Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Spectre (1977)

Definitely not to be confused with the 2015 Bond movie of the same name, 1977's Spectre nevertheless has a thoroughbred pedigree, in US TV movie terms, at least.  For that is what this horror movie actually is: a busted TV pilot given a theatrical release outside of the US, incorporating additionally shot footage.  It represents the culmination of two 1970s US TV trends: Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's attempts to get another TV series off the ground and attempts by producers like Dan Curtis to create horror subjects within the constraints of network TV.  The former had included a number of failed pilots like The Questor Tapes and Planet Earth, whilst the latter had yielded the Kolchak TV movies (and the subsequent, short-lived TV series), The Norliss Tapes (another failed pilot for a series about a supernatural investigator) and one off TV movies like Gargoyles and The Cat Creature.  Clearly feeling that the networks just weren't buying science fiction, Roddenberry decided to try his hand at the supernatural instead, (possibly inspired by the good ratings garnered by some of the horror themed TV movies of the era and the cult following built up by Dan Curtis' earlier Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows).

In short, Spectre concerns criminologist William Sebastian (Robert Culp) who, having exhausted rational explanations for the persistence of human evil, has turned instead to the study of the supernatural to provide an explanation.  Accompanied by his former associate and sceptic Dr Hamilton (Gig Young), he finds himself embroiled in the affairs of a trio of wealthy Brits, (portrayed by James Villiers, Ann Bell and John Hurt, yes, that's right, John Hurt), and the strange goings on at their country mansion.  The sister believes that one of her brothers is possessed by an evil spirit, whilst the eldest brother thinks his sister is mad.  The American duo endure various supernatural threats, have to fend off the police in the form of Gordon Jackson's Scotland Yard inspector, who is investigating the murder of an occultist associate of Sebastian and uncover an underground temple before resolving the situation.  Whether this could have been sustained as a weekly series is questionable, but as a one-off movie, Spectre is actually pretty entertaining.  Culp and Young carry off their occult Holmes and Watson act with considerable aplomb.  Whilst keeping commendably straight faces for most of the proceedings, (which do get pretty bizarre in places), they know when to take a lighter approach without tumbling over into full on campiness.  The rest of the, mainly British, cast provide stalwart support.  Villiers, in particular, was no stranger to this sort of material, having appeared in horror movies for both Hammer and Amicus.  Behind the cameras, Clive Donner provides stronger direction than usually seen in TV movies, building up reasonable amounts of suspense and atmosphere when needed and choreographing an effectively nightmarish climax in the underground temple.

As noted earlier, the version of Spectre I saw was the the one prepared for European theatrical release.  Producing such versions wasn't an uncommon practice at the time, as it provided production companies with an opportunity to recoup the costs of expensively shot pilot movies which never made it to series. And, to be fair, Spectre looks like a more expensive than the average TV pilot, filmed largely on location in the UK and featuring several credible name actors, it avoids the somewhat 'identikit' feel that pervaded many US TV shows in the seventies (most of which seemed to be filmed on the, by then, overly familiar Universal backlot). Not that this doesn't stop it from featuring its fair quota of styrofoam rocks and unconvincing interiors, but they don't detract too much from the film's otherwise superior production values.  The new footage - which was usually inserted into pilots to bring them up to proper feature length and/or provide material which couldn't then be shown on US network TV - is pretty obvious, consisting mainly of some bared breasts in the climactic orgy-cum-ritual sacrifice scene at the climax, which also includes a threat of both rape and incest. Not the sort of stuff you'd see in a TV movie of the era.  There's also more gore on display than you'd expect from a regular TV pilot.

However, I have to say that the question which kept nagging at me whilst watching Spectre was whether David Icke had ever seen the film.  Most of the central tenets of his main conspiracy theory seem to present: powerful members of the establishment are part of a cult based around human sacrifice, with its leaders being able to shape shift into various monstrous forms.  Indeed, at the climax, the cult's leader transmogrifies into a giant humanoid lizard.  OK, said lizard is, in the film, actually an ancient demon able to corrupt mortals by appealing to their basest desires, rather than being part of an ancient reptilian race, but the fundamental imagery of Icke's schtick is all there.  Perhaps it is all just coincidence, but I can't help but suspect that David Icke once watched Spectre and the imagery and basic plot stuck in his subconscious, so that when he had his revelation/breakdown, these long submerged memories reasserted themselves as the basis of his new world view.  It's a tantalising thought, that a whole best-selling cobspiracy theory had its origins in an unsuccessful 1970s TV pilot.



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