Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wild World Of Mystery

Johnny Carson's decades-long reign as King of Late Night Television left a lot of competition eating his ratings dust.  CBS and ABC tried for years to counter-program talk shows of their own, but Les Crane, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett, among others, were never strong enough to topple THE TONIGHT SHOW.  Eventually, the competing networks gave up on talk shows and looked for alternate programming that might lure an audience hungry for something new in late night.

In the mid-1970's, ABC developed an umbrella title, ABC'S WIDE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT, an intriguing concept that juggled several different types of shows and specials in the 11:30 timeslot.  Among the various spokes in the WIDE WORLD wheel were talk shows hosted by Dick Cavett and Jack Paar; IN CONCERT, which featured live performances by popular rock acts; documentaries; profiles of Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor; comedy and variety specials; and even low-budget thrillers produced under the WIDE WORLD OF MYSTERY banner.

According to ABC, more than 200 made-for-TV mystery movies were telecast during the 1973-1974 season alone.  To save on production costs, these cheapies were shot very quickly on videotape instead of 35mm film and ran only around 70 minutes.  Despite the small budgets and audiences, ABC attracted many popular television actors to star in these mysteries, which probably took only a few days to shoot:  Christopher George, Michael Parks, Julie Newmar, Meredith Baxter, John Vernon, John Astin, Claude Akins, Fritz Weaver, Anne Francis and Tim Matheson, just to name a few.  None of them ever air on television these days, and very few made it to home video.  Some of them may no longer exist, as it was common then for networks to erase videotaped programming so they could reuse the tapes, which is why many game shows and even the first ten years of THE TONIGHT SHOW no longer exist.

I think the WIDE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT concept is ready for a comeback. Surely I can't be the only one tired of the same old talk shows with the same monologue-desk bit-guest-musical number-guest-ad infinitum. Above are a few TV Guide ads that give you an idea of the movies ABC was offering opposite Carson back then. I've seen a couple WIDE WORLD OF MYSTERY movies, but none listed above.

1974's NIGHTMARE AT 43 HILLCREST may be a typical example of the kind of simple though diverting entertainment the WIDE WORLD OF MYSTERY offered.  It has a top cast and a decent teleplay.  If you can get past its soap-opera look, occasional technical flubs and one-take performances, it isn't a bad way to spend 65 minutes.  The Leydens, a typical American family, are forcibly awakened in the middle of the night by a group of gun-waving men who yank them out of bed, shout at them, and even smack father Greg (Jim Hutton, soon to be Ellery Queen) in the face.  No, they aren't burglars, but police detectives making a drug bust.  Unfortunately, they've made a mistake and raided the wrong house.  To cover up his gross error, lead detective Clarence Hartog (Peter Mark Richman) plants heroin and hauls the whole family, including teenage daughter Nancy, to jail.  The case looks open-and-shut.  The Leydens' attorney urges them to plea-bargain.  Greg refuses, even though long prison sentences seem certain.  The family's one hope is policeman Frank Linwood (John Karlen), who suspects Hartog's plan and risks his career to take his suspicions to the grand jury.

If you think the story is implausible, you should know that, in 2006, three Atlanta cops raided the wrong house and shot at a 92-year-old woman 39 times, killing her, and planted drugs in her house to cover up their mess.  A sad story, but one that lends some verisimilitude to this late-night melodrama, which serves up a very good performance by Karlen (later on CAGNEY & LACEY) and solid work by vets Richman and Hutton.  Director Lela Swift was virtually the only woman helming network television then, and earned her stripes on more than 500 episodes of DARK SHADOWS, the creation of NIGHTMARE AT 43 HILLCREST's executive producer Dan Curtis (John Karlen was a regular on DARK SHADOWS, as well).  Robert Cobert composed the sparse score, and the whole movie was taped on only a few small sets.

A year later, ABC aired the sci-fier ALIEN LOVER, which was also directed by Swift.  20-year-old Kate Mulgrew (STAR TREK: VOYAGER) made her television debut as Susan, a teenaged orphan who comes to live with her aunt and uncle (Susan Brown and Pernell Roberts) after two years in a sanitarium.  Feeling alone with no friends and nervous about her new living situation, Susan becomes friendly with Marc (John Ventantonio), a handsome young man who appears to her on a broken old TV set in the attic.  Marc claims to live in an alternate dimension adjacent to ours, and that his people are working on technology that will allow them to cross over.  Of course, no one in Susan's family believes her story about a boy who talks to her through a busted television set, and when the family cat is killed and Susan's cousin vanishes in quick succession, one begins to wonder whether Susan is having another mental breakdown. 

While the performances are professional enough (Mulgrew is particularly winsome here), the story is too slight for its 74-minute running time and isn't aided by a script that limits most of the action to two rooms.  We won't blame Swift for ABC's thin budget, but she and the writer have to take the hit for ALIEN LOVER's too-brief ending, which is both confusing and promising of something better to come.


Amanda By Night said...

I'll be honest - I have hated Kate Mulgrew since I saw her in Danielle Steel's Daddy, a movie I am sure you have never seen (or want to). Her character is so unsympathetic and cold and she's just too good in the part. However, I've been DYING to see Alien Lover! And I've recently become slightly obsessed with the whole Wide World of Mystery films. I have Nightmare at 43 Hilcrest but that's it so far...

zmbdog said...

I've seen a handful of them...Alien Lover, Nightmare, Werewolf of Woodstock. Seems like the UK "Thriller" episodes survive for the most part but many U.S. installments are gone.
Judging from a 1978 ABC storage inventory I saw a few years ago some of these episodes were indeed wiped. Many of them were noted with something like "cleared for re-use" (can't recall the exact wording, but the intent was obvious) as were a bunch of game shows, newscasts and soap operas. Although it's possible some were never actually recorded over before ABC abandoned "wiping", a lot of episodes have been MIA since the late 70s so it seems unlikely they survive.