Wednesday, December 05, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 41: Circle of Fear (1973): "Death's Head"

Today, I continue my recent survey of TV horror anthologies of decades past with a look at the less-than-inspiring Circle of Fear, which aired on NBC in the early 1970s. It's actually a continuation/modification of the short-lived series Ghost Story, which debuted in fall of 1972, but with a new title sequence and the removal of the Ghost Story narrator - Sebastion Cabot as Winston Essex. Whereas Ghost Story (produced by William Castle and developed for television by Richard Matheson) featured wraparound segments involving Winston Essex in his mansion, "Essex House," Circle of Fear cuts right to the chase, or in this case, the lack-of-chase. After an opening sequence featuring a hypnotic orange whirlygig spinning around (like Motel Hell's hypno wheel...), we find ourselves directly in a dull as dishwater hour-long horror tale, usually one about cosmic justice being meted out.

Last night I watched the first Circle of Fear episode "Death's Head" by Rick Blum and directed by James Neilson. It stars a way-too-thin Janet Leigh as Carol, an unhappily married suburbanite whose neglectful spouse, Steve (Gene Nelson) is a collector of insects. Steve says he "preserves" and "beautifies" bugs for his collection, but Carol hates insects. After she kills a spider she finds roaming her bedroom one night, Steve decides to stuff and mount the arachnid next to the pride of his collection: a death's head moth.

Steve's buddy and law partner, Larry (Rory Calhoun) drops by and when Carol practically drops trou for him amidst a sea of come-hither looks, talks to Steve about the fact that he's neglecting his wife, who - after all - is still a very attractive woman. "We've just developed different interests," says Steve, who then suggests that Larry take Carol out for the afternoon.

Larry agrees and takes Carol to a boardwalk where they look at voodoo dolls. Then, Carol finds her way to an herb shop that sells "potions and elixirs" as well as "all things real and imagined." There, Carol purchases poison from a gypsy woman. All she needs to be free is the poison and "an ounce of courage" to off Steve, so she can be with hunky Larry.

So that night, over cups of instant sanka, Carol politely poisons and killer poor Steve. Almost immediately, however, Carol begins to experience nightmares about Steve's death's head moth. A very fake-looking flapping moth silhouette menaces her by black of night, and she dreams of the gypsy: now old and menacing and taunting her. Oopsy.

Blogger's interjection: At this point in the episode I noticed that my wife, Kathryn, was miraculously still awake, even though it was quite late. I had to question her about this. "You can't stay awake for great episodes of The Twilight Zone, but for this - for this - you're hanging on?" To which she replied. "I've got to stay up for this..this is a train wreck."

Back to the train wreck: At this point in "Death's Head," Janet Leigh returns to the gypsy herb shop and asks the gypsy what she knows about death's head moths. Oddly, the gypsy is a repository for just this very question, and goes into a lengthy and detailed exposition about how the death's head moth is "said to be an eternal cage for disembodied spirits...for spirits who find no peace in death."

So - you guessed it - Carol's husband gets revenge from beyond the grave and the last ten minutes of the episode involve Janet Leigh running madly around a dark house swatting at invisible bugs, turning over furniture. In the end, Larry comes over for a visit and finds that Carol - gasp - has switched places with Steve. Her skull is now implanted on the body of the death's head moth.


First, before tearing this show apart, I'd like to establish that I am an advocate for releasing Ghost Story/Circle of Fear on DVD. I'm a completist, what can I say? And a historian of the genre too. Occasionally, like Kathryn, I'm in the mood for a train wreck, and if nothing else, the series deserves a fair hearing given the talent involved (Jimmy Sangster is on board as a writer for some installments; as is my hero, Dorothy Fontana).

But jeez. This should be called CIrcle of Sominex.

What "Death's Head" demonstrates most clearly is that the horror anthology format works best in short doses - not in hour-long installments. The Twilight Zone learned this lesson the hard way after a fourth season expansion to an hour. Darkroom and Night's Gallery both were an hour long, but featured multiple stories in that span. Other anthologies, from Tales from the Darkside to Monsters to Evil Touch are traditionally thirty minutes. This leaves no time for boredom: the stories get in, do their macabre jobs, and then finish up. No fuss, no muss. Indeed, this is my biggest beef with the usually very-entertaining but occasionally flaccid Masters of Horror. Some of the lesser tales feel padded out at an hour, and so suspense and tension just leak out. A notable exception to this trend: the 1960s Outer Limits (not the crappy 1990s one...), which even at an hour in duration was exquisite, dramatic and terrifying.

I also believe the changes from Ghost Story to Circle of Fear didn't do this anthology series much good. I prefer an anthology with a narrator or at least an understandable leitmotif or cosmic mechanism. Winston Essex might not have been perfect in Ghost Story, but he could provide exposition and comment on the tales. In The Twilight Zone we had a great narrator in Rod Serling, but also that wonderful umbrella of the unknown, "the fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man." Lesser - but interesting horror anthologies, such as Evil Touch at least attempted to craft this aura, even if it was as simple a catchphrase as "there is a touch of evil in all of us," or a simple mechanism like "the darkside" in Tales from the Darkside. Circle of Fear has what, precisely? Where's the Cryptkeeper when you need him?

"Death's Head" is also weakened by the fact that the special effects are atrocious, and that nothing scary ever really happens. Instead, there are just long passages of Janet Leigh roaming around a dark house, upset that (invisible...) bugs are fouling the swimming pool or impeding her bedtime. Snoozarama (except for Kathryn, apparently...).

I'd love to report that "Death's Head" is an anomaly and that other Circle of Fear episodes are superior. But categorically - they're not. This show is an object lesson in how not to do a horror anthology. Again, I think of that low-budget, high-achieving Australian import, Evil Touch. It failed as often as it succeeded, but it never bored me.


  1. joey_bishop_jr.10:54 AM

    What is it with Rory Calhounb and hypno wheels, anyway? Geez...

  2. Anonymous11:45 AM

    An anthology show that I'd heartily recommend is the often overlooked 1980's revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (available on DVD from Image Entertainment). Quite a few episodes are staggeringly good: "Shatterday" starring Bruce Willis, based on a story by Harlan Ellison, "A Message From Charity", "Her Pilgrim Soul", "A Small Talent For War", "To See the Invisible Man" (an entire SERIES could be based on this fascinating episode!), "Quarantine", "Profile in Silver" (starring Lane Smith as a time traveler who prevents the Kennedy assasination...oddly enough, Lane Smith later played Richard Nixon in a TV mini-series), "A Day in Beaumont" (a parody of the Original Twilight Zone series, comprised of plots--and actors--from the original series), "The Once and Future King", "Time & Teresa Golowitz", "Voices in the Earth", "The Cold Equations" (based on the famous short story by Tom Godwin--in the '90's there was a USA network movie based on this story which starred Billy Campbell), "The Wall" (This episode is very similar to STARGATE which came a decade later). I could go on and on about The New Twilight Zone...

  3. I do enjoy anthologies, Amicus and Hammer House come to mind. The British have a ironic sense of horror that I enjoy, not scary, but certainly tragic. I have watched a few Circle of Fear episodes on YouTube and find them mildly enjoyable.