HOLLYWOOD -- The city has been leveled by an earthquake, gas fires have broken out everywhere, hundreds are probably dead and thousands injured. But at least there's some good news. Says a TV anchorman broadcasting from New York: "We seem to have lost our link to Los Angeles."
Gosh! That means there won't be any movies or TV shows from L.A. for a while -- good news if the films are going to be as alternately dull and irritating as "The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake," the two-part NBC movie to air tomorrow and Monday at 9 on Channel 4.
"The Big One" has been scheduled in honor of another Big One, the November sweeps, a month-long period of intensive ratings-taking. NBC hopes it can lure huge crowds of viewers with this display of massive destruction and just-as-massive bad acting.
If you want to see the special effects -- the building wobble, the windows blow out, the fires erupt and an entire city go crash-boom -- you don't need to tune in until the second night. Except for some grumbling foreshocks, Part 1 consists of laying groundwork, not shaking it.
We meet the heroes and heroines of the story and learn the petty details of their daily lives as the monster quake looms. It's going to be a whopper, an 8.0 on the Richter scale with a 7.2 aftershock. "My God," says a civic official when it finally hits, "I can't believe it. Looks like our worst-case scenario wasn't the worst case."
After a catastrophe like this, nobody's life will ever be the same, except that many of the lives depicted in the movie are so dull that any change might be perceived as a blessing.
On the other hand, the producers seem to take a sadistic delight in killing off characters who are likable, who die after valiantly struggling for life or, in the case of the most heroic character of all, after courageously striving to protect the life of someone else.
You see, as if an earthquake weren't enough, the writers also invented a visiting black South African dignitary whom hired snipers have been sent to assassinate.
One sniper hangs in there, somewhat miraculously, on his rooftop perch even during the height of the destruction. In a hotel across the way, the dignitary, who is seeking to become the first nonwhite South African prime minister (the picture is set in the future, obviously) is gallantly protected by Clarence Gilyard Jr. as Bob Bryant, a vigilant cop.
What happens to Officer Bryant should not have.
Producers Frank von Zerneck and Robert M. Sertner have boasted in advance that their disaster movie is not going to be like other disaster movies. Perhaps they think they're being "realistic" to kill off characters for whom the audience is rooting, but it just comes off as perverse.
You can rest assured, however, that the nominal star of the picture, Joanna Kerns as a perspicacious seismologist, survives the disaster, after spending days and days running around town like a combination of Chicken Little and the Little Red Hen warning people that the end is near. Her whiny family also makes it through: a pallid hubbie played by the dolorous Dan Lauria and a sullen daughter played by pudgy Holly Fields.
Kerns, costar of ABC's sitcom "Growing Pains," does a pretty good job considering that so many of her scenes are repetitious -- confronting the skeptical nabobs with reams of portentous data. You can tell who the bad guys are going to be right off: an evil, greedy developer (Robert Ginty) and a corrupt bureaucrat (Joe Spano), typical scapegoats for Hollywood writers.
When the developer is told that the seismologist wants to warn the populace of the impending quake, he exclaims, "Do you know what this kind of thing could do to the real estate market in this town?" Upon learning that seaside areas are subject to "liquefaction," his reaction is an alarmed, "Property on the coastline won't be worth bull pucky!"
Bad as it is, "The Big One" does seem an improvement over the 1974 theatrical release "Earthquake," which also fantasized the destruction of L.A. Why do filmmakers keep returning to this topic? Guilt. They feel sheepish about all the money they make from mediocre entertainment and are haunted by the fear that there's biblical-scale retribution in the works.
At least "Earthquake" had Ava Gardner. The NBC version, directed by Larry Elikann, is the opposite of an all-star production. When credits say "Special appearances by Richard Masur and Ed Begley Jr.," you know you're not exactly in Star City.
Begley and Masur are two of the most inescapable yeoman actors working in television. Their appearances aren't special, and neither is the bloated, plodding and unnecessarily nasty movie they make them in.
'Psycho IV: The Beginning'
I was seized with an uncontrollable urge to kill, kill, kill! But so may you be if you watch "Psycho IV: The Beginning," a new Showtime cable movie that purports to be both prequel and sequel to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic.
Of course, murder would be too severe a punishment for the muttonheads who made this implausible travesty, but the third attempt at a follow-up to the Hitchcock original is as bad as the first two, if not a little worse.
You'd think the people at Showtime would have scheduled the film around Halloween, but instead they put it off until tonight at 9, with repeats scheduled for Nov. 16, 21 and 25.
There is reason to tune in tonight: Showtime also plans to unveil a "newly remastered" version of Hitchcock's original picture immediately following the premiere of "IV," the first uncut and commercial-free telecast, Showtime says. "Psycho" has never been shown by any of the broadcast networks and is often heavily censored when shown by local stations.
One good thing about "Psycho IV" is that it uses parts of the artfully unnerving string score that the late Bernard Herrmann wrote for the original film. From the first four jarring notes, this music is unmistakable, the greatest ever written for a thriller.
Joseph Stefano, who did the screenplay for the first "Psycho," also came up with the script for this one, but the years have not sharpened his creative powers.
Essentially, the new film is an illustrated version of the explanatory lecture given by a psychiatrist in "Psycho's" last reel. The shrink, played by the late Simon Oakland in the original and by Warren Frost in the new one, explained to the audience what had happened and why.
"Psycho IV" takes place years after the first film and after Norman Bates, America's most beloved homicidal maniac, has returned to society, but it also flashes back frequently to the sorry life of little Norman, a teenage boy tormented by a quixotic and domineering mommy.
Anthony Perkins, the human twitch, assumes the role of Norman for the fourth time, not counting a "Saturday Night Live" parody. Norman tells his sad story, implausibly and at arduous length, over the phone to a radio talk show host played by CCH Pounder.
As kind of an "in" joke, Norman uses the assumed name of "Ed" to maintain anonymity on the talk show. Ed Gein was the Wisconsin mass murderer whose '50s killing spree inspired the original novel on which "Psycho" was based. Norman threatens to "kill again" and the film's suspense depends on efforts by the talk show people to trace the call. This is thus a movie that could have been completely prevented by the telephone company's new Caller ID.
And should have been.
The same psychiatrist who analyzed Norman way back when is now on the book-plugging circuit with his latest tome, "The Mother Killers." Seems he made matricide a specialty. "Psycho IV" does have black-comic touches that evoke something of Hitchcock's macabre wit, but the scenes meant to be horrific come off as the most laughable of all.
These include the belated portrayal of Norman's first murders, when he spiked the iced tea of his mother and her boyfriend with strychnine. They keel over, but then they keep popping up again, so many times that it becomes quite funny.
Henry Thomas, that nice young man from "E.T.," took bad career advice and agreed to play Norman the addled adolescent. The beautiful Olivia Hussey, much too youthful to be believable, is totally miscast as the monster mom. Worse, she and Thomas have to act out incestuous encounters only alluded to in the first film.
"Psycho IV" couldn't scare anybody except people who are frightened by bad taste.