“Mental telepathy becomes mind over murder.”
Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where 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’s entry is a tale of extrasensory perception used for purposes well beyond mere parlor tricks. Murder… murder I say! And just as she did later that same year in CBS’ Paper Man, Stefanie Powers is at the center of it all as Sweet, Sweet Rachel.
When: October 2nd, 1971
Rachel Stanton (Powers) arrives home from some posh party, just in time to see her husband running towards the window and calling her name. What she doesn’t know — presumably — is that he “sees” her beyond the window, running in a graveyard in clear distress. Before she can reach him poor Paul crashes through the window pane and falls to his death onto the rocky shore below. The phone rings and Rachel answers it, still in shock, only to hear the soft voice of a woman describing the five tarot cards that Paul revealed on his desk mere moments before leaping to his doom.
Unsure where else to turn, Rachel does what any of us would and goes to a doctor studying paranormal activities. Dr. Lucas Darrow (Alex Dreier) is no spring chicken and has been around the psychic block more than once. He heads up a college department focused on ESP and is aided by his blind assistant Carey (Chris Robinson) whose own sixth sense has been heightened (obviously). They hit a snag in Rachel’s case when someone begins using evil ESP against them in an effort to stop the investigation, and with a $5 million estate on the line there’s more than a few suspects.
And by “more than a few” I means exactly one more than a few. Rachel herself can’t be discounted as she’s the wife set to inherit everything, but when her sketchy extended family arrives to enjoy the high-class world of butlers and fast cars all three of them are teased as suspects. There’s cousin Nora (Brenda Scott) who berates Rachel saying Paul only truly loved her and wanted out of the marriage, Aunt Lillian (Louise Latham) who claims to speak to the dead and is in quite the hurry to keep Darrow away from Rachel, and then there’s quiet Uncle Arthur (Pat Hingle). As we all know, a quiet Hingle is never a good sign.
“The unknown has frightened people since the beginning of time,” says Darrow, and Sweet, Sweet Rachel takes an unusual direction with its approach to the unknown by featuring ESP used to project information instead of read it. Our killer — don’t worry, I’m not spoiling the mystery — gets into Darrow’s head a couple times too making him see things that aren’t there. It happens twice while he’s driving with his poor assistant along for the ride, and both times he drives them dangerously off the road. I’m no parapsychologist, but at a certain point why not test the limits of Carey’s heightened senses and just let the blind guy drive?
The cast does good work with the script and convinces in their various roles as red herrings to the point that you’ll suspect each of them before it’s over, but Powers stands out. Rachel’s suffering a clear trauma, and Powers sells the character’s blend of loss, concern, and crazy… to the point that you’ll suspect her of being a psychic killer! Again, to be fair, you’ll suspect most of the cast of being psychic killers, but she gives a good performance is what I’m saying.
The film’s best remembered as the basis for The Sixth Sense — no, not that one, the TV series that ran from 1972 to 1972. The cast and character names were changed up, but the core of the show follows a professor and his assistant (a woman with 20/20 vision) who solve supernatural crimes. Some episodes of the show were actually syndicated into Rod Serling’s Night Gallery as there’s an anthology-like feel to many of them as evidenced by the guest stars including Joan Crawford, William Shatner, Sandra Dee, Lee Majors, Patty Duke, and more.
Sweet, Sweet Rachel is lost to time as a solid yet unremarkable TV movie, but it has some memorable beats — a bust of her dead husband talks to her at one point before she smashes it to the floor — meaning it’s worth a watch for fans of 70s TV flicks.
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