Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TV Movie Terror: Terror Among Us (1981) review


Don Meredith (Sgt. Tom Stockwell), Sarah Purcell (Jennifer), Jennifer Salt (Connie Paxton), Ted Shackleford (Delbert Ramsey), Kim Lankford (Vickie Stevens), Sharon Spelman (Sara Kates), Elta Blake (Beth), Pat Klous (Cathy), Tracy Reed (Barbara), Spencer Milligan (Alex), Austin Stoker (DA Rick Clayburn), Jane Badler (Pam), Ken Foree (prisoner)

Directed by Paul Krasny

The Short Version: Debuting on January 14th, 1981, TV director Krasny delivered a memorable piece of small screen quasi-trash about a disturbed man who can't keep his prowler urges in check. Dealing with an array of subjects, its primary focus is on psychosis and rape, politics and policing. Everything in between concerns the love lives of a clutch of airline stewardesses leading up to their fateful run-in with the title terror. Fans of 70s and 80s television will get their money's worth in the stockpile of familiar faces. There used to be a time where there were good TV movies among us.

A California cop trying to nail an ex-con is at odds with the prowler's parole officer over putting him behind bars permanently. Alternating between stealing women's clothes and raping them, he's finally pushed over the edge by his girlfriend's constant beratement. After committing murder, the disturbed sexual predator sets his sights on five stewardesses living in an upscale apartment complex, one of which had previously tried to put him away.

TV director Krasny hits a home run with this occasionally tense thriller that expounds a number of topics, some of which had been trotted out in all your finer R rated cop thrillers since the early 70s. One of the keys to this film's success is its screenplay. Tackling multiple subjects, it comes at the viewer from more than one angle--whether in dealing with relationships between men and women; the politics of the legal system; naivety of the young vs. the enlightenment of the old.

Dallas and JoAnne Barnes wrote the exposition heavy screenplay, managing a surprising amount of depth and characterization for a 95 minute movie. Formerly an LAPD narcotics officer, Dallas Barnes got into writing novels before being hired to write for television starting with the George Kennedy cop series THE BLUE KNIGHT (1975-1976). His wife, JoAnne, eventually became his scripting partner in 1980 for TERROR AMONG US. They were the first husband and wife team in television. Both are still active today.

Virtually every character cliche is trotted out in their script. There's the frustrated cop whose hands are tied when it comes to nailing the bad guys; the politically opposing goody-two-shoes who thinks rehabilitation will eventually pay off; the disturbed ex-con whose crimes escalate as the film wears on; and the victims themselves are a television facsimile of the sort populating all your finer slasher pictures of the day. Both Dallas and JoAnne do an extraordinary job of balancing the screen time of a staggering amount of characters--one of the most important being the main villain.

Ted Shackelford had a very healthy career on the small screen, with only a few big screen credits on his resume. He's best known as Gary Ewing on KNOTS LANDING (1979-1993), the brother of Bobby and J.R. Ewing from the famous series DALLAS (1979-1991). In TERROR AMONG US, Shackelford plays Delbert Ramsey, a chronic liar and Peeping Tom who can barely contain his sexual impulses in the company of the fairer sex. He compensates by sneaking into women's homes and swiping their bras; or ogling them by the pool; or getting all hot and bothered at the slightest amount of exposed female flesh. 

The script tries, and moderately succeeds in creating sympathy for its rapist-murderer--blaming his actions on other factors as opposed to creating a straightforward villain. There's a feeling that Delbert is something of a societal Frankenstein Monster even though the scenarios leading up to his eventual breakdown are all initiated by his own carelessness. It's as if the writers wanted to allow the right-leaning Stockwell and left-leaning Paxton to have their cake and eat it too by feeding both their political sensibilities; or more likely, both Dallas and JoAnne wanted a three dimensional antagonist.

Texas born Don Meredith walks tall as Sergeant Stockwell, the high-falutin' cop constricted by a legal system that, at times, favors the criminals over their victims. Also constricted by standards and practices, Stockwell is far more preachy than Eastwood or Bronson would ever be. Playing a 95 minute game of political chess with Connie Paxton (Jennifer Salt)-- the naive parole officer convinced she can rehabilitate the Terror Among Us--Stockwell ultimately wins the game and they put politics aside to nab a killer. The banter between them never gets too overly heated. Both actors have a rapport together and are likable enough. The relationship is more or less the equivalent of Harry Callahan and Kate Moore (Tyne Daly) of THE ENFORCER (1976) minus any innuendo and gunplay.

The violence is mild in what television could show at that time, but still tense and riveting. The film's major set piece is the sequence where Delbert, having gone off the deep end, takes the five stewardesses captive. Bound and gagged, he then takes the women one at the time into another room where he beats and rapes them--well, rapes one of them. This sequence, as grim as it is, has an unintentional air of humor about it. Every few minutes somebody else either comes into the room or comes by and knocks on the door, pissing Delbert off even more as the number of people who can identify him continues to grow. Still, director Krasny orchestrates a harrowing sequence.

About the only place where TERROR AMONG US seriously fumbles is in its airport-set finale. You kind of expect a slightly beefier climax, but one isn't forthcoming. For a Made For TV movie, it's satisfying enough in every other department. One of these areas is in its cast. If you're a fan of 70s and 80s television programs, you'll have a field day picking out all the familiar faces.

If Spencer Milligan looks familiar, you'll recognize him as Rick Marshall, the father trapped in a prehistoric land with his two kids in the classic Sid & Marty Krofft series, LAND OF THE LOST (1974-1977). Milligan only appeared in the first two seasons. Stepping off the show over reasons of pay, Ron Harper (PLANET OF THE APES TV series) took his place on the third season. In TERROR AMONG US, Milligan is Vickie's tough guy boyfriend.

Any SciFi fan worth their salt will know the name Jane Badler (see insert; middle). A couple years before playing the lead lizard bitch from another galaxy who harvests humans for food on the original V (1983), she was a snotty stewardess named Pam in TERROR AMONG US. Onscreen for approximately 60 seconds, it would be a couple more years before the stunning actress would cement her fame as the literal man-eating alien Diana on the aforementioned V mini-series, its subsequent sequel mini-series in 1984, and the single season television show (1984-1985).

Austin Stoker starred in a handful of exploitation features in the 70s including the likes of ABBY (1974) and HORROR HIGH (1974). He had a significant role in BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) taking over the role played by Hari Rhodes in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972). Probably his most significant part was in John Carpenter's cult favorite ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1977). For TERROR AMONG US, Stoker has a cameo as the District Attorney.

Forever famous as Peter in George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), Ken Foree cameo's as an unnamed inmate who first asks Delbert for a cigarette then tries to push him off the phone. A fine actor, Foree cropped up frequently on television and in movies like FROM BEYOND (1986) and LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3 (1990). His work has been primarily in film the last ten years.

TERROR AMONG US debuted as the CBS Wednesday night movie on January 14th, 1981. A product of its time, it's a sturdy character ensemble, if watered down crime thriller that fans of grittier fare will still find of interest. It's a topical picture that juggles everything from the criminal justice system to infidelity to rape. There's even some campiness that creeps into the narrative at times. Film fans with an appreciation for vintage TV movies and forgotten and obscure productions from the 1980s will find this TERROR AMONG that league.

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