Tuesday, May 3, 2022

80's TV Movie Watch: The Spirit (1987)

Watched:  05/02/2022
Format:  DVD from Warner Archive
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1980's
Director:  Michael Schultz

Way back in the 1980's, I ordered a Bud Plant catalog so I could get an idea of what all was out there in the world of comics.  I remember two things that really stuck out - a Mike Kaluta image of The Shadow (the first time I'd heard of the character) - and an image for a collection of The Spirit strips with P'gell prominently featured.  You know the one.

I didn't know what the hell The Spirit was, but to my 11 year old brain, this seemed very sexy indeed, and I assumed The Spirit was some sort of soft-core comic.  

Flash forward probably only a matter of months, and I read in Comics Scene that someone was making a TV movie of The Spirit, learned more about it (not a softcore book!) and back in the days when we weren't having superhero media rained down upon us, I was very interested.  

Finally the movie was slated to air, and of course there was some scheduling conflict (we just missed TV in those days), but I could probably catch the last hour or so.  I don't remember where we were or what was up, but I do remember my mom ran into a friend and started talking.  And I just had to stand there while the clock spun and my 1980's chances with no DVR faded away of seeing any of the movie.  

I walked in the door, watched the last five minutes, and then went to do homework.

So, I had never seen The Spirit (1987).  I've seen the Frank Miller directed movie and read some Will Eisner Spirit and Darwyn Cooke Spirit, but this movie eluded me.  Until I noticed Warner Archives was selling it.  So, here we are.

The weird thing about The Spirit movie is how much bizarre stuff is true about the movie.  

The Spirit/ Denny Colt is played by Sam J Jones of Flash Gordon fame.  Nana Visitor of DS9 fame plays Denny's love interest, Ellen (in a blond wig).  Niles from The Nanny plays a shady curator of a museum, possibly moving antiquities.  It's not clear what he's selling as they can't decide what kind of museum it is.  Hubie (the happily reframed Ebony from the comics) is played by Bumper Robinson, a famed voice actor.  The woman who plays P'Gell, Laura Robinson, would go on to co-create the best-selling family game, Balderdash and become a player in the Chicken Soup for the Soul industry (she really does make a convincing 1980's take on P'Gell, btw).  

"and on Christmas, when everyone just wants to drink, moms everywhere will pull out this game, and everyone will have to play! HA HA HA"

I'm not sure Sam Jones is bad in this, but despite looking the part, he just doesn't have Denny Colt's sly way about him.  He's too much boyscout, and you never think he might just slip off with P'Gell in the right circumstances.  Nana Visitor is playing to the last row here, and it's not wrong, but it is a lot.  

The screenwriter is 48 HoursDie Hard and Commando scribe Steven De Souza.  This blows my mind.  And - last but not least - the director is Michael Schultz, who was the director of Cooley High, Car Wash, Krush Groove, The Last Dragon, and a whole bunch of good television you've seen.   

For a 1980's take on the character, it's amazingly in-line with the comic, which existed in a weird place as a Sunday insert in papers.  So never a comic strip, never a comic book (until Kitchen Sink started offering it up in the 1980's in the Direct Market), but something else.  That they didn't just do camp is sort of amazing - it feels funny, but not... like they actively dislike the content and are making fun of it.  They go more for action-comedy, which is the right tone for The Spirit in a lot of ways.  And, they inject some good twists, and make it friendly enough for the kids while also maintaining some of the horniness of the original comic.  

It's an expensive-looking show, with a certain adherence to the not-quite-real 4-color-vibe of the comics years before Batman would bring this idea in vogue.  The main characters receive punchy primary colored outfits, and tertiary characters are made to pop.  Wildwood Cemetery, The Spirit's base of operations, is a full set with a crypt, a massive city backdrop and clear plans to be used in future episodes, and it looks like it was torn from the pages of a Will Eisner comic.  There's some punchy lighting, great sets, and attempts here and there to look like a movie and not a TV movie - especially in the lighting color palette.

Ellen and Commissioner Dolan in Wildwood Cemetery

(Hilariously, the case of stolen records seems to be a copy of Talking Heads' Speaking in Tongues with some art pasted over the top).  

The movie itself is... fine?  It's a 1980's TV movie, and there's too much of some things - whatever cute thing they thought they had with Jones and Visitor isn't - and not enough of other things - more Hubie, I say.  And certainly more of P'Gell in full villain mode.  

It's brief, but does drag in the way of 1980's TV.  Scenes are too long.  They admit the "we're ripping off the Lone Ranger conceit" a little too readily, but ok.  They are.  And I can't imagine this week in and out, which is why someone tried to bury the show until apparently a fan letter writing campaign got it to TV.  

I'm glad I finally watched it, the way it was fun seeing the 1970's Captain America TV movies.  You know they won't be great, and they don't have the episode-over-episode cumulative effect of, say, Wonder Woman to charm you.  But they show you what you got on network TV back during a certain era.  

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