Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Celluloid Zeroes Proudly Present: Dirty Hex Appeal, A Vengeful Witch Roundtable :: It's Erin vs. Mary in an Eldritch Smackdown for the Ages in Rod Holcomb's Midnight Offerings (1981)

In a darkened bedroom somewhere in suburban southern California, a cloaked figure confidentially works her way through some arcane ritual; an easy assumption judging by the décor and ephemera that definitely leans toward the 'eye of newt' and 'toe of frog' – not to mention the attentive black cat and the pentagram with the goat’s head at the center hanging prominently on the wall that she beseeches to. At the center of this spell are a plea to Hecate (an ancient moon goddess and the patron saint of magic, witchcraft and necromancy) and a photo of a man that she chants over and then places in a metal bowl, which then bursts into flame. 

Meanwhile, the man in question falls victim to a horrible car accident and dies when his vehicle suddenly explodes for no explicable reason. Well, save one reason. As the cloaked figure pulls the hood back to reveal a young teenager with smug, self-serving smile smeared all over her face.

Cut to the next morning, at the local high school, where we find out the girl in question is a senior named Vivian Sotherland (Anderson) and the person who died was her science teacher, Mr. Hildebrandt, who was apparently on his way to meet with the school’s principal for cryptic reasons concerning Vivian when his car exploded. But Vivian easily charms and sways the principal when asked why, swearing she had no idea what the problem could’ve been and offers to take up a collection for the poor teacher’s family.

But we in the audience know this is all for show and a load of crap. And as the morning progresses, we get all kinds of hints that this isn’t the first preternatural incident that Vivian ‘wouldn’t know anything about’, including a bus crash that knocked out half the cheerleading squad, suddenly promoting Vivian to team captain, convincing them to adopt a goat as a mascot as well. (And not just any goat but an EVIL goat.) And believe me; you don’t wanna know how she got to be class president. And then there’s her estranged boyfriend, David Sterling (Cassiday), recently readmitted to school through more of Vivian’s machinations after a drunk driving incident, where he parked his boss van inside a sporting goods store. Seems David had some suspicions about his girlfriend, what with the football team’s starting quarterback having a massive coronary, moving him to number one on the depth chart. (No second-stringers for our girl, Viv. No sir.) That, on top of all the weird and creepy crap she carries around, and the vague threats to Mr. Hildebrant, who was ready to flunk the floundering David, getting him kicked off the team, again, causing David to try and warn his teacher about her, which, alas, was all for naught and kinda backfired on him.

Thus, David’s downward spiral accelerates, in spite of Vivian’s dire warnings to get his act together. And while everyone else thinks the spaced-out (and now tight-lipped) David is on drugs, he has no idea who to turn to next. But luckily for him there’s a new girl in school, who gladly lends a sympathetic ear. Turns out Robin Prentiss (McDonough) is blessed (or cursed) with her own empathetic ability to read people just by touching them, and after a friendly handshake she knows David is harboring a terrible secret. But as these two get acquainted, Vivian has been spying on them the whole time and is bound and determined to nip this relationship in the bud.

Once more turning on the charm, she tries to recruit Robin for the spirit squad (which already includes Vanna White and future Friday the 13th alum, Dana Kimmel), casting a spell that injures a girl to make an open spot, netting herself a snip of Robin’s hair in the process, that I’m sure will be used for some nefarious purpose later. But this incidental contact gives Robin a terrifying read on Vivian as death incarnate. Then, David intervenes and pulls Robin away, warning her to stay away from Vivian. And once they’re safely away, after a little more coaxing, David finally reveals the true scope of Vivian’s supernatural and sociopathic reign of terror. But, as it turns out, Robin has been harboring some sinister secrets of her own… 

I’ve gushed at length elsewhere about my love for Made for TV movies of the 1970s, where sentient homicidal bulldozers ran amok, horked off ancient spirits of evil hijacked airplanes, were-spiders spun webs of death, and whole towns came under alien control. There were also quite a few concerning witchcraft and devil worship in the suburbs, and from there sprung a lucrative niche concerning teenage witches coming to terms with their powers and getting vengeance on those who tormented them. 

It began with The Spell (1977), which saw a constantly teased overweight tweener take her eldritch wrath out on everybody, including her estranged family. Stranger in Our House (1978) saw Wes Craven directing Linda Blair, who was dealing with an intruding orphan who tries to supernaturally squeeze her out and replace her.

Obviously, a lot of these telefilms were inspired by Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and by The Initiation of Sarah (1978) it had really become less about spell-casting and more about emulating the telekinetic cat-fights and temper tantrums of Carrie White, where an unpopular sister in an unpopular sorority uses her powers to take out her more popular sister’s rival house. Of course, then, it was inevitable that someone, somewhere, finally asked the question -- What if instead of only one witch we had two witches? One good, one bad, and they fought to the death? -- and put pen to paper. But it wasn’t until the next decade when this notion finally reached the small screen with Midnight Offerings (1981).

For you see, Robin’s abilities go far beyond her internal mood-ring-o-meter, manifesting themselves telekinetically as well, which gives her a natural defense against some of Vivian’s more blatant attacks. (Unfortunately, one of these spells ricocheted off her and struck her father with another one of those mystery coronaries.) These powers had started to haphazardly manifest themselves back in Connecticut, which prompted her father to move them way out west to put some distance between his daughter and the suspicions of others when these abilities sparked off, often dangerously, with no rational explanation except his daughter was a freak. In fact, at first, while Vivian keeps hexing her, trying to cause bodily harm, as things start flying around her house, Robin thinks it’s just her own out-of-control powers going haywire again.

But when her father gets knocked out of commission, Robin finally sees that the threat of Vivian is dangerously real and she must be stopped. Having read up on witches in an effort to derail his now ex-girlfriend, David knows a witch when he sees one and does his best to help Robin hone these abilities but soon realizes they need professional help. And so, they turn to Emily Moore (Ross), another self-proclaimed witch, who learns that Robin was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, which, apparently, has a lot more meaning than a ton of hand-me-downs and a long wait for the bathroom as it is a pretty big deal in witchcraft; but her mother died giving birth to her, leaving Robin with no one to help her get control of these natural abilities. And after a decade of her father’s browbeating of ignoring it and maybe it will just go away, the best advice Emily can give is to convince Robin to stop resisting her power and embrace it or she will have no chance against Vivian. To do this, Robin and David head to the park where she stretches her powers a bit and the romantic spark that had been flickering between them bursts into flame – just like the bush Robin mentally sets on fire as the world’s goofiest Mentos ad comes to a close.

Meantime, we also get a glimpse of Vivian’s busted home life, where we find out she is also a seven of seven. Her father, Sherman (Jump), is blissfully unaware of what his daughter is cooking up in her bedroom, thinking it a science experiment, but he, too, has unwittingly benefited from her power when a sole rival for a big promotion met with an untimely accident, which will net Vivian a new car once the higher salary kicks in. Her mother, meanwhile, is fully aware of what her daughter has been up to. A witch herself, Diane (Damon) is constantly chastised by Vivian for squandering her power by abandoning it and settling for the lumpy potato parked in front of the TV in the other room. Wanting it all, and willing to do anything to get it, Vivian ignores her mother’s warnings about the price of such things, and judging by her expression, she knows of what she speaks. And when Diane threatens to stop her, her calcified skills prove no match for Vivian and she is easily and thoroughly defeated.

Thus free of any repercussions, Vivian’s supernatural assault on Robin continues unabated, including a nocturnal visit from her familiar, which quietly pads its four-legged way into her house and knocks an oil lamp over. (Was the cat doing this by command or, like my cat, is it just an asshole who likes to knock crap over.) Luckily, David took it upon himself to keep a vigil, spots the flames, and manages to get Robin out before the fire and smoke consume her. Then a flock of compelled crows attack the couple inside the van nearly causing another horrendous crash.

When all of her efforts fail, and realizing she’s about to lose David for good, Vivian confronts her arch-nemesis at the school and drags Robin off to the deserted shop classroom to deliver an ultimatum, giving her two days to clear out or the consequences will be lethal. Undaunted, Robin tells Vivian to go screw herself, triggering a nifty psychic brawl of flying lumber and power tools. And while Robin valiantly holds her own, this match ends in a draw when the shop teacher blunders in just as the sawdust settles. And once Vivian sends him packing with some conjured evidence of statutory rape in the parking lot, she reminds Robin that she has two days to leave or she won’t be alive on the third.

Knowing she is well-outclassed and needing an edge, Robin and David set out to raid Vivian’s house, looking for some hair and personal items they can use with Emily’s help to divine a spell against her. But this backfires when Emily discerns that Vivian is a rare Hectite, a disciple of Hecate, whose powers increase during the full moon, destined to rise the next night. Encouraged to get out of town until the moon cycle is over, Robin refuses to abandon her father, recently released from the hospital. Told in no uncertain terms to meet with Vivian, Robin and David hole up at her house, determined to wait out Vivian’s threat – until the phone rings. It’s Vivian, who threatens to kill her father and David if Robin reveals who the caller is and to meet with her in secret at the high school, alone, or else.

Thus, with the full moon hanging fat in the sky, Robin sneaks out of the house and enters the football stadium as instructed. From out of the shadows she hears the approach of cloven hooves, which turns out to be Vivian’s pet mascot, whose impact sends her tumbling down the stairs. Knocked for a loop, Robin tries to get her bearings, but Emily’s talismans and charms prove worthless, and with a wave of her hand Vivian renders Robin unconscious. And when she comes to, Robin finds herself stuck to the mooring pole in the middle of the wood-pile gathered for the upcoming homecoming bonfire. The irony of this is not lost as Vivian gloats over her classic choice to dispose of her rival. And with another wave of her hand, the fire ignites. And as the flames lick ever closer to our heroine, she appears to be doomed until help arrives from a most unexpected source.

Midnight Offerings was first broadcast on February 27, 1981, on ABC. And as it plays out, the telefilm really comes off as a Halloween-tinged After School Special from the very same network. Personally, I find it to be a highly entertaining low-budget romp for a number of reasons, one of them being a huge childhood crush on one of the stars. 

I honestly think the key ingredient as to why people even remember this particular telefilm at all is The Little House on the Prairie vs. The Waltons angle of our dueling witches. In spite of coming from rival shows on rival networks, the two actresses got along splendidly and had a ball during the shoot. (Apparently they both kept cracking up during the showdown in the shop.) And while my heart will always belong to Mary Beth, who does a pretty good job with a pretty vanilla role, the film belongs to Melissa Sue, who gleefully steals the show with the meatier part as the bitch-witch Vivian. Both actresses would also make a splash in a couple of early slasher films, too, with McDonough showing up in Mortuary (1983) and Anderson taking the cake in Happy Birthday to Me (1981).

Also making a lot of hay out of a small part is another TV veteran, Marion Ross, as Glenda the Good Witch, taking a break from her role as the matriarchal Mrs. Cunningham on Happy Days. And then there’s Cathryn Damon, who adds a lot of weight as Vivian’s doomed mother, who makes the ultimate sacrifice in the end to stop her daughter once and for all.

The telefilm also packed a lot of TV clout behind the camera as well. It was produced by Stephen J. Cannell and written by Juanita Bartlett, who had just wrapped up The Rockford Files (1975-1980) and were about to debut The Greatest American Hero (1981-1986). Director Ron Holcomb and his F/X crew do the best they can with their limited means and actually manage some pretty spectacular stunts and manifestations. Credit also to director of photography, Héctor Figueroa, who came up with a few dazzling set-ups. (I’m specifically thinking of several shots of Cassiday getting out his van in a hurry to save Robin.) Again, the fight in the shop class is handled rather deftly, and while the climax kinda fizzles as far as confrontations go what we get is very well executed and extremely dangerous considering all the open flames.

Still, the film’s biggest asset is Bartlett’s script and its attention to detail in the mystical accouterments, spell-casting and the subtle way it conveys Vivian’s trail of destruction and her lineage. Also, Vivian's complete lack of concern for the welfare of others is downright disturbing. Sure, it still all boils down to essentially dueling Carrie Whites, but I found it interesting that the new girl doesn’t have to convince the locals that the most popular cheerleader in school is a really a witch out to kill them all but vice versa. And with a game cast who played it straight (between those giggling fits, natch’), I’m telling ya, Midnight Offerings is a lot better than it probably deserves to be.

This post is just one part of The Celluloid Zeroes' Vengeful Witch Roundtable. And to complete the spell of Dirty Hex Appeal, Boils and Ghouls, please follow the linkage below to my fellow collective head 'o' knuckle's entries as they are woven and cast over the weekend, please and thank you:

Checkpoint Telstar: The Witchfinder General  //  Cinemasochist Apocalypse: Black Magic // The Terrible Claw Reviews: The Haunted Palace // Tomb of Anubis: TBD  // Web of the Big-Damned Spider: Ator: The Flying Eagle // Psychoplasmics: Don't Torture a Duckling  // Las películas de terror: Asmodexia

Midnight Offerings (1981) Stephen J. Cannell Productions :: American Broadcasting Company (ABC) / EP: Stephen J. Cannell, Juanita Bartlett / P: Alex Beaton / AP: Christopher Nelson / D: Rod Holcomb / W: Juanita Bartlett / C: Héctor R. Figueroa / E: Christopher Nelson / M: Walter Scharf / S: Melissa Sue Anderson, Mary Beth McDonough, Patrick Cassidy, Marion Ross, Cathryn Damon, Gordon Jump

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...