By the early ‘80s, Melissa Sue Anderson was ready to get some dirt under Mary Ingall’s fingernails, and shed her squeaky clean image. Late in ’81 she would entertain horror audiences with her big screen turn in Happy Birthday to Me, but earlier that same year she stayed closer to home on the tube playing a big bad teenage witch in Midnight Offerings – a role which I’m sure Pa Ingalls would not approve of.
The telemovie premiered Friday, February 27th, 1981 on ABC. It’s neighbor CBS had the kings of Friday night, Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas going on, while poor old NBC had Nero Wolfe followed by that party animal David Brinkley. (Let’s just say the Peacock was still a few seasons away from working their way out of the cellar.) But ABC, for some reason, had always not only nurtured horror, but thrived on it – and Midnight Offerings was another in a long line of winners.
Let’s crack open our TV GUIDE and see what it may have said:
MIDNIGHT OFFERINGS (Friday, 9pm, ABC)
An evil teenage witch uses her powers for personal gain, until a new girl with similar abilities enrols at school and tries to stop her. Melissa Sue Anderson, Mary Beth McDonough star.
Most 90 minute TV movies can be log lined lickety-split, and Midnight Offerings is no exception. What it does offer is a little more colouring, a little more shading than the average TV horror at the time, with believable character beats and solid construction.
Our program opens in a darkened room filled with blackened candles, as we hear whispered spells being uttered in front of a hanging pentagram. A cloaked woman continues her chants, as she burns a Polaroid of a man. We cut to that same man driving his car, which promptly catches on fire. Our cloaked antagonist turns out to be one Vivian Sotherland (Anderson), popular (read: feared) girl on the high school campus, who acts just as shocked as everyone else that one of the teachers met his demise in a car accident the previous evening (although we know better). We meet Dave (Patrick Cassidy – Love at Stake), her jock ex boyfriend, who already suspects her witchery. Enter school newbie Robin (McDonough), who strikes up a friendship with Dave, leading to immediate animosity on behalf of Vivian. Using witchcraft to further her own needs (and letting no one stand in her way), Vivian soon discovers that Robin has powers of her own, however uncontrollable they may be. Sensing that Vivian doesn’t take to the idea of sharing her man or campus with someone of similar strength, Robin must tap into her hidden talents before Vivian wipes out all that she holds dear.
Carrie begat a lot of small screen versions, with varying degrees of success; most tend to focus on the abilities of their protagonists and less on how it affects them and their loved ones. How would you react if your daughter could move objects or hurt people just with her mind? Vivian receives her power from Hectite, the Goddess of Lawn Maintenance (I think – I can only reference Bing as I write this); whereas the origins of Robin’s powers are unclear, although it is suspected by helpful witch Emily (Marion Ross – Happy Days) that Robin has a lineage with witchcraft. Regardless, it affects both Robin and Vivian’s families in different ways; Robin and her dad have uprooted their lives every time her abilities manifest, moving from city to city to piece together a new home. Vivian’s folks, Sherm (Gordon Jump – WKRP in Cincinnati) and Diane (Cathryn Damon – Soap), have turned a blind eye to what they know is harmful behaviour – but hey, if it can help get Sherm that promotion at work, it can’t be all bad, can it? – and yet Diane grows increasingly despondent with every report of dying teachers or students’ parents taking ill. Perhaps Diane knows more than she’s letting on? It’s a nice wrinkle to see the reactions on the other side of the magic wand.
While Midnight Offerings focuses on relationships between family members, it doesn’t forget its B movie roots; veins pop, eyes squint, objects are hurled telepathically, black cats do evil bidding, and I promise you, crows will cause vehicular accidents. Which is to say: its still trash, but slightly elevated trash - good characterization and direction will do that. Credit director Rod Holcomb (The Six Million Dollar Man) and writer Juanita Bartlett (The Rockford Files) for giving the characters grounded dialogue and motivation, with solid scenes of interplay between the cast. It can’t be easy to make a film about feudin’ witches realistic, but they sure as hell try.
The same goes for the cast; this bench is deep with TV heavy hitters, especially in the supporting roles. Jump, Ross, and Damon were all popular sitcom stars, but their work here allows them to stretch away from the laugh tracks and breathe a little. Of course the big showdown is between the two stars, Anderson versus McDonough, Little House against The Waltons, and I’d say it’s a pretty even match. McDonough underplays as nice girl Robin, while Anderson really relishes the chance to shake all the Ingalls out of her; her pale blue eyes acting as an effective catalyst for her fear mongering, and she has an appropriately smirking disdain for her fellow students. This is not the pushover we’d see in Happy Birthday to Me.
Naturally it comes nowhere near the pathos and horror of the DePalma classic (everyone is a pretender to that throne), but Midnight Offerings at least gives the viewer a solid 90 minutes of well played high school mayhem with a stronger than usual emphasis on character. And just remember: Vivian will get what she wants.Next: It Came From The Tube: THE HAUNTED (1991)