It’s the nineties. The first wave of a futureproof new format is being developed with the Digital Versatile Disc, and VHS is enjoying consecutive record years for sales. Times are good. The video rental industry is thriving and more films are in production than ever before. However, fast-forward almost a quarter of a century, and so many features from this era have been virtually forgotten. Stuck on a format that so few people are able to play, and seemingly unable to make the leap into the digital revolution, they’re left alone to slip out of the public consciousness. So, let’s raise a glass to those forgotten children of that home entertainment boom, and slide another tape of schlocky goodness into our creaky ol’ top-loader.
If researching this era of filmmaking threw up any common denominators, it’s that the most frequent type of production that seems absent from today’s multitude of formats is the TV movie. Becoming commonplace in the sixties, this type of commissioned feature really hit its stride in the decade that followed with films like Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) and Dan Curtis’ Dead of Night (1977). For further reading on this golden era, you should look no further than Michael Karol’s book The ABC Movie of the Week Companion. By the nineties, this outlet for filmmakers was about to hit its peak; indeed, 1996 ended having seen two hundred and sixty four TV movies made for the five largest American television networks at the time (by the turn of the century it had halved).
Although it would be hard to regard the seventies as anything other than the halcyon days for these ninety minute wonders, the quality productions that peppered the decade before the millennium shouldn’t be forgotten. Be it Roger Spottiswoode’s gripping And the Band Played On ((1993), Mick Jackson’s courtroom behemoth Indictment (1995) or even Jack Sholder’s cheese-tastic Runaway Car (1997), there’s a plethora of goodness, all assembled by a creative team of grade-A talent. That’s certainly the case here with the taught 1993 thriller DISTANT COUSINS, which saw Night of the Comet (1984) and Valley Girls (1983) producer Andrew Lane in the director’s chair, while Courtney Joyner, scribe of such classic films as From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) and Prison (1987) handled the script.
Joyner shares his credit though with legendary producer Pierre David, and as he joined me in conversation from his Los Angeles home, I was keen to establish if it was his idea that proved the genesis of the project. “No, it was Pierre David. I went in and interviewed with Pierre’s story editor whose name completely escapes me, but what we didn’t know, and what Pierre didn’t know either, was that he was just starting to get into the TV movie business. I of course was excited to meet him as I was such a huge fan of everything he’d done with David Cronenberg. He had just produced Internal Affairs too, so I was like “wow”. He’s a great guy, and just about the most straight-forward producer, in that I always got paid ahead of when I should do! He was just as straight as an arrow, and honoured absolutely everything. Very loyal too.”
As Courtney Joyner alluded to, this indeed was the start of a sea change in the career of Pierre David. Born in Montreal in 1944, the Canadian producer rose to prominence with a handful of Cronenberg films – The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983) – while the late eighties saw his name grace such superlative schlock as Of Unknown Origin (1983), The Vindicator (1986) and Pin (1988). Production of Distant Cousins however saw him descend into TV movies and rarely look back. “It literally became the template for ALL these thrillers that he did” asserts Joyner. “The formula that they had just enabled the films to be made quickly. They were done on TV movie schedules, which of course was eighteen days. With our movie is was quite fortuitous as the script was finished the very same weekend The Hand That Rocks the Cradle opened at the box office! When that happened, everyone was scrambling for stuff just like it, so CBS snapped it up immediately and offered us some of their network stars – Marg Helgenberger for example, and we were lucky to get her”.
Helgenberger brings a great presence to Distant Cousins, but once you factor in a chilling David Keith performance, as well as Mel Harris, fresh off the back of Thirtysomething, it’s difficult not to be impressed with the assemble cast. Then there’s William Katt too; “Bill impressed me greatly!” says Joyner, “It was the non-showy part too. Being the straight man in a thriller is a very difficult thing to do, because until you throw the punch, you tend to just be a dramatic cypher for a long time. I think he and David Keith really played off each other well”.
In the film, Katt plays Richard Sullivan, a successful advertising executive who lives happily in suburbia with his wife Katherine (Harris) and mischievous young son, Alex (Brian Bonsall). One day, out of the blue, Katherine receives a phone call from a man claiming to be Richard’s cousin who just happens to be passing through the area with his fiancée, Connie (Helgenberger). As this strange couple drop by for dinner to their financially comfortable kinsfolk, both Richard and Katherine welcome them with an outstretched arm of hospitality, but it’s not long before their suspicions are raised as to just who this trustless twosome actually are.
Although Distant Cousins is unlikely to see many people heading to Scream Factory’s Facebook page and demanding a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, it’s still finely crafted slow-burning potboiler of a thriller that really does deserve a modern day audience. Harry and Connie epitomise the classic Bonnie and Clyde persona, or perhaps even Mickey and Mallory, and their gradual exploitation of Richard and Katherine – and more so Alex, makes for indulgent viewing, not least with its surprisingly violent nature. “Actually, we were one of the very first TV movies to be rated” Joyner informs me, “We got a rating for violence, and an audience warning too! It was kind of a whole new thing”. Did the network not kick up a fuss? “No, they just left it all in. Fighting, burning, torturing! They did used to get a little sensitive about that, but they let it go!”.
Making its network debut on CBS in May 1993, Distant Cousins saw the light of day in all major territories around the world on VHS. In the UK in appeared at the end of ’93 on First Independent, albeit with a title change to Desperate Motive. The move to disc eluded it in both Britain and America, although you can grab an out of print Australian DVD of it, alas in 4:3 ratio, for a reasonable price.
Twenty three years on, how does Joyner regard this film? “I like the movie! I think it really holds up well. Generally speaking, it was just great to be working in that era. You know, movies didn’t go into development unless they were going to get made. So once you got past that initial point you knew there was going to be an end product. That was always exciting, because there was always a finish line. Looking back though, to have people on these movies like Mac Ahlberg and Mark Irwin, while on Distant Cousins we had Phil Parmet [who went on to be DP for Rob Zombie on Halloween] , you would find people on these jobs who just elevated the way these movies looked, and I think it elevated the final product”.
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