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The lost art of the television movie?

Today I thought I would focus on the much-maligned made-for-TV-movie. For years dominated by WomJeps (that’s women-in-jeopardy movies to you and me) the TV movie is a misunderstood animal. At its worst it’s characterised by melodramatic stories, below-par acting and shoddy production values.  But TV movies have also given us some classics. Here are some examples chosen to show you a broad cross-section and history of this overlooked art form.

No SFX required. Just great characters.

No SFX required. Just great characters.

REQUIEM FOR A HEAVEYWEIGHT (1962)

Jack Palance chews up the scenery as only he could in this Rod Serling teleplay about a washed-up boxer. Yes, he of the Twilight Zone. Before he became forever associated with breaking the fourth wall in creepy tales, Serling was a heavywight himself in the world of playwrights. This is arguably one of his greatest efforts.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

Darren McGaven shines as abrasive but likeable reporter Carl Kolchak in the first of the character’s outings. The second most popular telefilm of all time (the honour of being the first goes to The Love Boat), McGavin and his long-suffering editor track down a vampire in Las Vegas. Screenwriter Richard Matheson, one of the greatest fantasists of the 20th century, sets up many of the reworkings of the modern vampire story that have become staples of the genre today. The film was so successful it spawned a (pretty good) sequel, “The Night Strangler” and a television series that has special effects so poor it is best reserved for fans of McGavin . Features a particularly creepy ending.

kolchak

DUEL (1972)

Yes, it’s directed by THAT Stephen Spielberg. From a script by Richard Matheson (again) and featuring popular TV actor Dennis Weaver, this is 70s TV personified. A nameless truck driver hunts a hapless motorists along the desert for no good reason. SPOLIER ALERT! Features Spielberg’s characteristic” roaring shark” sound when the trucker gets his comeuppance at the end.

SOMETHING EVIL (1972)

Spielberg was on a roll in 1972. This curiosity features Darren McGaven again as a man whose family is targeted by an unholy presence when they purchase a farm with “something evil” in the barn. Genuinely creepy, especially the two glowing eyes. Has that great blend of realism and the supernatural that characterizes 1970s horror.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)

One of the great things about TV movies was that nobody really cared too much about getting things right. Lacking the immense budgets of today’s productions, they were enticements to audiences to stay home rather than go to the movies. The results were some genuine oddities, such as this little horror gem.Recently remade by Guillermo Del Torro, who is obviously one of the movie’s legions of fans. A tip, don’t watch it in the house alone.

THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973)

A post-Star Trek Shatner stars alongside a cavalcade of 1970s TV royalty that includes Chuck Connors, Buddy Ebsen  and Paul Winfield. A spooky tale of a ghost on an airplane. ’70s television had such a strong lineup of character actors that they could fill out an entire movie. In this made-for-TV shocker, the actors sell the not-so-special effects.

KILLDOZER (1974)

From the strange to the downright crazy. A bulldozer (yes, you heard right) is taken over by an alien lifeform. Construction workers wisely wait for it to run out of gas. But wait, they’re on an island and there’s no cover! Wickedly entertaining hokum from a story by sci-fi legend Theodore Sturgeon.

SNOWBEAST (1977)

When Spielberg and Lucas created the summer blockbuster, TV producers were quick to emulate them. This TV horror movie, for instance, is actually Jaws with Bigfoot. And for that, it works incredibly well.  Just as we found out in Lucas’s reissue of The Empire Strikes Back “Special Edition”, seeing more is not always a good thing. It pays to hide your Bigfoot. During this fright-fest we barely glimpse more than a hairy arm or a snorting nostril, but the result is a growing atmospere of suspense and dread that’s hard to beat.

See the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxgPgQT155Y

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978)

TV’s answer to Star Wars was also to create something similar. So here we have the Book of Mormon… in space! Managing to be both campy and portentous at the same time, this capitalized on the groundbreaking SFX that had made George Lucas an overnight success. Coupled with iconic costumes, ships, and sets, and some suitable gravitas from Lorne Greene, the movie paved the way for a TV series that has stood the test of time.

SIBYL (1976)

TV movies could also tread more psychological turf than movies, which were becoming increasingly gimmicky and SFX driven in the late 1970s. Here Sally Fields excells as a woman with multiple-personality disorder. The piece is not just a character study, it’s a study of many characters, and Fields shows off her acting chops in a varierty of personalities.

hulk

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (1978)

Another function of the TV movie was to test the waters for upcoming series. Shows such as Hawaii Five-O and the Six Million Dollar Man all had movie-length pilots. But few are so successful they go on to have a theatrical release. In 1978, the top TV show in the world was the Incredible Hulk. Bruce Banner was played with sensitivity and emotion by actor Bill Bixy, while his alter ego was played by bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno in green slippers.

THE DAY AFTER (1983)

Although not as gut-wrenchingly scary as the British 1984 TV movie “Threads” (see other post), this portrayal of nuclear armageddon is a contendor for one of the most watched TV movies ever. Told with realism, this grim tale gets ever grimmer as the true scale of a nuclear war is realized. People are either vaporized or survive to face all the horrors of radiation sickness and survival in the ruins of the old world. A good example of the kind of epic storytelling on a budget that TV can achieve.

The end of the world as we know it. But will you be feeling fine?

The end of the world as we know it. But will you be feeling fine?

THE HAUNTED (1991)

The TV movie fell out of vogue in the 1980s. TV itself lapsed into sitcoms, rather than try to compete with the ever-balooning budgets of blockbuster movies. But every so often a low-budget gem emerged. One of these is The Haunted, a very scary tale about a family who buy a haunted duplex. Like every sensible family, they move out at the first sign of ghostly phenomenon. But in a clever twist, the ghost follows them. Based on a true story, for added creepiness.

The 2000s

That would have been the end of our tale. An increasing number of TV channels did not equate to an increase in quality. In the 90s and 2000s, TV instead chose to churn out poorly-made, poorly-scripted and poorly-acted creature features using the ultimate tool for the lazy filmmaker, CGI. Soon our screens were filled with unconvincing CGI mammoths, sabretooths and giant crocodiles. Meanwhile the dramatic TV movie became the womjep we know and revile today.

Sabretooths and crocodils and sharks.. oh, dear!

Sabretooths and crocodiles and sharks.. oh, dear!

However in recent years TV has taken an upswing. Maybe it’s the lack of movies as studios adopt an all-or-nothing mentality to blockbuster films. Maybe it’s that older actors (who tend to be better) head into TV land in their golden years. Or maybe it’s that TV has replaced the movies, which are increasingly losing their connction with audiences due to massive ticket prices, lackluster SFX-driven spectacles and grosss-out comedies. Because the TV movie is making a comeback…

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)

Who would have though that in in this day and age a movie made by HBO would become a popular and critical success at the box office? Espeically when you consider the source material. But this Liberace biopic is doing just that. So maybe the TV movie isn’t dead. We’ve had the Renaissance of TV drama. Perhaps now it’s time to resurrect this forgotten art form as well.

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Cancelled too soon! 10 TV series that should have lasted longer.

Sometimes they left us hanging on the edge of our seats, never knowing what was going to happen to the characters we had watched  for an entire season. Sometimes the shows were too hard to catch due to bizarre scheduling. And sometimes they were just plain unlucky. But for whatever reason, here are 10 shows that I think were cancelled too soon…

10. Flashforward

What the heck was going on? Just when we thought we were getting a handle on the whole situation – a blackout in which most of an American city’s population got a glimpse of their future – the show was axed. A great concept was admittedly dragged out way too long. But the constant surprises kept me coming back for more despite the uneven acting. Who was behind the strange device uncovered that may have caused the blackout? We’ll never know.

9. Automan

Although it may be risible now, “Automan” was groundbreaking stuff in its day. Yet it barely saw out a single series. The titular character is in fact a rather conceited hologram which his creator uses to fight crime. Automan had a variety of Tron-like gadgets he could summon out of thin air, including a car and a helicopter. Not bad for the 1980s!

Special effects, 80s-style, from “Automan”.

8. Earth 2

A surprisingly good sci-fi show from the 1990s that went against the grain by having the first female sci-fi commander, this understated series boasted some darned good actors – Richard Bradford (Man in a Suitcase), Madchen Amick (Twin Peaks) and Tim Curry (everything). But it proved too low-key for its own good, and failed to grab ratings. A shame.

7. Max Headroom

Is it a drama? Is it a music video show? Is it a chat show? Nobody knows, not even the producers it seems. Actually this was a British TV show featuring the world’s first 3D computer generated chat show host. Mr. Headroom was brought to life by Matt Frewer. Loooking back, it’s hard to see how Max did not stay with us for years. But a confusing premise and heavy competition from Miami Vice means that max is now obsolete, along with the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair Spectrum.

MaxheadroomMpegMan

Is it a hologram? Is it a chat show host? No, it’s… Max Headroom!

6. American Gothic

Produced by Saim Raimi (Spider-Man, Evil Dead) this understated supernatural mystery series featured great child actor Lucas Black (who starred opposite Billy BobThornton in Sling Blade) as the kid who knows too much for his own good about mysterious, menacing Sheriff Lucas Buck (Midnight Caller‘s Gary Cole), a small-town cop with powerful supernatural, possibly demonic abilities. A slightly murky plot and a lack of the supernatural may have contributed to its demise. But it was a good idea with some nice acting.

5. Blade

Based on the movie trilogy with rapper Sticky Fingers standing in for Wesley Snipes, this was an amazingly good show, with great plot twists, great supporting characters, and a very stylish production. Blade joins forces with recently-turned vampire Jill Wagner to destroy the vampiric House of Cthon from the inside. Ended on a huge cliffhanger. Blade exhibits the true hallmark of a series that was cancelled too soon — its own box set for fans which continues to sell despite its cancellation.

4. Firefly

Joss Whedon’s sci-fi foray that owes a heavy debt to Star Wars as well as old-fashioned Westerns, Nathan Fillion shines as captain of a motley team of reprobates. Excellent production qualities and solid acting meant that this remains a cult favourite among Whedon’s salivating fans who long to get their teeth into something after Buffy.

3. Streethawk

A cop on a really fast motorcycle hardly seems like a great concept, yet this was a highly entertaining series, mainly due to the polar opposite characters of its leads, the suitably macho-named Jessie Mach (he likes to go fast, you see), and his controller Norman Tuttle (yep, he stays in his shell). With a fantastic score by German techno gods Tangerine Dream and some awesome stunt work, it’s not surprising the show was cancelled as it must have taken a fortune to produce each episode. But you can now relive all 13 of them thanks to DVD.

2. Twin Peaks

Hard to believe that this show is on the list, especially as it lasted for two seasons. But the sudden, shocking twist ending is one of the all-time cliffhangers. Fans will definitely agree the series ended too soon. Will there ever be a resolution? Doubtful.

1. Star Trek

The top series cancelled too soon? Yes, the original sci-fi series. Although it seems like it ran a lifetime, it was cancelled after only three seasons. Its cancellation was in the main due to budget cuts by the network and the move to a different time slot – incredibly so as not to conflict with Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Since then, Star Trek has become firmly entrenched as not just a cult classic but part of the popular culture. It remains a perennial favourite of TV programmers. It’s very rare that an episode of this show isn’t been played on some channel somewhere. That’s why Star Trek is the ultimate series that was cancelled too soon!