THE DEATH OF RICHIE
Color, 1977, 97 mins. 17 secs.
Directed by Paul Wendkos
Starring Robby Benson, Ben Gazzara, Eileen Brennan, Cynthia Eilbacher, Lance Kerwin, Charles Fleischer, Clint Howard
INCIDENT AT CRESTRIDGE
Color, 1981, 94 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Jud Taylor
Starring Eileen Brennan, Pernell Roberts, Bruce Davison, Sandy McPeak
THE SEDUCTION OF GINA
Color, 1984, 94 mins. 32 secs.
Directed by Jerrold Freedman
Starring Valerie Bertinelli, Michael Brandon, Fredric Lehne, Ed Lauter, Dinah Manoff
Fun City Editions (Blu-ray) (US RA HD)
Following up on its essential 2021 three-disc Primetime Panic saluting overlooking made-for-TV films of the golden era, Fun City Editions is back with an equally worthy follow-up on Blu-ray, Primetime Panic 2. Again we get a trio of films, here united by the guiding hand of producer Michael Jaffe tackling everything from teen substance abuse to gambling addiction.
First up is The Death of Richie, a darker and more nihilistic take on subject matter explored in other TV movies like Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. Based on a true story chronicled in Thomas Thompson's book Richie, the film begins with the funeral for teenager Richie Werner (Benson, already a citizen of Fun City courtesy of Jeremy) attended by his grieving family including dad George (Gazzara), mom Carol (Brennan), and younger brother Russell (Salem's Lot's Kerwin). In flashbacks we see how Richie has fallen in with a bad crowd led by the very bad influence Brick (Fleischer, future voice of Roger Rabbit) and also including Clint Howard. Their chemically enhanced exploits include intoxicated driving and tripping out to strobe lights, though Richie's exact drug choices are kept very vague including references to pot, LSD, and "pills." George introduces a wayward petition in court to put his son under the supervision of authorities, but he withdraws it when Richie gets a short-lived gig working at a burger joint. Carol tries to help by getting him to sell car raffle tickets, while the family eventually decides to help get drug counseling as well. Unfortunately life keeps kicking Richie in the teeth, especially when a potential romance with Sheila (Eilbacher) hits the skids. However, if you think you know exactly where this heading based on the title, there's a bit of a twist in store.
A grim film with a strong after school special vibe, The Death of Richie spends as much time on the parents' anguish as Richie's and boasts an insanely stacked cast headed by strong pros Brennan and Gazzara. Incredibly, this was one of no less than four made-for-TV movies made in 1977 by director Paul Wendkos, a TV specialist with other titles like Brotherhood of the Bell, Fear No Evil, The Legend of Lizzie Borden, and Haunts of the Very Rich (not to mention the rare big screen outing like The Mephisto Waltz). This film was made at the height of Benson's productivity, stuck in the middle of a big screen streak including Ode to Billy Joe, One on One, The End, and the immortal Ice Castles, and there's something surreal about seeing him stumble around in a violent druggy daze spouting hip '70s teen lingo.
Initially aired on NBC, The Death of Richie was rerun several times and appears to have been presumed to be quasi-PD given the handful of crummy, VHS-sourced DVDs that have popped up here and there. The Fun City release marks the best-looking presentation of the film, taken from the only worthwhile surviving film source, a 16mm print. The limitations of the source are obvious with some scratches and limited detail, but it's still quite watchable and has a fun vibe that feels like something you'd watch in an '80s classroom. As with the other titles in this series, you can watch this as aired at 1.33:1 or in a matted 1.85:1 presentation; you're best off going with the 1.33:1 one since it's better composed unless you really want to fill up as much width on your TV as possible. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) sounds okay for what it is. In addition to a newly created trailer, Samm Deighan delivers a perceptive and rewarding audio commentary covering Wendkos' career, the true story, and plenty more, though the best value here is her own reading on the film including what she sees as a treatment of mental illness that hadn't been easy to identify in a time where generations were struggling against unrealistic restrictions.
Next on disc two, Brennan returns in a much bigger role as the star of 1981's Incident at Crestridge. Actually you get a whole bunch of incidents here as Sara (Brennan) and husband Robert (McPeak) head into the mountain town of Crestridge where they've rented a house to get over the death of their daughter. Their nocturnal arrival coincides with a bunch of guys blasting away with shotguns at a massage parlor owner's place until it burns to the ground, but as one local puts it, "calling the cops is about as good as spitting in the wind." Sara isn't too impressed with the good ol' boy attitudes that control the town, with the corrupt Mayor Hill (Roberts) calling the shots. Sara decides to do something about the situation by running for sheriff herself and wins, which pits her in an uphill battle against the entrenched criminal systems at work in the town.
Often underrated as a dramatic actress given her prominence in comedies ranging from Private Benjamin to Clue, Brennan is simply terrific here in a quirky, nuanced, and steely role that has us rooting for her all the way. The story doesn't quite move the way you expect either, and the cast is very solid here with the always sturdy Bruce Davison as one of male citizens who may have Sara's back. This one was probably a tough sell as it doesn't quite fall into the thriller category (despite plenty of cheap thrills including car mayhem and gunshots), and it's largely flown under the radar since. That's too bad since its detailed and often fascinating look at a woman navigating the tricky power systems of a local town makes for really compelling viewing, and it's great to have this one revived on Blu-ray looking marvelous with a crisp, gorgeous presentation far better than anything you ever saw on broadcast TV. Again there's a choice of aspect ratios, but the 1.33:1 is generally more pleasing. Dino Proserpio and Fun City's Jonathan Hertzberg, who did the commentary honors in the prior set with Dreams Don't Die, return here with another thoroughly researched track covering the film's broadcast history (which is a little tangled), its prime time competition, Brennan's career, and tons more; another new trailer is also included.
"It's gonna be a really long year for ya," says doctor-in-training David (Lehne) to his wife, art student Gina (Bertinelli), as his internship is about to eat up all of his time. Little does he know that our third film, The Seduction of Gina, is all about how that year goes completely out of control when she gets hooked on the thrill of winning at gambling. First it's a little harmless horse race betting with fellow student Mary (Manoff), then big wins at roulette and blackjack during their trip to Lake Tahoe. Gina doesn't have much of a support system so she's an easy target for less than scrupulous types like Keith (Four Flies on Grey Velvet's Brandon) who has some sleazy ideas about how she can pay off her inevitable debts.
A solid vehicle for TV favorite Bertinelli (still riding high on One Day at a Time), The Seduction of Gina is loaded with heavy hitters including a great main theme performed Eddie Van Halen (Bertinelli's husband at the time), a very early electronic score by the great Thomas Newman (who did Revenge of the Nerds and Reckless around the same time), and cinematography by regular Jonathan Demme lenser Tak Fujimoto. Screenwriter Judith Parker was already well established for scripts with a strong, female-centric perspective, such as Are You in the House Alone?, and she does a fine job of keeping Gina's journey grounded and realistic with a focus on how financial circumstances and personality can feed a growing addiction.
Aired on CBS and not revived much since then, The Seduction of Gina is a solid way to round out the set with another excellent transfer worthy of any theatrical feature from the era (and the usual choice of aspect ratios). The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is the strongest of the bunch, which is a good thing since it also has the most interesting music. Another new trailer turns up here, while the new audio commentary honors this time are handled by Made for TV Mayhem's Amanda Reyes. This obviously wouldn't be a worthy TV-movie set without Reyes, and she lives up to her usual high standards here with plentiful info about Bertinelli's career, the ins and outs of TV culture and ratings in the mid-'80s, the visual signifiers used throughout our main character's gambling experiences and loss of control, other productions dealing with gambling, and various television actors who pop up in little roles here and there. The insert booklet features a new essay by Lee Gambin, "Jaffe Delivers," jammed with everything you could want to know about the producer's heyday with the small screen as well as thoughts on how these films tweak the ideas of westerns and melodramas.
Reviewed on September 20, 2023