Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Moxey Twofer: A Taste of Evil (1971) and The Strange and Deadly Occurrence (1974)

A Taste of Evil:
Network: ABC
Original Air Date: October 12th, 1971

The Strange and Deadly Occurrence:
Network: NBC

Original Air Date: September 12th, 1974

Jimmy Sangster let the cat out of the bag when he admitted on a DVD commentary track for the Horror of Frankenstein that he lifted the story from his Taste of Fear screenplay (aka Scream of Fear, 1971) and used it to write the TVM A Taste of Evil (also 1971). Aaron Spelling recognized the story and for giggles I’ll assume director John Llewellyn Moxey did as well. Since Evil seems to be a remake, it’s slightly ironic that Moxey redid it again (sorta) in 1974 with The Strange and Deadly Occurrence (written by TV vet Sandor Stern). Without knowing the backstory to these films or even that Moxey had directed both (well, maybe I did know that somewhere inside my little IMDb friendly brain but had somehow forgotten, most likely when I saw something shiny), I watched both Evil and Occurrence back to back recently.

Most of you probably know that here at Made for TV Mayhem I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. I mean, isn’t that what blogs are for? I’ve never made it a secret that I simply adore John Llewellyn Moxey. He’s a small screen horror movie magic maker, creating little universes filled with suspense and sometimes straight up terror. And I won’t even get into his work on Magnum P.I. (OK, maybe I will… Way of the Stalking Horse is excellent!). I also love that he’s made about a gazillion things so I’m still discovering a lot of his films. I was really struck with the similarities between Evil and Occurrence and I found that I had a hard time mulling over one film without thinking of the other, so I thought I’d do a Moxey twofer and review them together.

The most obvious resemblance lies within the premise. Let’s briefly go over the themes, shall we? Evil definitely falls under the is-she-or-isn’t-she-insane plot, which was so popular in the 70s (and almost completely worn out by the end of the decade). Occurrence is more of a is-it-or-isn’t-it-haunted story and both films have fairly predictable conclusions to these questions. While the guesswork for both is child’s play, a little past the halfway point of Evil there is this really great twist, and it almost becomes another film. A little less predictable, the bulk of the energy comes from this turn of events (although if you've seen enough of these then you probably will guess the whole shebang).

Evil opens up with a harrowing sequence featuring the attack and rape of a young girl. After being sent away to a sanatorium, Susan (Barbara Parkins) returns many years later to face her demons and rejoin her mother Miriam (Barbara Stanwyck) who is now married to an old family friend and heavy boozer named Harold (William Windom). Despite feeling fairly grounded, Susan starts seeing things which may or may not be there. Miriam enlists the help from her doctor friend Michael Lomas (Roddy McDowall) and he worries that Susan isn’t as well adjusted as they thought.

Occurrence takes a little more time to get going, focusing a bit more on the family as a happy bunch living out in the middle of nowhere (they are played by Robert Stack, Vera Miles and Margaret Willock). There is no opening trauma but once it kicks off things begin to build quickly. Creepy things start happening to the teenage daughter who is either having bad dreams or dealing with someone coming into her room at night (yikes!). There are other little issues as well, such as a bathtub overflowing when no one ran it, and whatever or whoever is wreaking havoc continues to elevate their reign of terror until the family considers leaving.

Both films begin with the mental demise of the daughter. It starts much earlier for the character in Evil, but whatever is preying on the family in Occurrence first sets out to destroy the emotional stability of the teenager in the house. Both films have an outsider who is their rational thinker. For Evil it’s Dr. Lomas, while Occurrence employs the local sheriff (played by the terrifically macho L.Q. Jones) and they are there to offset what we think might be happening. It’s one of the most common additions to these kinds of films where the intention is to throw the viewer off their center. It works better in Evil, but I really like Jones as the forever annoyed law enforcement officer. And strangely enough, both films feature dead bodies in water. I know, crazy, right?

The unfortunate downfall of the TV movie is that it often has a been-there-done-that kind of feeling to it. The premise of a mental patient trying to ease themselves back into society only to find they may indeed be a total loony is an old foundation for films. Even by the early 70s it was pretty cliché, but Evil relies heavily on atmosphere and it does a good job of making the whole affair lush and creepy, which allows the tired story to finds life through the setting and the earnest performances. Stanwyck is especially good (as if anyone had any doubt), but the cast as a whole seems really intent on making the schtick feel more fresh and alive. Occurrence is also aware of its well-worn premise but continues to concentrate on the build-up rather than working up a twist(ed) ending. In fact, the last couple of scenes almost feel like an afterthought, since the important information is withheld until the climax. Still, the majority of the film is intense, and the actors are game, so I found the outcome easy to forgive.

Evil is gothic, claustrophobic horror, featuring a grandiose locale and it feels a little more dated if only because there aren’t enough flowing nightgowns in modern thrillers (tsk, tsk). Occurrence has a more modern feel simply by giving the characters a middle class dynamic. I felt the family in Occurrence was easier to relate to, while the ostentatious broken family in Evil seemed more unreachable. That’s not a ding against Evil, but it is the one major difference between the two films, aside from the conclusions. But while Occurrence is peppered with the type of people many of us would know (although it’s doubtful anyone else really has the same to-die-for cheekbones of Miss Vera Miles), Evil has some more meat behind its story. Both harken back to the days when horror preferred suggestion over visceral thrills and they make wonderful companions walking together along the long and winding TV movie road.

As luck would have it, Kindertrauma just reviewed Taste of Fear so stop by and see where the madness started!

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