Sunday, September 02, 2012

Cult-TV Blogging: Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: "Time of Terror" (December 22, 1972)

“Time of Terror” is the final Ghost Story episode before the series change formats, drops Winston Essex and Sebastian Cabot, and transforms into 1973’s Circle of Fear

After this installment no more Mansfield House…

That’s the bad news, especially since Mr. Essex is such a jocular fellow, and such a unique anthology host.

The good news is that “Time of Terror” is not just a good episode of Ghost Story, but one of the all-time great ones.  This is a relief, as the series’ quality has been trending downwards for some time. 

Essex introduces the episode (again standing in front of an obvious rear projected image, for some reason...) and muses about the dangers of “modern hotels,” where it becomes easy for the staff to lose guests, or treat them as mere numbers instead of as people. 

From there, we launch into a genuinely intriguing mystery.  A married woman, Ellen Alexander (Patricia Neal), wakes up alone in her hotel room.  Her husband, Harry (Elliott Montgomery) is missing.  He doesn’t respond to pages from the hotel staff, and worse, the manager, Mr. Brett (Craig Stevens) insists that Mr. Alexander has “checked out.”

Ellen soon notices that every guest has been given a “Keno” card, and that when each person’s number is called, the guest is escorted out by hotel security people.  Worse, many of the guests don’t seem to mind this odd ritual.  Betty (Alice Ghostley) and George Carter (Doug Henderson), for instance, made plans to “check out” together and are disappointed when their numbers are called separately.

Ms. Alexander leaves the hotel and, bafflingly, finds herself on an isolated stretch of desert highway, experiencing flashbacks of a car accident.  As Brett soon informs her, she must return to the hotel soon, since her number has been called. 

He then shows her the car accident in which she was killed, but her husband survived…

“Time of Terror” was adapted for Ghost Story by the great Jimmy Sangster, and based on the story “Traveling Companion” by Elizabeth Walter.  It boasts a terrific setting, a sinister “modern” hotel that is, for lack of a better word, Purgatory.  You start to get the feeling that this is actually the case about mid-way through the tale, but up to that point the setting feels downright diabolical, like all the hotel employees are conspiring to keep Ms. Alexander from re-connecting with her husband.

The story is a great character piece, too, for Ms. Neal. Because mistakes were made in Purgatory, Mrs. Alexander is given the chance to bring her husband to the afterlife with keep her company/  But when she sees that he is still alive, Mrs. Alexander decides to let him live, and face the Great Unknown alone.  It’s a great character arc, going from desperation to re-connect with her missing husband to willingly parting from him, knowing she will never see him again.

The images in this episode are also very powerfully rendered.  The casino’s Keno game, for instance -- which selects who will go on to the Afterlife -- is particularly memorable. It bubbles and pops with life, and yet its calculus seems totally random.  I also liked the idea of a revolving door leading from one dimension, essentially, to another, an image that was repeated for the Hotel Royale in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Royale.”

Unlike many episodes of Ghost Story, this episode truly features a driving narrative, and some honest-to-goodness human interest.  The story doesn’t endlessly repeat the same notes or meander about, and it ends with a kind of apotheosis.  As Essex says -- in his swansong closing narration -- we should be mindful of Ms. Alexander’s decision, and wonder what we would do in the same circumstance. 

After all, this is a hotel where we are all going to check in, eventually…

“Time of Terror” rockets right to the top of the Ghost Story pantheon, standing beside such brilliant efforts as “The Dead we Leave Behind,” “Alter Ego,” and “House of Evil.”  It’s a very, very creepy show, and one that possesses an authentically dread-filled atmosphere.  I really loved it.

Next week, Circle of Fear brings us “Death’s Head,” starring Janet Leigh.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:05 PM

    John this Ghost Story "Time of Terror" episode was worthy of being a Twilight Zone. Great review.