Saturday, October 26, 2013

FIVE DESPERATE WOMEN 1971

I’m usually not one for seasonal posts, but this camp-tastic treasure from my culturally misspent youth is perfect Halloween viewing for those maxed-out on the usual Creature Features scare fare, and perhaps longing for a little retro 70s fashion thrills to go with their holiday chills.

Imagine, if you will, Mary McCarthy’s sorority sister soaper, The Group, crossed with Friday the 13th, add a bit of Charlie's Angels gloss (Aaron Spelling is this film's producer), and toss a 1960s Ross Hunter "women in peril" melodrama into the mix, and you've got a pretty good idea of what’s in store for you with Five Desperate Women (who can resist that title?). A minor entry in the beloved ABC Movie of the Week anthology series of made-for-TV movies that proliferated during the 1970s. The series produced a slew of amazingly durable motion pictures over the course of its seven years on the air, among them: Trilogy of Terror, Duel, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Bad Ronald, Reflections of Murder.
These 90-minute movies, especially the thrillers, were ALWAYS the talk of my junior-high schoolyard the following day, and I recall, at age 13, Five Desperate Women being a particular favorite – its high regard aided considerably by our being too young and lacking in life experience to take much notice of the film’s timeworn clichés and obvious plotting.
Joan Hackett as Dorian
Julie Sommars as Mary Grace
Denise Nicholas as Joy
Stefanie Powers as Gloria
Anjanette Comer as Lucy
Five school chums, all graduates of Brindley, a tony private women’s college in the East, gather for a five year reunion at a remote beach house on an island with no neighbors, no transportation and no phones. Armed only with their outsized hair, over-accessorized 70s fashions, and outré Samsonite® luggage (not a wheel or designer label in sight), the friends are a virtual Who's Who of 70's television. There's sweet and mousy Julie Sommars (The Governor and J.J.) suffering a bad case of the guilts about leaving her controlling, mentally ill mother behind; incessantly gum-chewing wallflower, Joan Hackett (a 70s TV movie darling, treading water a bit, having made her 1966 film debut in The Group in a very similar role); self-reliant, black-power call girl, Denise Nicholas (Room 222); big-haired, big city cynic, Stefanie Powers (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.); and dipsomaniacal southern belle, Anjanette Comer (who would work again with this film's director, Ted Post, in the 1973 cult oddity, The Baby).
A weekend of rest, relaxation, and a rehashing of the past is on the agenda for the five diverse and high-strung women, whose only other companions on the island resort are the creepily geeky charter boat captain (Bradford Dillman), and the all-business, cloyingly sincere caretaker (Robert Conrad). Oh yes, and a homicidal maniac has recently escaped from a nearby mental institution - all secluded areas have nearby mental institutions - and is stalking the grounds.

Thus, the mystery is set. Or at least one of them. The biggest one being how these five women ever became friends in the first place. Once everybody starts airing their dirty laundry and copping to the fact that none of their lives has turned out the way they had planned; the women waste little time in bitchily sniping at each other. A condition only exacerbated by frayed nerves and zero survival skills once the presence (not the identity) of the killer becomes known and the women have to learn to rely upon one another.
"Special Guest Star" Robert Conrad as Michael Wylie
Bradford Dillman as Jim Meeker
The men are not much better. Short, stocky, Eveready Battery spokesman/Battle of the Network Stars beefcake, Robert Conrad, can't stop playing "Knock it off...I dare you!" with tall and lanky Bradford Dillman long enough to be of much help to anyone, let alone a house full of defenseless women burdened with an overabundance of hair care products and a shortage of locks on the doors.
Viewed today, Five Desperate Women incites so many giggles at its own expense that it challenges you to imagine how it was ever conceived as a serious thriller, but I must say, as an adolescent I found this movie to be REALLY gripping and terribly suspenseful. So much for the discerning tastes of youth.

The unintentional laughs start early with a scene in which put-upon rich girl, Mary Grace, is emotionally battered by the passive-aggressive ventriloquist act engaged in by her silent mother and loudmouthed nurse. Hot on the heels of this comes the dockside reunion of the giggly sorority sisters wherein they sing a school song and southern-fried sot, Lucy, drops hints about affirmative-action charity case, Joy, not really being “one of us…”
The Wild, Wild West's Robert Conrad, who previously appeared with co-star Stefanie Powers in the unforgettable Palm Springs Weekend (1963), gets chummy with sweet-natured Julie Sommars. Most people recall Sommars from the TV show, Matlock, but she first caught my attention in the terrific comedy, The Pad and How to Use It (1966)

Once the women are ensconced on the island and the outbreaks of temperament erupt as regularly and abruptly as the outbreaks of violence, Five Desperate Women - clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes -  moves along so quickly one scarcely minds the minimal drama and by-the-numbers thriller plotting. What does catch the attention is the risible dialog (“I buried the dog.”  “[cheerily] Thank you!”); not-so-surprising personal revelations; and a screenplay (written by three men) that can’t think of a way to build tension without having five fully grown, college-educated women carry on like sheltered pre-teens at a summer camp.
Perpetually helpless, scared, and often absurdly overdressed (for her "escape" Denise Nicholas' character chooses an ensemble that features a cloche hat, midi vest jacket, hoop earrings big enough to throw a grapefruit through, and knee-high boots), these women quiver and quake while waiting to be victimized. They do traditional horror movie "girly" things like trip over brambles while running for their lives, throwing objects at the murderer with really bad aim, and wandering off to dark places alone. They all but run around in circles, shrieking and flapping their arms. Being terrified is one thing, but these women - surrounded by fireplace pokers and butcher knives – never once resort to grabbing some common household item for self-defense (OK, at one point one of them grabs a shoe...but you see what I mean).
Posing for a fashion shoot? No, in this shot Denise Nicholas and Stefanie Powers are reacting to a grisly murder
Five Desperate Women moves at breakneck speed toward its not-wholly-unforeseen conclusion and the reveal of the killer's identity… a finale that finds one of the women being strangled while her friends have hysterics from the sidelines screaming at the manic to “Stop!” (that always works) for a good 30 seconds before it occurs to any of them that it might be a good idea to come to her aid.

If what I've written thus far has given the impression that Five Desperate Women is a film to be avoided, let me correct that error now. With apologies to TCM, Five Desperate Women is one of The Essentials: one of those rare, miraculous little films that exists simultaneously within the realm of good and bad. A film that pays countless entertainment dividends whether taken seriously (for all it's faults, it's actually better than most of what is being released in the horror/suspense genre these days) or viewed as camp.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As stated before, Five Desperate Women is basically your average woman-in-peril suspense thriller - only taken to the fifth power. There’s literally nothing here you haven’t seen a dozen times before in movies about a mad killer on the loose in an isolated setting, the only difference: instead of one hysterical would-be victim, you have five. One might imagine this would lead to five times the suspense, but mostly it just translates to five times the screaming hysterics. Which is fine by me.
I'm not exactly feelin' it from Ms. Powers in this shot
PERFORMANCES
The late Joan Hackett as the forlorn Dorian is my absolute favorite in the film, but if, like me, you're a fan, you'll note unfortunate echoes of similar roles in The Last of Shelia, The Group, Reflections of Murder, and another college reunion TV movie, Class of '63. It's not that Hackett isn't excellent, no, she always is; it's just that she was horribly typecast throughout most of her career and directors rarely could see her as anything but the mousy, retiring type. She was Oscar-nominated and won a Golden Globe for one of my least favorite of her performances, the vainglorious socialite friend of Marsha Mason in Only When I Laugh (1981), but at least she was cast against type. Her rarely exploited gift for physical comedy can be seen in 1969's Support Your Local Sheriff , for which i really think she deserved a nomination.
Five Desperate Women is saved from complete TV movie mediocrity by the masterstroke casting of two of the most splendidly idiosyncratic actresses of the 70s together in the same film. Joan Hackett is sensational, but Anjanette Comer (so great in The Loved One and  The Appaloosa) almost steals the film as the skittish southern belle, Lucy.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Five Desperate Women is a video catalog of all things 70s. You won't care a whit who the mad killer is because your eyes will be popping out of your head from the mod MOD MOD fashions and positively enormous hairdos. You'll see minis, midis, maxis, hot pants, knickers, boots, huge studded belts, chokers, fringe, and halter tops. And lest we forget the boys, we have Robert Conrad traipsing about in his by-now-trademark ridiculously tight, bun-hugging pants and overstretched, pec-tacular T-shirts.
Smokin' & Drinkin' and Everything but Thinkin'
One of the pleasures of this film is to see how much carefree smoking and drinking the characters engage in. 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Two favorite films from my youth that are infinitely better than Five Desperate Women but nevertheless always remind me of this TV movie are: Five Gates to Hell (1959), a war film about of a group of army nurses having to fend off a hoard of Indochinese guerrillas; and John Ford's last film, Seven Women (1966), about the female residents of a Chinese mission facing off Mongol bandits (featuring a kick-ass performance by Anne Bancroft). Although these "women banding together" movies  never developed into an actual sub-genre of film that I'm aware of, I do harbor a definite fondness for them.
Male-centric war movies and westerns always bore me because of all the macho posturing and one-note, stiff-jawed heroics. The need to perpetuate society's narrow definition of masculinity has resulted in some woefully monotonous action films and thrillers. On the other hand, female characters are allowed (sometimes to a fault, as this film demonstrates) the dimensionality of being able to display the gamut of human emotions, from weakness to bravery, in the carrying out of heroic acts...something I always find more engrossing than stoic fearlessness in the face of all.
 Five Desperate Women goes overboard in having the women characters evince too much in the way of unfettered emotionalism, but at least it's a film in which the women eventually have to fend for themselves and are responsible for their own rescue. It looks awfully silly now, but back in 1971, the same year Helen Reddy's I Am Woman first came on the scene, Five Desperate Women (to a 13-year-old who hadn't yet discovered the self-sufficient tough cookies of 40s film noir) looked very much like a women's lib twist on the traditional suspense thriller.

Five Desperate Women is available on YouTube
Though we don't smoke and we don't drink
And though our hearts are pure
There's something about a rich man 
That's better than a poor
Rich fathers send your only sons
Rich mothers send us your pearls
Though he may be your joy
Still he's only a boy
'Til he's been with a Brindley girl


Copyright © Ken Anderson

40 comments:

  1. You had me riveted as soon as you said it was directed by the maker of The Baby!

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    1. Graham
      I should have known, but I love that you're even familiar with the movie! Another one of those brilliantly off-beat, "only in the 70s" movies.

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    1. Hi Tietie007,
      Yes indeed, Robert Conrad! One of this film's more comical missteps is to occasionally try to drum up suspense with multiple red herrings by shooting the male characters and the "Escaped manic" from the waist down. Unfortunately, from all those years on "The Wild Wild West" in those tight tight pants, Robert Conrad's ass is arguably as recognizable as his face.

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  3. Oh, the joys of the ABC Sunday Night movie...I used to look forward to them so much. This one, I must have missed, but thank goodness some obsessive fan has uploaded it to YouTube! I look forward to giving it a look.

    I am surprised the ubiquitous Belinda J. Montgomery is not in this one...she seems to turn up in almost every 1970s ABC movie of the week I have ever seen. I am almost disappointed she is not in this one too!! (Remember her?)

    Because Joan Hackett is in it, though, I will be sure to watch. I always loved her!

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    1. Oh, of COURSE I remember Belinda Montgomery! She was everywhere in the 70s it seemed. Not too long ago I caught her on a Marcus Welby rerun. She must have been a contract player at some studio. They got an awful lot of use out of her.
      When I think of 70s TV movies I always think of Kay Lenz, even though she wasn't really in that many.
      Hope you like this relic. it's a lot of good/bad fun!

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  4. Stefanie Powers was certainly in quite a few! Her hair went through so many permutations in the '60s and '70s! Here's it's.. everywhere! LOL I can't believe in all the old TV movies I watched earlier this year, this one slipped through my grasp. I can't wait to catch a moment to watch it. As you say, the short running times make them very easy to get through. Not every storyline out there warrants a two-hour movie. Sometimes a hook is only good for 3/4 of that. It's a shame today's programmers don't realize that.

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    1. Hi Poseidon!
      Yes, Powers really WAS in all over the place in the 70s. I remember her during her big hair period in an episode of Love American Style. Very Raquel Welch-like. I think you will enjoy this TV moves, and at 74 minutes or so, it's time pretty well spent.

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  5. I lost it at the matching photos of Robert Conrad and Bradford Dillman wearing the same shirt -- looks like the movie's costume budget went all to the women, so the guys had to share the same wardrobe. I haven't seen this film but it sounds priceless and I was laughing all the way through your hilarious post. Just the fashions alone set my mouth watering. A great article - I love it when you come up with these items of lost-and-found camp!

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    1. Odd that I didn't catch the twin costuming for Conrad and Dillman!
      Happy you enjoyed the post and find something to be entertained by in my occasional posts focusing on (I like your wording) Lost & Found camp!
      Thanks, GOM for the very nice comment!

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  6. Argyle, here. Those movies were weirdly magnetic, weren't they? I can't believe I'm giving Aaron Spelling credit for anything, but maybe he was behind the people-on-vacation-who-end-up-in-peril scenario that worked so well. (Now having done a little research, maybe it was really Barry Diller - I can believe that.) For me, those movies had a glamour factor that most “real” movies of the time didn’t have. Not sure if I can explain that. And as another 13 year old, I can remember re-enacting them afterward with similarly possessed friends and family. "Seven in Darkness" was a particular favorite: falling down creek banks, dangling from tree houses, etc. And we had opinions on all the actresses - we were always very hard on Julie Sommars because of that horrid TV show. Stefanie Powers kind of got a pass because of "Girl from UNCLE." Denise Nicholas seemed like a real actress. And Joan Hackett was so thoughtful and mysterious like Nancy Drew. Seriously, I completely agree with (but couldn’t articulate) what you say about these films giving women a chance to be rounded characters – petty and generous, desperate and vain. They always had some sort of arc, while the men wandered around in wetsuits with spear guns. Which was fine. Finally, must add one to your "women banding together" genre - the very strange “Five Branded Women” with Silvana Mangano (anything with her), Jeanne Moreau, Vera Miles and Barbara Bel Geddes. Thanks, Ken – always reading, always grateful!!

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    1. Hi Argyle!
      I TOTALLY remember "Seven in Darkness"!! Along with "Haunts of the Very rich", it was one of those TV movies that stuck with me over the years. I wish one of the myriad reality TV cable networks would just change their programming to a network showing only old TV movies. I'd be glued to it.

      Why, I don't know...but I still remember them.
      I love that you re-enacted movie scenes with your friends afterward. I know I did the same, but the only time I can remember is when my sisters and I re-enacted the "Derby" scene from "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" in the back yard. Glad to know we weren't the only movie-obsessed kids in the 70s!
      Oh, and i have to thank you advance for the recommendation of "Five Branded Women". A film I'm unfamiliar with, but sounds terrific based on the cast and IMDB summary.
      Nice to consort with someone who saw this film when they were the same age. As always, Argyle, a real pleasure. And I'm grateful you still find my posts to be a worthwhile read!

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  7. I recall watching midday movies on weekdays, presented by Ivan Hutchinson, back in the 1980s. One that sticks in my mind, for whatever reason, is "Shirts/Skins", which just so happened to be an "ABC Movie of the Week" (even though I didn't know it back then). You may remember it as the "hide-and-seek basketball" film with Rene Auberjonois from the early '70s.

    Another one from the "ABC Movie of the Week" collection was "Brian's Song" (with James Caan as Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as fellow Bears player Gale Sayers), which I located on video tape at a rental store many years ago. Never saw this as a midday movie, though. However, I believe that a lot of the movies presented by Ivan Hutchinson were old made-for-TV features from the US.

    The great thing about made-for-TV movies is one can enjoy them without feeling like they're missing out on the big screen experience, but if one can find these old TV movies on video minus the commercial breaks, even better!

    Ken, do you know if any of these "ABC Movie of the Week" presentations have ever been made available on DVD?

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    1. A little late getting back to this one...
      Several ABC Movie of the Week films have been released on made-to-order DVD through the Warner Archives.

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  8. I really enjoyed this film when I originally saw it. I too favor the wonderful Anjanette Comer who always gave interesting and entertaining performances.
    Thanks for writing about this movie!

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    1. The 70s saw many Movie of the Week entries come and go, but this one always stayed with me. Glad to hear of someone else remembering it too. Doubly nice that you appreciate the talented Anjanette Comer as well. thanks so much for stopping by!

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  9. Replies
    1. That theme is by Bacharach, by the way...

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    2. Nice catch! Yes...it's a lusher version of his song "Nikki" - the melody he wrote for his daughter. Someone told me that there were lyrics to it, but I've yet to hear them. Maybe if I search YouTube. Thanks for calling attention to it for the readers!

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  10. (I had the sheet music when I was a kid.)

    Somewhere there is sunshine
    Somewhere days are warm
    Somewhere there's a happy harbor
    Far from the storm
    Out where the sun shines there is someone
    I'm meant to adore
    And I know the day I find her
    I'll smile once more

    Nikki, it's you
    Nikki, where can you be
    It's you, no one but you for me
    I've been so lonely since you went away
    I won't spend a happy day
    Till you're back in my arms

    For every dream there is a dreamer
    And when dreams are gone
    For each wish
    Another star shines to wish up on
    Take all my dreams and all my wishes
    Hold them in your heart
    Tell me soon we'll be together
    Never to part

    Nikki, it's you
    Nikki, where can you be
    It's you, no one but you for me
    I've been so lonely since you went away
    I won't spend a happy day
    Till you're back in my arms

    Don't make me wait here in the shadows
    Till my life is done
    I can't live without the sunshine
    You are the sun

    Oh Nikki, it's you

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    1. Hey! Thanks for that. A very sweet song for what is apparently a very happy/sad part of Bacharach's life.
      Much appreciated!

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  11. How about this one?
    https://youtu.be/kdybSDtX3GM

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    1. "Crowhaven Farm"! I haven't seen this in years! I have only the dimmest memory of it, but I remember the commercials for it and how my sisters and I made a point of seeing it the night it first aired. I know this TV movie was the talk at school the following day, but anything with witches and stuff was big with us then. Thanks for the link. I recall I thought it was pretty scary at the time. I'll get a kick out of seeing how it holds up!

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  12. Ditto - For my sisters and I, this was serious stuff! :)

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    1. Yes...I kinda miss the days when I took movies so seriously. It was fun!

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  13. And maybe the peak of that series...

    https://youtu.be/jjgiQqJNTkM

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    1. Oops, just seeing this now on Oct 18th. I remember this film and enjoying it a lot. One of my favorite ABC Movies is "Maybe I'll Come Home in the Spring" with Sally Field. Very dated, but for me it still holds up.

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    2. I remember that one. Carradine, too.

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    3. Here's one more that we thought was way cool...

      https://podfanatic.com/podcast/matinee-movies-1/episode/the-birdmen-1971-1

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    4. I don't know this movie, but thanks for the link. A new one to discover, perhaps!

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    5. Evidently, they thought well of it, since it was also released theatrically overseas. It features a veritable who's who of TV actors, and Richard Basehart is great - as usual.

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  14. Here's another Movie of the Week that I didn't see until a few years ago. A modest production, but very effective...

    https://youtu.be/udQN9k3erD4

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    1. I thought I didn't remember this movie, but after taking a quick glimpse, I do recall seeing it (no great revelation, of course, I think I saw nearly every TV movie made). Surprising what solid productions those made for TV movies were. I wonder how fast the production schedules were. They got a lot of bang for their buck in those days.

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    2. We were just watching a third season episode of Star Trek TOS and noticed the quality evident in nearly every aspect of the production. Last year, I was noticing the same high standard in the writing for some of the old TV westerns and courtroom dramas from the 1960s. I looked them up online and was amazed at the sheer number of episodes that were being produced at that time. In some cases, they were making as many as 33 hour-long episodes per season! I think the same may be true for the ABC Movies of the Week. They just kept churning them out, and as a result, they got better and better.

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    3. Wow! Can you imagine any show today giving us 33 hour-long episodes per season? That was a hefty production schedule for the TV divisions of all those studios.

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  15. What did you think of the Kolchak films with Darren McGavin?

    https://youtu.be/R0isH8D5Lcs

    https://youtu.be/c9S36LHw8I4

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    1. I know the only one I saw all the way through was The Night Stalker and I really thought it was a scary movie. The scares were so genuine, the deaths kind of unpleasant (to me, anyway) I confess to actually resenting the sometimes jokey feel of the subsequent TV show.
      But that is my memory of it, I should give it another look and see if that was just my adolescent over-sensitivity. Thanks for the link, the quality of one of these looks terrific.
      Are you a fan of the films? TV movies in general?
      (by the way, all posts older than 3 months have this spam protection on them that prevents comments from posting immediately. It may take some time, but I always get around to responding. Thanks!)

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  16. I remember The Night Stalker as having a pretty strong impact at the time - a vampire in Las Vegas had to be a winner, right? However, the sequel (The Night Strangler) seemed to me to be a more interesting story. I discovered later that both films were produced by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame and that both had been written by Richard Matheson. Not too shabby. ;)

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    1. I remember Dan Curtis being the only behind-the-scenes name the kids at school knew. From "Dark Shadows" to be sure, but once "Trilogy of Terror" came out he was as familiar to some as Alfred Hitchcock. Impressive pedigree on some of those old TV movies. Thanks for sharing your interest in them!

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