I was surprised when I recently discovered that “The Swarm” (1978) was a feature film; I remembered it as a made-for-television movie from my childhood. (After its theatrical release, it debuted on NBC with a hell of a lot of fanfare in February 1980.) I was also surprised to read that it was both a critical and a commercial flop, and is often named as one of the worst films ever made. I was in the second grade at the time, and — let me assure you — this was THE movie the kids in school talked about. We were in awe of it.
The people behind “The Swarm” had high hopes for it in 1978. The internet informs me that it was based on a best-seller by famed novelist Arthur Herzog. And it was helmed by director Irwin Allen, who gave us two classic 70’s film adaptations of disaster novels — “The Poseidon Adventure” in 1972, and “The Towering Inferno” in 1974. (Those were a pretty big deal back in the day.) And just look at the cast named in the trailer below. It’s like a who’s who of 1970’s cinema. Yet it all apparently just didn’t pan out … contrary to my memories of second grade, “The Swarm” went down in pop culture history as a train wreck.
Check out the bee-proof suits worn by the guys with the flamethrowers. Talk about an excellent G.I. Joe toy that was never made. (Of course we had “Blowtorch,” but he was 80’s rad, and these guys in white are 70’s kitsch.)
I suppose that “Wizards and Warriors” was what passed for “Game of Thrones” in 1983. Except it was cheesy as hell (which of course meant that I loved it as a fourth grader), and it didn’t last longer than eight episodes.
It was CBS’ mid-season replacement for my beloved “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” (the Bruce Boxleitner retro adventure series that I’ve written about here previously), which was cancelled due to low ratings. “Wizards and Warriors” ran in its 8 PM time slot, and then itself was cancelled due to low ratings, so it never saw a second season. (I believe both shows were competing with NBC’s ratings juggernaut, “The A-Team,” which every kid in the world loved except me. I was weird.)
“Wizards and Warriors” was really just an obvious effort to capitalize on the popularity of the “Dungeons & Dragons” role-playing game. The show was campy stuff. The pilot episode, which you can watch in its entirety over at dailymotion, was entitled “The Unicorn of Death.” It dealt with a time-bomb hidden inside a princess’ birthday present, which strikes me as a pretty surprising plot for a sword-and-sorcery program.
It had a cast that went on to better things, though. One was Julia Duffy, of “Newheart” (1982-1990) fame. Another was “Grease” (1978) veteran Jeff Conaway, who most 80’s kids will remember from “Taxi” (1978-1983). The dastardly villain of “Wizards and Warriors” was played by the terrific character actor Duncan Regehr, a “that guy” actor who popped up in a lot of genre roles in the 80’s and 90’s. Here’s the thing about Regehr — I want him to be a real-life bad guy. He’s got an absolutely sly, suave, villainous face and manner — and his name just sounds like a villain’s name. If he’d left acting to commit a series of high-profile crimes in the real world, that would be wickedly, awesomely meta.
I CAN’T SEE why I wouldn’t sign something like that.
That was terrible. If this were the Marvel Cinematic Universe, people would actually ask Thanos to ash me.
Anyway, the petition over at Change.org has 48,840 signatures as of this writing, and it’s climbing quickly toward its target goal of 50,000. It’s even been endorsed by Vincent D’Onofrio, who portrays “Kingpin” on the program.
I swear that it takes all of three seconds to sign. And what could it hurt? It worked for Fox’ “Firefly,” right? (Although it didn’t work for NBC’s “Hannibal.”)
You can find it right here.
You think that 80’s kids are old? Well, I also have memories of the 1970’s; after all, they fully occupied the first seven years of my life.
And I remember “Donny and Marie” (1976-1979), which ran on ABC. It was a sanity-challenging, Kafkaesque combination of disco, country music, family entertainment, themed-comedy skits, sequined outfits and … ice-skating. Which made it either the height of 70’s cheese or the very nadir of Western civilization — you decide.
I’m embarrassed to admit here that I loved it, even if I was a tot at the time. (Hey, if you’re five or six years old, then the sight of Donny being a non-threatening goofball on stage was the very height of hilarity.) You can see what I mean in the second clip below, if you can stomach all four minutes of it.
What’s interesting about this show is that it was kind of a dinosaur in its time … variety shows had been on the decline for a while in the late 1970’s, and were already being supplanted by the situation comedies that would become the trademark of the 1980’s. Bizarrely, NBC tried to launch Marie in her own solo variety show during the 1980-81 television season, but it just didn’t catch on. It was cancelled after seven episodes.
What’s truly crazy is that Donny and Marie are still performing in Las Vegas. I kid you not. Google it. You can even see them tonight at The Flamingo. There’s at least a chance that they’re immortal vampires.
Postscript: I at first typed “Donny and Maurie” in that blog post headline, and I feel certain there’s a terrible joke hiding there somewhere about Donny hearing the results of paternity test on “Maury Povich.” That would make a great “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
NBC’s “Knight Rider” might be the granddaddy of all 1980’s high-tech super-vehicle shows — if I had to guess which one was the most popular or most fondly remembered, this would be it. (I suppose the other leading contender would be “Airwolf,” which we talked about a couple of months ago — but that was aimed at an older audience.)
“Knight Rider” was cheesy. But most 80’s action shows were cheesy, and I still remember it as being decent enough. Lord knows I and Mikey Wagner, the kid on the next block, were fascinated by it.
As anyone who remembers this show can attest, there is a key character that isn’t even hinted at in the intro below. The car was sentient. His name was K.I.T.T. (Knight Industries Two Thousand), and he was an artificial intelligence who actually who had a hell of a lot of personality. K.I.T.T. was a super-intelligent, talking, futuristic, sleek, black sportscar, and he was an incongruous damned hero to us kids.
The other star was Davis Hasselhoff as Michael Knight. We looked up to him too. Hasselhoff, of course, is now better known for his subsequent starring role as a moronic lifeguard on the categorically awful “Baywatch” (1989 – 2001). I remember seeing snippets of “Baywatch” in the 1990’s — it was constantly playing in the newsroom at my first job as a cub reporter. (The guys there loved it.) I remember being disappointed that one of my childhood heroes had somehow morphed into a male bimbo on the most saccharine and brainless TV show I had ever seen. Hey, “Knight Rider” was a show for kids … but it was goddam “Masterpiece Theater” when compared with “Baywatch.”
Weird trivia — the voice actor for K.I.T.T. was none other than William Daniels, who also gave a stellar performance as John Adams in 1972’s film adaptation of Broadway’s “1776.” It’s so weird seeing that movie and hearing the voice of K.I.T.T. come out of Adams’ mouth.
We were chatting about obscure TV shows a couple of weeks ago after I shared a post about “Manimal” (which I was surprised to find lovingly remembered by some otherwise sane people). I was shocked when someone else remembered “Cliffhangers,” which ran for a single season on NBC in 1979.
Dear God, did I love this show when I was a first grader. I hollered whenever it came on; I’m pretty sure my Mom was amused by that. I think this is technically the first prime-time show I was ever a fan of. (Yeah, I ended that last sentence with a preposition; it’s my damn blog.)
Blog Correspondent Pete Harrison suggested I give the Westworld” series (2016) a try, and I’m damn glad he did. The first episode was superb, and it’s safe to say it’s reeled me in. I’d give the pilot a 9 out of 10; this seems like it could be the best science fiction television show I’ve seen in a long time.
I still think the premise is just slightly cheesy — grown men and women spending a fortune to visit a western-themed amusement park with interactive android cowboys. (I think maybe westerns were a more mainstream genre in 1973, when Michael Crichton’s original film was in theaters.) And there are times when the show’s central western-themed motifs are a little annoying to me … even though I know the park is supposed to appear superficial and cliche.
But “Westworld” is a highly intelligent thriller — it looks like a hell of a lot of thought went into the script. Just about every aspect of the show seems like it was well developed — everything from the actors’ performances to the set design. And don’t let the gorgeous, idyllic, sunny landscapes fool you — there is no shortage of pathos here. It’s brutally dark in its storytelling. (By the way, if you happen to be a fan of this show, I must recommend 2014’s “Ex Machina” film — it is similarly cerebral and dark in its outlook.)
Anthony Hopkins is fantastic, as usual; Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton are all very good. They’re all overshadowed here, though, by two stellar performances.
The first is Ed Harris as a black-clad psychopathic visitor to the park — I had no idea he could be so frightening. Dear God. Has he played bad guys before? I’ve always associated him with nice-guy roles — even his antagonist in 1996’s “The Rock” was misguided and sympathetic. I’d love to see him get a role in an upcoming “The Dark Tower” film, maybe as one of the Big Coffin Hunters, if they are ever featured.
The second is Louis Herthum, the ostensible “father” of Wood’s heroine. (They are both androids within the park — I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler, as it’s all over the show’s advertising.) Herthum may be a lesser known actor, but he stole the show in a tour-de-force performance, in my opinion. And that’s no small feat in a cast including Hopkins and this surprisingly vicious Harris. I haven’t seen a performance that good on television since NBC’s “Hannibal” went off the air.
Anyway, I noticed something funny here. Steven Ogg plays a bandit who invades people’s homes and murders them … this is basically the same role he plays as Negan’s chief henchman on “The Walking Dead.” It must be weird to be typecast like that.
Hey … it is only just now that I realized the logo below is a riff on Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.”
There’s a pretty damn interesting chestnut from from 80’s-era nuclear nightmare films available on Youtube — 1983’s “Special Bulletin.” (The link is below.) I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it. I think most 80’s kids remember ABC’s “The Day After.” That infamous television movie was a cultural touchstone that scared a generation of kids. “Special Bulletin” was produced by NBC the same year, actually preceding “The Day After” by nine months. Instead of a world-ending war with Russia, the feature-length special imagined a single incident of nuclear terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina. (I myself had no idea that Charleston was the strategic military nexus that the movie explains it to be.)
“Special Bulletin” was filmed as a “War of the Worlds”-type narrative, consisting exclusively of faux news coverage, and it’s pretty damned good. (It won a handful of Emmys.) It’s just as frightening today — or maybe more so, given the increased threat of precisely this kind of terrorism from stateless groups.
The acting is mostly good, the directing successfully captures the feel of live news coverage, and the absence of a musical score further lends the movie a sense of realism. The story has a few surprises for us, too — the plot setup is creative and interesting, and much more thought went in the the teleplay than I would have expected. The film asks some difficult questions about the role of the media in affecting the outcome of high-profile crimes like the one depicted. (Would such questions be more or less relevant in the age of camera-phones, uploaded ISIS executions and Facebook Live? I’m not sure.)
I was also quite impressed with some of “Special Bulletin’s” thriller elements. (I’d say more, but I will avoid spoilers for anyone who wants to watch it below.)
One thing that detracts from the format’s realism is the fact that some of this movie’s actors are easily recognizable from other roles in the 80’s (although it’s fun spotting them as an 80’s movie fan).
Most viewers my age, for example, will recognize Ed Flanders and Lane Smith. The utterly sexy female reporter who arrives on location at Charleston Harbor is Roxanne Hart, who later played Brenda in “Highlander” (1986). (She’s still quite beautiful, guys, and she’s still making movies.) Most jarring of all, however, is a prominent role played by David Clennon, who any fan of horror-science fiction will recognize as Palmer from John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece, “The Thing.” This is still fun, though — he has that same disarrayed hair. Was it his trademark back in the day?