Thursday 30 April 2020

Ritual of Evil (1970)

Director: Robert Day
Writer: Robert Presnell, Jr., based on characters by Richard Alan Simmons
Stars: Louis Jourdan, Anne Baxter, Diana Hyland, John McMartin, Belinda Montgomery and Wilfrid Hyde-White

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Many of the films I’ve included in this book are obscure, but for different reasons. Some were indie releases that didn’t reach a big audience. Some have been unjustly neglected. Some of them just plain suck. This TV movie may have merely arrived a blink of the eye too early to have the impact that it could have had, meaning that, instead of spawning a cult television show, it became instead a historical footnote for half a century, waiting to be rediscovered. It’s actually a sequel, to 1969’s Fear No Evil, which introduced us to a psychiatrist named David Sorell, played by the ever-reliable Louis Jourdan, who reprises his role here. Sorell is also an expert on the occult and he investigates the strange and unusual. Both films were broadcast on NBC during their Tuesday Night at the Movies series of films made for TV, which tended to run longer and cost more than their equivalents on other networks. The cast of each was stellar and Ritual of Evil even won a Primetime Emmy for cinematography, but the hoped for TV show never materialised.

Instead, they served as an influence. Another investigator of the supernatural, Carl Kolchak, showed up a couple of years later, with his history beginning on the TV movie The Night Stalker, an ABC Movie of the Week, in 1972. The Night Strangler followed it a year later, with the supernatural horror genre perhaps reaching its peak with William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his 1971 novel, The Exorcist. ABC promptly ordered a full series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which only lasted a single season but was itself a primary influence on later shows like The X-Files. Had Fear No Evil and Ritual of Evil been made just a couple of years later, perhaps Chris Carter would have been inspired by the cult investigations of David Sorell rather than those of Carl Kolchak. In a parallel universe not far adrift from ours, maybe he did, but here in our universe, we’ve had to make do with terrible quality nth generation bootleg VHS tapes thus far. The good news is that Kino Lorber may well be releasing both these films on BluRay in late 2020. Fingers crossed.

The name writer on Fear No Evil was Guy Endore, most remembered nowadays for his 1933 novel, The Werewolf of Paris, and a string of thirties horror screenplays, including Mark of the Vampire, Mad Love and The Devil-Doll. His Oscar nomination, of course, wasn’t for some tawdry horror yarn but for the decidedly American 1945 war film, The Story of G.I. Joe, which he co-wrote. However, he was at the end of his career and Fear No Evil was his last credit; he died less than a year after its broadcast, apparently unable to contribute much to the script. Instead, Richard Alan Simmons, another experienced writer whose credits date back to The Lady Wants Mink in 1953, handled most of the work and its his name that’s credited on Ritual of Evil as the creator of the core characters, David Sorrell and his mentor, Harry Snowden, though the screenplay was written by Robert Presnell, Jr. Presnell’s career had begun on TV back in 1952, though he quickly found success on film with the underrated Jack Palance thriller, Man in the Attic.

It begins with clear ambition for a TV movie sequel to a TV movie. The opening credits unfold during a storm as the steady camera of Lionel Lindon closes relentlessly in on a large beachfront property, alternately almost hidden in the darkness and brightly lit by flashes of lightning. The music by composer Billy Goldenberg is appropriately striking and, as we focus in on a lady in a nightgown wandering around in a daze by a raging ocean like the cover girl for a gothic paperback, it shifts into a weird choral style that’s just as enjoyable as it is unusual. And, while this torrential downpour gets worse, Dr. David Sorell drives up to be greeted by a drunken Anne Baxter carrying a candelabra because the power’s out. She’s Jolene Wiley and she’s worried about “Walpurgis Night with the demons walking around.” She tells Sorell of a dream, of her niece Aline and a black magic ritual. “I think I’m going mad,” she tells him. “Want a drink?” Then she passes out. Sorell lifts her onto the bed and kisses her cheek, even though he’s just Aline’s shrink.

Where we go won’t seem too surprising to those who already know about Walpurgis Night. It’s the night before the Gaelic festival of Beltane, when spring transitions into summer, making it a clear equivalent to Hallowe’en, the night before the Gaelic festival of Samhain, when autumn transitions into winter. The two are exactly half a year apart and Walpurgis Night and Hallowe’en mark the two points in the year when the veil between the world of the living and the realm of the dead is at its thinnest, making it a perfect setting for the horror genre, especially after Goethe popularised in Faust the idea that Walpurgisnacht was the time when witches congregate on Brocken, the highest of the Harz Mountains in Germany, to revel with the Devil. Bram Stoker’s short story, Dracula’s Guest, follows an unnamed Englishman (usually assumed to be Jonathan Harker) who’s caught in Transylvania on Walpurgis Night, and the date only grew as a setting, especially in art, which features no end of woodcuts of frolicking witches on Walpurgisnacht.

Most European countries follow some sort of tradition for warding off evil, whether it be the hanging of cowslips in England or the burning of effigies in the Czech Republic, bonfires being a common thread across the continent. It’s an especially important day in Finland, where it ranks with Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Midsummer as one of the four primary holidays of the year, with a strong tradition for carnival and ribald student activities. To capitalise on a centuries old association with witchcraft, perhaps made most obvious by Walpurgisnacht also being known as Hexennacht, or Witches’ Night, Anton LaVey founded his Church of Satan on that date in 1966 and named it an important Satanic holiday, to honour those victimised by superstition. Ironically, given such dark connotations, Walpurgisnacht is named for a Christian saint, Walpurga, whose feast day falls the next day. She was English by birth but known as an abbess who converted wide swathes of Germany and what’s now France to Christianity during the 8th century.

So yeah, Sorell is surely going to get caught up in the shenanigans of witches, here amongst American high society. We’re set up for something strange in those opening scenes. With Jolene Wiley passed out drunk, Sorell chats with her daughter, Loey, until she sees that her dog has died. He’s old and she’s been expecting it but, after covering Canute with his jacket, Sorell sits back on the couch to become captivated by a statue on the table, whose eyes glow red and lull him into slumber. He wakes to find the room cleaned up, Canute’s body gone and his jacket beside him on the couch, but the place otherwise empty. He wanders outside to look at the ocean, so that Lindon’s camera can pull back in a glorious shot to show us just how huge this house is, with its gardens leading down to the cliffs. I’d certainly buy that for a dollar, even if, as we suspected, Aline Wiley’s corpse promptly shows up on the beach, discovered by a wandering folk musician, Larry Richmond, who’s immediately suspected by the cops on the grounds of being black.

Actor Georg Stanford Brown wasn’t a minor name, Cuban born and notable for his acting in TV shows like Roots and films like Stir Crazy, for his direction of decades of episodes of television and for his long running marriage to Tyne Daly. He plays a singer here, a major one fallen on hard times. He has a gold disc, but he fell into drugs and went to jail. Now he’s clean and Aline Wiley, heiress to the huge Wiley fortune, let him stay in a beach cottage so he could practice. He’s let go when the cops realise that Aline had been on the sand for six hours before he found her, and we suddenly segue into a truly weird confession from Loey. She’s sobbing in a stable when Sorell stops in for a chat. “I killed Aline,” she tells him. “With magic.” She commanded a trio of demons to help her and now Aline’s dead. “But I didn’t mean it like that,” she adds because she thought it was just a game. Actress Belinda Montgomery would go on to quite the career in TV movies, this being her first of many, but she’s still best known for playing Doogie Howser’s mum.

The big names, of course, start with Anne Baxter, who won an Oscar for The Razor’s Edge and was nominated for another for playing the title character in All About Eve. Other successes on the big screen included The Magnificent Ambersons, for Orson Welles, I Confess for Alfred Hitchcock and The Blue Gardenia for Fritz Lang. This came towards the close of her film career, as she switched to TV and found success there over another decade and a half, wrapping up a notable career with a long run in Hotel. Her screen love interest here, Edward Bolander, is played by one of those actors you just know had to have a career in soap operas. He’s John McMartin and his soaps were As the World Turns and Falcon Crest, though he was also a reliable supporting actor in film. Dr. Sorell’s mentor, Harry Snowden, is played by the quintessentially English Wilfrid Hyde-White, a favourite of mine from a whole slew of British films from the fifties. I don’t know if I prefer the sparkle in his eye in The Third Man, Carry On Nurse or Two Way Stretch.

The most important name to this movie, though, is Diana Hyland, because she’s the key to the whole thing and it doesn’t take us too long to figure that out. She’s Leila Barton, a photographer friend of Aline’s who’s clearly doing well for herself given that sports car she’s driving. She’s also blessed with a sultry voice and she knows just how best to use it to great effect, which she does quickly with Sorell. Loey keeps dreaming her dark dreams, surreal and ritual and orgiastic, and so does Richmond, who talks about incantations and mumbo jumbo and explains how Aline was able to call out demons. We wait to find out who the witch will be and our list of one is confirmed when Leila frankly owns up to it. Sorell visits her at her studio and picks up a book on the black arts. “I’m devoted to them,” she tells him. “I’m a witch.” And, from that point, this turns into a sort of battle of wits with the story developing around it, albeit one wrapped up in romance. We’re yet to learn about the how and why behind all this but the who is never in question.

What fascinates me is how we interact with the supernatural through Dr. David Sorell. He’s a psychiatrist, a man of science, who’s aware that there’s a natural explanation for everything. “Demons are our own desires in disguise,” he tells his mentor. However, as with every episode of Kolchak, in which Carl Kolchak encounters something supernatural and believes in it absolutely without ever being able to prove its existence, Sorell has his own encounters with the supernatural in these two films, but do they go beyond his scientific ability to explain? Is this one really about witchcraft and resurrection and dream seduction, not to forget the ancient god of lust, Priapus? Or is it, as they say, all in the mind, just the product of irrational fear? What really happened at the Wiley party on Walpurgisnacht? From half a century of hindsight, it feels like this is a collision of the staid rationality of the fifties, the psychedelic experimentation of the sixties and the supernatural horror of the seventies, which makes for a heady mix.

The biggest problem the film has is that psychiatrists are passive: they don’t so much cure us as gently prod us in the directions we need to take in order to cure ourselves and that’s kind of what happens here. Sorell is ever-present, almost one of the family at the Wileys’ house; he asks the odd question here and there but, even more often, just offers a friendly presence or a shoulder to cry on or a helpful word, so that whoever’s there with him opens up about something. The most active he feels is when he goes to see his mentor for advice or to act as a sounding board, because then he’s not reflecting someone else’s ideas, he’s throwing out his own to see what Snowden thinks about them. The most tense scene in the film isn’t a fight or a chase or even an exhumation, it’s the point towards the finalĂ© when Sorell’s driving from A to B and trying not to fall asleep, because he’s being psychically attacked. It’s very appropriate and it’s a good scene, but it’s hardly a great example of action cinema.

I’d love to have seen more of Dr. David Sorell and Harry Snowden. I found Jourdan late in his career, in films like Swamp Thing and Octopussy, and only gradually went back to discover just how long he’d been making movies. He was a veteran, even in 1970, with a career that went back to 1939 with a series of pictures in his native France. His first American film was The Paradine Case, for Alfred Hitchcock, and he’d prove versatile, starring in features as varied as Letter from an Unknown Woman, Gigi and The Story of the Count of Monte Cristo, even playing a warrior chief in the Italian fantasy Amazons of Rome, opposite Sylvia Sims. That versatility is just what a character like Sorell needs. He’s boring at points, the traditional one in a room full of edgy characters from the counterculture, but he’s adventurous at others, kind and daring, both willing and able to do what must be done. He has wit and knowledge and I think that would have translated well into the show that never happened, whatever it would have been called.

Fear No Evil: An Observance by Richard A. Ekstedt

No comments: