Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Evil Touch: "They"

Perhaps the weirdest entry of The Evil Touch (and that's quite an honor given some of the stories...) was "They", which aired in the New York market on June 2, 1974, and was written by Norman Thaddeus Vane and directed by Mende Brown. 

Harry Guardino stars as Dr. Fenton, a man who is on vacation in the English countryside with his young son, Peter...a boy who has dreamed of the remote landscape and even the old English village that is their destination. 

Just recently, a series of deaths have occurred there on the moors, on the rocks overlooking the ocean side. Narrator Quayle ponders "They say the sea can kill you," and then meditates on the nature of fate. "What makes people travel long distances?" He asks. "Is it destiny that leads them, or is the journey part of their destiny?"

Once you get your mind around that question, "They" descends into a world of barely linear storytelling that, despite this unconventional quirk, is actually quite compellingly surreal and horrifying; perhaps because it feels so dreamlike; or more accurately, nightmarish. 

What happens next in the story is that Peter gets lost on the moors and runs into a cult of malevolent children who wear rings of black make-up around their eyes...a sort of quasi punk affectation. They (the children) are led by a porcelain young beauty, a black-haired wraith called Lydia (Alexandra Hynes). She has already met Peter in his dreams. "I've come to show you my favorite game," she tells young Peter in one nocturnal visit to his bedroom. "It's called...touch."

Anyway, Lydia and her cult of evil children want to initiate Peter into their "new order" and so therefore play another game with him, this time "blind man's bluff," to see if he is worthy of membership. Blind-folded, Peter almost walks off the cliff where the other five corpses were found dead, but his father, Dr. Fenton, finds him and rescues him as he is about to take a giant step for child-kind.

The boy and his father flee to what they hope is safety in a nearby cottage and lighthouse, only to discover that it is the residence of Lydia and her minions. What follows is a confrontation between Fenton and Lydia for possession of Peter's soul.

 “They” plays like Village of the Damned meets Lord of the Flies meets The Wicker Man on acid at Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate. 

And dammit if it isn't effectively unnerving.

Lydia tells Dr. Fenton - who is a renowned advocate and lecturer on the subject of birth control (because overpopulation leads to starvation and "the population bomb," he says, "is more dangerous than the atom bomb,") - that they are enemies. 

She is the leader of "the Children of the New Order," a new cult with dozens of groups across England alone. The children of the new order have given up on the Old Ones (meaning grown-ups) and are converting children to their cause. They want a world of perfection...a world of children.

One-upping the Hippie generation in their philosophy, they believe that they can't trust anyone over fifteen...that with age comes corruption. The age of twelve is considered middle-aged by these kids.

Dr. Fenton attempts to reason with Lydia, "where do you get the experience, the maturity to rule?" He asks. Experience is sorrow, the cult suggests, maturity unnecessary.

In the final battle, Peter breaks Lydia's spell over him, and he and Dr. Fenton escape to the moors. But suddenly Dr. Fenton is trampled by a local bookshop owner whom Lydia has maliciously transformed into a wild pony (don't ask...). And then...on the bluff overlooking his father's corpse, Peter dons the black eye shadow and... joins "They.”

In closing, Quayle - our host - says "They are probably still somewhere on the moors..."

This episode feels very 1970's in a lot of ways, and that's the era that the great Irish poet (and story editor on Space:1999), Johnny Byrne often called "the wake-up from the hippie dream." The Evil Touch's "They" portrays a generational clash in a world of limited resources, and does so in the language of "cultism." 

The great civic leaders of the 1960s (JFK, Robert Kennedy, MLK), had been replaced by radical cult leaders like Charles Manson, Jim Jones and the like. It was an era of war (Vietnam), scandal (Watergate), and an Energy Crisis, and there was a feeling that things had to change in a drastic, revolutionary way, if the human race was to survive the next decade. 

That's how cult leaders became powerful, because people were seeking answers in unconventional places. Of course, we did survive that era...but "They" plays into a fear of the impending end of the world, of an insurgency from "within" and it does so in the unsettling language of dreamscapes and phantasms. 

Fenton's murder by the horse, for example, is cut as a lyrical montage, utilizing slow-motion photography, extreme close-ups of the horse braying, and a super-imposed close-up of Fenton's agonized face as he is crushed.

Additionally, there are jump-cuts, flashbacks and other "trippy" film techniques here that we associate from the disco decade era, and the film grain, naturalistic approach and isolated, picturesque setting all add-up to something strangely disturbing. The gaps in conventional narrative are filled in by the imagination, and the result is something that - no matter how weird (and it is very weird...) deserves to be considered artistic.

This is why I -- despite a lot of bad episodes -- I still love The Evil Touch.  Every now and then, it taps into something urgent, sinister, and compelling about the time period in which it was crafted.

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