A pair of titles that represent the best of vintage TV horror.
There’s always going to be a soft spot in the heart of every TV baby for movie-of-the-week horror. A staple of the 1960s and 70s, the horror TV movie was a provocative and entertaining piece of counter-programming that served to give viewers of both All in the Family and The Beverly Hillbillies a whole other piece of escapism. With plots garnered from the likes of Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Dan Curtis, these telefilms featured the great stars of yesteryear in tales of suspense and the supernatural that were sometimes considered almost too much for network television of the day. Every fan of this specific realm of classic TV has their favorites. For me, it’s the three-way tie of The House that Would Not Die starring Barbara Stanwyck, The Screaming Woman starring Olivia De Havilland and the iconic (and still heartbreaking) Bad Ronald. Yet there are a pair of titles, 1969’s Fear No Evil and the 1970 sequel Ritual of Evil, which somehow seemed to have eluded me.
In 1969’s Fear No Evil, a psychiatrist named David Sorell (Louis Jourdan) investigates the death of a man (Bradford Dillman), his link to an ancient mirror (which may have been responsible for his demise) and its effects on his fiance (Lynda Day George). Meanwhile, in 1970’s Ritual of Evil, David is pulled into investigating the death of a wealthy California socialite following a strange party which those in attendance have something to hide.
Here are the various reasons why both Fear no Evil and Ritual of Evil should be celebrated as quintessential TV movie horror.
The Leading Man
Louis Jourdan was always billed as the quintessential Frenchman, at least in Hollywood’s eyes. It’s because of this that he was always called upon to turn on his French charm, which was accentuated by good looks and an ability to romance the camera to death. He seemingly had no problem starring in films where his female co-star’s character was far more prominent than his such Gigi, Letter from an Unknown Woman and Julie. Each turn proved his versatility and saw him acquit himself well in roles for Alfred Hitchcock, Max Ophuls and a James Bond villain. It’s for all these reasons that these two movies benefit greatly from his presence. While most of the rest of the casts take great pleasure in playing into the genre’s trappings, Jourdan plays it as if he were in some prestige drama, rather than campy early 70s TV fare. As David, the actor gives deep concentration and earnestness to both productions and plays well opposite his cast mates. Jourdan fussed about what kind of medium he was cast in and spent much of his career alternating between stage, TV and film. Each time he acted, his commitment, focus and love for his craft managed to come through.
Jourdan was far from the most famous name to sail through either Fear No Evil or Ritual of Evil. It was often the case with early TV movies, especially horror ones such as these, that a wide cross section of actors would naturally turn up. The usual suspects almost always included silver screen veterans as well as future stars. Typically the only common trait shared by those whose careers were no longer as strong as they once were and those hoping to actually start a career, was that they both embraced the medium, and films of these kinds, wholeheartedly as a way to showcase their talents. Future big names like Lynda Day George and Diana Hyland are fun to see as are the likes of Anne Baxter (who does very good work here), Marsha Hunt and Carroll O’Connor. Of course the presence of Wilfrid-Hyde White as David’s colleague, who humors and indulges the main character, adds a certain jovial quality amidst all the dark ritualistic terror surrounding both films. Fear No Evil and Ritual of Evil are both classic examples of how eclectic the casts of these productions could be and there’s something rather moving about two acting generations at opposite ends of the spectrum encountering each other for a brief moment in time.
Because this was TV land in the late 60s/early 70s, these productions weren’t given the hugest budgets and were more often than not shot within 2–3 weeks, if even that. The one area where this factor can almost always be seen are in the films’ effects. There wasn’t an assortment of sophisticated creative elements on hand with which to tell these stories as their makers naturally envisioned them. The plan B therefore was to be as creative as possible with what was around to be used. Fear No Evil fares best here due to its use of a large mirror as the gateway into the titular “evil” and makes for a number of effective moments with characters trapped inside it. Even if the effects surrounding the evil mirror are a little shaky, its influence on those who encounter it more than make up for the era’s limited technology. Ritual of Evil scores less points in this area thanks to the script’s need to be so dialogue-heavy that they only occasionally give proper time to the film’s supernatural elements. In fact, it isn’t until the end when the bulk of Ritual of Evil’s effects come to life. Limiting itself to mainly flashes of bright colors to symbolize the supernatural threat, the payoff might seem bare, but does fit in with the psychedelic nature of California at the tail end of the 60s.
One of the downsides for TV horror movies was that there was usually much too much plot to cram into such a quick production. With most of these scripts coming from novels, writers and producers either refashioned them by taking large chunks out or crammed as much in as they can. These titles did the latter as the two films come off as overstuffed and overplotted affairs with a few too many characters doing a few too many bad things. Fear No Evil does a better job of keeps things together by staying close to mainly one storyline which is more or less easy to follow and packs an admittedly great twist late in its second half. Ritual of Evil, by contrast, struggles. The details of the “ritual” in question are alluded to but never fully explained or explored as characters come in and speak some future Dynasty-like dialogue before being almost totally forgotten about until the movie (unsuccessfully) tries to make them relevant again later on down the line. But there is playfulness and mystery on hand as the scripts manage to stray from the norm set by TV movie horror with takes on the occult that isn’t just surface level.
One of the best things about a TV horror movie is that it becomes almost impossible to forget once you’ve seen it. There’s a special quality these movies have of getting under a TV lover’s skin and (thankfully) never leaving. Fear no Evil and Ritual of Evil don’t seem to occupy the same kind of space that other classics of the TV horror movie genre do. They didn’t inspire nightmares in the way the killer doll from Trilogy of Terror did, nor have they been optioned for a feature film by Johnny Depp the way Kolchak’s Night Stalker has. But the two films are still worthy entries due to the way they embody and embrace everything which made the genre so thrilling. Not only do these films echo one of the medium’s most highly creative periods, but they expertly show how the art form pushed boundaries, allowed artists in front of and behind the camera room to continue their craft and ensure the audience remained entertained every step of the way.
Fear No Evil and Ritual of Evil are both available as a set on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.