Review Date: October 7, 2011
Released by: Warner Bros
Release date: October 4, 2011
Full Screen 1.37 | 16x9: No
If any decade qualifies for the title of ďThe Golden Age of TV Movies,Ē itís undoubtedly the 1970s. Networks cranked out original programming in the form of specials, mini series and movies to great success, both critically and in the ratings. Based on Alex Haleyís best selling novel, the finale of the 1977 miniseries Roots
is still one of the highest rated programs in US television history and is also one of the most well regarded. On the other end of the classiness spectrum is the 1974 Linda Blair made for TV women in chains movie Born Innocent
, with its graphic lesbian rape scene, caused such a stir that it led to network censors instituting mandatory family programming during primetime (later overturned as unconstitutional). Blair followed that edgy, ground-breaking program a year later with Sweet Hostage
, co-starring Martin Sheen in role very similar to the one he played in Badlands
. Given the star power behind it, youíd think Sweet Hostage
would be a sweet movie. Watching it, however, is more like being confined against your will for ninety minutes.
Leonard Hatch (Martin Sheen
) is a mental patient at an institution for the criminally insane. He may have diminished mental capacity but he suffers from no lack of cunning and, before the opening credits have finished, he escapes from the institution, steals a car and heads for rural New Mexico. On the side of the highway he sees Doris Mae Withers (Linda Blair
), her truck immobile after the water hose sprung a leak. He offers her a ride and in talking with her learns a bit about her family life. Kicked out of school and barely literate, Doris spends her time essentially running her family farm. Her parents (Jeanne Cooper
and Bert Remsen
) are a foul and unpleasant couple to live with, their puritanical values preventing her from living anything even sort of resembling a normal teenage life. As the turnoff to the road for her farm approaches, Leonard makes a snap decision: he guns the accelerator and abducts Doris, taking her out to a cabin in a mountainous wooded area where heís hiding.
Doris immediately makes multiple escape attempts, but she injures her ankle when she falls into one of the many booby traps Leonard has set around the cabin. Leonard fishes her out of the pit he dug and nurses her sprain. Having a captive audience, Leonard regales her with stories from his imagination, performing scenes from Shakespearian plays and reciting poetry. Although Leonardís antics scare her at first, soon Doris becomes fascinated with Leonardís interior life and soon is learning to read, and even writes poetry.
On his supply runs into what passes for a town, Leonard inadvertently drops clues as to Dorisí whereabouts Ė Doris requested rare items that the local shops would need to special order Ė and itís not long before the police, along with Dorisí parents have the cabin surrounded. What they donít realize is that Doris has come to see her captivity not as confinement, but as a release.
The first thing you see when you start to watch Sweet Hostage
is a title card informing you that the film was produced by the cologne manufacturer Brut, which is itself a subsidiary of Faberge. Yes, this picture is brought to you by aftershave and cosmetics from a company named after bejeweled eggs. Thereís no real criticism here. It just struck me as funny. If the film is allowed to go for ninety minutes without a point, I think Iím entitled to one paragraph.
On to the film itself, then: Sweet Hostage
shows some promise in its early moments. In the opening shot, Martin Sheenís face fills the screen as he stares wistfully into space. Even the growly voice of an orderly barking command at him cannot stir him from his reverie. As the camera slowly pulls out to reveal and then follows him as he makes his escape (which, admittedly seems far too easy), the film had pretty much drawn me in. Cut to the scenes establishing Linda Blairís character and backstory; Blair was such a fresh faced young woman in 1975, so full of charm that itís pretty much impossible not to like her no matter how coarse her character is around the edges.
Okay, so far weíre doing well.
The scenes where these two characters first meet are well staged and you can see the thought processes that lead to the abduction play out across Sheenís face. The moment arrives with a sense of inevitability but, even then, Sheen puts a spin on it with an outburst of violence thatís starling not in its intensity, but in its unexpectedness. Doris, too, proves able to surprise, albeit in a different way; she asks Leonard that, if he intends to rape can he please hurry up and get it over with so that he can drop her off on the highway? After all, she needs to be home for supper.
Sheen is quite good in Sweet Hostage
. Heís not as intense as some as his signature roles; he was probably saving his energy to film Apocalypse Now
with Coppola the following year. Still, Leonard is a showy and unabashedly theatrical role, and Sheen has fun with the different personas he adopts and the abrupt swings in temperament he displays. Blair, too, shows that her Oscar nomination for The Exorcist
was well deserved. Sheís great as the crass, rough around the edges bumpkin who is slowly taught some measure of sophistication by her captor. The movie manufactures all kinds of situations where the two can clash and gives them lots of big moments.
The problem is that thereís just something unclean about the whole affair, how the camera lingers on an underage Blair as she unbuttons her shirt or bathes in the river, yet wraps all this low grade voyeurism in the cloth of a romantic fantasy. It seems like it wants to go the seamy, titillating route, but the tone of the film at large runs completely contrary to that. Leonard claims to be largely uninterested in sex. Iím not sure if that was an element in the novel on which Sweet Hostage
is based or a concession made for network censors, but it doesnít really ring true. Once they get to the cabin their exchanges devolve into irritating bickering. Itís like theyíre predestined to be lovers when they really should have been having a clash of wills and cunning: she, the mature but unworldly youth squaring off against he, the well-read but unpractised elder. His treatment of Doris while she captive feels less like a tickling of her intellect and more like a tickling ofÖ Iím sure you get the picture.
There just doesnít seem to be much point to it all. It could have been a tense drama or a suspenseful mind game, but a tender story of the sexual awakening of a young girl and her criminally insane captor? And the film doesnít seem to have a problem with the situation? Yay! For Stockholm Syndrome! Sweet Hostage
even might have worked if they portrayed Leonard as childlike in his intellect, a sort of unhinged Peter Pan character, or if the two leads were closer in age. As it is, when they finally consummate their relationship the moment lacks any kind of emotional impact it mightíve had and just feels sleazy, no matter how many funny hats Sheen has worn up to that point.
The Warner Archives discs Iíve seen so far have all surpassed my expectations, so my disappointment with the video on Sweet Hostage
is only relative. The source material looks in slightly rough shape; while not constant, scratches and source defects appear with enough regularity to be distracting. Colors are muted, though thatís probably more due to the cinematography than anything else. Like a lot of films of the time, Sweet Hostage
was filmed with soft filters and the occasional shot actually looks completely out of focus. Itís far from bad but itís not in any way distinguished, either.
Maybe a smidge better than the video? Again, the Dolby Digital Mono is not notable or exceptional but itís completely in line with what youíd expect from a thirty-plus year old made for TV movie. Dialogue, music and sound effects are all clear and audible but the audio as a whole is lacking in presence. The main song, played one time too many for my tastes, comes off as shrill but thatís my only real complaint.
There are no supplements included. Too bad. Given how misleading the key art is, I would have liked to see how this was sold to the general public.
Even for Blair completionists, Sweet Hostage
is a tough sell. The promise of the opening twenty minutes is quickly flushed away as the film devolves into dull and unconvincing melodrama. Iíve never read Welcome to Xanadu, the novel on which Sweet Hostage
was based, so I have no idea how closely its follows its source material. At times its heart seems to lay down a darker path. Sheen and Blair do their best but the film is too scattershot and doesnít work as a thriller, love story or whimsical fantasy.
Movie - C-
Image Quality - C+
Sound - C+
Supplements - N/A
- Running time - 1 hour and 31 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital Mono