Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Kieran Fisher and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s. This week we head to jolly old England for a precursor to The X-Files called... Spectre.
The characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. James Watson have withstood the test of time for numerous reasons, but chief among them is the dynamic between the pair. While one is open wide to the possibility of supernatural realms, beings, and events, the other is a person rooted firmly in the world of science and rational thinking. Together they form a formidable team of investigators, and it’s a pairing we’ve seen repeated over the years through literature and film.
Relatively recent TV examples include The X-Files (1993-2018) and Evil (2019-), both of which found success with the formula, but several others failed to make their mark. 1977’s Spectre is one such example as the NBC TV movie was unable to make the jump to series as planned. It’s a damn shame, too, as the combined talents of writer Gene Roddenberry and star Robert Culp make for an entertainingly horny good time.
When: May 21st, 1977
William Sebastian (Culp) was once a celebrated and respected criminologist, but he dropped off the radar after his attention turned towards the occult. He began looking toward the supernatural to explain various acts of evil around the world, but his latest investigation requires help from his past. Dr. Ham Hamilton (Gig Young) is a man of science and practical thinking prone to finding a rational explanation for anything and everything. The two parted ways years prior — the former lost to the supernatural, the latter drinking his weight in alcohol and young women — but a new case sees them reunited.
Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell) is one-third of a family business empire in London, and she believes her older brother, Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers), is in league with the devil. A hefty claim, to be sure, but the arrival of a succubus to William’s home intent on seducing him to death — it’s a thing — seems to suggest her accusation has merit. He burns her to death in his library, as you do, and the investigative duo head to England. They meet the third sibling, Mitri (John Hurt), and are soon immersed in the hedonistic world of Cyon manor — erotic art lines the walls, scantily clad women walk the halls, and something evil is lurking around every corner.
Roddenberry’s name has become synonymous with his most enduring creation, Star Trek, but the gap between the original series’ three-season run and the first of the franchise’s motion pictures saw him working his tail off trying to create another series. Spectre saw Roddenberry tapping into the decade’s growing fascination with Satanism and the occult, but unlike The Night Stalker (1972) it never even reached the level of short-lived series.
William is a man who’s glimpsed the dark side and returned clinging to life — he reneged on a deal with the devil, and his punishment was an invisible stab to the heart caused by a voodoo doll he’s been unable to find. He values Ham’s analytical mind, but he also needs him to stay alive on the trip which is a duty his home nurse/witch Lilith (Majel Barrett) handles back home. William is well-versed in the occult and knows demons by name, and the stakes ramp up when he discovers it’s the Prince of Lechery behind the madness with the Cyon family.
The sexual corruption is on full display, and while it’s ultimately within PG-rated standards there are both images and suggestive visuals throughout. An orgiastic ritual scene feels at times like outtakes from Caligula (1979) as saucy women in short tunics and robes dance naughtily with little people and one of the brothers begins to mount poor Anitra. The UK version actually adds in some nudity during this sequence. Add in a scene with Ham waking up to find a woman in his bed only to be joined by another clad in leather and a third dress like a school girl. It’s racy stuff and shows that Roddenberry’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) wasn’t a one-off for him when it comes to salacious content.
The film itself offers up a blend of atmosphere, misdirects, and action-ish beats including a face-off with a hairy demon and a tense plane ride. The third act ups the ante with a big free for all featuring killer cultists, that hairy dude again, and even a lizard demon who might seem familiar to fans of a certain Star Trek episode.
Culp and Young have good, fun chemistry between them, too, and they’re solid examples of the Sherlock/Watson format. The pair banter well while still displaying a certain respect for each other, and both men have pasts rich with interesting details that would have offered up a solid basis for a series to build on. But alas, it was not to be.
Spectre is a solidly entertaining movie that delivers the goods — it’s atmospheric, populated by engaging characters, and it has fun with the devilish antics. We never got a series, but we’ll always have Robert Culp burning a succubus to death with a sacred tome.