Tedious, empty made-for-TV "thriller." Sony Pictures' Choice Collection line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Kiss Me...Kill Me, the 1976 made-for-TV special/pilot from Columbia Pictures Television, written by Robert E. Thompson, directed by Michael O'Herlihy, and starring Stella Stevens, Claude Akins, Robert Vaughn, Michael Anderson, Jr., Dabney Coleman, Bruce Boxleitner, Pat O'Brien, Bruce Glover, Morgan Paull, Tisha Sterling, and Alan Fudge. A would-be salacious police procedural, minus the dirt, Kiss Me...Kill Me couldn't help coming out when it did, during the still-censorious mid-70s...but that's still no excuse for it being this boring. As with my other recent telemovie review, however (Gidget Gets Married), kudos to Sony for correctly utilizing their M.O.D. line--releasing rare or forgotten ephemerae like Kiss Me...Kill Me from network television's distant past (...unlike Warner's Archive Collection, which recently seems more focused on re-releasing old Paramount DVDs that are still readily, and more cheaply, available). No extras for this nice-looking fullscreen transfer.
Plain, handicapped, unassuming teacher Maureen Coyle (Tisha Sterling) has a secret: she likes rough trade with as many different freaks as she can handle. One night she gets more than she bargained for: her raped and mutilated body is found in her apartment. Investigating homicide officer Lieutenant Daggett (Alan Fudge) contacts Captain Logan (Dabney Coleman) with disturbing news: a note was found at Coyle's apartment--a note written by D.A. investigator Stella Stafford (Stella Stevens) that suggests Coyle warned Stafford months ago that someone was going to kill her. This proves to be a blind lead, but the perplexed Stafford did interview Coyle after she reported being severely beaten...only to see her led away from the courthouse by violent ex-lover, Leonard Hicks (Charles Weldon). Working with old mentor, Detective Harry Grant (Claude Akins), Stafford quickly sets her sights on mysterious ad agency exec, Edward Fuller (Robert Vaughn), whose connection with Coyle hides a secret of his own.
As I wrote in my recent Gidget Gets Married review, anytime I see an old made-for-TV movie and/or pilot like Kiss Me...Kill Me in the screener pool, I'm all over it. Growing up in the 70s, during the "golden age" of MTV (the most familiar acronym for "made for TV" prior to its usurping by the cable music channel), each week seemed to offer a number of these "special events" that promised something extra in terms of entertainment value over and above one's regular series' viewing. Of course, most of these specials didn't turn out to be so special; for every classic like Duel or Savages or Pray for the Wildcats (can you tell I have The ABC Movie of the Week on the brain lately?), there were, well...a lot of MTVs like Kiss Me...Kill Me: instantly forgettable little outings that came and went with little hope of being remembered by a voracious TV-viewing audience. Why these specials and movies haven't subsequently had the same presence on home video compared to better-known series outings, is no doubt due to many factors (copyrights and legal clearances, first and foremost), so it's always interesting--just from a historical viewpoint alone--when a releasing arm like Sony puts out something relatively elusive like Kiss Me...Kill Me.
Unlike Gidget Gets Married, however, I'm not going to waste a lot of time discussing Kiss Me...Kill Me (the three people reading this just sighed in relief), because..there just isn't anything to it. Considering the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, I was somewhat taken aback at how superficial and deadly dull Kiss Me...Kill Me turned out to be. Director Michael O'Herlihy was a top TV helmer for almost three decades, turning out clean, efficient entertainment year after year (he also did a couple of big-screen movies for Disney, including the fun The Fighting Prince of Donegal). Scripter Robert E. Thompson was also highly in demand for episodic TV and telemovie assignments, including his classic for Elizabeth Montgomery, A Case of Rape, as well as The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident (he penned the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, too). And as for the cast...how can you find fault with that list of pros and talented newcomers?
So...what went wrong? Without any inside knowledge, it's always guesswork for a critic to pinpoint what exactly happened to a project during pre, production, and post, but clearly someone at some point in Kiss Me...Kill Me's progress gutted the work of almost anything they thought would cause even the slightest offense to the mainstream 1976 TV viewer. A lot of potentially explosive stuff is alluded to, and talked around, but nothing at all is actually shown (even the victim's body is tastefully avoided on-camera). Oh, they mention the victim, who had a taste for "freaky" sex, had many lovers, and the word "semen" is thrown out once, but that's about as concrete as you're going to get in Kiss Me...Kill Me in terms of showing the seamier side of this compromised tale. Robert Vaughn's homosexual relationship with Bruce Boxleitner is never specifically referred to as "gay" (a history of "morals charges," with a snigger from Akins, is the only said-out-loud indicator that Vaughn is homosexual), with further haziness provided for the hapless viewer by the script suggesting Boxleitner is bisexual. One or two newer viewers, armed with their bogus "homophobia detectors" set to "immediate, phony outrage over nothing," would no doubt have a field day picking apart Kiss Me...Kill Me's depiction of gay characters (Arnold Soboloff's flamboyant bartender isn't offensive because he's a stereotype--he's offensive because he's so horribly bad at rendering this stereotype). However, it's important to stick around for the movie's end credits, where pressure "group" The Gay Media Task Force's one-man show, psychologist Dr. Newton Deiter, is listed as a consultant. It's been well-documented how Deiter dealt with the networks during this era--oftentimes for a nice, fat fee--in terms of
Teases about freaky S&M sex, and controversial politics aside, Kiss Me...Kill Me is painfully lacking in the most basic requirements of a thriller, as well. If the network and Dr. Deiter wouldn't allow anything in the script to seriously offend viewers, that's still no excuse for producing a thriller that doesn't even begin to thrill. There's a deadness to Kiss Me...Kill Me, a weird, bland, blankness to its production that is 1970s cookie-cutter Hollywood network TV production at its most impersonal, its most robotic, its most inconsequential. The direction is lethargic (no suspense is created as Stevens pokes around for a suspect), the framing and editing are unimaginably dull, and the performances either cliched or neurasthenically muted. Stock thematic conventions (tired "cowboy old timer versus automaton statisticians" dynamic between Fudge and Akins; tepid "friends at odds over ethical implications of the job" conflict between Stevens and Akins) are laid down with elephantine subtlety, while lead Stevens--a personal favorite of mine, woefully misused here, yet again--vacantly blinks her way disconnectedly through this sorry mess. Watching Kiss Me...Kill Me, I couldn't fathom how anyone connected with the final product could have believed it matched up favorably with even the most tame offerings from the myriad detective and police shows on the air at that time. It's certainly not a Columbo in terms of a convoluted, clever mystery, nor would it cut it as a Mannix in terms of head-crunching action. Its weak, protracted procedural thriller elements couldn't fill a 30 minute Adam-12, while its cipher-like lead character doesn't have an interesting hook or quirk like a Cannon or a Barnaby Jones. Its daintily covered-up filth doesn't come close to a sleazy Starsky and Hutch or Charlie's Angels entry, while its serious sociological and political issues are brushed aside with an almost Disney-esque simplicity, unlike say, Police Story. If Kiss Me...Kill Me was indeed intended as a pilot for a potential series...it's not surprising it came and then disappeared without a whisper about further development.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.