Thursday, March 02, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: Sweet, Sweet Rachel (October 2, 1971)

In the 1971 TV movie, Sweet, Sweet Rachel, celebrity musician Paul Stanton (Rod McCarey) dies under unusual circumstances, jumping out the window of his seaside mansion.

His beautiful young wife, Rachel (Stefanie Powers) witnesses the fall, and receives a mysterious phone call immediately afterwards.  She becomes convinced that she is responsible for her husband’s death.

Rachel visits Dr. Lucas Darrow (Alex Dreier), an expert in parapsychology, who believes that she is actually a victim of “constant psychic harassment.”  Perhaps she is even being framed for the murder of her husband. The first order of business is to find the mysterious phone caller.

Dr. Darrow and a blind sensitive with ESP, Carey Johnson (Chris Robinson) investigate Paul and Rachel Stanton, and learn that Rachel’s mother, Lillian (Louise Latham) seems to possess the ability to communicate with the dead.

When Lillian turns up dead, however, Rachel is suspected by the police, but Darrow and Carey look at her uncle Arthur (Pat Hingle), and his daughter Nora (Brenda Scott), who may also possess psychic abilities.

Created by Anthony Lawrence, Sweet, Sweet Rachel is the backdoor pilot for the 1972 “psychic” sci-fi series, The Sixth Sense (1972-1973).  That series, which was cut-up badly and syndicated in half-hour format as part of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (19701-1973),  involves a handsome (but oh so bland…) parapsychologist, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins), and his encounters with people (usually lovely young women) who are being manipulated by people with psychic abilities.

Sweet, Sweet Rachel is intriguing for spearheading the premise of the series, but also for featuring a more intriguing cast than its successor. Dreier’s Dr. Darrow is a portly, grave man with a solemn demeanor and a baritone voice. He isn’t your typical 1960s-1970s “handsome” or athletic series lead, and he brings an incredible gravitas to the role. 

Similarly, Dr. Darrow gets a sidekick, which Rhodes never did, at least not on a regular basis.  Early in Sweet, Sweet Rachel, Darrow recounts the story of how he received a “psychic message” from one of his patients, Carey, while in surgery for another patient.  His receipt of this message led to the beginning of their friendship, but also the beginning of his fascination with the paranormal.  This is more background, incidentally, than The Sixth Sense ever really provided about Dr. Rhodes.  It’s nice to get that information here, in the form of a flashback.

But it works well for this movie (and this format, which The Sixth Sense adopts…) to have the lead doctor teamed with an actual sensitive; so they can bounce ideas back and forth.  Here, the real murderer is outed only after Darrow hypnotizes Carey, and Carey attempts to reach out with ESP to contact the killer. In The Sixth Sense, Rhodes works alone, and is psychic himself.

Intriguingly, Sweet Sweet Rachel may also qualify as a film noir, at least in terms of its style and general subject matter (murder). The film’s lighting is extremely dark and expressionistic, and the subject matter is a crime of passion, but with a psychic twist. Those conspiring to frame Rachel and make her look insane, are out for their own financial gain, although one of Paul’s murderers was also in love with him.  The killers are avaricious schemers who operate from the shadows, and must finally be exposed.

The central detective, in this case, Darrow, becomes involved in the case in a most personal way.  He is nearly a victim -- in the film’s most tense scene -- of a psychic assassination as well.

Suspense mounts as the psychic assassin takes control of Darrow, causes him to wreck his car, and then nearly makes him light a match in his gas tank. Finally Carey -- fumbling in the dark -- stops Darrow from blowing them both up. This scene remains quite effective, even today, and suggests the power of the psychic assassin (perhaps too effectively).

This TV-movie also has much in common with its follow-up The Sixth Sense, in a negative way. The telefilm’s storyline is muddled and unnecessarily complicated, and those who possess psychic powers are, as suggested by my previous paragraph, practically all-powerful. Sweet Sweet Rachel is filmed well, and short at roughly 71 minutes, and yet it feels long and slow, and occasionally incoherent. It has a plodding nature to it, somehow.

This telefilm film was quite popular in 1971, and is well-regarded historically, which is why the concept became a weekly series, I suppose. It is not difficult to discern how viewers must have tuned in, and been immediately grabbed by the colorful death scene in the preamble.  The film’s prologue, with Paul practicing his ESP skills, and then experiencing a vision that sends him to his death, remains absolutely chilling, and well-orchestrated.  The rest of the movie, other than the psychic assassination scene, is a bit of a letdown in comparison to the stylish opening murder.

This was a key flaw, as well, of The Sixth Sense. The psychic death scenes were always incredibly inventive, but the rest of the narrative always seemed like repetitive, tired melodrama.  Today, after screening Sweet Sweet Rachel, I have to wonder if the follow-up series might have done better with a less photogenic, but more interesting lead character (Darrow), and his sidekick sensitive, Carey.  They are interesting enough people to follow through a weekly series, and they might have made the stories of The Sixth Sense a bit less dull.

It is intriguing, finally, that this telefilm is called Sweet, Sweet Rachel, since Rachel is a bit of a passive character, always acted upon, never acting for herself.  

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