Thursday, June 15, 2017
Cult-TV Movie Review: Spectre (1977)
Paranormal scholar (and egotist) William Sebastian (Robert Culp) summons his old friend, alcoholic physician Dr. “Ham” Hamilton (Gig Young) to help him in his pursuit of knowledge of the supernatural, and in particular, one diabolical case.
Hamilton’s presence is necessary -- despite a recent falling out between the two men -- because of Sebastian’s unusual physical condition. His heart has been injured in an occult fashion. A voodoo doll effigy of Sebastian was stabbed with a pin, and now it may be fatal for Sebastian to exert himself physically.
Unfortunately, Sebastian has not been able to locate the actual doll, and prevent further injury.
After contending with a succubus in his study using The Apocryphal Book of Tobit, Sebastian informs Hamilton that he has had his housekeeper, Lilith (Majel Barrett) cast a spell to rid him of his alcoholic addiction. Sebastian needs a stable Hamilton on his next investigation, in London.
There, Sebastian plans to help Anitra Cyon (Anne Bell) determine if her brother, Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers) has been influenced by a demonic figure. Not long ago, a Druid tomb was found beneath the family estate. This subterranean Stonehenge, called “The Fire Pit” is believed to possess occult powers.
Sebastian and Hamilton investigate further and discover that a demon of corruption and lust -- Asmodeus -- is indeed using the body of one of the Cyon siblings, but it is not Geoffrey who is possessed, but rather Mitri (John Hurt).
And worse, if Geoffrey fails to act as Asmodeus’s priest, the demon has a replacement in mind: Sebastian.
Spectre (1977) is the late Gene Roddenberry’s (1921-1991) final failed pilot or TV movie of the disco decade.
Previously, the Star Trek creator had attempted to make series from Genesis II (1973), Planet Earth (1974), and The Questor Tapes (1974), all to no avail. Today, I would love it if an enterprising producer resurrected any of these creative genre projects for our twenty-first century era. Each one possesses incredible promise.
Certainly, Spectre’s occult/supernatural approach qualifies it as a proto-X-Files, especially with the focus on partners of opposite temperaments. There is also a Sherlock Holmes and Watson aspect to the central relationship of Sebastian and Hamilton. Culp and Young possess a nice chemistry with one another here.
Spectre also fits in, generally, with the TV movies of the 70’s, including The Night Stalker (1972), and The Norliss Tapes (1973) in terms of subject matter. The decade saw a continuing fascination with demonology and occult trappings. But Spectre differentiates itself with the added bonus of Roddenberry’s trademark kinkiness. The TV-movie possesses an undercurrent of sexuality.
Specifically, the TV movie features a scene with a succubus – a “carnal,” minor demon -- who attempts to seduce men to her death. This is one of the best scenes in the telefilm.
And then Spectre features the (infamous) S&M bondage scene in the second act. To describe the sequence more fully, Ham awakes in bed (in the middle of the night) with a surprise lover, and then is joined by a dominatrix and a young woman who appears to be a school girl. A panel on one wall in the bedroom slides away to reveal a secret shelf of whips and chains. In a very funny scene, Sebastian walks in on the befuddled Ham, as he contends with this sexual surprise.
Additionally, if you catch the European version of Spectre, you’ll also see a lot of female pulchritude and nudity in the closing demon worship sequence. Apparently nudity was added for benefit of strong overseas sales.
The kinky, funny aspects of the tale definitely mark this as a Roddenberry production, but Spectre carries other value as well. The whole subplot involving Sebastian as the victim of an occult attack, involving a voodoo doll, is fascinating, and differentiates this from other programs of the era. Although this was the era of standalone televisions, rather than serials, it is fascinating that Sebastian here boasts this built-in background with the occult that could inform many stories. I wonder what other dark rituals he explored in his hunt for the truth, before reconnecting with Ham.
Indeed, Sebastian’s back story is fascinating. He is a behavioral scientist who worked with law-enforcement to catch Charles Manson, and mass murderer Richard Speck. He became convinced that logic and science couldn’t adequately explain the “unspeakable” evil of these individuals and begin to investigate the supernatural as a possible reason. In fact, he nearly fell under the thrall of Asmodeus, until his humanity re-asserted itself and he refused to become the thing he hated. Now, apparently, Asmodeus is offering him a second chance to act as his acolyte or priest on Earth.
Would Asmodeus have offered him another chance? Grounded ever more deeply in demonology, would Sebastian have accepted the offer?
The best parts of Spectre involve character background (Sebastian’s) and the character interaction between the two protagonists. There is a jaunty feel to the TV movie, which distinguishes it from many other occult films of the era. If Star Trek had gone supernatural -- with its joie de vivre, colorful characters, and occasional tongue in cheek -- we might have gotten a masterpiece here, of supernatural series.
Instead, we are left with a lot of “what ifs?” And that’s the “specter” that hangs over this made-for-TV movie (and backdoor pilot) for forty years ago.