Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Superham Cinema: CHAMELEONS (1989)

Television has always had a love/hate relationship with comic books. They want to make money off of the tie-in with a product that has a built-in audience, but after the campy antics of the 1966 "Batman" show, they just never really liked the idea of having superhero stuff in their superhero shows. "The Incredible Hulk" (1978) was a mesmerizing show to kids of the '70s, but looking back on it now, it's mostly Bruce Banner trying to cope with life and running from town to town trying to escape his alternate persona. The Hulk makes an appearance once per episode to get Banner out of a jam - such as the threat of some swingers trying to take advantage of a drunken Mariette Hartley (who is quite literally asking for it) in "The Bride of the Incredible Hulk" (1978), but it's not really about Hulk. The failed 1978 pilot for a "Doctor Strange" series went so far as to pretty much dump everything from the comic books except for the fact that Strange is a doctor (though not a surgeon) and occasionally dresses up in an outfit so cheap that he would be laughed out of Comicon.

The 1980s were a rough time for comics as a whole, but TV execs thought that maybe they could bring back the superhero successes of the '70s. It didn't hurt that they could get the rights to these characters for less than a cup of coffee at Spago's. But what if you didn't have to pay a thin dime and come up with your own superheroes? Glen A. Larson, the creator of seemingly everything cool on television in the '70s and '80s, did just that. Putting aside the debatable superhero status of "The Six-Million Dollar Man", Larson started with the short lived "Manimal" in 1983. The premise of the show was of a crimefighter (Simon McCorkindale) who transforms into a variety of wild animals. It wasn't the greatest show ever, but it did get points for originality and the fact that it was a complete pain to shoot as it involved real animals. Larson moved on to another short-lived series with the TRON (1982) inspired "Automan" (1983). Here Desi Arnaz Jr. teams up with a computer created Automan (Chuck Wagner) to bust crime in their high-tech Lamborghini Countach. Larson had a much bigger success with the iconic "Knight Rider" (1982-1986) series which made it mandatory that a tricked-out supercar had to make some sort of appearance in his shows.

Filching an idea from the instant classic comic "The Watchmen" (1986), the pilot kicks off with the death of the hero. Jason Carr (Stewart Granger), the wealthy, eccentric owner of The Los Angeles Post, is secretly a nocturnal crimefighter by the name of The Paraclete of Justice. When presumably not taking naps and medication, Carr rides around town in a motorcycle sidecar with his sidekick Ryan, aka Captain Chamelon (Marcus Gilbert). His arch nemesis is a super-secret organization of evil, known as The Inner Circle, who have enlisted the help of a Hollywood madam to slip him a toxic injection after being captured by corrupt police officers.

As it turns out his two granddaughters, Jessica (Mary Bergman), a deputy DA and Shelly (Crystal Bernard), a southern belle who likes to check herself into a sanitarium and pretend to be a doctor, have been left his entire fortune including a super-secret journal that contains his nocturnal exploits and the names of the members of The Inner Circle. The cops are, of course, on the take and are attempting to get the journal by fair means or mostly foul. Also interested in getting the journal is Ryan who is quit possibly the most undynamic of superheroes in the history of the medium. When Shelly catches him trying to be invisible while getting into Carr's safe he finds he must give her an explanation. He asks her how Carr died (presumably he doesn't get cable in his batcave), which leads to this exchange:
Shelly: "He died of a heart attack."
Ryan: "No. He died in bed with some sleazy hooker!"
Shelly: "He died in bed with some sleazy hooker?!"
Ryan: "That's what the authorities think, but I don't believe it because he was with me!"
Shelly: "My grandfather was in bed with you? That's even more disgusting!"

I'm guessing you may have noticed that this is in fact a comedy superhero show, much like "The Greatest American Hero" (1983), except with fewer smashed windows. Adding to Shelly's cheerful misery is the sleazy managing editor of the paper Philip (Richard Burgi), who is desperately trying to take over the empire, even if that means cheating on his conniving girlfriend. Quickly Shelly discovers that grandfather had a superhero cave with a prototype computerized car named... wait for it... Car-meleon (named so because one of its functions is to change its color at the press of a button). At this point she decides that something must be done about the evil organization, but only if she is in charge. Erm, hijinx ensue.

Crystal Bernard may be best remembered, at least by me, for SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II (1987), is surprisingly likable as a slightly ditzy, rich girl and she delivers her snappy dialogue with great timing and could have easily carried the show. On the other hand, we have Marcus Gilbert who is so completely leaden that he frequently looks as if he stumbled on to the set off the street and is trying to figure out what this "acting" thing is off the cuff. Occasionally it seems as if he could be replaced with a cardboard cut-out and no one would be the wiser. At least until he attempted to speak a line - of which he fortunately has few.

As you may know, or have already guessed, this pilot never cleared the runway. First off, as goofy as it is, I think it really works to a certain extent. It has a post-"Watchmen", pre-"Powers" sort of intentional cartoonishness about it that substitutes the complex drama with freewheeling comedy. That is not to say that we don't get a big explosion filled chase sequence at the end, no, no. Glenn knows his target audience and he knows damn well that they want big boom. Perhaps the superhero action was to be saved for the series as it clearly is setting it up. The final scene has the main characters making a pact to fight evil, implying that they will form some sort of super team. With a solid supporting cast (including John Standing, George Murdock, Tiny Lister, Terry Kiser, Roger Davis and more), in spite of the flaws (Gilbert), I think this would have mad a great series if it had come out the early '80s, before comics discovered their adult audience. In '89, comic books had been picking up steam with serious, mature content for several years. A caped comedy was definitely out of fashion.

Aside from Gilbert's egregious affront to bad TV actors everywhere, the pilot is a lot of fun. You could criticize the Car-meleon as being a K.I.T.T. knock-off that looks far too much like a modified '89 Ford Taurus station wagon, but it's presented more as a satire than Larson carbon copying his biggest hit. In one scene where all of our heroes are packed into Car-meleon and are being assaulted by machine gun fire, they attempt to activate the defense systems which can only be accessed by answering a detailed questionnaire about the details of the situation. This is funny in and of itself, but it also does a nice job sending up the cliche that Larson popularized. In this day and age of oppressively melodramatic comic book films that insist on playing out with more pathos than a Greek tragedy, some goofy superhero satire is a nice way to wipe away the tears after discovering that Batman has gone off his Prozac... again.

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