Author: Krista Culbertson

Wicked Wednesday: Willow Creek (2013)

Ever since watching Grave Encounters, I’ve been on a massive found-footage kick. But depending on who you ask, the genre has more titles listed as “to avoid” than supposed “must sees”. So it can be tricky figuring out what to and what not to watch.

Ever since I finished reading Max Brook’s Devolution last month, I’ve been dying to watch a good Bigfoot movie. When I spotted Willow Creek, a lesser-known movie with a fairly good reputation, I thought I had struck gold. But I think I ended up with more confusion than anything.

Willow Creek follows the found footage formula to a T: couple were making a movie (documentary…? YouTube video…?) together at Six Rivers National Forest, where the iconic Patterson–Gimlin film was made. They’re missing and seemingly all that was found was their footage.

Jim and Kelly are a likeable couple, but clearly out of their element when they arrive at the small town of Willow Creek, which is dedicated to all things Bigfoot. They interview locals. Laugh at local things like Bigfoot statues, paintings and musicians. It’s all a good time.

When they meet a local author, they’re given the directions to the location where the Patterson–Gimlin film was supposedly show. The couple head down together, but are warned away by a local. Do they listen to him? No. Did he provide any good reasoning other than being a threatening hillbilly? No.

So it’s no surprise when the couple soon find they’re being fucked with. After they go for a swim, they return to their campsite to find that their stuff has been trashed. Only not really trashed as their tent is still fine and everything.

That night, the couple begin to hear whooping and calling in the night. Kelly knows it could be anything. Jim knows it is the Bigfoot calling out to each other. Their soon ‘attacked’ in their tent, but the attacks amount to something poking at their tent.

The following day, the couple decide to pack up and get the hell out of Dodge. Though, of course, they get lost in the woods. And it’s not too long before they meet their unsurprising demise.

Willow Creek is directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. Considering this isn’t his first time at the directing rodeo, you’d expect a bit more…well, just more. I’d find it more believable if you told me this was made by a 20-something who begged his friends to be in his movie and paid them in pad thai.

The plot is very run-of-the mill and surprisingly dominated by their attempts to interview locals. The movie is over halfway done when they reach the campsite. Because of this, there are very little scares to be had. I’m not sure why the movie went with the decisions it did. For one, you never see a Bigfoot (though a clump of their hair makes an appearance) and you did get a shot of a naked woman standing in the woods. Because…? Well, I’m not really sure.

I wish the movie would have made a decision: build the Bigfoot lore up to really scare us or make these big bitches really terrifying to see. If there’s a random lady in the woods, who is she? Is it meant to be implied that she’s one of the people from the missing posters? If so, why is she alive while the beasts quite clearly tore apart the couple?

Maybe I’m over-thinking a movie about cryptids. But is it really asking too much to have something that is both fun and has lore? That’s what ultimately made The Blair Witch Project so exciting. It’s nothing but shaky cameras and panicked breathing without its lore.

I wouldn’t say Willow Creek is bad. There are definitely more disappointing movies in this world. But it’s certainly something I’m going to forget I watched in about a week or two.

Wicked Wednesday: The McPherson Tape (1989)

As an adult, the horror movies that scare me the most are home invasion films. Black Christmas (my steadfast favourite) gets to me every time. The leering, the creeping – it all makes my skin crawl. Anything where someone is there that shouldn’t be. But as a child, there was one thing that scared me the most: aliens. And in The McPherson Tape, both my fears meet in the middle to shake hands.

The McPherson Tape is one of the earliest examples of the found footage style. Written, directed, produced and filmed by Dean Alioto, this movie is done a shoestring budget and is remarkably convincing for its age. The recording claims to show the last footage of the Van Heeses family before their disappearance years earlier.

In 1983, the Van Hesses gather to celebrate Michelle’s 5th birthday. The camera operator, Mike, irritates his family right off the bat. He refuses to put down the camera, insisting he capture every moment on the night. Now, as this is the 80s, this is absolutely believable. My dad had one of those VHS cameras, and it went everywhere with us. And what do we have to show for it? Hours of footage my family looking grumpy and having mundane conversations.

As the night carries on, Mike continues to film the family as they celebrate. After Michelle blows out her candles, the family discover the lights won’t turn back on. Mike and his brothers, Eric and Jason, go to examine the breaker. But even still, the lights in the house remain off.

When they see something in the woods, they go off together to find the source of the strange light. And while they expect to see the neighbours, they instead spot a group of extra terrestrials and their spaceship.

The boys all run home when they realise they’ve been spotted by the aliens. The women back at the house are utterly confused, and the family soon begins to argue, especially as to whether or not they should stay in the house or flee.

But the aliens have their own ideas. They begin to attack the house. When one of the brothers kills an alien, its corpse is brought back into the house. Why does it need to be inside? It’s not really explained. Though I guess it does make for a fun trophy…?

Eventually, the Van Heeses calm down. They decide to all head home for the night, believing the excitement to be over. But of course it’s not! These aliens aren’t going to go home quietly.

As the family begins to try to fight their for their escape, they soon discover that the aliens are both smarter and more powerful than any human could be. After all, the family are never to be seen again.

By today’s standards, the budget means there are some very basic effects (think alien masks and black leotards). But I know that if I would have seen this as a child in the 90s, I would have 100% been convinced. The technology’s lack of finesse adds to the ambience. You’re not always certain of what you’re looking at.

Movies like this are always remarkable because of what they achieve with so little. The cast are really convincing in this. While no one is related, they all bicker like they’ve spent too many days together. Though it should be noted, that for those of us who are sensitive to noise, it can be really difficult to hear what’s going on.

This movie ticked all the boxes for me: it’s convincing as hell (minus those little alien dudes), it’s pace keeps moving, and it has an ending that makes you shout “COME ON! NO!” If you’re able to look beyond dated technology and are able to appreciate achievements like this (a la Bad Ben) this is a classic found footage movie that does the trick.

Wicked Wednesday: Grave Encounters (2011)

People love ghost hunting shows. I, for one, have never seen a single episode of Ghost Hunters or Ghost Adventures, but I really love the idea of them. My memory tells me that there used to even be tours of these shows, as I recall seeing promotions at venues in Milwaukee. But I honestly think that was just a really weak fever dream.

Found footage movie Grave Encounters shows us what happens when one of these ghost hunting squads finally find what they’re looking for.

Grave Encounters opens as many in the genre do, with an introduction explaining that everyone is already dead. The crew of a fictional ghost hunting show, Grave Encounters, went missing while investigating ghosts in the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. The footage shown is supposedly unaltered and raw (though that’s definitely not true as in the beginning we definitely have edits and inserts of footage).

According to legend, Collingwood had a doctor, Arthur Friedkin, who performed lobotomies and unethical experiments on his patients. It wasn’t until he was called by those very patients that his work stopped. But the hospital has been supposedly haunted since.

The hospital caretaker agrees to lock the TV show crew into the hospital. Not sure why this was necessary to actually do. But TV. Whatever. They also have steady cams set up throughout the hospital to get footage from around the hospital.

At first, the group experience nothing in particular. They hear ‘noises’ that are really there and speak to ghosts that aren’t real. It isn’t until they begin to pack up in the morning that they realise something is wrong.

When cameraman Matt goes to pickup the steady cams, he doesn’t come back. The group go together to look for him, but he’s seemingly vanished without a trace.

Once the group admit that they can’t find Matt alone, they go to the front entrance as the caretaker should have already unlocked them. Only…it’s still locked. And while it’s well past sunrise, it’s still pitch black outside.

The cast and crew of Grave Encounters soon find themselves in a living nightmare. The building changes itself. There’s guest appearances from not-so-ex-patients. And in true found-footage fashion, they’re all picked off in various supernatural fashions.

Unlike many found footage movies, you get to see everyone’s demise in detail. Everyone gets their moment of screentime unlike the Blair Witch Projects and Last Broadcasts. But that, unfortunately, really slowed down the pace for me. I love a bit of unseen terror in horror. We also get waaaay too many glitch effects. We get it. Ghosts are there. We get it. We get it.

That being said, I fairly enjoyed Grave Encounters. The set up in particular.

In many ways, the successes of Grave Encounters reminded me of Hell House LLC. Both are fun, modern takes on the found footage film. Most importantly, they both have good explanations for why they’re filming. That’s always a key element for me in this genre.

But Hell House works for me in ways that Grace Encounters doesn’t. For one, while a spooky abandoned asylum is cool setting – it did feel a bit…wrong. I didn’t think the patients should be a part of the haunting. Why not make it a full-on sadistic set of doctors. Many of them were the real villains of the era, at least more than the patients were were.

The footage at the beginning of the film reminded me of Geraldo Rivera’s now-iconic expose on Willowbrook State School. None of those poor souls should be doomed to “haunt” anyone. It feeds back into the idea that people with mental illnesses or disabilities are something to be scared of. And if that wasn’t what the film was trying to get across, it was doing a piss poor job of showing me otherwise.

Wicked Wednesday: The Innkeepers (2011)

Ti West’s House of the Devil is one of my favourite modern horror movies. I love the subtle spookiness and utterly bonkers ending. It’s really my jam.

Which is, of course, why I have never watched any other movie by him. The Innkeepers has been on my radar for a long while. But when you build up expectations, it almost seems inevitable that no work will compare to the favourite.

The Innkeepers is stylistically different to House of the Devil. But there are still touches of nostalgia that make you question what era this is meant to be in.

Claire and Pat are the last two employees at the Yankee Pedlar Inn (filmed on location at the real hotel, which closed in 2015) on its final weekend. They’re both big paranormal fans, with Pat running a website to promote the hotel’s supposed paranormal activity.

The hotel’s most famous ghost is Madeline O’Malley. The tale is that on her wedding day, she was jilted at the alter. After hanging herself, her body was hidden in the basement before burial.

As well as ghosts, the Yankee Pedlar manages to have a few guests on its last weekend. Among them, Claire realises, is actress Leanne Rease-Jones, who leaves Claire star struck. While the woman is initially unfriendly towards the young woman, an event brings them together.

While recording with Pat’s EVP equipment, Clair hears the sound of a piano playing. She goes to the room where the piano is, only to see that no one is playing it. It’s seemingly playing itself.

After relaying the story to Leanne, the actress reveals that she’s at the hotel for a healer convention. She’s a bit of a medium, trying to hone her powers. She uses her crystal pendulum to contact Madeline for Claire, but it’s abundantly clear that they shouldn’t be talking to the ghosts. They have one message: DON’T go in the basement. Loud and clear, ghosts.

Later on, an older man arrives at the hotel, wanting to stay in a room that has already been stripped for the closure. But the man is insistent. So Claire takes pity on him and lets him stay in the room. As she leaves, he locks the door behind him.

Feeling the boredom, Claire and Pat decide to get drunk together. Despite the warnings, they go into the basement to try and contact Madeline again. Claire sees the ghost, which prompts Pat to flee the basement. He admits to Claire that all of his supposed paranormal encounters have been lies, then he leaves the hotel.

Claire goes to Leanne again for help. But when the pendulum smashes, the women both know they need to get out. But the spirits are already pissed off and things begin to quickly spiral into mayhem at the hotel.

The Innkeepers was old-fashioned ghosty fun. It’s just a shame that it didn’t stick the landing. But like The House of the Devil, I think there are plenty of people who will love it. For me, it was almost there. I think even giving some more explanation to better-build the world we were in (ie: what the hell was the story with half the characters here?). It kept feel like I was supposed to “get” more of what was going on.

It reminded me a lot of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House. And maybe I was expecting too much for the story to go that way. But still, I wanted more ghosts. More haunting! More horror!

The story is certainly slow. And not in a tension-building way. Shearing ten minutes off of this would have helped build the suspense. There were many scenes that never seemed to amount to anything. It got in the way of the storytelling. That being said, when it gets going – it hits the ground running.

Lead actors Sara Paxton, Pat Healy and Kelly McGillis are all fantastic. I really loved Paxton’s subtleties. And she works really well with the rest of the cast. Thankfully the cast, paired with the more humorous script, you end up with a rather charming (if mostly scare-free) ghost story.

Wicked Wednesday: Are You Afraid of the Dark? S3E6 “The Tale of the Bookish Baby-Sitter”

Are You Afraid of the Dark is like balm for the soul. It’s always pure pleasure, even if it isn’t one of the more iconic episodes.

I sat infront of the TV this week and let episode after episode play. Season 3 really has some classics. But “The Tale of the Bookish Baby-Sitter” was one I had never seen before.

This episode features one of Betty Ann’s stories. As always, it’s full of fantasy and healthy doses of the supernatural. Her story this week is a story about stories.

Ricky is a 12-year-old pain-in-the-ass. He’s a brat that’s addicted to the television. When his mom prepares to go out one night, she tells him that he’s going to have a baby-sitter. He argues that he’s too told for one (I agree), but nevertheless, his baby sitter Belinda arrives.

Belinda comes off as a ~free spirit~, mystifying Ricky’s mother when she answers the door. Belinda is a new age sort of girl who wears a cloak unironically and forces children to read books. But as she’s highly recommended, Ricky’s mom leaves with a shrug.

It isn’t long before Ricky and Belinda clash. After she turns off the TV, she tells him he can do whatever he wants…so long as he reads 5 minutes of her book. Aloud.

But even five minutes is too long for Ricky. He immediately puts down the book, only to open it again and start reading another one. After that, he tosses the book aside to play video games in his room.

While minding his own business, Ricky is attacked by a knight in armour. Then a ghost. He soon finds ‘Belinda’ who encourages him to burn pages of the book. He does so eagerly, only to discover that ‘Belinda’ is really a witch, and the real Belinda is trying to save him.

The two kids manage to get away to the kitchen. There Belinda explains to him what’s going on. Ase he never finished any of his stories, they’ve all become mixed together. Burning the pages didn’t exactly help either. So to end the nightmare, he must finish the stories with his own imagination.

But a kid like Ricky has no imagination. Or so he thinks. He makes weak attempts at story telling while he and the baby-sitter are chased around the house. Eventually, Belinda hands him a red book. When he opens it, he finds himself in a dungeon…inside the story.

It’s up to Ricky to find it within himself to make up a story and save himself.

There are some Midnight Society tales that are more whimiscal than scary. This almost sounds like a story I’d want to be in. Maybe not being attacked by knights with axes, but I think I could have a fun time getting sucked into books. I actually enjoyed Betty Ann’s cute little joke with her book prop at the end. Imagine having the actual patience to make a prop just to mess with someone for two seconds?

Anyway. As always, I still think this show mostly holds up. Episodes like this might not be scary by today’s standards, but they still manage to capture the imagination. And perhaps it’s even a good cautionary tale for the recluctant reader in your life…

Wicked Wednesday: Black Sabbath (I tre volti della paura) (1963)

I…am a doofus. Though, I have never proclaimed to be anything but. For many (too many) years, I thought Black Sunday and Black Sabbath were the same movie. Could I tell that they had different titles? Probably. Did that matter in my brain? Absolutely not.

So for years, I had convinced myself that I had already seen Black Sabbath because of how many times I had seen Black Sunday. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I realised the error I had made.

…at least they’re both directed by Mario Bava?

Anyway. In many respects, this was a happy mistake. Because this week, I got to watch the masterpiece that is Black Sabbath for the very first time ever.

Black Sabbath is a anthology film, very reminiscent of Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror that was released a year prior in 1963. But Bava’s film has both better pace, acting and style.

The three sections in this anthology are introduced by genre legened Boris Karloff. He weaves us in and out of worlds with vampires, ghosts and devious humans.

In tale one, “The Drop of Water”, nurse Helen is called to prepare the body of a medium. There she is warned not to touch anything belonging to the descased, as it may be cursed. Ignoring the warnings, Helen takes the sapphire ring she spots on the corpse’s finger. But when she gets home, Helen soon finds that she should never cross a woman who can make a good curse.

The medium’s corpse is absolutely inconic. She is terrifying to behold. And it’s easy to believe that Helen is being drawn into madness. This segment alone should be all it takes to deem the movie as excellent.

The second tale, “The Telephone”, is truly nightmare-inducing. One of my greatest fear is leering men (see my favourite horror film ever, Black Christmas). When Rosy gets a call from a strange man, she becomes unnerved. Especially since the man appears to be able to see her every move.

Rosy calls a friend for help. The friend, Mary, arrives soon after to assist her friend. Rosy reveals that the calls are coming from Frank, a man who was sent to prison on Rosy’s testimony. Mary does her best to ease her friend’s tension, but can they stand a chance against the supernatural?

This story was the most greatly changed from the Italian release (more on that later). So it’s difficult to be overly enthusastic. Much of this segment doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We don’t know why Frank was sent away or why Rosy would be the cause of that. That being said, it is still enjoyable all the same.

The final segment sees Boris Karloff in an acting role. “The Wurdurlak” follows a family in the Russian countryside. Their father (Karloff) is off in the countryside slaying vampires. Before he departs, he tells them that there is one rule to follow: they must not let him in if he arrives after midnight of the third day.

When young Vladimir finds a beheaded body, he takes the knife from the corpse’s chest. When he stumbles upon a cottage, the family there recognise the knife as their father’s. Vladimir is invited to stay with them for the night as they nervously await their father’s return.

“The Wurdurlak” is a great lesson in: always listen to your dad always. Also – behead verything with a weird hole in its neck. This is the longest segment of the movie, and it feels like it too. The pacing is off and we never really get to attach ourselves to any of the characters too much beyond Karloff’s Gorca. That being said, it’s still a wonder to behold.

I love Bava’s earlier gialli. La ragazza che sapeva troppo and 6 donne per l’assassino are two of my favourites; they’re classics of the genre. While the former is in black and white, it’s clear that stylisticly, much of what is explored in Black Sabbath is used in Blood and Black Lace to great effect.

This has to be one of the most gorgeous movies I have ever seen. The three segments are all set in different times, helping to differenciate them. Easily the most lucious story visually is “The Drop of Water”, which is well worth returning to again and again. It’s a treat for the eyes, and there’s a wickedly good story there.

After I finished watching the movie, I realised I had seen the American released (the English dub should have been my first clue, but see first paragraph to remind you that I am not smart). This movie is one of the many examples where the American production company greatly interfered with the work to make it “appeal to American audiences”. Much was cut out, a new soundtrack made and processing the colours differently. Incidentally, the company, American International Pictures, was behind Corman’s Poe Cycle, so it’s clear to see why they feel so similar in many ways.

I’ve put Bava’s Italian release onto my to-watch list. The things I thought strage (the clear skips in violence, the plot holes, and almost garish soundtrack) are apparently not present in the Italian version. Now, just to hunt down the release…somewhere…at a reasonable price.

In general, I want to make this statement: for the love of all that is unholy – streaming services, please include all versions of a film to make them everything accessable to all. Keep dubbed versions. Give us the original languages. We just want it all.

Please and thank you.

Wicked Wednesday: The Demon Murder Case (1983)

Talk about going out with a fart. After a month of (relatively) fun TV movies, we reach the finish line at a crawl with The Demon Murder Case.

On the surface. This movie has all the right ingredients: true crime, supposed demon possessions, and Kevin Bacon. But what’s delivered in a confused and poorly-paced film that I wish I would have napped through.

Slight based on a true story, the movie opens with a young man, Kenny (Bacon), in a courtroom. What has he done? Well, whatever it is the Devil made him do it.

We then jump back to the time before Kenny’s crime. Young Brian is a nice kid, but has become possessed by a demon. His family try to help him by asking btoh the curch and a couple of demonologists (a fictionalised version of the Warrens) to intervene.

Though neither helps. Brian stays possessed. His family become increasingly frustrated, especially Kenny, who can’t seem to hold his temper. Kenny threatens the demon possessing Brian, ignoring the fact that the experts’ explicitly said not to do so.

Kenny is then possessed by the demon himself. While possessed, he becomes jealous of his girlfriend’s new boss – a man who needs help…grooming his dogs? During a party, the boss becomes drunk and harrassess Kenny’s girlfriend. Then “the demon” takes control and stabs the drunk man.

The police later arrest Kenny. The last act of the movie is Kenny’s trial. Honestly, it’s very boring.

The biggest issue I had with this movie was the pacing. For the first half of the film, we’re watching an Exorcist rip-off. Brian’s demon speaks through him using a gravely voice. He injures himself. He said TV-appropriately unappropriate things to his family.

We’re 30 minutes in when Brian’s exorcism begins. The build up is pretty quick. Then we have to forget about Brian (who, by the way, we have no idea if he’s still possessed) and begin focusing on this Kenny character. Kenny, bless Kevin Bacon, is an incredibly boring and unlikable character. The fact that he’s just suddenly possessed is weird.

The trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson (the real murderer) is the subject of the third Conjuring film, which is (hopefully) being released this summer. It will be interesting to see how the story is tackled. Hopefully there is more focus. The issue with the story in The Demon Murder Case is that it is essentially two in one: Brian’s possession and Kenny’s trial (David Glatzel and Arne Cheyenne Johnson in the true tale). By including both, the typical climax, the exorcism, is too near the beginning. All the suspense is spent before the movie is even halfway over.

That being said, the first half of this movie can be visually interesting. At times it’s almost more ambitious than the usual TV move fare at the time. For some reason, these directoral decisions are discarded once Kenny becomes the main focus.

And I do think a story just about Kenny/Arne could be interesting. This is the first case in the US where demonic possession was part of the defence. As I mentioned before, I’m interested to see what happens with the story when it’s in more modern hands.

Wicked Wednesday: Satan’s School for Girls (2000)

When I first started Made-for-TV March, I was surprised at how many TV movies had modern remakes. They don’t exactly seem like the type of thing to be ripe for that. After watching 1973’s Satan’s School for Girls back in 2017, I spotted the 2000 remake and immediately blew it off. At that point, I didn’t want to touch anything made after 1990.

But after a few years of running this, I slowly began to get over my fear of more modern films. Though I vowed that wouldn’t watch the remake until I had forgotten most of the original.

Only… I maybe forgot a little too much. For one, I thought I had really liked the original. Though glancing through my original write up, I was apparently less-than-enthusiastic. And the plot? I had to reread the entire thing to jog any memories at all.

So watching 2000’s Satan’s School for Girls felt like being introduced to an entirely new story. And in many ways, I was.

In 2000’s remake, Beth goes to Fallbridge College for Girls when her sister’s death is deemed a suicide. Her one piece of evidence is a sympathy card from a group simply called “The Five”. She begins to look into the lives of the girls around her, suspicious particularly of the goths.

She soon learns that The Five were a group of women who all went on to become wildly successful. Senators, bankers and the like.

But Beth’s detective work is not as subtle as she thinks. All eyes at the school seem to be on her. And it’s not too long before she’s forced to call upon her own psychic powers to battle the witches at her school.

There’s a lot more emphasis on this story on the girls’ magic. It’s both a strength and weakness of the film. It’s fun watching some witchy fun, and the women here seem to have much more agency than in the 1973 version. But the special effects in the 2000 movie have dated terribly. Considering The Craft was made nearly four years earlier, there’s not really an excuse. That is unless they spent literally all their budget getting Shannon Doherty.

The remake does switch things up enough that it doesn’t always feel like you’re watching the same movie twice. The second half certainly veers away from the original source material more than the first. Much of the climax is longer and more dragged out than the original – which has an ending like a punch to the gut. The ending was easily the most memorable part of the original.

Breaking one of my rules, I took the time to read an original review in Variety after watching the film. What was interesting to me, is that the writer argued that there wasn’t a need for groups like The Five anymore. Women are plenty powerful without having to make a deal with Satan.

Honestly, I’d have to disagree with that point a lot. We see women still getting attacked and murdered just walking home. I would do anything to have more power in life just to protect myself and other women. And what about our trans sisters? When their existence is challenged every day, can we really say women are fine enough in the workplace?

If The Five weren’t so hellbent on killing other people off, I’d say that every woman should consider making a pact with the Devil.

Wicked Wednesday: When Michael Calls (1972)

Cell phones are both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, we never have to answer a call from an unknown number. On the other, we’ve lost a whole subgenre of horror: the creepy caller.

Sorry, Wrong Number, Black Christmas, and When a Stranger Calls are all in the same pot of creepy-caller movies. And When Michael Calls is a wonderful example of the subgenre within the TV movie world. It’s a slasher mystery filled with a wonderful autumnal ambience.

One day, Helen and her daughter, Peggy, receive a surprise visit from Helen’s ex-husband, Doremus. The separated couple, unsurprisingly, has a very strained relationship. But poor Helen’s day only gets worse when she gets a strange phone call.

On the other end of the line in a person with a child-like voice. The caller claims to be Michael, Helen’s nephew who died in a blizzard years before. She knows it’s him as he calls her “Auntie My Helen”, which apparently only he called her.

Shaken by the call, Helen speaks to Michael’s older psychiatrist brother, Craig. They agree that while strange, there’s nothing they can do about it.

Then one night, Peggy answers the phone. She tells her mother that ‘Michael’ called Doc, a family friend, bad names and insinuated something bad would happen to the doctor. Helen tries frantically to contact Doc, but by the time she gets through on the phone lines, Doc is already dead.

Doremus, who might be a lawyer, is seemingly also a good investigator. After the police sweep the scene of the crime, Doremus discovers that someone has tampered with Doc’s things.

And thus begins a series of murders. All of them link to one person: Michael and Craig’s mother. Helen admits to Doremus that when the boys were younger, she had her sister committed. Her sister tried to hurt herself and the boys, so she had to be put away for everyone’s safety. Apparently, Michael had a problem with that and didn’t want to be raised by his aunt. He had run away during the blizzard, upset at ‘losing’ his mother.

So who is the real Michael? Or is it that after all these years, Michael could still be alive? Helen and those around her begin to question their reality as the situation around them becomes more deadly.

When Michael Calls is a prime example of excellent made-for-TV magic. The cast is fantastic, boasting the talents of Michael Douglas, Elizabeth Ashley and Ben Gazzara.

Maybe I’ve seen too many gialli, but I found the twist easy to guess. That being said, it was still enjoyable watching the reveal. It might be a bit hokey for some, but I love a bit of (spoiler) hypnotism. Whacky and unbelievable as all hell – and it’s perfect television.

It’s likely that I might forget this one, as many other TV movies are a bit flashier. When Michael Calls is very atmospheric and is wonderful at building the mystery. But it is subtle at times. Still, this is a wonderful place to start. If only to watch a young Michael Douglas look very attractive in some wonderous 70s glasses.

Wicked Wednesday: Death of a Cheerleader (1994)

I’ve been a bit overloaded with true crime stories as of late. My husband and I are watching The Act. I’ve just finished Sinisterhood’s three-part series on Ted Bundy. It was only incidental that I decided to choose Death of a Cheerleader for this week’s TV movie viewing.

TV movies are one of the original masters of true crime. The original award-winning limited television series, if you will. There’s a long history of overblown “warnings” given to viewers through this medium. There’s Menedez: A Killing in Beverley Hills (1994), I Know My First Name is Steven (1989) about a child abduction and even all the way back to 1975’s The Deadly Tower.

This was an era of true crime novels by names like Anne Rule, John Bloom and John E Douglas were being sold at supermarkets. True crime is certainly having a heyday, but it’s not a new trend.

Death of a Cheerleader is based on the murder of 15-year-old Kirsten Costas at the hands of her young, jealous classmate.

Kirsten in this fictionalised retelling is Stacy Lockwood (Tori Spelling). She’s popular and, as these things go, a bit awful. She runs with a pack of seemingly equally-as-awful-but-less-ambitious friends.

Looking up to them all is the talented writer Angie Delvecchio (Kellie Martin). Entering her sophomore year at school, she’s determined to achieve all her goals. She wants to be the editor of the school yearbook, become popular and make cheerleading. And while the yearbook seems within her reach, everyone around her seems to think the last two are a bit out of her reach.

But Angie is determined. She eventually becomes initiated into a group called the Larks, a sorority-like group that supposedly does community work. It seems to all beginning to happen for her. Then in one fell swoop, she learns she has missed out on making both yearbook and cheerleading.

The last thing she can achieve is popularity. When she’s invited to a party one day, she calls Stacy’s parents and claims that there’s a Lark party. She picks up Stacy on her own to drive her to the party. Stacy is initially bewildered but seems excited at the prospect of the party.

But Stacy’s enthusiasm dies out when she learns that neither of the girls was actually invited by the party’s host. Angie has a meltdown and begins professing her admiration for Stacy. It’s all a bit…intense. Stacy gets out of the car and goes to a house to get a ride home.

Not wanting to lose out on her last chance, Angie stalks Stacy. And in the heat of the moment, murders her friend with a kitchen knife that’s conveniently in the car.

The rest of the film examines Angie’s life after the murder. Life at the school without Stacy’s toxicity is an improvement for Angie. But the guilt still gnaws at her. When she eventually confesses to her mother in a letter, all of Angie’s laundry is aired to the community for them to judge.

Tori Spelling is, as always, wonderfully wicked in her role of the mean queen bee. Losing her halfway through the film certainly is a major factor in why everything begins to feel so….slow….

I loved watching the dramatic dynamics between the girls at the school. Unfortunately, it was less interesting watching Martin shuffle her way through her guilt for the last half of the movie (who is, by the way, also very good in this).

The movie seems to have an agenda here: Angie is the real victim. She’s the victim of a society that bullied her into blindly reaching for success. Stacy’s cruelty only fed into those emotions.

But all you have to do is google Kirsten Costas’ name to remind yourself that this very young woman was real. People are complex, and sometimes movies are very bad at showing us dimensions. Sometimes we have so much fun playing make-believe, that we don’t realise the damage we’re doing.

I think in today’s current TV world, this would make a good mini-series. There’s definitely a lot to analyse here. Though Lifetime skipped that idea when they remade Death of a Cheerleader in 2019. I’d love to learn more about Kirsten’s real life and that of the girl who took it.

Also, this movie has Valerie Harper as Angie’s mom! She’s criminally underutilized in this movie. Justice for Valerie!