I'll continue telling you about my SoCal vacation later, but tonight I'd like to wish you a happy Halloween. I spent the evening watching a pair of appropriately themed movies. In fact, what could be more appropriate than THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA, a 1975 made-for-TV dramatization of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater's legendary WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast that freaked out a nation.
32 years ago tonight, ABC broadcast THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA, which is a pseudo-documentary-style retelling of the unbelievable events of October 30, 1938. That night, an estimated 6 million American radio listeners heard CBS' MERCURY THEATER ON THE AIR's adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, as written by Howard Koch and directed by Welles. Welles gave the story a hard, realistic edge by presenting it as a series of fake newscasts, describing how Martian ships were landing in New Jersey, murdering thousands of citizens, including police officers and soldiers, and then spreading out across the East Coast, even occupying New York City. At least a million listeners believed Welles' broadcast to be real and panicked, packing up their families and fleeing their homes.
It seems inconceivable today that people would believe such an outlandish story to be real, but director Joseph Sargent and screenwriters Nicholas Meyer and Anthony Wilson are convincing in their storytelling. Much of THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA's running time is devoted to a re-creation of the radio play, and stars actor Paul Shenar as Welles and familiar character actors like Ron Rifkin, Walker Edmiston, Granville Van Dusen and Casey Kasem as some of the Mercury players. These scenes are the film's strength, as Sargent cuts back and forth between the CBS Radio studio in New York and the public's terrible reaction to the show.
Some of these vignettes are more appealing than others, and some are even played for comedy. Most haunting is Vic Morrow (top-billed) and Eileen Brennan's story of an estranged married couple that put aside their bitter feelings for one another and come together to rescue their children from the Martian horde. Other stories include a New Jersey farmer (ROOM 222's Michael Constantine) and his son (a pre-THREE'S COMPANY John Ritter), who wants to go to Europe to fight the Germans before the war spreads to the United States, and young lovers Cliff DeYoung and Meredith Baxter-Birney, whose impending marriage is threatened by her minister father (Will Geer), who refuses to allow her to marry a Catholic.
Welles' original radio play is often re-broadcast around this time of year, sometimes in a re-creation using contemporary actors, but usually in its original recording. If you get a chance to hear it, please do so. The high level of drama and suspense is astonishing.
I also watched a horror film today, but an offbeat one. 1971's DEMONS OF THE MIND is one of Hammer's more intriguing and little-watched films. It barely received U.S. distribution, and played to few audiences until Anchor Bay released it on DVD a few years ago. I watched a dark, but uncut, Canadian TV print, which may have been taken from a VHS master. It probably plays better on DVD, where at least Hammer's typically lush sets and costumes can be seen to their full extent.
Like many Hammers, DEMONS opens slowly and builds to a suitably violent ending. Set in 19th-century Bavaria, Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy) keeps his two children Emil (Shane Briant) and Elizabeth (the extraordinarily beautiful Gillian Hills) locked away in separate rooms, terrified that their late mother, a suicide victim, passed along to them a curse. The fact that the two share incestuous feelings may have something to do with Zorn's fears too. Zorn's sister Hilda (Yvonne Mitchell) uses barbaric bleeding rites to keep Elizabeth anemic and weak after an escape attempt leads to her one-night stand with Carl (former Manfred Mann musician Paul Jones), who falls for her and tries to rescue her from her cruel father.
DEMONS isn't a typical horror movie, even though it offers several brutal murders and an appropriately gory climax. Performances by old pros Hardy and Patrick Magee as a quack hired by Zorn to cure his children are sharp, and Harry Robertson's music adds a touch of class. It's too unusual to strongly recommend, however, and Briant's placid performance is a good indicator of why Hammer's attempt to mold him into the new Peter Cushing fell flat. It's not a bad movie at all, but certainly an uninvolving one.
And what did you watch on Halloween?