I normally equate seaside towns with peace and tranquility, a place for rest, relaxation, and perhaps writing the Great Canadian Novel (it’s going to be a thinly veiled takedown of beloved children’s TV host Mr. Dressup, for the record). Clark’s Harbor however, the setting of Cry for the Strangers (1982), is a place where my laptop and I shall never set foot; there’s just too much damn tribalistic murder.
Originally broadcast by CBS on February 11th, Cry for the Strangers would have to contend with Barney Miller, Taxi, and 20/20 on ABC and Different Strokes, Gimme a Break! and Hill Street Blues on NBC, and it’s safe to say most eyes were peeping these network staples. But for those with a salty taste for the macabre, the Eye was the network to be. (For this occasion anyway; they can’t all be ABC Movie of the Week’s.)
Let’s pick up our trusty faux TV GUIDE and see what the harbor has to offer:
CRY FOR THE STRANGERS (Thursday, 9pm, CBS)
A psychiatrist and his wife move to an idyllic coastal town only to discover that new folk have a way of disappearing. Patrick Duffy, Cindy Pickett star.
Our telefilm opens on Clark’s Harbor in 1937, as an adolescent boy has a dream while staying at his grandparents’ beachfront home. He hears drumming and war cries coming from the shore, and when he arrives, sees a group of Native Americans circling a pit on the beach, surrounding what looks like two people buried up to their necks in the sand. As he awakens from his nightmare, he calls out for his grandparents, and a frantic search along the shore answers all his queries.
Cut to 45 years later, as Dr. Brad Russell (Patrick Duffy – Dallas) and his wife Elaine (Cindy Pickett – Sleepwalkers) arrive in Clark’s Harbor for a summer getaway only to find that the house they’re renting on Devil’s Elbow isn’t ready yet (I’d probably pick somewhere nicer like God’s Armpit, but that’s just me). After clearance from the local sheriff, Chief Whalen (Brian Keith – Meteor), the Russell’s settle in; luckily for them, they befriend a family they know from the city, the Palmers, whose son Robby (Shawn Carson – The Funhouse) Brad used to treat. Dad Glen (Lawrence Pressman – Shaft) tells Brad that Robby has been much less moody ever since moving to Clark’s Harbor; and while they receive the same chilly reception from the locals as the Russell’s, they’ve stayed because the constant storms in the area somehow…make Robby feel better. What isn’t comforting is that newcomers to the town have either been vanishing or committing suicide for the last ten years. Will the Russell’s stay in Clark’s Harbor be short lived?
Cry for the Strangers doesn’t add much particularly new to the TV horror genre, and some of its motivations are unclear even with a 97 minute running time; having said that, there are some genuinely unsettling moments that definitely make it worth a look, with a pedigree that’s hard to dismiss.
Writer J.D. Feigelson wrote the previous year’s amazing Dark Night of the Scarecrow (the subject of my inaugural Tube, located here), and while it doesn’t quite tap into the delicious fear oozing from every pore of that one, Feigelson is able to imbue a strong sense of location here as he did with his previous effort; whereas the towering cornfields of Scarecrow act as a malevolent sentinel, the sea and sand of Cry are always looming and connected to a greater force, an elemental danger tied somehow into the mythology of the Native Americans. This is where the screenplay falters a bit; I haven’t read the John Saul novel on which it’s based, but I can only assume that there is a deeper connection with the tribe beyond not being kind to outside forces. Regardless, Feigelson, as he did with Scarecrow, stays away from the melodramatic side of the street, instead grounding his screenplay with a semblance of reality. (I mean, as close as a story of vengeance seeking “dream dancers” will allow.)
In the horror world, director Peter Medak had already hit a home run with The Changeling (1980), a haunted house film with George C. Scott, filled with a quiet dread and foreboding atmosphere. Medak is able to find that vibe here too; the prologue with the adolescent boy and his grandparents is truly chilling, and cinematographer Frank Stanley (Magnum Force) opens up his lenses and shoots Cry as he would a feature, giving certain scenes and scares a big budget feel that belies its small screen surroundings.
In regards to the cast, Pickett is engaging, and where one stands on Duffy falls to individual taste (to be fair, the beard does slightly de-bland his presence). This leaves veteran character actors like Pressman, Keith, and Jeff Corey (True Grit) as the town doomsayer to lay out the exposition and provide some local flavor, which they all splendidly do.
It’s always fascinating to see how a director adapts from one medium to another, and certainly Medak has proven himself at the theatre and on the tube especially when it comes to horror; he’s helmed not only an installment of Masters of Horror (“The Washingtonians”), but also two episodes of Hannibal. Cry for the Strangers may not hold the prestige of the former, or attain the glossy phantasmal heights of the latter, but it does have Brian Keith bare chested and screaming on a beach. Sometimes it’s the small pleasures that pull you through.