ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE?
Color, 1978, 96 mins. 35 secs.
Directed by Walter Grauman
Starring Kathleen Beller, Blythe Danner, Tony Bill, Robin Mattson, Scott Colomby, Dennis Quaid, Tricia O'Neil, Alan Fudge, Ellen Travolta
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD),
Scream Factory (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
CALENDAR GIRL MURDERS
Color, 1984, 95 mins. 12 secs.
Directed by William A. Graham
Starring Tom Skerritt, Sharon Stone, Barbara Bosson, Robert Beltran, Robert Morse, Robert Culp, Barbara Parkins, Alan Thicke, Claudia Christian
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Trinity (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
CHILD IN THE NIGHT
Color, 1990, 95 mins. 24 secs.
Directed by Mike Robe
Starring JoBeth Williams, Tom Skerritt, Elijah Wood, Season Hubley, Darren McGavin, Thom Bray
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD)
Strangely underrepresented on Blu-ray (and only somewhat more widespread on DVD), the made-for-TV movie had a major impact on multiple generations from the late '60s at least through the 1990s, morphing from all-star event alternatives to the big screen into the cable TV era with dozens of new titles popping up each week. Thrillers and horror movies were a natural for the small screen, offering cost-efficient chills in 75 to 98-minute packages while allowing filmmakers to come up with creative ways to unnerve viewers within the confines of network TV standards. A few of the heavy hitters like Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, and Fear No Evil have been given the HD treatment, but there are still dozens and dozens of worthy genre films still waiting to get their moment in the sun. That situation is addressed in the three-film Blu-ray set Televised Terror Vol. 1, released by Vinegar Syndrome (who dabbled a bit in these waters earlier with its great Amityville set) as part of its Halfway to Black Friday sale. Only one of the trio has had a significant home video release before, so this is a great opportunity to check out some fascinating films across the span of three decades.
First up is the most familiar title, Are You in the House Alone?, which has been around since the VHS days thanks to its teen in peril key art that makes it seem similar to titles like When a Stranger Calls and He Knows You're Alone. That isn't 100% off the mark, but this is really more of a message suspense film about the wildly unbalanced treatment women receive when it comes to stalking and sexual assault, even in supposedly safer terrain like high school. Adapted from a 1976 young adult novel by Richard Peck (whose The Ghost Belonged to Me inspired another essential made-for-TV movie in '78, the unforgettable Disney ghost story Child of Glass), this one charts the harrowing experience of teenager Gail Osborne (Beller), who's just started dating Steve (Colomby) and spends her free time with best friend Allison (Mattson) and her boyfriend, Phil (Quaid). However, Gail is being spooked by creepy anonymous letters and phone calls from someone claiming to be watching her. One night while babysitting, she gets another call (uttering the title phrase) that turns into a brutal rape, sending her to hospital and afraid to reveal her attacker to the police. Conflicted over whether she'll ever be believed, Gail has to decide what course of action to take next.
Definitely a cut above the average TV movie of the time, this one features a strong central performance by Beller (who also starred in the terrific overlooked TV suspenser No Place to Hide four years later) and solid support from Blythe Danner and Tony Bill as her parents who are distracted by problems of their own before their big wake-up call. The film plays around with thriller and horror tropes quite a bit (including the stylized darkroom lighting, appropriate since Gail's a fledgling photographer, and the central nighttime babysitting sequence), but it also wants to drive home a message that ends up in a more realistic and melancholy fashion than you might expect. (Alas, it's also 100% still relevant and accurate today.)
Initially aired on CBS, this one was a familiar fixture on VHS from Worldvision in one of those oversized boxes and was later given a budget reissue from GoodTimes. Scream Factory bowed in on DVD in 2013 as part of a sadly abandoned "TV Terrors" DVD brand paired up with The Initiation of Sarah. The Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray is a massive upgrade all around, looking brighter and far more detailed than any version we've had before (thanks to a new 2K scan from the camera negative) with significant extra image info visible on the edges as well. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is crystal clear and, like the others in this set, has optional English SDH subtitles. In "Creating Musical Themes" (19m42s), composer Charles Bernstein (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Entity) covers his breakneck schedule that year, the very different state of musical technology at the time, and his satisfaction with the final result. Of course, all three of these discs feature audio essays by the mighty Amanda Reyes, perhaps the most vocal proponent for a serious study of the made-for-TV movie, and here she provides a 12m28s audio study (kind of a compact version of her great Miskatonic University lectures on the subject) about the importance of these films including the way they use female protagonists to work in subversive and important content to provoke conversations about relevant social topics. Of course this one fits like a glove, and she contextualizes this as a pivotal adaptation that deals with rape in a consciousness-raising way for viewers from teens to older adults.
Next up is a big change with 1984's Calendar Girl Murders, which earns viewer goodwill right in the opening scene with Robert Morse drunkenly belting out an off-key rendition of "Calendar Girl" and a cameo by Rip Taylor. Wealthy Richard Trainor (TV legend Robert Culp) is proudly showing off the twelve women who are featured in his new calendar, a collection of nude and scantily-clad photo shoots, but his big marketing push is sabotaged when Miss January takes a plunge to her death and Miss February (a young Claudia Christian) gets stabbed to death. One of the principal photographers, Cassie (Stone, fresh off of Deadly Blessing) teams up with investigating Lt. Dan Stoner (Skerritt) to look into the killings and figure out who might have motive to be picking the women off in the order of their photo's month, with a raft of suspects and potential clues lurking among guest stars like Barbara Parkins, Barbara Bosson, and Alan Thicke.
Obviously the sex and violence factor here is fairly low given the fact that this had to air on network TV (ABC, to be exact), but this one makes up for it in glorious L.A. kitsch with crazy fashion shoots worthy of Looker or Eyes of Laura Mars and a pretty fun mystery plot that pays off with a satisfying culprit reveal. The murder scenes still manage to be reasonably engaging though with an occasional slasher vibe without showing any actual bloodshed, and having a pro like Skerritt keeps the whole thing grounded while making it easy to swallow a lot of the intentional, very self-aware humor indicating the whole story concept is completely ridiculous. The presence of a young and already charismatic Stone has kept this one around in the cheapie bins for a long time including a half-hearted DVD from Trinity, but the Vinegar Syndrome disc looks like a million bucks with another pristine scan from the negative that makes this look like it was shot yesterday. Here you just get one video extra, but it's a hefty one: an 83m audio essay (more of a free-form conversation really) between Reyes and Sam Pancake, who cheerfully expound on their love for made-for-TV '80s movies, the complex gender dynamics at play when you're presenting strong female characters but also dealing with a largely male power structure, and the ratings and network relationships that were at play at the time.
Finally we reach the '90s, just barely, with 1990's Child in the Night, which earns its place in the history books by "introducing Elijah Wood." It also stars Skerritt again, which makes this set at least a 66% Tom Skerrit collection when all is said and done. Here Wood, still a few years away from The Good Son and well before the days of The Lord of the Rings and Maniac, stars as young Luke, who accompanies his father late to the office one night next to a Seattle harbor. While trying to retrieve something from his office safe, dad is drawn outside the building only to get slashed to death by an assailant wearing a yellow rain slicker and wielding a metal hook. (Yep, way before I Know What You Did Last Summer.) Completely traumatized and initially unwilling to leave his dead father's side when the police arrive, Luke ends up being recommended by Detective Bass (Skerritt) into the hands of psychologist Dr. Hollis (Poltergeist's Williams), who had sworn off working with kids after an incredibly twisted incident we find out about later. Hollis has difficulty getting Luke to communicate but eventually through a combination of drawing, a personal story about Peter Pan, and hypnosis gets him to convey that the killer was "Captain Hook," which eventually leads to a couple of incredibly surreal and dark Pan-induced fantasy sequences. As the cop and psychologist begin to develop more of an understanding of each other, getting Luke to open up becomes a pressing need thanks to complications from his family including mom Valerie (Hardcore's Hubley) and estranged grandfather Os (The Night Stalker's McGavin), especially since it's just a matter of time before the killer strikes again.
First shown on CBS, this one hasn't been around on physical media since a '90s VHS from Triboro -- which is surprising given the cast. Again this one succeeds on the basis of its cast, with Skerritt and Williams having some nice chemistry together and Wood already demonstrating why he was regarded as one of the most gifted child actors of his generation. The overcast setting and moody Mark Snow score also give this a strong proto-X-Files feeling at times, and though the opening third or so might feel like a mostly standard thriller procedural, this one goes in some pretty wild directions at times with those Peter Pan moments capable of stopping any viewer in their tracks. Again the new 2K scan here from the camera negative looks impeccable, and this also sounds the best of the bunch given that it's the lone entry with a native stereo mix served well by the DTS-HD 2.0 English track. Again you get a Reyes audio essay (14m39s), this time offering a defense of the often overlooked '90s strain of made-for-TV films that ran with the approach of the previous decade in some interesting directions with an audience and wider choice of platforms that dealt with changing social mores and loosening censorship constraints.
Are You in the House Alone? (Blu-ray)
Are You in the House Alone? (DVD)
Reviewed on May 27, 2021