“They could become the next ‘adopted parents’ of seven strange children — or their next victims.”
Made-for-TV movies are pretty much a thing of the past these days when it comes to the big four networks, but it was a whole different world back in the 1970s. In those days the warped minds at NBC, CBS, and ABC were the only games in town — and they got away with murder. Some of the decade’s scariest and oddest thrillers actually premiered on square TVs including Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), The Initiation of Sarah (1978), and Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971). While those titles are probably familiar to you, though, there’s a whole creepy world of TV terrors that aren’t nearly as well remembered.
Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. First up? All the Kind Strangers.
Jimmy Wheeler (Stacy Keach) is driving through rural America, taking pictures, and looking for ward to getting back to civilization, but fate hands him something of a detour when he sees a young boy walking all alone in the middle of seemingly nowhere. Gilbert is carrying a clearly heavy bag, and with rain on the way Jimmy offers the kid a ride home down a winding dirt road that goes deeper into the woods than expected. When they reach the house Jimmy finds something of an unusual family unit waiting.
Gilbert has six siblings with the oldest among them, Peter (John Savage), having taken on the role of patriarch after their father’s accidental death years earlier. Weather and car trouble leaves Jimmy stuck there overnight, but as he talks with the kids’ mother Carol (Samantha Eggar) he notices something strange. She speaks glowingly about the children even as she writes “HELP” in a dusting of flour on the table.
All the Kind Strangers follows a familiar setup for dark cinema with its simple message that no good deed goes unpunished. It also tosses in some creepy kids for good measure, but the focus is on Jimmy’s helpful intentions landing him in a dangerous situation. He quickly discovers that Carol also joined the clan after offering a ride to little Gilbert — it would be another five years before she had children of her in David Cronenberg’s The Brood — and John soon makes it clear that Jimmy is on a trial period as their new dad. Of course, it’s a trial period involving locked doors, a pack of very well-trained guard dogs, and an impending vote to decide his fate.
Eggar plays Carol as understandably nervous and frightened, but Keach’s recent arrival on the scene leaves him still working through the situation with anger, anxiety, and an increasingly strained sense of humor. He’s incredulous of the threat, and the film slowly reveals more and more information to match his growing unease. The approach feels similar to one he’d revisit for 1981’s serial killer down under thriller Road Games, and it makes him extremely likable beyond even our automatic concern for him as a protagonist. His efforts to take charge and be fatherly aren’t always successful, but Keach makes makes it fun to watch as the strategic wheels of survival are spinning visibly behind his eyes.
The younger kids are mostly interchangeable, but Savage brings both menace and concern to a young man weighed down by the burden of having to protect and care for so many others. Arlene Farber was at the tail end of her short career, but as the oldest girl she lends the film a dangerous sex appeal. A theatrical film would have turned it sleazy, but while she’s restrained by TV standards of the time her intentionally sultry (and briefly murderous) tease is all the more powerful for it. Robby Benson, meanwhile, is the second oldest son but every bit as threatening early on as his ominous words are paired with a big, happy, off-putting grin.
He also pulls double duty here and sings the title song, “All the Kind Strangers,” which along with the film’s other original track (“What Are You Living For”) add to the atmosphere of it all. There’s affection in the songs, and despite the events unfolding the power and importance of family is a strong theme here. This isn’t Texas Chainsaw Massacre — these kids are maybe a bit bent, but they’re not eating their house guests. Instead there’s a bit of sadness to their experience, and it shifts the film from a descent into darkness towards a possible re-entry into the light.
Writer Clyde Ware has a few features to his name, but television is where he worked most steadily on shows like Gunsmoke and Airwolf. Director Burt Kennedy is a different story, though, as his biggest successes came on the big screen in the world of Westerns. Support Your Local Sheriff, Hannie Caulder, and The War Wagon are just a few of his more popular titles, and while the film at hand is set in the modern day (at the time) it carries more than a little of that Western vibe in its isolation of the action far removed from civilization.
All the Kind Strangers begins like any number of horror films, but it ends somewhere far more hopeful. It’s a rarity for the genre, but it feels exactly right here.