The Return of the Incredible Hulk (1977, Alan J. Levi)

The Return of the Incredible Hulk is the second pilot movie for the subsequent “Incredible Hulk” TV series. It aired three weeks after the first pilot, which featured the origin of the Hulk–scientist Bruce Bixby turns himself into green-skinned musclebound grotesque Lou Ferrigno thanks to gamma rays–and his pursuer, annoying, uninformed tabloid reporter Jack Colvin. Luckily Colvin doesn’t come into Return until over a half hour in so there’s limited Colvin, which is just fine. Return has enough acting… issues without Colvin mucking up too many scenes.

It’s not all Colvin’s fault; the details of his scenes are idiotic television shorthand. But it’s not like he makes the scenes work, which an actor could with some enthusiasm. The cast of Return of the Incredible Hulk is usually at least enthusiastic–all the guest stars act like they’re auditioning for a regular CBS show, which they are–but not Colvin. He’s just an unenthusiastic jackass, which isn’t a good kind of jackass.

And Colvin isn’t the one who drags Return down. The Return of the Incredible Hulk is a perfectly adequate, lower mediocre, late seventies television pilot. The one impressive shot in it doesn’t even involve the Hulk and it’s only technically impressive. Director Levi does show some interest occasionally, but he also shoots some really mediocre scenes. He’s got no interest in the soap opera aspects of the story, which is sort of a Gothic about a troubled young woman (Laurie Prange), who lost her father and her ability to walk, now getting sicker and sicker, in the care of stepmother Dorothy Tristan and special doctor William Daniels. Although an heiress, her true love is Gerald McRaney. He disappears after the first third, which is too bad. He’s rather enthusiastic about the whole thing.

Prange ends up getting the spotlight, befriending both Bixby and Ferrigno–separately. She calms Ferrigno’s beast and Bixby is trying to save her from those conspiring against her. Though there’s not much mystery in who’s conspiring against her. Kenneth Johnson’s teleplay is nothing if not efficient. The moment after Bixby reveals he knows Daniels’s doing something slimy, Daniels’s conspirator confronts Daniels about it. So all of a sudden Return’s got specific villains who have specific henchmen for Ferrigno to fight.

All the action takes place on Prange’s orange orchard in Northern California. At the opening, before it’s been made clear what a low bar Return is going for, it almost seems like there’s going to be a Bill Bixby as Tom Joad thing. There isn’t.

There is a Lou Ferrigno is Boris Karloff with the old man, which would be a lot more amusing if the old man didn’t stick around the rest of the movie. John McLiam plays the old man, a loner who has cut himself off from the world because of tragedy. He’s a veteran. He’s also a drunken Northern California hillbilly living in a surprisingly well-lighted shack. Oh, and his introduction is taunting the chicken he’s cooking about how he’s going to eat it.

And McLiam plays it all straight, which is just the wrong way to play it.

Everyone in Return, with the exception of Colvin and McLiam, tries. Daniels has some good nerdy creep moments. Tristan has some good moments. Some bad ones too, but at least there’s some energy to her performance. Though muted… as it appears in Charles W. Short’s thoroughly competent and boring lighting.

Prange tries. And she is frequently bad. But when the script’s at its best and the melodrama is toned down, Prange has a really good moment or two. There’s a sweetness between she and Ferrigno and it’s entirely from the actors. Johnson makes the time in the movie for it, but–as producer–he doesn’t make Levi enable it. Instead they rely on Joseph Harnell to do a terrible theme for Prange, separate from the “Incredible Hulk” theme, which gets a disco-ish remix early on in Return. And they use that theme for Prange ad nauseam. It ruins scenes, it ruins momentum.

Because Return finally gets some momentum in the second half, when Bixby, Prange, and McLiam are on the run. Through the Northern California orange country swamp, chased by men with dogs and a guy in a helicopter. And there are snakes.

And bears. And Ferrigno fights a bear. It’s not a bad fight. Like, for a TV pilot movie? With the “Hulk”’s demographic target audience? It’s a decent bear fight. Much cooler than the rest of the Ferrigno action. There’s too much slow motion, not enough choreography. When there’s choreography–even a little bit–it works better. There’s also the breaking stuff factor. Ferrigno breaks things (it’s the reason Bixby can’t stay in one place too long, Ferrigno might break something–not kill someone, break something). They’re big things, sure, but the set pieces are often tedious in Return. And sometimes Levi will all of a sudden decent to get serious during a fight scene and totally change the tempo.

But the bear fight is cool.

The snake not so much.

There’s also a quicksand sequence, because it’s a TV pilot movie from the late seventies. The quicksand is a disappointment.

I forgot McRaney (just the like the movie; though maybe he was busy shooting other things). He’s not good, but he’s likable. You can tell he’s got the TV star thing down. And when he’s in the movie, there’s at least a chance for it to go someplace surprising, story-wise.

It’s when he disappears Return becomes a race to the half hour chase scene.

And the half hour chase scene makes up for the rest. Enough for a late seventies TV pilot movie. The whole thing is an audition tape for Bill Bixby and the various things he’ll be able to do on the subsequent series. There’s just enough with Ferrigno to show off the action possibilities. Prange has just the right amount of tragedies to show off the sentimental possibilities. Bixby’s likability, especially opposite Prange, makes up for a lot throughout. Johnson does a fine job advertising a series.

While still adequately plotting out the ninety minutes. Return is well-produced, it’s just unimaginatively executed and rather underacted.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alan J. Levi; teleplay by Kenneth Johnson Johnson, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Charles W. Short; edited by Glenn Lawrence and Jack W. Schoengarth; music by Joseph Harnell; produced by Johnson; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Bill Bixby (Dr. David Banner), Laurie Prange (Julie Griffith), John McLiam (Michael), William Daniels (Dr. John Bonifant), Dorothy Tristan (Margaret Griffith), Gerald McRaney (Denny Kayle), Jack Colvin (Jack McGee), Victor Mohica (Rafe), Robert Phillips (Phil), Mills Watson (Sheriff), and Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk)..


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