Long time no review, Goddess fans! As usual, I’m having to open this post by apologizing for my woeful lack of recent long-form film reviews on this blog. But as most of you will have surmised, I’ve been up to my forked tail in other projects, including promoting my latest book The Unseen Hand, working on my upcoming true crime book The Faceless Villain, and recording and promoting the 13 O’Clock Podcast, as well as trying to establish a new offshoot channel called 13 O’Clock In Minutes, which will, when it goes online, serve as a more bite-sized version of the show as well as a promotional vehicle for the main podcast.
So as you can imagine, I unfortunately haven’t had much time to sit down to watch and analyze some of the underrated horror flicks I adore so much. But today, a Saturday, fate intervened: the God of Hellfire and I had actually planned a small party this afternoon, but as it happened, when we awoke this fine morning, we discovered that our air conditioning had crapped out yet again (we just had it fixed two weeks ago, but Florida is nothing if not murder on air conditioning units), so we had to call off the get-together so our friends wouldn’t have to spend their Saturday sweating their asses off in our eighty-degree foyer.
Therefore, left at sixes and sevens with no plans, and confined to the bedroom where the emergency window unit is at least keeping the small area around the bed comfortable until the repair guy can come out several days from now, I decided I might as well put my sudden free time to use by watching some horror flicks and writing about ‘em. So after that enormous and probably unnecessary introduction (but hey, I’m the queen of too much information), let’s get to the actual movies!
I decided to return not only to my favorite decade for horror movies, but also to my favorite horror subgenre for this post. In short, I’m reviewing two haunted house films from the 1970s, both of which have made numerous appearances on various “underrated” lists around the internet, and both of which happen to have been made for television.
First up is 1972’s Something Evil, a TV movie directed by none other than Steven Spielberg (and airing not long after his much-better-known, classic made-for-television film Duel) and starring a bunch of familiar 1970s faces, such as Darren McGavin (of Kolchak fame, among many other things), Sandy Dennis (who was also in God Told Me To, which I wrote about here), and famously ginger-haired “Family Affair” kid Johnny Whitaker.
The story is a fairly standard haunted-house-slash-possession yarn, concerning a city slicker ad exec, his hippie-esque artist wife, and their two children moving from New York City out to a “charming” rural house in Pennsylvania Dutch country which turns out to be infested with demons.
While Something Evil, due to its subject matter, bears some superficial resemblance to other devil-possession films of the period, such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, I found myself comparing it more to other rural or folk horror stories from the 60s and 70s, such as The Other, The Wicker Man, Burnt Offerings, or Harvest Home.
After a cold open which sees an old man (presumably the home’s former owner) being pursued through a hex-symbol-adorned barn by an invisible force and then falling to his death from the hayloft, the Worden family purchases the property after wife Marjorie falls in love with the place while they’re on vacation. Not long afterward, things start to go south, though it isn’t clear at first whether something is wrong with the house itself or with the flaky and seemingly unstable Marjorie.
Despite the movie’s short runtime, clocking in at only 73 minutes, it’s still a pretty effective slow burn, and does a lot with its simple story. At first, there are just minor hints that something is amiss; for example, locals tell the family that something is odd about the place, and the townsfolk all seem to sincerely believe that devils are real. Additionally, the Wordens’ neighbor seems to make a point of ritualistically killing chickens in the yard and flinging their blood around, which disturbs Marjorie greatly, as it would.
As if that isn’t unsettling enough, Marjorie thinks she hears a baby crying out in the barn, but nothing is there when she goes to check. She also begins to grow increasingly interested in the occult and with the hex symbology prevalent in the area. Early on in the film, a couple attending the Wordens’ housewarming party is killed in a mysterious car accident on the way home, adding to Marjorie’s increasing paranoia that something evil has been unleashed in the house through her actions.
Naturally, Marjorie’s husband Paul thinks she is losing her mind, as he is often away at work and doesn’t see any of the phenomena that Marjorie claims is taking place. And indeed it does seem as though Marjorie herself is essentially the problem, as she grows depressed, suicidal, and even violent toward her children. It gets to the point where she paints a hex symbol on the floor as protection and keeps her children locked away from her, as she no longer trusts herself around them, sincerely believing that she has become possessed by demons. In a final twist, though, it comes to light that Marjorie is not the target of the demons’ evil at all, and in fact the only possessed person in the farmhouse is the couple’s son Stevie, whose demon-hosting status is revealed at the end in a well-staged scene complete with levitation and scary voices.
While the plot of Something Evil will be extremely familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of horror films from the era, Spielberg’s direction really elevates what could have been just a forgettable, throwaway 70s TV movie into something quite intriguing, using its presumably tiny budget to great effect. Everything is kept very understated, but slightly off-kilter, giving the film a pleasing sense of dread-laden believability. The ambiguity is also very well-done, and adds to the unnerving atmosphere. The movie additionally boasts some eerie, surreal touches, such as the creepy discovery of a mason jar full of red goo from which the ghostly baby crying apparently emanates, and the unexpected appearance of a pair of glowing red eyes in a photograph at Paul’s advertising agency. No rotating heads or pea soup vomit, sure, but the low-key effects work well within the movie’s framework.
I would unreservedly recommend Something Evil, not only to Spielberg fans curious about his early work, but also to connoisseurs of 70s horror in general. The film certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it’s still an enjoyable little occult thriller with some effectively haunting imagery. It’s just a shame it isn’t better known and more widely available.
Next on our double feature is a British teleplay from 1973 called The Stone Tape. Written by Nigel Kneale (probably most famous for writing the Quatermass series), the movie was broadcast on BBC 2 as a Christmas ghost story, though it’s actually more of a mashup between old-school Victorian ghost story and tech-driven sci-fi, somewhat similar in concept to The Legend of Hell House.
The tale concerns a gaggle of laddish, wisecracking scientists who are in the process of moving into their new research facility in a partially renovated and reputedly haunted mansion called Taskerlands. The scientists are apparently trying to develop a new recording medium to wrest the cutting edge away from their Japanese competitors. But the only female member of the team, a computer programmer named Jill who is also evidently somewhat psychic, almost immediately sees a ghost in the unrenovated portion of the mansion, and shortly afterward, the male members of the team all hear bloodcurdling screams emanating from the same area. It comes to light that the ghost is very likely that of a maid named Louisa who died by falling down the stairs many years before, and that the part of the house that’s home to the ghost is also exceedingly old, perhaps dating back to the era of the Saxons.
While the entire team is disturbed by the haunting, they’re also quite curious and keen to use their state-of-the-art research equipment to record and study the mysterious phenomena. After much theorizing and jiggery-pokery, they figure out that the stone walls of the old room are acting as some sort of crude recording device that takes impressions of extreme emotions that occurred in the room, but that instead of just recording like one of those newfangled magnetic tapes, the mechanism is actually dependent upon the sensitivities and emotional states of the living people present, i.e. that the humans witnessing the haunting are analogous to amplifiers for the titular “stone tape.”
The scientists are quite intrigued by this hypothesis, hoping that it might be a scientific breakthrough that can put them ahead of their technological rivals. But the more they try to get the phenomena to perform for their tests, the more frustrated they get, until at last it seems that they have accidentally erased the recording of Louisa’s death, and most of the team decide to abandon the project, since they believe the “haunting” is gone.
Jill, though, isn’t having it. Being more sensitive than the men, she feels there may be something deeper lurking at Taskerlands, hypothesizing that Louisa’s ghost might have been only the top layer of the recording, and that older recordings might have been overlaid by the most recent one. Bolstering her theory is a local priest, who informs her that an unsuccessful exorcism was performed on the land in 1760, before the house was even built, suggesting that the land has been haunted for far longer than anyone thought. She also has a frightening episode in which she hears and feels a malevolent presence, but no one else hears it.
Jill tries to tell the remainder of the team about her discovery, but no one wants to listen, and her friend and director of the project Peter Brock tells her to take a two-month leave because he thinks she’s losing her marbles. Before she leaves, though, she goes in the room one last time, and is summarily killed by the entity. The men find her later, her eyes frozen open in terror.
In a final little “fuck you,” Brock informs the authorities that Jill was emotionally unstable, and he shreds all the research she was doing that showed that the evil presence might have been there for seven thousand years. But Jill gets some small measure of revenge from beyond the grave when Brock goes into the haunted room at the end and is subjected to the most recent recording: Jill’s voice screaming his name before her death and begging for him to help her.
I have to admit, I didn’t like this one quite as much as Something Evil, but it was still an entertaining sci-fi ghost story that was a bit heavier on the sci-fi than the ghosts. The acting was a tad stagy, and the beginning of the film almost felt like a Vaudevillian routine, but that’s to be expected for a British teleplay of this era, and once it moved past that, it was a fairy effective scare-fest, though also like a lot of films of the time, it takes a while to get where it’s going, and the full impact of the story doesn’t come to fruition until the final couple of minutes.
If you liked The Legend of Hell House but thought it needed more focus on the haunting machine, then you’ll probably love this, as it’s a pretty similar concept, and in fact, the hypothesis that ghosts are simply recordings of past events that have somehow been captured by surrounding materials is still known in paranormal circles as the “stone tape theory.” I’d also recommend it if you liked the Quatermass movies or other 70s British sci-fi horrors, such as The Asphyx (which I wrote about here) or The Projected Man (which made a fantastic MST3K episode).
That’s all for now, minions! Keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
You know how sometimes when you’re bored and kinda hung over on a Sunday, and you go poking around YouTube looking for some comforting 1970s horror to watch while you inhale your hearty lunch of homemade Swedish meatballs? And you know how every now and then, you fortuitously stumble across a made-for-TV movie from 1977 that you hadn’t heard of, and how sometimes that movie was written by Richard Matheson and starred Karen Black? Isn’t that fucking rad when that happens? I’m here to tell you that it is quite rad.
The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is evidently something of a forgotten gem from the late 1970s, and despite its pedigree, hasn’t really gotten a great deal of attention; hell, I don’t think it’s ever even been released on DVD, at least in the U.S. The version I saw on YouTube had been transferred from a battered old VHS tape of the original telecast. It’s kind of a shame, because although this isn’t Matheson’s or Black’s best work, obviously, it’s still a really eerie mystery with a twist ending that totally blindsided me, which is not an easy thing for an ending to do.
Karen Black plays Miriam Oliver, an unhappy housewife straining under the controlling behavior of her buttplug husband Greg (George Hamilton), a hotshot lawyer who apparently wants nothing more than a wife who will dress like a Mormon schoolmarm, pump out babies at his command, and never leave the house or question his authority for any reason whatsoever.
As you might expect, Miriam is getting pretty resentful of the fact that she’s not allowed to work or go to college, and that Greg is pressuring her to have a child before she’s really ready (side note: Miriam’s character in the movie is supposed to be 26 years old, though Ms. Black was at least ten years older than that when this was filmed). She starts to rebel in little ways, like continuing to take her birth control pills on the sly; most significantly, she goes to the mall one day and is drawn to purchase a tight, low-cut red blouse, a blonde wig, some red lipstick, and some snazzy hoop earrings. She puts all the stuff on and is both enthralled and terrified by the fact that she looks like a completely different person. She even starts to act differently when she has her “costume” on, though of course Greg doesn’t really get it and thinks Miriam is losing her marbles. He does kinda try to be understanding, but it soon becomes apparent that Miriam is having a true identity crisis, and may in fact be “possessed,” just as the title of the movie suggests.
See, I neglected to mention that at the beginning of the film (and one other time subsequently), Miriam has been having these really creepy nightmares of attending a funeral and looking into the coffin, only to see herself lying there. She also has recurrent visions of fire, a small bouquet of dark purple or black flowers, and the sounds of a dog barking and a woman screaming. She also keeps seeing a dude with a gray sweatshirt and a sweet pornstache who drives a red pickup truck that inexplicably says “gasoline” on the side. Hmmmm.
On a whim, Miriam rents a cottage on the beach without asking her husband’s permission. He’s pissed, but after he sees how upset she is and how badly she wants it, he agrees that maybe they should rent a beach house so she can get away for a while, but of course he’s going to be the one to pick it out, because he can’t let her have one single thing. He also makes her an appointment to see a psychiatrist, and she seems relieved and compliant, though she tells him she wants to go to the appointment by herself, since he has to go out of town for a trial anyway.
Of course she skips out on the appointment, and instead puts on her slutted-up garb and heads for the beach house. A dog starts following her around, and seems to know her. She ducks into a bar in town, and as she does, she decides that because she has a new identity, she should have a new name. She sees a sign with the word “sandy” on it, and decides to call herself Sandy.
But oddly, as soon as she sits down at the bar, the surprised bartender addresses her as Sandy and asks where she’s been. Freaked out, she says her name is really not Sandy, but the bartender says she looks just like Sandy, a girl who always used to come in there. Even the drink she orders is the same one Sandy drank all the time. The bartender asks the two other shadowed figures at the bar whatever happened to Sandy, and one of them says that she moved away.
Then Miriam sits at a table near the dance floor to enjoy her drink, and who should sleaze up to her but Mr. Sweatshirt von Pornstache, the guy from her dream. She’s afraid of him, as well she should be, because he is crawling all up in her space, insisting she really is Sandy and she needs to stop lying about it. He won’t fuck off when she tells him to, but luckily Miriam is rescued by an extra from Saturday Night Fever, who asks her to dance. She tells him she can’t really dance, and indeed, at first she’s all awkward and shit, but then she finds her groove and starts disco-ing like a champ, just like those chicks on “Solid Gold.” Naturally, this makes Pornstache even more suspicious, because of course the way she dances is exactly the same way that Sandy used to.
So Miriam is getting more and more wigged out (pun very much intended) because Pornstache keeps stalking her around town, and she has the funeral dream again while she’s at the beach house, only this time the dream ends in a huge conflagration, through which Pornstache leers menacingly at her.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same thing, but I can assure you that what you are thinking is not actually what’s going on. And if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you might want to stop reading at this point. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
So, you are thinking, as I was, that Pornstache killed Sandy by burning her house down, and that Sandy’s ghost is possessing Miriam, right? I mean, the word “possession” is right there in the title.
This is not what is happening. Kinda close, but much weirder.
So Miriam gets back into her regular Mormon drag, realizing that hubby Greg is gonna be home from his trip soon and she’d better skedaddle back to the unhappy homestead. But the dog that’s been following her won’t get out of her car, and finally she gets exasperated and asks a neighbor who the dog belongs to. He says it’s Mrs. Dempsey’s dog, and that Mrs. Dempsey lives a couple blocks away in “a black house with a black fence.”
Again, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a black house because it’s all burned, right? And Mrs. Dempsey is Sandy, and Sandy’s dead, right? WRONG. We really need to quit trying to guess how this is going to end, you guys. When Miriam finds the house, it’s just a regular un-arsoned house that for some reason is entirely painted black.
An old woman answers the door and says that yeah, the dog belongs to Mrs. Dempsey, who is away until later that evening. This woman is just house-sitting, apparently. The old woman calls the dog Henry, which freaks Miriam out for some reason, and then she’s freaked out even more when she sees one of those pots of black flowers on the windowsill. Then, as she’s leaving, she glances through a window of the house and sees a painting of a girl who looks very much like her, with blonde hair, a tight red blouse, and hoop earrings. Miriam loses her shit and asks the housesitter woman who the girl in the painting is, but the old woman doesn’t know. She says that Miriam should come back after seven and talk to Mrs Dempsey, so Miriam resolves to do just that. By the way, Pornstache has been lurking around this whole time, so there’s also that.
Miriam then passes another neighbor, and asks if Mrs. Dempsey had a daughter. The guy doesn’t really remember at first, but then he says that he thinks he recalls someone mentioning that Mrs. Dempsey indeed had a daughter who died five years before. AHA!!! See, Sandy IS dead!!! WRONG AGAIN. I TOLD YOU TO STOP TRYING TO GUESS.
Meanwhile, back at the Greg Oliver Prison for Matronly Breeder Wives, hubby has returned from his business trip and is calling around to try to find out where his errant wife has gotten off to. He finds out that she skipped her shrink appointment, and surmises, correctly, that she probably went to her beach house. So he heads on over there in order to give her a good talking-to.
Miriam, still being tailed by Pornstache, returns to the Dempsey house, and here’s where the big bombshell finally comes to light. Mrs. Dempsey answers the door and sees Miriam there, her face partially in shadow. She seems REALLY cheesed off, accusing Miriam of playing a sick joke on her. Mrs. Dempsey asks who she is, and when Miriam says her name, Mrs. Dempsey is all FUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOOOOU. Then Mrs. Dempsey turns on the porch light, sees Miriam’s face properly, and calls Miriam Sandy. Miriam protests, and asks about Mrs. Dempsey’s dead daughter in the painting. Mrs. Dempsey says that the painting isn’t of her daughter, but is a portrait that her daughter painted of her best friend Sandy. “THIS IS MY DAUGHTER,” Mrs. Dempsey shrieks, thrusting a framed photograph at Miriam. “THIS WAS MY DAUGHTER MIRIAM.” And right there in the photo is matronly Miriam, complete with librarian bun and giant seventies glasses.
What in the Samuel Langhorne HELL is going on here, you may wonder? Okay, pay attention. Five years before, Pornstache (whose real name is Mark) was supposed to marry Sandy, but she broke up with his ass and he didn’t take it too well. One night when Sandy and Miriam were at Sandy’s house, Pornstache showed up and set Sandy’s car on fire. The fire spread to the house. Sandy got away, but Miriam and Sandy’s parents died in the blaze.
So basically, the Miriam we’ve been following through this whole movie really WAS Sandy the whole time. She just felt so guilty that Miriam had died because of her that she dissociated and took over Miriam’s identity. As Miriam, she met and married Greg, and only after several years did fragments of her actual identity start filtering back to her. That was why, at the beginning of the movie, that “Miriam” kept telling Greg that she felt suffocated and that she wanted to be her “real self,” though she couldn’t articulate to him who that was. Deep down she knew she was really party-girl Sandy, but Greg had only ever known her as staid, conservative Miriam. So there you have it. No possession, no ghosts, nothing supernatural at all.
At the very end, Pornstache tries to kill Miriam/Sandy, but she is saved when Greg arrives just in the nick of time. She tells him who she really is, and he seems surprisingly okay with it, unless he’s simply planning on calling the men with the butterfly nets after the credits roll. That seems like the kind of dick move he would pull.
Gotta say, I really enjoyed this quite a lot, and I don’t think that was just the remnants of last night’s alcohol talking. The funeral scenes in particular were eerily surreal and creepy as hell, and the whole thing, while rather slow-moving, was intriguingly spooky and mysterious. Karen Black was absolutely great as the unstable Miriam, and George Hamilton was appropriately assholish, without seeming like a cartoon villain. And as I said, the ending, when Mrs. Dempsey handed Miriam the picture of herself, literally made my jaw drop. I didn’t even care that the whole “possession” title was a misnomer; I was just so pleasantly shocked by this bizarre twist that I did not see coming in any way, shape, or form.
Fans of Karen Black, Richard Matheson, and eerie 70s mysteries would do well to give this a chance, and hopefully someday it will get a proper high-quality release, because it really is quite a good example of made-for-TV horror from that golden decade. It was a total accident that I came across it, but as Bob Ross would have said, sometimes there are happy accidents. 🙂
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
Welcome back to our regularly scheduled programming, horror hounds. We’re traveling back to Italy for this one, and back to the giallo genre; we’re also revisiting some familiar faces from previous blog posts, because today’s movie features Edwige Fenech and George Hilton (from The Case of the Bloody Iris), as well as Marina Malfatti (who starred in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave). So, without further delay, let’s jump right into the psychedelic cauldron of Satan, shall we?
All the Colors of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio, 1972) was an Italian/Spanish co-production, but set in London, and directed by Sergio Martino. It’s essentially a groovier, less satirical, and WAY more surreal take on Rosemary’s Baby, with similar themes of black magic, ambiguous reality, and crushing paranoia.
Beautiful but mentally fragile protagonist Jane has been going through some shit; not only was her mother murdered when she was five years old, but a year before the events of the film, she was in a car accident in which she suffered a miscarriage. Her boyfriend, pharmaceutical rep and raging jackwad Richard, was driving the car, and sorta feels responsible for the whole losing the baby thing, although he still kinda treats Jane like crap anyway. Ever since the tragedy, Jane has been plagued with horrific, Fellini-esque nightmares in which toothless old ladies cackle in close-up and a mysterious man with ice-blue eyes repeatedly stabs women in their beds.
In true “Yellow Wallpaper” fashion, Richard has been pooh-poohing Jane’s wishes to see a psychiatrist, insisting she just needs to keep ingesting the weird blue toilet-tablet vitamin concoction he’s giving her to flush away the crazy, since he clearly subscribes to the Tom Cruise School of Psychiatry Is Evil and Scientology Solves All the Things With Vitamins and OT Powers. But since playing with the Ty-D-Bol Man doesn’t seem to be doing her any damn good, Jane finally takes her sister Barbara’s advice and goes to see the psychiatrist Barbara works for, a kindly old man called Dr. Burton. Doc seems more understanding, but her nightmares are not going away, and what’s worse, she’s starting to see the blue-eyed man stalking her in real life, or so it would appear.
Fearing she might be going batshit insane, she finally confides in foxy new neighbor Mary, whose first suggestion, obviously, is for Jane to accompany her to a black magic ritual, which should clear that whole mental illness thing right up, with the well-known healing power of Beelzebub. Jane gives this course of action about ten seconds of thought before going, “Sounds like a plan,” and after a festive afternoon of dog-blood drinking and gang rape, she seems right as rain again.
But not so fast! In a stunning twist, it turns out that demonic cults headed by fey bearded men wearing fabulous gold Lee press-on nails may not actually be conducive to one’s overall well-being! Who’da thought? From here on out, the movie takes on the aspect of a fever dream, as we’re not really sure who we can trust and what is really happening. Is the blue-eyed psycho real or imaginary? Is everyone Jane knows conspiring with the cult to push her off her rocker for good? Has Richard fucked every woman in the immediate vicinity, including Jane’s sister? What’s the over/under on how long it would take to murder a couple of German senior citizens and prop them up at the breakfast table as though they’re still alive? Will Jane ever learn to cook bacon and eggs properly? The surrealistic touches come hard and fast, and the viewer will be left confused and on edge until the very end.
I really dug this one a lot; I loved the psychedelic weirdness and the ambiguity, and it had a really unsettling undertone of claustrophobia, as the world seemed to close in around poor Jane, leaving her with no one to trust. The cinematography was also lovely and strange, if a little heavy on the wacky camera effects. Definitely one of the more unique gialli, and one I’d definitely recommend to fans of Satanic cult movies as well.
That’s all for this installment, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
Cheerio, old chaps! Today’s movie is another kinda obscure 1970s flick from Europe, but we’ve temporarily travelled from Italy to Old Blighty. Bizarrely, and completely coincidentally, it also concerns a fucked up aristocratic family by the name of Cunningham, just like my last entry on The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. I swear I did NOT do that on purpose. Clearly, mysterious cinematic forces are at work here.
Directed by Peter Newbrook and released in 1972, The Asphyx was also known under the titles Spirit of the Dead and The Horror of Death. Set in 1875, it explores many of the same themes as Frankenstein, what with all the hubris about scientists tampering in God’s romaine and suchlike. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is a widower, a gentleman scientist, and a cheery, progressive sort of bloke, using his money and expertise in service of the betterment of mankind. At the beginning of the movie, he is bringing his fiancée Anna (Fiona Walker) back to the family estate to introduce her to his two grown children Clive (Ralph Arliss) and Christina (Jane Lapotaire), as well as a young fella named Giles (Robert Powell), who he introduces as his adopted son, but who also has a thing going with Christina, so…huh. Yeah, technically they’re not blood relatives, but still, eeeewwwww. Moving on.
One of Sir Hugo’s main scientific pursuits involves working with a psychical research society, photographing people at the moment of their deaths. A few of their photographs seem to show a strange black smudge near the dying people, which the psychical society believes are the souls leaving the bodies. Sir Hugo is excited about the implications of this research, but his ward/assistant/daughter-banger Giles is all kinda meh, skeptical of the society’s conclusions and not really seeing the point of it all.
Things start going to shit about twenty minutes into the festivities. Clive and Anna are killed in a freak boating accident, and Sir Hugo happens to capture their deaths on his newfangled video camera. Beside himself with grief, he insists on watching the footage to see his beloved Anna and his only son Clive one final time. He is simultaneously horrified and ecstatic to find that he can clearly see that telltale black smudge appearing on the film right before Clive gets beaned with the fatal tree branch, but now that he can see it as a moving image instead of a static one, he can’t help but notice that the smudge is not moving away from Clive, as his soul presumably would, but toward him. Dun dun duuuuuun.
This doesn’t seem like a great deal to go on, but from this single piece of evidence, Sir Hugo formulates a theory that obviously, this black thingamabob isn’t really a soul per se, but an entity from Greek mythology called an asphyx, something like a grim reaper deal that comes to claim your ass when you’re fixing to bite the big one. He’s eager to do more research into the matter, and fortuitously, an opportunity soon presents itself: the president of the psychical society, Sir Edward Barrett (Alex Scott) arrives at Sir Hugo’s house, all in a lather because the barbaric British government has decided to reinstate public executions in order to try to stem the tide of a supposed explosion of violent crime. Sir Edward and Sir Hugo are both vehemently anti-capital punishment, and Sir Edward wants Sir Hugo to film the first hanging, hoping that the horror of the images will rally the public to their cause. Sir Hugo pretends that he doesn’t really want to do it, but secretly he’s all like AWWWW YEAH and metaphorically rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee. He finally agrees, though he doesn’t tell Sir Edward what his true intentions are, vis-á-vis recording dying people’s repo-demons.
During the hanging, Sir Hugo uses a “light booster,” essentially a spotlight using phosphorous crystals, to illuminate the gallows as the condemned man meets the noose; but to the surprise of himself and everyone assembled, the criminal’s asphyx is clearly visible to all, and seems to be trapped within the phosphorous beam. When Sir Hugo reviews the footage later, both he and Giles realize that if a person’s asphyx could be halted by the phosphorescent light, and further, if the asphyx could then be transferred to a purpose-made lock-box with a phosphorous beam shining indefinitely into it, then a person could, theoretically, never die, provided the asphyx is never released. They try the experiment on a guinea pig and meet with rousing success, so of course the next logical step is that Sir Hugo, growing increasingly mad with the potential power of everlasting life, decides to immortalize himself, because his awesomeness cannot be contained within a single lifetime, goddammit.
If you know anything about this type of movie, you’ll know that the situation is going to go drastically, horrifically sideways from that point forward, and you may find yourself asking the following questions: Is it ever morally justifiable to toy with immortality? What lengths will a man go to to preserve his family and his legacy? Is it really prudent to have to live forever when your noggin is hanging on by a single sinew like Nearly Headless Nick? Some pretty fucked up shit happens at the end of this, folks, and here is yet another example of a Cunningham family who really, desperately need some kind of psychiatric intervention. Happy Days this ain’t.
As with a lot of British films from the early 70s, this one moves at a snail’s pace and is ridiculously talky, so it’s definitely not for all tastes. The characters, further, are all intensely twee, upper-class-twit types, but I found myself kinda liking them in spite of myself. Plus I was so interested to see what new, profanely impious schemes Sir Hugo was gonna come up with next that I was utterly transfixed through the entire two-hour running time. I also found the ending wonderfully cruel, ironic, and immensely satisfying.
That’s all for this installment, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.