Thursday, October 15, 2020

Ghost Story (1972) Binge: "House of Evil"

If you remember any episode at all from the 1972, NBC horror anthology, Ghost Story, it is likely this strange and compelling installment, “House of Evil.”  

Written by Robert Bloch, this tale stars a very young Jodie Foster as a deaf-mute named Judy, and Melvyn Douglas as her diabolical grandfather.  That description doesn’t convey enough information, however.  

The real star of the episode is a large dollhouse and its unique inhabitants: cookie “voodoo dolls” with raisins for eyes and noses, and tooth-picks for arms and legs.

Our host, Winston Essex (Sebastian Cabot), begins “House of Evil” by discussing dolls and the “little girls” who “cherish” them.  This thought leads him into a discussion of voodoo dolls, which can be used to control “the life or death of a person the doll represents.”

Then, the narrative proper commences and we meet Grandpa: a man filled with hatred and bile.  His beloved adult daughter died in childbirth, you see, and he boasts the telepathic capacity to speak with her spirit even now, in death.  Although she is at peace, Grandpa nonetheless blames her husband, Tom (Richard Muligan) for her untimely demise.  Tom has now remarried and has adopted a sibling for Judy, named Kevin (Brad Savage).

Grandpa pays the family visit, ostensibly a friendly one.  But in fact he has brought along a dollhouse replica of their home.  It’s a gift for Judy, whom he can also communicate with telepathically.  Then, when the maid, Mrs. Rule (Mildred Dunnock), bakes a batch of cookies, Grandpa sits with Judy and transforms the treats into bizarre little voodoo dolls – representative of the family – to inhabit the house. 

Then, Grandpa teaches Judy how to move the dolls through the house, and at the same time, unknowingly control her family members.

Unaware she is being manipulated by an evil, vengeful adult, Judy learns dutifully from Grandpa’s instructions.  She unknowingly traps her families in their bedrooms one night.  And then, Grandpa instructs her to start a fire in the dollhouse (by lighting candles…) and lock all the dolls inside it. 

Finally, only her mother’s spirit can save Judy and the family from Grandpa’s wrath.  In the end, Grandpa’s plan backfires, and his own voodoo doll falls prey to a fire in the dollhouse…

 “House of Evil” covers a great deal of territory, from the manipulation of the innocent to communication with the dead.  But at the center of it all is a character that thrives on hate and doesn’t know the meaning of the word “forgiveness.”  

Unable to see that Tom loved his daughter, Grandpa arranges this byzantine revenge for his son-in-law, Tom’s innocent wife and even an adopted child as well.  It’s a particularly cruel form of revenge, and Douglas is hypnotic in the role of an evil man who hides under a guise of affability.

The episode’s strange imagery – of cookie voodoo dolls living in a dollhouse – is especially noteworthy, especially since the story ends with one of the cookies being “cooked” in a fire.  The visuals are just so unusual -- and kind of freaky – that the story lingers in the imagination.

But today it is “House of Evil’s” meditation on revenge that I find the most interesting on repeat viewing.  Grandpa ostensibly mounts this campaign of terror for her daughter. But from beyond the grave she repeatedly tells him not to proceed with his strategy.  He refuses to listen and doubles down on his hatred instead.  

Thus, Grandpa is exposed as a selfish man focusing not his daughter, but his own needs.  That he would exploit children (Judy) and even try to a kill a child (Kevin) makes him one of Ghost Story’s most thoroughly evil characters. There’s a sense of justice when he falls victim to his own plans.

Jodie Foster does a great job portraying Judy too.  She’s an interesting character because although she has learned to read lips Judy has never before actually heard a human voice.  The first one she does hear belongs to her Grandpa, a fact which explains why they quickly develop a bond…a bond that he exploits.  

But one can easily understand why the isolated Judy would find it hard to defy Grandpa at first.  It’s difficult enough for children to question authority figures and adults, but even more so when an adult becomes the center of the child’s universe. Lose him, and Judy loses her closest “human” connection, or so she believes.

For its weird and memorable imagery and welcome commentary on hatred and vengeance, “House of Evil” ascends to the top tier of Ghost Story tales.

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