Tuesday, August 06, 2019
The Evil Touch (1973): "The Lake"
The Evil Touch (1973) is a largely forgotten TV horror anthology produced forty-five years ago in Australia by Mende Brown. The series was syndicated in the United States, and ran for one season of twenty-six half-hour chilling tales. The low-budget series arose at the same time that other syndicated series from around the globe were making an impact on American screens (UFO in 1971, and The Starlost, from Canada, also in 1973). The horror anthology format was also experiencing something of a renaissance in the early 1970's. Other titles in this format include Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1973), Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972), and Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (1977). '
The anthology format permitted The Evil Touch to alter tones, guest stars, and locations each week. Many American TV stars of the day, from Darren McGavin to Robert Lansing, to Leslie Nielsen filmed multiple episodes in Australia to grant the program an "American veneer." The host for the series was Anthony Quayle, who appeared at the start and end of every episode, setting up the action, and then discussing how "there is a touch of evil in all of us," at the closing.
Contemporary and legacy reviews of the series have not been kind. Gary Gerani's (great) 1977 book Fantastic Television termed the series "bizarre" and "unintentionally campy." Alan Morton's The Complete Directory of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Television Series noted that the program often featured very unlikeable characters, so they could get their comeuppance.
I first encountered the Mende Brown series almost twenty years ago, when writing my book Terror Television (1970-1999), and found that the criticisms didn't quite tell the whole story. I discovered a hit-or-miss horror series of great highs, and great lows. There were -- and are -- some remarkably scary episodes. Some of those are titled "The Trial," "They" and "Kaidatcha County." Overall, I felt that the series felt a lot like the low budget horror films of the same era (Last House on the Left, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), even if the writing on the series often left some things to be desired. The stories were basic, blunt, and in some cases could really get under the skin, and sometimes, they were just trite and cliched.
The first episode of The Evil Touch, "The Lake," is not, alas, one of the stronger segments in the catalog. Written by Robert Earle and directed by Mende Brown, the episode stars Robert Lansing as an unhappily married man named Arthur Randall. He wants a divorce from his wife, in part because he is having an affair with his young secretary. "Everything is dead. It has been for years," he tells his mistress. Arthur's wife, Helen, however, refuses to divorce Arthur, and is downright hostile.
Arthur's therapist suggest that he and Helen go on a weekend trip together to try to repair their failing marriage, and he acquiesces. They travel together to their vacation home, and go on a row-boat ride. While out on the lake, Helen falls out of the boat, and instead of helping her, Arthur rows away and leaves her to drown. He reports her death as an "accident," and realizes he is free to move on with his life.
Soon, however, the guilty Arthur is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife. He returns to the lake to confront Helen, but ends up meeting her fate: drowning in the same body of water.
To its benefit, "The Lake" features an eerie dream-like quality as it explores its familiar "revenge from beyond the grave" narrative. Overall, the episode features 1970's stylings (like a multitude of creaky zooms), and visually, it is compelling at times, thanks to its vintage look. The low-budget, however, proves a real deficit, as nothing ever really happens on-screen. Helen's ghost is constantly heard calling Arthur's name, but not seen. The final scene sees, basically, Arthur have a wig-out in a rowing boat. He throw himself into lake, causing his own demise, with no sign of Helen's ghost. It all plays as a bit silly.
Unlike Rod Serling's narrations in The Twilight Zone (or his intros to Night Gallery), Quayle's book-end appearances don't add much of interest to the proceedings. The introduction talks about the reasons why Arthur is upset on the eve of his 20th wedding marriage anniversary, and the coda opines that his case is "not unusual." Does that mean all married men are unfaithful murders? Then, Quayle asks what role destiny played in the event, and asks what's in that lake? Neither question shines much light on the story, or makes it feel sharp, or meaningful. The idea of destiny is never brought up in the body of show, and it doesn't seem likely that the lake itself is a vehicle for the supernatural.
"The Lake" is a hoary, familiar, straight-forward revenge from beyond the grave story, and one told without a surfeit of flair or intelligence. It's not an auspicious debut, but if I've learned anything after twenty-five years of reviewing TV series, the first episode is rarely the best example of a series' overall potential. There's usually a lot of room to grow, and that is clearly the case with "The Lake."
Next week: "Heart to Heart."
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