achieve it. One suspects that Corman told Towne, “Write me an Ingmar Bergman script — only make sure I can slap an exploitation title on it so I can sell it to the drive-ins.” 

What Towne came up with was a profoundly uninteresting romantic triangle between Harold, Evelyn and Martin that turns into a post-apocalyptic movie when, vacationing on Puerto Rico while Harold’s latest IRS investigation gets sorted out, Harold takes Evelyn and Martin deep-sea diving with SCUBA gear — and while they’re underwater a sudden interruption in Earth’s oxygen supply takes place, just long enough to wipe out all other humans and land-based animal life. They come to life but keep breathing through their diving masks until they realize that whatever happened to the air that annihilated the rest of humanity is over and they can once again breathe safely — and the rest of the plot deals with Harold’s attempts to lord it over the other two and insist that Evelyn doesn’t have sex with Martin even though she’s been clearly restive in her trophy-wife status and genuinely attracted to him. The main problem with this film is that the three people are relentlessly uninteresting and we really don’t like any of them. We also don’t understand why Evelyn would want to commit adultery with Martin other than proximity and Robert Towne the writer’s scriptorial fiat to give Robert Towne the actor a chance to make it on screen with a hot babe. At the end Harold and Martin start fighting over Evelyn, who’s waiting in a deserted church for one of these men to take her and run off with her — we get the impression by then that she really doesn’t care which one — they have a fight scene that mostly takes place in the water before Harold is finally fatally injured and Martin and Evelyn face an uncertain future as a would-be Adam and Eve.

It’s possible Corman could have improved this film greatly if he’d been willing to pay salary, expenses and travel for an actual actor to play Martin, and it’s pretty clear whom that should have been: the young Jack Nicholson, who was under contract to Corman at the time and could have brought an explosive romantic and sexual intensity to the character that clearly eluded the writer playing him. One other interesting thing about Last Woman on Earth is it was shot in color — I think this is the first time Corman shot a film in color — though the extant public-domain videos all stem from a badly faded 16 mm print in which the dominant colors are yellow and brown. (This was also largely what happened to the American International production we’d screened the night before, Queen of Blood — was there a dark corner of the AIP vaults where the climactic conditions were just right to fade films in this particular way?) With three uninteresting people enacting hackneyed situations and totally missing the potential for an end-of-the-world film (I kept thinking these three couldn’t possibly have been the only people SCUBA diving at the time the world briefly lost its oxygen supply, and Last Woman on Earth would have been a far more interesting — and, alas, expensive — movie to make if we’d met some of them), and the extant print looking quite murky and dull (though at least it does full justice to Betsy Jones Moreland’s red hair!), Last Woman on Earth is yet another bad film in which one senses a good film struggling inside it to get out.

The Last Man on Earth (Associated Producers International, Produzioni La Regina, © 1963, released 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Review copyrighted © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Last Man on Earth is something else again: the first of at least three film versions of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, a 1954 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel in which the entire human race is hit by an unstoppable plague which first kills its victims and then, if their bodies aren’t burned first, turns them into vampire-like creatures. The movie rights were bought by Hammer Studios in 1957 and they attempted to make a version with Fritz Lang as director (now that would have been an impressive coup!) and one of a number of fine British actors (Stanley Baker, Paul Massie, Laurence Harvey and Kieron Moore) in the leading role of Robert Neville — called Robert Morgan in this version — the sole survivor of the plague who’s carrying on a one-man war against the vampires. But Hammer placed the film in turnaround and their original U.S. distributor, Robert Lippert, picked it up and decided to make the movie as a U.S.-Italian co-production, filming it in Italy with two directors, Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona. He also hired Matheson to write the script, but then put so many other writers on it — including William Leicester, Furio Monetti and director Ragona — that Matheson had his name taken off the film and replaced by the pseudonym “Logan Swanson.” To play Robert Morgan, Lippert hired Vincent Price, and though Matheson thought he was miscast (and Price’s presence is a bit problematical if only because in 1963, when this film was made, he was far more identified with old-style Gothic horror than science fiction), Price responded to the rare challenge of a script that not only made sense but gave him a rich, multidimensional characterization in a serious story he didn’t have to camp up to make entertaining. 

During his long reign as King of Horror Price mostly got silly scripts and got through them basically by winking at the audience, as if to say, “I don’t take this crap seriously, and there’s no reason why you should, either” —but occasionally he got a good script that gave him some real cinematic meat and allowed him to show off what a fine, rangy actor he could be: this film, Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, Michael Reeves’ The Conqueror Worm a.k.a. Witchfinder General. I still regret that the finest performance Vincent Price ever gave is totally lost — his one-man show as Oscar Wilde, Diversions and Delights, which fortunately enough I was able to see on stage in San Francisco in 1977 but, to the best of my knowledge, was never recorded or filmed. (It was also one of the few times Price got to play an actual historical person; others included his role as Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith in the 1940 biopic Brigham Young and the real-life “witchfinder general” Matthew Hopkins in The Conqueror Worm.) Despite the multiple writers and directors — usually a bad sign for any movie — The Last Man on Earth turned out to be an excellent movie, with Price burning off the screen and avoiding most of his horror-schtick trademarks (though there are a couple of sequences when we hear Price’s famous extended laugh, and they seem a bit out of place) in a movie that, though obviously made on the cheap, benefits from real locations (albeit in Italy, though the film is supposed to take place in the U.S.) and is effectively staged and edited by the directors. 

The plot features Price as a vampire hunter who uses the same armamentarium Van Helsing used against Dracula in the story that basically wrote the rules for the classic Gothic vampire genre — the vampires are repelled by mirrors (because they cast no reflection in them) and garlic, and they can be killed by driving wooden stakes through their hearts. He goes about doing this during daylight because the vampires are only active at night, and at night he has to barricade himself inside his home because a gang of vampires regularly attempt to break in and kill him each night. (The sequences of Price erecting the barricades inside his home to ward off the vampires are strongly reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead, made four years later, and Night of the Living Dead director George Romero conceded that this film had influenced him.) Then we get a flashback to Morgan’s life pre-plague, in which we meet his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli) — whom he calls “Vergy” for some reason — and their daughter Kathy (Christi Courtland). Morgan works as a biomedical researcher at a lab owned by Dr. Mercer (Umberto Rau), and his principal assistant and best friend is Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). Kathy gets the plague and Vergy calls a doctor, who notifies the authorities; they take Kathy’s dead body away for burning in a giant pit. Meanwhile Morgan and his fellow researchers are stumped by the plague — they can’t even decide whether the organism causing it is a bacterium (which could be seen by an ordinary light microscope) or a virus — and Cortman reports to Morgan that he’s heard stories of plague victims who’ve been buried (as opposed to burned) coming back to life as vampires. “That’s all those are, stories!” says the rationalist Morgan — and in a nice bit of irony it turns out that Cortman himself died, became a vampire, and is the leader of the vampire clan trying to break into Morgan’s home and kill him before he kills them. Then Morgan spots a dog running across a field and chases it, glad that there’s something alive and normal-looking still around — only by the time he catches the dog and it comes home with him it, too, expires from the plague. Then he meets a young woman, Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), who tells him that there are others who have figured out a way to make a drug from natural plant sources that will not cure them of the plague but will allow them to control it, live relatively normally and avoid becoming vampires. 

Unfortunately, Morgan has become a “legend” among these people because, in his one-person war against the vampires, he’s killed some of them as well and they’re sending out a posse to exterminate him before he kills any more. Morgan discovers the source of his own immunity to the plague — exposure to the bite of a bat years before that inoculated him with a natural vaccine — and finds that by combining his blood with Ruth’s serum he can make a drug that will cure her. He does so, but in the meantime he’s tracked down by the fellow survivors and he’s killed by metal harpoons thrown by them while standing on the altar of an abandoned church and screaming at them that both the vampires and the survivors are freaks and he’s the only real human left. There have been at least two major remakes of The Last Man on Earth: a 1971 version with Charlton Heston called The Omega Man and a 2007 film with Will Smith that used Matheson’s original title, I Am Legend. Also listed on imdb.com is a 1967 short called Soy Legenda and a 2007 Asylum Studios knockoff called I Am Omega released to compete with the Will Smith version. I can’t compare how The Last Man on Earth stacks up against these since I’ve never seen the Will Smith version, I haven’t seen The Omega Man since I caught it in a theatre when it was new (though I remember joking to my mom that she had said during the 1950’s and 1960’s that Charlton Heston seemed to be making the entire history of the world on film, since he was cast in so many historical spectaculars, and when he started doing science-fiction in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s — the first two Planet of the Apes movies, The Omega Man and Soylent Green — I joked that he was extending his history of the world into the future), and I’ve never read Matheson’s novel — but on its own merits The Last Man on Earth, despite its relatively crude production values and the problems with Vincent Price as a “type,” is an excellent film that gave Price an acting challenge to which he rose magnificently. And the story’s premise is so haunting and powerful it’s no wonder so many filmmakers have returned to it since!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Queen of Blood (Cinema West Productions, American International Pictures, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie night (http://marsmovieguide.com/) — held on the fourth Friday of the month instead of the usual third Friday to avoid competing with Comic-Con — consisted of two mid-1960’s cheapies, Queen of Blood and The War of the Planets, though the screening’s Web site advertised the latter with its alternate title The Deadly Diaphonoids. Both were pretty dreadful movies, but both were also in the frustrating category of bad movies with potentially good movies inside them struggling to get out. Queen of Blood apparently began live in 1963 as a Soviet sci-fi film called Mechte navstrechu, which means A Dream Come True, though sources differ as to whether Queen of Blood was a remake of the Soviet film or just plundered a lot of its stock footage for a different story. It was also shown in a dreadful print, with bizarre color values that gave a yellow cast to virtually everything — though the accidental psychedelic effects of the deterioration of the film’s color scheme may have actually made it more entertaining than a correctly color-balanced version would have been. The story consists of the U.S.’s first manned mission to Mars — the year is 1990 and humans first landed on the moon 20 years earlier (that part they got right!) and since then they have been industriously colonizing it to prepare for a mission to Mars. Only they get a distress signal from a spacecraft from a planet in another solar system, which has crash-landed on Mars and is asking for their crew to be rescued by Earthlings. 

Rather than land on Earth themselves, they send a drone containing a recording with this information, and accordingly the international space program headed by Dr. Farraday (Basil Rathbone, billed second and lending a well-appreciated bit of gravitas to the proceedings) decides to launch their Mars rocket six months ahead of schedule to pick up the aliens and bring them back to Earth. The Earth rocket to Mars contains a small crew, including astronauts Laurie James (Jeri Meredith), who’s understandably put out that her fellow astronaut and boyfriend Allan Brenner (John Saxon, top-billed) isn’t coming until the next Mars flight, scheduled for a week hence, and Paul Grant (Dennis Hopper, who looks like he wants to go to Mars because he’s heard you can score some really killer hallucinogens there), and they land not on Mars itself but on the Martian moon of Phobos. The shuttlecraft (or whatever they called it) that carried Grant and a fellow crew member to Phobos to effect the rescue can only carry two people, so Grant’s co-pilot agrees to stay on Phobos for the next week and Grant brings back the alien (Florence Marly in a quite clingy and very revealing all-red jumpsuit) to the main ship. They set off back for Earth, only — remember the title? — the alien turns out to be a vampire, sucking the blood out of the body of one of the crew members (she doesn’t bother with little puncture wounds on the neck; she goes straight for the arm and rips open the appropriate vein). The survivors reason (if you can call it that) that on her home planet they feed on some lower form of animal — “It’s not that different from eating a rare steak,” one of them says (who knew Queen of Blood would be propaganda for veganism?) — and they give her all their supply of blood plasma in hopes of keeping her alive for the trip back to Earth without losing any more people. 

Alas, they run out of plasma and she puts the bite on Dennis Hopper (one wonders how stoned she got from drinking his blood!) and nearly takes out John Saxon, only his girlfriend pulls her off of him in time and scratches her back in the process, causing such an immediate loss of her own blood that she dies. The film has one of those annoying trick endings in which the surviving crew members discover that the vampire queen has left a lot of pulsating red bulbs all around their spaceship which represents their species’ eggs — it seems they reproduce like insects do — and the astronauts want the entire ship fumigated before it’s reused, but Dr. Farraday, taking the same attitude towards vampires from outer space as Robert Cornthwaite’s scientist character did in the original The Thing, overrules them and takes the basket of eggs out to preserve it as a “The End” title comes up. Queen of Blood is a wretched movie but also an oddly haunting one; Florence Marly (whom director Curtis Harrington fought the studio to cast; they wanted someone younger and more nubile, but Marly is sexy enough and her wordless acting, especially in close-ups signaling her literal bloodlust for the human crew members, is fine) pulls off the central character beautifully and the rest of the acting is certainly more than passable for “B” filmmaking. The use of all that Soviet footage makes this look like it had a considerably larger budget than it did, and it’s a decently made film that could have been quite good with more incisive writing (Harrington was the screenwriter as well as director) and tougher suspense cutting.