Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Due to Mature Theme, Parental Discretion is Advised for Paul Krasny's Made for TV Movie, Terror Among Us (1981)

The cautionary ballad of Delbert Ramsey begins with a police lineup. Seems this Ramsey (Shackleford) is a convicted rapist recently let out on parole but, unable to control his deviant urges, he’s been on the creep again and managed to get nabbed by the cops when two elderly ladies reported someone was peeping on them. Unfortunately, the victims cannot make a positive ID and pick the wrong person, much to the disappointment of Sgt. Tom Stockwell (Meredith), who is well aware of Ramsey’s lengthy rap-sheet and escalating proclivities, meaning in his mind it’s only a matter of time before he rapes someone else.

Thinking he still might have enough to violate the felon’s parole and force him to at least finish serving his original sentence, Stockwell’s request is adamantly refused by Connie Paxton (Salt), Ramsey’s parole officer, whom the film rather deliberately (and bluntly) paints with a soiled brush as a naive, college-educated, bleeding-heart liberal when it comes to rehabilitating her parolees who constantly game the legal system, which seems to favor them over victims these days, as she buys Ramsey’s excuse for his lurking presence near the scene. Saying he has met every requirement, holds a steady job, and has a place to live, Paxton claims Ramsey is a role model and on the right path. Thus, Ramsey is free to go.

Now, this job Ramsey holds is for a dry cleaners, a driver, who both drops off and picks up laundry for certain clients -- and one particular group of clients just happens to be a quartet of stewardesses who share a condo together. Again, Ramsey cannot contain his impulses and nearly gets caught sniffing some panties after sneaking into their empty seaside abode while they lounge around the pool, but he is able to make a blustering excuse for his intrusion and vacates. Later, one of the stewardesses fails to find one of her bras, meaning Ramsey didn’t get away empty-handed, giving him another piece for his growing collection of creeped contraband back home. Soon infatuated with this group of women, and one blonde in particular, like a ticking time-bomb, Ramsey decides to press his luck and tries to sneak in again, setting off a drastic and deadly chain of events, which has terrible consequences for these women -- consequences that, according to the film, could’ve been easily prevented...

A contemporary of Joseph Wambaugh as both a cop and a writer, Dallas Barnes served in the Los Angeles Police department for ten years; three years on patrol before making detective, serving on the narcotics squad before spending a few years in homicide. And while he never garnered the same notoriety as Wambaugh, Barnes did get three novels published, which he leveraged into a screenwriting gig for the TV-series, Kojak, after a producer read one of his books and sent out feelers to see if he’d be interested. Liking the job and the money, Barnes soon retired from the force and took up writing full time. “I'm not a cop who became a writer,” said Barnes in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, "I'm a writer who became a cop."

Three more novels would follow, along with episodic scripts for shows like Beretta, Eischeid, T.J. Hooker and Hunter as well as several made for TV movies, including Terror Among Us (1981), which was loosely based on Barnes’ novel, Yesterday Is Dead. In the novel, detectives Lee Hollister and Virgil Fox are on the hunt for a homicidal serial rapist who likes to urinate on his victims. They’re pretty sure Edward Branch is their man after he sets his sights on his next victim, Yesterday Phillips, a 22-year old trying to make it in Hollywood. And they almost get him, several times, but through numerous legal loopholes and some devious lawyering, compounded by red tape and budget woes, Branch keeps slipping through their fingers, leaving him free to rape and kill again -- I mean, the title already gave it away, right?

As written, the novel comes off very procedural and reads like an old, just the facts, ma’am, episode of Dragnet. (I know I read the whole thing with Jack Webb narrating in my mind’s ear.) In the telefilm, which is co-credited to Barnes’ wife, Joanne, this is tempered somewhat with a lot of melodrama, which mostly focused on the victims to be. And in this effort to flesh them out, we get to spend some quality time with these stewardesses: the eldest, Connie (Purcell), is about to age out of her job and isn’t sure what the future holds after her impending forced retirement; Barbara (Reed) is about to leave the airline, too, only on purpose as she’s about to get married; Beth (Blake), meanwhile, is [-this-] close to finishing her steamy romance novel; and the youngest, Cathy (Klous), has just started another torrid affair -- only this time it’s with a married man.

Truth told Terror Among Us also spends just as much time, if not more, getting under the skin of Delbert Ramsey, as each chronic lie and misstep he makes is then compounded with the consequences of his actions, leading to more lies and more missteps, adding even more pressure to this already volatile cocktail of pent-up rage. His constant run-ins with the law have him on thin ice at work and with Sara (Spelman), the alcoholic shrew he claims is his girlfriend, who berates him constantly and owns the home he’s currently shacked up in. She has him over a barrel, they both know it, and she exploits this constantly. And so it’s easy to see how and why the only time Ramsey feels in control of his life is when he’s sneaking into other people’s homes, rifling through their things, and taking souvenirs as reminders of that certain liberated feeling. But his luck runs out when he creeps into the apartment of Vickie Stevens (Lankford), an ex-stewardess and former roommate of the others, and gets caught by her husband, Alex (Milligan), is beaten to a pulp, and then turned over to the cops.

But things hit a snag at the arraignment, when the key witness, Alex, a flight engineer, is stuck out of town due to inclement weather. And while the prosecution is granted a stay, the defense, with Paxton’s help, manages to get Ramsey released without bail until the new court date, leaving Stockwell to deal with an extremely upset Vickie, whom the defense attorney smeared, claiming she had led his client on and into the apartment with the promise of sex.

Despite this victory, things really start to unravel for Ramsey. He’s finally lost his job, and Sara tries to kick him out but she rides him too hard and pushes too far this time as Ramsey winds up strangling her to death. Now on the run, Ramsey misses his court date, which officially puts the kibosh on his parole. And in an effort to track him down, Stockwell and Paxton find Sara’s body and Ramsey’s stash of stolen goods -- including several items belonging to Paxton. Mortified, she redoubles her efforts to help Stockwell track Ramsey down. 

Meanwhile, Ramsey has turned his attention back on those stewardesses, especially Connie, who was nice to him. But when he stops by, looking for her, only Cathy is home. And then, in the worst timing of ever, Vickie stops by for a visit, recognizes Ramsey, who pulls a knife, grabs the woman, and threatens to kill her unless they both keep quiet and cooperate.

From there, Terror Among Us appears to be partially influenced by the notorious case of Richard Speck, who restrained, raped and murdered a group of nursing students in Chicago back in 1966. Here, the film follows the same pattern as he ties up Cathy and Vickie and is then interrupted as the other roommates keep stumbling onto the scene. And once Connie and Barbara are subdued, he starts taking them into the bedroom, one at a time, starting with Cathy, who is beaten and raped; and then Vickie, who he blames for this (-- and project much, asshole?), and savagely beats her before they’re interrupted again by Beth, who is also severely beaten. And with the situation pretty near hopeless, a trussed up Connie valiantly throws herself out a plate glass window and onto the balcony, which alerts some neighbors and scares Ramsey off, luckily -- and I use that term loosely, before he kills somebody.

Now, Terror Among Us was executive produced by David Gerber, who had helmed five seasons and assorted spin-offs of Police Story (1973-1978), an anthology series for NBC which focused on a rotating cast of cops and cases and curbing the criminal element in the streets of Los Angeles. And there are times when Terror Among Us kinda feels like an extended episode of that series. Former NFL quarterback Don Meredith was a regular on Police Story, appearing in eight episodes, which adds even more gas to this notion. And yet the film spends most of its time focusing on the criminal, not the cops, which short-circuits this whole notion.

As written, Terror Among Us actually manages to generate a little sympathy -- no, that’s not the right word. Make that, some understanding for Delbert Ramsey, fleshing him out considerably as he is caught up in a perfect storm of events, which he instigated, that leads to the climax, making him more than the usual psycho-of-the-week. Ted Shackleford really brings this home and turns in a fairly arresting performance, here. The lost alcoholic Ewing brother who left Dallas and wound up on Knots Landing, Shackleford brings an oddly haunted quality to Ramsey; and the parts where he is cornered and manic are even better. Add it all up and he’s probably the best thing in the movie. His character is by no means an innocent, far from it -- he is a rapist, a prowler, and a peeping tom, but we do get to see the mounting circumstances that got us here, which does lead to some form of understanding before his final outburst. And if all these characters were given this kind of three-dimensional crafting, we really might’ve had something here.

As is, then, Terror Among Us feels both too long and not long enough -- it might’ve been better served as a two-night movie event to give everyone a little more room to breath. The stewardess subplots just weren’t all that interesting -- well, at least not as interesting as Ramsey’s scenes. They tried hard to add some weight to Connie's arc, the den mother of the group, getting into the unfairness of her job, where it doesn’t matter how good or competent you are, once you hit a certain age threshold you are out -- compounded by the fact that she isn’t THAT old.

And Sarah Purcell is the main reason I tracked this film down, having seen the very end of it on one of the superstations back in the day, and have spent decades hence trying to find that one movie where that gal from Real People threw herself out a window. The rest are just perfunctory but all of the actresses involved do help to flesh things out and liven things up considerably, as you easily buy their camaraderie and friendship. There is also a bit of skeevy moralizing to deal with as Cathy, the home-wrecker, is the only one to take the full brunt of Ramsey’s wrath.

Perhaps the film might’ve been better served spending less time with them and little more with Stockwell and Paxton, as there is pretty good chemistry between Meredith and Jennifer Salt and their constant bickering and barbing. And while Terror Among Us is ultimately slanted toward Stockwell’s side of the argument of erring on the side of incarceration vs. rehabilitation, Paxton holds her own, playing by the rules of a broken system because it’s all they have. (She's’ got spunk, and I adore spunk.) And I was kinda surprised during the aftermath of the attack, at the hospital, as Stockwell and Paxton try to interview the battered and traumatized victims, thinking the film had set it up so the older cop could rightfully rip the younger parole officer a new one, knowing full well she could have saved a life and prevented this attack if she’d only listened to him earlier. But this Stockwell does not do, and instead, paternally reinforces that she was only doing her job, and he should have done his job better, and to learn from this experience or it will only compound the tragedy.

Gluing all of this together, veteran episodic TV director Paul Krasny (Mission: Impossible, Mannix) keeps things moving forward well enough, and actually excels in a few spots despite being handcuffed by the constraints of the medium given the subject matter. (We actually get to watch some pervert rifle and fondle a series of bras and panties on network TV during the Reagan administration. Wow.) The final rampage is very well staged, making things entertaining and harrowing enough, resulting in a terse and overall serviceable thriller. I mean, the only place Terror Among Us trips and fails is the ending after Ramsey escapes into the night and Stockwell throws out a dragnet to hopefully catch him. In Barnes’ novel, to add insult to injury, despite some solid forensic evidence, it appears the killer is once again about to get away scot free until it ends on the last page and the last paragraph with the sound of Branch’s own testicles being severed and his penis being sawed off by an unknown vigilante. (Trust me. He deserved it.)

The telefilm’s ultimate conclusion is nowhere near that dramatic (or grisly) as Stockwell gets lucky and Ramsey is quietly nabbed at the airport as he tries to skip town on a stolen credit card right before the end credits roll. It feels a bit of cheat and totally anticlimactic, especially since they blew a golden opportunity to have the dad from Land of the Lost catching and beating the shit out of a Richard Speck surrogate not once, but twice.

Terror Among Us debuted on January 14th, 1981, as the CBS Wednesday Night Movie and is a good example that, as a genre, after reaching its apex in the 1970s, the Made for TV Movie was still a viable source of entertainment. Since its initial broadcast it looks like it garnered a limited home video release on VHS but had been long out of print until a few years ago, when it was made available as a MOD DVD-R through Sony Home Entertainment and digitally through several streaming platforms. Always grateful when one of these old gonzo tele-flicks finally makes the digital leap, and to whoever is listening out there, more of the same, please, and thank you.

Terror Among Us (1981) David Gerber Productions :: Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) / EP: David Gerber / P: James H. Brown / D: Paul Krasny / W: Dallas Barnes, JoAnne Barnes / C: Robert B. Hauser / E: Richard Freeman / M: Allyn Ferguson / S: Don Meredith, Sarah Purcell, Jennifer Salt, Ted Shackelford, Kim Lankford, Sharon Spelman, Elta Blake, Pat Klous, Tracy Reed, Spencer Milligan

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