Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Universal Centennial

I was reminded that earlier this week was the 100th anniversary of the founding of Universal Pictures.  I make note of it because, ever since I was a child, Universal has always been my favorite of the major Hollywood studios.  My interest in Universal started because of the fact that the Universal Studios Tour was an attraction that always held a great mystique for me.  Everytime we went on the studio tour, I had a wonderful time, imagining all of the movies and TV shows that were shot there.  But it wasn't just that alone.  It had to do with the fact that Universal made most of my favorite movies and TV shows throughout the years.  I could sit here and recite the 1930s and 1940 horror classics that I used to record on our family VCR from KTLA Channel 5's "Movies 'til Dawn" during Junior High School.  I could discuss how much I enjoyed the Deanna Durbin musicals that I discovered on KDOC Channel 56.  I could describe how much I enjoyed the "Airport" disaster movies of the 1970s.  Or I could discuss how "Dragnet" and "Adam-12" reruns made my hometown of Los Angeles seem like it was the most exciting city in the world.

I grew to love Universal movies and shows so much that I can immediately recognize the sets and building facades on sight.  I can also recognize a particular staircase that appeared in countless productions.  I think it was called the "Notre Dame" staircase and was originally constructed for their silent production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."  I saw it used often in many Universal horror films, including "The Wolf Man" (1941) and "Night Monster" (1942) and saw it as recently as the 1980s in a "Murder, She Wrote" episode.  It would be repainted or redressed for each production it appeared in, but I always knew it was the same staircase.

Sometimes Universal's detractors criticize the studio for how it became mostly a television studio by the 1960s through the 1980s and that the quality of its feature films during that time often looked like it was made-for-television.  I won't dispute that argument because I often felt it myself.  It may not have been a studio that promoted individuality in terms of its directors during that time, but I would argue that it had an identifiable branding as a studio so that a Universal Picture couldn't be mistaken for a movie from any other studio.

In college, I had a summer internship at Universal and I truly enjoyed being there everyday.  I had chills going down my spine in realizing that I was standing where many of my favorite movies and shows were made.  Whenever I visit Universal Studios Tour, I still get that feeling.  It is nice how some things that were a big deal since childhood still have an effect on you when you are an adult.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tanya Roberts' first film "The Last Victim"

The other night, I discovered on YouTube a rare 1975 film called "The Last Victim" starring Tanya Roberts in her acting debut.  It is a gritty suspense/horror film that was directed by Jim Sotos and written and produced by Henry Scarpelli, an esteemed artist responsible for the "Archie" comic book series.  "The Last Victim" spends its running time cutting back and forth between two characters.  The first one is Carl (Ron Max), a garage mechanic who is also a serial rapist/killer of young women in the areas surrounding Staten Island and Verona, New Jersey.  The scenes featuring Carl attacking women are truly disturbing and I skimmed through those sections.  Perhaps the movie came across a bit too believable so that those scenes were more unsettling than expected.

The second, much more compelling, character is Nancy (Tanya Roberts), a modest, low-key suburban housewife with two children, a nice home, and a successful husband who has turned emotionally distant to her.  She is, in essence, the title character of the film--the last victim.  Throughout much of the running time, we see Nancy going about her business running errands, preparing meals for her family, picking up and dropping her children off at school, bringing the family car to the service station, and feeling a bit stifled by her lonely existence as her husband Peter (Brian Freilino) has clearly taken her for granted and begun neglecting her.  Unbeknownst to her, Carl has become obsessed with Nancy and starts stalking her at all hours, calling her on the phone and hanging up, and the audience begins to dread what he has in-mind for her.  In the last 30 minutes of the film, while Peter is away on a business trip and her children are at school, Nancy is terrorized and held hostage by Carl when he breaks into her house.

The last act of the film is very sad and depressing to watch because, by that point, Roberts has created a very sympathetic, believable character in Nancy.  I had read about "The Last Victim" for years and, as much as I have always liked Tanya Roberts, I thought it odd that she was cast as a housewife when I knew she must have been only 20 years old when the film was shot.  I was skeptical as to whether she would be believable in the role.  Actually, Roberts gives probably the best performance, and has the most complex role, of her career in this modest little horror film.  She effectively conveys Nancy's sweet and meek nature so that, even before Carl breaks into her home, you are already rooting for her to break out of her unhappy, lonely existence.  In fact, all of the scenes depicting Nancy's family and homelife have a remarkably authentic feel, as if the audience is peering into the lives of their neighbors next door.  The believably mundane aspects of Nancy's suburban malaise existence makes her character easily much more compelling than the obvious and overt Carl serial-killer storyline.  Roberts plays Nancy in a low-key, natural style that never seems false.  Unlike the glamorous Tanya Roberts we would later come to know in "Charlie's Angels," "The Beastmaster" (1982), "Sheena" (1984) and "A View to a Kill" (1985), the Tanya Roberts of "The Last Victim" is pretty and attractive, but in a realistically modest manner.  Wearing an atypical page-boy haircut and demure clothes, Roberts brings dignity to the character even in the final act of the film when Carl terrorizes her.  In contrast to the other victims in "The Last Victim," Tanya Roberts's Nancy does no explicit nudity (except for a very brief shower scene), suggesting that the filmmakers were reserving their sense of propriety for her.  The final confrontation between Nancy and Carl is well-acted and suspenseful, as you have no confidence that Nancy will survive the encounter.  I found the final shot of the movie, a view of Nancy's house from across the street as her children return home from school, haunting and memorable.  Because we do not see or hear her children's reaction to the scene of horror they have walked into, the movie leaves you with an understanding that Nancy's family will be living with the ramifications of Carl's actions long after the credits have rolled.

"The Last Victim" is also available on YouTube in an alternate version entitled "Forced Entry."  This version was released on VHS in 1984, after Tanya Roberts and Nancy Allen, who has a small role as one of Carl's victims, had risen to prominence in the ensuing decade.  (Several years ago, Code Red DVD had announced that they were releasing a special edition DVD of this film with both "The Last Victim" and the "Forced Entry" versions to allow the viewers to compare them side-by-side.  Unfortunately, that DVD has still not seen the light of day.)  "Forced Entry" is a heavily doctored version of "The Last Victim" that botches whatever virtues the original had in its favor.  Obviously inspired by Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (released the year after "The Last Victim" was originally shot), the new "Forced Entry" version features ridiculous steam-of-consciousness narration illustrating Carl's rambling, psychotic thoughts; replaces the original music on "The Last Victim" soundtrack with a new score; reassembles the sequencing of the scenes to bring Tanya Roberts (who is mostly absent in the first 20 minutes of "The Last Victim" version) into prominence earlier in the story; removes the effectively chilling montage during the opening credits of black and white photos from real-life crime scenes (establishing the notion that the movie we are about to see is a case study of one of those types of crimes) accompanied by an ominous "doink doink" music that predates "Law & Order;" and tacks on a ridiculous epilogue depicting various characters in town narrating their thoughts about Carl and of the events that have transpired in the film (which dilutes the impact of the hauntingly ambiguous original ending).  They even have another actress narrating Nancy's role in the new epilogue, as Tanya Roberts was likely unavailable and unaffordable by that point in her career.

Probably the most unfortunate change in "Forced Entry" is the deletion of a sequence that existed in "The Last Victim" version where Nancy daydreams of happier times with her husband Peter.  While an effectively syrupy 1970s Karen Carpenter-type love song plays on the soundtrack, Nancy thinks back to times when she and Peter were still deeply in love and remembers moments when they took the children to the amusement park, went fishing with them, went on picnics, played in the yard, etc.  Deleting this sequence from "Forced Entry" removes Nancy's inner turmoil as we also lose any suggestion that her marriage is troubled, making her character less complex, more objectified and stylized, and unfairly tipping the scale of importance between characters in favor of the repulsive Carl.  Because Roberts is so sympathetic in the lead role, the sequence avoids being maudlin and allows the viewer to understand what Nancy has already lost in her marriage and deepens the sadness of "The Last Victim."  You begin to understand that Carl's reprehensible actions in the final act of the film did not cause the destruction of Nancy's family and existence.  Sadly, her home had already cracked long before he broke into it.