Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Census Bloodbath: The (Last) Days Of Our Lives

Year: 1982
Director: William Wiard
Cast: Suzanne Pleshette, Barry Newman, Robert Vaughn
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

There are certain mini-trends I've noticed in my Census Bloodbath project, and as we dive deeper into our reflection on the slasher movies of 1982, we've encountered two of them. Last time, the sub-subgenre we unearthed was a personal favorite: a one-off entry from a foreign country trying to cash in on the boom. This time, it's an even more delicious discovery: one more fruit from the tree of the made-for-TV slasher. This entry in particular is Fantasies, AKA The Studio Murders, made for ABC in the early 80's to cash in on the craze that seemed like it would never die.

Unlike the characters that populated it.

Fantasies tells the story of Carla Webber (Suzanne Pleshette of The Birds and The Bob Newhart Show), the creator of a massively popular nighttime soap opera called Middleton, U.S.A. She receives a professional challenge in the form of a deranged madman murdering the actors on her show one by one, but she faces it with headstrong courage. She also must navigate a new potential love affair with Detective Flynn (Barry Newman), who's investigating the mruders, her teenage daughter Sandy (Lenora May) becoming independent and starting to date, and her ex-husband John (Patrick O'Neal) suddenly showing up to cause drama.

Also all that chalk dust is hell on the lungs. Somebody needs to invent laptops, stat!

Whenever I'm digging these trenches through the backwaters of the 80's and unearth a movie made for television, I get a teensy bit nervous. The TV restrictions on gore and sexual content, especially in  the 80's, would seem to strip slashers of every possible reason they have to exist. But maybe that existential challenge is exactly what filmmakers need to craft something unique, because between this one and the previous year's Dark Night of the Scarecrow, they've turned out to be pretty excellent so far.

Or rather, they excel at certain strengths that most slashers lack. As a horror-slasher film, Fantasies is a pretty abysmal failure. Not only are the killings bloodless, offscreen, or in silhouette, they barely scrape up enough screentime and consequence to be considered a B-plot. Because of the amount of time we spend with Carla, we don't get a lot of one-on-one moments with the victims themselves so it's hard to care what happens to them. And even though Carla is our anchor, we often don't even get her reaction to the killings, but rather cut to a point down the road where she's already learned of the death and processed it. There's no sense of mounting dread or progression to the murders: at one point we learn there's been a lull in the killings after the show was put on hiatus, but we literally haven't learned yet that either of these things have happened.

It's a good thing then that Fantasies has no aspirations to be a true blue slasher. Instead it works very hard at being a Lifetime-y "women's picture" thriller, a course of action which plays to its strengths extremely well. Its depiction of a woman in charge of a TV writer's room is decades ahead of its time, and it's fascinating to observe Carla's decisions behind every narrative beat and how it will affect the audience's perceptions of sexuality, gender, and morality. It's a story that really drills down into the ways that television informs the culture, for better or for worse, in a way that's specifically and thrillingly female-forward.

Fantasies has an iron grip on what makes Carla tick, and her every emotional beat is electric (the scene where her ex-husband laments that she wasn't destroyed but rather reborn when he left her is powerful), and it's all thanks to Suzanne Pleshette. She has bucketfuls of charisma, whether she's leading a saucy Q&A on a college campus, bonding with her impossibly lovely daughter, or lamenting the potential loss of the show that she is so proud of. Pleshette portrays a certain down-to-earth optimism with conviction, and it's impossible not to be drawn into her storyline. The horror she plays a little less well (as does the movie), but she's a magnetic lead character that redeems all of this film's quite severe flaws.

Here's more of her at a chalkboard, because apparently this movie didn't make enough of an impression on the zeitgeist for Google to give me a lot of options.

Carla stands head to head with most of my favorite adult final girls, including Lauren Bacall from The Fan and Lauren Tewes from Eyes of a Stranger. Interestingly, all three of them play public figures. Maybe that just does something for me. Anyway, she and her drama are fascinating enough to watch that you almost forget you're watching a slasher film. And it's a good thing too, because as bad as the horror elements are in progress, the way the end is almost worse.

After the disposal of a red herring using a clue that's deeply hilarious ("He couldn't have strangled her because there's literally no tendons in his left hand so he can't close it!"), we get a showdown in the surf on a moonlit beach that would be cool if there were any lights on it. It's a dark, fumbling, foamy pit of nonsense and it's not the best choice with which to end a movie that up until now hasn't really given a shit about its own tension. Plus, as much as this film is about female empowerment, the filmmakers were very skittish about having their lead character commit violence, so she's not real active about defending herself. I won't even mention the final gag that is not only clich√© but actively undermines the entire 85 minutes that came before it. 

As it shakes out, Fantasies is at least still a fun time. But only if you approach it as something more Steel Magnolias than Friday the 13th.

Killer: [Arthur (Ben Marley)]
Final Girl: Carla Webber (Suzanne Pleshette)
Best Kill: There's not a lot of excitement going around in this section, but before Quentin Mallory is killed, he is thrown through a glass table which is kinda fun.
Sign of the Times: There is so much business about having to hand out different telephone numbers for every distinct place the characters are going to be at any given time.
Scariest Moment: I know the movie wants me to think it's the POV shots where the killer stalks Carla while whistling "Pop Goes the Weasel," but it's actually the scene where a woman approaches an actress in the grocery store and begins to talk to her like she's her character from Middleton.
Weirdest Moment: The killer breaks into Carla's house to strangle her, which she reacts to afterward like she just saw a mouse and is vaguely grossed out.
Champion Dialogue: "Those cozy little meals evoke too many memories, all of them unpleasant."
Body Count: 4; not including the husband of one of the victims, who is presumably killed alongside her but we don't see or hear about it.
  1. Quentin Mallory is beaten to death with a baseball bat.
  2. Larry Malden is pushed through a window.
  3. April is stabbed to death.
  4. Roy Hanson is shot.
TL;DR: Fantasies is not a solid slasher movie, but a rather fun Lifetime-esque movie instead.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1225

1 comment: