Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fool With A Watermelon Grin

I read about this in Bill Simmons' new book THE BOOK OF BASKETBALL, and of course had to scurry straight to YouTube to see if I could find the clip in question. If you want to see a jackass Rick Barry put both feet in his mouth, one toe at a time, play-by-play man Gary Bender sweating like a madman (really, I think you can see the flopsweat), and Bill Russell so pissed off that smoke shoots out of his ears (really, I think...oh, never mind), then you need to see this clip of CBS' telecast of Game 5 of the 1981 NBA Finals. When is the last time you saw anybody this angry on live television?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Mondo Mandingo

I love trashy paperbacks, and I love trashy movies, so it stands to reason that I would love my friend Paul Talbot's latest book from iUniverse. I really enjoyed Paul's previous book, BRONSON'S LOOSE: THE MAKING OF THE DEATH WISH FILMS, which I wrote about here. But MONDO MANDINGO: THE FALCONHURST BOOKS AND FILMS is even better.

To quote the press release:

In 1957, the novel MANDINGO stunned readers with its lurid, unforgettable tale of Falconhurst -- a pre-Civil War slave-breeding plantation where unspeakable acts of sex and brutality took place everyday between the masters and slaves. Over the next three decades, MANDINGO sold millions of copies worldwide and spawned thirteen official sequel books as well as dozens of paperback imitators. The big-budget movie version of 1975 was one of the biggest hits of the year, as well as one of the most reviled films of all time.

Now, for the first time, the complete history of the bizarre MANDINGO phenomenon is told, including: the life of the eccentric author Kyle Onstott and the scandalous true stories that inspired him; the two writers who continued the Falconhurst series; and the background of the disastrous Broadway adaptation.

Believe me, everything you could ever want to know about the MANDINGO phenomenon is here. I was stunned to learn that Kyle Onstott, whose original MANDINGO novel sold millions of copies, was born and reared in the small town of DuQuoin, Illinois, home of the annual DuQuoin State Fair. I've been to DuQuoin many times, but have yet to see a Kyle Onstott statue there. The Chamber of Commerce needs to get on that.

MANDINGO led to more than a dozen followups that came out well into the 1980s, originally with Lance Horner as the author, and later Harry Whittington (not the same man whom Dick Cheney shot in the face) using the nom de plume Ashley Carter.

Talbot follows the evolution of the original MANDINGO characters in great detail throughout the rest of the Falconhurst books (named after the Louisiana plantation where the books are set), but he saves plenty of room to discuss the two films derived from the Onstott novel: 1975's MANDINGO and 1976's DRUM, which I recently reviewed here.

It's a tribute to Talbot that he was almost able to convince me that MANDINGO and DRUM are good movies, which they definitely are not, though they are incredibly entertaining if you're into bad movies. Talbot spoke to the directors of the two films, Richard Fleischer and Steve Carver (also interviewed in BRONSON'S LOOSE), star Ken Norton (yes, the boxer), and others involved in the movies, providing a candid behind-the-scenes look at two of the most controversial Hollywood films of the decade (and in the case of DRUM, one of the most troubled).

Talbot wraps up with a detailed examination of some of the "slavesploitation" ripoffs that followed MANDINGO, mostly coming out of Italy and Spain. And did you know that James Caan almost starred in a Broadway adaptation of MANDINGO?? Amazing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Assassin

As Bill Picard notes, cataloging the early works of best-selling author Nelson DeMille is no easy chore. In 1974 and 1975, DeMille wrote approximately six hard-boiled cop novels about an NYPD detective named Joe Ryker. Some of them bore his name, and some bore the pseudonym Jack Cannon as the author. Some were written about a cop named Joe Blaze and were credited to Robert Novak. Others were about a cop named Joe Keller! Some of the books were credited to Edson T. Hammill, who may have actually existed. And they were published and republished in later years under alternate titles.

Amazingly, THE AGENT OF DEATH, released by Leisure Books in 1974 as a Ryker title by DeMille, is virtually a word-for-word copy of a Joe Keller novel by DeMille called NIGHT OF THE PHOENIX published by Manor Books at the same time--just the character names are changed. Which means he obviously sold the same book to two different publishers simultaneously. And as quickly as these paperbacks were churned out and shipped to seedy bookstores and truckstops for rapid public consumption, it's possible the editors would never have known. I'm looking at both books right now, and it's a fabulous ripoff: Keller for Ryker, Johansson becomes Johnson, cops Lindly, Fischetti, and Spinelli become Liddy, Piscati, and Lentini. NIGHT OF THE PHOENIX opens, however, with a prologue set in Vietnam that AGENT OF DEATH doesn't have, making the latter's opening chapter heading of "New York City, the present" a bit odd.

THE AGENT OF DEATH is a typically shoddy Ryker adventure pitting the weary, hateful, bigoted cop against a CIA assassin named Falconer, a leper who's killing people in New York out of revenge for something that happened in Vietnam. Some of the murders are particularly chilling, such as a body left in a bathtub to be sucked dry by leeches and another man flayed and left on a rooftop to die of shock.

Ryker, who never met an authority figure he could respect, faces a formidable rival in Johanssen, another CIA operative who claims to want Falconer brought to justice, but Ryker doesn't trust the dude anymore than you will.

THE AGENT OF DEATH must have been written in a hurry. Strangely, one major event occurs entirely off-screen, a tragedy involving the death of a major character that happens between chapters and is vaguely referenced later. It's as though DeMille wrote it, but the editors ripped out ten pages to save space. Other chapters feel padded, making the book's pacing an odd experience.

THE AGENT OF DEATH is slightly more professional than the other Ryker books I've read, but not exactly high literature. I can't really recommend any of them, but they will do if you have 90 minutes to kill at the body shop or something.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Fuse And The Explosion

It’s difficult to believe that MANDINGO is based on one of the most successful American pulp novels of the late 20th century. Kyle Onstott’s salacious 1957 novel spawned more than a dozen sequels, even more rip-offs, a shortlived Broadway play (co-starring Dennis Hopper!), and this Paramount feature that produced a sequel of its own. MANDINGO—the film—was almost unanimously reviled by the critical establishment. Even though it made a lot of money for the studio upon its 1975 release, Paramount was embarrassed by it, farming out the sequel, 1976’s DRUM, to United Artists and licensing the DVD rights to Legend Films, which put out a bare-bones disc in 2008.

I guess everyone involved thought they were making a thought-provoking expose of the American South of the late 19th century, but what MANDINGO really is is an exploitation movie, an often unintentionally hilarious one. James Mason is Warren Maxwell, the patriarch of an 1840s Louisiana plantation called Falconhurst. His lame son Hammond (Perry King) marries his niece Blanche (Susan George), though both can only find sexual pleasure elsewhere—Ham with black “bed wench” Ellen (Brenda Sykes) and Blanche with “fighting buck” Mede (boxer Ken Norton in his film debut). The sprawling nature of Onstott’s nearly-700-page novel was trimmed down by scripter Howard Wexler (SERPICO), but not the soap operatics or the rampant violence and sex. Few major Hollywood films of the era showcase as much male and female nudity as MANDINGO.

Picking out the film’s worst performance is difficult. It’s probably George’s humiliating histrionics, since the wooden Norton can hardly be blamed, and Mason is here purely for the paycheck. King is actually not bad with Wexler’s laughable dialogue, Sykes has some sensitive moments, Ji-Tu Cumbuka (A MAN CALLED SLOANE) is impressive as a defiant slave, but Susan George is pitiful.

Quentin Tarantino once said that MANDINGO and SHOWGIRLS were the only two “full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movies” made by major studios, though MANDINGO is too long and leisurely paced to be a proper grindhouse flick. It is terrible enough to be one though, chock full of terrible accents, laughable dialogue, outrageous plotting, and a tremendously sleazy finale that defines the word “overkill.” Fleischer’s direction is technically proficient, so MANDINGO looks like a real movie, which is what makes it such a jawdropper.

Set in 1860 Louisiana, DRUM is just as laughable as MANDINGO, but even more tasteless, if such a thing is possible. It’s hard to believe anyone could take these sordid soap opera antics seriously, but there’s little indication, outside of Warren Oates’ eccentric and possibly alcohol-fueled performance, that the cast, director Steve Carver (BIG BAD MAMA), or writer Norman Wexler are playing for camp.

Twenty years after he is born illegitimately to white prostitute Marianna (Isela Vega), who raised him with her black lesbian lover (Paula Kelly), Drum (Norton, back from MANDINGO, but as a different character) grows up to be a soft-spoken slave with a rock-hard pair of fists, who is called upon to bare-knuckle-box other slaves for his owner’s entertainment. After pummeling his friend Blaise (Yaphet Kotto) to a bloody pulp, the two are sold to a loudmouthed plantation owner named Hammond Maxwell (top-billed Oates playing Perry King’s role from MANDINGO) and taken to his elaborate plantation to work.

Maxwell is obnoxious and ignorant, but not overly cruel to his slaves—at least not in comparison to other slave owners, such as a demented homosexual Frenchman named Bernard (John Colicos) who keeps trying to kill Drum after the slave rejected his sexual advances. Although perhaps “overly cruel” has to be judged in context, since Maxwell does hang two of his slaves upside-down and naked and whip them as punishment for fighting, and threatens to castrate one for allegedly having sex with his spoiled teenage daughter (‘70s drive-in queen Rainbeaux Smith).

Whereas MANDINGO attempted to at least look like a respectable Hollywood production for propriety’s sake, DRUM has no such ambitions. Trash to its very core and filled to the brim with nudity, violence, wild dialogue, racial slurs, and terrible acting, DRUM is a terrific showcase for humiliated talented actors. Whether it’s Oates confirming to his “bed wench” (Pam Grier), “You knows I likes big titties,” or Kotto enduring the sexual teasing of potty-mouthed young Rainbeaux or Colicos rubbing Drum’s burly shoulders, lisping how much the young “buck” will “love it,” plenty of shame is available to go around, and I find this type of all-star ineptness enormously entertaining.

Norton is clearly not an actor, cast only because of his body and unfairly asked to carry a film, and Colicos’ lipsmacking, sadistic homosexual is the most offensive gay stereotype you can imagine. Grier (billed as “Pamela” Grier) was a pretty big star in AIP movies by this time and probably believed she was making a welcome leap into mainstream filmmaking, but DRUM gives her little screen time and nothing to do except bare her breasts.

John Vernon was one of many performers who were cut out of the film after producer Dino de Laurentiis fired original director Burt Kennedy and replaced him with exploitation filmmaker Carver, who had made THE ARENA in Italy with Grier. Kennedy filmed a lot of footage in Puerto Rico and New Orleans, but most of it was either dropped or reshot by Carver. Narration attempts to clear up some clunky exposition in the opening reel. It doesn't help. Probably nothing could.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

It's Kill Or Be Killed

Now available on DVD from Code Red is 1982's TRAPPED, an effective Canadian genre piece made in Georgia by William Fruet, the director of SEARCH AND DESTROY, FUNERAL HOME, SPASMS, and DEATH WEEKEND.

Fans of the fantastic Spanish/Italian character actor Henry Silva can't miss his juicy performance. Silva stars as backwoods Tennessee redneck Henry Chatwill, who catches his hotsy-totsy no-undie-wearing young wife in bed with another man. So Henry tars and feathers the man (literally) and then takes him out into the woods and bashes him in the head until he’s dead. Unfortunately, he lets four college students see him do it, and the chase is on. No points for guessing that the kid speechifying in class about pacifism will end up whooping some ass.

Silva is fantastically hammy, and Fruet and writer John Beaird (MY BLOODY VALENTINE) take the trouble to establish the rural setting and give the townspeople some dimension. The college students, unfortunately, don’t get the same attention and have little personality aside from Roger’s (Nicholas Campbell) stance on non-violence. Barbara Gordon, who is still a busy character actress in her native Canada, stands out as Henry’s sister, who decides the townspeople have enabled Henry’s violence for too long.

TRAPPED was also released as BAKER COUNTY, U.S.A. If Nicholas Campbell looks familiar to you, he eventually achieved CBC stardom on the hit crime drama DAVINCI’S INQUEST, which was successful enough to air in syndication in the United States.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Episode Guide: The Phoenix

THE PHOENIX was just one of about a million TV series that failed against CBS’ Friday night ratings juggernaut of the late 1970s and early ‘80s: THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, and particularly DALLAS. THE PHOENIX, which premiered as a TV-movie in the spring of 1981 before becoming a weekly series nearly a year later, lasted only four weeks against THE DUKES. Whether it deserved to do better is another story. While the premise was certainly unusual for its era and boasted an appealing leading man in tall, blond Judson Scott, its scripts never rose above typical crime-drama fare and rarely seemed to have much to do with the show’s central idea.

Erich von Daniken’s best seller CHARIOTS OF THE GODS was the likely inspiration for THE PHOENIX’s 90-minute pilot. Archeologist Ward Frazier (E.G. Marshall) and his team discover an ornate sarcophagus buried in Peru (which looks a lot like the Fox ranch near Malibu, California). Inside is a big, blond hippie named Bennu (Judson Scott), who can read minds, shoot electricity from his fingertips, and speak perfect English. He also can’t survive in Earth’s pollution, so he teams up with a beautiful photographer (THE ASSOCIATES’ Shelley Smith) to win the $500,000 he needs to construct a rejuvenated body at a crooked casino, which puts a few hoods on his tail. Unwilling to be the subject of worship by the Peruvian government or curiosity by the Americans, Bennu sets out alone to find himself.

A trendy mix of New Age mumbo-jumbo and standard action/adventure tropes made THE PHOENIX a bit different from most network fare, which, along with the appeal of Judson Scott, pulled in enough ratings to make the series a go.

“The Phoenix” (90 min)
April 26, 1981
Mark Carliner Productions
Music: Arthur B. Rubinstein
Film Editor: David Berlatsky
Production Designer: William T. McAllister
Director of Photography: Don H. Birnkrant
Executive Producer: Mark Garliner
Supervising Producer: Christopher Kochoff
Associate Producer: Carole Coates-West
Creators: Anthony & Nancy Lawrence
Producers: Anthony & Nancy Lawrence
Writers: Anthony & Nancy Lawrence
Director: Douglas Hickox
Cast: Judson Scott (Bennu), Fernando Allende (Diego DeVarga), E.G. Marshall (Dr. Ward Frazier), Shelley Smith (Noel Marshall), Daryl Anderson (Dr. Clifford Davis), Hersha Parady (Lynn), Jimmy Mair (Tim), Lyman Ward (Howard), Carmen Argenziano (Kingston), Stanley Kamel (Murray), Angus Duncan (Surgeon), Wayne Storm (Patrolman), Terry Jastrow (Hood), Bret Williams (Technician), Paul Marin (Anesthesiologist), Patricia Conklin (Surgical Nurse), Jim Malinda (Croupier)

Season 1

Judson Scott as Bennu
Richard Lynch as Preminger

Executive Producer: Mark Carliner
Supervising Producer: Bob Birnbaum
Associate Producer: Julia Crosthwait
Producer: Leigh Vance
Creators: Anthony and Nancy Lawrence
Music: Arthur B. Rubinstein
Director of Photography: Frank Beascoechea
Mark Carliner Productions

“In Search of Mira”
March 26, 1982
Writer: Leigh Vance
Director: Douglas Hickox
Guest Cast: John Vernon, Bert Remsen, Britt Leach, Sandy Ward, Jenny Parsons, Terry Wills, E.G. Marshall

Between the pilot and this premiere episode, Bennu learned he was sent from the stars to perform a specific mission on Earth. He also learned he had a partner, a woman named Mira, who knew what the mission was. All Bennu knows about her whereabouts is that she rests in one of at least 2000 Indian burial grounds in North America. In pursuit of Bennu and Mira is a government operative named Preminger (Richard Lynch). While investigating a site in New Mexico, Bennu witnesses a murder and holes up with a friendly farmer (Bert Remsen) and his daughter.

“One of Them”
April 2, 1982
Writer: Mark Carliner
Director: Reza S. Badiyi
Guest Cast: Andrea Marcovicci, Carmen Zapata, Lawrence Casey, Peter Michael Goetz, Gene Ross, Behrouz Vossi, Sheila Frazier, Debbie Richter, Marshall Teague, Josh Cadman, Marc Alaimo, John Zenda

Bennu visits an archeology professor, Dr. Lacey Coleman (Andrea Marcovicci), whom he hopes can provide some insight as to where Mira may be buried. While visiting an ancient Indian burial ground in Arizona named Mesa Grande, the two are attacked by Lacey’s psycho ex-boyfriend (Behrouz Vossi), but manage to find an important clue.

“A Presence of Evil”
April 9, 1982
Writer: David Guthrie
Director: Douglas Hickox
Guest Cast: Lee Purcell, Kaz Garas, Jeremy Licht, Robert O’Reilly, Jim Staskel, Tobias Anderson, Carol Vogel, Nancy Grahn, Bill Dearth, Joan Foley, Rudy Daniels, Lisa Morton

Bennu hires on as a hand at Houghton Stables the same day its land is being used by uranium smugglers to make an exchange. What timing. Meanwhile, a skeptical Preminger considers using a psychic to track Bennu.

“The Fire Within”
April 16, 1982
Writer: David Guthrie
Director: Reza S. Badiyi
Guest Cast: John Milford, Tracey Gold, Eileen Davidson, Peter Icangelo, Woody Eney, Karen Anders, Carmen Argenziano, Bret Shryer, Rick Grassi, Nocona Aranda, Ned Bellamy, Noel Conlan, Fred Franklin, Sam Laws, Nelson Mashita, Robert Cornthwaite (uncredited)

In St. Louis, Bennu becomes involved with the daughter (Eileen Davidson) of a contractor (John Milford) who’s being cheated by his business partner (Carmen Argenziano).

The series’ formula, which was, of course, THE FUGITIVE, had already become stale after four episodes. Benna arrives in a new town, makes a new friend, defeats a criminal element, and then slips away quietly one step ahead of Preminger and his dogs. The producers were never clear about Bennu’s powers either. In “The Fire Within,” after a kindly old man with a metal detector tells Bennu he’s looking for a lost necklace to return to its owner for the reward (and not to keep for himself), Bennu immediately pinpoints its location. Why he can’t do that to find Mira is never explained.

“The Fire Within” was the final PHOENIX to air on ABC, though I don’t know if any others were shot (it seems likely there must have been). Two months later, Scott appeared on the big screen as Joachim, the main henchman to villainous Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban) in Paramount’s moneymaking blockbuster STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. However, Scott’s solid presence in a hit film appears to have done little for his career, as he received no on-screen billing. It has been reported that Scott’s agent’s attempt to secure better billing for his client somehow resulted in the actor receiving no credit at all.

Scott continued to act constantly on genre TV shows during the 1980s, including stints on V and THE COLBYS, but his performance as Bennu indicates that he really should have gotten a better shot at stardom.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Greek

In honor of tonight's 30 FOR 30 film on ESPN about Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, here's a 1976 clip from THE NFL TODAY featuring the Greek with co-hosts Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, and Phyllis George:

Monday, November 09, 2009

TVA Terror

The Penetrator finds plenty of action in his 13th adventure, 1976's DIXIE DEATH SQUAD from Pinnacle. So much action that it can barely contain its main plot.

The paperback cover touts an extortion plot in which the book's villain, a "dangerous and beautiful" terrorist named Colonel Linda King, threatens to blow up a Tennessee Valley Authority dam unless she receives $5 million. This only happens at the very end of the book after much mayhem has already occurred.

Colonel King's ultimate goal is much more ambitious. She's training an army of soldiers at a classic old Georgia plantation, but not just an army of men. King is also kidnapping children and teaching them how to become inhuman killing machines, an army raised to instantly obey authority and one that law enforcement will be hesitant to shoot back at. Yes, a female Fagin.

The Penetrator manages to infiltrate King's corp as an NCO named Patrick Lee, who, of course, manages to seduce the shorthaired blonde in the line of duty. Some amazing action sequences find Mark Hardin on the streets and in the skyscrapers of Atlanta, shooting down the colonel's advance team of snipers.

Making another appearance is Howard Goodman, the Penetrator's Javert-like rival with the FBI, who operates a special task force dedicated to killing the Penetrator. Not capturing Mark, but killing him, even though it seems most American law enforcement silently roots for the Penetrator's success, as he's doing an effective job of cleaning up crime without having to follow pesky laws.

Pinnacle's Penetrator series, which was written alternately by Chet Cunningham and Mark Roberts, is the company's most interesting men's adventure series, even more so than its inspiration, Don Pendleton's Executioner.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Thrill Me

Zombies, slugs, spacemen, exploding heads, flamethrowers, and Tom Atkins (THE FOG) playing a badass, no-nonsense, pulp-reading police detective—what more could you ask from an amusing and affectionate paean to 1950s sci-fi movies? Writer/director Fred Dekker, who made the similarly themed MONSTER SQUAD a year later, throws everything into the stew as though he were afraid he’d never be able to make another film, starting with a b&w prologue set in 1959 featuring E.T.s on a spaceship and a deranged axe murderer.

The film proper finds college nerds Chris (Jason Lively) and J.C. (Steve Marshall) pledging a frat in 1986 and attempting to steal a corpse from the university morgue. They chicken out, but not before reanimating a body infected by an alien parasite that then stalks the campus turning the student body into dripping zombies. Before long, only the two nerds, cute sorority girl Cindy (dreamy Jill Whitlow), and Atkins’ cop are left to defend mankind from the rampaging horde.

If the younger actors had been able to perform with the same zeal as Atkins (“It’s Miller time!”), CREEPS might have been a real classic, rather than fondly remembered fluff. Dekker’s love of the genre is evident (the characters are named after famous horror directors), and there’s wry humor both above and below the surface (his equation of fraternity life and zombieism isn’t deep, but it’s witty). Direction is not slick, but it’s effective, showcasing some slippery special effects on a low budget and capturing a spirit of old-fashioned fun missing from most modern zombie flicks. Like MONSTER SQUAD, it’s easy to see why NIGHT OF THE CREEPS captured a rabid cult audience.

Sony has packaged NIGHT OF THE CREEPS as a deluxe DVD and Blu-ray with plenty of extras to make fans happy. Almost everyone, including the makeup effects guys and composer DeVorzon, is interviewed in the hour-long documentary about the making of the film, which also details its disappointing release by Tri-Star and its revised studio-mandated ending. Dekker has put his original ending back onto the film—the first time it’s been released in this manner—but the theatrical ending is available as an extras, as well as the trailer. Tom Atkins receives his own 20-minute documentary, which is a fun profile of a fan favorite and apparently a nice guy. Wrapping up the extra features are a pair of audio commentaries—one with Dekker and moderator Michael Felsher (definitely worth listening to) and another reuniting Atkins, Lively, Marshall, and Whitlow.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Return Of V

Seeing Kenneth Johnson’s credit as the creator of the original V on tonight’s premiere of the ABC remake reminded me of how intelligent and exciting the 1983 miniseries was. Judging just from the pilot, it doesn’t appear the new V is an improvement in any way, except perhaps the visual effects. It isn’t particularly intelligent or exciting either.

The story covered a lot of ground in 42 minutes, making the exercise feel rushed, and much of it is too difficult to swallow. Believing that New Yorkers would applaud a giant spaceship two minutes after it appeared over the city is a lot tougher to buy than the existence of extraterrestrials themselves. Scott Wolf (PARTY OF FIVE) is miscast as a television journalist, though Elizabeth Mitchell (LOST) as a strong FBI agent and particularly Morena Baccarin (FIREFLY) as Anna, the leader of the aliens, are perfectly suited to their roles.

As for the big reveal of the aliens, I actually didn't mind that it occurred so quickly, since it wasn’t a mystery to most of the audience anyway, so why treat it as one. Still, V has some problems. Scott Peters, who developed the remake, was just today fired as V’s showrunner and replaced by Scott Rosenbaum, a former executive producer of CHUCK and THE SHIELD, so it appears that ABC recognizes the flaws in the show’s early episodes and are trying to correct them. But will it be in time?

Looking back to the four-hour NBC miniseries that aired in 1983, it stands out as an ambitious, sprawling exercise that was, at the time, the most expensive miniseries ever made. The visual effects alone, which include mattes, miniatures, and animation, cost over a million dollars. Originally penned by Johnson (THE INCREDIBLE HULK) as a cautionary tale of an American takeover by hostile forces from within, he rethought the concept after suggestions from NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff, and turned it into a science fiction fable of epic proportions.

Johnson's plot involves the Visitors, seemingly friendly aliens from another planet who arrive on Earth in dozens of gigantic motherships that hover over most of the world's major cities, including Los Angeles. Led by their Supreme Commander, who calls himself John (T.J. HOOKER boss Richard Herd), and his comely assistant Diana (Jane Badler), the Visitors “come in peace" to ask for our help in creating a chemical that they need to survive. In exchange, they'll provide us with medical and scientific knowledge far beyond what we already know.

While most of the world welcomes our new friends with open arms—and even into their homes—some, such as maverick news photographer Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), are wary. Their suspicions prove to be correct when the Visitors begin kidnapping Earth's greatest scientific minds, manipulating the media and imposing martial law.

To investigate, Donovan sneaks aboard the mothership hovering over L.A., where he discovers that the humanlike Visitors are actually reptilian creatures in disguise and that they're kidnapping Earth's population to use as food! Joining up with a small army of resistance fighters led by biochemist Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant, just off THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO), Donovan uses his journalistic instincts and friendly sources behind enemy lines to battle the Visitors' reign and, hopefully, rescue his son, who's one of the aliens’ victims.

V contains nearly sixty speaking parts, and it's interesting how Johnson has tied the characters’ plights and relationships together. The story bounces around from family to family, showing how the lives of ordinary Americans have been affected by the Visitors' arrival. Since V is obviously a not-so-subtle nod to the way in which Hitler and the Nazis were able to take over Europe in the '30s, one middle-class family is Jewish, including a suspicious patriarchal Holocaust survivor, who tries to hide a scientist's family in his pool house Anne Frank-style, and his disenfranchised grandson, who is seduced by the Visitors and becomes an informer for them.

Although four hours in length (with commercial interruptions), V doesn't feel padded at all, and, in fact, was followed a year later by a six-hour sequel and then nineteen episodes of a weekly series. Carefully mixing social commentary, preachy skepticism, and healthy doses of good old-fashioned action and adventure, writer/director Johnson has created a fascinating "what if" scenario that still holds its power nearly thirty years later, even after projects that were clearly heavily influenced by V, including INDEPENDENCE DAY, which lifted its big-money shots of huge, saucer-shaped motherships hovering over Washington D.C. directly from V.

One of V's best aspects is its casting, Joe Harnell’s massive score (by a sixty-piece orchestra—practically unheard of in television), and the lack of marquee names. Although several actors, such as Singer (THE BEASTMASTER), Grant, and Herd, had plenty of experience on the large and small screens, none were established stars, which helps lend the film verisimilitude. Showing ordinary people react under extraordinary circumstances is more effective when the characters truly seem ordinary, a trait bigger-named stars would find difficult to portray, due to their fame.

Singer, who was cast just three days before the start of principal photography, is very good in his man-of-action role, and Grant does a nice job playing a compassionate woman of science struggling to become tougher and less dependent when she finds herself the tower of guidance. Badler's sexy "bad girl" charisma is perfect for the power-hungry Diana, and supporting actors like Leonardo Cimino as the elderly Holocaust victim and Michael Wright as a streetwise petty thief who goes straight after the murder of his brother have standout scenes of their own. You’ll also recognize a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund as a friendly Visitor and genre veteran Andrew Prine as a not-so-friendly one. Dominique Dunne was originally cast in a major role, but was murdered by her jealous boyfriend during filming; only one shot of her (from behind) remains in the finished picture.

Johnson was slated to do the sequel, 1984’s V: THE FINAL BATTLE, but left following creative differences with NBC. The six-hour followup was then directed by Richard T. Heffron (FUTUREWORLD), who did a serviceable job. A weekly series found Singer, Grant, Badler, and FINAL BATTLE newcomer Michael Ironside still battling back and forth, but weak scripts and production values, as well as a deadly timeslot, sank the Visitors and their human prey relatively quickly.

V lived on in a series of novels—A.C. Crispin’s adaptation of the first two miniseries is fantastic—and rumors of a big-screen remake, possibly to be directed by Johnson, have persisted for years. V is finally back, albeit on the small screen, and not exactly off to a hot start creatively (though I expect ratings for the premiere to be very good). ABC plans to air only four episodes this fall, and then pull the series off the air entirely until the spring, which sounds like a terrible idea.