Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cult-TV Flashback: 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-to-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 pure (but old-fashioned) sci-fi. It was a variation on the Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire (1935) called The Secret Empire. It features Mark Lenard as Thorval, the tyrannical leader of the underground kingdom known as Chimera. Thorval has enslaved his extraterrestrial populace and it is 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. Actually, 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 perhaps the most popular and well-known. Titled 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. 

Count 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 poked fun at vampire lore, Dracula himself, and even the horror genre as a whole...but in a charming, harmless way. 

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."  Today, it all seems very 1970s-ish: a little corny but a lot of fun.

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 on the Sci-Fi Channel.

I was happy this year to see the release of Logan's Run: The Series and Ghost Story/Circle of Fear on DVD.  I think it would be splendid if Cliffhangers arrived in a box set in 2013.

5 comments:

  1. I second the call for this to get put on DVD. I have wanted to see this full series for a long time, especially the "Secret Empire" segments, and grainy copies are the best I've ever managed.

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  2. I swear, I only remember the Dracula segment. How did I not see/remember The Secret Empire?

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  3. Anonymous12:27 PM

    There are actually not one but TWO TV movie compilations of The Curse of Dracula - "The World of Dracula" is the first film and "The Loves of Dracula" is the second.

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  4. Anonymous12:38 PM

    John I remember watching this as a boy in 1979. I believe it was Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. where I lived. More important it looks like the "The Secret Empire" used the 1978 Battlestar Galactica "Greetings from Earth" episodes orange spaceship that would be reused also in 1979 as Ranger 3 in Buck Rogers In The 25th Century movie/pilot episode.

    SGB

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  5. John, the series was cancelled with only one episode to go - containing the last segment of "Susan Williams" and the last 2 segments of "Secret Empire." The episode WAS aired overseas, however...you can find the entire series (including the final episode) on ioffer.com or sell.com, off-air recordings very cheap.

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