Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Weekend Of Terror (1970)

Director: Jud Taylor
Writer: Lionel E. Siegel
Producer: Joel Freeman
Music: Richard Markowitz
Cinematographer: Les Shorr
Original Air Date: December 8, 1970 on ABC (Douglas S. Cramer - Executive in Charge); 74 min

Robert Conrad (Eddie), Carol Lynley (Sister Meredith), Lee Majors (Larry), Lois Nettleton (Sister Ellen), Jane Wyatt (Sister Frances), Kevin Hagen (Lieutenant Papich), Tod Andrews (Wedemeyer), Gregory Sierra (Police Sergeant), Ann Doran (Sister Nadine)

A kidnapped woman accidentally dies while in custody of her captors. The crooks Eddie and Larry decide to kidnap another woman, and make her up to appear as the first girl just long enough for them to grab the loot and take off. Complications occur when they abduct a carload of nuns to carry out this plot.

That synopsis could very easily be played as a comedy. There is an amusing moment, for instance, when the nuns' car breaks down in the desert. Sister Ellen (the only one dressed incognito) is under the hood, assessing the damage, when Eddie spots her, pulls over and offers to take the woman to his place nearby to call for help. This generous notion is of course a ruse to lure her into being the intended replacement girl for the ransom money. However, once the hood of the car comes down, only then does Eddie notice that Ellen has company. The two nuns wave at him, and he politely waves back!

Even though the crooks are bungling idiots, there is little levity here. We still fear for the women's safety, because we know from the start how dangerous these men are- especially Eddie, whose coiled body language suggests that he could erupt into violence at any provocation, and whose eyes suggest a psychosexual yearning behind it.

The two kidnappers are the classical pair of crooks: Eddie the leader, is the strategist and the more physical; and Larry, the underling, is passive and slightly more empathic. The three nuns are also well-drawn characters: Sister Frances is the matronly head of the group; Sister Meredith is the youngest and most vulnerable; Sister Ellen perhaps the most street smart. The latter becomes the central character. Sister Ellen had previously left the sisterhood over matters of faith. In the beginning of the movie, she re-unites with the other two sisters at the bus stop, to be brought back to the church. (This is why we see her dressed like she came from a Tammy Wynette concert, instead of in a black robe.) Lois Nettleton does very good work in the role, as Ellen is taken to question matters of faith and forgiveness once again when she is selected to pose as the previously kidnapped girl.

Refreshingly, the nuns are revealed as far from the helpless victims usually prescribed in these "women in peril" scenarios. This feisty group constantly dreams up means of escape, or ways to make their captors turn against either. This movie belongs in select group of TV-movies produced for ABC at the time (including Five Desperate Women and Wild Women) in which a group of females overcome male adversity.

If Steve Austin didn't become The Six Million Dollar Man, he could've still done adult films.

Sister Ellen once again is taken to question her faith.

There are no extraneous, needless scenes of melodrama in this lean suspenser. The characterizations are instead economically revealed through the plot. The exciting sequence where Eddie's elaborate ransom plot is set into motion, at once reveals his character's matter-of-fact businesslike acumen to his scheme, and the sadistic pleasure he garners from the cat and mouse game he plays with the late kidnapped girl's father.

The film works best when focusing on the dynamic between the nuns and their abductors. Some of that intensity is lost when the police later get involved. It's still very entertaining to watch- just that by then, the interesting characters are secondary to the exposition, as the story builds to a big chase climax. But get a load of who's playing the police officers: Gregory Sierra (Julio from "Sanford and Son") and Kevin Hagen, who played the doctor in "Little House on the Prairie"!

Weekend of Terror is a solid thriller: a good example of how those no-frills seventy-odd-minute made-for-TV movies moved. This one is proof positive that less is more: you can still tell a story, deliver the thrills and have three-dimensional characters in a shorter format, and in some cases better than a longer-running theatrical feature.

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