“Don’t Touch” (1985)

If such a thing can possibly be “trendy,” there was a strange but necessary uptick in TV shows and movies about child molestation during the mid-80s. Like eating disorders and domestic violence a couple years earlier, it was a significant real-life issue that Hollywood just seemed to sort of discover one day. In addition to the critically acclaimed Something About Amelia, normally lighthearted sitcoms like Diff’rent StrokesWebster, and Mr. Belvedere all had episodes dedicated to a young person being sexually abused by an adult they’d learned to trust. Naturally there was an ABC Afterschool Special on the subject as well, as young people with problems to overcome were the very lifeblood of the series.

Needless to say, Don’t Touch is a jarring change of pace from The Day My Kid Went Punk. It’s like eating a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, and then the next bite has horseradish in it. But let us bravely proceed…

00:12: Don’t let the rather lurid preview, complete with crime drama theme music, fool you. No one ends up kidnapped or dead in this, thank God.

00:50: We open with an idyllic scene of a teenage girl and a younger girl playing together, skipping rope, doing one of those hand-clapping routines, etc. We soon learn that the little girl is Molly (Niki Scalera) and the older girl is Karen (Kelly Wolf), her babysitter.

02:50: Hey, it’s Corey Parker, the poor man’s Patrick Dempsey, who was the poor man’s Jon Cryer, who was of course the poor man’s Matthew Broderick. He plays David, Karen’s next door neighbor/best friend/boyfriend. Karen and David tell Molly that they have tickets to see “Adam and the Ants.” “They’re a rock band,” Karen explains. Molly is puzzled at this, as is the audience, because Adam and the Ants broke up three years earlier.

03:40: It’s Molly’s sixth birthday, which they celebrate at her parents’ hardware store. Molly’s parents are played by Blair Brown, who seemed to make a career out of playing nice middle-aged ladies, and John Glover, who, considering he’s mostly made a career out of playing rich scumbags, seems an odd choice to play a middle-class suburban dad. They give Molly a dollhouse as a gift, which will serve as Chekhov’s gun in the third act.

Joining in the birthday festivities is Mike, an employee at the hardware store and an honorary member of Molly’s family. Mike is played by Lenny Von Dohlen, who you may recognize as Harold Smith, to whom Laura Palmer entrusted her secret diary in Twin Peaks, or if you really want to go deep tracks, Miles in Electric Dreams, who competed with a creepy sentient computer for the affections of a professional cello player. Electric Dreams is one of those movies that I remember watching every time it was on cable, despite it being not very good, which was a familiar theme in much of my TV viewing as a teenager.

ANYWAY, Von Dohlen is very effective as Mike, meaning every time he’s on screen my skin wants to crawl right off my bones. He has the unblinking stare of a psychopath, and eyes Molly like she’s a platter full of chicken-fried steak, to the utter obliviousness of her parents. Karen is uncomfortable around Mike from the get-go, which Molly’s mother attributes to her having a crush on him. “Too bad she’s too young for him,” she says, in an awful bit of ironic foreshadowing. It must be difficult running a hardware store when you’re blind and deaf, but Mrs. Molly bravely overcomes her obstacles.

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05:27: Mike gives Molly dolls to use in her new dollhouse, and asks her for a “special kiss from a special girl.” Molly looks dubious.

09:30: Also in a bit of foreshadowing, Karen and David discuss their relationship, and how David is the one person she can trust with all of her secrets.

11:40: Mike shows up unannounced at Molly’s house while she and Karen are playing, claiming that it’s his day off and he just thought he’d drop by to hang out with a child he’s not related to, as one does. He’s in the house barely fifteen seconds before politely but firmly sending Karen on her way. “I’m so happy to see my special girl,” Mike says to Molly. “How about a big kiss for Mike?” Karen looks ill.

15:04: Karen has a nightmare that resembles a scene from a horror movie, where a creepily grinning man stands over her bed, calling her his “special girl.”

16:15: Hey, we get two Lawrences for the price of one, both Joey and Matthew, playing Karen’s bratty younger brothers. Both have those goofy bowl haircuts that only little boys on 80s TV shows seemed to have. Once Karen gets a moment to talk to her nice but distracted mother, they discuss Karen’s late uncle, who died in an accident when she was a little girl. “You were his special girl,” Karen’s mother tells her, smiling at the memory. You’ve probably guessed by now that the uncle is the man who was in Karen’s nightmare, and the phrase “special girl” should be boiled in bleach and never uttered by anyone again.

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20:18: Mike shows up even earlier another day to snatch Molly away from Karen, having been given free range by Molly’s parents to spend time with her whenever he wants, because a thirty year-old man wanting to be alone with a little girl raises no red flags whatsoever. Mike drives a VW Bug, just like Ted Bundy.

21:28: Mike gets handsy with Molly in his car. You know that eerie low groaning sound when wind blows through a hotel stairwell? That’s what it sounds like when a piece of your soul breaks off and dies.

22:36: Hey, is that Lisa Bonet, playing one of Karen’s friends? According to the IMDB, yes, it is.

22:50: Karen seems to be withdrawing from her friends, but tells David her suspicions about Mike. David tries to reassure her that everything is alright. It’s not alright, David. It is very not alright.

25:45: Meanwhile, back at Mike’s tastefully decorated serial killer dungeon, he gives Molly another gift for her dollhouse. He also brings out a tray of paint, using it to put a flower on her arm. “Will it come off?” Molly asks. “Of course it’ll come off, that’s why they call it body paint,” Mike says. Any notion you had of an ABC Afterschool Special being a warm, safe place? Well, forget that shit.

27:09: Karen tries to talk to her mother about Mike, to which her mother says that it’s nice that Molly’s parents know a grown man who takes their young daughter to his bachelor pad unattended. Well, that’s not what she actually says, but it’s fairly close.

28:01: Mike has painted a bear on Molly’s back. While doing the final touches on it he “accidentally” gets paint on her shirt, and all but demands that she take it off–y’know, so he can wash it, nothing wrong there. Is that a gleam of maliciousness in Mike’s eyes when Molly shows reluctance? Yes, it probably is, and right now I just want to turn this show off and sit in a quiet room for a little while.

29:13: While being tucked in for bed, Molly tells her mother that she doesn’t like when Mike “acts silly.” Mrs. Molly is more puzzled than concerned. Molly looks shell-shocked.

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30:15: The dramatic turn of events–Mike offers to babysit Molly for an entire weekend so her parents can attend a convention. They readily agree, even though this would be like parking a pallet full of raw gazelle meat in front of a lion’s den and saying “Hey, watch this for a little while, would you?”

 

35:10: After another nightmare, Karen finally tells David that her uncle molested her, and she had blocked it out until noticing what was going on with Molly. I feel like an asshole for poking occasional fun at this, because the acting in this scene is really quite good.

37:33: Mrs. Molly tells Karen about the business trip, and that Mike will watch Molly for the weekend. Karen all but begs her to reconsider, but Mrs. Molly politely declines, telling her they’d rather have an adult in charge. Oh, bitter irony, thy name is Mrs. Molly.

38:58: Now putting up a tough facade, Karen not only tells David that she no longer wants to discuss their earlier conversation, but even worse, isn’t going to the “Adam and the Ants” concert. Their relationship temporarily comes to an end.

41:12: Very temporarily, as in by the next morning they’ve reconciled. David tells Karen about an article he read about dolls being used to get children to talk about sexual abuse.

45:20: We knew the dollhouse Molly got for her birthday was going to serve an important purpose, and it does. David’s suggestion that Karen use dolls to get Molly to talk about what Mike did to her works like a charm. A horrible, soul-crushing charm.

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50:23: When Molly’s parents come home (along with the now-ubiquitous Mike), Karen asks to speak with Mrs. Molly in private. Mr. Molly posits that Karen is having boy problems, to which Mike replies “She should ask Molly how to handle a guy, she has me wrapped around her little finger.” Mr. Molly just laughs, because up is down, red is blue, and this is a completely not weird thing for a grown man to say about a little girl.

50:33: The big reveal. Mrs. Molly cries a lot.

52:53: Free of her terrible burden, Molly happily plays with Karen’s little brothers. “Molly’s gonna be okay,” Karen tells David, which is slightly presumptuous, but in keeping with the show’s general message to children that if someone’s hurting you, telling another adult is the first, most important step in getting it to stop. Though Mike is still in the house when Karen and Molly leave, we don’t see the confrontation scene. For all we know, Molly’s parents could have just done away with having him arrested, instead just killing him and burying him in their backyard. They do own a hardware store after all. They have the tools, they have the know-how.

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Understand that I’m poking gentle fun at the medium, not the message. I realize that the intent of the show was to illustrate how many sexual predators earn the good graces of their victims’ families first, before the abuse starts, which is accurate. The baby raper in the unmarked van is a largely media-created myth, your average child molester is more likely to be found coaching Little League, running after school clubs, or being members of his or her victim’s family, honorary or otherwise. It’s just that Mike is such an obvious creep that I found myself wanting to know a little more backstory on how he managed to become a surrogate uncle to Molly. How often do business owners just sort of adopt their adult employees anyway?

All things considered, Don’t Touch is about as sensitive as a show about such a difficult subject can be, while not dancing around the subject (I do recall watching this upon first airing, but forgot the deeply unpleasant body painting scene). The performances are strong and believable, particularly from Kelly Wolf and young Niki Scalera. Lenny Von Dohlen is good too, but since he’s basically playing the Devil himself it’s difficult to praise him for his performance. It’s surprisingly not dated, save for the previously mentioned Adam and the Ants reference (a reference as baffling and random as the reference to Sigue Sigue Sputnik in The Day My Kid Went Punk) and the tiny gym shorts David wears in one scene. I just think that for the next one I’ll watch something with a slightly more cheerful subject, like drunk driving or homelessness.

Original airdate: November 6, 1985

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