Since 1989, cable’s USA Network has shown more than 60 made-for-television movies that, taken together, are a monument to video schlock in our time, a sustained achievement of junkiness so ceaseless, so campy, so just plain goofy that it deserves a small salute. And now is the right time to do it, because this week marks the premiere of a classic example of USA moviemaking, Treacherous Crossing, starring Lindsay Wagner as a 1940s woman caught up in violence and madness on an ocean liner.
Wagner plays Lindsey Gates, a newlywed embarked on a honeymoon cruise. There’s just one problem — she can’t find her new husband. At first she thinks he just wandered off somewhere and got lost on this big ship. But the ship’s authorities tell her they have no record of her husband on board, and no one remembers seeing her accompanied by anyone. Lindsey had recently done some time in a mental hospital — could she have been imagining she was just married? Then, as if she didn’t have enough problems, a couple of attempts are made on Lindsey’s life — who’s after her? There are mysteries on every level: Even a half-asleep viewer might begin to wonder, as the minutes tick by, whether Joseph Bottoms, billed so prominently in the opening credits, is really going to show up.
Crossing, directed by Tony Wharmby, written by Elisa Bell, and based on a John Dickson Carr radio play, is the sort of movie in which the camera is tilted to convey the protagonist’s precarious mental state. When Lindsey walks into her stateroom, there’s a noose dangling from the ceiling; she dashes into the hall to scream for help, then goes back into the room — and the noose is gone. These creaky scary-movie devices, combined with the drippy dialogue (”For the first time in my life, I felt truly loved, and I can’t lose that, not now”), make Crossing a bit of USA silliness that’s even campier than usual. The movie is lucky to have Wagner, who performs every absurdity with charming gravity, and Angie Dickinson, who brings a surprisingly playful energy to her two-bit role as a passenger who befriends Lindsey.
The USA Network cranks out two new movies a month, screening each one three times. These films are made by various writers and directors; the closest USA has to an auteur is director Sandor Stern, who has overseen a trio of howling dogs: Dangerous Pursuit, Web of Deceit, and last month’s sci-fi mishmash, Duplicates. No matter who’s in charge, USA movies share certain traits: Their stars tend to be either solid second-level TV laborers (February’s Blind Man’s Bluff, for example, featured Robert Urich and Beauty and the Beast’s Ron Perlman) or TV stars eager to shake their images (as when Joe Regalbuto, nice-guy Frank Fontana on Murphy Brown, became a cynical policeman in 1991’s Writer’s Block).
USA movies avoid the fact-based scenarios favored by the commercial networks and HBO; instead, they specialize in suspense, offering updated variations on ’40s film noir and the old Alfred Hitchcock anthology TV series. (There are also shameless rip-offs like Strays, a 1991 stinker about evil cats starring thirtysomething’s Timothy Busfield; its script seemed to have been pasted together from scraps of paper found in Stephen King’s garbage bags.) All too often, however, the craftsmanship found in those earlier inspirations is lacking: Intimate scenes are often under-lit and crowd scenes under-populated; the plots either dawdle or are so complicated they make no sense.
On the surface, many USA movies seem feminist vehicles. Bimbo characterizations are scrupulously avoided in favor of hardworking professional occupations, from Lisa Hartman’s psychiatrist in 1991’s Red Wind to Joanna Cassidy’s school-bus driver in 1990’s Wheels of Terror. This doesn’t, however, spare the women from being victimized by mostly male danger: Hartman was hunted by a cross-dressing psycho; Cassidy was followed everywhere by a black Dodge sedan (the driver was never shown, but the car was always shot like a menacing phallic symbol).
Lots of TV movies feature women in jeopardy, but USA movies like to add a dash of psychosis to the mix. Wagner thinks she’s going crazy; Homefront’s Sammi Davis-Voss was a nut case who murdered a number of smitten fiances in the title role of last June’s The Perfect Bride. In this respect, the ultimate USA movie is probably 1990’s Hitler’s Daughter, in which a deeply troubled Kay Lenz played the furher’s fictional offspring, trying to sow the seeds of fascist discontent in contemporary America.
This is not to say that all USA movies are unwatchable, or even that a few of them haven’t been pretty good. The China Lake Murders, which premiered in January 1990, featured Michael Parks and Tom Skerrit as highway patrolmen with an edgy, complex friendship. Its quality was rewarded: Lake is the network’s highest-rated movie to date. And frequently even a bad USA movie will contain a good performance, such as the one Donald Sutherland gave in last month’s Quicksand: No Escape. He portrayed the villain, a smirking, oily, on-the-take private eye badgering Tim Matheson, and he gave an immensely enjoyable, all-stops-out show of skill.
Later this month there’s even a USA entry that can be watched from start to finish without flinching: Legacy of Lies, premiering April 22, features Twin Peaks’ Michael Ontkean, Eli Wallach, and Martin Landau in a cops-‘n’-gangsters thriller that benefits greatly from a terse script by David Black. Could this signal a sudden upturn in USA movie quality? It’s not that I don’t have an open mind about these things, but nahhhh. Treacherous Crossing: D+; Legacy of Lies: B