Saturday, December 01, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK #40: The Evil Touch (1974): "They"

Now here's another horror anthology curiosity from a bygone era, but unlike Darkroom (1981), this half-hour program aired in the early 1970s in syndication (1973-1974) and was made in Australia by American producer Mende Brown. The series featured a variety of American guest stars including Darren McGavin, Ray Walston, Vic Morrow and Leslie Nielson. The show was hosted by Anthony Quayle, who would walk out from a black background to address the audience during each installment (usually behind wisps of what appeared to be blue cigarette smoke...), and introduce and conclude each macabre story. His typical end note reminded audiences that "there is a touch of evil in all of us." Then, sardonically, he would add "Good night. Pleasant dreams."

Perhaps the weirdest entry of The Evil Touch (and that's quite an honor given some of the stories...) was "They", which aired in the New York market on June 2, 1974, and was written by Norman Thaddeus Vane and directed by Mende Brown. Harry Guardino stars as Dr. Fenton, a man who is on vacation in the English countryside with his young son, Peter...a boy who has dreamed of the remote landscape and even the old English village that is their destination. Just recently, a series of deaths have occurred there on the moors, on the rocks overlooking the ocean side. Narrator Quayle ponders "They say the sea can kill you," and then meditates on the nature of fate. "What makes people travel long distances?" He asks. "Is it destiny that leads them, or is the journey part of their destiny?"

Once you get your mind around that question, "They" descends into a world of barely linear storytelling that, despite this unconventional quirk, is actually quite compellingly surreal and horrifying; perhaps because it feels so dreamlike; or more accurately, nightmarish. What happens next in the story is that Peter gets lost on the moors and runs into a cult of malevolent children who wear rings of black make-up around their eyes...a sort of quasi punk affectation. They (the children) are led by a porcelain young beauty, a black-haired wraith called Lydia (Alexandra Hynes). She has already met Peter in his dreams. "I've come to show you my favorite game," she tells young Peter in one nocturnal visit to his bedroom. "It's called...touch."

Show me on the doll where the evil siren touched you...

Anyway, Lydia and her cult of evil children want to initiate Peter into their "new order" and so therefore play another game with him (which isn't as much fun as "touch"), this time "blind man's bluff," to see if he is worthy of membership. (And membership has its privileges). Blind-folded, Peter almost walks off the cliff where the other five corpses were found dead, but his father, Dr. Fenton, finds him and rescues him as he is about to take a giant step for child-kind.

The boy and his father flee to what they hope is safety in a nearby cottage and lighthouse, only to discover that it is the residence of Lydia and her minions. What follows is a confrontation between Fenton and Lydia for possession of Peter's soul. It plays like Village of the Damned meets Lord of the Flies meets The Wicker Man on acid at Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate. And dammit if it isn't effectively unnerving.

Lydia tells Dr. Fenton - who is a renowned advocate and lecturer on the subject of birth control (because overpopulation leads to starvation and "the population bomb," he says, "is more dangerous than the atom bomb,") - that they are enemies. She is the leader of "the Children of the New Order," (no, not the British rock band...) a new cult with dozens of groups across England alone. The children of the new order have given up on the Old Ones (meaning grown-ups) and are converting children to their cause. They want a world of perfection...a world of children. One-upping the Hippie generation in their philosophy, they believe that they can't trust anyone over fifteen...that with age comes corruption. The age of twelve is considered middle-aged by these kids.

Dr. Fenton attempts to reason with Lydia, "where do you get the experience, the maturity to rule?" He asks. Experience is sorrow, the cult suggests, maturity unnecessary.

In the final battle, Peter breaks Lydia's spell over him, and he and Dr. Fenton escape to the moors. But suddenly Dr. Fenton is trampled by a local bookshop owner whom Lydia has maliciously transformed into a wild pony (don't ask...). And then...on the bluff overlooking his father's corpse, Peter dons the black eyeshadow and...joins "They."

In closing, Quayle - our host - says "They are probably still somewhere on the moors..."

In that case, I'm never visiting England.

Seriously, what the heck does this story mean? Naturally, it feels very 1970s in a lot of ways, and that's the era that the great Irish poet (and story editor on Space:1999), Johnny Byrne has often called "the wake-up from the hippie dream." The Evil Touch's "They" portrays a generational clash in a world of limited resources, and does so in the language of "cultism." The great civic leaders of the 1960s (JFK, Robert Kennedy, MLK), had been replaced by radical cult leaders like Charles Manson, Jim Jones and the like. It was an era of war (Vietnam), scandal (Watergate), and an Energy Crisis, and there was a feeling that things had to change in a drastic, revolutionary way, if the human race was to survive the next decade. That's how cult leaders became powerful, because people were seeking answers in unconventional places. Of course, we did survive that era...but "They" plays into a fear of the impending end of the world, of an insurgency from "within" and it does so in the unsettling language of dreamscapes and phantasms. Fenton's murder by the horse, for example, is cut as a lyrical montage, utilizing slow-motion photography, extreme close-ups of the horse braying, and a super-imposed close-up of Fenton's agonized face as he is crushed. There are jump-cuts, flashbacks and other "trippy" film techniques here that we associate from the disco decade era, and the film grain, naturalistic approach and isolated, picturesque setting all add-up to something strangely disturbing. The gaps in conventional narrative are filled in by the imagination, and the result is something that - no matter how weird (and it is very weird...) deserves to be considered artistic.

Not many people remember The Evil Touch (and it ain't available on DVD...), and that's shame because it often told very weird stories like "They," on a super-low budget. But with that super-low budget came a super zeal and energy that the most expensive series mysteriously find difficult to replicate. The Evil Touch's "Kadaitcha Country" pitted Leif Erickson (as a Christian missionary) against an aborigine God in the Australian outback; "The Trial" found a haughty tycoon (with a secret) Ray Walston trapped in a nighttime carnival and pursued by a discredited brain surgeon-turned-tattoo-artist who wanted to perform a lobotomy on him. Another good one, "A Game of Hearts" saw a surgeon, Darren McGavin, terrorized by a donor (jokingly named Skorzeny) whose heart he had transplanted to another patient. These synopses make the whole enterprise sound strange, I guess, but The Evil Touch is strange in its own gloriously individual way...and I love that.

4 comments:

  1. Robert H.5:36 PM

    I remember this show... it always seemed to me that Anthony Quayle was in some smoky bar.
    Didn't Sylvester Stallone make an appearance in an episode of this, pre-ROCKY?

    As for DARKROOM - sort of a missed opportunity. It had the potential to be another NIGHT GALLERY, but it just never gelled.

    I remember "Closed Circuit", an episode with Robert Webber, Mary Frann and Richard Anderson, and "Makeup", based on a story by Robert McCammon with Billy Crystal, and adaptations of stories by Robert Bloch, Frederic Brown and William F. Nolan. Shame that this hasn't been rescued from oblivion, legally or otherwise.

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  2. Anonymous2:30 AM

    I played the role of Peter and never saw the episode ! if anyone ever see's this rebroadcast plase let me know!

    Steve

    sdecarteret@canby.com

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  3. Alexandra, Teresa in Skippy

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  4. Anonymous10:53 AM

    Sounds like a cultist version of "Wild In The Streets", without the twist ending.

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