Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Celebrate Halloween Early with New Releases from the Warner Archive Collection

Sweet Hostage (1976): When her truck breaks down on the side of the road, young Doris Mae (Linda Blair) is picked up by Leonard (Martin Sheen). Having recently liberated himself from an institution, Leonard has been stealing cars and robbing stores along the way to his “castle,” an isolated cabin where he takes Doris Mae against her will. The former patient recites passages from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, designating himself Kubla Khan at his Xanadu and referring to Doris Mae as Christabel, after another Coleridge poem. While the girl’s parents and residents of the small town search for Doris Mae, Leonard asserts control by ensuring that she can’t leave and astonishing her with his intellect, dramatizing poetry and correcting her improper English. Doris Mae is not one to sit helplessly, and as the two grow closer, she domesticates Leonard and his Xanadu, having the man go into town to buy food, supplies, clothing and curtains. Is Doris Mae a girl with maturing sensibilities for an older man, or is she simply a hostage looking for a way to escape?

Lee Philips’ Sweet Hostage is a well made TV movie. Based on Nathaniel Benchley’s novel, Welcome to Xanadu, and nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Television Movie, it boasts strong performances from Blair and Sheen, both having garnered recent acclaim with, respectively, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (both 1973). The movie is slow but engaging, with a satisfactory conclusion. It is, however, a little uncomfortable watching intimate moments between the actors, as Blair -- though she would have been approximately 17 years of age at the time, the same age as Doris Mae -- still looks like a very young 14-year-old Regan of The Exorcist. Philips handles the more tender scenes appropriately, with the majority of it implied.

The Phantom of Hollywood (1973): With movies more frequently filming on location, Worldwide Studios has begun the process of selling its backlots. A hooded figure apparently living among the deserted sets roams the lots at night, hiding inside buildings during the day. After two would-be vandals incur the stranger’s wrath, their deaths are written off as accidents, until a night watchman is killed and two survey engineers go missing. Press agent Ray Burns (Peter Haskell) works with the police to expose the person responsible while trying to keep the scandal hidden from potential buyers. But before long the Phantom is threatening the studio head (Peter Lawford) directly, leaving notes and making phone calls, until he finally gets the man’s attention by snatching his daughter and Ray’s girlfriend, Randy (Skye Aubrey).

The Phantom of Hollywood, another made-for-TV movie, is an entertaining thriller that retains a steady pace for the d
uration of its 73-minute running time. It’s aided by director Gene Levitt’s choice of filming with crane and low-angle shots, as well as long shots, taking advantage of the expansive and largely empty sets. The movie was filmed at MGM when the studio was tearing down its backlots. Clips of older movies are interspersed throughout the first half of the film, sometimes the abandoned sets cut with films in which they’re featured (e.g., 1940’s Young Tom Edison with Mickey Rooney), or a screening room running a montage of scenes from films including Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). The nostalgic element overshadows the movie’s other merits, as it is neither suspenseful nor surprising. But nostalgia is more than enough, a film saved by the historical backlots that are being destroyed.

Black Zoo (1963): At Conrad’s Animal Kingdom, zoo owner Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) has a deep love and respect for his animals. He gladly introduces each animal as he guides tours and allows young ladies to sketch one of the tigers. But anyone who would dare impede or threaten Michael in any way sees another side of the man, like when he sics his lion on a developer who’s employing crooked means to obtain the property where the zoo is located. Michael’s wife, Edna (Jeanne Cooper), and mute assistant, Carl (Rod Lauren), are loyal but troubled by the man’s escalating aggression. When more people are killed, the police investigation leads them to not only realize that animals may be responsible but also to look for a connection among the murders.

Robert Gordon’s Black Zoo is bookmarked by a rainy scene at the zoo and a person lying on the ground, an apt method of retaining suspense until the end. The story is simple and sufficient, but is diluted by plot points that are interjected and don’t go anywhere: a girl who flirts with Carl at the zoo never returns, and Michael’s apparent membership in a society that evidently worships animals (they transfer the soul of a deceased animal into a cub) is not fully explored. However, Gough and Cooper make the most of their scenes (a lengthy sequence at the dinner table with only the two of them is particularly effective), and the animals, mostly of the cat family, are alluring and endearingly photographed.

Black Zoo star Jeanne Cooper also had a small but significant role in Sweet Hostage as Doris Mae’s mother. The actress has starred on the CBS soap opera, The Young and the Restless, for nearly 30 years and is the mother of actor Corbin Bernsen, best known for his TV work on L.A. Law and more recently as a regular on USA network’s Psych (with one episode, in which a rest home is infiltrated, titled “The Old and the Restless”).

Each movie on DVD looks good with some noticeable scratches and imperfections but nothing distracting, with The Phantom of Hollywood the best of the trio in terms of visual quality. None of them have extras, subtitles or additional audio options. With crisp and stable images and clean audio, each film has the appearance of a solid VHS copy that’s been digitally transferred and improved. Any one of these movies would make a great addition to a collection. Readers can view details of each film at the Warner Bros. site (Sweet Hostage, The Phantom of Hollywood, Black Zoo), or click here to view other movies that are part of the Warner Archive Collection. (The listed movies are “Made to Order,” in which they are burned to DVD only when an order is place. This should explain the lack of features.)

Warner Bros. provided copies of all three films for review at Classic Film & TV Cafe.


  1. Sark, this was a delightful read! As you know, I'm a big fan of made-for-TV films from the early 1970s and I recall watching THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD. I agree that while it's enteraining, it's neither suspenseful nor surprising. The movie studio setting is what makes the movie! Well, that plus the TV movie-grade cast with Peter Lawford and Peter Haskell (both of which I was rooting against!). I have not seen SWEET HOSTAGE, but your intriguing review and the cast makes me want to look for it. It's been ages since I saw THE BLACK ZOO; it and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, also with Michael Gough, used to be on TV all the time...but both are hard to see now. It'd be especially interesting to see BLACK ZOO now that I know who Jeanne Cooper is (yes, from THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS). My dream is that Warner Archives gets the rights to all of the ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK pics and releases them on DVD. Fine review, Sark, of some worthy films that have been scarce for far too long.

  2. Sark, this is a wonderful profile of three movies that I haven't seen. "Black Zoo" especially sounds intriguing because of Michael Gough and Jeanne Cooper, not to mention the animals. Great job!

  3. The only one I've watched is Phantom of Hollywood. What I remember best about it is the creepy mask shown on the cover of the DVD case. And yeah, I used to think Peter Haskell was cute.

  4. Rick, there is usually at least one movie I've seen in a list! I haven't seen any of these! I'm always up for a good scare or thriller -- thanks for the very interesting heads-up!

  5. Whoops! Sorry, Sark! I still like this article, even though you wrote it -- hardy har -- I mean, because you wrote it!

  6. Gough's screaming rage fits are endlessly entertaining. It's not explained why the girl is attacked by a tiger in the opening. Possibly something was cut and guessing from Cohen's work, it's because she was interested in his teenage assistant Rod Lauren. I'd love to read how they shot the animal/human scenes so smoothly and safely.