Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon :: Only the Picture Got Small, Depending on the Size of Your TV, in John Llewellyn Moxey's A Taste of Evil (1971)

Our film, destined to be chock full of twists and turns, begins simply enough with a flashback, where Susan Wilcox (Parkins) narrates her tale of woe that starts out sweetly, running through the scorecard of characters as her folks throw a garden party for several guests at their palatial estate, including her uncle Harold and the groundskeeper, John, both of whom dote on her something fierce. We then meet thirteen year old Susan, sketching one of her dolls in her playhouse, secluded deep in the woods. Here, things take a dark and sinister turn when a silhouetted figure blocks the door, then enters, his intentions ickily clear, which is confirmed when the little girl starts screaming.

When this traumatic flashback ends, we find out Susan has spent the last seven years in a state of catatonic shock at an asylum in Switzerland due to the physical and emotional trauma of this molestation. Now, as part of the long road to recovery, Susan is functional again and finally returning home with her mother, Miriam (Stanwyck). A few things have changed in those intervening years, though; her father has died, and her mother married her favorite uncle (Windom). But the house and grounds, including the groundskeeper (O'Connell), are still the same. 

But all of these reminders, especially the playhouse (-- that is still standing for some inexplicable reason), despite her mother's best efforts to soothe her fears, aren't really helping. All that is familiar brings little comfort to the girl, and feels more like just another tic off an emotional time-bomb. For despite all of these positive steps toward recovery, Susan is still in a very fragile mental state. The attack itself is occluded by repressed memories, so she can't remember who it was that raped her. To make matters worse, someone seems to be deliberately placing some very specific reminders where Susan can easily find them, like bread crumbs, leading her back into the woods, toward the playhouse, where ghostly voices are calling her back to the scene of the crime...
Not all that long ago, there was an old Hollywood axiom that said any actor or actress who had aged out of a certain demographic for the big screen either retired, got work in Europe, or, worse yet, were put out to pasture on the small screen; a time when TV work was considered an indignity, beneath some thespianic threshold to some, and a virtual career death sentence to others. But it was here, before cable TV and the birth of home video, on the broadcast small screen, where a lot of folks of my generation were introduced to some pretty famous "has beens" -- well, on the tube or gnawing on the scenery in some full-blown disaster flick. Hell, the first thing I ever saw Ava Gardner in was Earthquake! Yeah. First impressions can be a bitch, am I right? And it took a good long while to get over that horrid performance but come around I did. Thankfully, I had much better luck with Barbara Stanwyck.

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"Barbara Stanwyck has played five gun molls, two burlesque queens, half a dozen adulteresses and twice as many murders. When she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was terrific."
-- Walter Matthau xxx
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After starring in Forty Guns (1957), Samuel Fuller's vastly under-appreciated oater, Stanwyck (who had just turned 50) found herself migrating around episodic television for nearly a decade to pay the bills before one last turn -- two turns, actually, on the big screen in 1964; first teaming up with former husband Robert Taylor in the William Castle fright-flick, The Night Walker, and then teaching Elvis Presley the difference between a circus and a carnival in Roustabout -- just like her former golden age Warner co-stars Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell had done (Kissin' Cousins) and would do (Stay Away, Joe), respectively, as a final punctuation mark on a long and storied film career that averaged almost three films a year between 1929 and 1957.

The very next year Stanwyck landed the Emmy-winning role of the widowed matriarch of the Barkley clan in the TV western, The Big Valley, which was ABC's highly successful, polarity-reversed spin / cash-in on rival NBC's long running Bonanza, where she did her best to rein in Richard Long, Peter Breck, Lee Majors and Linda Evans. This was my introduction to Stanwyck, in syndication. And these reruns and later roles in a couple of prime-time soaps were my only exposure and frame of reference until much, much later. Well, almost. There were also a couple of made for TV movies she was involved in. One, a wonky tale of a haunted house and spiritual possession called The House that Would Not Die and the film we're here to talk about today, A Taste of Evil

The Made for TV movie really found its legs when Barry Diller set up a specific time-slot for them in 1969 on ABC's The Movie of the Week. And since the network was getting absolutely pasted in the ratings by their competitors, with nothing to lose, Diller let his producers run wild with less traditional fair, resulting in tales of horror, science fiction and suspense, concerning sentient homicidal earth-moving equipment, ancient spirits of evil hijacking airplanes, and psychic occult detectives, finding their way into living rooms across the country. The format also served to launch several pilots into series, including the likes of Starsky and Hutch and The Six Million Dollar Man

People may crap themselves today over things like Sharknado, but back then, man, you had Lloyd Bridges and Angie Dickinson as feuding aliens fighting over the fate of the Earth in The Love War; Doug McClure and Kim Novak trapped at sea in Satan's Triangle; Eli Wallach and Robert Culp stuck alone in a frozen outpost, both thinking one is trying to kill the other, only to find they're not as alone as they think in A Cold Night's Death; and, of course, Dennis Weaver's defensive driving course in Duel. And that's barely scratching the surface, folks. They weren't all that wonky, mind you, with plenty of straight comedies, satires, dramas, and docudramas, but I was drawn more to the former. Big surprise, right?

Anyways, back on target, one of Diller's most prolific progeny was Aaron Spelling. Before he got into the prime-time soap and teen-angst business, Spelling ramrodded a ton of these things: The Old Man Who Cried Wolf (Edward G. Robinson and Martin Balsam), Five Desperate Women, Home for the Holidays (Sally Field, Julie Harris and Walter Brennan), Satan's School for Girls, Cruise into Terror, and the absolutely terrifying Don't Go to Sleep were all his. He was also responsible for both of Stanwyck's earliest forays in this medium (-- and then he brought her back for Dynasty before spinning her off into The Colbys). To direct, Spelling tabbed John Llewellyn Moxey for A Taste of Evil. A well-seasoned veteran of episodic television, who is probably best known for directing Dan Curtis' The Night Stalker, but I'm hard pressed to name anyone else who was better at pounding a round peg, visually speaking, through the very square hole of your TV set with such maximized results than Moxey. 

For the screenplay, Spelling turned to the recently imported Jimmy Sangster, who, you may recall, after selling them a script for X --The Unknown, became Hammer Studios' top scriptwriter. And he definitely helped put their British product on the map with their technicolor and tensile-cleavage fueled horror revival of the late 1950's and early 60's, starting with The Curse of Frankenstein. But while churning out all those monsters, vampires and mummies, Sangster also scripted a series of psychological thrillers (Nightmare, Maniac, The Snorkel) shot in glorious black 'n' white in an attempt to tap into the same morbid twists and fearful beats as Alfred Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot with some pretty effective results -- even though most of them, I feel, hewed closer to the gimmick-driven and five-car contrivance twist-pile-ups of William Castle. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you.) 

In fact, one could almost call A Taste of Evil a remake of Sangster's A Taste of Fear a/k/a Scream of Fear. Spelling thought so, too, and Sangster later admitted he robbed the bones of that old script (-- cannibalizing certain elements from Nightmare, as well), whose plot of greed, murder and insanity can be traced back even further to Clouzot's Diabolique and George Cukor's Gaslight. Combining all of that for this small screen surrogate, the end results are mixed bag, for sure, but it still has its moments. 

In front of the camera, Stanwyck is backed by solid group of character actors, professionals all, who add a ton of gravitas to these otherwise highly melodramatic proceedings. For the record, Barbara Parkins is the true protagonist of A Taste of Evil, who brings the same naive and yet damaged innocence shown in Mark Robson's Valley of the Dolls to her character, here, as she desperately tries to keep a tenuous hold on her sanity. Roddy McDowall makes a much-welcomed second quarter appearance as a sympathetic doctor who tries to help cement that hold. As for our main suspects, the cast is rounded out with Arthur O'Connell as the creepy caretaker with a penchant for disappearing whenever the crap hits the fan; and William Windom (one of those actors whose face you know but can never remember the name) as the lecherous uncle who swooped in and married Susan's mother right after her father died. 

It's evidently clear early on in A Taste of Evil that Susan isn't imagining all those horrid events and specific reminders of what happened to her; and that someone is using them to snap her mental twigs for a one-way ticket back to Switzerland. And as Susan works her way down this well trodden plot path -- worn down to the dirt, convinced it was her step-father who both molested her and is now out to get her again, who is allegedly out of town on business, until his dead body keeps showing up in the darnedest of places only to disappear again when someone other than Susan is looking. Lather, rinse and repeat until this plan seemingly backfires, thanks to a carelessly placed double-barreled shotgun, when Susan is finally pushed over the edge with some truly tragic consequences.

Ah, but was this all part of someone else's nefarious plan? Maybeeeeee. All I'll say is that even though the eventually revealed reason for all of this is pretty rote, the viewer is rewarded rather handsomely when the worm finally turns on the conspirators, as Stanwyck comes to the forefront for the last twenty minutes or so. And if the climax doesn't prove to you that Stanwyck never lost a thing as an actress, well, the ghost of Walter Matthau is gonna call you on your bullshit. And if he doesn't, I will.

In fact, Ms. Stanwyck would like to have a word with you, too.

A Taste of Evil was originally broadcasted on October, 12, 1971, and has cropped up in syndication and re-runs over the years since. There might have been a home video release on VHS, but the telefilm -- like too many others of its Made for TV brethren, has yet to make the digital leap. (C'mon, Warner Archive!) But if you'd like to find out who really done it, there are a few grey market DVDs to be had; and last check found it streaming on YouTube on a couple of channels. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but it's got Stanny, working hard, and for some, me included, that's more than enough.

This post is my second and, alas, final entry in the week long birthday tribute to Barbara Stanwyck for The Girl with the White Parasol's Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon. It's been a great week with some amazing reviews, with more yet to come, so click on over and read what you've been missing, please and thank you! And a big thanks to Aubyn for ramrodding this thing just like Victoria Barkley. It was a total blast and a pleasure to participate. Cheers.

A Taste of Evil (1971) Aaron Spelling Productions :: American Broadcasting Company (ABC) / P: Aaron Spelling / D: John Llewellyn Moxey / W: Jimmy Sangster / C: Archie R. Dalzell / E: Art Seid / M: Robert Drasnin / S: Barbara Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, Roddy McDowall, William Windom, Arthur O'Connell, Bing Russell


Judy said...

I didn't realise Stanwyck had done made-for-TV movies like this one - very interesting piece. Sounds as if I might end up hiding behind the sofa while watching!

Silver Screenings said...

Thanks for including all the fascinating info about television movies back in the day, as well as a review of a movie I've never even HEARD of. Stanwyck made anything better by her performance, didn't she?

Also, loved the quote by Walter Matthau!

JES said...

Well of course the director of an early-'70s TV psycho-thriller like this had to be a guy named Moxey...

BARBARA PARKINS! Thanks for rekindling that flame for me. Not really a great actress, I don't think, but the name conjures up so much of TV and movies from the time. (And I just saw on Wikipedia that she was a bridesmaid for Sharon Tate when she married Polanski. Now, that's some 1960s mojo for you.)

Like the other one, this is a great multi-level review. Thanks for the intro to the film. As you imply, I may never get to actually see it for myself. But I do love B-grade films, especially from this time in TV history.

W.B. Kelso said...

I recall many a sleepless night after a Made for TV movie encounter back in the day. SATAN'S TRIANGLE gave me such a case of the drizzles. And I also recommend THE HOUSE THAT WOULDN'T DIE, where Stanny and Richard Egan fight a haunted house. Both telefilms are up and running on YouTube.

And that Walter Matthau quote has always stuck with me even though I cannot remember where I first heard it.

I love the research that goes into these things. Transferring those notes into some kind of coherently readable material to share with you all is where I tend to stumble a bit.

Thanks for commenting.

Aubyn said...

Damn, now you've given me an irresistible desire to watch The Love War. I simply must find out how that premise turns out.

A Taste of Evil sounds like fairly traditional stuff by comparison, but it's certainly not exploitation stuff and as long as Stanwyck gets to be bad with style, all's right in my world. Your description of her reminds me of an old quote where she says, "Put me in the last fifteen minutes of a picture and I don't care what happened before. I don't even care if I was IN the rest of the damned thing - I'll take it in those fifteen minutes." And that's the truth.

I feel very lucky we got two excellent reviews from you, Kelso. Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon.

W.B. Kelso said...

Kind words, gracious host, I thank you. Again, this was a blast, writing and reading, and I appreciate your efforts for providing the venue for this fantastic Stanwyck symposium.

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