You know you had a mediocre public school education when the “health teacher” did double duty teaching another class. In my school, it was usually either a gym teacher or a football coach, and all you had to do to pass was show up. Despite the rise of HIV and ever increasing teenage pregnancy rates, virtually all of what we learned in health class was related to the dangers of alcohol and drug use, and most of that we learned by watching made for TV movies, while the teacher sat with his feet up on the desk reading about how the Eagles were doing that week.
A popular one with my health teacher was 1985’s Not My Kid. We watched it in seventh grade. We watched it in eighth grade. By ninth grade, we could all but quote along from it, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m not sure why my teacher liked it so much, when there existed far more grisly cautionary tales such as Stoned, in which a pot addled Scott Baio nearly kills his brother with a rowboat paddle, and Desperate Lives, in which an angel dusted Helen Hunt throws herself out a window. I can only assume that as an aged, bitter teacher, he enjoyed its frequent scenes of high school students reduced to blithering, tearful wrecks by adults who know better.
Nobody was put through more shit in the 70s than Linda Blair. While other young actresses got to do movies about the joys and pains of first love, or pursuing their dreams of stardom, the cherubic Blair, in a four year stretch of unrelenting misery, played an abused runawaywrongfully sent to reform school and sexually assaulted (Born Innocent), a gravely ill teenager trapped on a plane in danger of crashing (Airport 1975), a semi-illiterate farm girl kidnapped by a mentally ill man (Sweet Hostage, and if you think TV movies of today are too tawdry, it was marketed as a romantic drama), a hijacking victim (Victory at Entebbe), and a young woman tormented by her evil cousin (Summer of Fear). All that, plus starring in Exorcist II: the Heretic, which is enough suffering to endure for an entire decade on its own.
Thanks to 1975’s Sarah T.–Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, Blair became the poster child for troubled teen made for TV movies. Though not the pioneer in the genre (that would be 1973’s Go Ask Alice), it was among the first to take both neglectful parents and irresponsible advertising to task for the growing problem of teen substance abuse. The movie opens with a spot-on parody of a beer commercial, where attractive young people joyously toss brewskis around like frisbees, intercut with a somber voiceover rattling off statistics about alcoholism and high school students.
I had mentioned in a review a few months back that I miss the days of melodramatic made for TV movies. Lifetime picked up what network television left behind, but there’s a distinct sense of self-awareness to their movies, not quite parody, yet still with a clear message: “We know this is corny, you know this is corny, let’s just accept that and have a good time.” And yet, the seriousness was what made those old movies so much fun! A movie like The Babysitter wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable if it came off like it was poking fun at the slasher genre. Cloris Leachman was 100% sincere when she performed the theme song for Someone I Touched, which makes it far more of a good time than stuff with titles like From Straight A’s to XXX or Stalked By My Doctor (let alone its sequel, Stalked By My Doctor: the Return).
Never again will we see anything as earnestly hokey as 1976’s The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Starring John Travolta in one of his first major dramatic roles, it was loosely based on the true stories of David Vetter and Ted DeVita, both of whom suffered from illnesses that so severely compromised their immune systems that they had to permanently live inside sterile isolation tents. Though Vetter was barely five and DeVita an adolescent when the film was made, Travolta’s character, Tod Lubitch, is seventeen, presumably so much of the plot could focus on an interminable love story.
One my least favorite well worn movie and TV tropes is the love triangle. You want to lose my interest almost immediately? Have a couple of characters pretzeling themselves into all sorts of humiliating poses for the love of a third person, who rarely seems worth the effort. It’s the lazy writer’s tactic for injecting some extra drama into his or her script, despite it being a situation in which very few people in real life will find themselves. At least when a movie is entirely about a love triangle, as is 1983’s Baby Sister, you can revel in the inevitable melodrama and delicious cheese.
Some fine aged Gouda is served up right at the beginning, with the fantastic Laura Branigan-esque theme song, which goes “When the pressure is rising/and the heat comes down/it gets too sticky/to stick arooooooound/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool dowwwwwwwn/when it gets too hot.”
If you’ve been following my writing here long enough, then you’ll know that I often enjoy mocking people my age who wax poetic, to an absurd degree, about their childhoods, insisting that they were far better than the selfie and participation trophy laden childhoods of the present. Why, we drank filthy creek water and bought cigarettes for our parents, and it was great! Who needed the internet when you had a stack of ten year-old National Geographics in the back of the library?
It’s a little hard to maintain the illusion of goodness and purity of Gen X childhoods when you consider teensploitation. Teensploitation is exactly what it sounds like, a thankfully brief film genre of the late 70s-early 80s in which young people, usually girls, found themselves in dangerously adult situations. Sometimes they were runaways, sometimes they were prostitutes, sometimes they were runaway prostitutes. Sometimes they found themselves in prison, or stalked by a murderer. Whatever it was, two things always held true: the girls were always very innocent, and always wore very skimpy clothing, acting as both a cautionary tale for young female viewers, and wank fodder for male viewers of all ages.
Though Linda Blair in Born Innocent is probably the best remembered example of the genre, Eve Plumb had a good run at it too, with 1976’s Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway.Dawn was such a hit that it got a sequel just a year later, Alexander: the Other Side of Dawn, focusing on her kind-hearted boyfriend.
With the shocking election of Donald Trump as President came the news that white people are upset that they’re not as important as they used to be. Indeed, this is reflected in current media, where white people problems account for only 75% of the plots of movies and TV shows, as opposed to all of them. We’re just not seeing as many juicy dramas about lonely doctor’s wives, or bored, absurdly rich teens who spend much of their time either engaging in loveless sex or basking in the warm glow of their own ennui. We also just don’t see as much grade-A pulp like 1980’s The Babysitter, in which a miserable upper class family is torn to shreds by their manipulative, psychotic hired help.
The film opens with the Benedicts, newly moved to a remote island off the coast of Seattle. Dad Jeff (William Shatner) is a workaholic dentist, ignoring the needs of both his brittle, bitter wife Liz (Patty Duke) and their possibly emotionally disturbed, definitely creepy adolescent daughter Tara (Quinn Cummings), who spends much of her time alone, sullenly muttering to a rag doll. They seem to have it all, but, of course, still aren’t satisfied.
Vintage TV “just say no” propaganda focused largely on marijuana, only occasionally giving proper acknowledgment to cocaine, the real star of 70s and 80s drug culture.
If weed represented dark basements, interminable prog rock, and your neighbor’s unemployed son, then coke represented glittery nightclubs, high energy disco, and emaciated supermodels. Despite it being highly illegal, it was once considered so fashionable that Studio 54, a pile of cocaine shaped into a building, had a gigantic sculpture of a crescent moon with a spoon to its nose hanging from the ceiling. There wasn’t anything subtle or winking about it–jewelry companies sold 14K gold spoons and diamond encrusted vials (the better to advertise your extravagant drug habit in style), and cocaine was openly served on trays at parties, like cocktail wienies.
Because coke was the drug of choice for the beautiful people, it was also staggeringly expensive, which meant it only rarely trickled down to the bourgeoisie. But when it did, it always spelled certain disaster, as illustrated in 1983′s Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.
Back in the gentler time of the 1970s, nothing short of a cancer diagnosis was more devastating than being told you had VD. Even though nearly all forms were curable with antibiotics by then, it still caused the kind of shame that ruined lives and tore families apart. Of course, by the following decade doctors would discover a sexually transmitted illness that made old fashioned VD look like a summer cold, but in 1975 we still had Someone I Touched, quite possibly (yet disappointingly) the most tasteful movie ever made about contracting syphilis.
With some movies, all you need to do is come up with a great title and it practically writes itself. A movie called Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or Chopping Mall is a movie with a built in audience. The plot need not be explained, it’s right there in the opening credits. SyFy all but rebranded itself as the number one source for low budget movies with absurd titles like Dinocroc vs. Supergator, Christmas Icetastrophe, and Mansquito. It’s also SyFy that spawned perhaps the most famous of this genre of sorts, Sharknado, deeply self-aware trash that gained an implausibly large amount of audience goodwill mostly due to its silly title. Sure, that goodwill was almost immediately squandered when three more of these things were made, each one relying on an ever growing roster of D-list celebrities and has-beens for cheap laughs, but my point still stands. Give your horror/sci-fi/adventure movie a goofy title, and someone will show up to watch it.
With the threat of cable television looming on the horizon, network television in the late 70s had to find new and interesting ways to maintain audience viewership. One way was to move further away from family friendly entertainment, focusing more on “jiggle TV,” the derogatory (yet accurate) term for programs in which young, attractive actresses were prominently (and arbitrarily) featured wearing tight t-shirts, short shorts, skimpy bathing suits, or just a carefully placed bath towel. Due to the limits of network standards, it came off as more juvenile and smutty than sexy, but it worked, and television viewing numbers by the end of the decade was as high as they had ever been.
The genre, if you want to call it that, occasionally carried over into feature length movies too, such as 1979’s Mysterious Island of Beautiful Women, an adventure story woefully lacking in adventure, but with a lot of exposed female skin, if you’re into that sort of thing. After a brief flashback that sort of explains the origin of the titular beautiful women, the film opens on a plane carrying oil company executive Gordon Duvall (Peter Lawford), who’s traveling across the South Seas with a handful of ex-employees, a bodyguard, and an alcoholic pilot who accidentally gets them lost. Neither where they’re going, why they’re going there, or why everyone initially seems adversarial towards each other is ever explained, nor why they’re dragging along Danny (Michael McGreevey), very recently blinded in some sort of accident, who does nothing and disappears for large stretches of the movie.