Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Five Most Savage Episodes in Cult-TV History

As I wrote in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), I'm a committed proponent of the early-to-mid 1970s "Savage Cinema," a span which gave the world such films as Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and later The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  I connect with these movies so deeply and thoroughly, I suspect, because the filmmakers took the so-called "New Freedom" of the epoch (in terms of screen standards) and then systematically disconnected the horror genre from its exotic roots.  The films I name-checked above don't take place in Transylvanian castles, upon the misty moors, or in the pyramids of Egypt.  They don't take occur on the Amazon River, in the Arctic, or in other foreign locales.  Instead, the savage horror films of the 1970s dramatically re-positioned horror as something that could happen in the here and now, in our time, in our place.  It was terror...brought home.

The Savage Cinema of the 1970s also showcased for audiences absolutely horrible human behavior.  Gone were the familiar but supernatural monsters like Dracula, the Werewolf, the Mummy or Frankenstein's creation.  Instead, "mad" men -- all mortals -- were presented as brutal, violent, uncontrollable dangers in the efforts of Craven, Hooper, Peckinpah and Boorman, among others.  It was an entirely new paradigm, and one that changed the trajectory of horror cinema. The Savage Cinema eschewed romance, tragedy and other artificial or theatrical qualities too.  It shattered existing Hollywood conventions and decorum.  In short, the Savage Cinema showcased the full ugliness of man at point-blank range, with not only cut-throat bluntness, but with a total understanding of how film grammar could be manipulated to impact audiences on an almost subconscious level.

As unlikely as it seems given that TV is widely "homogenized" to appeal to all people all the time, some genre TV programs have really gone all out -- guns blazing -- to create the barbarous, fierce atmosphere we might commonly associate with The Savage Cinema.   The following five episode titles represent my list for the most "savage episodes" in cult-TV history, although I readily admit that these selections are personal ones, and that people of good conscience can disagree, or provide alternate titles of comparable value.  

But the first time I watched each of the following programs, I was rocked back on my heels at the violence portrayed, and more than that, by the brutal vision of humanity showcased by the various programs.  These are the five titles guaranteed to trouble your peaceful slumber.

The programs are listed in ascending order, from #5 to #1.

5. The Evil Touch: "The Trial."

Airing on local stations in 1973 and 1974, The Evil Touch was an Australian-made anthology of limited means, namely an extremely low-budget.  Accordingly, each week the series, hosted by Anthony Quayle, felt like a jewel-in-the-rough and a "discovered" horror movie.  Many episodes generate fear an a nearly primal level, but none more so than "The Trial," first aired in New York City on February 3, 1974.  Written by Michael Fisher and directed by Mende Brown, the episode involved a nasty millionaire, Lon Zachary (Ray Walston) who had for twenty years scorned the friends -- carnies -- who took him in and had raised him from childhood.

Now, Lon intends to destroy the carnival fairgrounds (to make room for condominiums), but his carnie peers put him on trial for his misdeeds, and concoct a punishment that will bring Lon -- formerly Elmo the Geek -- back into the fold.  The group's tattoo artist, you see, was once a brain surgeon...

I don't want to reveal more than necessary here, especially because the series is not yet available on DVD, but the episode's final moments generate a throat-tightening sense of panic as Ray Walston's character realizes that there is no escape, and that he is bound for a grisly, life-altering fate.  A hard-hitting, just desserts story, "The Trial" is one savage humdinger of a half-hour.

4. Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Other Way Out."

This remarkably effective third season entry from Rod Serling's second TV anthology is similar, in some fashion to "The Trial."  Written and directed by Gene Kearney, this tale originally aired on November 19, 1972.  "The Other Way Out involves Bradley Meredith (Ross Martin), a man who believes he can get away scot-free with the murder of a go-go girl.   However, a blackmailer soon contacts Meredith and gives him instructions for a drop off of 10,000 dollars at an isolated location.  In a twist worthy of The Virgin Spring (the basis for Last House on the Left), Meredith ends up at the rural home of his blackmailer, a creepy, cold-blooded Burl Ives.

The Ives character goes on and on recounting to Meredith about how he'll receive his comeuppance for murder from his grandson, "Sonny."  These stories provoke such fear in Meredith that he attempts to escape the house and is attacked by murderous dogs.  He returns to the house, and learns from Ives that there is one "other way" out of the house.  Meredith believes he finds it too: a passageway behind a fireplace in the living room, and then a hatchway down deep into the Earth...

Frenetic and frantic, "The Other Way Out" culminates with a surprise revelation about "Sonny," and then another twist about Meredith's "other way out."   Again, I don't want to reveal the episode's startling finale, but it's bleak as hell, and a statement about man's cruelty to his fellow man.  It all comes down to how you define a way "out," I suppose. 

The element most recognizable from the Savage Cinema in "The Other Way Out" is the culture clash.  Here a slick businessman -- a creature of the city -- encounters a country, redneck family.  Meredith believes he can buy his way out of trouble, perhaps because money has always solved his problems in the past.  But the Burl Ives character is having none of it, and decides to hold Meredith accountable to HIS version of God's law.

3. Torchwood: "Countrycide"

I reviewed this startling, grotesque 2006 episode of the British sci-fi series last week.   But in "Countrycide" by Chris Chibnall and directed by Andy Goddard,  a top-secret British agency investigating aliens learns that all existentialist threats don't come from the heavens above.  In fact, man himself is, perhaps, the ultimate "monster."  This idea would become a common theme as the series wore on, especially in season three's "Children of Earth."  In "Countrycide," however Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and the other team members run afoul of vicious cannibals in the English countryside.  One team member realizes -- after gazing into a refrigerator filled with body parts -- that they are to be "food."

Harrowing, bloody and gory as hell, "Countrycide" works as Savage Cinema in part because of its philosophically provocative ending, which finds Gwen interrogating the leader of the cannibals.  She demands answers.  Why has he done this?  Why has he treated people like this,  She needs answers, so she can preserve her view of the world and carry on as moral crusader.  But the cannibal's answer to her interrogative was and remains chilling.  To hurt other human beings -- to treat them as nothing but ingredients -- makes the killer "happy."  It's a chilling response, and one that sends Gwen into a moral tailspin. 

This ties in to the reckoning seen quite often in Craven films: that man can be roused to bloody violence (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) but that after the veneer of civilization is  ripped off, it's difficult to put the pieces back together.

2. Millennium: "The Fourth Horseman"

The episodes featured on this list thus far have involved vengeance/punishment ("The Trial" and "The Other Way Out") and the sometimes inexplicable depths of human hatred and inhumanity ("Countrycide").  Millennium's (1996 - 1999) "The Fourth Horseman" is a somewhat different animal.   Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Dwight Little, this second season episode of Millennium saw Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) contending with a new, man-made disease that was to be intentionally unleashed upon America.

That doesn't sound like Savage Cinema in terms of premise, but certainly the presentation fits the bill.  In one of the most horrifying scenes I've ever witnessed on American broadcast television, an average, WASP-y American family is utterly and grotesquely destroyed before our eyes.  The occasion is middle-class family's Sunday dinner (Mother's Day, if memory serves.)  The family members don't realize it, but they are actually eating chicken contaminated with the fatal disease.

After first showcasing trademark images of "Americana" (a backyard grill and the ubiquitous football game on the TV), the scene turns sour rather dramatically.  The mother grows ill first, and blood starts to pour from her neck.  Then, blood-filled lesions begin to form on the other family members, and they cough and bleed out -- they literally sweat out blood -- in a matter of seconds.  In one especially horrific shot, a family member reaches for the telephone to dial 911, but as a finger hits the dial blood explodes from the digit and splatters the device.

What should be sacrosanct -- the safe, secure, American middle-class hearth -- is instead corrupted and destroyed in "The Fourth Horseman."  If that isn't indicative of a savage, tradition-shattering modus operandi, I don't know what is.  And once more, horror is brought home to us in a palpable, graphic way, and nobody is spared.  Not even the kids.

and finally...

1. The X-Files: "Home."

This notorious X-Files episode, also written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, was directed by Kim Manners and aired only once in prime time  -- on October 11, 1996 -- before Fox banned it.   Here, Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny investigate the quiet town of Home, PA, where a dead baby has been unearthed in a baseball field near the Peacock home.

The Peacocks are no ordinary American family, however.  The three adults brothers are horribly deformed, and their crazy old mother -- a quadruple amputee -- lives under her bed on a little, make-shift scooter.  The boys pull her out occasionally, chew her food for her, and even -- yikes -- impregnate her to add numbers to the disfigured brood.

After the Peacocks murder Home's Sheriff Andy Taylor and his wife with baseball bats, Mulder and Scully lay siege to the homestead, only to be faced with a vile interior lined with deadly booby traps...

Okay, I love "Home."  I absolutely love it.  Along with "Bad Blood"  and "The Host," I consider it one of the best episodes of the long-lived Chris Carter series.  In  terms of setting, the Peacock's wrecked farmhouse recalls Leatherface's house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the savage family's finely-honed survival instincts plays like something from The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  What makes the episode so remarkable, and the quality that lands the episode into the heralded savage cinematic territory of social critique (like Last House on the Left), however,  is the manner in which the story sets up the main conflict, a dueling views of "civilization."  The police and "normal" people of Home live by one code, and the Peacocks -- as we learn in bloody fashion -- live by another code.    Yet the Peacocks clearly cherish family, right?  And they "stand their ground" when attacked by the government on their own land.  How different from us are they, really?  

One of the most terrifying sequences I've ever seen on television arrives in this episode of The X-Files.  The Taylors realize they have left their front door unlocked, and the Peacocks pull up to their house...for bloody vengeance.  Sheriff Taylor's wife cowers under the bed as her husband is bludgeoned to death nearby, and then -- boom -- she is up for the same treatment next.  It's a blood bath that plays on the universal fear of home invasion.

I'd wager that anybody who saw "Home" in 1996 -- in prime time, no less -- never forgot this particular episode, a grotesque exercise in sheer horror, and in my estimation the most savage episode in cult-TV history.  


  1. The X-Files: "Home."

    I hated that episode.
    From what I remember, the series was going through a wild swing in it's choice of stories and subjects. Somebody must have told them they needed more gruesome stuff or something.
    I appreciated the humor at the very beginning, though.

  2. I agree completely about "Home." I was lucky enough to catch it the first time it aired, and I remember thinking, "They will never get to show this again."

  3. Anonymous11:01 AM

    The impact that a 'savage' program had is also tied to when it first aired. Torchwood's "Countryside" is hardly that shocking in light of the fact that primetime crime shows (CSI, etc.) have been showing grisly corpses for years. The X-Files "Home" is memorable because it is one of the series best episodes and largely free of all the conspiracy nonsense the show often indulged in.

    For sheer shock value, the sight of Brian Blessed's slimy, steaming corpse in Space:1999's "Death's Other Dominion" comes to mind. Audiences in 1975 slimply hadn't seen anything like that on a sci-fi show. It wasn't the result of any savage killer though. As you note, savage acts in a real-life setting have a more unsettling effect. We don't have to worry about aliens.

  4. Yeah, I caught 'Home' on television the night it aired. Probably the height of grisly returns for the series. 'The Fourth Horseman', too, was something else. And I think I did see that old Night Gallery episode, but none of the others. The early 70s were something, alright. And it did go outside of the horror genre. I recall the uproar about violence, and its graphic upturn in film, during that period. There was a term coined for such films in 1971 like 'A Clockwork Orange', Roman Polanski's Macbeth, and Don Siegel's 'Dirty Harry': ultra-violence. Of course, it only made high school students like me want to check them out even more, at the time ;-). Fine post, John. Thanks.

  5. 'The Trial' is on YouTube and I will watch it. I did see 'The Other Way Out'. And 'Home' was simply a unbelievably effective episode.

  6. SteveW3:04 PM

    I happened to watch "Home" when it first aired with a friend who was a complete newbie to the "The X-Files," and I had been encouraging him to check it out. That was pretty hilarious. Had to assure him that not every episode was this demented. Like others here, I told him afterwards that he was lucky he saw that, because they'll never air it again.

  7. Gosh I vaguely remember seeing a bit of Home. Anyway, I'm going to pull that episode this weekend. I can't wait to watch it.

    Great post idea too John. I loved it. I have a different but similar idea I plan on trying in the near future I hope. Hope you are feeling better.

    All the best

  8. And by the way, you are right, The Fourth Horseman was unexpectedly gruesome and unnerving. It was like Outbreak for television and just as good. Excellent choice. sff