Judge Daryl Loomis doesn't know how to feel anything but fear.
When he captured a girl, he unleashed a woman.
Truly, I miss the lost art of the television movie. Not for the quality, of course; such a thing was few and far between. I miss the network's ability to collect big stars under some kind of B.S. guise of social commentary to make some gloriously trashy productions. Rarely, though, did any of them reach the level of Sweet Hostage. Starring Martin Sheen, fresh off of Badlands, and Linda Blair, fresh from The Exorcist, this is a stunning piece of garbage, an absolutely train wreck that is hilarious to watch.
Facts of the Case
Teen-aged Doris Mae (Blair) hates her small town life, with her mean ol' parents and all her stupid chores. Her boyfriend, who only just taught her to throw knives, is getting pushy and she's not ready for that sort of thing. Plus, she just shot her first rattlesnake but, instead of being able to keep it as a trophy, her mom chopped it into little bits. Things go from bad to worse when, after a morning at the dry goods store in town, her truck breaks down on her way home. Luckily, a nice older man named Leonard (Sheen) stops to give her a lift. But her luck runs out pretty quick when, instead of home, he takes her to the rundown forest shack he likes to call Xanadu. See, Leonard's an escaped mental patient who calls himself Kubla Khan and recites poetry. She's afraid he's going to rape and kill her, but soon realizes he's a gentle soul who needs a friend. She decides she wants to make a life with him and starts to fall in love, but the local police are on the hunt to bring her back.
I really hoped Sweet Hostage would be super trashy, but I had no idea I was in for this. It is one of the dumbest, most hilariously awful movies I've ever had the pleasure to witness, a thrilling example of what happens when name stars and a ton of earnestness meet total ineptitude. Unlike the winking, supposed so-bad-its-good kind of garbage we see so often today, what's great about this is that the people involved here appear to have believed they had something really good on their hands. It seems others did, too, with its 1976 Golden Globe nomination, but how wrong they were.
Sweet Hostage is adapted from a novel called Welcome to Xanadu byt Nathaniel Benchley. If the book is anywhere near as bad as the movie, I just might read it. Fundamentally, I don't understand how anybody could look at this story and decide to green light it. While I can't look through the eyes of somebody in 1975, I have a hard time seeing on any level that a tale of a middle-aged man kidnapping a 14-year-old girl getting funding when the kidnapper is the hero, yet here we are. The only thing I can fathom is that it appealed to some kind of back-to-the-land, anti-establishment hippie claptrap. Now, fairly, I'm no authority booster, but even I can admit that, when the cops are trying to track down an abducted teen, they're the good guys in the situation. Not here, though; here, they're terribly intrusive, asking all these questions and getting up in Leonard's business, even after he told them a perfectly good lie to get them off his trail and even after they discover his escape from the institution…jerks.
The performances compound the problems, making the execution even more ridiculous than the story. Sheen rejects the toned down style Terence Malick coaxed out of him in Badlands and is a manic fool here, donning stupid hats and jumping around spouting poetry like he's in some half-baked Alice in Wonderland production. We never find out why he got institutionalized and there's not much in his performance that suggests any real insanity; he just seems like a jackass. The character is contradictory to the story at every turn, such as the fact that he's smart enough to construct booby traps all around the cabin, but not only too stupid to leave town after the kidnapping, he keeps asking questions about the case. Blair is no better, as she proves why she was never a very marketable actress. She simply has no personality; there's nothing convincing in her performance at all, and the character doesn't help. She grimaces and stomps her feet, but that's about the only development we see from her until she suddenly falls in love. What causes that change? Donald buys her a dress. That's right, a freaking dress. Now she knows Donald isn't a crazy kidnapper. I mean, see how nice she looks?
Director Lee Philips was a journeyman who jumped around to helm episodes for a ton of television programs (including, as it happens, "Yankee Doodle Doctor," one of my very favorite episodes of MASH). While the direction is competent, given the incompetent script and performances, it is completely lacking any kind of style or subtlety. Scenes are put together functionally, but no more than that, and he has no control over his actors. While it isn't a bad-looking production, I attribute that entirely to the Southwestern landscape and not to Philips at all.
Warner Archive, as they do, has released a bare bones disc for Sweet Hostage. Don't get me wrong, I'm not pining for a slate of special features, but I do wish that they perform at least a little restoration on the films they put out. The case claims Remastered Edition, but I suspect they believe that term to mean that they transferred it to disc. The full frame image has plenty of damage, with mild, washed out colors and an overall rough look. The sound is no better in its muddy single channel mix. There are no extras.
Sometimes I like art movies and, sometimes, I like silent films, but sometimes a good helping of trash is exactly what I need. Few movies are so gloriously purile and bankrupt as Sweet Hostage. The best part is that, because it aired on television, there's no real sex or violence to speak of, so it's fun for the whole family.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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