Film

The Outer Limits of Spookery: Resurrecting 'The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre'

The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre feels like an unknown episode of The Outer Limits dropped in from an alternate dimension.

The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre
Joseph Stefano

Kino Lorber

30 Oct 2018

Other

Kino Lorber has exhumed a lost gem that even most connoisseurs of ghost stories have never heard of: The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre, a 1965 TV movie that's been broadcast in Canada, Australia, Japan, and other venues but never in its country of origin, the USA. This 80-minute film is an expanded version of The Haunted, an unaired one-hour pilot for a series that never materialized.

The result feels like an unknown episode of The Outer Limits dropped in from an alternate dimension, and that's more or less the case. The film was written, produced, directed and created by Joseph Stefano, who followed his stint scripting Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) by serving as producer for the first season of The Outer Limits, a series created and executive produced by his old friend, Leslie Stevens. That series had been conceived as ABC's answer to CBS' The Twilight Zone, albeit more oriented towards science fiction and scary monsters to send jolts of horror and joy through its often juvenile viewership.

Stefano quit that series at the end of its first season and approached CBS with an idea for a series called The Haunted, about psychic investigator Nelson Orion (played by Martin Landau), a wealthy, famous architect and art restorer who lives in a gravity-defying house propped on the side of a California cliff over the beach. The house, featured prominently in the credits, is played by a fabulously artificial glass matte painting that looks like the building will be in the drink at the first landslide.

In this groovy bachelor pad defined by a large interior space with a second floor balcony, twisty staircase, and over a dozen oil paintings cluttering one wall, Orion is attended by a beaming matronly housekeeper, Mary Finch (Nellie Burt), and harassed with good humor by attorney and friend Benedict Sloane (Leonard Stone), neither of whom believe in ghosts. These characters would have been regulars.

Why does Orion ("the constellation of the hunter") pursue a hobby in phantom phenomena? Here's how he explains it:

"Supernaturally or otherwise, we are all haunted. Anyone who's lived in this past century, this last week, cannot escape being haunted. For some of us, it's a mass haunting, an all-pervading specter of guilt or futility or alienation that we suffer collectively. For others, the haunting is more private and more terrible because the ghosts are ours alone and we recognize them. Sometimes it takes so little to free ourselves of our ghosts. And if my believing in another man's haunting helps to free him, does it matter whether science calls his agony hallucinatory or real?"

Wow. As delivered in one perfect closeup by Landau, that's a great example of the arias of which Stefano was capable and which dotted his episodes of The Outer Limits. To pull this project together, he recruited people he'd worked with on that show, for almost everyone behind the scenes and in front of the camera was an alumnus, including brilliant photographer Conrad Hall and composer Dominic Frontiere. In fact, aside from a new main theme, Frontiere's music here is recycled from an Outer Limits episode, the superb "The Forms of Things Unknown".

The first scene finds blind heir Henry Mandore (Tom Simcox) greeting his wife Vivia (Diane Baker), who's been away on a business trip. He tells her he's been haunted by frightening events and that all the servants have left to be replaced by one Paulina. The latter promptly manifests in the person of Dame Judith Anderson, channeling her portrayal of the imperious Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). Looking very much as if she's seen a ghost, Vivia gasps and backs against the wall before the commercial fade-out. It will be some time before we understand what that was all about, but we'll just say it's a good thing her husband is blind.

Henry believes his late mother, dead for a year, has taken to phoning him from the family vault, where she'd had a phone installed in case she was buried alive. This idea evokes the Twilight Zone episode "Night Call", in which a phone line has fallen on a grave in a cemetery; that was based on a Richard Matheson story, "Long Distance Call", which also happens to be the title of yet another Twilight Zone episode about a telephonic ghost. The idea was very much in the air, and over the air.

As for this incarnation, director Stefano and his photographer treat us to a long, elaborate shot that encompasses the phone line, the crypt, a skulking Paulina emerging from one shadow and vanishing into another, a wicker basket of what looks like cat-tails blowing over in the wind (twice) and Orion wandering onto the scene for an appointment with Vivia. The cemetery is another Grand Central Station, only spooky. This shot is a magnificent gratuity that belongs among the episode's visual highlights, which also include a stunning dissolve during the opening credits in which an elevated view of Los Angeles is suddenly washed over by the ocean, and another eye-popping dissolve from a small black vial in the crypt to the windblown, black-clad Paulina on the beach.

For a woman who claims not to believe in ghosts, Vivia regularly collapses into spasms of hysteria whenever a wind starts blowing or anything else happens. Again, the reasons for all this will be explained in due time, and it's no spoiler that it's got something to do with the title's reference to a specter from a small town in Mexico. One could argue that the plot is somewhat dragged out, as would be the case for a one-hour version padded to feature length, yet the atmosphere and pacing are handled so well, and the backstory so complicated, that the film doesn't outweigh its running time.

That said, the shorter The Haunted is probably the more effective telling. Aside from the relatively languid chunks that get omitted, including Orion's speech quoted above and that magnificent long take, which here gets sliced to a few seconds, the ending is notably different. The backstory is the same, as is the dramatic climax, but this pilot abruptly gives us one tenor of ending while the longer version throws in one last dramatic twist as Orion stands there with his mouth open instead of making a move to do anything about it.

Hall was already embarking on his distinguished career in features after having caught Hollywood's eye on The Outer Limits. 1965 was the year of his first of ten Oscar nominations, three of which he'd win. His camera operator, William A. Fraker, was only a few years away from shooting Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) and a career of five Oscar nominations in cinematography. Watching this heretofore obscure little item, it's no surprise what their futures held.

The black and white art direction of McClure Capps, the sets of Frank Tuttle, and the makeup by Fred B. Phillips all contribute to the creepy and sleek effect. Kudos are also due to the ghost (Priscilla Morrill), who's presented via negative processing (what's black is white, etc.) and scored with nerve-rattling sound effects of shrieks and moans that would give anyone a breakdown. By the way, this marks Stefano's sole effort as a director, and he only did it because scheduled director Robert Stevens was unavailable. Stevens is listed on the package but doesn't seem to have participated.

The 2K restoration of The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre looks as clean and clear as one could wish, while the print of The Haunted is more ragged. In this case, the miracle is that it exists at all and has risen as a revenant from beyond the grave of TV's busted pilots. The putative show was a victim of bad timing. Apparently, CBS bought the series, gave it a time slot and prepared to advertise it when a purge of executives brought in some new brooms who swept out the previous regime's plans and cancelled all new series in development except The Wild Wild West.

Each incarnation gets its own commentary track. David J. Schow, who's written two books about The Outer Limits, offers background information on the feature-length version while collector-historian Eric Grayson discusses The Haunted. He observes aptly that "Mandore" sounds like "Manderley", the mansion in Rebecca.

The Haunted is Grayson's personal copy, since he found and bought it on eBay eight years ago, and it's taken all this time for rights issues to be cleared. Indeed, there was a brief pre-release scare when it seemed the project was about to be cancelled over yet another misunderstanding over the rights, though that seems to have been straightened out. Just to be sure, those who have any interest in projects like this would do well to grab their copy now before it vanishes into the night.

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