“The Demon Murder Case” (1983)

You kids with your David Avocado Wolfes and your Food Babes, you don’t know what a charlatan really is until you know the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Husband and wife “paranormal investigators,” the Warrens helped tip the Amityville story over from a mere cash grab to a cultural phenomenon that is still hotly debated more than forty years later. They’ve had exactly one good fictitious movie made about them (2013’s The Conjuring), and a whole lot of corny “documentaries” depicting the vast and varied ways they’ve conned desperate, naive people into believing in “demonic possession.”

The Warrens even stuck their opportunistic noses into a criminal trial, that of 19 year-old Arne Cheyenne Johnson, charged with the murder of his landlord. It was the first trial to use a “the Devil made me do it” defense, claiming that Johnson was literally possessed by a demon that had originally taken hold of his fiancee’s adolescent brother, and the Warrens presented themselves as expert witnesses (securing a sweet book and movie deal in the process, of course).

The defense was thrown out before anyone even got to testify, and Johnson was later convicted of manslaughter, so I’m not sure why anyone still thought a movie needed to be made about it (except perhaps to ride the dwindling  Amityville Horror wave), but nevertheless, we got one, with 1983’s The Demon Murder Case. Kevin Bacon, less than a year away from stardom in Footloose and more wooden here than a barrelful of sawdust, plays the character based on Johnson, renamed Kenny Miller. Kenny lives with his fiancee’s family, including her troubled younger brother, Brian (Charles Fields), who is apparently tormented by a demon.

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The movie expends no effort in establishing who these people are, or how Brian originally came into contact with the malevolent being he refers to as “the Beast,” and whom, going by Brian’s description, evidently looks like Freddy Krueger with deer hooves. Brian’s mother (Joyce Van Patten) briefly mentions having recently moved in an attempt to escape the Beast, but when that doesn’t work they reach out to the Catholic Church for help, as well as our good buddies Ed and Lorraine Warren, here renamed Guy and Charlotte Harris, and played by Andy Griffith and Beverlee McKinsey.

Failing to heed Guy’s warning against doing such a thing, Kenny challenges the Beast to leave Brian’s body and enter his instead. The Beast obliges, and soon Kenny is afflicted as well, experiencing frightening visions and even, in one scene, getting on all fours and growling. Things eventually come to a head when Kenny, driven into an infernal rage by his fiancee’s obnoxious boss, stabs him to death. As in real life, the demonic possession defense is thrown out, but the movie suggests that it’s at the unbeliever’s peril, as the Beast remains free to torment more souls. Kenny’s fiancee (played by Liane Langland) gets the best line in the whole movie, when, during a TV interview after the trial, she says “We haven’t done anything for Kenny yet, but he definitely still needs a full exorcism.”

Despite the presence of the Warrens, this leans more closely to The Exorcist than The Amityville Horror, albeit a watered down, barely PG rated The Exorcist. Constrained by the limits of network television standards and practices in a pre-Walking Dead era, no one’s telling anyone that their mother sucks cocks in Hell here. Unless you find Dutch angles and fisheye lenses terrifying (or the voice of Harvey Fierstein–no, really!–coming out of a kid’s mouth), The Demon Murder Case is hilariously tame, though there is one pretty great scene where Brian, while being exorcised by wildly overacting church bishop Eddie Albert, starts blowing raspberries at him.

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Fully three quarters of the movie is given over to the events leading up to the titular “demon murder,” and yet the dramatic stakes are so low as to be almost negligible. It feels as though character development was swapped out in favor of Richard Masur, playing Kenny’s lawyer, glowering at the judge who quite reasonably doesn’t buy demonic possession as a defense for murder, and this is a mistake. After all, when the characters in a movie barely have names, let alone any sort of plot arc, it’s hard to be emotionally invested in what happens to them. Further lessening the dramatic impact here is that, really, the murder victim is kind of an asshole, constantly belittling Kenny, and all but salivating whenever he’s in his fiancee’s presence. On that alone one could see how someone might want to kill this guy, possessed by “the Beast” or not, but the murder, reflecting the real life event, is clearly in self-defense, with several witnesses present, which makes you wonder why anyone involved in the case felt they had to come up with such a cockamamie defense in the first place.

Lessening the dramatic impact even more is that “the Beast’s” voice is provided by Harvey Fierstein. I mean, for goodness sake.
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Arne Cheyenne Johnson served just five years of a ten year manslaughter sentence, and went on to marry the same woman he was with when the murder occurred. The real life Brian went on to sue Ed and Lorraine Warren, claiming that–surprise!–the demonic possession angle of the case was a hoax, capitalizing on “Brian”‘s mental illness and cooked up to both get Johnson out of jail and make a quick buck. Regardless, there’s a sizable online contingency of people who still believe that everything the Warrens reported was fact, and Lorraine Warren, now a widow, has been able to live very comfortably on the money she’s made from gullible saps. Perhaps that’s the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled.

 

 

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“Diff’rent Strokes: The Bicycle Man” (1983)

In my review of the “Fonzie’s Blindness” episode of Happy Days, I described it as “like reaching into a bag of gumdrops and pulling out a clove of garlic.” A lot of sitcom Very Special Episodes fall under that description–startling, unpleasant, and you know they don’t belong there. The structure of most sitcoms, where problems that aren’t really problems (oh no, I have two dates to the big dance!) are neatly solved in 25 minutes, simply  doesn’t work when applied to heavy, real issues, like child abuse, homelessness, and death, particularly when it comes front loaded with a lot of self-importance and sanctimony.

As an example, the Family Ties episode “A My Name is Alex” was built up to be one of the biggest events in prime time television history when it aired in 1987. An extended episode dedicated to Alex P. Keaton’s emotional breakdown after losing his best friend in a car accident, it’s pretty obvious that it was intended to showcase Michael J. Fox’s dramatic acting chops. He does a fine job, but a considerable amount of the episode’s impact is lost when it occurs to you that Alex is wracked with grief and guilt over the death of a character who has never been mentioned before. Again, it works against the limits of sitcom structure–we have no idea who this person is, but we’re supposed to be sad that he’s dead because Alex is. Further lessening the impact is that, once the episode ends, the character is never mentioned again. Alex has that same Leonard Shelby-esque memory that most sitcom characters have when it comes to unhappy events–they’re immediately forgotten, and nothing has changed.

It’s a bit lazy and intellectually dishonest (most people don’t recover from the sudden loss of a loved one by monologuing their way through it), but then again, sitcoms aren’t what audiences watch when they want a dose of reality anyway. This, of course, leads to the question of why bother making Very Special Episodes in the first place? If there’s no intention of writing the realistic long-term effects of, say, sexual assault, then why have Natalie almost become a victim of it in an episode of The Facts of Life? Why follow up the death of Carol Seaver’s boyfriend with just a stern lecture from her father about the dangers of driving drunk? We already know the dangers, teenage Chandler Bing is dead! The meek pulling of emotional punches was what resulted in rolled eyes and derisive laughter from the audience, as opposed to tears and heavy hearts.

However, to watch the two part “Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes is to be utterly perplexed. Diff’rent Strokes, a show based on a most implausible premise to begin with, hit upon quite a few Important Issues in its eight year run, including racism, bullying, the dangers of hitchhiking, kidnapping, drugs, eating disorders, environmentalism, gangs, smoking, teen pregnancy, gambling, sexual harassment, and stealing, all with varying degrees of well-intentioned corniness, but none hit quite the same level of baffling tone deafness as “The Bicycle Man,” which focuses (as if you didn’t know already, otherwise why would you be reading this blog?) on child molestation.

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The first half opens with co-star Conrad Bain, wearing a suit and sitting behind a desk like he wants to talk to you about life insurance, urging families to watch both episodes and discuss them afterwards, as they’re about a “sensitive subject” that’s “of deep concern to all of us.” Wisely, what exactly that “sensitive subject” is isn’t mentioned, probably out of fear that the audience would turn to rivaling shows T.J. Hooker or Whiz Kids in search of something more pleasant.

The actual episode itself opens with young Arnold cajoling Mr. Drummond into buying him a bicycle for his upcoming birthday. Not only does Drummond agree, but the bike shop’s aggressively friendly owner, Mr. Horton (Gordon Jump), offers Arnold a radio if he hands out flyers advertising the store (this was back when a radio was something one had to work for, rather than something one declines as a free gift when opening a checking account). Horton takes a shine to Arnold, and, unbeknownst to Arnold’s family, invites him to hang out in his apartment behind the store, a veritable kid’s wonderland of video games, comic books, toy train sets, and endless banana split sundaes.

Nothing too untoward happens during that visit, other than spoiling Arnold’s appetite for dinner, but Mr. Horton amps up the friendliness to more insidious levels when Arnold returns another day with his buddy Dudley, whom he’s recruited to pass out flyers with him. This time, Horton plants a porno mag for the boys to find, plies them with wine, and shows them pictures of himself skinny dipping with other kids. Arnold becomes uneasy about indulging in Horton’s attention, particularly when it comes to drinking wine, but Dudley, evidently desperate for approval, eagerly goes along with whatever he says, even agreeing to take off his shirt and pose for pictures as they “play Tarzan.”

The episode ends with Horton all but licking his chops in anticipation and saying “We’re just gonna have a great time together this afternoon.”

So this is all pretty creepy, right? Yeah, well, try adding a fucking laugh track to it. I’m hardly the first person to note this, but it must be stated anyway: the studio audience either thought, or at least were encouraged to act as though they did, that a sexual predator seducing his preteen prey was hilarious. I suppose it’s possible that a kid might think it’s funny seeing another kid go goggle eyed over dirty pictures, but what kind of sociopath adult would laugh at that, especially when it’s obvious that this is all a setup for a child molester’s typical m.o. of encouraging his victims to keep secrets? It pushes the whole thing over from merely unsettling to flat-out hair raising.

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Part two, after we’re reminded by Conrad Bain, this time in a more relaxed sweater and necktie ensemble, that this is a Very Important Episode that should be discussed afterward, picks up right where part one left off, with Mr. Horton taking pictures of a shirtless Dudley, and Arnold wearing a pith helmet that just happened to be handy (Horton seems to have gotten his decorating tips from Better Homes and Pedophiles). The fun quickly comes to an end, however, when Mr. Drummond unexpectedly shows up at Horton’s shop to pay for Arnold’s bicycle. While Drummond keeps Horton occupied by babbling about childhood memories of his own first bike, the boys sneak out the back entrance of Horton’s apartment.

Arnold’s siblings, Willis and Kimberly, catch him with wine on his breath, but agree not to tell their father. Although the boys return to Horton’s store the next day, Arnold expresses reluctance about continuing to hang out at his apartment, especially since they have to keep it a secret from other adults. His silence can be bought with food, however, as Horton is able to lure Arnold and Dudley back with promises of Boston cream pie and cartoons.

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You can probably guess what kind of cartoons Horton makes them watch, even without Arnold exclaiming “That mouse just lost his pants! And he’s not wearing any undershorts!” Shocked and appalled, he leaves (but not without taking his pie with him), while Dudley, who’s clearly way more into it, stays behind, an innocent fly all but hopelessly entangled in the nefarious Mr. Horton’s web.

By the time Arnold arrives home, Mr. Drummond already knows that something is amiss, after Dudley’s father tells him that the boys have been “experimenting with alcohol.” Arnold almost immediately admits to what’s been going on, and Drummond, remarkably calm for someone who’s just found out that his child narrowly escaped being sexually assaulted, calls the police. They arrive at Horton’s apartment just in time to save a dazed, half-dressed Dudley from whatever hideous plans Horton had in store for him.

Denying the viewers the pleasure of seeing Horton beaten with rubber hoses, the last few minutes of the episode are devoted to a police detective (or rather, an actor playing a police detective) warning Arnold and his family (and thus the audience) about the danger of child molesters. Showing a surprising bit of progressiveness for the time, the detective makes a special point of disabusing the popular misconception that most pedophiles are gay. What he does not mention, however, is the sobering fact that children are far more likely to be victimized by members of their own families than by the overly generous neighborhood shopkeeper. As for Dudley, the actual victim, he’s waved off with a dismissive “Oh, he’ll be just fine.” Mere hours after an experience that would be traumatizing for anyone involved, Arnold is smiling and laughing with his family, proclaiming that “Some hugs and kisses are still okay.”

Now you might be thinking “Gena, how did you expect the show to end, with poor Dudley’s corpse found floating in the East River?” No, of course not. Even without that wildly inappropriate laugh track, “The Bicycle Man” would still remain a weird bit of 80s sitcom history. Despite the Drummond/Jackson Family encountering one social issue after another, the tone of Diff’rent Strokes overall is so feather light, with Gary Coleman an adorable, non-stop quipping machine (one wonders if he didn’t spend the first eight years of his life locked in a basement with Jack Benny sketches blasting 24 hours a day), that any attempt to address a serious matter comes off as pandering at best, and downright tasteless at worst.

Like the similar Silver Spoons, it served as harmless fantasy for its young audience, a live action take on Richie Rich (if Richie Rich was a tiny black child), and it would have been perfectly fine if it had just stayed that way. The Brady Bunch never handled anything more serious than a broken nose, and Diff’rent Strokes shouldn’t have either.

“CHiPs: Battle of the Bands” & “Quincy: Next Stop, Nowhere” (1982)

“Ripped from the headlines” stories are the lifeblood of crime procedural shows. It makes plot structure a breeze, as follows:

  1. Base plot on any weird and/or unsavory thing that’s treated as a “trend” by the media (say, for instance, furries, which were indeed the subject of an episode of CSI).
  2. Have a member of that scene turn up dead under mysterious circumstances, the autopsy eventually revealing him or her to have been murdered.
  3. Have a character act as an audience surrogate so another character can explain to him or her about said weird and/or unsavory thing, to which the first character will invariably react with shock, amusement, revulsion, or some combination of all three. This dialogue can be easily applied to any meant to appall the little old lady in Dubuque trend, including whip-its, rainbow parties, sexting, EDM, BDSM, witchcraft, and gangsta rap.
  4. Have the investigators get to know someone else on the scene, someone relatively young and innocent, initially defensive but soon to have their eyes opened by what’s really going on.
  5. Have the perpetrator of the crime be another scene insider, meaning that the fear and disgust it causes in polite society is 100% justified. Realizing that he or she has been duped, the young innocent leaves the scene, grateful to the investigators for showing him or her the light.
  6. Profit!

This trope is a bottomless well, but no TV show has managed to top the double header of CHiPs and Quincy addressing the “punk rock” scene.CHiPs may have done it first, but Quincy did it better. Sure, the former ended with Erik Estrada singing Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” but the latter was done with the utmost sincerity and seriousness in its intentions. It wanted to send parents an important message: pay attention to that loud, crazy music your kids are listening to, because it might just be encouraging hate, violence, and maybe even murder!

To clarify, no one actually dies in the CHiPs episode. The “bad” punks are really just warpaint wearing bullies, led by a big lug named Trasher. Trasher is played by William Forsythe, whom you may recognize from roughly 500 B-movies, in most of which he’s played either a thug or a crooked cop. But he also appeared on Boardwalk Empire and played lovable dimwit Evelle Snoats, John Goodman’s brother/partner in crime in Raising Arizona, so at least he got some quality work from playing a punk rocker defeated by Ponch and Jon.

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Trasher is the leader of a band called Pain, which is at least as good a name as real life punk bands Death and Fear (it’s rather obvious that both this and the Quincy episode were inspired by Fear’s infamous Saturday Night Live performance, which made them a household name for exactly 0 seconds). When they’re not busy perfecting their musical craft, Pain occupies themselves by vandalizing cars and stealing other bands’ equipment, including that belonging to a female fronted rival group called Snow Pink.

Snow Pink’s eponymous lead singer, like the kid who went punk, is far more cute than scary. Just so you know the writers did their homework, she name checks Blondie, even though by 1982 Blondie was a platinum album mainstream radio smash, and no longer anywhere in the vicinity of “punk.” She and her band are considered the top contender at a Battle of the Bands contest, but not if Pain has their say! They plan to wow the audience with their magnum opus, “I Dig Pain,” which opens with the lyrics “Take a piece of concrete/stick it in my face/I like to play with razor blades/I hate the human race!”

It’s no “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” but it’ll do for the Battle of the Bands audience, which is whipped into a mindless frenzy by Pain’s performance. Their moment in the spotlight is short-lived, alas–wanted on several hundred warrants for robbery, vandalism, assault, and inciting a riot, the band members flee from the cops, but of course are almost instantly caught by Ponch, Jon, and the gang. Ponch, who in the B-plot of the episode was debating quitting the highway patrol gig to become a professional singer, then whips the crowd into a mindless frenzy once more with his rendition of “Celebration.” The same crowd, mind you, that just minutes earlier was elbowing each other in the face and throwing folding chairs at the stage.

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I didn’t watch a lot of CHiPs when I was a kid, so it’s entirely possible that there was more than one episode featuring the sizzling pipes of Erik Estrada. There was a time in the 70s and early 80s when nearly every television actor between the ages of 13 and 35 was treated like teen actresses Demi Lovato and Miranda Cosgrove today, forced by contract into doing double duty as a pop music act. Only David “Hutch” Soul found some measure of success in that role, with the audio pot of fondue “Don’t Give Up On Us” (the link is a must-watch for great use of the double exposure effect).

Now, you think it’d be hard to top a TV show where punk is thwarted by a cover of a disco song performed by a guy in a red satin shirt, and it is, butQuincy manages, again mostly because of its somber “Your children might be next!” tone. It even has a better episode title, “Next Stop: Nowhere,” whereas the CHiPs episode title was the drab “Battle of the Bands.” Perhaps if they had gone with “I Dig Pain,” it might have ended up the superior episode.

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The episode opens with the death of a runaway teen in a punk club mosh pit. He was stabbed to death with his own ice pick, and Quincy notices that he has shoe marks all over his body, suggesting that the other club patrons simply went on dancing with his corpse laying on the floor. The victim’s girlfriend, Abby (Melora Hardin, who just can’t seem to stay away from self-destructive weirdos), is a former patient of Quincy’s girlfriend Emily, a psychiatrist who treats troubled teenagers. Emily convinces Quincy that “that violence oriented punk rock music” is solely responsible for the boy’s death.

“I’ve seen children come off the dance floor with crushed ribs and bloodied faces, like soldiers fighting some kind of insane war!” she tells him, with a hysterical tone not heard since Reefer Madness, and yet Quincy, who personally dug the piece of ice pick out of the victim’s neck and really ought to know better, buys right into it. He goes on TV, and with a straight face says “I believe the music I heard is a killer. It’s a killer of hope, it’s a killer of spirit.” Interestingly, one of the top radio hits of 1982, the year “Next Stop: Nowhere” aired, was “Ebony and Ivory,” a song that also was known to destroy a spirit or two.

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Meanwhile, privileged golden girl Abby seems to be falling further into the thrall of that violence oriented punk rock music, painting cute little red squiggles on her face and thrashing about to the sounds of Mayhem, her favorite band, in her wicker furniture and teddy bear decorated bedroom. “There ain’t no tomorrow,” she sagely intones. “Only yesterday’s pain.”

There really may not be a tomorrow for Abby, as evidence points to her being her boyfriend’s murderer. Quincy does a little further investigating, though, and discovers that the killer is actually Molly, Abby’s best friend. Going to the club where they hang out to track them down gets Quincy nothing but a bunch of sneers and derisive laughter from the punkers. “You’re the killers! Your whole sick society!” one yells at him, while another says “Besides, man, who the hell cares.” Quincy, defeated by this rampant teen nihilism, and hoping to escape before they start reading bad poetry at him, glumly slinks away.

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Thankfully, another friend of Abby’s forces Molly to confess to murder, as well as tricking Abby into taking codeine, to which she’s deathly allergic. Molly doesn’t know what compelled her to grab an ice pick and plunge it into a dude’s neck. It was the music, maaaaaaaaaan, she didn’t know what she was doing. One can only assume it was also the music that compelled her to cover up the murder, pin it on her best friend, and then attempt to slowly poison that same friend to death. That’s some powerful music! Ozzy Osbourne couldn’t hope to write a song that encouraged that much bad behavior.

Rescued from punk’s evil, black fingernail polished clutches, a fresh-faced and ponytailed Abby returns to the safety of her teddy bears and her Air Supply albums. The episode ends with Quincy and his girlfriend dancing to big band music, as he asks “Why would anyone listen to music that makes you hate, when you can listen to music that makes you love?”

With a closer like that, Ponch didn’t stand a chance, shiny red shirt or not.

So, in addition to marijuana, condoms, and acid blotters, evidently 80s parents were supposed to be searching their kids’ rooms for studded wrist bands and safety pins as well. In wildly exaggerating what sort of things bored, sullen teenagers might be getting into behind their folks’ backs, “Next Stop: Nowhere” plays right into the fears of adults who think that any sign of individuality in a teenager spells destruction on the horizon. It hits on casual drug use, it hits on meaningless violence, it hits on self-mutilation, it probably would have hit on unprotected sex if it was fifteen minutes longer. It’s a brilliant, classic bit of alarmist bullshit, and I hope no one ever tops it.

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