Made-for-television movies tend to get the short shrift in terms of artistic notoriety, but over the past several years, the film fanatic world has slowly come to appreciate the features featuring big-name stars sold to audiences in easy-to-digest commercials and TV guide ads. Sure, they were originally created to be mostly ephemeral and quickly forgotten, but made-for-TV movies have a certain quality that makes them watchable decades after their first airing. The disregard for auteurism in these flicks makes them terribly efficient watches – they’ve got a plot to get to, and they’re going to do it as briskly as possible, with as much drama as can be offered in order to sate audiences over a commercial break.
Television networks as well had their own in-house style. HBO movies could pass as theatrical indie features most of the time, the NBC Mystery Movie’s tropes became a running gag on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and Michael Karol’s “ABC Movie of the Week Companion” painted a great picture of the era of that network’s highly influential series of made-for-TV epics. And, naturally, the words “Lifetime Movie” conjurs up images of a weeping Valerie Bertinelli weeping for the lost child who was stolen from her by her rapist after her cancer caused her cyber-boyfriend to stalk the cheerleading squad. Or something.
But nobody talks much about the USA World Premiere Movie.
The USA Network is known today as the network for hits like “Burn Collar,” “Quirky Detective” and “Duckman,” but cult movie fans knew it in the ‘80s and ‘90s for favorites like “Night Flight” and “USA Up All Night,” where on a weekly basis, millions of teenagers were exposed to the promise of boobs and violence, and the reality of no boobs and edited-for-television violence. From 1989 into the late-‘90s, that level of tease was also present in their made-for-TV movies, airing on Wednesday nights with a new feature-length film delivered approximately every other week. The ads for these films promised big stars in dangerous situations with titles that would have made exploitation pioneer David Friedman proud. TAILS YOU LIVE, HEADS YOU DIE! NIGHTMARE ON THE 13TH FLOOR! MY STEPSON, MY LOVER! HITLER’S DAUGHTER!
Of course, the movies themselves were never as exploitative as the ads. USA was, in the words of Friedman, selling the sizzle, not the steak. They were selling big stars in low-budget, quickie potboilers, and the market loved them for it.
It helped that the films weren’t slapdash productions. In the director’s chair were often notable names, like Tobe Hooper, Larry Cohen or Bill Condon, or actors using the films as an opportunity to sit in the driver’s seat, like James Keach or Tim Matheson. The first couple years had a surprisingly varied amount of genres, delving into not only the domestic thrillers that quickly became the channel’s M.O., but political espionage, spy adventure, horror, true crime and even a comedy or two. Even in later years, the series dabbled in social drama and bio-pics with films based on the lives of Hugh Hefner and Jacqueline Susann.
For the 25th anniversary of the USA World Premiere Movie, we thought we’d take a weekly look at the films the network aired. In conjunction with Amanda Reyes at the excellent Made-for-TV Mayhem Blog, we’ll be alternating weeks with a new write-up on one of USA’s several hundred films every Wednesday, as the films were originally aired.
The first film is especially noteworthy for genre fans, as it’s an unjustly obscure thriller with a great cast of cult actors. THE FORGOTTEN aired on April 26, 1989, and seems to have lived up to its title today, but it’s a solidly entertaining film, one much more emotionally dark than the tone that the film series became known for in later years.
The directing debut of actor James Keach, THE FORGOTTEN concerns six American soldiers released from a Vietnam P.O.W. camp 17 years after the end of the Vietnam War, right before trade relations between the U.S. and Vietnam are opened. The group is deprived of a heartwarming reunion with their families, however, as National Security Council member Roth (Stacy Keach, who also co-wrote), keeps them quarantined in Germany in the efforts to find out the secrets behind the mission they were on when they were captured.
The secret mission was solely the responsibility of Lt. Brady, a shell-shocked vet played by Steve Railsback (also a co-writer and co-producer), and nobody does “shell-shocked” like Steve Railsback. A sweaty, glaring, anxious ball of nerves in an army uniform, Railsback’s performance is one of the main reasons THE FORGOTTEN works as well as it does. He’s perfectly cast and delivers on every level, creating a character that’s fascinating to watch and sympathetic without becoming a frantic cliché.
The rest of the cast is fine as well, though they’re not given as much to do. Keith Carradine is solid as the group’s captain, and Don Opper, best known to genre fans from ANDROID and as the crite-hunting Charlie McFadden in the CRITTERS series, plays a soldier who wants to re-unite with his German wife. The rest of the group is rounded out by vets Richard Lawson, Michael Chapman and Pepe Serna, with “Sons of Anrchy”’s William Lucking as the Colonel who sympathizes with their situation.
The first half of THE FORGOTTEN is essentially the boys being debriefed, as Roth’s efforts to get the information out by any means possible incites emotional trauma that causes one member to commit suicide. The interrogation sequences are solid, though the flashbacks they contain to their time as P.O.W.s are clearly at the mercy of the standards of basic cable at the time. It’s certainly no THE DEER HUNTER – there’s some spitting and light water torture, but you’d never confuse THE FORGOTTEN with a searing look at the horrors of war.
The straightforward home-from-the-war drama becomes more of a thriller once the group breaks out and goes on the run in order to investigate why they’re being so detained. The second half is essentially a conspiracy thriller held together by the performances by the cast – even if the characters don’t get a lot of personality from the screenplay, the likes of Carradine, Railsback and Opper have enough natural screen charisma to allow the viewer to fill in the blanks. Keach is also in solidly loathable form, making this an interesting counter to his performance in William Peter Blatty’s THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, in which he also has to deal with a group of recovering soldiers.
The Los Angeles Times wasn’t impressed by the film, calling it “ordinary at best, stifling at worst,” and it’s true that the film could use a certain stylistic flair to make it more compelling. But THE FORGOTTEN is certainly a watchable piece of work, and it does was would soon become one of the regular traits unifying USA World Premiere Movies – allowing great, underrated actors to show off their chops in bigger roles than they would have normally had.
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