Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Amanda Reyes ""

Friday, March 23, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Amanda Reyes

Amanda Reyes is an archivist, author and film and television historian. She edited and co-wrote Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964-1999 (Headpress, 2017) which celebrates the made for television film, and was featured on Barnes and Noble's Best of Horror list for 2017. The book is an expansion of her TV movie-centric blog, Made for TV Mayhem and its companion podcast. Most recently, her essay on anthology shows featuring scary holiday episodes was published in Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (Spectacular Optical, 2017).

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The Astronaut (Robert Michael Lewis, 1972)
I’m not sure I totally fell in love with The Astronaut, because even for a small TV movie (my favorite!), it’s almost too intimate for its own good. But it’s also a prime example of what the telefilm was doing during this early era of its production. The story starts big: It’s about a space mission gone wrong, leading to a conspiracy to replace the astronaut who died with a doppleganger. This exact double is trained to be just like the man who perished on Mars, but what he doesn’t know is the trouble the astronaut was having with his wife. Approximately fifteen minutes in and the film switches gears as the double comes home and the wife not only learns of the death of her husband, but also falls in love with his replacement! This film is small, shaving the conspiracy story to the essence of how it affects two people in the domestic space. It also takes on the female protagonist’s point of view. TV movies are extremely female-centric (seen as the largest consumer in the household, women were the most desired demographic to advertisers), and therefore, often take place in the home (as many women were housewives at this point). The Astronaut, which was an ABC Movie of the Week originally airing January 8, 1972, is almost a metaphor for the thousands of TVMs to follow. Maybe not the best of its kind, but swoon-worthy Monte Markham and Susan Clark are absolutely terrific. And hey, it’s only 74 minutes long. It’s an interesting entry into the world of the telefilm.

Double Exposure (William Byron Hillman, 1982)
I bought Double Exposure on a whim at Texas Frightmare because I love Vinegar Syndrome and their table always features alluring boxes (and they sometimes offer great deals). While I had never seen it, I was somewhat familiar with this film, which feels a bit like an All American giallo: It’s got a lothario cheesecake photographer (Michael Callan) who may or may not be killing the women he finds himself attracted to. The giallo vibe comes from the whodunit angle and the theme regarding the dangers of conflating sex with violence. But, it’s got a great sense of Americana in there as well. The photographer lives in a souped up RV and his brother is a race car driver who’s often seen practicing on the dirt tracks, surrounded by girls in tiny shorts and tight tees (including Victoria Jackson!). It’s also got two other notable things. The first is that despite the sleaze factor, there’s a real sense of humanness there, especially when the photographer hooks up with a lovely nurse, played by Joanna Pettet. Secondly, despite copious amounts of nudity and mayhem, the film is led predominately by television character actors, including Callan (who I know best from Fantasy Island), Pettet (also a Fantasy Island regular), Misty Rowe (ummmm, Fantasy Island), and James Stacey (Lancer… but never Fantasy Island). It’s an oddity. Also, it’s totally engrossing and worth a look.
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Fame is the Name of the Game (Stuart Rosenberg, 1966)
Originally airing on NBC on November 26th, 1966, Fame is the first TV movie to serve as a pilot. And what a way to start off what would become a staple of the small screen into the 90s, and maybe even beyond. Anthony Franciosa is an investigative journalist who knows a good story when he runs across one and ends up pursuing the murder of a call girl, despite his boss telling him to look the other way. What Franciosa uncovers is a ridiculous amount of 60s grooviness and a gaggle of amazing actors, including Jack Klugman, Jill St. John, Jack Weston and even a young Robert Duvall. The story is good and moves at a breakneck pace, but it’s really about watching the incredible actors do their stuff. Franciosa is at the top of his (fame is the name of the) game, and is extremely magnetic, and endlessly watchable. Runner up for most charismatic is Susan St. James who plays his smart but silly assistant, and who pushes and shoves her way through the man’s world of journalism without losing an ounce of herself. This is a fun ride.

How to Pick Up Girls (Mick Jackson and Bill Persky, 1978)
I can’t even tell you how long I’ve wanted to see the ABC telefilm How to Pick Up Girls, starring Fred McCarren and Desi Arnaz Jr. It’s pure seventies bliss as McCarren plays a small town boy who relocates to New York City at the behest of his buddy (Arnaz), and finds he has a hard time connecting with the right women. He decides to develop a sure fire method to meet the ladies and ends up writing the book How to Pick Up Girls (the movie is very loosely based on a book with that title which was all the rage during this era). However, he doesn’t yet realize that the girl of his dreams just may be the funny and beautiful woman he’s befriended in the building. This is a very sweet and funny little film, with McCarren doing what he does best, and that’s quiet comedy. A very likeable actor, you’re immediately with McCarren as he navigates his way through the big city, and you hope he finds true love. Arnaz is equally as enchanting in his role, and both look like their having the time of their life. Bess Armstrong as the love interest is totally adorable, and the film, which originally aired on November 3rd, 1978 is just a treat, and a great time capsule of late 70s NYC. Also starring the lovely Deborah Raffin and OMG, is that Richard Dawson? It ‘tis. It ‘tis.

Honeymoon with a Stranger (John Peyser, 1969)
Honeymoon is a very early entry tele-thriller, that looks and mostly plays as a giallo. It’s lush, twisty and lots of fun. Janet Leigh is at the top of her game as a woman who has a whirlwind affair while visiting Europe, which results in a marriage to a wealthy man. He whisks her off to his villa in Spain, and after a night of drinking and romance, the husband disappears and another man calling himself by the same name returns to the villa claiming to be the man she married. Much confusion, and duplicity ensues. I’ll leave it there, because I think it works best if you go in blindly. Honeymoon, which was originally an ABC Movie of the Week that aired on December 23, 1969, features a ridiculously amazing cast that includes Rossano Brazzi (reminding me a little of Robert Forster), Cesare Danova, Eric Braeden and the can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her Barbara Steele. It’s glamorous, mysterious and a great entry into the early days of the television movie. I discussed this film with my friend Rob Kelly over at the Film and Water podcast. I believe we kept it spoiler free, so give it a listen if you want a little more info on the film, and the TV movie in general.

Night Slaves (Ted Post, 1970)
This is a classic ABC Movie of the Week that I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t seen until early last year. I watched it on a whim, and while I knew the basics, I really didn’t know all that much about the film. It’s a simple and intriguing yarn about a couple that find themselves stranded in a small town where everything is not as it seems. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that it stars James Franciscus and Lee Grant and was directed by the great Ted Post (The Baby, Five Desperate Women), and that it’s a nice mood piece. The title telegraphs a little too much, so the film is slightly predictable, but it mostly remains gripping. Originally airing on September 29, 1970, Night Slaves is better known than many of the other Movie of the Week entries, but at the same time it’s also one that seems to have been lost a little in the fray. Well worth discovering or rewatching.

Shallow Grave (Richard Styles, 1987)
This direct to video hicksploitation flick was a real surprise. Marketed as a slasher, the story revolves around a group of girls heading to Florida on spring break. After they get a flat tire, one of them accidentally witnesses a murder, and before you know it, they are hunted down by the man who’d like to keep his crime a secret. What makes this film really tick is the four lead actresses who are adorable, and seem to have a real friendship with each other. I was thoroughly invested in what was happening to them. The actor playing the killer is also quite good. He’s never likable (it’s a pretty heinous crime that keeps building), but there’s an air of sympathy about him. A film that is far more layered than it has any right to be, Shallow Grave is a terrific little regional terror flick that deserves more love!

The Smugglers (Norman Lloyd, 1968)
This is another early entry telefilm that is more lost than most TV movies. The original airing on NBC on December 24th, 1968, was pre-empted because a breaking news story about the Apollo 8 mission, and it never re-aired on network TV again. This was also Shirley Booth’s (Hazel) TV movie debut, and her swan song. It’s an endearing international comedy about two semi-flighty female tourists traveling through Europe who find themselves as pawns in a strange smuggling scheme. It’s got a wonderful but eclectic cast, and features not just Booth, but also Carol Lynley, Donnelly Rhodes (looking more handsome than ever!), and frickin’ Michael J. Pollard, who basically plays Michael J. Pollard. As I said, the film has a very light touch, which makes the whole proceeding oddball because of the murder and gun running! The late 1960s TVM output doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention, but these films have a bit more of a cinematic scope and are well worth a look. The Smugglers is a delightful example of that early era of experimental TV movie making.

Unhinged (Don Gronquist, 1982)
Here is another horror film featuring a small group of girlfriends who find themselves stranded. This time they end up at an old, dark house that is full of creepy secrets. This one is a charmer. It’s low budget and has that type of uneven acting we’ve come to expect from some of these regionally shot films. Yet, it’s those rough performances that add an appealingly offbeat tone to the film’s dark flavorings. I think that despite the general negative reviews it’s received, it’s terrifically eerie, and perhaps a bit underrated. It may be possible that because it was a video nasty in the UK, expectations ran a little high for this one. Admittedly, it features very few murders, and little gore. But it has some style, the main actresses are adorable, and it is twisty-turny enough that I was compelled to stick with it. It also has a terrific OMG ending that I. Did. Not. See. Coming.
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