An Underrated Man: RIP John Llewellyn Moxey (1925-2019)

John Llewellyn Moxey’s “Horror Hotel” (1960)

You won’t find the name of John Llewellyn Moxey bandied about in conversations on great film directors. Truth is, though Moxey did make some features of note, he spent most of his career doing made-for-television movies, a genre that doesn’t get a lot of respect. John Llewellyn Moxey wasn’t a flashy director or an “auteur” by any stretch of the imagination, but he was more than capable of turning out a solid, worthwhile production, and some of his TV-Movie efforts are just as good (if not better) than what was currently playing at the local neighborhood theaters or multiplexes at the time. Moxey’s  passing on April 29 at age 94 was virtually ignored by the press, but his career deserves a retrospective, so Cracked Rear Viewer is proud to present a look back at the film and television work of director John Llewellyn Moxey.

Moxey was born in Argentina, his father the overseer of a coal and steel empire. He was a movie-mad youth, and after serving in the British infantry during WWII, found work as an editor and assistant director in England. He got the opportunity to direct a few TV shows before taking on his first, best, and  most famous feature, 1960’s HORROR HOTEL (also known as CITY OF THE DEAD). This now-classic tale is filled with shock after shock, and starred Christopher Lee in a tale of Satanism and witchcraft in New England. Moxey shows he knew how to handle a good horror story, building the tension slowly, and would become a genre specialist in the years to come.

The director followed with a string of low-budget British thrillers based (loosely, I might add) on the works of mystery writer Edgar Wallace: DEATH TRAP, RICOCHET, FACE OF A STRANGER, DOWNFALL, STRANGLER’S WEB; the films featured familiar actors like Maxine Audley, Patrick Magee, and Barbara Shelley. Also on tap was 1966’s PSYCHO-CIRCUS (retitled CIRCUS OF FEAR for American audiences by AIP), another Wallace crime drama with some horror elements. This British-German coproduction reunited Moxey with Christopher Lee, along with Klaus Kinski, Suzy Kendall, and Leo Genn. During this time period, Moxey worked in British television directing episodes of CORONATION STREET, Z-CARS, THE BARON, THE AVENGERS, and THE SAINT.

Moxey moved his base of operations to America in the mid-60’s, directing episodes of NYPD, JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, NAME OF THE GAME, HAWAII 5-0, and THE MOD SQUAD. In 1969, the struggling ABC network took an old concept (the anthology series) and spun it on its ear with the ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK. Budgeted at around $350,000 apiece and clocking in at 90 minutes (including commercials!), these were like the ‘B’ movies of the old studio days, featuring mainly faded stars of the past and up-and-coming actors in mysteries, romances, thriller, comedies, and even Westerns. Moxey’s first foray into the genre was THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE, a haunted house chiller involving Revolutionary War-era ghosts terrorizing Barbara Stanwyck and her niece (Kitty Wynn) in Pennsylvania Amish country. Mr. Moxey had found his niche, and would become TV’s most prolific TV-Movie director. 1971 alone saw him do ESCAPE (Christopher George as an escape artist/private eye), THE LAST CHILD (a sci-fi drama dealing with overpopulation that featured the last acting work of Van Heflin ), A TASTE OF EVIL (psychological horror with Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, and Roddy McDowell), and THE DEATH OF ME YET (a Cold War thriller with Doug McClure).

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, “The Night Stalker” (1972)

The next season saw Moxey helming a true classic: 1972’s THE NIGHT STALKER. The Richard Matheson teleplay follows Darren McGavin’s down-on-his-luck reporter Carl Kolchak investigating a Las Vegas serial killer that turns out to be ancient vampire Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater). THE NIGHT STALKER was a huge hit, the highest rated TV Movie ever up to that time, and inspired a sequel (THE NIGHT STRANGLER, directed by producer Dan Curtis ) and a brief weekly series (KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER). This well-done little gem compares favorably to any horror/exploitation theatrical film of the day, and has become a cult favorite for horror buffs, thanks in large part to Moxey’s taut direction.

Alex Cord in “Genesis II” (1973)

More Moxey TV-Movies followed, including a pair of 1972 Westerns starring Clint Walker (HARDCASE, THE BOUNTY MAN). HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (’72) was a Christmas-themed shocker with Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris, Jessica Walter, and Walter Brennan; GENESIS II (1973) a pilot for a new Gene Roddenberry sci-fi series starring Alex Cord; A STRANGE AND DEADLY OCCURRENCE (1974) another haunted house chiller, this time with Robert Stack and Vera Miles; WHERE HAVE ALL THE PEOPLE GONE? (’74), post-apocalyptic sci-fi with Peter Graves and Verna Bloom; CONSPIRACY OF TERROR (1975), a creepy Satanism-in-the-suburbs tale featuring Michael Constantine and Barbara Rhodes. Moxey was also busy doing episodic TV, like SHAFT, POLICE STORY, KUNG FU, and the pilot episode of CHARLIE’S ANGELS.

Deborah Raffin in “Nightmare in Badham County” (1976)

Two 1976 TV-Movie efforts are worth noting. NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY could have fit right in on a Southern Fried Exploitation double feature with MACON COUNTY LINE or JACKSON COUNTY JAIL. In this one, Deborah Raffin and Lynne Moody are travelling down south when they encounter sleazy sheriff Chuck Connors, who wants to write them more than a ticket, if you get my drift! They’re arrested on false charges and brought before the judge, who happens to be the sheriff’s cousin (Ralph Bellamy, no less!), and sent to a grueling labor camp, where they undergo the familiar harsh conditions and sexual harassment. Sure, it’s a TV knockoff, but extremely well handled by Moxey and his cast, which also features Tina Louise, Robert Reed, Della Reese, and Lana Wood, and is a personal Guilty Pleasure of mine!

“Smash-Up On Interstate 5” (1976)

SMASH-UP ON INTERSTATE 5 was the TV-Movie version of a disaster flick, done on a much smaller scale, concerning a 39 car pile-up on a California highway that results in many injuries and deaths. The movie follows a select few who’ll be involved on the fateful day, and like its big screen brethren, it features an all-star cast (though again, on a much smaller scale): Robert Conrad, Buddy Ebsen, Herb Edelman, Scott Jacoby, Sue Lyon, Vera Miles, Donna Mills, David Nelson, Harriet Nelson, and Terry Moore (with an early role for young Tommy Lee Jones as a traffic cop on the scene).

Sally Struthers and Dennis Weaver in 1977’s “Intimate Strangers”

Into the late 70’s and 1980’s, Moxey’s output slowed down, but there are a few worth mentioning. INTIMATE STRANGERS (1977) was one of the first films (TV or otherwise) to tackle the issue of domestic violence, with Dennis Weaver as the rage-oholic, Sally Struthers his battered wife, and Tyne Daly in an Emmy-nominated performance as her supportive friend. SANCTUARY OF FEAR (1979) was a pilot for a mystery series featuring Barnard Hughes as G.K. Chesterton’s priest/sleuth Father Brown. THE VIOLATION OF SARAH MCDAVID (1981) was another tough drama ripped from the headlines, as inner city teacher Patty Duke is brutally beaten and raped, and battles the system while the higher-ups (led by Ned Beatty) create a cover-up. DEADLY DECEPTION (1987) won an Edgar Award for Best TV Mystery Teleplay (by Gordon Colter), about a reporter (Lisa Eilbacher) aiding a father (Matt Salinger) locate his long missing and presumed dead son. LADY MOBSTER (1988) was an over-the-top melodrama with Soap Opera Queen Susan Lucci taking on the Mafia – and winning!

After directing 8 episodes of MAGNUM PI and 18 of MURDER SHE WROTE, John Llewellyn Moxey retired from filmmaking. His body of work features some outstanding efforts, and as a director he had a high batting average indeed. He’ll be remembered for his home runs (HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER), but the rest of his filmography features some solid doubles and triples, and though the mainstream press hasn’t paid much attention to his passing, Cracked Rear Viewer fondly salutes you, Mr. Moxey. Job well done.

RIP John Llewellyn Moxey (1925-2019)

Holiday Sweets: Fred Astaire in THE MAN IN THE SANTA CLAUS SUIT (NBC-TV 1979)

Eighty year old Fred Astaire takes on nine different roles in THE MAN WITH THE SANTA CLAUS SUIT, his next to last film. Fred is as charming and debonair as ever, and his presence is what carries the saccharine script, with three varied tales of romance, comedy, and drama interwoven and played by a cast of Familiar TV and Movie Faces, kind of like a “very special Christmas episode” of THE LOVE BOAT.

Gary Burghoff (M*A*S*H’s Radar) is a nerdy math teacher in love with his neighbor, a beautiful (are there any other kind?) fashion model (Tara Buckman, THE CANNONBALL RUN). The model secretly digs him too, but the nerd’s too shy to express his feelings, until a chance encounter with a jeweler (Fred) leads him to rent a Santa suit and propose before she makes the mistake of marrying a rich, handsome playboy (again, are there any other kind?). This leads to slapstick hijinks as he pursues her down the runway at Macy’s. Will they finally get together? Is this a TV Christmas Movie? Of course they do!

Story #2 involves John Byner (BIZARRE) as an ex-restauranteur turned street bum because of his fondness for booze. Byner’s got another problem: he found the gun used in a recent bank robbery, and the hoods who dropped it are after him. Taking a cue from his bell-ringing buddy (Ray Vitte, THANK GOD IT’S FRIDAY), he too rents a Santa suit to disguise himself and rob a pair of rich ex-vaudevillians (Nanette Fabray , Harold Gould). But the lush passes out, and instead of calling the cops, the couple, along with their butler (Danny Wells, THE SUPER MARIO BROS. SHOW) and their two obnoxious grandkids, nurse him back to health. Then the crooks show up, demanding their gun or else everybody gets it! This one also ends on a slapstick note and, corny though it may be, was my favorite segment, thanks in large part to old pros Fabray and Gould doing some nostalgic soft-shoe routines.

The third story arc gets more heavy, as Bert Convy (TATTLETALES) plays a failed novelist, now a self-important senatorial aide whose work caused him to become estranged from his wife (Brooke Bundy, from just about every TV show made in the 70’s, not to mention A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS) and son (Andre Gower, THE MONSTER SQUAD). The uptight Convy gets the idea to dress like Santa from his chauffeur (Fred again) and surprise the boy before attending a big political speech by the senator. The kid runs away, Convy and Bundy argue, but you just know by the time the credits roll they’ll all be together for Christmas Eve.

Fred pops up everywhere in this, as the costume shop owner, chauffeur, jeweler, an Irish cop, a Macy’s floorwalker, cabbie, hot dog vendor, and Salvation Army chorus director. I don’t think it’ll spoil things to reveal he’s really jolly old St. Nick himself, in New York to spread some Christmas magic to the protagonists. Astaire is graceful as ever, and though he doesn’t dance, he does get to warble the theme song “Once a Year Night” in that trademark light-as-air voice. The late 70’s New York locations add atmosphere, and the cast is more than capable of making the syrupy material work. THE MAN IN THE SANTA CLAUS SUIT won’t disappoint fans of confectionary Christmas films, and it does gives us all one more chance to see Fred Astaire perform his own brand of onscreen magic. What more could you ask for in a Christmas TV Movie?

Merry Christmas from Cracked Rear Viewer!

 

And To All A Good Fright: THE MUNSTERS SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS (TV Movie 1996)

If you grew up in the “Monster Kid” generation like me… well, you’re old! That is, old enough to remember THE MUNSTERS, the silly 60’s sitcom about a family of monsters adjusting to life in suburbia. The show ran two seasons and inspired a feature film, 1966’s MUNSTER, GO HOME!, with Fred Gwynne (Herman, the Frankenstein’s Monster surrogate), Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily, a vampire resembling Carroll Borland in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE), Al Lewis (Grandpa, aka Count Dracula himself!), and Butch Patrick (Eddie, a wolf-boy) reprising their roles. The Munsters returned in a 1981 TV Movie THE MUNSTERS’ REVENGE with Gwynne, DeCarlo, and Lewis, then as a 1988-91 syndicated sitcom THE MUNSTERS TODAY, this time starring John Schuck (Herman), Lee Meriweather (Lily) and Howard Morton (Grandpa).

The fright family have proved durable, and were trotted out yet again for a 1996 holiday TV Movie, THE MUNSTERS SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS. I’m usually not a fan of reboots, being a stickler for the originals (as us old folks do!), but this one surprisingly stuck to the spirit of the classic series. Okay, so it’s not the original cast, but the actors involved captured the essence of The Munsters,  and the set recreates the Munster Mansion’s groovy gloom. Most importantly, it made me laugh out loud in places!

The story concerns little Eddie Munster (Bug Hall, THE LITTLE RASCALS) homesick for a traditional Transylvanian Christmas, and the family trying to cheer him up. Herman (Sam McMurray of TV’s DINOSAURS and KING OF QUEENS) takes a series of part time jobs to earn enough money to purchase the year’s hottest item, a Marquis De Sade Dungeon Action Playset! Lily (Ann Magnuson, MAKING MR. RIGHT) gets Eddie involved with decorating the house and yard, Transylvanian style. Marilyn (Elaine Hendrix), the “ugly duckling” of the bunch, sends Christmas invitations to long-lost family members (Phantom of the Opera, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, etc).

Grandpa (stand-up comic Sandy Baron, Jack Klompus on SEINFELD), who tells everyone within earshot he was “Eastern Europe’s preeminent alchemist”, uses his wizardry to conjure up snow in Southern California. But his experiment backfires, and instead conjures up none other than Santa Claus, along with a couple of naughty elves. Now Santa’s stuck in LA while Grandpa tries to figure out how to reverse the spell. The  naughty elves, sick and tired of working every Christmas and just wanting to party, try to slip a mickey in Santa’s figgy pudding, and Jolly Ol’ St. Nick transmogrifies into a giant fruitcake (Elf #!: “But what if, while we’re gone, someone tries to eat Santa?” Elf #2: “Never happen – NOBODY likes fruitcake!”). Can Grandpa’s mad science restore Santa in time to save Christmas Eve, and will little Eddie finally get his traditional Transylvanian Christmas?

There’s gobs of ghoulish humor and references to Ghosts of Classic Horror Past. The cast also features marvelous Mary Woronov as neighbor Edna Dimwitty, winner of the neighborhood Christmas decorating contest five years running, and out to stop Lily’s gruesome tableau from taking first prize. Producer John Landis (AN AMERCIAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE) is an old ‘Monster Kid’ himself, and certainly knows the territory. Veteran TV writers Ed Ferrara (who was a part time pro wrestler and worked behind the scenes for WWF & WCW in their 90’s heydays) and Kevin Murphy (later the head writer for DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES) put together a fun filled script, and director Ian Emes, an animator noted for his work with Pink Floyd, aids tremendously with his bizarre visual concepts.

THE MUNSTERS SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS first aired on Fox , and is available online, streaming, and DVD. Sure, it gets a bit saccharine in the scenes between Eddie and Santa, but whaddaya want – it’s a Christmas TV Movie! I really enjoyed this pretty much forgotten holiday classic, certain to make a “scary little Christmas” for the ‘Monster Kid’ in everyone!

Killer Christmas: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (ABC-TV Movie 1972)

Four daughters reunite at the old family homestead during Christmas to visit their estranged, dying father. Sounds like the perfect recipe for one of those sticky-sweet Hallmark movies, right? Wrong, my little elves! HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, originally broadcast as part of ABC-TV’s “Movie of the Week” series (1969-1975) is part proto-slasher, part psycho-biddie shocker, and a whole lot of fun! It plays kind of like a 70’s exploitation film, only with a high-powered cast that includes Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris , and Walter Brennan, a script by Joseph (PSYCHO) Stefano, and direction courtesy of John Llwellyn Moxey (HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER).

Rich old Benjamin Morgan (Brennan) has summoned his daughters home on a dark and stormy Christmas Eve, claiming his second wife Elizabeth (Harris) is slowly poisoning him to death. Elizabeth was once ‘suspected’ of poisoning her first husband (though never proven) and spent some time in an insane asylum. The girls haven’t been back since their mother committed suicide nine years ago, and believe dear ol’ dad drove her to it. There’s seemingly level-headed Alex (Parker), pill-popping lush Freddie (Jessica Walter), multi-times married Jo (Jill Haworth), and sweet young grad student Chris (Field).

Freddie, drunk and stoned, has a freak-out when she enters her late mother’s room, and tries to commit hari-kari of her own with broken glass. Jo decides to split the scene, and is followed to her car by someone wearing a yellow rain slicker with red boots and gloves – items owned by Elizabeth! When Jo discovers her keys aren’t in the ignition, she turns back to the house, only to get impaled with a pitchfork! Freddie, recuperating in a hot bath with a bottle of vodka, is dragged under the water and drowned – by someone wearing those same red gloves! The phone is dead, the roads are washed out, and it’s thundering and lightening like crazy, so Chris gets the bright idea to try and make it through the woods to the nearest neighbor’s house a mile away.

Chris is stalked by that slicker-wearing, pitchfork wielding someone in a scene reminiscent of slasher movies to come, with some ominous piano and strings in the background. Ducking away, in a panic now, she heads back home, only to trip over Jo’s corpse! She hides in her father’s room, when Elizabeth enters and says “He’s dead”, causing her to go screaming into the night. Running down the dark country road, a car driven by Alex pulls up, and the real killer is revealed… and it’s not who you think (or maybe it is, if you’ve seen enough of these films!). This penultimate scene is followed by a cool twist ending which I wouldn’t have seen coming had I not watched the movie before.

Angelic young Sally Field makes a darn good Scream Queen… could be the kid has a future in pictures! Uptight Julie Harris, always skulking about and peering through windows, is as obvious a red herring as Bela Lugosi in a butler’s uniform! Triple Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker steals the show with her histrionics at the end, Jessica Walter goes over the top (but in a good way), and neither Brennan nor Haworth (BRIDES OF DRACULA, HORROR HOUSE)  get much to do, but add to the star power. I’ve been looking for something a bit different than the usual holiday fare this year, and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS certainly fills the bill. If you’re craving your Christmas goose with a dash of arsenic this season, check it out, it’s available on YouTube!

 

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