Monday, January 25, 2010

The Girl Most Likely To (1973)

Directed by Lee Phillips
Starring Stockard Channing, Suzanne Zenor, Larry Wilcox

Remember those long-gone days when major networks would routinely corral a small truckload of their reigning prime-time stars and squeeze them all into a TV Movie of the Week? This is one of those. Don't let that deter you, however. Sure, there's a jarring commercial break-friendly blackout every 20 minutes and a suspicious lack of cuss words or nudity, but beyond the family-friendly veneer you'll find a wicked bit of pitch-black comedy that plays like a snarky cross between Dr. Phibes and Heathers.

A pre-Grease Stockard Channing toplines as Miriam Knight, a frumpy, dog-faced, wisecracking college girl with high hopes but low self-esteem. Miriam routinely swaps out universities, endlessly searching for a school with a boy-girl ratio lopsided enough for even an uggo like her to have a shot at a boyfriend. She finally decides on State University, since it's got the biggest pool of available men, and does her best to pitch woo.

Her roommate, Heidi ( Suzanne Zenor, the original Chrissy in the first Three's Company pilot), is a vivacious blonde cheerleader hotly pursued by most of the male population at the school. Dim-bulbed and vain, Heidi barely notices her new roomie, and when she does interact with her, it's mostly to bully her into secretarial duties. In exchange, she routinely sets Miriam up on blind dates with her cast-offs, but they always end in bitter humiliation for ugly duckling heroine.

Miriam's object of affection is a lunk-headed football player named Moose (Larry Wilcox, best known as Ponch's motorcycle cop partner in CHIPS). She lucks out when he's forced to take tutoring lessons from her to get his grades up. They end up going to the drive-in together, and Miriam is fairly certain she'll finally lose her virginity - with a popular jock, no less.

Alas, her clumsy attempts at seduction end in mayhem, and Miriam remains unwillingly chaste.

Things finally turn around for our plucky heroine when she scores the lead role in the school play. She even calls up her shlubby on-again off-again fiancé Herman (Warren Berlinger) to come watch her debut performance. It all goes swimmingly until she's handed a bouquet of roses on stage - she's deathly allergic to them. The performance abruptly ends in a fit of sneezes and coughs, Miriam's briefly adoring fans now erupting in derisive laughter at the red-faced actress.

Overcome with grief Miriam tears ass out of there and ends up smashing her car - and most of her face and body - into bits. The paramedics shovel what's left into the ambulance and take her to hospital.

I mentioned that this is a comedy, right?

After several reconstructive surgery procedures and months of rehabilitation, Miriam is finally ready to have her bandages taken off. When she is fully unraveled, she is shocked to find that she is now slender and gorgeous (well, as gorgeous as Stockard Channing can get, anyway), and finds that men are now ga-ga over her. So, naturally, she uses her newly acquired attractiveness to plot the and execute the murders of everyone who has ever wronged her, from Heidi to callous Dr Gates (The Love Boat's own Fred Grandy).

The deaths are not graphic, but they are gruesome - master-of-disguises Miriam convinces Heidi to backflip off their balcony to her doom; Dr Gates is given unnecessary surgery and dies on the operating table; Herman-the-plumber is drowned in a bathtub; one of Miriam's pool-playing blind dates is blown to smithereens with an exploding 8 ball; and so on - and Miriam, who appeared to be quite sane and rational before the surgery, shows no sign of regret or remorse for her killing spree.

Naturally, there's a police investigation. Grizzled detective Ed Asner is on the case. He is reasonably sure he knows who the culprit is. He is also reasonably sure that he's madly in love with her, as well.

Will Miriam finally find true love while she's still knee-deep in a bloody revenge war? And can a by-the-books cop cast a blond eye to the mayhem to snag the sociopath of his dreams?

Sure. Sort of.

Written by Joan Rivers - already obsessed with plastic surgery, nearly forty years ago - and directed by 50's TV actor turned 60/s70's TV everyman Lee Phillips, The Girl Most Likely To is a gleefully mean-spirited piece of work that predates contemporary schoolgirl killer romps like Heathers, Jawbreaker, and Jennifer's Body by decades. Of course, there is very little explanation for why Miriam would go from a friendly, reasonably well-adjusted young lady to a cold-blooded murderess so quickly, but who knows? Maybe they tweaked her brain as well during surgery.

Littered with recognizable faces - Jim Backus is the school's drama instructor, Chuck McCann is the football coach, a very young and pretty Annette O'Toole is one of Miriam's classmates - and anchored by the impressive Channing, who somehow manages to remain likable, even when she's killing everybody around her - The Girl Most Likely To is classic nihilistic 70's cinema, fun and funny and almost absurdly dark. Mean girls - or anyone with an affection/boner for mean girls (guilty!) - will love it.

Clip: The Cheerleader Gets It!

- Ken McIntyre

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