Vanity Fear

A Pretentious A**hole's Guide to B-Movie Bullsh*t

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B-TV: Part Six "Unsuspended Disbelief"

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century



Nasa astronaut Buck Rogers’ (Gil Gerard) 1987 solo mission in space does not go as planned and through a fluke of the universe he is frozen and left to float alone in the cosmos for 500 years. Found by an alien space station on its way to a mission to Earth, Rogers is defrosted and meets Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and her second in command, Kane (Henry Silva). Before Rogers even has time to comprehend what has happened to him, they put him back on his ship and send him back to Earth, hoping the bug they implanted will informed them how to break through the planet’s defenses. Back at Earth, Rogers is examined and is determined to be honest and reliable by Dr. Theopolis (Howard F. Flynn), a sentient computer carried around by a tiny humanoid robot named Twiki (Felix Silva & Mel Blanc), but that doesn’t stop military commander Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) from being suspicious of him. Declared a spy by the Earthlings once the bug on his ship is discovered, Rogers is sentenced to death but is spared after an act of heroism during a space pirate raid. Suspecting that Kane and the Princess are secretly behind the pirates, Rogers seduces and drugs Ardala and manages to sabotage their attack force, ensuring their planned invasion of Earth fails before it even has a chance to start. At last, he earns Deering’s respect, as well as a new home in a strange future.

Pertinent Details

B-TV or Not B-TV: Originally conceived as the first of a series of TV movies made to capitalize on the success of Star Wars, this eventually became the pilot for a regular series instead. When the pilot of producer/co-writer Glen A. Larson’s similar sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica found success as a theatrical movie in Europe and some parts of North America, the decision was made to release Buck Rogers to theatres instead of debuting it on television as had originally been planned. There it grossed a very respectable $21 million and was later split into the first two episodes of the series that followed and would go to last for a season and a half.

Too Ballsy For Primetime: Some changes were made between the theatrical and TV versions. The theatrical version featured a memorable (see more below) opening credit sequence set to the song “Suspension” (performed by Kipp Lennon and co-written by Larson) in which Rogers lays around unconscious while Gray, Hensley and several anonymous models pose seductively, while the split TV eps used the show’s standard credits, set to an instrumental version of the song. Beyond this, scenes where Rogers calls Deering “ballsy” and Twiki refers to freezing his “ball bearings” were cut from the TV version. Several new scenes were also added to the TV version, so the resulting two episodes both came in at then-standard broadcast length. These new scenes haven’t been seen in awhile, since the released DVD set only includes the theatrical version.

An Old Established Character: Proving that 21st century executives didn’t invent the habit of going back to the past to follow and capitalize on new trends and viewer nostalgia, Buck Rogers was based on a property that was over 50 years old by the time the movie hit theatre screens. The character first appeared in a pulp fiction magazine in a story written by Phillip Francis Nowlan and subsequently became famous in other stories, a comic strip, a 1939 movie serial starring Buster Crabbe (who would go on to play a role in the first official episode of the 1979 series), and an earlier short-lived TV series that ran from 1950 to 1951.

My parents are often bewildered by my ability to recall certain details of the past that they had long ago obliterated from their memories. I don’t think I necessarily possess a better grasp of my childhood than any other average person, but it probably isn’t a coincidence that many of the most powerful remembrances of my youth are tied directly to film and television. Even at the earliest possible age I found that such entertainments mattered to me more than most.

It’s because of this that the earliest memory I have that I can specifically date (as opposed to those that might have come before but are impossible for me to determine when they actually happened) occurred in the summer of 1978, when I was two years old. In it, I’m sitting/standing (I was small enough that I could comfortable do both) in the back of the Dombroski’s station wagon. It’s parked at the Twin Drive-in and I am watching a movie I would later realize was called Star Wars, which had been re-released to theatres a year after it’s original run because home video hadn’t been properly invented yet. As much as the movie impacted me later on, the film itself is secondary to my memory of the interior of that car and the salty-buttery taste of the popcorn.

That’s the earliest memory I can put a general date on. The second comes several months later, in March of 1979 to be exact. This time I’m not in a car, but a regular old-fashioned movie theatre, where I’m sitting with my parents (who may or may not have been there with the Dombroskis—who I definitely know were around in May of 1980, when I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the age of 4). Predictably, I have very little recall of the film itself. Even though I’ve always known that I saw Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in a theatre, it wasn’t until I just watched it again 33 years later that I realized the only thing I actually remembered about it was this (embedding has been disabled by the copyright owner, so click on Erin to see the whole glorious video):

So, yes, this proves without a doubt that even at three years old, all I really cared about in movies was the pretty girls, which obviously still stands today, because were it not for the presence of Pamela Hensley and Erin Gray, I would now consider the film to be a total snooze. I actually feel compelled to thank my parents (and possibly the Dombroskis) for sitting through it all those years ago, as this obviously proves that they loved me and would endure all sorts of terrible entertainment for my benefit.

Viewed with the eyes of an old, old man, the film exists in an unhappy limbo where it’s too self-conscious to descend to the cheesy heights of absurdity that transform a film like Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash from a bold-faced rip-off to an original classic of its own, while also being too inelegantly formulaic and commercial to disguise the disinterested rote-ness of its clinical professionalism.

In other words, it’s too well made to be “so-bad-it’s-good”, which is unfortunate because it also doesn’t have the budget or imagination to transcend the innate absurdity of its concept. This isn’t a problem for television, but for a theatrical movie it’s the touch of death. (Having gotten into the series itself, I can happily report that it itself manages to satisfyingly reach the “so-bad-it’s-good” status required to redeem its existence.)

The only way most sci-fi TV shows can afford to stay on the air is to use costly action and special effects as sparingly as possible—to the point that many such shows fall under the trap Joss Whedon refers to as “radio with pictures”. It’s a trap Buck Rogers cannot avoid, partially because of a lack of resources, but also because its chief creative mind, Glen A. Larson, was a television man through and through (his other more successful efforts included Simon & Simon, Quincy, Magnum P.I., Knight Rider and—my personal favourite—The Fall Guy) and the project’s small screen origins are so inherently a part of its DNA there’s no disguising them.

There’s no question that the movie or series would not exist were it not for the success of Star Wars, but as is typically the case, everyone involved failed to properly analyze the reasons for its success. Instead of determining that kids adored C-3PO and R2-D2 because they were a compelling comic duo who served as our gatekeepers to this strange and special universe (everything that had to be explained to them was actually being explained to us!), Larson and associates figured that kids just liked cute funny robot teams and thus gave us Twiki and Dr. Theopolis.

It’s a crucial miscalculation. Though kids were actually delighted by the comic antics of Twiki (because kids are stupid, see also Ewoks), he feels completely out of place in the context of the other characters. R2-D2 was adorable to be sure, but he not only fit in with all of the other characters, he actually managed to be as fully developed as they were—proving capable of genuine acts of heroism and generating affecting emotion. Twiki, on the other hand, is clearly just there to sell toys and make theoretically comedic comments in a voice straight out of a Loony Tunes cartoon. And Dr. Theopolis, rather than being the neurotic, tight-assed C-3PO, is just a boring clock with a face who spends all of his time telling Buck (and us) what’s going on. He’s so forgettable it wasn’t until I re-watched the movie that I remembered he existed and realized Twiki’s main purpose was to carry him around.

As Rogers Gil Gerard manages to have a few fun moments, especially those that compel him to channel his inner Han Solo, but the script both requires him to accept and deny his situation in frustratingly implausible ways, having him act more often to propel the plot than as a fully developed character.

This is also true for Erin Gray, who your eyes will note was about as gorgeous as any human being was capable of being in the late 70s, but who is poorly served by a script that has her acting like an unreasonable military tight-ass in one scene and a moony-eyed dish-mop the next. The scene were she gets upset watching Buck dance with the equally-gorgeous horndog Princess Ardala is supposed to be funny, but it actually makes no sense in the context of what we’ve seen before. She’s acting that way because in television that’s how the female co-star is supposed to act when the leading man dances with the other pretty lady, not because a human being would actually act that way.

But the biggest problem is the film’s lack of urgency, which is most tellingly illustrated in the scene where Rogers, Deering and crew engage in a dogfight with what they then believe are space pirates, but are actually Princess Ardala’s men in disguise. The pirates pick off the other crewmembers with ease, leaving just our two main characters alive. No sense of weight is given to any of these deaths, and Buck even makes a joke as they turn around and fly back to Earth, apparently indifferent to the human loss. If we can’t be expected to feel anything in a moment like this, then everything else is destined to feel similarly lifeless and flat.

That said, I do love that opening credit sequence I wish I could have embedded above. It’s the closest the film ever comes to feeling at all cinematic. Had the rest of the movie shown that kind of gaudy flair I suspect I would have one more treasured childhood memory, instead of one I can just attach a specific month and a year to.

Que sera sera.

B-TV Part Five: Sizzle Without the Steak

Remember back when porn required effort? If you grew up during the Internet age, chances are you don’t, but for those of us old enough to remember when e-mail was a term entirely devoid of meaning, it’s easy to recall those strange days where being too young to legally watch porn actually meant it was difficult to get your hands on it.

Maybe you had a friend with a drunk dad who wouldn’t notice a missing video from his stash or you found a torn up magazine some mentally ill stranger decided to throw away in the nearby neighbourhood park.

But mostly though it just existed as this thing you knew was out there, but no one talked about—kept hidden away in curtained sections of video stores and the top shelves of drug store magazine racks.

Like all things kept out of reach, this only inflamed our curiosity—a fact many TV news shows appreciated, knowing a “serious” report about the adult film industry was a guaranteed way to increase ratings, especially since it allowed them to show images of pretty young women in very little clothing all in the name of “real” journalism.

Given the kind of programing made during that time, it was rarer for fictional shows to explore this same territory—somehow porn just didn’t fit in well with The A-Team or Mr. Belvedere—but that’s why they invented the TV movie, which at the time had already become notorious for exploiting anything at all salacious for the sake of ratings.

That’s why Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, risked dancing on its subject’s grave in order to be seen on TV screens less than a year after she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Paul Snider (beating Bob Fosse’s much better treatment of the same story, Star 80, by two years). The ratings proved worth the effort and the networks regularly sought out material that involved tons of tastefully implied nudity with a touch of realistic drama (see also 1984’s I Married a Centerfold and 1991’s Posing: Inspired By Three Real Stories).

So in 1987, they took notice when the PBS documentary series Frontline aired Death of a Porn Queen, which told the story of the 1984 suicide of an adult film starlet named Shauna Grant (Colleen Applegate).

Applegate’s story was a sad one, but hardly unique. She had left the small town of Farmington, Minnesota, to seek her fortune in California, where she and her boyfriend quickly spent all of their money searching for jobs that didn’t exist.

Desperate for cash, they found an ad for the World Modeling Agency, which was owned and operated by Jim South (a well-known figure in the porn world who was hilariously named “Tim North” in Traci Lords’ autobiography Underneath It All, because she clearly didn’t give a fuck about people figuring out what sleazy asshole she was talking about).

Through South, Applegate went from being a nude model to a full-on porn star. During this period she developed a serious coke addiction and began a relationship with a small time dealer named Jack Ehrlich. Her life spiraled out of control when Ehrlich was sent to prison and ordered her to move out of his house. Certain she couldn’t move back home and live a normal life after her time in porn, she shot herself in the head with a rifle and died a few days later.

Like Stratten’s story it had all of the right elements—a hot blonde, porn, drugs and, best of all, a tragic ending. Producers rushed to her family’s doors and they agreed to sell the rights to Colleen’s story for enough money to pay for a nice tombstone for her grave. That next year, Shattered Innocence hit TV screens right in front of the eyes of twelve year old me.

It must have been successful, since it aired more than once and I watched it every single time for one key reason—it starred Jonna Lee and she possessed an impressively curvy figure. But that’s not to say it didn’t have an emotional effect on me. I remember being drawn in to her character’s sad story and it’s regretable conclusion. Enough so that I always remembered the film and was compelled to buy it when I saw it had been made available by Warner Brothers as a MOD DVD release.

Watching it now, I am struck by two things that prove how much time can colour our perceptions. The first is how awful Ms. Lee’s performance is throughout much of the film and the second is how writer/director Sandor Stern made the strange decision to make her character the least sympathetic person in the film.

The copy line on the back of the DVD case reads “She was a decent girl in an indecent world,” which indicates that whoever wrote it never actually watched the film, but instead came up with this line on the basis of a quick plot summary. As written and performed, “Pauleen Anderson” (all of the names were changed despite the “This is a true story” announcement at the beginning of the film) is spoiled, bratty, foolishly ambitious and kinda dumb. She never strikes the viewer as ever having enough innocence to be shattered.

This is made even more apparent by the fact that characters who should come off at least a little scumbaggy are presented as thoughtful human beings with Pauleen’s best interests at heart. Even her coke dealer boyfriend is presented as a loving, caring guy who wishes she could see how the drugs he sells are ruining her life.

The problem is that the limits of the TV medium forces the film to imply Pauleen’s degradation—showing us only her tearfully crying in a shower after her first on camera sex scene. With a better actress it might have worked, but Lee is too inconsistent as a performer to sell the shame she feels.

At the time Stern was best known as the screenwriter of the hit movie, The Amityville Horror, which was based on a fictional book that was sold as a true story, and he had been working in television for several years when he made Shattered Innocence. As a piece of filmmaking it is never less than professional, but suffers from budget issues that make it feel stage bound, like many other TV productions. His next film, Pin: A Plastic Nightmare, would end up being his first and last theatrical feature, which is a shame since it’s a genuinely great movie about mental illness that was unfortunately sold as a run of the mill horror outing.

Lee’s career, which had seen her playing the blond ingénue in the Judd Nelson vehicle Making the Grade, didn’t survive Shattered Innocence. I remember recognizing her a few years later when she appeared as a model in a then-ubiquitous exercise equipment commercial where the camera spent a lot of time focusing on her chest.

Ultimately the problem with Shattered Innocence is that it refuses to acknowledge its exploitative heart and insists on being far too tasteful for its own good. Stern was too talented to allow the production to descend into tasteless camp, but that’s precisely what it needed to overcome the budgetary and censorship limitations he was forced to deal with. Despite being based on a true story, the film feels bloodless and generic (had the producer’s waited seven years, they could have made pretty much the same movie about Shannon “Savannah” Wilsey, an adult actress whose tragic story didn’t differ that greatly from Applegate’s), making what could have been a potential B-TV classic into a tedious cliche.

Viewed in a post-Boogie Nights world, Shattered Innocence plays itself too straight and corny to work as either a piece of entertainment or compelling anti-porn propaganda. I suspect Stern made the choices he did precisely to avoid the latter, but his even-hand ends up hurting the film rather than saving it. If you're going to a take a plunge into these murkey waters, you gotta go deep to find the treasures that make the trip worthwhile.

B-TV Part Four-B - Another Pink Repost

(By "I will probably repost soon" I actually meant "I'm going to repost immediately. I apologize for the uneven font, but I made the executive decision not to spend four hours correcting Blog-City's dubious code.)

Okay folks, the time has come for me to compose the second of the six posts I bound myself to write when I decided to accept the (totally self-imposed) HOUSE OF GLIB CHALLENGE.  

That’s right….

 It’s Pink Lady time!

 Can you FEEL the pinkness!
Today’s episode is interesting, because on the one hand it manages to be even more awful and difficult to watch than its predecessor, while also containing three moments that legitimately made me laugh out loud with appreciative glee rather than mocking derision.  In one case this was a result of an obvious ad-lib, while the remaining two came about as a result of the sheer talent of two poor, beleaguered professionals whose need to make a living denied them the chance to be elsewhere the days this episode was put to videotape.  

This second episode also serves to highlight what I’m afraid might become a recurring problem in the four following episodes—an issue that brings to bear the tricky subject of race and my own peculiar fascination with the tortured lives of those poor folks stuck in the background.

With that prefaced, let us get to it!

Episode Two
“It Continues….”

Guest Stars:

Once again the show starts with a short monologue from co-host Jeff Altman and once again the laughter we hear him receive has absolutely nothing in common with the size of the in-studio audience or the actual hilarity of his material.  This time, however, the disparity is that much more disturbing, since we are actually allowed to see the audience in many shots.  Throughout the show one cannot help but feel punk’d by the sound of spontaneous applause occurring over an image of an audience who are clearly not clapping or in anyway amused.
During his brief monologue, Altman’s only notable joke comes from a reference he makes to Pink Lady’s Friday timeslot competition The Dukes of Hazzard (upon which he once appeared as Boss Hogg’s even more unscrupulous nephew).  The reason it’s worthy of mentioning is because his joke comes at the expense of Hazzard’s lack of refinement and notorious use of T&A, but only serves to remind the viewer that as terrible as The Dukes of Hazzard was (and even under the thick veil of nostalgia, it sucked pretty damn hard) it never reached this level of artistic atrocity.  
Fortunately his comedicizing comes to a quick end, as he stops to introduce his titular co-hosts, Mie (who throughout my previous entry I kept mistakenly referring to as Mei) and Kei, who—just as they did in the previous episode—appear in traditional kimonos, which they then remove in order to perform an agonizingly soulless rendition of The Wiz’s “Ease On Down the Road”—a song that was pretty darn awful when Diana Ross sang it, but is ten times more excruciating when performed by two young Japanese girls who have no clue what they are saying.  And as was the case with the previous episode, the haphazard nature of the production becomes most evident when one watches the backup dancers, who are clearly under-rehearsed and struggle to stay in time with both the music and each other.
The number ends and its now time for what is—for me—the most painful part of any variety show—the scripted banter segment.  But with Pink Lady, of course, these sequences take on an added dimension of horror, since the only thing worse than a performer being forced to deliver a stale joke given to them by a writer so lazy one presumes it has been ten years since they were physically able to leave their house, is when that performer is a clueless Japanese girl who has no idea what she is actually saying.  Watching poor Kei have to ask Jeff how he got off the wedding cake (in reference to his tuxedo) it’s all one can do not to vow to find any man who was even near a typewriter in that studio and give them a wedgie they would never forget, especially since it’s in service of another mildly racist primer on Japanese culture—in this case, a look at various ceremonial robes, which culminates in Jeff being attacked by a supposed samurai in kabuki style makeup.  While he’s being chased around, the girls reintroduce that week’s list of guest stars and we are treated to the admittedly adorable spectacle of Kei saying the name “Teddy Pendergrass.”

Back from the first commercial break, Altman introduces Larry Hagman, who—one has to remember—was actually a huge star at that time.  Huge enough, in fact, to make one wonder what the hell someone had on him in order to get him to appear on this show.  Again, the scripted banter makes this sequence very difficult to sit through, but Hagman did manage to make me laugh once by quickly ad-libbing, “East Texas,” in response to the audience’s reaction to his use of the word ‘arigato.’  With those two words one glimpses the vast divide between fresh and canned entertainment—by being himself for just one second Hagman entertains more than he does during the entire rest of the show.

It’s now sketch time, which means Mie and Kei (whose names are considerately sewn onto their outfits) have to dance in front of big fake portable stereo, just like they did the week before.  This time, however, they only introduce two sketches.  The first marks the return of Altman’s preacher character and is only notable because Mie and Kei now have their names sewn onto completely different outfits.  
One gets the strange sensation that someone felt
it was difficult to tell them apart.
The second sketch is far more memorable since it marks the first appearance of a recurring cast member who will be instantly familiar to most folks of my generation.

Hey Vern (and Everyone Else), It’s Ernest!

Actually, it’s the late Jim Varney, an actor I always felt never got the credit he deserved largely because of his association with his most famous role.  During his brief appearance here he scores the show’s second genuine chuckle by announcing that Wednesday night at the Bland Ole’ Opry (yeah, I know….) will feature “Readings from Nietzsche.” The sketch then segues into a bland (hmmm….) poke at then-president Jimmy Carter and his kin.  Just like the last episode’s sole attempt at political satire, which was undermined by its strange unwillingness to take its premise to its logical conclusion, this sketch is undone by making the unusual size of Carter’s teeth the focal point of its comedy, even though no attempt has been made to exaggerate the size of Altman’s own choppers.  This sketch also marks the first appearance of the foxy 70s redhead I became infatuated with last episode, but who is never really allowed to be similarly foxy this go around.


Following some more painful banter (this time about how quickly Mie and Kei are learning English, which like the applause it generates bears no relation to any observable reality), we are now treated to a sketch featuring Sid Caesar that is a) culturally offensive, b) a total rip-off of Belushi’s samurai SNL sketches and c) easily the best thing in the entire show (and quite possible the entire series).  The success of the sketch comes entirely from the hands of Caesar, an old pro who could do crap like this in his sleep.  Unlike Altman, whose pseudo-Japanese invariably sounds contrived and insulting, Caesar has a special genius for faking languages in a way that makes them sound completely credible—to the point that one actually starts to believe that poor Mie and Kei can really understand what he is saying to them.  In truth, the sketch still isn’t very good, but the fact that it made me laugh once (when Caesar asks the girls—in what I suspect was another ad-lib—“You think you Bobby Soxers?”) is more than enough to make it the highlight of the episode.

The sketch then ends and we now come to the part of the episode I have truly been dreading:

I don’t know about you, but Mormons happen to be the nicest, most polite people who CHILL ME TO MY VERY SOUL (followed closely by Scientologists, natch) and—needless to say—the sight of an early 80s Donny Osmand fills me with more terror than any horror movie I’ve discussed on this blog, but for the sake of this challenge I faced my fear and kept watching.


Since medley’s are the apparent lifeblood of this show, Donny and the girls start off by singing a bland ditty I’d never heard before.  Donny is then given the spotlight, which he uses to perform an even blander ditty I’ve also never heard before,  Then the three of them reunite to perform an especially soulless rendition of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” that a) makes you completely forget that Donny was once able to fool people into thinking he was Michael Jackson when he sang “One Bad Apple” a decade earlier and b) makes you feel especially sorry for the quartet of African-American backup singers who are forced to pretend that they are enjoying their inclusion in this musical desecration.  
A digression:

I remember once when I was kid watching a New Kids On the Block video that was filmed at a live concert (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) and being taken aback by a moment when a black bassist joined the “Kids” on stage and got funky with them.  The reason this struck me was because I had to wonder what kind of musician could not only get on a stage day after day and perform such patently manufactured music, but also manage to pretend like he enjoyed doing it.  Perhaps, I considered, he wasn’t pretending.  Maybe he did love playing bass for the New Kids and funking out with them on stage, but if that was the case, then how was it possible that he ever became talented enough to be put in that position in the first place?  It seemed to me that any potential musician who could take any joy out of playing “Hanging Tough” would automatically be disqualified from doing so, since the only possible explanation for their elation would be irreversible tone deafness.  

The only theory I could come up with to explain this situation was that in some cases it is possible for a performer to be so entranced by the mere act of performing that they are able to transcend the fact that what they are doing is terrible and enjoy the experience regardless of its merit.  And since it has become my habit to subject myself to projects as misbegotten as Pink Lady I have frequently tried to determine which of the myriad background players are simply pretending not to be in agony and which are actually caught in the grasp of the above condition (which I assume the German’s have named at some point).

Digression ends.

With this song selection, one does see a disconcerting pattern forming.  In the first episode Mie and Kei were compelled to perform “Boogie Wonderland” and “Knock On Wood”, while in this one they are saddled with “Ease On Down the Road” and “We Are Family”, all of which are songs one does not traditionally associate with Japanese performers—for good reason.  Famed more for their dancing than their singing, Mie and Kei have what can be charitably described as slight voices, so this determined focus on bombastic soul hits is clearly another in the growing multitude of bad choices that defined this series.  This is made most evident by the appearance of the show’s last guest performer.


But before we get to that, Altman and Hagman return in an Art Nuvo sketch that isn’t worth the effort it would take to describe it.  This is followed by an equally unworthy sketch based on Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov’s then-recent defection, in which Sid Caesar abuses all of the good will he earned in the previous sketch.

We now cut to Teddy Pendergrass, who is referred to as the show’s “musical guest” even though he eventually does less singing than Osmand.  His performance is notable because he’s joined by the same backing singers we saw earlier, only this time their enthusiasm seems a lot more genuine than it did before and also because it ends with a laughably raunchy number in which he explains to a presumed lover that he “…just want[s them] to do [him]” and which climaxes with about a dozen women rushing the stage.  All of these women are black, which one queasily senses was a choice deliberately made not to offend the kinds of folks to whom the thought of a white woman showing open admiration for a black man was a capital offense.

For the last ten minutes of the show, everyone is thrown together in a musical/comedy montage similar to the tribute to Hollywood that aired the week before.  This time the theme is New York, where Mie and Kei (again wearing clothing with their names stitched on it) are the tourists and their guest stars are the assholes they meet during their travels.  Donny sings “42 Street”, Teddy sings “On Broadway” and Sid and Larry embarrass themselves in a sketch whose entire premise is “Guys Sure Do Like Them Strippers”.

With that the show comes to a merciful end and we are yet again treated to the sight of Mie and Kei in skimpy bikinis dragging Jeff into a hot tub, which this time is not filled with a naked sumo wrestler, but all of our co-stars save Mr. Osmand (who—one suspects—wussed out for specious religious reasons).
I'll let you enjoy this last moment for yourself:
So that brings us to the end of this second of the six HOUSE OF GLIB CHALLENGES.  I hope it was a lot less painful for you than it was for me.  Please join us sometime in the unspecified future when we'll reach the halfway point of the challenge and come face to face with this:
Oddly enough, I'm kinda lookin' forward to it....
(But you shouldn't because it's never going to be written!)

B-TV Part Four - Pink Repost

(This was one of my favourite pieces I ever wrote for the old House of Glib and I thought I'd repost it rather than write whatever lame bullshit I'd come up with in the 3 hours before I have to go to work. At the end there's the promise of future updates in the series. There's one more I did write that I probably will repost soon, but don't wait for anymore after that. Ain't gonna happen.)

The thing about being in last place is that it allows you to take risks you would never even consider if you were winning the race.  After all, what do you have to lose?  If your risk succeeds, then you've made yourself a winner, and if it fails, you're no worse off than you were in the first place.
In 1980 Fred Silverman had been the president of the last place National Broadcasting Company (NBC) for two years--a position he had earned thanks to his reputation as a man who could work miracles for any network he worked for.  During his tenure at the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), he had moved the network away from its core of rural comedies (Mayberry R.F.D, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee-Haw) and transformed it into the home of much more sophisticated comedies such as  All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and M*A*S*H.  At the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) he inherited an ailing Happy Days and not only turned it into a top-rated hit, but built on its success with the popular spin-offs Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy.  He also gave the greenlight to such future hits as Barney Miller, Fantasy Island. Three's Company and Charlie's Angels, taking the network from last to first place.
Now it was his turn to revive NBC, but unfortunately the magic he once seemed to have possessed appeared to have finally run out.  Instead of putting out hits, he gave the world Supertrain, B.J. and the Bear and Hello Larry.  Apart from such nominal successes such as Diff'rent Strokes and its spin-off The Facts of Life, the Peacock network's schedule was such a black hole that it had taken to airing Saturday Night Live reruns on Friday nights in place of original programming.  If this wasn't the time to start taking some risks, then what was?
Enter the duo of two Canadian-born Greek brothers who had a contractual commitment to deliver a new variety show to Silverman's network.  Sid and Marty Krofft had made their fortune as the creators of a series of imaginative Saturday morning TV shows that took full advantage of their background in puppetry.  After beginning their producing careers with the cult classic H.R. Pufnstuf in 1969, they spent the first part of the decade entertaining children before finally deciding to move on to prime time fare with the Osmand siblings' 1976 variety show, Donny and Marie.  Unfortunately they followed this success with one of TV's most infamous debacles, 1977s The Brady Bunch Hour--a legendary flop in which the fictional Brady family moved away from their suburban home to Hollywood, so they could host their own truly terrible variety show.  Not quite as infamous, but equally lamentable was their attempt to turn a group of Scottish one hit wonders into TV stars with 1978s The Bay City Rollers Show--a series derailed by a) the group's utter lack of comedic (and musical) talent, b) accents so thick they made their poorly delivered punchlines completely unintelligible and c) its being filmed after the highly-acrimonious group had essentially split up and were no longer speaking to each other.   Despite these failures, the Krofft's were determined to hold onto their new variety show niche and in 1980 they delivered to NBC not one, but two such efforts.
(Now, those of you who have some clue where I'm going with this already know I'm not about to start talking about Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters....)
In the beginning, the Krofft's considered Hee-Haw's Roy Clark as a potential host and then very briefly considered The Village People, before being told that NBC had made a deal with a Japanese company involving the cross-promotion of their various entertainment projects.  As part of that deal, NBC was obligated to air six hours of content featuring a property owned by the Japanese company.  Among these potential properties was a megasuccessful female singing duo who had sold over 100,000,000 albums in Japan since 1976 and who had just made their first attempt to break into the North American market with the minor hit single  "Kiss in the Dark" (which peaked at #37 on the Billboard Top 40).
Silverman and his fellow executives were too beaten to care how they met their Japanese obligation and their foreign counterparts desperately wanted to counteract the duo's waning popularity at home by making them superstars in North America, so the Krofft's were told that they could meet their final commitment to the beleaguered network by producing six episodes of a variety show starring the duo and the two brothers--happy to have the difficult decision taken out of their hands--agreed.
And thus Pink Lady was born.
To direct the series' "comedy" segments, the Kroffts hired frequent Mel Brooks collaborator Rudy De Luca, who would later go on to write and direct Transylvania 6-5000, a 1985 horror movie satire only remembered today because it featured a young Geena Davis in an ultra-fetching vampiress costume three years before she won the Oscar for The Accidental Tourist.  To handle the writing of the show, they turned to Mark Evanier, who had worked on the lamentable Bay City Rollers show and who would go on to earn comic book immortality thanks to his collaborative efforts with Sergio Aragones on Groo the Wanderer.
Knowing that they would need a western face to absorb the potential culture shock of a network show hosted by two Japanese woman, they hired a 29 year-old comedian who had a development contract with NBC at that time--Jeff Altman.  In later interviews, Altman would (only half-jokingly) suggest that he got the job because his last name started with an "A" and was therefore at the top of the list of comedians who had similar deals with the network.
Unfortunately for the behind the scenes talent, the extremely tight schedule of their foreign stars did not allow them to meet or rehearse with the duo until the day before the pilot episode was scheduled to be shot.  It was only then that they learned the two details that ensured the entire project had been doomed from conception.  Despite the constant assurances to the contrary, Mitsuyo Nemoto (aka Mie) and Keiko Masuda (aka Kei) were not fluent in English.  Though they could engage in extremely limited conversation, they definitely did not speak the language well enough to host a North American TV show.  To make matters worse, it was clear that neither one of them wanted to have anything to do with the show and were doing it out of contractual obligation rather than professional desire.
The end result was an infamous trainwreck that is rightfully considered one of the worst TV shows of all time; one that remains as perhaps the best example of a "What Were They Thinking?" failure that era ever produced.
Six episodes were filmed in total, all of which are available on DVD (the show's lamentable reputation having grown large enough over the years for it to become a desirable collectible for all lovers of show business kitsch) and all of which I now have in my possession.  For reasons I still don't quite yet understand myself, I have decided to review each one of these six episodes--a task that will no doubt require a Herculian amount of will and endurance.  Enough so that I have chosen to name the endeavor the very first:
House of Glib Challange!
Today I shall begin with the pilot episode mentioned above.  Having just watched it and listened to this Realaudio interview with Mark Evanier, in which he implies that it rose to a level of success the others could not meet, I truly understand what a painful and agonizing task I have set for myself.  I sincerely hope that the end results justify whatever pain I will surely experience.
Episode One
"It Begins...."

Guest Stars:
Sherman Hemsley
Bert Parks
The credits begin with shots of a stadium full of people, all of them presumably there to worship our lovely young hosts.  Mie and Kei are shown waving to their hoards of adoring fans as they drive to their stage in the backs of separate convertibles (because sharing one would be so gauche!)--pink chyrons informing us who these presumably famous women actually are.  This is followed by a credit shot for Altman and then, oddly, another one for our titular hosts--a move that essentially gives them both first and third billing.  My guess is that they did this to remind the less capable viewers who weren't paying attention five seconds earlier that the two Japanese girls actually are supposed to be the stars of the show.  The credits continue, giving us a chilling look at the next 46 minutes of our lives.
Altman comes out alone--the ovation he receives baring no possible relation to the amount of people sitting in the theater.  Despite there being at most 100 people hijacked tourists annoyed that they couldn't get in to see a good show surrounding the stage (and I'm being generous with that figure) the sound we hear is equivalent to the applause and cheers of a packed auditorium.  The same aural disconnect is evident as Altman begins his monologue and is met by laughter that is far too powerful for both that amount of people and the actual quality of the jokes.  As a stand-up, Altman has always been more of a character comedian--relying on impressions and funny voices for his laughs--so he seems visibly uncomfortable as he tells a series of sub-sub-Carson one liners and only seems happy after pulling off an out-of-place pratfall.  Following his slapschtick, he goes on to introduce his co-hosts, explaining to the audience that despite their relative anonymity in North America, they are HUGE in Japan.  He proves it by showing the exact same stadium footage we were treated to in the credits three and a half minutes earlier.  The subtext might as well be text--THESE GIRLS ARE SUPERFAMOUS, so it doesn't really matter if you have no fucking clue who they are.  Altman informs us that Mie and Kei are going to begin the show by performing "...what I've been told is a traditional Japanese number," and the two of them come out in ornate kimonos, which--following a brief Japanese-language intro--they tear off to reveal glittery pink gowns as they begin singing their version of Earth, Wind and Fire's disco classic "Boogie Wonderland".
Now is as good time as any to discuss Pink Lady's musical abilities--they're not terrible, but one cannot help but assume that they're much, much better when performing in their own language.  Though their version lacks the funky beauty of the original, it is fun in a goofy karaoke kind of way.  Unfortunately the same could not be said for the dancing that accompanies it.
In his interview, Evanier tells us that the only time the ultra-professional duo ever got mad during the whole ordeal was when they felt they weren't given enough time to perfect their dance moves.  Having much more pride in their dancing ability than their singing, they worried that the scant rehearsal time they were given was making them look bad and they had a point.  Not only do their movements seem under-rehearsed, but so do those of their back-up chorus, whose out-of-sync mistakes the camera completely fails not to highlight at every opportunity.
Their first number having come to its inevitable conclusion, it's finally time to see how Pink Lady fare in the non-lip-syncing portion of the show.  It's at this point that you actually start feeling some empathy and affection for our embattled heroines as you imagine how you would do if you were asked to attempt to get laughs via a phonetically memorized script written in a language you don't understand that's filled with specific cultural references and attitudes that bear no relation to your life experience.  By that standard, Mie and Kei actually do an admirable job, although it certainly helps that they are both far more adorable than you or I will ever be (no offense, but it's totally true).  From the very beginning it becomes clear that the writers are following the mold of past variety hits such as The Sonny and Cher Show and Donny and Marie, by attempting to give each host their own distinctive personality.  Mie is the polite, hospitable one, Altman is the stooge who's constantly trying to make himself seem more successful than he actually is and Kei is the sarcastic bee-yotch who isn't afraid to put her male co-host in his proper place.

Naturally, this instantly makes Kei our favourite.

Despite their best efforts, the trio's success is severely hampered by the quality of their material, which seems as though it would have appeared dated even when it first aired, much less 27 years later.  One of the more cringe-worthy elements of the show are the constant Japanese references, which err on the wrong side of insulting stereotype.  At the end of their banter, the girls introduce Altman to their "bodyguardo", a fat guy posing as a sumo wrestler wearing a much-more network-friendly version of the traditional mawashi.  
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After returning from what was presumably a much-welcome commercial break, Mie and Kei start singing a song in front of a set designed to look like a large portable stereo (with a blue-screened image of a real stereo used in the long shots).  It's hard to tell, but it appears the song has something to do with the kind of things you are likely to hear on the radio and is merely a ruse to connect together a series of random and universally unfunny blackout sketches, all of which seem to be designed to showcase Altman's character skills.  The first sketch has him portraying a radio evangelist, but any potential satire of such folks is dutifully avoided so as not to alienate the Southern folk who might not see the humour in such mockery.  The second features Leonard Moon, the punch-drunk boxer who regularly appeared in Altman's stand up work.  Beyond that it's only noteworthy for featuring a foxy 70s redhead in a slinky dress (for absolutely no discernible reason besides the fact that such creatures are admittedly fascinating to behold) and this itself is only noteworthy because when you search the credits to find out who the redhead is, you discover that none of the featured sketch performers are identified by name, which you suspect they were mad about when the show was made, but a lot less so when it actually aired. 
But it is the final sketch that disappoints the most, simply because it is the only one that actually had any potential.  In it Altman dances on stage doing his passable Nixon impression (which admittedly he's doing at a time when everyone--including the five year old version of me who was alive when the show was made--could do a passable Nixon impression) as the announcer--also Altman--tells us that the disgraced former president is traveling around the country as the lead singer of The Richard Nixon Soul Review.  Not a brilliant or particularly insightful concept to be sure, but still one that could be funny if done right.  Unfortunately the sketch ends just when it should begin, stopping short of actually showing us Tricky Dick giving us his Motown best.  That the show squanders the lone idea that actually might have been successful pretty much sums up the entire state of the whole enterprise.
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Now it's time for one of the promised guest stars to finally appear.  In this case it's the star of the TV classic The Jeffersons:
Sherman Hemsley! 
Actually I have to admit that I've developed a certain fascination with the actor ever since I saw him in one the more recent iterations of The Surreal Life.  Seldom as viewers have we ever gotten to see such a dramatic dichotomy between a performer and his most famous role.  An actor made famous playing a loud, obnoxious blowhard (a character who was in fact designed to be a--much more successful--black Archie Bunker), Hemsley proved himself to be an extremely shy, lonely man who was so softspoken that the few times he did say something, his nearly inaudible words had to be subtitled so we could appreciate them.  This has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand, but I suspect I'm never going to mention him on this blog ever again, so I might as well document my observation while the opportunity presents itself.
Hemsley appears in aid of a one-joke sketch that imagines what a USO show would be like if women were drafted into the military.  According to the show's writers it would be exactly like a regular USO show except the comedians would be dames and the sex kittens would be dudes.  Not quite what I would call a dazzling expression of the depths of the human imagination.  The sketch is only significant because a) it's far longer than it has any right to be, b) it features the foxy 70s redhead mentioned above in the role of the female Bob Hope substitute and c) in it (at precisely 18 minutes and 56 seconds into its running time) we are subjected to the show's first sushi joke, which is delivered extremely awkwardly by Kei (it being obvious that both she and her partner are far better at banter than sketch-work).
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Back from another sadly nonexistent ad break (this being the rare TV DVD where the lack of commercial interruptions is a bad thing) Altman introduces the girls to their second "special" guest:
Bert Parks!
Actually, I'm enough of a show business trivia geek to know who Parks is, but--luckily for those folks my age and younger who've never heard of the dude--Altman explains who he is to the girls (he's the guy who hosted the Miss America pageant for 25 years--from 1954-1979).  To the girls' amazement, the elderly gentleman's obvious stunt double tumbles onto the stage with a series of flips before a not-very-cleverly-hidden edit allows Parks to reveal himself to the audience (whose reception is still far-greater than the sum of their numbers).  The necessary banter is exchanged and we cut to another sketch featuring Altman as a fast-talking "Crazy Eddie"-type shilling cultural knock-offs (who also introduces a very short and utterly inexplicable sketch featuring Altman doing a bad Marlon Perkins impression) while the foxy 70s redhead does her best busty showcase model acting in the background. 
Having seen the above screencap of the foxy 70s redhead I keep referring to, I suspect several of you are thinking "Dude, she's not that foxy--move on already!"  To which I can only respond by saying:
Too late!
I am already smitten
I cannot be unsmit!
It finally being time for us to see something that doesn't suck, the show cuts to a video of Blondie performing the fourth track "Shayla" from their 1979 album Eat to the Beat (and anyone who tells you that the only reason I know this is because I just spent the last ten minutes browsing through their catalog on iTunes is a dirty rotten stinking liar who should mind their own beeswax thank you very much!).  Based on a quick peak at the rest of the episodes, it appears as though any musical act that actually had the slightest bit of "heat" in 1980 made their appearances via pre-taped videos that spared them the indignity of interacting with the hosts.  In the case of Cheap Trick, their "appearance" in the third episode is actually just the music video they filmed for "Dream Police" (from the album of the same name).  My guess is that when Ms. Harry and her cohorts filmed the clip, they had no idea where or how it was going to be used.
Sucks to be them!
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Back to the actual show, Altman and the girls briefly assault us with a sketch called "The Adventure of the Pink Falcon", which one assumes is a reference to The Pink Panther series, but really only seems to exist to prove that a) Mie looks better in a vinyl jumpsuit than Kei does and b) Altman cannot do a proper Bogart impression to save his or anyone else's life. 
Fortunately the sketch is short and cuts to a longer piece in which Altman does a bad Carson impression and interviews the girls--thus allowing them to be identified via chyron for the third time this episode.  Somebody really wants to make sure that we know who these girls are!  Before the sketch ends with a joke whose sole premise is that a comedian performing in Japanese is hee-larious, we are exposed to what amounts to be the most entertaining 13 seconds of the entire show (and probably the entire series):
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The last desperate volley of sketches comes in the form of a tribute-of-sorts to Hollywood.  Despite his present-day obscurity, one does have to admit that Parks is an old pro and has far more talent than a show like this deserves--his introductory song and dance actually bordering on the right side of charming rather than the more likely cheesy and dated.  Hemsley makes his final appearance in a sketch that takes aim at overtly-political Oscar speeches (take THAT Vanessa Redgrave!) and sign-language captioning for the deaf (take THAT...uh...deaf people....), but that I'm only mentioning because it has foxy 70s redhead in it.  I'd describe the rest of the sketches but this post is already four times longer than I thought it would be, so I'll merely say that they suck harder than yo mama (take THAT yo mama!) and move on to the song and dance medley that ends the show.
A song and dance medley ends the show.
Following some banter involving Neil Diamond (in which he is not used as a punchline) the girls perform snippets of Carol King's "You've Got A Friend", Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" and Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood".  But don't take my word for it, see it for yourself:
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And--FINALLY!--we reach the end of the show, which Mie and Kei inform Altman means it's time to go into the hot tub!  Our American co-host protests, but the girls change out of their dresses into string bikinis and drag him--tuxedo and all--into the hot tub, where he still protests, but with far less enthusiasm and conviction.  Now would seem like a perfect time to reintroduce a forgotten character from the beginning of the show!
Oh, that "bodyguardo"!
He's so fat and naked!
And with that the credits role and I feel a shiver roll down my spine knowing that I have to do this five more times and next time I'll have to face this:
Pray for me!

B-TV: Part Three - Same Shit, Different Results

Even though I already posted this week’s edition of Rejected By Rod(?), I’m dipping back into my well of unposted Flick Attack reviews to start off this look at a B-TV classic. The FA part of this review was actually included in the first batch I ever sent to Rod, when I very briefly held myself to a very strict 250-word limit, which explains why it’s so much more pithy and succinct than my typical FA output.

Kiss Meets The Phantom of The Park



The defining moment of the 1978 TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park comes when drummer Peter Criss (aka Cat Man) first speaks aloud and the familiar Saturday morning cartoon voice of male Wonder Twin Zan (Michael Bell) comes out of his mouth.  It’s then that you realize this film was: A) produced by Hanna-Barbara, B) stars a bunch of people who REALLY didn’t want to be involved in its production and C) is far more wonderful than mere mortals like us probably deserve.

Starring the world’s greatest all-time terrible rock band, the original members of Kiss play themselves—with the fictional license that along with being unapologetic cash whores, they also each possess super powers, which they’ll need in order to stop the titular villain (a slumming Anthony Zerbe) who is turning amusement park customers into robotic slaves.  The band is alerted to his evil doings by a pretty young fan named Melissa, (Deborah Ryan) who—in the film’s most fantastic and unrealistic contrivance—Gene Simmons doesn’t try to fuck.

Normally talented genre director Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad), couldn’t overcome the film’s non-existent budget and as a result the film has an almost Ed Woodian level of unintentionally amusing shoddiness (ie. Ace Frehley’s stunt double is clearly an overweight black man).  Definitely not for the serious minded, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park is one of those nostalgia pieces whose glaring imperfections actually makes it far more loveable than a well-made film.


I based the above review on multiple viewings of a really shitty bootleg copy I downloaded from Napster back when that was totally a thing you could do. As crappy as the quality was, the film itself was the same version I had seen several times play on weekday television when I was kid. So, you can imagine my surprise when I recently downloaded what I thought was merely a superior quality version of the exact same film, only to be stunned by the strange new movie that played before my eyes. Not only did it look 1000x better than my previous version, but right from the start I could tell that the editing was different, the soundtrack was better, and much of the overall suckiness had been removed.

Being the asshole film geek that I am, I didn’t even have to turn to the Internet to figure out what was happening. All I had to do was look through my personal poster collection and find my copy of the one sheet for Kiss en ataque de los fantamas­—the Spanish language version of the film, which had actually been released theatrically in Europe. I knew that when the original TV version aired, Kiss had refused to license their songs to play during non-concert/performance scenes in the films, but had changed their mind for the European release. This clued me into what I was watching. I had just been unprepared for how radically different the two films were.

That’s not to say that this version (which is credited as Kiss in Attack of the Phantoms) isn’t as hilariously and rapturously cheesy as the version I had seen dozens of times before—it just manages to leave out all of the parts that made the original look like the Ed Wood spectacle I described in the (thus-far unpublished) FA review I originally wrote over a year ago.

I’ve always said that the best way to teach people how much impact editing can have on a project is to show them the studio and director cuts of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which are as radically different as two films based on the same raw material can be. The differences between Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park and Kiss in Attack of the Phantoms aren’t that extreme, but they are significant enough to radically change the viewing experience.

The European theatrical version is close to 10 minutes shorter than the original, but by reordering and re-cutting important scenes, the plot actually feels much more organic and less haphazard—especially regarding Melissa’s search for her roboticized boyfriend. Gone are the shots featuring the overweight black stunt man dressed as Space Ace, and—most importantly—the Kiss tracks on the soundtrack bring a sense of fun and energy to the film that makes it many faults so much easier to digest. Just take a look at the difference between the classic scene where the evil robot version of Gene attacks a bunch of security guards. In the original the sequence is scored by what sounds like archival stock porn music:


While in the European theatrical cut, the same scene is scored to “Radioactive” from Simmons 1978 solo album:


In fact, the group’s (in)famous solo albums are the only sources the new soundtrack draws from—with Simmons getting the most attention. Beyond “Radioactive”, the film also uses his “Man of 1000 Faces” and “Mr. Make Believe”. Paul gets his “Love in Chains” in there, and Criss provides “Hooked on Rock ‘N’ Roll”. But the best moment belongs to Frehley, whose solo album produced the project's only lasting hit—the classic “New York Groove”, which turns the once-awful roller coaster fight sequence (see the clip embedded after the original FA review) into something pretty darn awesome:


Okay, maybe “awesome” is a bit much, but there’s no doubt that this alternative version completely changed my appreciation of this oft-mocked film. I already loved it when its imperfections couldn’t be ignored, but now that I’ve seen them successful hidden and disguised that love isn’t hipster-asshole-ironic, it’s hipster-asshole-genuine. And therein lies a whole heaping world of difference.

B-TV: Part Two - Re-Open For Business

Made as a 90-minute pilot for a TV show that never happened, Bates Motel is an especially interesting example of the B-TV phenomenon. Essentially a TV sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the movie ignores the two other film sequels that preceded it and imagines a new scenario in which Norman Bates died in the insane asylum he was sent to after his infamous murder spree.

We only actually see Bates (played by a not entirely convincing Anthony Perkins lookalike) briefly in one flashback scene and some photographs. Our protagonist instead is Alex West (Harold & Maude’s Bud Cort), a fellow patient who befriended Norman as a boy, when he was sent to the asylum after fatally pushing his abusive stepfather into a dry-cleaning machine. Following Norman’s death, Alex discovers he has inherited the motel where Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane famously met her end in the shower. Judged cured by the same doctor who encouraged his friendship with Norman, Alex finds himself out in the real world for the first time in over 20 years, ready to become a hospitality entrepreneur.

Once he arrives in Fairville (renamed from the original’s Fairvale), Alex is met with nothing but incredulity when he insists he's there to reopen the Bates place. Local handyman Henry Watson (Moses Gunn), who used to do small jobs for Norman and his mother back in the day, tells Alex all about what happened there and why folks might be reluctant to see the motel re-opened. The town’s bank manager, Tom Fuller (Gregg Henry), is at first excited by the news that Alex has gotten his hands on the property, but is stunned to learn he has no interest in tearing down the motel and putting a condo development in its place. Despite this, he agrees to give Alex a loan to rebuild the place anyway.

Upon moving into the property’s famous house, Alex learns he’s not alone, as a local runaway named Willie (Lori Petty) has been squatting there for the past few months. She convinces him to let her stay and help out around the place, despite his strong conviction that this is something he has to do by himself.

Alex hires Henry to take on the reconstruction, during which the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Bates both managed to be unearthed, seriously unnerving the crew. At night, Alex is tormented by visions of Norman’s mother around the property, forcing us to wonder if the place is haunted or if he has been released from the asylum too soon.

Eventually the motel is ready to open. Alex admits to Willie that a lot is on the line. His first payment to the bank is due the next day. She asks him how much he has to pay, and is shocked to find out that he owes $10,000. It seems impossible that the small motel can come up with that kind of money in just one night, but Alex—as nervous as he is—remains convinced that everything is going to turn out alright.

Before they know it, their first guest arrives. Barbara Peters (Kerrie Keane) is an aerobics instructor who tells Alex she’s there to work on a book she’s writing, but the truth is that she has come to the motel to commit suicide, spurred by her three failed marriages and uncertain future.

But before she can slit her wrists, the rest of the motel becomes fully booked when a group of teenagers in strangely old-fashioned clothes arrive to have a party. One of the teens, Sally (Khrystyne Haje), walks into Barbara’s room by mistake and somehow convinces the older woman to join them. There at the party, she is introduced to the shy, quiet, Tony (Jason Bateman), who she is strongly attracted to, despite their age difference.

While this goes on, Willie has taken it upon herself to look into the suspicious connection between one of the members of the construction crew and Tom Fuller. Could it be more than a coincidence?

Barbara and Tony almost kiss, but she stops before it happens, insisting that she’s far too old to share such a moment with someone his age. He runs off, and she follows him. Outside the motel, he tells her how cold and lonely he feels, and she comforts him as best she can. When she leaves him to return to her hotel room, she picks up the razor she had brought to end her life and is shocked when Sally appears in the room, despite the locked door. Sally explains that she knows why Barbara is there and how she feels. She insists that after a person commits suicide their misery doesn’t end, but continues in a place that is cold and lonely.

Barbara remembers Tony using those exact same words and accuses Sally of spying on them. Sally tells her that she did no such thing and that she knows what she’s talking about because she committed suicide nearly 30 years earlier. She opens the window to Barbara’s room and outside sit all of the kids in outdated clothes, including Tony. They all tell Barbara their names, date of births and the day they committed suicide. After they have all spoken, they leave her alone to decide what she should do that night.

As they leave, Alex returns to the house and is horrified by the sight of Mrs. Bates at the top of the stairs. She comes running at him with a knife, but is tackled by Henry before she can hurt him. Henry rips off her mask and reveals Tom Fuller, who’s been trying to drive Alex crazy to get his hands on the valuable property. He insists the cops would never believe Alex’s story, but shouts out a panicked confession when “the real” Mrs. Bates appears from another room to attack him. In this case, it’s Willie, armed with a tape recorder, which she threatens to take to the police unless Fuller agrees to renegotiate Alex’s loan payments. Turns out Alex was right and everything did work out in the end.

The next morning, Barbara walks out of her motel room very much alive. Alex tells her to come back soon, which causes her to adopt a nervous smile. As she drives off, Alex looks directly into the camera and speaks right to us for the first time, saying:

Written and directed by Richard Rothstein, who also wrote the 1984 Wes Craven B-TV classic Invitation to Hell, Bates Motel is an interesting effort whose flaws work hard to disguise a truly interesting concept. Had the pilot been successful and actually gone to series, I suspect the result would have been the kind of short-lived cult show that fans discuss ad naseum today (think Max Headroom).

For me the most fascinated aspect of the potential series is its protagonist. As portrayed by Cort, Alex is a naïve innocent barely ready for the realities of the modern world, yet his history proves that he is capable of protecting himself when forced. He’s not a traditional hero, but he’s genuinely likable, which makes the fact that the movie’s ending suggests the series would have him take on the role of Rod Serling-esque anthology host very intriguing. Neither mysterious or dangerous, he would have been the first character of his kind to project an air of vulnerability rather than Uatu-like ambivalence.

It’s hard to say what the tone of the series might have been. Barbara’s story is more preachy than scary, but is thankfully saved from being unbearable by the excellent performances of all involved. I suspect, like The Twilight Zone, a Bates Motel series would have attempted to touch upon all kinds of storytelling, but that’s just pure conjecture.

That said, there are several things that work against the film. The soundtrack is truly horrible, filled with a cheap canned score that ruins several important moments. I’ve always been in the minority who’s found Lori Petty to be a charming performer, but the character of Willie is just too irrational and emotional to sympathize with (she literally leaves and comes back three times in the course of the movie). But the worst aspect is the cheesy Scooby-Doo mystery involving the banker’s attempt to steal the land. It’s trite and obvious to begin with, and only made more with an actor as obviously oily as Gregg Henry cast in the villain’s role.

Still, Bates Motel (which has never officially been released on video in North America) is still worth seeking out, if only to appreciate what happens when an imaginative concept is undone by imperfect execution.

B-TV: Part One - A Small Scale Disaster

(Note: It's late and I'm tired, so I've chosen not to proofread the following post. Please consider any mistakes you might find to be deliberate "Easter Eggs" I left specifically for your amusement)

They don't make TV movies like they used to. Now, that's not me speaking out of any sense of misplaced nostalgia, it's literally true--they DO NOT make TV movies like they did when I was young. That is to say they pretty much don't make them much at all. Beyond the occasional Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, the Big 3 networks have all but abandoned the format in favour of much cheaper reality show programming. This marks a huge change from back when you could count on one or two debuting each week. And, no cable doesn't count. If you can include all of the same shit that you can see in a theater, it isn't a TV movie, it's a movie that premiered on TV. Huge difference. Don't be stupid and make me explain it to you.

When people think about the TV movies of old, they usually remember the soapy, message pictures that seemed to dominate the format. But any B-Movie fan can tell you that many great genre films debuted on the small screen. This continuing feature is dedicated to briefly looking at some classic examples of films that were too big for TV, but way too small for anywhere else.

We begin our examination with a cheesy classic that plays like the redheaded bastard stepchild of the already somewhat disreputable Airport series. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it had originally been written to serve as the fifth film in the series, following The Concorde... Airport '79 (in fact, it was actually released in the Philippines as Airport '85). All of the elements are there--a collection of c-list performers, gratuitous melodrama, and the kind of potential disaster only a ton of drugs could help conceive. It's the kind of film whose utter disregard for anything approaching verisimilitude is so vehement you get the sense that the filmmakers would happily kick you in the nuts if they could, because by that point there's clearly nothing holding them back. Yet, I found this more charming than frustrating--a classic example of imagination refusing to bow down to the petty bullshit of reality. And, believe me, this film bows down to no reality you know.

I am, of course, talking about:

Despite the claims of the above poster, the film originally aired on television in 1983 with the title Starflight: The Plane That Couldn't Land and it was directed by TV movie vet Jerry Jameson, who--wouldn't you know it--just happened to also make a little film called Airport '77.


Jameson was also responsible for the mega-bomb Raise the Titanic, so it's amazing he managed to find any work at all, much less directing TV movies like Starflight. Suffice it to say, the budget of the two films bear absolutely no relation to the other.

Like a lot of Jameson's 80s TV work, Starflight stars Lee Majors, which is awesome. He plays a pilot, which is also awesome. He's also banging single mom publicist Lauren Hutten, which would be gap-toothed awesome, were it not for the fact that he's married to someone else, which makes it adulterously awesome.

The reason Majors and Hutton know each other is because he's the pilot of the groundbreaking flight she's publicizing. The Starflight is a revolutionary hypersonic passenger plane that goes up so far into the atmosphere it can travel to Australia in just over one hour. It's so revolutionary that its creator, Hal Linden, is pretty sure the flight is going to end in disaster. Turns out, he's right!

Actually, the flight would've gone fine, were it not for the desperate actions of sleazy businessman Terry Kiser. Flying to Australia for the launch of the satellite he funded, he's devastated by the news that the launch is going to be postponed, as it will ruin him financially. Consequences be damned, he orders that the rocket be launched anyway. His Australian crony reluctantly agrees, but then blows up the rocket midway through its flight. The resulting debris damages Starflight and forces it to gain even more altititude than it already had. The shocking result is that the plane completely leaves Earth's atmosphere and enters the cold, black darkness of space!

The rest of the film is then naturally devoted to the safe return of most of the passengers (you'll be shocked to learn that Kiser doesn't survive the trip), which is mostly accommodated by a space shuttle that travels to and from Earth with the 15-minute frequency of a public bus.

During this long stretch of film there are moments of genuine tension and excitement (Linden is transported from Starflight to the shuttle via a casket), pure unintended hilarity (the expense of constantly shooting everyone as being weightless is taken care of by the stewardesses rolling out a length of rope for the passengers and crew to hold on as they walk across the plane), and classic disaster movie irony (the airplane mechanic who has to go out into space to repair the plane is afraid of flying!).

Even someone as incapable of giving a flying fuck about science as myself will not be able to ignore the constant barrage of implausibilities. If Starflight can't get back to Earth without blowing up in the blazing furnace of the planet's atmosphere, how the hell did it make it past that same atmosphere to get into space in the first place? How is it that the space shuttle is able to touch down right where it needs to be, every single time, at least half a dozen times in one day? Doesn't Earth's orbit make that impossible? Who's paying for all the fuel required for all these fucking launches? Are these 50+ passengers really worthy an investment that even in 1982 had to be in the high millions, if not billions? Why would Lauren Hutton take her 12 year-old daughter on the maiden flight of an unproven aeronautical innovation that was obviously doomed to failure? Okay, so except for that one expensive scene, we don't see anyone weighless because they're wearing their seatbelts and holding the aisle rope--how come their hats and ties aren't floating around?

I could go on, but won't. Starflight doesn't need to justify its vast array of bullshit. It's a silly TV movie! And that's why we love them. Let the "real" movies worry about such undramatic, story-stopping foolishness like science. Starflight is grounded in its own reality--the B-TV Bullsh*t Zone.

And you wouldn't want it to be anywhere else!