NBC Movie of the Week, Originally aired May 21, 1977
One of the last gems I found on YouTube in the ‘08/’09 period was this tv pilot which I thoroughly enjoyed. As a more casual Star Trek fan I was also intrigued by the fact that this was created and written by Gene Roddenberry and it’s unfortunate it didn’t make into a series.
Robert Culp plays William Sebastian, a brilliant and well known criminologist who has been dabbling in and researching the occult. His theory is that the more heinous murders committed by humans that had no definable logic in motive must have been committed due to other more powerful and unseen forces. As a result of his flirtations with the dark side and backing out of a deal with the devil, he has just one minor problem: He has a hole in his heart, like a dagger or some object has been shoved through it.
A little healing black magic from his housekeeper, Lillith (Mrs. Gene Roddenberry – Majel Barrett), Sebastian is able to continue to live and walk around. But the spell does not offer a permanent fix. Sebastian has to find the doll that the object is impaled in.
He has been asked to look into a case in England at the request of Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell), who believes her brother, Geoffrey (James Villiers), is under the influence of evil supernatural forces which has contributed to his sudden and extensive wealth. In order to proceed with the case, Sebastian will need help from his former partner, Dr. “Hamm” Hamilton (Gig Young.) The movie opens with Hamm’s arrival at Sebastian’s home – having been requested there by telegram – and this great voice over to set the tone for the movie.
“I come here to meet a man I vowed never to see again. He was vain, arrogant, selfish, but his brilliance was still irresistible. He was also dangerous – never to me – but this evening began for both of us, a slide into horrors unimaginable, a descent into a corner of hell….”
Sebastian explains about the hole in his heart and asks for Hamm’s help with the case in England. Initially Hamm says no, after all, he has some issues of his own going on including a more than casual drinking habit and is facing an inquiry by the hospital he works for. He reconsiders after learning about Sebastian’s condition but suggests that Sebastian didn’t need a compulsive drinker as an assistant. The good doctor’s drinking habits, however, were corrected by Lilith.
As they talk, another visitor arrives: Anitra Cyon. The woman, however, is not who she appears to be. Sebastian becomes suspicious when she tells him that she’s changed her mind about having him investigate anything. He takes her into his study where she refuses to sit in a chair with a cross on it and after some talk she attempts to seduce Sebastian.
He kills the mood, if you will, with the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, pressing the open book against her and exposing her for what she is, a succubus. She literally goes up in smoke.
Hamm hears the screaming and the noise from the study and bursts in, only to be shoved back out by Sebastian. Hamm is incredulous, once Sebastian finally lets him into the study, as to what happened and who the woman was. Even further, he’s appalled by all the ancient art, religious artifacts and other “junk” as he puts it, that’s in the study. He shows genuine concern for Sebastian but also warns him, that if he’s harmed anyone with all this occult hullabaloo he would have him put away. Sebastian, to Hamm’s surprise, agrees.
They fly to England on the Cyon jet with Mitri Cyon (John Hurt). During the flight over Sebastian and Hamm talk about the supernatural. Hamm pretty much is a non-believer. Sebastian suggests the possibility that some of the most heinous murders (Charlie Manson, Richard Speck) may have been done at the force of the supernatural. As they talk, the jet begins to malfunction with loss of power, loss of engines and loss of radio transmission. Hamm attributes it to a malfunction, afterall it’s a man-made machine. Sebastian knows differently and the jet lurches and tosses about in the air even more when Sebastian starts rattling off the different names by culture for the devil. After a moment, the jet settles and resumes under normal power.
In London, Mitri stays behind at the airport to check on the plane and sends Sebastian and Hamm along with the Cyon car. Sebastian asks the driver, Sydna, to make a stop first, only to realize she was already headed in that direction.
The stop is at Merlin’s Mews and the library of Dr. Qualis, an expert in the occult. Sebastian had been in contact with Qualis regarding what was going on with the Cyons. When he and Hamm get there, they find the place on fire and they find Qualis dead inside. On the floor is a pentacle, which Qualis was trying to get to the center of at the time he died but didn’t make it. (The center of a pentacle is the safest place to be when facing demons). They find Qualis is clutching his journal just as a demon attempts to get into the room. Sebastian gets the doors shut and he and Hamm stand in the middle of the pentacle. The demon busts through the doors just before fire and police arrive. The demon disappears and a fireman is yelling at them to get the hell out of the building.
Outside, they’re greeted by Scotland Yard Inspector Cabell (Gordon Jackson) whom they’ve dealt with before. After a brief explanation of how they found Qualis, the Inspector drives Sebastian and Hamm to Cyon House.
During the drive over Cabell questions them, asks if they saw anything. They say they did not. Sebastian asks if the other murders (this is the first indication that there’s any pattern of murders that have occurred – unless I missed something earlier in the movie) have any connection to Geoffrey Cyon, business rivals or the like. The inspector admits that there is a connection, off the record. Cabell says that the Qualis killing, however, doesn’t fit the previous murders. Cabell then asks Sebastian if he has reason to believe that Geoffrey Cyon is behind any of the killings. Sebastian says he does not have any reason to believe so. Cabell looks relieved to which Sebastian adds that Cyon is quite close to several members of the Cabinet. Cabell answers that, “This is England. No one is above the law.”
They arrive at Cyon House which is the former Kentworth Abbey. Cyon spent millions redoing the place and it is no longer very “abbeyish” inside. Sebastian dismisses the inspector and he and Hamm approach the entrance. The moment Hamm uses the door knocker, Sebastian is hit with terrible chest pain. Sebastian describes the pain like “something being twisted. A physical movement…” It lasts for only a moment before it passes….and the door to Cyon House opens.
Inside, Hamm and Sebastian are welcomed to Cyon House which looks less like a stately English estate and more like a tacky gilded bordello. Much of the artwork and sculptures are sexually suggestive. The maids are all beautiful women who wear slinky dresses. As Hamm and Sebastian wait for Geoffrey Cyon they admire a more artistic rendition of Venus Reclining and then Sebastian notices a small ivory coffin box in a display case. He goes a little nuts, trying to find a way to open the case and then finally smashes the glass with his elbow. The coffin, which he thought contained the doll, or rather contained him, is empty.
They meet Geoffrey Cyon, a severe looking gent who looks like he might be a distant cousin to an American family known by the name of Adams. He’s aware of his sister’s request and there’s a discussion about payment. Geoffrey offers up the Venus Reclining painting, for which he paid some 200,000 pounds for. If they can confirm Anitra’s fears and suspicions they will receive the painting. If not, they get nothing. Geoffrey then has Sebastian and Hamm join him and his siblings for dinner.
At dinner they meet Anitra Cyon, for what seems like the second time. Hamm even asks her if she has any relatives living in the United States, which she replies she does not. (Hamm’s still not quite convinced of that whole succubus thing). During dinner Geoffrey speculates that the true reason for Anitra’s investigation is simply because she does not approve of his extravagant and open lifestyle. Nonetheless, he proposes a toast to Sebastian’s success. Before Sebastian takes a drink of his wine, the edge of the glass leaves a cut on his finger. He pours the contents of his glass out using his napkin as a sift and finds shards of glass. The “old crystal” is to blame for the shards and Sebastian, not missing a beat, takes Hamm’s drink and proposes a toast. He recites the verse (which is not in English) and then takes a drink of his wine. Everyone else’s glasses shatter.
Anitra demands an explanation. Before one can be given, the head mistress of Cyon house comes in to inform Geoffrey that they were having trouble with the main gate, that the sonic control seemed jammed. Sebastian explains that the high frequency waves simply caused the old glass to shatter. Still…it doesn’t explain why his glass didn’t shatter.
After dinner, Anitra speaks with Sebastian and Hamm privately. She asks if he believes what was in her letters. Anitra is a somewhat plain, stern looking woman who obviously does not approve of her brother’s lifestyle or of the buxom beauties who are the maids. She’s somewhat envious, she admits. Nonetheless, she truly believes there is something evil going on and she fears for both her brothers. She asks Sebastian that if he can’t stop whatever power it is that is doing these things, if he has to resort to killing everyone in Cyon house to do it, including her, that he should do so.
The request literally knocks him back in his chair but he nods meekly. Hamm figures this is a good time to excuse himself and Sebastian for the evening. Mitri comes in in time to escort them up to their rooms. At the top of the stairs, they pause for Sebastian to catch his breath. One of the maids walks by with an arm full of sheets and brushes against Hamm, pushing him against the railing…which gives away and nearly sends Hamm tumbling down into the fountain.
Their rooms are adjoining, and Hamm’s looks like a bordello (complete with pink satin sheets on the water bed, a heart shaped pillow and more sexually suggestive art. There’s even a leopard skin rug on the floor. But wait, it gets better…)
Hamm leaves the room to check on Sebastian next door, who has a more appropriate and stately decorated suite. Hamm checks on Sebastian’s vitals while he reads through Qualis’s journal. Sebastian also explains that his toast at dinner was to ward off evil spirit. Since the demon would only be present or possessing one of the Cyon siblings, all of the glasses shattered in order for “it” to not reveal itself.
Sebastian reads entries from Qualis’s journal. The excavation done at Cyon house three years earlier for a new wine cellar disturbed an ancient underground cavern known as Druid’s Firepit. Qualis’s greatest fear is realized when he learns that “A” has been freed, after being bound for more than 2000 years. Qualis can’t even write the demon’s name in the journal instead writing only the symbol he is known by. When Sebastian shows Hamm the page with the symbol on it and speaks the demon’s name, Asmodeus, Prince of Lechery Lord of Corruption, the wind suddenly picks up and the fire in the fire place grows larger. It lasts for only a moment and then dies down.
Hamm doesn’t buy that this is anything beyond coincidence. Even he speaks the demon’s name and nothing happens. Sebastian explains that it was a direct response to him.
We have a break in our evil supernatural spirits for some comic relief with Hamm, who’s room remember looks like a bordello. More or less because, it is a bordello. He awakens to find a girl in his bed who, with a push of a few buttons on a console brings up the colored lights and turns on the funky music. She then has Hamm make a selection which in turn brings in a dominatrix and a “school girl.” The dominatrix selects a whip from a hidden cabinet on the wall and gives it a crack. By this point Hamm is out of bed and grabs the whip from the dominatrix….and the door adjoining to Sebastian’s room suddenly opens.
“I’m sorry,” Sebastian says, “am I interrupting something?” Hamms sputters that the ladies were just leaving then he turns it around and says they had just gotten there. Either way, Sebastian shoos the ladies from the room. Hamm explains he’s been awake all of two minutes. Sebastian marvels at how much Hamm accomplished in two minutes. Heh!
Sebastian then shows Hamm the druid ring from the window explaining that it was that that had awoken him. After they dress, they go out to check it out. Hamm is sure he can hear either women screaming or animals howling, or both – just as two pit bulls come barreling over the stones and straight toward them.
The two remain still while the dogs are snarling at them before being called back by Geoffrey Cyon. When they say they thought they heard noises from the ring, he invites them to take a closer look. He then says how the wind makes odd noises with the stones sometimes and advises the two that they shouldn’t come out here again. The hounds could be dangerous.
Back inside Cyon house Sebastian and Hamm leave to meet with Inspector Cabell just as several high profile financial leaders are arriving for a meeting. When they get to New Scotland Yard, they find the Inspector is not there and is at Merlin’s Mews. Sebastian figures that Cabell has learned that Qualis kept a journal and is there looking for it. They drive on to Merlin’s Mews and turn the journal over to Cabell. Cabell isn’t much interested in any of the evil spirits bunk and is only interested in making sure that Geoffrey Cyon is not being implicated in any of the murders. Technically, he’s not being implicated, as Sebastian notes that Geoffrey was in other parts of the world at the time various murders occurred. But still there’s something amiss at Cyon House. Inspector Cabell isn’t much interested.
Back at Cyon House, Sebastian strolls through the main foyer and notices a piano and sheet music and starts to play the melody. He gets stuck on one particular note. Mitri shows up and shows how it’s played properly. They talk a bit, Sebastian wondering what the hell Mitri is doing flying a plane when he can compose and play music that is beautiful. He asks Mitri about Cyon business interests and how each of the siblings own a third of the share. Mitri points out though that Geoffrey is the financial wizard and he (Mitri) merely backs him up in terms of votes, which always out votes Anitra. Mitri speculates that this may be part of her wanting this investigation too. Mitri also marvels at how much his brother has accomplished and praises his abilities, just as Geoffrey walks into the room.
Geoffrey admonishes Mitri, however. He even goes so far as to slap him when Mitri admits that he wonders if Anitra is going mad. Mitri excuses himself and leaves the room. Geoffrey then extends an invitation of sorts to Sebastian, just as Anitra comes into the room. Just as she’s about to warn Sebastian about Geoffrey’s “obscene Hell Fire club” they hear noises coming from Mitri’s room.
By the time the police arrive, one of the hounds is howling its head off at something in the tree. The only witness to the attack on Mitri was the other dog, who was gored and thrown into the tree. Geoffrey has the ambulance that was called for cancelled as Dr. Hamilton was taking care of things. This is the only scene in the whole film where Culp’s character is seen wearing glasses. Not sure if this was a continuity error or if any other scenes where he wore the glasses might have been cut.
Inspector Cabell speaks briefly with Mitri, who saw nothing of his attacker and could not recall even if it might have been a man or an animal. Sebastian then talks to Cabell about how the disciples of Asmodeus are capable of great physical change. Cabell is still not buying much of it but does agree to Sebastian’s request that a constable be left on the grounds, in case the attacker (if it was such an outside force) returns.
Hamm returns as Cabell leaves. With a constable on the grounds, Sebastian figures Cyon will have to keep his dogs penned up so he and Hamm can take a closer look at the ruins. They prepare to go with a flash light and appropriate religious symbols. Hamm’s is nothing more than a simple Star of David on a key chain. Sebastian has a cross. A very old cross, blessed for more than 900 years. (“Why must you always have the best of everything, William?” Hamm asks, somewhat sardonically). Sebastian does note that it’s “good to be together again.”
They head out to the ruins and find their way in (but not before one of the boulders of the ruins nearly falls on Sebastian). They follow the tunnel where they find one of the maids dresses on the ground along the way. They find markings on rocks dating back to druid times and are nearly crushed under falling stones.
Finally, they find the “prison” Asmodeus was locked away in for 2000 years. They find half of the broken solid gold seal that had been on the doors. Inside the “black temple” they find a sacrificial alter that bears Asmodeus symbol. Sebastian unveils the 900 year old cross that he carries and places it on the alter, the power of which is felt through the temple and brings Sebastian to his knees.
After he tucks the cross into a crevice in the altar, he gets back to his feet with help from Hamm. Suddenly they hear the crazy laughter of a girl and turn to see one of the maids is hanging upside down on the wall. Hamm checks on her but she’s completely unaware that he and Sebastian are even there. A disciple shows up a moment later but doesn’t enter the temple due to the half seal that Sebastian had hung on a candle stand. The disciple leaves and then Sebastian is hit again with the twisting feeling in his chest. Hamm grabs hold of him and walks him out of the temple, Sebastian taking the gold seal with them.
Back in Sebastian’s room, he tells Hamm what will happen if they don’t stop Asmodeus. His physical condition, however, has weakened and Hamm will not allow him to travel to London for the items that he needs. So Sebastian tells Hamm that he has to go. The items include materials so they can melt down some of the gold from the seal to make a bullet, holy water from a baptism and communion wine, blessed by a bishop. Hamm figures getting some of these things will be impossible, as he puts it he’s not a witch from MacBeth. But he agrees to go, so long as Sebastian rests. Sebastian agrees. He also figures if Geoffrey Cyon is Asmodeus, they needed to figure out which human was his priest. The legend goes that the priest takes the form of a great cat. This would be the most dangerous of the disciples.
Hamm returns later to Cyon House to learn that Anitra has gone missing. This news apparently doesn’t faze either of her siblings as Geoffrey is carrying on with a planned party. When Hamm asks of any news from Geoffrey about Anitra, Geoffrey simply walks away. Mitri is even less upset, saying that whoever has her is probably in more trouble than they realize anyway, as Anitra “is always saying she’s the real tiger of the house.”
As the party goes on downstairs, Hamm and Sebastian are in Sebastian’s room preparing the golden bullet. Sebastian theorizes that Anitra’s disappearance might be permanent. Hamm mentions Mitri’s comment about Anitra being the “real tiger of the house.” Sebastian adds that it was Anitra, after all, who brought them there.
As the party rages on (and dissolves into an orgy) Sebastian and Hamm sneak back down through the wine cellar to the temple. When Sebastian attempts to load his golden bullet into his gun, he drops it and it rolls behind one of the massive doors. He and Hamm pry the door away from the wall where they find the other half of the golden seal in the mummified hands of Mitri. Asmodeus was never Geoffrey Cyon. It was Mitri all along. Sebastian finds his golden bullet and takes the other half of the seal.
Sebastian loads his gun when the sounds of chanting can be heard. He and Hamm go into the temple and hide in the shadows.
They watch as disciples arrive carrying Anitra and placing her on the altar. Asmodeus then arrives and Sebastian and Hamm watch in awe as Mitri commands Geoffrey to be his priest by taking Anitra, sexually. Geoffrey cannot bring himself to do it and offers instead her death and her death only. But even this he is unable to do.
Asmodeus figures he knows someone else who would be his priest and he calls out Sebastian. The disciples chant Sebastian’s name and one of them turns to face him – Inspector Cabell.
Asmodeus offers Sebastian his life, the removal of the object impaled in the doll if he will become the priest. The ivory coffin box is brought in and the object is removed from the doll. Sebastian’s hole in his chest and heart are healed.
He approaches Mitri, vowing to “obey my Lord.” He’s draped in a black and gold robe and he turns to Anitra who cries to him about his promise, to kill them all. He says nothing, opening his arms wide where one hand contains the bottle of holy water. He pours near the crevice where the cross had been tucked into earlier.
The power of the holy water and the cross flares up from the alter and chaos erupts in the temple as disciples scramble away from the altar. Hamm hands the other half of the gold seal to Sebastian who puts the two pieces together and holds it out to Asmodeus. Asmodeus screams for hellfire and he gets it, only not for Sebastian. Sebastian throws both halves of the seal into the fire and then follows up with the communion wine, putting Asmodeus into a hellfire of his own. As the final touch, Sebastian fires his golden bullet at Asmodeus.
Hamm frees Anitra from the altar as total madness takes over the disciples and the temple. Sebastian fights off disciples as he makes his way to the doorway of the temple. Once he, Hamm and Anitra are out the temple crumbles and collapses in fire and destruction, taking everyone in it with it.
Back in the US, Hamm and Sebastian see the newspaper reports of the fire that destroyed Cyon house and the partygoers, along with many of the paintings and artifacts that it contained. Asmodeus unfortunately was not destroyed and Sebastian warns that they would see him again. They then receive a surprise visitor, Anitra Cyon, looking much lovelier than she ever had. She brings a gift to Sebastian, a painting. Not the Venus Recliningthat he had admired at Cyon house but a suitable replacement. While Sebastian looks over the painting, Hamm offers to talk to Anitra alone in Sebastian’s study.
Lilith assures Sebastian that it is indeed Anitra Cyon. Sebastian had no doubt and although he knows it’s really Ms. Cyon and Lilith knows it, Hamm doesn’t. When he comments that it should be an interesting session in the study, the fire suddenly burns higher and the wind blows through the room. It’s then that Sebastian realizes there’s a symbol on the painting. The “A” of Asmodeus…
I really enjoyed Culp’s performance in this. He’s exactly as Gig Young’s voice over at the beginning of the movie describes: Vain, arrogant, selfish…but his brilliance is irresistible. Although the arrogance of the character doesn’t come off like some annoying know-it-all; he never talks down to anyone. He shares his knowledge not to make himself look important, but because the knowledge is important and needs to be shared so that others can understand what’s going on. This demon stuff is serious business! (Serious enough that his arrogance is in having to have a priceless jewel encrusted cross, blessed by priests for 900 years.)
He also looks really good dressed in black.
Gene Roddenbury was actually about 30 years ahead of his time with this pilot. Although supernatural movies like “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” freaked out audiences back in the ’70s at the movie theatres, and Steven King books were all the rage, the thought of bringing the supernatural to television was met with some skepticism. Spectre was not the only supernatural themed movie to air at the time (indeed, there were two others the same weekend; Good vs. Evil on ABC and The Possessed, also on NBC.) The networks, Roddenbury said in an interview in 1977, “always chickened out (with supernatural stuff) because they want the unexplained to be explained. If you had a ghost it always turned out to be someone trying to frighten the aunt out of the estate.”
Although audiences were looking for such programs, critics weren’t. Reviews were mixed for Spectre, one critic calling it “campy.” Perry Fulkerson of the The (St Petersburg, FL) Evening Independent downright condemned the pilot calling it, literally, “a piece of trash.” Everything about the movie offended him, from the sexual overtones (the bedroom scene of Hamm’s with the dominatrix and young girl – “This is on television?” Fulkerson wrote, “It ought to be in the garbage.”) to Culp’s character using “evil devices” to fight off the forces of evil (Holy water? Communion wine? Oh, silly me, I guess Mr. Fulkerson didn’t like the old fashioned single action pistol Sebastian used). Fulkerson goes on further to say that using evil to fight evil is “quite contrary to the nature of reality.”
Makes me wonder what Mr. Fulkerson would think of the plethora of demon and vampire shows on television nowadays. Particularly, Supernatural, where the Winchester boys have a trunk full of “evil devices” in their old Chevy Impala to fight off evil spirits.
Nonetheless, I thought this pilot was well made and the storyline is good. I acknowledge there’s a little camp with Hamm’s bedroom scene and Culp borders briefly on being a smidge hammy with his “Ah ha! A welcome!” when he and Hamm arrive at Cyon house. The production values, settings and special effects in this movie are very well done (and clearly very expensive!) except for one part. When Mitri/Asmodeus loses his human form during the final confrontation with Sebastian and is turned back into the demon, he looks like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. Very amateurish, totally fake and extremely disappointing. Especially so after various demons/disciples in previous scenes are much better costume and makeup work. Why a similar look was not utilized for Asmodeus in this scene is completely beyond me.
Unfortunately, because it cost so much to produce this movie NBC passed on picking it up as a series. The film was also overshadowed by Roddenberry’s decision to go forward with the first Star Trek motion picture although that film didn’t go into production until late 1978. Also, tragically, Gig Young would be dead just over a year after this pilot aired, after taking his own life.
As I was digging through the Google archive for info on Spectre I found a nice full page layout about the movie from The Day newspaper of New London, Connecticut.
You can see the full page article here.
I also happened to notice another amusing tidbit, but not directly related to the movie. If in England, “no one is above the law” then it’s ironic that two days before Spectre aired, David Frost’s infamous interview with former President Richard Nixon was televised. Nixon was quoted in the interview essentially saying that “when the President does it (orders something that might be illegal otherwise, like, burglaries) then it’s not illegal.”
Along with Academy Award winner Gig Young (supporting actor, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?) guest stars included…
John Hurt – the British actor known for his role in Alien and his Oscar nominated roles in Midnight Express and The Elephant Man, essentially made his American TV debut with Spectre.
Gordon Jackson – another British actor familiar to American audiences from movies such as The Great Escape and the television series Upstairs, Downstairs. Ironically, he would guest star on an episode of a short lived British television series the same year called…Supernatural.
Ann Bell – A long time actress on British television, Ann had an uncredited role in Fahrenheit 451 and also appeared in To Sir, With Love.
James Villiers – Long time British character actor who made a career of playing upper class type characters. He infact had an aristocratic background, being a descendant of the Earls of Clarendon. He appeared in such movies as the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and the 1965 Bette Davis horror/noir film The Nanny.
And certainly I can’t forget to note Majel Barrett (who was a part of just about every Star Trek tv series and film – either as a character or as the voice of the Enterprise/Federation computer) who was the single most driving force behind Gene Roddenberry writing this pilot in the first place. Ms. Barrett actually studied witchcraft and had an interest in the supernatural. A piece appeared in newspapers around the country in March of 1977 that can be seen here.
Fans of the British tv series Are You Being Served? should recognize Penny Irving as the First Maid. Fans of the British tv series ‘Allo! ‘Allo! should recognize Vicki Michelle as the Second Maid. Both ladies can be seen in the full page spread from The Day newspaper above.
Spectre is available on DVD from modcinema.com. As of the time of this posting it is one of the Top 20 bestsellers.