Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Evil Touch: "Scared to Death"

In this week's installment of the 1970's horror anthology, The Evil Touch (1973-1974), an old woman, Constance (Mildred Natwick) is dying. Her young husband, Evan (Jack Thomson) has been poisoning her for months, in cahoots with his mistress, a nurse.

Constance learns the truth, and demands that Evan be honest with her about his behavior.  "Everything I have is yours, unless you deceive me," she reminds him.

This confrontation occurs while the mistress is hiding in a nearby closet in their home. When Evan refuses to come clean about his affair, Constance demands that he brick-up the entrance to the closet immediately, trapping the mistress inside.  

Evan has no choice to oblige. He seals his lover inside the closet.

Over the next several days, Constance experiences disturbing and frightening visions of the mistress lurking in the house, and on the property.  In truth, this is all part of a plan to jolt -- or scare -- her to death. 

But Constance has the last laugh. She finds the secret exit from the closet, and decides to brick that up too...with Evan and his lover trapped within. 

The defeated lovers beg her for mercy, but Constance puts the last brick over the door, and leaves them to die together...

"Scared to Death" is a return to the favorite narrative of this particular series: a young man plots and executes the murder of a rich old woman. This story has been, literally, done to death on The Evil Touch.  That fact established, "Scared to Death" is actually one of better iterations of the tale, despite the fact that it follows several other stories of the same type. 

I credit the story's effectiveness to one particular detail: claustrophobia.  

It is horrible to ponder a fate in which one has been sealed permanently in a small chamber, like a closet, behind unmovable bricks.  There is simply no escape for those trapped.

"Scared to Death" also is more suspenseful than the average tale in this series. When Constance and Evan quarrel, and she makes her murderous demand (that he brick up the closet), one legitimately wonders how he will behave.  Will he save his lover and risk his inheritance?  Or, will he do as his wife demands, and throw his lover under the bus (or behind the brick wall, as it were)?  Then, as the story develops, it becomes clear, that the brick wall is part of Evan's plan, because he knows of the secret exit from the closet.  But again, the tables turn, and old Constance remembers the secret exit, and picks her moment to trap her deceitful husband and her lover in that tiny room.

"Scared to Death" has two drawbacks that pop to mind, and diminish this installment a bit.  

The first is a matter of practicality. Constance taunts Evan and his lover as she puts in the final bricks to seal their fate. At this point, the brick wall would not yet have hardened, so to speak, since she is still working on it, and there is still a gap.  Evan should just start kicking madly at the opening, to see if he can damage it, and escape.  Since his life is at stake, one would think he and the nurse would grow more desperate, and attempt a physical rush at the still compromised wall before it is too late.  They accept their grim fate a bit too easily, in my estimation.

The other problem in "Scared to Death" involves a lengthy voice over narration by Quayle at the mid-point.  This narration explains what Constance is going through (when she keeps seeing the mistress), and how she believes she is going crazy, though she doesn't "believe in ghosts." This narrative interruption is entirely unnecessary as the visuals and Natwick's performance, convey this idea without any exposition.  This is an example of not trusting the audience enough to get the story.  "Scared to Death" would have been more powerful without the mid-point exposition.

As disappointing as it is to see another "old woman in jeopardy from young inheritor" tale featured on The Evil Touch, "Scared to Death" is an effective story because of its particular details, particularly the idea of Evan and his mistress feeling like "caged animals," because they can't escape from Constance. That reality, in the end, becomes literal, rather than metaphorical.

Next week: "Dear Beloved Monster."

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