Thursday, June 5, 2008

Spectre (1977): or, Rock Me, Asmodeus!

Penned by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and originally intended as the movie-length pilot for a supernatural television series, 1977's Spectre presents us with the age-old struggle between the forces of good and the armies of evil.

On the side of good: William Sebastian (Robert Culp), an unflappable, aging fitness freak with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things occult, and his assistant "Ham" Hamilton (Gig Young), an even-older alcoholic physician and skeptic with a penchant for making lech-eyes at anything in a skirt. On the side of evil: one monkey, one lizard, two dwarves, and a disobedient cat-man.

Hmm. This one is gonna be tough to call.

After the fast-moving credits (laid over a Heironymous Bosch-ish painting and accompanied by a jaunty, maddening harpsichord score) we join the intrepid Dr. Ham as he arrives and Sebastian's swingin' bachelor pad. Sebastian's live-in maid Lilith (played by Majel "Mrs. Roddenberry" Barrett) is preparing a pu-pu platter in the Buddha room when Ham arrives, but takes time out to snatch a lock of the doctor's hair almost as soon as he walks through the door! (She does this at Sebastian's request, we learn later, to cast a spell that will cure Ham of his alcoholism so he'll be sharp for the mission. Ham's drunkenly ways are made much of in this opening scene, then never mentioned again.) Ham finds his friend William reading fortunes with an ESP test-card deck on the floor (just like Cate Blanchett in The Gift!) and soon we're establishing their relationship as total believer-vs.-curmudgeonly skeptic. 'Cause you need that tension, see?

That done, it's not long before Sebastian is flashing his hairy, sagging man-boobs at Ham, displaying a rather nasty looking wound right under his left nipple! This is the product of a voodoo spell someone has placed on him, Sebastian explains, and they need to find out who is responsible. Before they can discuss his ulcerous breast further, though, Lilith pops in to announce wealthy aristocrat Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell), a rather severe-looking woman of early-middle age whom the horny old men both find rather ravishing. Seb takes her into his occult library (pointedly shutting the slavering Ham out), and inside Anitra tells him about her brother Sir Geoffrey's strange behavior ever since they discovered something weird in the basement of their ancestral home in England. Could Sir Geoffrey be the one behind Seb's strange tit-ular injury?

"Go on, Ham! SUCKLE ME! You know you want to!"

Before we can get the answer to that question, Anitra throws herself at Sebastian, leading to some rather frightening middle-aged face-sucking. Because of his voodoo heart condition Sebastian quickly deduces the woman is trying to kill him--admittedly the only logical explanation for her sexual interest--and deftly pulls an Apocryphal Book of Tobit from the shelf and presses it to her chest, leading her boobs to start smoking under the purifying pages! Anitra drops to the floor and writhes screaming while Ham bangs lightly on the locked door; the woman ages even further and finally goes up in smoke, at which point Ham and Lilith enter and the panting Sebastian explains that she was a succubus sent to destroy him before he could find out the truth! I mean, obviously. Duh. As if on cue they then receive a telegram from the REAL Cyon family, begging Sebastian to come to London at once! Coincidence? Surely not! Off they go!

A word must be said here about the acting in this flick, which is all of the extreme William Shatner school--in fact Culp's swagger and delivery of every line as if it were the most dramatic sentiment ever uttered makes me wonder if Roddenberry might have originally meant the part for the Shat, but couldn't get him. Gig Young as Ham uses flamboyant hand gestures and exaggerated eye-rolls to play the skeptical doctor as an old-time comic straight-man--think of Jack Benny and Milton Berle going through the teleport pods together and losing their comic timing in transit. It's all pretty hilarious to watch, especially the way Sebastian is always right about the supernatural explanation for everything, and Ham never seems to get it. Unintentional camp is the best camp, I would argue.

Seb and Ham are met at the airport by the Cyon family's private jet, piloted by young Mitri Cyon, brother to Sir Geoffrey and Anitra and played by a young but still quite wrinkly John Hurt (seriously did this guy EVER look young?). On the flight over Ham makes what seems to be a pass at Mitri (much WTF-ery from this dude), Sebastian regales us with tales of his previous battles against the supernatural, and the plane loses power for a while, making a crash seem imminent. Sebastian isn't worried, though, correctly deducing that whatever evil being is out for his blood is just "testing" him--though why an entity intent on his death wouldn't go ahead and crash the plane if it could is up for interpretation. Incidentally, during the tense near-disaster moments we get some shots of the plane in flight from outside, and it is CLEARLY NOT the same plane that we see at the airports on either side of the pond! Unless in flight the jet retracts its groovy paint job along with its landing gear.

"Ooh, Mr. Ham! I see you have taken ze little sailor out from his boat, ja?"

Upon their arrival in England, Mitri loans them a car and a female chauffeur, a Slavic-looking vamp whom Ham immediately starts slobbering over. ("She's extraordinarily sensual!" he gushes, doubtless leaving a mess on the leather seats.) Before they head to Chez Cyon, Sebastian wants to visit an occultist friend of his on the way. However, when they arrive they find the house in flames, Seb's friend having been torn to pieces while crawling to the safety of a pentacle painted on the floor. Should have made it bigger, I guess. Turning to flee the fiery cataclysm, Ham and Seb are stopped in their tracks by a growling, hairy presence at the door and have to stay in the pentacle with their friends' corpse. Luckily the fire brigade arrives and chases the demonic furry off before we can get a good look at him. Seb steals his dead mate's journal, and off they go to the Cyon house!

The house is truly amazing, clearly a museum or something repurposed into a pleasure palace by the evil aristocrat. After suffering a voodoo infarction on the doorstep, Seb leads Ham in where they witness more decadent sex-centric statuary and art than you can shake your truncheon at! Sir Geoffrey is all about the booty, that much is clear. While waiting on their host to arrive Sebastian breaks into a knick-knack cabinet to investigate an artifact (elbow, meet glass! Crack!), which just seems rude to me. Fortunately for all involved Sir Geoffrey appears before Seb can vandalize anything else in the name of the occult.

Sir Geoffrey is played by admirably evil character actor James Villiers, who might as well be reprising his memorable role as Corbeck in Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. He explains his decadent lifestyle thus: "You see, gentlemen, I make no apologies for living openly what most men do in secret!" And he's supposed to be the villain? He's my hero! The real Anitra also shows up for dinner, along with Mitri. Sir Geoffrey (who prefers to be called simply "Cyon") offers to hire Sebastian to prove to Anitra that there is no evil presence in the house as she seems to believe. No points for guessing Sebastian's sympathies lie rather with the lady in the house than with Cyon himself.

"And over there, gentlemen, we have the famous 'Satyr Fucking a Nymph whilst Pissing Straight Up in the air' by Rodin."

After dinner the investigators talk with Anitra, who explains that Cyon hasn't been the same since they redid the wine cellars. Sebastian tells them about the Anitra they met in the states, leading to this rather strange exchange: Anitra asks, "Was I pretty? Desirable? Then you obviously saw someone quite different from myself!" Self-image issues ahoy! (Ham rejoins, helpfully, "I find the current version [of you]...very attractive!") On their way to their quarters, a big-bosomed blonde maid knocks Ham through the balcony, leaving the portly Lothario hanging on for dear life! Nobody dies, though, and off they go to their rooms.

Next we get some comic relief as Ham enters his room to find a swingin' sex pad, complete with heart-shaped pillows and a waterbed! In Sebastian's comparatively staid room they read the dead occultist's journal and Seb deduces that the demon Asmodeus, Lord of Lechery, was freed from imprisonment when the Cyons expanded their wine cellar. While Sir Geoffrey is the obvious suspect for Asmodeus's corporeal form, Seb cautions "it could be any of the three of them!" Scooby-Doo, where are you?

The next morning Ham awakes in his waterbed with a bosomy brunette maid sleeping next to him, and we get an amazing comic-relief scene as Ham explores the room's party-favor features, finding books on sex positions and a rack of whips and chains, not to mention a button that summons a dominatrix and a schoolgirl to his suite! Sebastian walks in to find the flummoxed Ham trying to deal with his sudden sex jackpot, and the viewer can only applaud the screwball awesomeness.

"Hang on a minute, babe--I'm gonna have to look that one up."

Lots of things happen over the next half hour or so--Seb and Ham investigate a stone circle on the Cyon property that leads to a subterranean druidic firepit that once imprisoned Asmodeus (an underground cavern with steel-cable HANDRAILS on the stone steps--guess even the druids had to worry about lawsuits from clumsy tourists), they get attacked by Cyon's dogs, Ham palpates some suggestive runes ("Is it possible for something to feel evil to the touch?" he asks, leading one to question the efficacy of Lilith's drinking cure), and they discover half a magical seal that held the demon lord in place until one of the Cyons broke it ("Purified by prayer--to 100 forgotten gods!" Seb tells us). In the firepit they also find a woman in red lingerie hanging upside down from the wall, cackling like an Evil Dead girl! So yeah, quite a bit of interesting stuff going down.

Seb makes a bullet from the gold of the holy seal, and remembers out of nowhere that Asmodeus usually has a high priest who can take the form of a giant cat (Ham's eye-roll for once mirrors our own)--so if Cyon is the demon, who is the high priest? I can picture this idea occurring to Roddenberry 3/4 of the way through the script and him chuckling to himself, "Hell, I wrote Star Trek! What are they gonna do, tell me no?" So in it goes, and we're barelling our way toward the conclusion.

I said previously that this was made as a TV pilot for a series that never materialized, but luckily for us it was also released theatrically in the UK, which allowed producers to go back and shoot some R-rated inserts for the kids in the back row. Cyon hosts a huge sex-party (complete with Arab princes in attendance--definite 70s shorthand for the absolute peak of decadence), which ends as any good sex party should--with a Black Mass in the basement! While Seb and Ham watch from a hiding place, the maids kneel down and kiss the robed attendees' feet--a TV metaphor if ever there was one--and an all-out orgy begins! One girl noticeably loses her top and shakes it like a Polaroid. As if that wasn't enough, Asmodeus himself appears, flanked by a pair of dancing dwarves! Now THAT'S a party! Where's the mashed potatoes?

It's just like "Pin the Tail on the Donkey," except in this version...

By this time we already know the identity of Asmodeus--it's not Cyon, but Mitri! John Hurt appears in Klingon makeup and orders his high priest--who IS Cyon, as it turns out, and who gets transformed into a werejaguar or something--to have sex with Anitra on the altar to solidify the demon lord's power. Unfortunately, despite his decadence Cyon is not down with the incest, and his flaccid dedication denies Asmodeus his triumph. Sebastian takes this moment to strike, fighting off Asmodeus's monkey demon and sending the acolytes running before taking on Asmodeus himself in the demon lord's full-on Lizard mode. It's a really crazy finish, taking the silliness of everything that's gone before to a wonderful, wild extreme.

Victorious, Seb and Ham return to the states, where Ham makes some clumsy telepathic passes at Lilith (who is receptive in more than one sense), and Anitra shows up to thank Sebastian and pay him for his services with a sexy painting from the Cyon collection. When Ham inquires about HIS share of the fee, Anitra smiles seductively, takes him to the occult library and locks the door! I guess there's a new Lord of Lechery in town!

Spectre is not a movie for everyone--the Shatner-esque acting of all involved and the frankly silly plot developments make it appropriate only for those with a taste for well-aged, stinky cheese. But Ham's "comedy" and Sebastian's unerring logical leaps smack of screenwriting shortcuts (much as it pains me to accuse Gene Roddenberry of such...I mean, it's not like he has someone curing a deadly alien virus in less than thirty minutes...) are entertaining if you let them be, and the strong finish is worth the price of admission (or the electricity running your 70s model Zenith TV). Therefore, for connoisseurs of weird 70s television and fans of Star Trek with occult interests as well, I give Spectre 2 thumbs. Worth one look, anyway.

Thanks again to Karswell for this obscure slice of Gouda. (So obscure I couldn't even find a poster! I had to go with a novel cover!) But tell me this, Daddy K--what the hell does the term "Spectre" have to do with the movie? That should have totally been the inspector's last name--"William Spectre." C'mon, Gene, it was RIGHT THERE.

"I am the Lizard King! I can do ANYTHING!"


Tenebrous Kate said...

OK, this movie sounds so insane that I had to read the review through *twice* in order to digest all the lunacy! Moobs and voodoo and dwarves and bad erotic art--OH MY! This sounds like a Shatnerized version of Matheson's "Hell House" with more comic relief and less brains. I'm intrigued...

>Anitra smiles seductively, takes him to the occult library and locks the door

What? You mean there's another way to show you've had a good time on a date?

Karswell said...

I can only imagine how great life would be now if some network had actually bothered to pick this up as an ongoing TV series. 30+ episodes in my video collection would be nice to look at, or: "Hey, wanna hang out this weekend?"

"No, TV Land is having a Spectre Marathon."

"No shit?"

"No shit."


1. a ghostly appearing figure; "we were unprepared for the apparition that confronted us" [syn: apparition]
2. a mental representation of some haunting experience; "he looked like he had seen a ghost"; "it aroused specters from his past" [syn: ghost]

The Vicar of VHS said...

Be sure to tune in next time for more Karswell in:


Karswell said...

>But tell me this, Daddy K--what the hell does the term "Spectre" have to do with the movie?


Ha ha! You asked!

The Vicar of VHS said...

But it wasn't ghosts in this. That was my point. I mean, presumably there would be ghosts in the series later, but not in THIS one.

I just wanted Culp to be William Spectre. Is that so wrong?

The Duke of DVD said...

Another great review, dearest Vicar! I nearly spit up my freshly-decanted 1985 Chateau Margaux whilst reading the picture captions, in particular the Rodin statue! It is to laugh! Bravo, sir.

Karswell said...

What about the "aroused specters from his past" part? Mostly the aroused Gig Young I mean. Maybe it's more like spectre in an adjective sense? Gig Young spectred his life away, see:

In 1978, three weeks after marrying German actress Kim Schmidt, Gig Young apparently shot her to death in their New York City apartment and then turned the gun on himself. The direct cause of the murder-suicide remains unclear. Young was not quite 65, his bride 21.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Holy crap! What a piece of trivia! Here I was searching like mad to see whether the monkey-demon and lizard-king costumes were reused from old Star Trek episodes, and I totally missed the Gig Young thing!

So his lechery still funny? I never know the boundaries of good taste...

The Duke of DVD said...

Wowee, what a way for Ham to leave us. And by that, I mean shagging a 21 year old at the age of 65.

As you can see, I have no taste boundaries.

Karswell said...

Yep, he made one film after Spectre and then (as Kate says) shuffled off this mortal coil with his child bride and two bullets in their brains.

Ham slices aside, if anyone has doubts about Gig's acting career then I recommend Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia or They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Anonymous said...

Is there a download of this???
I don't care if it's RS, Megaupload or hotfilm, etc. Even a good torrent would be nice.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Anonymous--there probably is a download somewhere, but I got it in a care-package from a friend. If you can track it down, it's worth viewing for the giggles, at any rate. Happy hunting!

Dan said...

i have a copy if anyone is interested. uncensored version (nudity)

Atilla82 said...

Download links for Spectre (1977)

Anonymous said...

I love this movie. I wanted to name my second child "William Sebastian", but my wife did not.

The Vicar of VHS said...

What's wrong with William Sebastian? It's a good strong name, and not even all that MAD. Surely better than Parker Tarquin Dakota Hunter Spazznozzer, or whatever the popular baby names are this year. ;)

Thanks for the comment!

Lord Bland said...

Casually tucked in the back of my mind was this movie long ago (non-technicolor). But I couldn't remember the name. You've brought it all back wonderfully! Incomparably penned! Superb! The humor literally had me in tears.

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