Saturday, July 11, 2015

Drive-In Saturday: Gene Roddenberry's 'Spectre'

Not a Gorn.
Spectre
(NBC, May 21, 1977)

It would be wrong for me to claim this film had any sort of influence on my early life, as I didn’t see this in its original broadcast; all I knew of it was a photo of the Gorn-like Asmodeus demon shown in Starlog magazine.
Don’t recall how I managed to miss this; at the time, my parents were on a kick to be sure we didn’t get too much horror/occult intake, but I don’t think I was forbidden to watch this. I know some network affiliates across the country refused to air it because of its demonic and sexual content, but I don’t know if that included my local channels. More likely, it just slipped by.
Culp and Young
Instead, I first caught it on an afternoon movie rerun sometime in the late 1980s, and I watched it again recently, streaming on YouTube. Careful which version you try to watch: One was apparently videotaped from a Syfy (at the time “Sci Fi Channel”) show called Pilot Playhouse, hosted by Robert Englund. The version I initially saw on YouTube appears to be missing some scenes, and not just the nudity in the final orgy/sacrifice sequence. At one point, Sebastian and Ham are speaking with Inspector Cabell and ask questions about “these killings” — apparently a series of gruesome murders have taken place, but no one has mentioned them previously in the film. I don’t know if there was a mention excised from this version to allow more commercials, or if the original cut of the film was missing that scene.
Note: Some versions of the pilot contain topless and bottomless (rear) nudity that was inserted into the pilot's climactic sacrificial scene for a theatrical release overseas.
Also, I think Gig Young might have been inebriated in every scene, listening to his words slur.  He killed himself shortly after the pilot aired.
Also also, Robert Culp is a badass. That is all.
Created, written, and produced by the father of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, Spectre was a supernatural mystery starring Culp as criminal psychologist and paranormal investigator William Sebastian, with Young as his old friend and skeptic Dr. “Ham” Hamilton.
Ham obviously served as a sort of “Watson” to Culp’s “Holmes” — or “Scully” to Culp’s “Mulder” — but their relationship also mirrored that of Questor and Robinson from Roddenberry's other genre pilot of the time, "The Questor Tapes," (or Spock and McCoy of Star Trek) as Sebastian was often brusque and coldly logical, while Ham was better with people.
Englishwoman Ann Bell (as Anitra Cyon) appears at Sebastian’s home in the U.S. to withdraw her earlier request for the men for help her family; she does so while standing in front of a fireplace that makes her dress nearly translucent, so we shouldn’t be surprised that she turns out to be a succubus. Even so, the Cyon family jets the two to London to solve the mystery of the family curse, which devolves into a safe-for-TV version of a Hammer Horror film, with not-too-subtle references to sexual depravity. It seems the family has unleashed Asmodeus, the demon of lust, and one of them is possessed by it.
Culp walks the edge.
In the end (not to anyone's surprise, so this isn't really a SPOILER), Sebastian defeats the demon, and a curse he has suffered is cured. But once they return to America, Sebastian receives a painting from the surviving Cyons, and on it is the symbol of Asmodeus — freeze frame and fade to black as the violins screech.

Co-written by Samuel A. Peeples, and directed by Clive Donner, the film also features a (relatively) young John Hurt as Mitri, the younger brother in the Cyon family. Majel Barrett Roddenberry appears as Sebastian’s housekeeper (and witch) Lilith, who cures Ham’s alcoholism with a spell. The older Cyon brother is played by James Villiers, a British character actor who appeared in numerous movies and TV shows including Hammer's "Blood from the Mummy's Tomb."
Watch the complete pilot here (it is one with momentary nudity, but blink and you'll miss it):
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