Thursday, July 31, 2014

Circle of Fear (1973): "Legion of Demons"

Devil worshipers and witches were big players in the horror productions of the 1970s, thanks in part to films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Asylum of Satan (1971), Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Race with the Devil (1975), The Devil’s Rain (1975) and The Omen (1976).  

This episode of the horror anthology Circle of Fear (1973), capitalizes on this trend with the deeply creepy, occult-centric episode titled “Legion of Demons.”

Written by Anthony Lawrence, “Legion of Demons” concerns a naïve young woman from the country, Beth (Shirley Knight), who -- at the urging of her friend, Janet (Kathryn Hays) -- leaves her small town home and goes to work in the big city, in L.A.  There, Beth joins Janet on the job in a skyscraper office building, working as a secretary. 

But one day, after a meeting with the office manager, Mary (Neva Patterson) and other employees, Janet disappears without a trace.

Shirley begins to experience terrifying dreams involving Janet, and feels increasingly uncomfortable as Mary and the other employees on the thirteenth floor urge her to replace Beth there. 

Soon, Shirley discovers the dark truth.  Mary and the others are part of a Satan-worshipping coven, and Janet has not been killed…she’s actually the head witch!

It isn’t much of a stretch to see that “Legion of Demons” is actually a (fun) commentary on its central business setting: an impersonal, late 20th century, “high-tech” office building.  Here, an employee is urged to “conform” to office politics, and the promise of promotion and other perks is tied to her acceptance of the office culture. 

Furthermore, success and fortune -- the accumulation of money -- is tied directly to the corporate world, a place where folks must leave their souls behind if they wish to excel.  “Legion of Demons’” subtext is all the more amazing for the fact that it precedes President Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech by six years and President Reagan’s “yuppie” milieu by more than a decade.

Although this episode -- like virtually every recent installment of Circle of Fear -- relies on old standards such as weird nightmares and screaming damsels, this episode is nonetheless visualized in strong fashion.  

At one point, for instance, the episode cuts to an extreme high-angle shot of Beth seated in a chair, surrounded by the coven. The positioning of the witches reveals a five point or pentagram structure, a nice reflection of the group’s true nature.   

The revelation of Janet as the coven’s evil leader -- via creepy distortion lens imagery -- also ably suggests a world gone mad.

Much of the suspense in “Legion of Demons” emerges from the depiction of another new office employee, played by Jon Cypher.  All along, the episode plays this affable employee as a possible co-conspirator with the coven.  Every moment he’s one screen, we expect him to reveal his true, insidious colors.  But the episode has other plans for the character, thus smartly confounding expectations.

The most basic test for an episode of a horror show or a horror film even is an affirmative answer to the question: “is it scary?”  Although it clearly apes Rosemary’s Baby, and probably features one or two too many chases up and down an office corridor on the thirteenth floor, I still found “Legion of Demons” sufficiently frightening.  I was watching it alone (while my wife was asleep next to me in bed), at about 11:00 pm, and the episode gave me a good case of the shivers.

Given this fact, as well as the entrenched commentary on office politics, “Legion of Demons” proves itself another unexpectedly strong entry in this 1973 anthology.  I would need to check all the stats to be certain, but it certainly feels at this point like Circle of Fear boasts a better batting average than the Ghost Story component of the show.

Circle of Fear (1973): "Earth, Air, Fire and Water"

While discussing the Circle of Fear episode “Dark Vengeance,” I described a kind of anti-sense or nightmare logic that canny horror productions sometimes marshal and deploy to good effect.  One of the absolute champions of the approach may well be the Circle of Fear episode, “Earth, Air, Fire and Water,” written by Dorothy Fontana and Harlan Ellison.

I shouldn’t beat around the bush about this episode. When I wrote about it for my horror television survey, Terror Television (1999), I gave it a pretty negative rating and review.  But today, a decade and beyond later, I find my own commentary on the episode poorly-supported and flat-out wrong.  After a recent viewing of “Earth, Air, Fire and Water,” I feel like I can see it better for what it is: a genuinely upsetting and highly unnerving hour.  

Perhaps what I was reacting against originally were my own feelings of discomfort.  Who can say for sure? 

But now, today, I count “Earth, Air, Fire and Water’s” capacity to unsettle as a very real strength, not a weakness.  This episode is deeply scary in a cerebral way. It manages to vet some terrifying moments with precious little in terms of resources.

“Earth, Air, Fire and Water” concerns a group of starving artists -- a 1970s commune of sorts -- that rents a dilapidated shop in a quaint downtown area and begins to sell their creative wares there.  While cleaning up the place, the artists come across an old chest.  Inside are several transparent jars filled with strangely-colored fluids.  

In a short amount of time, exposure to these jars begins to turn the artists’ work…sour.  A landscape painter now creates creepy paintings worthy of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, for instance, instead of views of scenic shores and light houses.  The group's esprit-de-corps shatters like glass, and something sinister seems to hang in the very air itself.

We learn -- though only obliquely -- that the former residents of this building practiced black magic.  But beyond that blanket explanation, we’re given no real cause for the artists’ strange change, or any real origin for the bizarre jars.  

From the episode’s first frames -- a low traveling shot through the interior of a wrecked shop -- “Earth, Air, Fire and Water” develops a strong, almost overwhelming sense of amorphous dread.  We hear individuals (souls trapped in the jars?) talking to one another, but we don’t know where they are or what, precisely, they are.  The effect is unsettling.  We know we should feel alarmed and frightened, but there is no focal point for those feelings.  Instead, we just feel...uncomfortable.

There’s an interesting metaphor at work here as well, and yes, it escaped my radar when I wrote Terror Television.  In short, this episode concerns the transformation and decay of the hippie dream from the 1960s into the 1970s.  It concerns people -- hippie artists -- who optimistically build a collectivist world of art, intellect, and commerce but then become separated from one another, trapped and demented inside their tiny individual worlds, ones represented by the unusual and devilish jars.

This could be a comment on how deeply ingrained individualism and capitalism -- or selfishness -- are ingrained into the American culture.  Or this could be an allegory for the terror and perversion that infected the hippie dream as manifested by Charles Manson.  Love became hate.  Belonging became an opportunity for group delusion and madness.

However you choose to read it, “Earth, Air, Fire and Water” is very, very 1973.  It’s about the death of a social movement, and that death, make no mistake, is one of a spiritual nature.  Corruption turns the artists into isolated self-consumed monsters.

The episode’s terrifying final moment -- in which this spiritual decay unexpectedly takes over a human being -- seems to represent well the Manson phase of the hippie dream. Ugliness is now manifested not just inside, but flesh.   It’s a shocking and terrifying image that lingers in the memory, for certain.

I didn’t really understand everything that was going on with “Earth, Air, Fire and Water,” when I wrote about it in 1998, but I sure hope I’ve now rectified my initial error in judgment by posting this review.  This episode is light on dialogue and characterization, but extremely powerful in tenor and atmosphere.  It’s one of the very best and most challenging of all Circle of Fear episodes, and a good one to watch with the lights out.

Circle of Fear (1973): "Dark Vengeance"

One of the oddest qualities about Ghost Story/Circle of Fear is that it is a TV series of such wild extremes.  When it is bad…it’s really, really bad.  But when it’s good, the series can absolutely hit one out of the park.

“Dark Vengeance” is a Circle of Fear episode that hits one of the park. 

Written by Peter L. Dixon, this episode stars Martin Sheen and Kim Darby as a happily married couple – Frank and Cindy -- that intersects, unexpectedly, with inexplicable horror.  Sheen plays a construction worker who unexpectedly digs up a crate from a work site.  Frank is reluctant to open the sealed-up, old crate, but does so on the urging of co-workers and his wife. 

He finds inside a miniature old rocking horse.

This discovery doesn’t sound especially chilling, but Darby’s character, Cindy begins to experience nightmares of the rocking horse growing to elephantine-size and trampling her.  And worse, the rocking horse boasts this unfortunate habit of moving about of its own volition.

Soon, the unfortunate couple realizes that the rocking curse is exercising an old revenge curse upon them based on an incident from Cindy’s long-forgotten youth.  But the horse keeps growing in dimensions and develops devilish red eyes.  It is relentless.

Finally, Frank discovers the key to trapping the rocking horse involves the crate where it was found, and a mirror…

On paper, this whole story sounds utterly ridiculous: a couple is haunted by a tall rocking horse.  And yet, I’ve learned from long experience with the genre that horror stories sometimes work best not on a logical or rational level, but on a surreal level that I term “anti-sense.” 

For lack of a better word, it’s all about nightmare logic.  Consciously we may be able to shrug off the absurdities, but “Dark Vengeance” taps into all these lurking anti-sense fears.  They include fear of inanimate objects, fear of toys, and fears of being in a never-ending chase.

“Dark Vengeance” unfolds like a very bad dream indeed as the couple is menaced beyond reason and beyond rationality by the malevolent hell-bent rocking horse.  It grows to huge size.  It rolls from their house to their workshop.  It escapes the pincers of a vise.  It even evacuates from a fire-place when Frank attempts burning it. 

All this happens, and the threatened couple never thinks once of going to the police or seeking help from neighbors.  Instead, they are trapped in a bad dream, one from which they can’t awake, and one with precious few options for escape.

On this “anti-sense” level, the episode works really, really well.  There are no visual special effects to speak of to depict the horse in motion.  Instead -- for the most part -- the rocking horse simply shows up where we know it shouldn’t be…but where we secretly expect it and dread it. 

Frank turns on a light in the garage work shop and there it is.  Cindy goes into her bedroom, and finds it lurking in a corner…just sitting there.  Somehow, the story is all the creepier because, most of the time, we don’t see the horse changing or moving.  The thing’s very presence is enough to evoke chills, and we are left to imagine its form and shape of transit.

My wife and I watched this episode together a few nights ago, and we riffed on it a little, sort of shrugging off the funny 1970s fashion and touches.  The episode starts slow, to be certain. But by the twenty-minute point of “Dark Vengeance,” we were totally involved, and more than a little unnerved by the malevolent rocking horse.  The show just keeps plugging and plugging -- with a kind of insane sincerity -- and it breaks down rational resistance.

“Dark Vengeance,” like “Time of Terror,” goes right to the top of the Ghost Story/Circle of Fear episode catalog.  It shouldn’t work at all, but it really does.  Don’t watch “Dark Vengeance” alone, or with the lights off…

Ghost Story (1972): "Time of Terror"

“Time of Terror” is the final Ghost Story episode before the series change formats, drops Winston Essex and Sebastian Cabot, and transforms into 1973’s Circle of Fear

After this installment no more Mansfield House…

That’s the bad news, especially since Mr. Essex is such a jocular fellow, and such a unique anthology host.

The good news is that “Time of Terror” is not just a good episode of Ghost Story, but one of the all-time great ones.  This is a relief, as the series’ quality has been trending downwards for some time. 

Essex introduces the episode (again standing in front of an obvious rear projected image, for some reason...) and muses about the dangers of “modern hotels,” where it becomes easy for the staff to lose guests, or treat them as mere numbers instead of as people. 

From there, we launch into a genuinely intriguing mystery.  A married woman, Ellen Alexander (Patricia Neal), wakes up alone in her hotel room.  Her husband, Harry (Elliott Montgomery) is missing.  He doesn’t respond to pages from the hotel staff, and worse, the manager, Mr. Brett (Craig Stevens) insists that Mr. Alexander has “checked out.”

Ellen soon notices that every guest has been given a “Keno” card, and that when each person’s number is called, the guest is escorted out by hotel security people.  Worse, many of the guests don’t seem to mind this odd ritual.  Betty (Alice Ghostley) and George Carter (Doug Henderson), for instance, made plans to “check out” together and are disappointed when their numbers are called separately.

Ms. Alexander leaves the hotel and, bafflingly, finds herself on an isolated stretch of desert highway, experiencing flashbacks of a car accident.  As Brett soon informs her, she must return to the hotel soon, since her number has been called. 

He then shows her the car accident in which she was killed, but her husband survived…

“Time of Terror” was adapted for Ghost Story by the great Jimmy Sangster, and based on the story “Traveling Companion” by Elizabeth Walter.  It boasts a terrific setting, a sinister “modern” hotel that is, for lack of a better word, Purgatory.  You start to get the feeling that this is actually the case about mid-way through the tale, but up to that point the setting feels downright diabolical, like all the hotel employees are conspiring to keep Ms. Alexander from re-connecting with her husband.

The story is a great character piece, too, for Ms. Neal. Because mistakes were made in Purgatory, Mrs. Alexander is given the chance to bring her husband to the afterlife with keep her company/  But when she sees that he is still alive, Mrs. Alexander decides to let him live, and face the Great Unknown alone.  It’s a great character arc, going from desperation to re-connect with her missing husband to willingly parting from him, knowing she will never see him again.

The images in this episode are also very powerfully rendered.  The casino’s Keno game, for instance -- which selects who will go on to the Afterlife -- is particularly memorable. It bubbles and pops with life, and yet its calculus seems totally random.  I also liked the idea of a revolving door leading from one dimension, essentially, to another, an image that was repeated for the Hotel Royale in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Royale.”

Unlike many episodes of Ghost Story, this episode truly features a driving narrative, and some honest-to-goodness human interest.  The story doesn’t endlessly repeat the same notes or meander about, and it ends with a kind of apotheosis.  As Essex says -- in his swansong closing narration -- we should be mindful of Ms. Alexander’s decision, and wonder what we would do in the same circumstance. 

After all, this is a hotel where we are all going to check in, eventually…

“Time of Terror” rockets right to the top of the Ghost Story pantheon, standing beside such brilliant efforts as “The Dead we Leave Behind,” “Alter Ego,” and “House of Evil.”  It’s a very, very creepy show, and one that possesses an authentically dread-filled atmosphere. 

Tribute: Dick Smith (1922 - 2014)

A Hollywood and horror movie legend has passed away. 

The press is reporting today the death of Academy Award winning make-up artist and guru Dick Smith.

Mr. Smith began his incredible make-up career in the early 1940s, and worked on television, and films both inside and outside the horror genre.  Mr. Smith served as the make-up supervisor for NBC  for a span, and contributed his creative work to genre series including the Roald Dahl-hosted anthology, Way Out (1961), the afternoon soap-opera Dark Shadows (1967), and later such programming as the syndicated Monsters (1988 – 1991), and Stephen King’s The Golden Years (1991).

In terms of horror movies, Dick Smith is perhaps most well-known and best-remembered for the stunning and grotesque make-up of Regan (Linda Blair) in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), but that film is only one of his amazing credits.

Mr. Smith also created the augmented, automaton version of Katharine Ross for the shocking ending of The Stepford Wives (1975), and contributed to such note-worthy film’s as Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), The Sentinel (1977), Ghost Story (1981), The Hunger (1983), and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990).  One of his earliest horror credits for make-up was on 1959’s The Alligator People.

Mr. Smith earned his Academy Award not for a horror film, however, but for the creation of the elderly Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) in Amadeus (1985).  He also aged Marlon Brando for The Godfather (1972) and Dustin Hoffman for Little Big Man (1970). 

Dick Smith mentored and inspired a generation of make-up artists, including Guillermo del Toro and Rick Baker, and his remarkable work will be cherished and remembered for generations yet to come.  

I offer my deepest condolences to Mr. Smith’s family today, and at this time of loss suggest that his artistry -- captured on film forever -- is immortal. 

Ghost Story (1972): "At the Cradle Foot"

This episode arrives courtesy of writer Anthony Lawrence, the prolific author and creator who also crafted the 1972 paranormal series, The Sixth Sense, which starred Gary Collins as paranormal investigator Dr. Michael Rhodes.

“At the Cradle Foot” feels very much like it could have been an episode of that mostly-forgotten series, as it revolves around a disturbing psychic vision, or premonition.  Here, Paul Dover (James Franciscus) begins to experience recurring dreams that involve his five-year old girl, Emily (Lorie Busk). 

Paul envisions her as a twenty-five year old woman (Lisa James) riding a merry-go-round in an idyllic small town in Wyoming.  As she rides, however, the adult Emily is gunned down by an angry boyfriend named Rafe Norris (George McCallister).  In this psychic phantasm, Paul watches his daughter die.  As Emily passes away, she calls to her father for help, which Paul can’t provide.

This vision is no small matter for Paul because, some years earlier, he experienced a vision that his father would die in a plane crash.  That vision came true, and he has regretted since that he never warned his father about what he saw.  He is determined not to make the same mistake twice.  Paul’s estranged wife, Karen (Elizabeth Ashley), however, fears that he is finally losing his grip on reality.

Unwilling to take a chance with his daughter’s life, Paul heads out to that picturesque town in Wyoming, and attempts to change the direction of fate.  He learns that Rafe Norris has not yet been born, but that his father, also named Rafe (Jeremy Slate), is planning to marry a beautiful young girl who runs a local bed and breakfast, Julie Barnes (Meg Foster).  Paul determines that if he steals Julie away from Rafe, then Rafe Norris Jr. will never be born, and his daughter will never be imperiled.

But it doesn’t quite turn out that way…

It’s a nice change of pace to get away from beckoning, wailing ghosts this week (though the program is called Ghost Story), and there’s an almost Shakespearean sweep to Paul’s difficult dilemma, which interacts with his obsessive personality.  He is trapped by grinding gears of fate, and every decision he makes seem only to doom his daughter further, adding another nail to her coffin, as it were.

As a committed and concerned parent, I completely understood Paul’s urgency to “do something now” rather than wait patiently for fate to unfold, as his wife urges.  Paul can’t even stand the remote possibility that the vision could come true, and so starts to intervene in events and lives where, bluntly speaking, he has no business.  He breaks up a romantic relationship, and kills a man (in self-defense).  

Although the vision is two decades off, Paul wants to fix the world now. He is thus impatient and intemperate.  And because of these qualities, each time he makes a change, the vision of Emily’s death only comes back stronger.  The metaphor of the merry-go-round works very well expressing this character weakness.  Paul goes round-and-round, trying to catch up to fate, but he never gets any closer to altering it.

If you think about it, Emily might never head off to Wyoming in the first place were it not for Paul’s interference here.  Even more so, fate seems like an abundantly resilient opponent.  It appears to have a purpose, a direction, and a drive, and every action that Paul undertakes only backfires.

Given that fact, it is entirely appropriate that the final decision in the episode involves Paul pulling back. 

He decides to “let go” at his wife’s urging, finally aware that he can’t control the world. The deadly events are not to occur for twenty years, and that leaves plenty of time for the Dovers to warn their daughter, and make certain that she is not murdered.  

Eventually, Paul sees the wisdom of this guarded approach, especially when the alternative is to shoot a pregnant woman and kill the baby growing in her womb.  That’s a bridge too far, even for him. 

My only quibble with “At the Cradle Foot,” I suppose, is that it feels like the episode needs one final twist.  The episode boasts twists and turns galore leading up to the conclusion.  But then Paul’s wife convinces him they just need to “stay alive” for twenty years to warn Emily of the danger as the date of her doom draws near.  After this epiphany, we see the reunited couple get into a car and drive away, past the ominous merry-go-round…one more time 

At this point in the tale, I was certain the couple would die in a car accident, and the vision would go unreported and unresolved.

Instead, the episode merely ends, with the idea of premonition -- and the Dovers’ survival for the next two decades -- unresolved.  I’m all for ambiguity, but I just felt that the story needed a final punch heading into its finale. 

Still, I get and appreciate the point Lawrence forges in “At the Cradle Foot.”  Sometimes by acting impulsively, we bring on our own disasters, when a wait and see attitude would better serve all parties. 

Ghost Story (1972): "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.

Ghost Story (1972): "Alter-Ego"

This week, Ghost Story/Circle of Fear fires on all thrusters with the chilling “Alter-Ego,” a macabre story about a kindly old school teacher named Miss Gilden (Helen Hayes) who unexpectedly grapples with a young student’s villainous doppelganger. 

At Mansfield House, our host Winston Essex (Sebastian Cabot) introduces the episode. Essex discusses the origins of chess, a deceivingly “harmless” game.  But, he notes, chess is based on war games: attack, defend…capture…checkmate.  It requires two players “under ordinary circumstances,” he opines, but in the upcoming story, the circumstances will be far from ordinary…

The horror commences when young Bobby Cameron (Michael-James Wixted) is sidelined by an accident and forced to stay home from school for a long stretch of time.  Bobby’s parents don’t know how to relate to the boy, or even how to really talk to him, and the boy’s loneliness grows and grows and grows. 

One day, while playing chess by himself in his room, Bobby is surprised to see an exact duplicate appear there.  Unlike the real Bobby, the doppelganger is sinister, secretive, and tricky.  Worse, the evil double seems to know all of Bobby’s thoughts.

When Bobby innocently makes a remark about how much he likes his elementary school teacher, Miss Gilden, the sinister twin heads off to school to make the instructor’s life a living hell.  The doppelganger quickly proves a distraction in class, but then sets about framing Miss Gilden for using force against him.  His plan is successful, and Miss Gilden is fired from her long-held teaching job just months short of her retirement.

At the Cameron home, meanwhile, Bobby grows more and more afraid of his duplicate.  The evil double kills the family cat and then turns his attention to Bobby.  Bobby realizes that he is indeed weakening, losing strength to his ever-more powerful double.  With little time left before he passes away, Bobby challenges the doppelganger to a game of chess…a battle of wits.  The evil twin agrees to the contest, unaware that Bobby boasts a secret ally…

When Ghost Story works…it really works, and “Alter-Ego” proves an excellent reminder of this quality.  This episode is absolutely riveting as Miss Gilden and the sinister Bobby duplicate play a real life game of chess, matching move and counter move perfectly.  The performances by Hayes and Wixted are more than equal to the material, and the teleplay by Dorothy Fontana is very strong too.  The story itself is based on a literary work by Stanley Ellin (1916 – 1986), and in 2001 I had the chance to ask Fontana about her contributions:

“It was based on a short story, and I had to develop the script out of that story.  It only had to be an hour long, but much of what goes on in a short story is internal.  I had to externalize much of the story.  And then when I heard Helen Hayes was going to do the episode, I was just thrilled.  I didn’t even conceive that she might be willing to do our little TV show, and when I saw it, I thought she was just wonderful.”

The “evil child” represents one of the great pop culture tropes of the 1970s, appearing in films and television series such as The Exorcist (1973), Space: 1999 (“Alpha Child”), and The Omen (1976) to name just three.  “Alter-Ego” is a highly cerebral variation of the tale, but also an expression of the idea that all children boast a good and a dark side.  Only in this case, the dark side is externalized as a separate (and murderous) entity. 

“Alter-Ego” captures our attention so easily and so fully because Miss Gilden is a charming, sweet, old woman, and does nothing to deserve the evil “attention” of Bobby’s double.  Any time Miss. Gilden attempts to fight back, she risks censure and unemployment.  The evil child realizes this fact of course, and keeps staging threatening incidents which require super-human patience from Miss. Gilden.

Those moments will require super-human patience from you as well, as it becomes increasingly clear that Gilden is falling right into the sinister double’s trap.  The episode’s final battle -- which involves the unexpected appearance of one of the dramatis personae -- does a great job of getting across the message that an evil child is nonetheless a child…and should be treated (and disciplined) as such.

Ghost Story (1972): "The New House"

Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972 – 1973) represents the TV collaboration of William Castle, the great 1950s exploitation showman responsible for “Emergo” and “Percepto,” and Richard Matheson, brilliant scribe of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Omega Man (1971), The Legend of Hell House (1971) and Somewhere in Time (1980), among others.

The TV series -- a one-hour horror anthology -- ran for just one season on NBC in the early 1970s, and starred (as host) actor Sebastian Cabot.  He played “Winston Essex,” the “old world aristocrat" and owner of the upscale hotel/bed-and-breakfast called Mansfield House.  

In each episode of Ghost Story, Mr. Essex would reveal an unusual and macabre story about his various guests.  This aspect – the host and his world – were dropped from the series entirely when it transitioned into Circle of Fear after fourteen hour-long episodes.

As Ghost Story geared up for broadcast, co-creator and producer William Castle wrote that it would involve “strange happenings” and “ordinary people,” and that his intentiion was “not merely to shock or scare, but to do it in a fun way. Like a ride on a roller coaster.  You scream and you laugh.” (John J. O’Connor, The New York Times: “Cabot in Ghost Story, A Chiller Series,” September 29, 1972, page 87).

Despite the promise of a good time, the series was not particularly well-received by critics, though this is hardly unexpected given the mainstream perception of the horror genre during that time period.  Time Magazine noted that “week after week, this is perhaps the silliest of all the silly hours on TV.” (December 18, 1972, page 67).  The New York Times reviewer, O’Connor, reported yawning “once or twice” during the series, and that “Sometimes the ghosts work.  More often they don’t.”

The pilot episode for Ghost Story, titled “The New House” (or “Pilot”) was based on the English author Elizabeth Walter’s story She Cries, and it aired originally not as part of the series proper, but earlier – on March 17, 1972 -- as the first hour of a two-hour special entitled Double Play.  The second hour presented the pilot for the Trucker series Movin’ On.

In “The New House,” directed by John Llewelyn Moxey and adapted by Richard Matheson, the Travis family moves into its newly constructed modern home, which sits atop the peak of picturesque Pleasant Hill.  

When expectant Eileen Travis (Barbara Perkins) begins hearing ghostly noises at night, she grows convinced that the new home is haunted.  She soon visits a local historian, De Witt (Sam Jaffe), who tells her that her home is actually built over a two-hundred year old gallows, the very spot where a defiant, unrepentant thief, Thomasina Barrows (Allyn Ann McLerie) was hanged on March 2nd, 1779.  Upon her death, she swore to one day return…

Disturbed by her frequent night terrors, Eileen goes into labor and has a beautiful baby girl.  Things seem happy for a while, until a dark night when Mr. Travis (David Birney) can’t seem to get home from work, and Thomasina makes her ghostly presence known…

“The New House” is an effective horror tale that, in some ways, reflects the aesthetics of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).  Here we have another pregnant woman, spending her days alone, worrying about things.  And in that state of anxiety, she encounters the supernatural.  Of course, from the perspective of others, Eileen Travis seems unstable, and it’s easy to write  off that instability as a sign of her “condition.” 

In fairness, Mr. Travis is not evil, as Rosemary’s husband was in the classic Polanski film, but he’s not very useful to have about., either  He tries to patiently respond to his wife’s situation, but never cares enough to stay home from work, for instance.  Thus, Eileen’s feelings of isolation are powerfully-wrought in the episode.

Some of the visuals are nicely vetted too.  Eileen brings home a creepy statue at one point in the story, and when she hears ghostly singing inside the house at night, the visuals suggest the statue is, itself, vocalizing.  There are also some nice cockeyed pans across the exterior house, ones that suggest, in essence, that the house is off-balance, off-kilter.

The punctuation of all the horror comes when the ghost of Thomasina Barrows appears (in a thunderstorm, naturally), but we don’t see her face.  

Instead, we observe a shadowy, still figure in a long shot, at some distance from the camera.  The Travis’s maid actually speaks to her, believing she is speaking with Eileen, not a ghost.  It’s a creepy, creepy moment as you come to realize that the malevolent ghost is arranging to be alone in the house with Mrs. Travis and her innocent baby.

“The New House” also doesn’t fail in terms of commitment to the genre.  Something diabolical and awful happens at episode’s end regarding Thomasina’s encounter with Eileen and her daughter, and Ghost Story doesn’t back down from it.   Although I didn’t see the episode when it originally aired (I would have been three…) I can certainly imagine watching this pilot at night -- in the dark -- and being creeped the hell out.

In terms of series continuity, this first Ghost Story installment, introduces audiences to Winston Essex, the “host” of Mansfield House. He’s quite different from other series hosts, namely the macabre Alfred Hitchcock and the ironic Rod Serling.  Instead of taking on a tone of detachment or even black humor amusement, Essex exhibits concern and sympathy for the characters in his plays.  “I wish they weren’t going there,” he worries for the Travis family, off to their new home on Pleasant Hill.

Also, Essex describes himself as a “devious dinosaur” and discusses the incompatibility between Gothic tales and “the nuclear age.”  In a real sense, that’s the terrain Ghost Story wishes to tread.  

The series hopes to bridge the gap between modern reason and science, and our ancient, campfire fears of ghosts and goblins.  This idea recurs several times throughout the short-lived series, and I'll be sure to bring it up again when it does.  

Importantly, “The New House” sets its horror inside a modern house, one that has never been lived in before.  It boasts all the modern conveniences of the 1970s, from telephones to dish washers.  And yet despite such comforts, something terrifying and ancient – from an age past – infiltrates the family’s life. 

“The New House” is well-written, scary, and effectively shot.  The story is solid, if not revolutionary.  In short, it’s a pretty good start for Ghost Story

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

At Flashbak: Five Scenes from the Post-Star Wars (1977) Film Craze that Unexpectedly Terrorized a Generation

My new list at Flashbak remembers some of the terrorizing moments of the post-Star Wars era in space films.

"Back in 1979, Kenner Toys marketed products from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) to kids at American toy stores…even though the film was R-rated and featured chest-bursting, silver-toothed monsters.  A brave nine-year old could visit Toys ‘R Us and buy a large Alien action figure, or the Alien movie viewer…which showed imagery from the film.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, there were also a number of mainstream space adventure movies from the same post-Star Wars era that -- while not upsetting to children, overall -- nonetheless featured images of pure terror that then left an indelible impression on the young of the era.

Below are five of the most unforgettable horror images that kids of the 1970s unexpectedly encountered in mainstream cinematic space adventures."

Guest Post: Late Night with the Devil (2024)

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