Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cult-TV Blogging: Circle of Fear: "Doorway to Death" (January 23, 1973)

After two legitimately great episodes in “Dark Vengeance” and “Earth, Air, Fire and Water,” Circle of Fear (1973) falls back to Earth with a middling and lethargically-paced episode titled “Doorway to Death.”

Here, a widower, Jim (Barry Nelson) and his family move into a run-down apartment building in San Francisco. The eldest daughter, Peggy (Susan Dey) manages the two younger siblings, Robert (Leif Garrett) and Jane (Dawn Lyn) all day while the Dad is away at work most of the time.   

While exploring the building, the children discover a vacant upstairs apartment, and a doorway that leads into a wintry landscape.  There, they meet a strange man who likes to chop wood…as well as other things.

Almost immediately, the children befriend this enigmatic figure, even as Dey dismisses him as nothing more than an imaginary friend.  Before long, however, the specter confesses his loneliness to the children and grows romantically interested in Dey.  He’d like Peggy to be his new wife. 

And just to make sure she never tries to leave him (as his first wife did, unsuccessfully…), he plans to build a brick-wall around Peggy in an apartment closet…

There have been many worse episodes of Ghost Story/Circle of Fear, but “Doorway to Death is another one of those interminable episodes in which the biggest stumbling block is pacing.  In an effort to pad out the fifty-minute running time, this episode repeats crucial scenes and gives us the same visual and thematic information over and over. 

In horror, less explanation is usually superior to more explanation, since ambivalence stokes terror. Too much explanation can lead to boredom.  That’s largely what occurs here.  The more we see the “evil” ghost staring out the window, or chopping wood, or interacting with the children, the less he seems legitimately terrifying or menacing.  He never once seems insane enough to be an axe-murderer.  He shows nothing of his dark side, really, to the kids. 

Despite the repetitive nature of the story and the slow pacing, there are images in “Doorway to Death” that linger and resonate.  Dey’s character, Peggy, awakens from a troubled slumber and finds -- to her horror -- a set of wet footprints leading right up to the side of her bed.  Since there’s no sign of a visitor, and no rain or snow outside, this moment is legitimately unnerving.  She has evidence of an interloper close-by, but no rational explanation for that presence.  It's creepy.

“Doorway to Death” resolves with a tremendous amount of exposition jammed into a few moments.  That dialogue informs the audience of the crucial details.  The ghost killed his wife, then went to jail and was executed.  

Now, he’s lonely and haunting the apartment, waiting to take a new bride.  This back-story is told in tremendous detail, but then Nelson’s character just brushes it off cavalierly, without offering his own interpretation of the things that occurred.  How, I wonder, can he justify his willful blindness?  I mean, who else does he think bricked-up his daughter in the closet?  It’s one thing not to believe in the supernatural.  It’s another not to believe your own eyes.

“Doorway to Death” is long-winded and not particularly scary.  The ghost here –-- a man with an axe who lives in a snowy cabin, clearly forecasts The Shining’s Jack Torrance -- is seen too frequently on screen here to be legitimately scary.  Unlike those odd, malevolent jars in “Earth, Air, Fire and Water” and the sinister rocking horse in “Dark Vengeance,” this ghost  doesn’t see, like an adequate repository for our fears. 

Again, “Doorway to Death” is not terrible,and not great….just mediocre. 

Next week, another move back towards greatness for Circle of Fear with the chilling “Legion of Demons.”


  1. Anonymous11:53 AM

    John interesting review of GS/COF "Doorway to Death". With Barry Nelson in both it definitely forecasts The Shining’s Jack Torrance.


  2. Anonymous4:58 PM

    I have been wondering for years whether this was a show or a movieor what. This episode scared me to death when I was 9 specifically the scene with her bricked in the closet its stayed in my head for, well, now for 40 years. Good to know its origins. Thanks- I had forgotten the whole woodchopping thing.

  3. Anonymous6:51 AM

    Another disturbing scene was the death of the apartment owner (played by Henry Jones). Not bad for a moment of terror!