A peculiar made-for-TV drama that mixes lofty dialogue and pulpy sensationalism, Sweet Hostage features the unlikely screen pairing of Martin Sheen, then 35 and at the height of his Badlands-era intensity, and Linda Blair, then 16 and caught in an awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood. To say there’s a disparity between what each actor brings to the table is an understatement, but the tension between their skill sets works in a queasy sort of way.
Playing an escaped mental patient who kidnaps a young woman while hiding from authorities in a remote part of New Mexico, Sheen explodes with energy and talent, riffing through dozens of accents and showcasing fluid physicality—he’s such a live wire that his performance would seem excessive if he didn’t have the leeway provided by his character’s mental illness. Conversely, Blair plays a simple farm girl aching to learn more about the outside world, so her job is mostly to watch Sheen’s character with confused fascination. While Blair’s leaps back and forth between girlish innocence and womanly coquettishness aren’t executed all that smoothly, she more or less gets the job done, and she seems quite sincere by the end of the picture.
Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley called Welcome to Xanadu, the picture is structured like a standard thriller, with frequent cutaways to police officers and worried parents trying to find the kidnapped girl, though the bulk of the movie comprises two-character scenes in which the erudite mental patient beguiles his “sweet hostage” with grammar instruction, poetry readings, and romantic compliments. It’s never totally clear what his intentions were in abducting the girl, although sexual attraction is implied from the earliest scenes, but then again, the same fact of mental illness that gives Sheen free rein for dramatic opulence cuts the storytellers some slack. And if Blair’s characterization is a bit dicey—it’s always hard to believe transformations from reluctant captivity to voluntary imprisonment—the point of the piece is a young woman opening herself to a larger world of ideas and language through the peculiar circumstance of meeting a troubled aesthete.
That said, don’t get the idea that Sweet Hostage is some poetic little gem made with consummate taste; though the direction by TV veteran Lee Phillips is vibrant, the music score is ghastly, bursting with inappropriate arrangements and overripe cues. There’s even a wretched theme song, “Strangers on a Carousel,” which manages to be insipid and saccharine all at once. In other words, Sweet Hostage is very much trapped by its nature as a TV movie, lacking narrative sophistication and post-production polish. Plus, to be frank, it’s a Linda Blair vehicle. Within those limitations, however, Sweet Hostage is arresting and offbeat. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Sweet Hostage: FUNKY