COLUMBO – Lovely but Lethal (1973, S03E01)

This was initially penned for a collection of fan essays meant to cover the entire COLUMBO series, but the collection was never realized.

Viveca Scott is not like other murderesses in Columbo. She’s not an actress. She’s not married, she’s not a scorned lover, she’s not even insecure. She’s the head of Beauty Mark, a cosmetics company so popular that even our dear detective is familiar with her face.

Despite its popularity, Beauty Mark’s stock has been fading. Viveca (Vera Miles) needs a hit, as her gloating competitor David Lang (Vincent Price) reminds her. However, Viveca has an ace up her sleeve with the brilliant-but-boozy Dr. Murcheson, a chemist skilled enough to manufacture the cosmetics holy grail: a cream that eradicates the appearance of age, aptly named Miracle.

Sadly, Murcheson’s alcoholism is a roadblock in getting Miracle to market. In the nightmarish opening, we see his sweaty, porous face splashed with red light, looking the very sight of a mad doctor as he runs some final tests on a female subject. Murcheson’s assistant chemist, Karl Lessing (Martin Sheen), simply observes until Murcheson’s tremors nick the woman’s face. Karl takes over, leaving Murcheson to find comfort in a whiskey bottle.

Murcheson evaluates the test results and tells Viveca that Miracle is a failure, the prior, very successful results a fluke, but she hears quite different news from her spy at Lang’s: mousy, loose-lipped assistant Shirley Blaine. Shirley informs Viveca that Lang just received the most ingenious cream and, in one of the more far-fetched Columbo scenes, Shirley applies the cream to a nearby maid’s face and her crow’s feet disappear!

It dawns on Viveca that Karl, Murcheson’s assistant, falsified Miracle’s latest tests and brought the cream to Lang. Instead of informing Murcheson or buying the cream from Shirley, Viveca opts to unsuccessfully bargain with Karl for Miracle’s formula. When he laughs at her escalating offers, Viveca does what few Columbo murderers do: in the heat of the moment she impetuously kills Karl, bludgeoning him with a nearby microscope. She takes Karl’s single jar of Miracle and leaves before his body cools.

Early the next morning, Columbo investigates the scene of the crime (showing more interest in finding salt for his hard-boiled egg than clues), then makes a beeline for Viveca, following her from Karl’s dartboard to Beauty Mark’s offices, then to Viveca’s ‘Fat Farm’, peppering her with questions the entire way. Upon inquiring about her history with Karl, she responds: “I like young men, Lieutenant, lots of them. And if that shocks your ancient masculine double standard, I’m sorry.” In retaliation, Viveca drags Columbo to a nude exercise group, leaving the Lieutenant flustered and eager to exit and question Murcheson.

With one irritant out of her way, Viveca goes to dispatch another. Shirley has realized that Viveca was behind Karl’s murder, and the poor girl (who just wants to be like Viveca) tries to leverage that knowledge for a Beauty Mark executive position. Instead of granting her wish, Viveca opts to murder again (another Columbo abnormality) by gifting her poisoned cigarettes. Shirley dies while smoking and driving, looking to the world as if she lost control of her car.

Unfortunately, Shirley’s death does little to prevent Columbo from piecing together the murder. He confronts Viveca and she’s taken away, an unceremonious end for a most unusual Columbo woman. Viveca was a wily, successful, independent, occasionally shortsighted woman, sadly all too capable of murder. She was an anomalous antagonist when compared to Columbo’s other killer women, co-dependents who murdered out of jealousy, revenge, or ‘easy’ money. Viveca Scott was a murderess the likes of which Columbo had never seen before, and would never see again.

Halloween 2021 Programming: CULT

As previously noted, my wife and I have a tradition where I draft up a selection of horror films for Halloween viewing, and she picks one from each group: Contemporary, Classic, and Cult, and I thought I’d share my suggestions this year. Today features cult horror films, and mostly features the exact text I sent her. And yes, I know, defining what is horror and what is considered ‘cult’ horror is like splitting hairs, but rule of three, folks!

Again, apologies for leaning on prior works. Again, Halloween weekend! I have other terrors to read, watch, and write!

HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II (1987, AMC+/hoopla/peacock/Shudder/tubi/VOD/Vudu) or PROM NIGHT III: THE LAST KISS (1990, YouTube)

Previously suggested. “The first PROM NIGHT is fine, but mostly remembered because of how bare Jamie Lee Curtis gets, and for riffing on CARRIE. PROM NIGHT II twists the first film’s premise and goes for broke — also, a rare woman supernatural slasher, and they were clearly hoping some of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET would rub off on the film — and PROM NIGHT III turns the franchise into an amazing, albeit often puerile, horror-comedy. They’re both very entertaining and smart in their own ways.”

PROM NIGHT II trailer:

PROM NIGHT III trailer:

Shh, don’t tell anyone but, as it’s practically impossible to stream a legal version, here you are:

MATINEE (1993, Starz/VOD)

A Joe Dante (GREMLINS, INNERSPACE) work, which means warm-hearted love for misfit youths and being scared by B-movies, while still having a subversive political voice and viewpoint. It was one of the first post-lockdown films I saw at the Music Box, but it’s endlessly re-watchable.

READY OR NOT (2019, VOD)

(Editor’s note: I cheated a bit here, as I normally would consider this contemporary and not cult, although I fully believe it’s destined to become a cult film. I also lifted most of it for my write-up.)

This one really surprised me: it’s a darkly comic fusion of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME with Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, with an amazing cast that includes Andie MacDowell, Samara Weaving (Thea, from BILL AND TED FACE THE MUSIC), Adam Brody (probably don’t need to write this but: from THE OC, JENNIFER’S BODY, GILMORE GIRLS), Melanie Scrofano (Wynonna in WYNONNA EARP), and Kristian Bruun (Donnie from ORPHAN BLACK). It’s a surprisingly well-executed film. I recently happened upon a promotional READY OR NOT shirt I received for the film when I left a 24-hour film fest early last year, and opted to keep it as a nostalgia shirt, sitting alongside my BLAIR WITCH PROJECT shirt.

Even though I don’t believe in spoilers, I would stop the trailer after the first minute. There are a ton of fun surprises in the film that work great with the trailer, but even better if you experience them in the film itself.

Tomorrow: CLASSICS!

TALES FROM THE CRYPT: ON A DEADMAN’S CHEST (1992, S04E03)

(DVD/VOD) It doesn’t get more 90s than this. Look, this isn’t a great slice of horror, despite it being directed by William Friedkin, but it was vividly seared into my brain. In 1992, I didn’t have access to HBO, but my uncle — who my father and I traveled to Albany, New York to attend his second wedding — did, and my father and I were staying at his place. I spent most of my time that weekend binging HBO, including the 70s KING KONG. However, it’s this episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT that really sticks out in my mind because, at that point in time in my life, I’d never seen anything quite like it.

I’ll summarize this as quickly as possible, but there’s a hell of a lot of plot in this thirty-minute ep: Danny Darwin (Yul Vazquez) is the lead singer in the band EXORCIST (get it?), and he absolutely hates Nick Bosch’s — EXORCIST’s songwriter and guitarist — wife, Scarlett (Tia Carrere) and the feeling is mutual. As typical for EC Comics protagonists, Danny is a complete and utter shitheel and he treats most folks around him like garbage, but that doesn’t seem to keep groupies from wanting a piece of Danny.

After an EXORCIST show, one particular groupie not-at-all-subtly named Vendetta (Sherrie Rose) catches Danny backstage. She unlatches her top to reveal a snake tattoo that weaves across her chest. She begs him to look closer, and the camera leerily leans in as we see the snake take a life of its own, slithering out of her skin to snap at Danny. Danny demands to know who the tattoo artist is, and she says she’ll tell him for a price. (As this is HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT, the price is obviously sex.)

Danny visits the tattoo artist, requests a tiger, but the artist says he’ll find the right tattoo for him. Consequently, he’s left with a giant tattoo of Scarlett across his chest. Danny goes ballistic and storms back to the home he’s sharing with Nick and Scarlett. Scarlett promptly tears into him, and Danny retorts that she’s trying to break up the band.

Fast forward a bit: Danny sees Vendetta at a club, then starts blaming her for setting him up, for giving the tattoo artist the idea to permanently pen Scarlett onto his chest. She recommends a plastic surgeon, and Danny follows through, but is left with a red and raw vague silhouette of the original tattoo that the surgeon notes is “bizarre”. Vendetta then tells Danny that, if he can’t get rid of the tattoo, he can at least get rid of her.

(Obviously, I’m about to spoil the end of the episode, but frankly, you’ve certainly figured out what is about to happen. Also, it’s probably taken me longer to write this summary than it would to watch it.)

Danny then pretends to make amends with Nick, but is intentionally late for their next show to make time to murder Scarlett. Danny then meets up with Vendetta, confesses to killing Scarlett — which she finds “so fucking hot”. Danny removes the bandage from his healing chest, looks at himself in the mirror and sees that the tattoo has fully returned, but instead of Scarlett’s pristine face, he sees it as bloodied and lifeless. He turns to Vendetta, who sees it as the original tattoo — Scarlett’s face clean of blood.

Danny finally appears at the show, goes on-stage to perform and, right as he’s about to let loose, he looks down and sees something visibly moving under his shirt. He runs to the dressing room and a serpent/demon dog creature bursts from his chest. Vendetta relays to Nick that Danny killed Scarlett and, when Nick goes to get revenge, he sees Danny with a gaping torso wound, holding his skinned tattoo in his hand.

Yes, basic EC material, but mostly new to me. While I’d read plenty of horror — I read practically everything that our local library stocked — I’d absolutely never seen anything as graphic as it. The closing shot is what did me in; I barely slept a wink before the wedding, and it’s a bit of horror that I will never fully forget.

(That said, oddly I remember the tattoo being on his back, not his chest, but uh, that’d make it quite difficult to skin off. Not like anything else in the episode fully hangs together, though.)

Please, don’t take this as a full recommendation. It’s rather by-the-numbers and wildly insensitive — even for its time — but that’s par for the series. However, it is stylish, and has some great practical effects work.

https://tftc.fandom.com/wiki/On_a_Deadman%27s_Chest

GET A LIFE (1990)

(DVD/YouTube) GET A LIFE was a transcendently stupid TV show starring Chris Elliott as Chris Peterson, a naive 30-year-old man-child living with his parents, who happens to fall into a number of absurd comic situations that grow more and more surreal as the show progresses. It was the brainchild of Chris Elliott (who, at that time, was mostly known for small bits on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN), David Mirkin (best known for his work on some of the best seasons of THE SIMPSONS), and Adam Resnick. (Resnick was a big 90s SNL writer, but also co-wrote and directed the cult-favorite but critically-reviled CABIN BOY which also starred Chris Elliott and has a brief appearance by David “Wouldja like to buy a monkey?!” Letterman. Having attended a CABIN BOY screening with a post-film Q&A with Resnick, I can tell you that he -hates- talking about that film and I do not know why he agreed to do a Q&A.) Notable writers include Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) and Bob Odenkirk (MR. SHOW, BETTER CALL SAUL), so you know it’s going to be absurd.

It was definitely absurd. The first season was slightly more off-kilter than full-blown bonkers — it focused more on the sitcom family elements (which included Chris Elliott’s real-life father and classic comedian Bob Elliott as Peterson’s father). The second season was completely unhinged, mostly because they knew they would never get renewed for a third.

It was a severe primetime network oddity in the early nineties and, as a young teen watching my friend’s weekly VHS recordings of the show, it was a mind-blowing experience: Chris Peterson would frequently be killed off in episodes. There’s a Jack and the Giant Beanstalk ep. There’s an E.T.-ish episode that featured a disgusting alien named SPEWEY that, as you might guess, repeatedly vomits. It’s proto-alternative TV comedy.

One of the most influential episodes may be “The Prettiest Week of My Life” (S01E02, surprisingly early in the show) where Chris decides to become a male model via the ‘Handsome Boy School of Modeling’. If you’re familiar with music producer Dan the Automator, you’re familiar with this episode, as he created an entire project named HANDSOME BOY MODELING SCHOOL, then went on to heavily sample “The Prettiest Week of My Life” in songs like ‘Look at This Face (Oh My God They’re Gorgeous)’ and ‘Modeling Sucks’:

(When I used to DJ, I’d try to work in ‘Modeling Sucks’ whenever I could.)

What’s even more amazing is: they managed to get R.E.M.’s STAND for the theme song. Sadly, that’s probably why you can’t legally stream it anywhere now. (If you want to check out the series, there are a number of bootleg eps on YouTube, but please: if you enjoy it, throw some money towards SHOUT! Factory’s DVD set. It’s a great set, and they do fantastic work.)

The show isn’t for everyone, but it was a foundational show for me.

MAX HEADROOM: Dieties (S02E02, 1987)

(DVD) I’m keeping this to my most memorable MAX HEADROOM ep, but I loved all of them. I know most folks are only familiar with the character Max Headroom (performed in extreme makeup by Matt Frewer, who doubles as televisual news journalist Edison Carter) from the Coke commercials, or maybe from pseudo-characters from satirical cartoons like DOONESBURY or BLOOM COUNTY.

If you’re of a certain age and watched TV, you can’t forget that brilliant neon-lined backdrop. If you aren’t familiar with the show: Edison Carter is an activist journalist for Network 23 in a cyberpunk near-future. When he’s almost killed upon doing legwork for an investigative story that involves Network 23’s potentially lethal blipverts, the network puts a hit out on him via a hacker, who triggers a parking garage lift as Edison’s trying to escape some cronies, and he flies face-first into a parking garage hazard sign with the words ‘MAX HEADROOM’. Said hacker then reconstructs Edison’s persona from a digital copy of Edison’s brain to continue non-Network 23-related reports for the network, and MAX HEADROOM is born. (Edison survives to tell the tale, but is now stuck with a sarcastic, extremely popular but very extreme digital copy of hisself.)

I didn’t grow up with the even-more-forgotten MAX HEADROOM late-night show that Frewer helmed in Australia, but I watched the TV movie via LaserDisc when I was a youth and it was enough of a revelation that I named our newly acquired yellow-and-black-striped cockatiel Max after the show.

(Yes, I grew up with birds and LaserDiscs, and rode horses. I fully realize now that my youth was off-kilter.)

There are more intriguing episodes of MAX HEADROOM, but -Dieities- is a very Cronenberg-ian episode of TV. It’s about televangelists and the falsity of ‘mind-storage’ (which is obviously self-reflexive, given his Max Headroom TV-centric AI persona). Oh, and there are a number of vaguely hidden riffs on Scientology. It’s especially high-concept for a show that repeatedly took big swings.

Unfortunately, it’s not available to stream anywhere, but the DVD box set is readily available. In lieu of a trailer, here’s a link to the TV film:

“Oh God, he’s been in the Dobie Gillis file again.” (A quote from -Dieties-, not from the pilot. As someone who saw a number of Dobie Gillis films in summer day camps, I felt very seen.)

GOODBYE, DRAGON INN (2003)

(DVD/Blu-Ray) Back in May I posted about MUBI teaming up with the Music Box Theatre — a Chicago arthouse theater — for a two week ‘Back on the Big Screen’ event. (The previously recommended MATINEE was also part of the programming.) The sole film I didn’t recognize was Ming-liang Tsai’s GOODBYE, DRAGON INN, so I immediately bought a ticket without reading anything about it, apart from a sentence fragment I accidentally skimmed while patching up my Music Box Chrome extension: “It’s the final show at Taipei’s enormous Fu Ho movie palace”

The screening was surprisingly well-populated for a Monday matinee in early June — a good sixty, seventy or so folks, all vaguely socially distanced and mostly masked. Maybe more? I’m poor at eyeballing an audience but, given that two weeks prior, I was the sole person at a Wednesday matinee, it was a solid crowd.

That said, based on what I overheard upon exiting the film, a good two-thirds of them walked away feeling disappointed, expecting something far more gripping or narratively substantial than they received. Obviously, I don’t hold the same opinion.

GOODBYE, DRAGON INN is first and foremost a mood piece. Apart from the film that plays throughout the bulk of the piece (DRAGON INN, 1967), there’s very little dialogue in the film. A young man enters a film palace screening its final film before closing. A black cat scampers down the hallway. A woman with leg braces clomps around, doing her last daily rounds, stepping across leaky spots in the deteriorating building. She brings food up to the projectionist, who is missing from the projection booth. Said young man encounters a small number of individuals during the screening, some who may be real or may be ghosts. One particularly memorable individual is a woman who loses her shoe while endlessly cracking enough sunflower seeds to flood the theater stairway. The young man leaves. The woman closes up shop. The projectionist leaves. The woman follows.

In other words, GOODBYE, DRAGON INN is comprised of atmospheric vignettes of theatergoers and theater operators. It has the barest of narrative arcs, and few specifics about the characters that inhabit the theater, and even those specifics are inferred instead of explicitly stated. It’s pure cinema in that it shows, it doesn’t tell, which is obviously why it was brilliantly part of MUBI’s programming. While it’s not to everyone’s taste — after the film, I grabbed a drink outside at a local bar and couldn’t help but hear two folks bitch and moan about how boring the movie was — this sort of visual longform work is catnip to me, and I feel very lucky to have been able to attend the screening, and very thankful that MUBI did program it instead of a film that may have been more popular, but certainly would have been far less interesting.

(This is yet another case where the film is not available to stream, and hunting down a copy for a region one player can be costly and very difficult, so I’ll wink and suggest a YouTube search instead.)

ELECTRIC DREAMS (1984)

(DVD/BR/YT) ELECTRIC DREAMS is an odd high-concept romantic rivalry/surveillance thriller about architect Miles (Lenny von Dohlen, best known as the agoraphobic florist from TWIN PEAKS), his computer, cellist Madeline (Virginia Madsen), and the love triangle they inhabit, one with shades of CYRANO DE BERGERAC.

Given that I was both a computer nerd and practicing cellist as a youth, I’ve seen this film more than a few times over the years. Yes, its portrayal for what a mid-1980s computer was capable of doing was wildly overblown, but it had a fantastic soundtrack — as you would expect as it’s courtesy of Giorgio Moroder — and was extraordinarily shot. It has a number of lush scenes that highlight the difference between video and film, as well as a more than a few fantastically composed visual vignettes, and Madsen is absolutely charming as Madeline. It certainly was one of the first narrative films that ‘spoke’ to me, that made me feel seen, given that it was both about computers and a cellist.

The film features a musical number where Madeline warms up by playing Bach’s Minuet in G Major (what the ELECTRIC DREAMS soundtrack dubs as the ‘Mad Minuet’), which was one of my warm-ups when I was a young cellist so I can’t help but love it, but I also adore how long and -fun- the scene is. I was never a brilliant cellist — although I was good enough to be in a quartet to play for then-Vermont governor Howard Dean — but when I got on a roll, when I was in the zone, it felt just as exuberant and gleeful. You can view the number below:

ELECTRIC DREAMS has been unavailable in the U.S. for some time now, but there was a recent UK Blu-Ray release via Second Sight (https://secondsightfilms.co.uk/products/electric-dreams-blu-ray ). There’s also a copy floating around YouTube that I may have already ‘accidentally’ linked to. (Shh, don’t tell!)

“Hm. Very smart, but weird.”

P.S. There’s a great post-mortem about the film available on YouTube. And, for what it’s worth, there are two scenes I remember vividly from watching it as a youth: the motherboard being washed out, and Madeline’s cello being crushed in the elevator. Madsen’s method time was worth it.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: COME WANDER WITH ME (1964)

(Hulu/Paramount+, S05E34) This episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE is rarely included in best of lists, which is fair — even if it’s the last-filmed ep and directed by Richard Donner — as its story is a bit strained, even by TWILIGHT ZONE standards. Floyd Burney, known as the “Rock-A-Billy Kid” (Gary Crosby), is on the prowl for a new song in a small, unnamed town. He overhears a woman singing and follows her voice as she repeats the refrain: “Come wander with me love / Come wander with me / Away from this sad world / Come wander with me”

The woman introduces herself as Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher) and is reluctant to part with the song, but Floyd is insistent. Matters escalate quickly as the rest of the song is revealed.

While the episode is a bit clunky, it’s the song that makes it memorable. -Come Wander With Me- is a brilliantly haunting ballad and, even though the song was never written or recorded in full, a number of musicians, such as Émilie Satt and British Sea Power, have covered it over the years.

Émilie Satt – Come Wander With Me:

British Sea Power – Come Wander With Me:

Hidden Highways – Come Wander With Me:

Original:

It’s worth noting that, for some inexplicable reason, the episode is titled ‘Come Wander With Us’ on Netflix.

THE MAXX (1995)

(VOD/DVD) THE MAXX was a short-lived animated adaptation of Sam Keith’s comic book featured in MTV’s similarly short-lived ODDITIES block and, to this day, remains one of the most faithful — and most intriguing — comic book adaptations ever.

THE MAXX is about a spandex-clad vagrant (The Maxx) who believes himself to be the protector of Julie Winters, a complicated social worker who is being tormented by a man known as Mr. Gone. The Maxx sometimes slips into another realm known as The Outback, where he’s a noble warrior instead of a homeless man in a purple suit. If it sounds slightly ridiculous, well, -comics-, but it’s essentially a hard-boiled vehicle to explore repression and trauma.

While the narrative and characters would be interesting enough on its own, what really makes the series stand out is how it adapted Keith’s extremely stylized artwork and layouts to TV: they essentially ripped the panels from his comic, and -then- animated them. Occasionally they throw in some CGI or live action video footage, but the majority of it is exactly what you would have seen and read in the first twelve issues of the comics. Amazingly, instead of feeling like a hollow recreation, it feels vibrant and thrilling and often even funny.

If Keith’s comic were a lesser work, it might not have translated so well to bizarro late-night 15-minute programming, but instead it feels fresh and audacious, even today. There’s never been anything that looks or feels like THE MAXX, and it’s unlikely there ever will be.

You can watch all 13 episodes in around three hours. It used to be stream via MTV.com (albeit as a very poor transfer) but it’s now it’s only available to purchase via DVD or the usual VOD outlets. However, resourceful folks can find episodes through Vimeo (but you didn’t hear that from me).

GALAVANT (2015-2016)

(DVD/VOD) While at first blush, this fantasy musical TV series from ABC (owned by Disney) may look like it’s solely for musical theater nerds and, while I may qualify for that moniker — I admit to spending some time in high school pit orchestra, and I did willfully throw away good money to see CATS on stage two years ago — it’s smart and clever and fun enough for everyone.

Created by Dan Fogelman (who penned the similarly subversive princess film TANGLED, but is probably best known now as the creator of THIS IS US), it’s a gleefully self-aware gaggle of fairy tale male savior tropes turned on its ear, all to the tune of Alan Menken songs. Even better, every single one of the characters are interesting and very human, all fleshed out and given their own quirks, despite the fact that the show could have coasted along on caricatures.

The cast is phenomenal and includes Timothy Omundson as the idiotic king (handsomely unrecognizable from his days on MONK), Vinnie Jones as the king’s heavy hand (yes, he does sing, and he’s hilarious), Mallory Jansen as Galavant’s ‘stolen’ love, Luke Youngblood (COMMUNITY’s Magnitude) as a plucky sidekick, not to mention an astounding guest cast including: Rutger Hauer, Weird Al, John Stamos, Hugh Bonneville, Kylie Minogue, Nick Frost, and Anthony Head.

It’s utterly delightful but inexplicably unavailable via Disney+. That said, it’s well-worth hunting down a digital copy or the DVD set.

There’s a very long trailer for the first season, but it amplifies the drama and downplays the music and comedy. I recommend the German trailer instead, which is just the intro of the pilot but with German subtitles.

Disney Germany S1 opener:

American S1 trailer:

If you still aren’t sold, check out these S2 trailers/openers, because that’s really when the show doubled-down on its very specific brand of nonsense:

S2 opener:

S2’s penultimate episode’s opener (don’t be afraid of spoilers!):

I’m very grateful to my wife for boosting this show to me, even though I bluntly said ‘I don’t think I need that’ when she first recommended it to me.