Anyone familiar with this column knows my deep-rooted affection for Ms. Kate Jackson; I espoused her many virtues when I covered Satan’s School for Girls (you can ponder my musings here), and I promise (warn?) you I will do so again as I discuss the couple-in-a-house-is-met-with-animosity-from-a-possible-ghost telefilm, Death at Love House (1976), aka How Much Is That Dead Actress In the Window?
Originally broadcast as The ABC Friday Night Movie on Friday, September 3rd, Love House was up against The CBS Friday Night Movies and NBC trotted out The Rockford Files/Quincy M.E. for folks like mine. So who won out? We all did! I loved Rockford and Quincy. Okay, CBS probably lost. But if you were looking for some charming stars doing charming things in a charming manor with a hint of danger, look no further than ABC.
Let’s open up our battered faux TV GUIDE and see what my soon to be favorite Angel was up to:
DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE (Friday, 9pm, ABC)
A young (ish) couple move into the home of a deceased actress, only to be put in harm’s way, Scooby Doo style. Robert Wagner, The Incomparable Kate Jackson star.
We open as writers Joel (Wagner – Hart to Hart) and Donna (Jackson – Charlie’s Angels, and ma heart) Gregory head to Love House, a Beverly Hills manor once owned by famed recluse and ‘30s actress Lorna Love (Marianna Hill – Messiah of Evil). They’ve rented it to write a book about the affair between Lorna and Joel’s father, a famous painter; Joel sees it as an opportunity to find out more about his mostly absentee father since he passed.
Since Donna is with child, Joel questions her behavior such as thinking she sees Lorna roaming the grounds at night, or a mysterious black-cloaked man, or when said man pulls the gas line in the bathroom while she showers, locking her in. Uh oh, she’s preggers, it’s gotta be in her head, right? In between interviewing people who knew Lorna, such as her bitter first director (John Carradine – every movie made until 1995), the president of her fan club (Joan Blondell – The Dead Don’t Die), and Lorna’s long time screen rival (Dorothy Lamour – Road to Bali), Joel becomes transfixed watching Lorna’s old movies and soon finds himself falling for her visage. Which he really shouldn’t do, as everyone who knew her says she had, shall we say, a bewitching way about her. But fall he does, turning on his wife even as her life is in danger. Can Donna bring Joel back from the brink before she succumbs to The Man In Black? And if Ms. Jackson can’t stir a man, is he even worth stirring?
Death at Love House (ooh boy that title) is a solid tribute to the stars and star system of Hollywood’s yesteryear. And when I say yesteryear I mean by ‘70s standards; people like Carradine, Lamour and Blondell (not to mention Sylvia Sidney as the suspicious housekeeper) were already luminaries by this time, having come up through the Golden Age of the major studios. And they’re maybe not their appropriate due, but they’re each given a scene to strut their stuff. This was the norm in the age of Love Boat and Fantasy Island; one could call it exploitation of a legendary status, but working actors like to work, and respect is shown. (P.S. Blondell comes off the best as the daffy head of the fan club.)
E.W. Swackhamer (Vampire; and is there a better name for a director, though?) films like he’s hell bent to cross the finish line, moving along Jim Barnett (Terminal Island)’s Gothic Lite script from one scenario to the next before you have time to question anything. (Well, I suppose back then you would have had commercial breaks, but still.) Love House is by no means scary, but it is entertaining in a very old fashioned way. There are creepy hallways, a black cat, the aforementioned cloaked fella, and a gratuitous amount of thunder and lightning.
Sometimes what these kinds of TV movie provide is sheer comfort. Not in a nostalgic way: I mean at the time of broadcast. Having well known stars of the day mingling and sharing screen time with legends of the past not only provides a sweet synergy between the generations, but gives the project a modicum of class. (Not that I think anything needs to be “classed” up, but that’s certainly the perspective of a major network, then and now.) It’s a relaxed horror noir with the right players to act it out.
And it’s the stars that do carry the show; the script is light on memorable dialogue but the plot is interesting – tufts of Laura and Gaslight waft through the air, condensed of course into a palatable TV dinner easy to digest in 74 minutes. It’s a delight to see the old guard vamping, just as it is to see the younger ones meet their beat. Wagner is ubiquitous with laid back and getting’ laid; Hart to Hart cemented the playboy vision that he already has a handle on here, even if he does raise his pulse once or twice here in moments of passion and/or frustration. This is as solid as he’s ever been.
So onto the Apple of My Eye then, Miss Kate Jackson. There will come a day when she is recognized as the ravishing beauty she is; the almond eyes, the black waterfall of hair, and the scratchy sigh of her angelic voice adding up to rapture, Charlie be damned. Until that day, we’ll just have to settle for appreciating her in films like Death at Love House, where she proves to be the Lorna Love of my generation. Or at least to me, which is just fine.Next: It Came From The Tube: SPECTRE (1977)