When I sit down to watch television, my preference is a show that has a clear beginning, middle, and end; where I don’t need to have any prior knowledge of the plot or characters, and no need to wait another week (or an entire season) to find out what happens.
Give me a procedural over a serial any day of the week. Better yet, give me an anthology!
A few years ago, I began a blog series that featured some of my favourite horror and mystery anthology programs. Terror Tuesday: Horror Anthologies Part I rounded up my top picks, and a few of the most notable: Hammer House of Horror, Tales from the Dark Side, The Twilight Zone, Beyond Belief, The Outer Limits, and Tales From the Crypt.
Part II covered some classics, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Goosebumps, and Night Gallery, but also introduced my readers to some lesser-known gems: The Ray Bradbury Theater, Hammer: House of Mystery and Suspense, and Boris Karloff’s Thriller.
Today, I want to finally revisit the horror/mystery anthology universe and focus on one forgotten series in particular. Produced by horror legend William Castle himself… this is “Ghost Story”.
William Castle was, of course, responsible for producing my favourite film of all time, “House on Haunted Hill“. So when I learned that he had also created an anthology series in the ’70s… I headed straight for YouTube to see if I could find it.
And I did!
The pilot episode for Ghost Story was titled “The New House”, and aired March 17, 1972. The regular run of the series began six months later on September 15, 1972 with “The Dead We Leave Behind”.
Oddly, Ghost Story was renamed “Circle of Fear” after only 13 episodes, and now that I’ve devoured all 23 episodes of the full series, I can tell you that this change was not one for the better.
For the 13-episode run under the original “Ghost Story” name, Sebastian Cabot hosted the series as a Rod Serling-esque presenter who introduced each story, and then neatly wrapped it up at the end. Cabot’s character was the distinguished Essex… Winston Essex. A grand hotel, Mansfield House, was his home, and a home to his many guests while they visited there: Extinct, yet still somehow among the living; a regal dinosaur in the midst of a modern city.
I was already a fan of the refined and proper yet extremely likable Cabot from his time on the classic series, “Family Affair”, where he played manservant/butler, Mr. French.
Cabot was a gentleman through and through, and exuded sophistication and class; he was perfect to act as our host into the world of the supernatural…
Unfortunately, Cabot and his character were scrubbed from the series when it was rebranded as Circle of Fear in January 1973. And with Cabot went that delightful air of classic sophistication and good old fashioned spookiness. Which was really such a pity.
In addition to a new name, the series also got a despicably garish ’70s intro make-over. Gone was the haunting, beguiling theremin whisper, beckoning you into the unseen realm of ghosts. In its place… loud, brash, fast-paced James Bond chase music, complete with an eye-bleeding, morphing, orange and brown patterned background sequence.
I suppose we should offer some praise for the use of a Twilight Zone-like spinning spiral, but the truth is, it just isn’t the same in colour. And the music kills the whole creepy vibe of the show.
Even though I didn’t like the update to Circle of Fear, that’s not to say that all the episodes of the series’s second half were bad—or that all of the 13 Ghost Story episodes were good.
But the loss of Cabot, and a host/presenter character in general, hurt the series most of all, in my opinion. You see it a lot even today, where writers, directors and producers feel the need to constantly change things in an effort to stay “fresh” and “relevant”, or to boost ratings after literally only a few episodes have aired. Sometimes this works out for them. But usually it only manages to kill the show.
While sleuthing around for interesting images to include in this post, I came across this fabulous promotional photo of Cabot as Winston Essex.
As soon as I saw it, I knew I had seen that devil statue in the background before. In 1964, eight years earlier, the same statue (or at least one very similar) can be seen in the premiere episode of The Addams Family, “The Addams Family Goes to School”. It’s holding up a dart board which Grandmama and Uncle Fester are playing with. (Using daggers, because why not!)
It’s also featured in this wonderful Addams Family promo shot of Gomez and Morticia!
I love little background details like this. For me, part of the magic of television in this early golden age was the cross-overs and “reuse” mentality. You could see props from one show suddenly being repurposed on another (hello, Robby the Robot!). And how often your favourite actors and actresses would show up in guest roles on different series. Not today, though, with an over-abundance of people working in the industry. While yes, sometimes you’ll see an actor pop up as an extra on a random series, it’s reasonably rare to see them multiple times. With acting today, you’re pretty much one and done a lot of the time, and I think it’s because there’s just SO many people in the business now, and everyone is just kind of mediocre. But I still get a bit of a thrill when I spot an actor from a show I love—on another show I love.
Watching TV from this time period can sometimes be like a game: Spot the props, actors and sets that you recognize!
And if you, like me, feel the same way….. then Ghost Story is the show for you! Watching it, there were so many “Hey, look!” moments, which made me enjoy it all the more.
I’m especially fond of looking for Twilight Zone related connections. And blogging friend Dan pointed out the most important one that I initially had forgotten (shame on me!!) — Sebastian Cabot starred in the TZ episode “A Nice Place to Visit” as Pip, the, er, “guide” as it were, to recently deceased gangster Rocky Valentine.
So as we talk a bit about this superb supernatural series, we’ll also see what other fun connections we can find.
Here’s the complete episode list for the series.
Pilot: “The New House”
1) “The Dead We Leave Behind”
2) “The Concrete Captain”
3) “At the Cradle Foot”
4) “Bad Connection”
5) “The Summer House”
7) “Half a Death”
8) “House of Evil”
9) “Cry of the Cat”
10) “Elegy for a Vampire”
11) “Touch of Madness”
12) “Creatures of the Canyon”
13) “Time of Terror” (aired on December 22, 1972)
As Circle of Fear
14) “Death’s Head” (aired January 5, 1973)
15) “Dark Vengeance”
16) “Earth, Air, Fire and Water”
17) “Doorway to Death”
18) “Legion of Demons”
19) “The Graveyard Shift”
20) “Spare Parts”
21) “The Ghost of Potter’s Field”
22) “The Phantom of Herald Square”
Horror fans of this era will no doubt recognize a few of the writers who contributed creepy tales to the series.
The pilot—”The New House”—was written by Twilight Zone alumnus Richard Matheson. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the series’s best episodes. Matheson is also credited as a series creator/developer.
Fans of Hammer Films will recognize another production name—Jimmy Sangster—screenwriter extraordinaire who brought us two of Hammer’s best and most loved, “Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and “Horror of Dracula” (1958). “Story Consultant” is the official title given to him on the show, but Sangster is also credited with writing the story for episode #17, “Doorway to Death”, as well as the teleplay for “The Concrete Captain”, “Time of Terror”, “Spare Parts”, and “The Phantom of Herald Square”. (That last one would serve as the series finale, and while it was a really cool story idea, the episode was atrocious thanks to a completely pointless and obnoxious musical ditty that they played over and over and over and over and over again throughout the episode.)
Episode 2, “The Concrete Captain”, is excellent and quite spooky. It was written by Richard Donner, who directed six episodes of The Twilight Zone:
– Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1963)
– From Agnes—With Love (1964)
– Sounds and Silences (1964)
– The Jeopardy Room (1964)
– The Brain Center at Whipple’s (1964)
– Come Wander with Me (1964)
In episode 5, “The Summer House”, we find a very blonde, very un-Morticia-like Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family), playing opposite William Windom (the Major in Twilight Zone’s “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”, and Night Gallery’s “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”.)
These are two of my favourite stars who appeared on Ghost Story, and while this episode is o-kay, the ending isn’t satisfying, and left me feeling a bit like it was inexplicably Groundhog Day.
Even though eight years had passed since she played transformation-resistant Marilyn on The Twilight Zone’s “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”, I immediately recognized actress Collin Wilcox Paxton the second she appeared on screen in episode 6, “Alter Ego”.
Episode 7, “Half a Death”, was written by Henry Slesar, who you may remember from a post I did a few years ago about his flawless short story, “The Right Kind of House“. Unfortunately, “Half a Death” isn’t even half as good as “The Right Kind of House”.
Episode 8, “House of Evil”, was penned by Robert Bloch, the man who in 1959 wrote a little ol’ novel called “Psycho”—which the famous Alfred Hitchcock film was based on. This one stars a very young, very blonde Jodie Foster as a deaf mute who discovers she’s telepathic after her grandfather comes to visit. The most disturbing part of this episode, however, is that the little girl is allowed to make “dolls” out of terrifying raisin-filled biscuits, and then keep them in her bedroom to play with. I mean… mice, mold, bugs, anyone!?
The dolls are, of course, basically voodoo dolls of the entire family, by the way. Grandpa is a vindictive old coot. Just thought you should know.
Episode 9, “Cry of the Cat”, brought together two season 5 Twilight Zone stars: Mariette Hartley (“The Long Morrow”) and Jackie Cooper (“Caesar and Me”). This was definitely one of my least favourite episodes of the series.
Episode 13, “Time of Terror”, aired on December 22, 1972, and was the final episode of the series produced under the Ghost Story name. Which means it was also the last appearance of Sebastian Cabot on the show. Which is SUCH a shame, because in many ways, this is the best episode of the entire series.
The story for this one reads very much like an episode of The Twilight Zone. “Time of Terror” was adapted from the story “Traveling Companion” by British author Elizabeth M. Walter.
Now, I’m not surprised that this episode is so good — the other stand-out episode of the series was the pilot, “The New House”, which was also based on a short story by, you guessed it, Elizabeth Walter.
What would you do if you woke up in a hotel room… and your spouse was gone? And then all their belongings disappeared. And then you’re told that they “checked out” without you. This is exactly what happens to Ellen Alexander when she suddenly can’t find her husband, Harry. The whole premise of the story is actually quite anxiety-inducing, and the moment you realize what the strange hotel’s ongoing game of Bingo really is, it’ll send a shiver down your spine. I really liked this one because I was able to figure out how it was going to end. I would have made a different choice than Ellen did, but regardless, the ending is still quite satisfying and positive.
We’ve already seen one member of the Addams Family appear on Ghost Story, and in episode 19, “The Graveyard Shift”, we get The Addams Family’s debonair patriarch John Astin, playing along-side his new real-life wife, Patty Duke. Expectant Patty’s character, Linda, was also pregnant, and when the episode aired on February 16, 1973, Patty was only three months away from giving birth to the couple’s only biological son, Mackenzie. (Austin has three sons from a previous marriage; Duke has one son from a previous relationship — actor Sean Astin.)
This is one of the best episodes of the series, and easily the best one since the show transitioned from Ghost Story to Circle of Fear.
Fred Colby has been a security guard for 25 years, dutifully patrolling the very movie studio he used to act in. The studio is about to be torn down, and Frank soon finds that there’s more hanging around the old lot than a group of mischievous teenagers. You see, the studio is haunted — by the surprisingly terrifying ghosts of horror movie monsters who were conceived and brought to life there.
The episode features a delightful cameo by show producer William Castle, who appropriately fills the role of the studio’s producer J.B. Filmore.
A notable scene in the episode is when Fred discovers a phantom-running movie projector — that’s showing the climactic cross scene from Hammer Films’ “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave” (1968)!
Episode 20, “Spare Parts”, stars Susan Oliver. She played opposite Roddy McDowall in the Twilight Zone season 1 episode “People Are Alike All Over” as the pretty and sympathetic Martian, Teenya.
While a few of the episodes could certainly be considered “duds”, overall, I really enjoyed this series. Call me old-fashioned, call me nostalgic… tell me my taste in schlocky horror is downright terrible — but even the worst moments of Ghost Story were better than a lot of what television today touts as its best. I have an incurable adoration for exactly this type of cheap and cheesy cinematic classic.
If you’re interested in partaking of this masterpiece anthology series yourself, you can watch all but two of the 23 episodes here on the Winston Essex YouTube channel. Episodes 5 and 7, “The Summer House” and “Half a Death”, are missing, but honestly, neither are very good anyway.
Maybe you’re not ready to commit to a full series watch. In that case, allow me to make some expert (yeah, I’m an expert, lol) recommendations. If your interest is bare bones casual, then check out the pilot. It’s not my personal favourite episode, but “The New House” best captures the authentic “ghost story” vibe that the series was going for.
If pressed to choose my #1 favourite, that’s going to be “Alter-Ego”. Michael-James Wixted stars as Bobby, an adorable little boy confined to a wheelchair, thanks to a broken leg. After spending a considerable amount of time practically alone, a bored and melancholy Bobby accidentally conjures up a near perfect copy of himself. They look identical, sound identical… but Bobby’s alter-ego isn’t really like Bobby at all. He’s cruel and ruthless, with an evil black heart and a nasty streak that would make Satan blush. Wixted plays both polarizingly opposite roles, of course, and his talent for acting is exceptional, especially given his young age.
At first Bobby thinks his double is harmless, even if he is extremely unpleasant. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. As he keeps telling Bobby, he’s very much real, as Bobby’s teacher, Miss Gilden, soon finds out when she’s targeted by this demonic hell-spawn. He’s also quite literally sucking the life out of Bobby, determined to take his place among the living.
The episode employs my favourite kind of slow-burning suspense, and elicits in the viewer a sort of desperation which stems from the desire to reach through the screen and strangle the “life” out of Bobby’s doppelgänger.
Despite the tension the episode builds, I’m happy to say that there’s one heck of a reward waiting for the viewer at the end. I really didn’t know how they were going to craft a denouement to the story, but they outdid themselves for sure!
“The Concrete Captain” is quite suspenseful also, and “Touch of Madness” will make you feel like you too are a touch mad. But in a good way, of course!
Definitely check out “Time of Terror”, as I mentioned above, especially if you’re a fan of The Twilight Zone. And speaking of, fans of TZ’s spooky “Night Call” episode will appreciate “Bad Connection”, as it’s yet another take on a ghostly lover calling to his mate from beyond the grave. It suffers a bit from the length — each episode is just shy of an hour long, and this one really only needed 30 minutes to adequately tell the story.
“The Graveyard Shift”, “Spare Parts” and “Deaths Head” are also worth your time. “Spare Parts” involves donated organs which are possessed by the vengeful spirit of the man who died to give them. And “Deaths Head” is a lesson in not neglecting your spouse… as well as maybe not marrying someone who has an unhealthy obsession with collecting bugs.
The final episode I will give special mention to is “Doorway to Death”. It very much has that quintessential Hammer vibe, thanks to Sangster’s writing. It involves an empty apartment… that isn’t always so empty. And I mean, speaking personally, what could be more frightening than a mysterious door that leads to a place where it’s always snowing and a dude is always chopping firewood? O_o
And so concludes our trip into the mysterious world of the unknown. I hope you’ve all enjoyed your stay at Mansfield House. Mr. Essex regrets that he can’t be here to bid you farewell himself, but extends an open invitation to come back any time.
Oh, here, your card — you must have dropped it. Wait! Listen — “25 32 79” — they’re calling your number. If you’ll please come with me, I’m authorized to explain everything now…..