Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween, 2015; Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected: "Force of Evil"

“In everyone, it has been said, there is a spark of the divine…But in others it is snuffed out.  Another force begins to stir…a force of evil.”
    Opening narration of “Force of Evil,” from Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (1977).

Perhaps the oddest episode of the short-lived Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (1977) -- and therefore the most enduring -- is the two-part epic titled “Force of Evil.” 

Good Times released this feature-length story on VHS in the mid-1980s, all while keeping intact the series’ opening credits and voice-over narration (from baritone William Conrad).

But the fact that “Force of Evil” ended up on videotape as a stand-alone “feature” isn’t the only quality that has rendered this particular episode immortal. For those who have seen it, the episode (by Robert Malcolm Young) is unforgettable because it largely plays as a G-rated, TV version of the great psychological horror film, Cape Fear (1962). 

In that classic film, a lawyer named Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is stalked and pursued by Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), because Sam testified against the criminal in court. 

Now, Max Cady makes Sam’s life a living hell, and threatens the lawyer’s family.  The story ends in a conflict on a house-boat.  A remake from Martin Scorsese came along in 1991, with Robert De Niro playing Cady.

“Force of Evil” stars Lloyd Bridges as Dr. Carrington, a physician who has also testified against a criminal, Ted Jakes (William Watson)…who has now been released.  Ted immediately starts to make Carrington’s life a living hell by threatening his family, including his teenage daughter Cindy (Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch).

In Cape Fear, Cady killed the Bowden’s pet dog. In “Force of Evil” Jakes burns down the family’s horse stable. 

Amazingly, “Force of Evil” comes to an end with Carrington also sending his family to hide on a houseboat, where Jakes ultimately shows up, and a final confrontation ensues in the surf.

The narrative details in common between productions are numerous, but “Force of Evil” distinguishes itself in a few ways. 

First, since this is a TV production, there is no way to depict any real physical violence, especially against children.  Instead, Carrington and Jakes just kind of endlessly brawl in “Force of Evil,” with neither achieving the upper hand.  The violence is pure TV western fisticuffs.  And because this is a TV show, no mention is ever made of what Jakes actually does to his victims?  Rape? Molestation? Murder?  We just know that he’s a really bad guy.

In the second instance, “Force of Evil” suggests that its villain, Teddy Jakes, is no ordinary man, but some kind of spectral avenger, literally a force of evil.  Dr. Carrington and his brother, a sheriff, attempt to kill Teddy and dump his body in a well.  But like Michael Myers in Halloween, Teddy Jakes just won’t die.  He keeps attacking, even though “by every law of human physiology” he should be dead.   The episode provides some nice visuals as clues to Jakes’ inhuman nature.  At one point, the episode surges towards him from a slightly low angle, while he stands stationary in the desert, and we get a sense of his powerful nature.  Also, throughout most of the episode Jakes wears sun-glasses, which hide “the window to the soul,” his eyes.

Finally, the episode ends on an ambiguous note.  Jakes’ body disappears, and so audiences can’t be certain if he is really good for gone, or merely waiting to deliver another strike. 

As the episode ends, Carrington’s wife receives a box of flowers.  Before we know what is in that closed box, however, the narrator Conrad, closes up shop:  “If you believe in the goodness of man, then the box contains roses.  But if you believe in a force of evil…it could contain almost anything!”

Cue End Credits.

I don’t know exactly precisely, but “Force of Evil” really fascinates me.  It is such an obvious cribbing of Cape Fear and yet, on some basic level, it is effective, and plays like a nightmare from which you can’t awake.  Even the inconclusive nature of the violence – made for television – reinforces the idea that this is some kind of surreal of dream event, and that Jakes can’t be stopped.  I also credit William Watson for delivering a great sleazy performance as Jakes.  He constantly snaps his gum and wears a shit-eating grin. 

Watching him scene-to-scene, you want to punch Jakes’ lights out too.

Adding to the notion that “Force of Evil” is some kind of dream-story, there is no logic whatsoever behind the narrative.  Carrington’s brother, the Sheriff (John Anderson), keeps claiming that there’s nothing the law can to do to stop Jakes.  But Jakes’ throws Carrington’s wife (Pat Crowley) down a well, and she could certainly testify to that fact.

Similarly, Jakes kills the Sheriff, but Carrington never notifies any police department of this fact.  The belief that “the law can’t do anything!” pervades this production even when the facts of the narrative overtly suggest otherwise, and that’s a byproduct of the episode’s origins in the cynical post-Dirty Harry mid-1970s, I would suggest.  In that paranoid world, only the criminals have rights, and the rest of us have to fend for ourselves, even against -- wait for it -- “a force of evil.”

Over the years, I have watched “Force of Evil” probably three or four times, and I have no idea why I keep going to the trouble to haul out the VC.  I feel very conflicted about the merits of the thing and yet I am drawn, periodically, to re-experience it.   

To some extent, my desire to see “Force of Evil” again and again must arise from the episode’s surreal, dream-like air.  The idea of being faced with a cackling monster that just won’t die remains good nightmare fodder, I guess.

“Force of Evil” is the only episode of Tales from the Unexpected you can purchase commercially today (on the second hand market, however), but it sure would be nice to get an official DVD release of the series one of these days.

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