Tuesday, September 19, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 23: Cliffhangers (1979)

Now here's an almost-forgotten genre series from my youth - and the year 1979 - that I'd like to see made commercially available in a DVD box set.

Cliffhangers (also known in some circles as Cliff Hangers) is an obscure but memorable attempt to create something out-of-the-ordinary for mass television consumption; specifically to re-capture the excitement and innocence of yesteryear by presenting three 20-minute serials per prime-time hour. Each of the three old fashioned serials featured on this Kenneth Johnson-created series serves as an updated (for the 1970s, anyway...) version of the stylish 1930s-50s cliffhangers such as Flash Gordon (1936), Buck Rogers (1939), Radar Men from the Moon (1952), Zombies of the Stratosphere (1945) and the like.

The first serial in each hour of Cliffhangers was titled Stop Susan Williams, a non-genre adventure in the mode of Perils of Pauline. It starred Susan Anton, Ray Walston and Marj Dusay as it followed the misadventures of Susan (Anton), a newspaper photographer attempting to expose a plot to detonate a nuclear bomb near a Camp David peace summit gathering.

The second adventure was sci-fi. It was a variation on the Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire (1935) called The Secret Empire. It featured Mark Lenard as Thorval, the tyrannical leader of the underground kingdom known as Chimera. Thorval had enslaved his extraterrestrial populace and it was up to cowboy, marshal and all around good citizen Jim Donner (Geoffrey Scott) to stop him. Unlike its two companion serials, The Secret Empire genuflected to the 1930s and 1940s film era by being shot partially in black-and-white. The above-ground scenes were black-and- white; while the underground scenes in amazing Chimera were lensed in color.

The third such serial seen on Cliffhangers is the most popular and well-known. Entitled The Curse of Dracula, and also referred to in some circles as Dracula "79 and World of Dracula, this serial was unlike its two quarter-hour companions because it actually completed it's fifteen chapter run (primarily because it started in mid-story, at Chapter 6...) before the series was canceled by NBC.

In The Curse of Dracula, the 512-year old vampire (Michael Nouri) from Transylvania is now (in the hip disco decade...) a professor of East European History teaching nights at scenic Southbay College in San Francisco. His teaching method is simple: he recounts personal experiences, describes the interior decorations of famous historical mansions, and even comments on the bosom size of women of the time...as if he was really there (which of course, he was...). During the course of the serial, Kurt Van Helsing (Stephen Johnson), the grandson of Dracula"s first nemesis, teams with Mary Gibbons (Carol Baxter), the daughter of one of Dracula"s many victims, to expose and kill the deadly, aged vampire. The primary mission of this duo is to destroy all twenty of Dracula"s strategically located (and hidden...) coffins so that the dark lord will have no place to sleep at night and thus succumb to daylight. As the serial begins, thirteen of Dracula"s coffins have been destroyed, leaving him only seven such resting places in the San Francisco area.

In the process of hunting Dracula, the heroes survive bombings, vampire attacks, vampire hypnosis, and even join forces with a mysterious woman named Amanda...Mary"s mother. Dracula is played by Michael Nouri as a tragic, Byronic figure who tells Mary that "There are many addictions...but the most potent is the addiction to life." While Mary and Kurt try to stop Dracula from killing again, Dracula sets his sights on converting Mary into one of his conquests. Unlike traditional vampire legend, in Curse of Dracula it takes three separate bites from Dracula to turn a person into a vampire. As the series progresses, Mary is bitten twice, making Dracula"s destruction more urgent. Dracula himself is portrayed humorously as a mixture of the ancient and the modern. He can communicate telepathically with animals such as dogs and crows, but is comfortable driving a car or using the telephone when it suits his needs.

In one segment, Dracula (in his 1970s model automobile) is pulled over for running a red light by a police officer on a motorcycle. "You went through that light like a bat out of Hell!" The cop reports with dismay, before asking Dracula for his driver"s license. When Dracula cannot oblige, he kills the cop, but not before observing that the light was yellow. After all, Dracula tells the unwitting cop, he knows the color "red" when he sees it. On occasions such as this, the writers on The Curse of Dracula seemed to poke fun at vampire lore, Dracula himself, and even the horror genre, as a whole. Among the juicy bon mots on Curse of Dracula: a drunken businessman asks a female vampire if she likes to "neck," and, during a meeting with the count, Mary reports of her handy crucifix that she "never leaves home without it."

Despite such an original, three-part format, Cliffhangers was canceled after only ten weeks on the air. Its final airing was May 1, 1979. In that short span, only Curse of Dracula completed its story arc. Though there were brief discussions about spinning-off The Curse of Dracula into its own prime time series, the show never cast its reflection in prime time. Instead, several pieces of the serial were edited together into a TV movie entitled The World of Dracula, which has aired occasionally in syndication and even on the Sci Fi Channel.

So where's that box set?


  1. Anonymous9:59 AM

    Dear John,
    Most episode guides don't mention it, but there is a 2nd compilation movie called "The Loves of Dracula".

  2. I remember this show and really dug the underground empire storyline, without realizing at the time that Gene Autry had done a serial on the same topic.

    I'd love to see some other producer play with that concept of the underground Earth-world again someday. (Eternia on 'One Life To Live' didn't really cut it.)

    In this new golden age of intelligent sci-fi on TV, there are probably plenty of producers out there who could come up with a viable, believable version.

  3. Hey guys!

    Cliffhangers was an awesome show (or so my memories tell me...). I wish it were on DVD.

    I wonder if the "underground world" idea has currency today. I'd like to see it done with the intelligence of Lost or Invasion...

  4. Anonymous9:39 PM

    I saw World of Dracula version a few years ago and would like to revisit it again. I dunno. That Michael Nouri, he's got something...

    I don't remember much now except I love a man in a turtleneck! :)

    And OMG - I have to disagree with you on Eternia (dude, it's underneath Llanfair - how effin' cool is that?!?), but THANK YOU for giving my story a little mention. That was cool!


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