The Girl in the Empty Grave DVD Review: Andy Griffith Shines in Forgotten TV Thriller

After all-but-becoming Sheriff Andy Taylor in that long-running, still-in-syndication classic television series with the whistling theme song, Andy Griffith was a natural selection when there was a small town country cop part to be cast. Sadly, the public apparently had an issue with Griffith being cast as a lawman within the confines of a fictitious rural community if the subject was that of a serious one. A 1974 TV-movie entitled Winter Kill starring Griffith was intended to sell a series to network audiences, and, when that failed, was altered into what would become the short-lived Adams of Eagle Lake, where Andy played a sheriff named Sam Adams.

And then, when that series was taken off the air and its prints silently shuffled away into the vaults, the networks tried the same damn formula still once more. Well, make that twice. But I’m only reviewing the first of two TV movies starring Andy Griffith as Police Chief Abel Marsh of Jasper Lake, CA here, a title aired by NBC in 1977 entitled The Girl in the Empty Grave.

Jasper Lake (in reality, the charming countryside of Big Bear Lake) is one of those small backwoods towns where everyone knows everyone, and bureaucracy is a backwards affair. The men and women of the police station have requested a new patrol car, only to receive a boat for the bordering lake. When officer Fred (Claude Earl Jones, at his prime here) eagerly opens a package that just showed up – his fellow officers and staff secretary, as played by James Cromwell, Hunter von Leer, and Mitzi Hoag, respectively – they are all quickly disappointed to see their unseen superiors have issued them a new broom head.

Yes, it’s that kind of a place. And when Fred casually starts out at Point A and goes to Point Z via every other letter shuffled in-between (and sometimes repeated) in order to inform Abel that he saw young Elizabeth Alden driving around earlier that day, Abel finds it hard to believe. Mainly because Ms. Alden met an untimely death the previous year when she recklessly (but accidentally) drove her Mustang off a cliff. But when Abel then sees the deceased gal drive by the station shortly thereafter, he begins one of the most nonchalant investigations ever to be recorded into the annals of police procedurals, even after two more bodies are added to the equation.

While the story and continuity bear those earnest (but nevertheless adorable) signs of a budget television production of yesteryear, The Girl in the Empty Grave manages to rise far above the rest thanks to some relentlessly witty dialogue by writer Lane Slate (who also penned several episodes of Adams of Eagle Lake along with the second Abel Marsh TV film, Deadly Game, in addition to writing the 1977 cult classic, The Car), who manages to give each and every backwoods resident of Jasper Lake unique lines and problems. Among the TV movie’s supporting cast are the likes of Jonathan Banks, George Gaynes, Mary-Robin Redd, Sharon Spelman, Robert F. Simon, Leonard Stone, Edward Winter, Byron Morrow, Eddie Foy Jr., and Don Keefer.

Rarely seen since its (what I can only assume was late-night due to the flat out open and hilarious discussion about sex in the workplace) debut in 1977, The Girl in the Empty Gravehas finally made it to home video via the Warner Archive Collection. A noticeable short shift in quality during one scene suggests that there was a secondary source used in order to present the TV movie in as uncut a manner as possible, but the overall condition of the bare-bones release is just fine, and the mono English audio track comes through as clear as a nice, sunny day spent on the shores of an otherwise peaceful Jasper Lake.


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Luigi Bastardo

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