Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Cult-TV Flashback: The Sixth Sense (1972)


“You enter a strange room for the first time, yet you know you’ve been there before.  You dream about an event that happens some days later…A coincidence?  Maybe. But more than likely, it is extrasensory perception, a sixth sense that many scientists believe we all possess, but rarely use.”


-          From The Sixth Sense Press Kit, published in Senior Scholastic: “The Sixth Sense,” September 18, 1972, page 22).
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About a week ago, I made the unexpected discovery that Amazon.com is streaming episodes of the 1972 sci-fi/horror/paranormal series The Sixth Sense, starring Gary Collins for $1.99 apiece.  This is a major discovery because of the sad and bizarre fate the Anthony Lawrence-created TV series has endured across the long decades.

After originally airing for two seasons on ABC in the early 1970s, this hour-long series was brutally cut-down to a half-hour length so as to be syndicated along with the episode catalogue of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.  Mr. Serling even filmed new introductions in the famous black gallery for the re-crafted The Sixth Sense episodes. 

But The Sixth Sense’s “Night Gallery” stories, if you ever saw them, were always nonsensical, in part because they were trimmed down literally fifty-percent from their original running time.  It was this abbreviated, hacked-up The Sixth Sense that aired on The Sci Fi Channel in the 1990s, for instance.  In 2007, Chiller ran episodes of The Sixth Sense, but I'm not certain if it was the chopped-up version, or the original.

Butchered in syndicated format, The Sixth Sense episodes are almost unwatchable.  Characters appear without introduction or preamble, and allude to events that are no longer depicted.  Characters are alive in one scene and dead the next, with no explanation for how, why or when, their demise occurred. The series in this corrupted format is baffling and incoherent, to put it mildly.

Today, The Sixth Sense is still joined at the hip with Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. But for the first time since 1973, a curious watcher can actually see a handful of full-length, hour long episodes under the title Night Gallery Season One on Amazon.  I’ve watched a couple already, and though they are slow-paced, some episodes are pretty intriguing and even visually dynamic.

I don’t mean to suggest The Sixth Sense is some kind of unexcavated genre masterpiece, only that it hasn’t been granted a hearing by genre fans in an uncorrupted form for literally forty years.  No series deserves such a fate, frankly.

Imagine how well Star Trek would play cut down to a half-hour, or Kolchak, or Mission: Impossible.

Writer Anthony Lawrence originally created The Sixth Sense after the success of a 1971 TV movie titled Sweet, Sweet Rachel, which involved a parapsychology expert, Lucas Darrow (Alex Dreier) protecting two women from psychic assassins.  When the television movie proved successful in terms of ratings, ABC wanted a quick follow-up.  Lawrence and developer Stan Shpetner thus crafted The Sixth Sense, a series which would follow the adventures of another parapsychology expert, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins). 

During every episode of The Sixth Sense the preternaturally patient and calm Dr. Rhodes would investigate a complex mystery featuring psychic overtones.  That case might involve astral projection (“Face of Ice”), premonitions (“If I Should Die Before I Wake,”) automatic writing (“I Do Not Belong to the Human World,”) aura photography (“The Man Who Died at Three and Nine”), witchcraft (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright”), apparitions (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), spiritual possession (“With Affection, Jack the Ripper) cryogenics (“Once Upon a Chilling”) or even organ transplant (“The Eyes That Would Not Die.” Usually Rhodes solved the mystery at hand by working closely with a beautiful woman in jeopardy. 

This damsel-in-distress role was played, in various installments, by beloved genre actresses such as Mariette Hartley (“Eye of the Haunted”), Pamela Franklin (“I Did Not Mean to Slay Thee”), Stefanie Powers (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), Tiffany Bolling (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright), Lucie Arnaz (“With This Ring I thee Kill), Mary Ann Mobley (“Shadow in the Well), Carol Lynley (“The House that Cried Murder) and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave?”)

And among those talents working behind-the-scenes on The Sixth Sense -- at least for a time -- were Gene Coon, Harlan Ellison and D.C. Fontana.  I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Fontana in 2001, and our conversation veered briefly to The Sixth Sense.  She recalled to me that in her opinion, developer Shpetner was difficult to work with because he had so many story dislikes:

He didn’t like children.  He didn’t like women.  He didn’t like men…He didn’t like stories about sick people, or emotionally ill people.  He didn’t like stories about poor people.  He didn’t like stories about ethnic people.  Essentially it came down to us doing stories about rich white people who didn’t have any problems.  And that was a problem for me.”

Fontana’s tenure on the show was, perhaps not surprisingly, short-lived:  “I left one day, and Harlan Ellison left either the day before me or the day after me.  It all happened in fast succession, I can tell you that much…It’s too bad, because the potential for stories about extra sensory perception and abilities was great.”

The abundant flaws of The Sixth Sense are apparent today, even with restored episodes to view. For one thing, Dr. Rhodes always helped beautiful, young (25 – 35) white women, but never actively romanced any of them.  He just seemed to inhabit a white, upper-class world of beautiful, psychically gifted females. 

And secondly, as a character Rhodes was not permitted to grow or show much by way of passionate emotion.  Collins’ performance on the series is actually kind of brilliant in a weird way, simultaneously minimalist and intense. 

But the writing never ascribes much by way of humor or personal life to the man.  As a lead character, Rhodes is certainly dedicated and helpful -- and physically capable – but we know precisely nothing about him save for his unwavering support for ESP and parapsychology studies. It would have been great if the series had more fully explored his background, including his childhood and the development of his abilities as a “sensitive.”

On the other hand, The Sixth Sense triumphed in two notable areas.  In the first, it features some great guest appearances by the likes of Joan Crawford (“Dear Joan: We Are Going to Scare You To Death”), William Shatner (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), and Lee Majors (“With This Ring, I Thee Kill.”).  Today, it’s a thrill to see Cloris Leachman, Patty Duke, Sandra Dee, Henry Silva, June Allyson and Sharon Gless, among others, get menaced by strange paranormal “phenomena.”

Of more legitimate interest is the series’ second strength: jarring and disturbing visuals and special effects.  Some of the imagery in the series remains downright haunting.  In “The Heart that Wouldn’t Stay Buried” a man is attacked by the statue of a bird, and it’s a trippy moment.   In “Witness Within,” jump-cuts, slow-motion photography and a nice eerie blend of light and shadow make a nocturnal attack almost pulse-pounding.  Likewise, in “Lady, Lady, Take My Life,” an insufferable bureaucrat is murdered by a psychic “cathexis,  and the he screen goes blood red (with terror) as the poor man suffers twin aneurysms. 

In one of my favorite episodes, the bizarre “Once Upon a Chilling” a man’s spirit is projected outside of his cryogenic chamber and his spectral face is coated in dripping, cracked ice…an image which terrifies rather than informs.  In moments such as these you can sense a real imagination in the visual presentation of the stories.  If the stories were all up to snuff, and not so predictable in terms of character, The Sixth Sense would have been a contender.

Some of the more intriguing episodes in the series include the one starring Shatner and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), written by Gene Coon.  And “With this Ring I Thee Kill,” starring Lee Majors and Lucie Arnaz proves a weird call back to Faustian legends and stories. The episode featuring Joan Crawford (and directed by John Newland) is also a humdinger, since it pits the Hollywood legend against Mansonite cult member crazies.  

In spite of flaws, The Sixth Sense must be viewed as something of a pioneer in terms of horror television programming.  It is the first horror-oriented series, for instance, to feature continuing characters rather than an anthology format.  It pre-dates Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) by two years, in this regard.  Considering that place of importance in the horror genre, the series certainly merits a better fate than to be cut to ribbons and offered only in a corrupt format. 

Although only a handful of season one episodes of The Sixth Sense are currently available on Amazon streaming, my hope is that this will soon change.  Failures and all, The Sixth Sense deserves a full DVD release with all twenty-five episodes restored to original formatting.

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous3:50 PM

    John interesting analysis of The Sixth Sense 1972 television that I vividly remember watching with my family first-run in 1972 as a young boy. I was shocked years later to have found out, as you stated, that it was folded and butchered[editing]into the Night Gallery syndication package smartly with Rod Serling's new introductions.

    SGB

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  2. I've been wanting to re-watch this series since it was cancelled. The butchering done by Night Gallery did the show no justice. I ordered the hour long episodes from a seller online and just watched the first season. All but one of the episodes is there. It looks as though the shows were recorded from Chiller. The show is as good and creepy as I remember. It's like a trip back to 1972! Now that Gary Collins has passed away, there should definitely be a DVD release.

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  3. Got the complete series ("bootleg" DVDs taken off Chiller) and they are at least the full shows, and not that "Night Gallery" junk. I was a kid when "The 6th Sense" first ran, and it was one of my favs!. In the intervening years I caught a few of those horrendous, butchered versions on "Night Gallery" and resolved to never watch any more, cause they utterly ruined it. I was content to wait til the "real" full-length episodes were available, but was not very hopeful that would ever happen, since it was only a two-season show, and those were rarely brought back unless they had acquired a "cult status" (such as the "Outer Limits"). Thank goodness there's been a reawakened interest in television from this era! Overall, I must say that I wasn't too disappointed when I finally viewed the entire "6th Sense", some 40 years later. Sure, it wasn't quite as good as I had remembered, but that's fairly normal for things we last saw as a kid. I agree that Gary Collins was never really given much chance to "expand" his character, so remained a rather two-dimensional figure; also agree that all those who came to him for help seemed to be pretty young women, but I supposed that's "par for the course" for network TV (though why Rhodes never seemed to became romantically involved with any IS rather odd, and definitely not standard network treatment!). It was the nice visuals that really carried this show, and what I most remembered as a kid.

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  4. Back when VHS was still fairly new, I was able to record off TV the made-for-television movie "Sweet Sweet Rachel" and always loved it. Terrific visuals, such as when the bust of Stephanie Powers' dead husband comes to life, and of a dead Louise Latham "haunting" her daughter. In fact, the whole opening scene where the husband is lead to dive out a window is chilling and well handled. It's night, and he's got some strange cards spread out on the desk in his ornate study, and gets a phone-call with an eerie voice repeating over and over the names of the exposed cards: "Eye, knife, doll, raven, coffin...". Then he sees an image of wife Stephanie Powers, distraught and calling to him while running through a graveyard, and in running to her aid, he crashes thru a window and falls to his death on the jagged coastline below.

    Alex Dreir had a wonderful voice (I've read where he was a long-time TV reporter and commentator) and was excellent in the role of Dr. Lucas Darrow, the parapsychology investigator. I just wonder how he might have worked in the TV series; would have definitely brought a different dimension to the pivotal role of the parapsychologist. At any rate, not surprisingly he lost out to the younger, much more attractive Gary Collins when they cast "The 6th Sense". I also remember Dreir starred in another busted pilot from the early 1970's, called "Murdock's Gang".

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  5. I think my favorite "6th Sense", visually, has to be "Once Upon a Chilling" with Susan Strasberg.... that's a show I remember being really frightening when I was young. The makeup job of the dead doctor, who's body was being "kept on ice," was excellent. I think it was the sort of effect the producers of "The Outer Limits" wanted (but sadly didn't get) on "The Human Factor" episode with their "Ghost of Pvt Gordon". (Always thought they should have stuck to the original "Charlie Chill" prop, which was creepy, but that's another story...) The "Five Widows Weeping" episode, while of the generally inferior second season, features a great prologue. Mary Ann Mobley, in a vision, comes across a grave of her still very much alive husband (William Jordan), and as the wind slowly blows the dirt off the grave, it reveals his face -- they he suddenly sits up, with blank yellow eyes!

    Another interesting, if not altogether successful, episode is the first season's "Lady Lady Take My Life" which features a group of scientists participating in parapsychology sessions. It starts in a fashion reminiscent of the classic 1968 movie "The Power", with Rhodes trying to discover who has telekinetic powers, but then takes a different turn, when it's revealed that only the whole group, acting in unison, have the power to murder -- none of them individually have such power. Of course, they collectively begin to view Dr. Rhodes as a threat to them and their supposedly "benevolent" goals. One weakness of the show is that a couple of the group members are never really "fleshed-out" as to their personalities or their motivations, but on the whole the episode is a rather interesting study in group psychology and a mob mentality.

    Some of the episodes appear to be somewhat "padded," such as with overlong parapsychology visions, featuring the damsel in distress running endlessly in slow motion (also having such visions repeated in an episode), but this is perhaps inevitable, being that the show was truly a "psychological drama". Perhaps the "ultimate" one!. Certainly none were excessive to the point where they could be simply cut by half and remain coherent, as in the "Night Gallery" presentations.

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