CULT TV FLASHBACK # 54: Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (1977) :
Unfortunately for the obscure series, Stephen King is just about the only horror scholar or reviewer (besides me!) who actually remembers Tales of the Unexpected at all! This obscure Quinn Martin venture ran for just eight hour-long episodes in February, May and August of 1977, airing on Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm. It then disappeared...never to be rerun, never to be seen on the Sci-Fi Channel in the U.S., never released on VHS (save for a two-hour episode called "The Force of Evil," released by Worldvision in 1987) and not yet released on DVD. Call it Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unremembered.
Narrated by the late William Conrad, Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected is a color genre program that offers a different tale of the macabre each week, one that almost universally culminates with a shocking (or not so shocking...) twist or "sting." Many of the stories deal explicitly with the vicissitudes of human nature, but many of the episodes also rely on "stock" genre elements and therefore lack a necessary element of originality or freshness. Sometimes, the series seems as slow as molasses...
At an hour in length, the derivative nature of each of the tales combined with the snoozy pacing actually made them somewhat less than unexpected. More like Tales of the Predictable. Ironically, a low-budget show from Australia - The Evil Touch (1973) - in syndication a few years earlier than Tales of the Unexpected aired - boasted a deeper understanding of horror, not to mention better pacing, and covered virtually identical territory in terms of narrative and themes. Still, I'd like to see a release of this series on DVD for the simple historical value of the show.
Among the eight episodes in the canon here is a re-write of The Invaders' opening story ("Beachhead"), now re-named "The Nomads" and featuring David Birney in the Roy Thinnes role. The plot follows a Vietnam veteran who witnesses an alien race landing on Earth and preparing an invasion. Naturally, he has trouble convincing anybody that his story in true.
Another episode, the aforementioned "The Force of Evil," is a diluted 1970s TV version of the 50s' feature, Cape Fear, with a character named Teddy Jakes (William Watson) assuming the stalking duties of an ostensibly unavailable Max Cady. Lloyd Bridges (in the Gregory Peck role) watches helplessly as Jakes terrorizes his family, kills the family pet (a horse), and creepily befriends his daughter, The Brady Bunch's Eve Plumb. One confrontation scene even occurs on a house boat(!), as if the other story similarities to Cape Fear aren't obvious enough. What the long-winded "The Force of Evil" adds to the Cape Fear mix is the notion that the stalker villain may be supernatural, a kind of "walking dead" back from the grave and ready to party.
"A Hand for Sonny Blue," another Tales of the Unexpected episode, recounts the misery of Dodgers pitcher Sonny Blue (Rick Nelson) when his right hand is crushed in a car accident, and he receives a transplant (one that narrator Conrad informs us does not originate from God, but from [presumably evil] science!!!). Turns out Sonny boy's new right hand is pretty darn bad. It oncebelonged to a criminal (a murderer who robbed a liquor store...) and is now up to its nasty old tricks.
Based on the short story "The Hand That Wouldn't Behave" by Emile C. Schurmacher, "A Hand for Sonny Blue" was directed by the great Curtis Harrington (Who Slew Auntie Roo? and The Dead Don't Die) but even his remarkable talent couldn't bring much originality to the oft-told tale of a transplanted limb possessed by evil. The story's surprise climax (presaging Bobby Ewing's appearance in the shower by the better part of a decade), was the ultra-annoying revelation that the entire story was...a dream. D'oh! "There is no present, no future...only the past...and it happens again and again," suggested our omnipotent gravel-voiced narrator in a closing commentary that made no sense and seemed to bear no empirical connection to the tale that preceded it.
During it's brief spell on network television, Tales of the Unexpected also featured a story about a reporter (Roy Thinnes) undercover on death row, called "The Final Chapter," as well as the tale of a man (Bill Bixby) caught in a time warp, entitled "No Way Out." Other stories included "Devil Pack" (about hell hounds) starring Ronny Cox, "The Mask of Adonis," about the eternal quest for youth, and "You're Not Alone," which pitted Joanna Pettet against a stalker.
I pretty much love anything that aired on television in the 1970s for nostalgia's sake, but I can't really make a very powerful critical argument in favor of this particular anthology. More tedious than thrilling, Tales of the Unexpected is a perfect example of what can happens when a non-horror guy (Quinn Martin) produces a horror show without really understanding the terrain. The plots are familiar and hackneyed, the twists aren't really twists at all, and the scares are few and far between.
That said, Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected features a great opening credit montage and pulse-pounding theme song.
Anyone out there remember this one?