We may safely declare that people who care about American made-for-TV movies consider the Golden Age to be the 1970s. As the networks discovered the attraction of this form, viewers could see several new titles a week without leaving their homes. You see, kids, it’s what we had before streaming, except nothing was on demand. We had to arrange our schedules and park ourselves in front of the tube at the appointed hour or else regret that we’d missed the thing until the possible rerun.
These films became the equivalent of old-school B movies: low-budget genre pieces featuring fading stars on the way down or contract players on the way up. Viewers who saw them back in the day often recall them fondly, and that includes lots of spooky and suspenseful thrillers.
Among the earliest official TV movies, Fear No Evil (1969) functioned as a pilot for a Universal series that never came to pass. That prospective show, to be called Bedevilled, would have starred Louis Jourdan being suave and French all over the place as Dr. David Sorell, a fashionable psychiatrist with a special fascination in witchcraft and “the black arts”. Consulting with his avuncular old mentor Harry Snowden (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who drops in as a sounding board and supplier of handy exposition, Dr. Sorell investigates the line between mere neurosis and supernatural heebie-jeebies.
Under the direction of Paul Wendkos, this first pilot begins as it means to continue: in a stylish, disorienting manner full of mobile camerawork, shot in rich Technicolor, and scored with a combination of spooky choral motifs, romantic swirls, and avant-garde dissonance. The dizzy, wide-angle, handheld opening shots take place in the Bradbury Building, a Los Angeles landmark used in many a movie, including Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and feature a man stumbling down the stairwells like a drunkard pursued by demons of Hell.
The man, as we’ll learn, is swinging physicist Paul Varney (Bradford Dillman), whom I assume is named after the landmark Victorian penny dreadful “Varney the Vampire” (1845) of disputed authorship. Guy Endore, who provided the story, and writer-producer Richard Alan Simmons would have been aware of this lore; dialogue about “Zaleski” may be a nod to Countess Zaleska in “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936, Lambert Hillyer).
In a complex story whose details must be worked out by viewers after the movie is over, since the screenplay eschews any boring scenes where someone finally explains what’s going on, Varney has been temporarily possessed by a made-up demon called Rakashi, which we don’t claim to be spelling correctly.
This demon of mirrors and infinity was unwisely summoned during one of those fashionable demon-raising larks that, if we can believe the era’s movies and TV shows, were all the rage since Rosemary’s Baby, both Ira Levin’s 1967 novel and Roman Polanski’s 1968 movie. Indeed, this movie carries the whiff of “rosemary” about it like sulphur. As Gary Gerani points out in his commentary, Dillman even resembles John Cassavetes in that film, and another affinity exists between Hyde-White and Maurice Evans.
Demonology aside, Fear No Evil is a completely different story centering on a troublesome full-length mirror that Varney buys in an antique shop during the opening sequence. It’s probably not that this specific mirror is haunted but that the demon has access to all mirrors and finds this one convenient for its size. In any case, people who gaze into it discover an endless hall of frames within frames where their own dark reflections may be advancing to claim their soul.
This antique becomes one of many evil mirrors familiar in the genre, and there’s a clever line explaining that it’s a good idea not to smash it right away, as you naturally think everyone in such situations should do at the risk of ending the story too soon. Here’s looking at you, Oculus (2013, Mike Flanagan).
Our clue that Varney is a modern playboy is when he tells his wide-eyed fiancée Barbara (Lynda Day) that sometimes he lives in sin. He’s quite the fetishist and his apartment is loaded with funky bric-a-brac. The large antique safe where he stashes his booze has a poster of W.C. Fields, and perhaps Varney follows the advice of never giving a sucker an even break. He also possesses a classic Stanley Steamer motor carriage that figures in the plot in an unfortunate manner, and it’s painful to see it go.
Before that automotive turn of events, we’re introduced to Sorell at the tail end of an all-night party at his own swinging pad, where he holds forth about demons and superstitions before a spellbound handful of guests including Snowden, Varney, Varney’s physics colleague Myles Donovan (Carroll O’Connor), and Barbara, who will spend the whole movie more or less literally going through hell.
This film and its sequel are surprisingly erotic for prime time TV of this era. Both films have to do with sexual visitations in one’s dreams, and the second film mentions incubi and succubi, and even orgies — without anybody saying that word. One problem with Barbara’s haunting, as she explains candidly to Sorell, is that she doesn’t really want to stop the visitations from her dead boyfriend in the mirror because the sex is great, even though she’s becoming literally drained via decorous bloodstains on her throat.
As if all this weren’t enough, she doesn’t know whether the boyfriend’s brittle and controlling mama (Marsha Hunt) is a friend or foe. Another ambiguous woman is Ingrid Dorne (Katherine Woodville), who knows more than she’s telling about spooky adult extension courses in the Bradbury Building where all these shenanigans started.
Ritual Evil (1969) (IMDB)
If Fear No Evil wore Rosemary’s Baby on its sleeve, sequel Ritual of Evil is among the era’s many projects channeling an awareness of the Manson murders, whether directly or discreetly. The story opens on a dark and stormy night, with Sorell showing up at a fabulous coastal mansion. He’s been called by a young woman who’s one of his patients, but she’s vanished.
The event embroils Sorell with the victim’s younger sister (Belinda Montgomery); their Aunt Jolene (Anne Baxter), a faded movie star turned alcoholic; Jolene’s equally faded boytoy (John McMartin); a live-in songwriter (Georg Stanford Brown) recovering from heroin; and the mysterious and liberated photographer Leila (Diana Hyland), more than a match for Sorell.
This time around, the magical fetish-object is a statuette of Pan or some other satyr, except that Sorell identifies it as another made-up “god of lust”. As scripted by Robert Presnell Jr. (Marsha Hunt’s husband) and directed by Robert Day, who handled some of the more fanciful episodes of The Avengers, this story is just as complicated as in the first film and leads to a strangely ambiguous ending. The sequel’s reputation is that it’s not quite as good because some elements are more restrained. But still.
As Gerani explains, these two movies haven’t been visible for decades. After their original NBC broadcasts, they were only syndicated in 16mm copies to local stations, so nobody has seen them in their crisp 35mm Technicolor splendor since then. This Blu-ray double feature shows why they justify their reputations.
Billy Goldenberg’s score on both films is wonderful and diverse, and both films are shot with sometimes spectacular attention to visual style. Andrew J. McIntyre shot the first film, while Lionel Lindon won an Emmy for the sequel. You’ll understand why during a glorious helicopter shot that just keeps going and going along the California coast.
Let me explain something. According to my memory, there was one Christmas where I received two copies of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbinders in Suspense, one of those Random House collections for young readers. My parents drove me to Walden’s Bookstore at the mall (unless it was B. Dalton’s), where I exchanged one for a copy of Gerani’s epochal celebration of science fiction and fantasy on the tube, Fantastic Television (1977), a tome that permanently warped my delicate mind. This book informed me of the existence of these movies, which I’ve wanted to see ever since. I still have that copy. In fact, I have two copies.
I’m saying that even if I weren’t starstruck, Gerani’s commentaries offer the kind of well-informed encyclopedic detail I’d expect of someone who literally wrote the book on the topic. He not only traces the background of this project and its origins in 19th century psychic detectives, but also its reincarnations in many subsequent TV movies of suspiciously similar bent. At least one brief series, The Sixth Sense (1972, no relation to the famous 1999 movie), seems to have been a bastardized revamping of much the same material from the same studio, Universal.
The studio seems to have dropped its plans for Bedevilled in part because they went with Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-73) instead, but there seem to have been more than one reason. Gerani tells an anecdote of when he was a young writer and somehow got the NBC president on the phone, who told him some conservative viewers were a little too disturbed by the devilish antics. They may have borne Rosemary’s Baby (ha ha), but they couldn’t know that just around the shadowy corner lay William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1974), and then all heck would break loose.
Whatever curse has kept Dr. Sorell’s adventures under wraps, the repressed has returned at last on this Blu-ray, and it’s groovy.