Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Message from the Emergency Broadcast System

We interrupt your regularly scheduled reading of rotten flick history to bring you the following announcement:

Now is the time for all good film fanatics to come to the aid of their movies! A small but vital segment of Junk Cinema is disappearing faster than the Spotted Owl, the Rain Forest, the Florida Everglades and the White Siberian Tiger all rolled into one: the made-for-tv-movie.

This is no laughing matter--although, if you just sat through the tv movie "Devil's Pond"(where a newlywed psycho-hubby chains his bride to a tree so she won't leave him) you probably won't agree with me.

Yes, tv movies are the red headed step-children of the entertainment industry. They long to be taken seriously, but with their minuscule budgets and tight shooting schedules they can't compete with feature films. Nor do they have the historic pedigree of the theater, opera or ballet.

And, yes, over the decades there have been a handful of tv movies that have managed to break through the pack and stand out as excellent dramas-- but Junk Cinema isn't interested in any of those exceptions to the rules. Instead, it is the over heated, badly acted, hypnotically nutty made-for-tv-movie that Junk Cinema and bad film fans take to their collective hearts. And it is these very flicks that are endangered.

What's behind the crisis? Changing times and tastes play a role, as does the growth of cable, DVDs and VCRs. However, the main culprit in the decline and fall of tv movies is that evil succubus known as "Reality TV".

Like a biblical plague of locusts, reality tv has swooped down from on high, devouring big chunks of the broadcast schedule and leaving nothing but death and destruction in its wake.

Made for a pittance, reality tv shows have no writers, no actors and no shame. Reality tv can be conceived and cancelled at little or no cost to the networks. Unlike sitcoms, dramas, mini-series and, yes, tv movies, reality tv requires virtually no creative thought at all. Want to watch a bunch of over weight people go on a hike? I give you "Fat Walk". Want to watch a bunch of twenty-something lay-abouts act like rejects from a hormone experiment? I give you "Big Brother". Want to watch a group of pre-teens try to cut it without adult supervision? I give you "Kid Nation". Want to see a bunch of big-haired Mafia brides act like Screaming Mimi's? Watch "The Real Housewives of New Jersey".

On the other hand, tv movies require a tremendous amount of brain power to dream up and pitch to the networks. Just imagine what guts you would need to sketch out and then propose a tv movie be made about a rock group that foils a madman's evil designs on humanity. But because a brave soul did just that, we have "KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park" (1978), where the make-up kings of '70's rock defeat a mad scientist who wanted to turn people into amusement park robots. The same goes for the geniuses behind "It Happened at Lakewood Manner" (1977), where guests at a exclusive resort are attacked by.... killer ants! And you would have to be really believe in a project like "Bad Ronald" (1976), where a nut job murders his mom and then sheet rocks himself into his house to avoid capture. I bet the pitch behind this tv-er probably went something like this:

PRODUCER:"He sheet rocks himself into the house, get it? Sure, he has no food, water or toilet facilities, but, hey, he sheet rocks himself into the house! The viewers at home will eat it up!"


Alas, reality tv has so altered the television landscape that this kind of inspired insanity is no longer welcomed or appreciated. When "Bad Ronald" and KISS have to step aside for those troglodytes on "The Jersey Shore" we all suffer.

As Junk Cinema fans know, tv movies played a key role in the development of our bad movie heritage. With the phasing out of drive-ins in the 1970's, tv movies became a valuable Junk Cinema pipeline, bringing horrible acting, big hair and cheesy special effects into the homes of millions. Like Ed Wood or Coleman Francis, tv movies regularly explored the cut-rate world of demonic possession ("Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell", 1978), mother nature gone crazy ("Killer Bees", 1974), out of control teenagers ("Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker", 1979) women in prison ("Nightmare in Badham County", 1976) and the evils of Hollywood ("Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold" starring future Oscar winner Kim Basinger in the title role) with the same earnest ineptness as any Poverty Row studio. Among some of the best examples of made-for-tv-madness are:

"Killdozer"(1974) An evil entity from outer space (where else?) possesses the soul of a bulldozer and turns it into, well, a KILLDOZER!

"Forbidden Love"(1982) Elizabeth Barret and Robert Browning be damned! Yvette Mimieux (she's older) and Andrew Stevens (he's younger) flaunt their unnatural love before the horrified world. Have they no shame?

The Amy Fisher Saga. Amy Fisher was just another gum-cracking teenager until she fell madly in love with studly car repairman Joey Buttafuco and shot his wife in the head. This sordid tale inspired not one, not two, but THREE tv movies (two of which aired on the same night!) and helped revive the career of Drew Barrymore.

"Mother, May I Sleep With Danger ?" Horse-faced Tori Spelling falls under the spell of a controlling psycho who, among other horrors, urges her to cut her hair and go blond. The highlight of this baby is watching the nut job boyfriend racing after Tori (while swinging an ax) as she furiously paddles to safety in a discarded rowboat.

Alas, this embarrassment of riches is quickly dying out. The only place on television where tv movies still have a home is the Lifetime Channel, but not even the "television for women" people can hold out forever. So what are Junk Cinema fans to do?

Sadly, our options are few, but here are some suggestions:

First, stop watching reality tv. Television is all about ratings and advertising dollars. If people stopped watching reality tv shows , their ratings will tank and their sponsors will pull out. Instead of watching this depressing slop, read a book, go for a walk or, even better, watch an Ed Wood movie instead.

Second, watch those tv movies that are being broadcast. I just caught "The Client List", where Jennifer Love Hewitt played a down on her luck wife and mom who got a job at a "spa" that turned out to be a house of ill repute. Not as funny as her "Ghost Whisperer" tv series, but entertaining none the less. And her "Texas accent" was a riot.

Third, support scrappy little shows like cable channel 29's "Saturday Night Fright Special" which show old horror movies, goofy commercials, silly PSAs and hard to find cartoons. When I last tuned in, I saw the original Vincent Price version of "The Last Man on Earth" (based on the short story "I am Legend") which was double-billed with "The Terror of Tiny Town". Pure genius!

Fourth, don't watch reality tv. Period. If you want to see unvarnished reality, go over to your local WalMart and watch a bunch of hicks standing around arguing about paint chips.

So, Junk Cinema fans, it's up to us. Do we sit idly by while Snooki and endless "Survivor" cast-offs destroy the industry that once gave us "The Dick Van Dyke Show", "Laugh-In" and "60 Minutes" or do we rise up and say, "Enough is enough! All you pan-fried, big-haired, morally-bankrupt fame whores go back to your underground caves! We want The ABC Mystery Movie back, and we want it back now! And while we're at it, we want to see Jane Seymour, Patty Duke, Tori Spelling, Jack Scalia, Meredith Baxter and Marjoe Gortner emoting up a storm! And when do we want it? We want it now!"