Sunday, July 08, 2012

Cult-TV Blogging: Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: "The Summer House" (October 13, 1976)




In Ghost Story’s “The Summer House” written by Seeleg Lester and directed by Leo Penn, Martha Alcott (Carolyn Jones) drives to her summer house by a lake.  Martha has (apparently...) traveled there ahead of her husband, Andrew (Steve Forrest), and yet everyone in the small nearby town insists that Mr. Alcott has already been there. 

Soon, Martha experiences a premonition in which she argues with her husband over his infidelity, and then pushes him into a well down in the summer house’s basement.

But is it really a premonition? 

Or is it actually a memory? 

And why is the house forcing Martha to relive or (possibly imagine) this violent confrontation?  Is the house, as Martha suspects, a diabolical, conscious entity?

Our host at scenic Mansfield House, Winston Essex (Sebastian Cabot) begins this episode by describing the terror a person must feel when trapped in a time warp, an extended moment of “suspended time.” 

Sadly, the viewer can relate to this terror perfectly because “The Summer House” is dull and repetitive, and seems to go on forever, thus trapping all of us in a 50-minute bubble of suspended time. 

In this thoroughly undistinguished installment of the early-1970s horror anthology we are treated to endless scenes of Carolyn Jones opening her house for the summer, buying groceries from a local store, vacuuming the carpets, carrying towels to a linen closet, changing a fuse in the fuse box, and flirting with a neighbor, Charlie (William Windom).  There’s a narrative here, to be certain, but it is choked inside moment after moment of pure tedium.

Slow-paced and lethargic, “The Summer House,” -- much like the previous worst entry, “The Concrete Captain” --  is one of those Ghost Story installments that might have thrived at thirty minutes.  But at an hour length, the story is egregiously padded, so that moments pass…and absolutely nothing of interest occurs.

Worse, the concepts underlining the “The Summer House” are incredibly muddled.  Is the story taking place in the past, with Martha imagining the coming death of her husband?  Is the story taking place after the death of her husband, but Martha doesn’t remember it, at least consciously?  And why is the evil house forcing Martha to endure this vision over and over? It’s both difficult to follow and nonsensical, if that’s possible.

Finally, if the house is an evil entity, Martha -- who suspects this to be true – never does the obvious thing.  She never gets out of the darned house and says goodbye to it.  She should pack up and leave and never come back.  But instead she just keeps coming back, a willing victim.  The episode never gets over that huge hurdle in believability.  Even if the house is supernatural, Martha can still depart and never look back.

But probably the worst aspect of “The Summer House” is simply that an external supernatural threat is all-but named (a malevolent, conscious summer house…) when the episode should instead be an exploration of Martha’s internal struggle: guilt over the murder of her husband.

Which hasn’t happened yet. Or is going to happen. Or might happen.


Despite the confusing plot-line, I must acknowledge that many of the visuals in the episode remain stunning.  Every scene set in the basement proves unsettling. The well stands at the bottom of a very long, very narrow staircase, and director Penn makes good use of shadows.  Furthermore, he frequently deploys tight-framing and high-angle shots to increase the sense of Martha's entrapment in a "suspended moment" of time.  All of this style would be a net plus if this episode were a story about human psychology, rather than a story about an evil house that wants to torture Carolyn Jones.

All right, I give up...

Next week, Ghost Story returns to brilliance with “Alter Ego,” an episode starring Helen Hayes as a charming old school teacher, Miss Gilden, who gets put through the ringer by a very naughty little boy...  

3 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:15 PM

    John interesting "The Summer House" review. I just wonder if this was a poorly written script from the before filming began or a poorly rewritten [butchered] script during filming? Of course, there is the third option they started filming without a complete script and just making it up[improving filler] based on a weak outline.

    SGB

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    Replies
    1. Hi SGB,

      I wonder what happened too. I tend to think it was a poorly written script, but I can't say for sure. This has to be one of the worst episodes of the series. Ugh!

      Thanks for the comment, my friend.

      best,
      John

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  2. I too was confused about the plot, and definitely thought this episode one of the "lesser efforts" of "Ghost Story". Yet my sister actually thinks it's their best! So I guess there's "no accounting for taste". I think she liked the dreamlike quality of it, where you're never quite sure what is happening (premonition, memory of past experience, etc) or why. Me, I don't mind that, as long as there's some explanation by the end. If I still feel confused when the end credits roll, then the whole show leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And I definitely got that taste after seeing "The Summer House" again after so many decades. Well, I suppose "Ghost Story" is a "mixed-bag" like all sci-fi/horror anthology shows. There's "the good, the bad, and the downright ugly"!

    Just got thru watching the entire run of the "Ray Bradbury Theater" on DVD, most eps of which I hadn't seen since the 1980's. When viewing an entire show "concentrated" like that (over a few weeks, instead of years), it DOES give one a different perspective. I don't know how you feel about that show, but I seemed to remember more real good episodes in the show's run. But now, I can see that there definitely were some real "dogs", as well as some odd-ball episodes that simply never explained the goings-on.

    BTW does anyone happen to know what lake they filmed "The Summer House" at?

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