While working on the first season of The Outer Limits, Joseph Stefano obviously wanted to get a parallel spook series going – perhaps with more serious parapsychology than the pulp-style Thriller – and scripted a couple of pilots for shows titled The Unknown and/or The Haunted. The Unknown was tinkered with and scienced-up to serve as an episode of Outer Limits (‘The Forms of Things Unknown’) but The Haunted – which, like The Unknown, includes Diabolique-style fake haunting as well as genuine ghost stuff – wasn’t so easily recycled. The 53-minute pilot was padded out with extra scenes and (slightly clumsy) insert horror stuff and turned into a feature called The Ghost of Sierra de Cobra which then sat on a shelf for decades (it apparently screened in odd TV territories like Canada and Japan). Now out on BluRay, it’s a rediscovery that’s particularly welcome as an unfamiliar item from a golden age of US monochrome TV chills. It’s one of the first stabs at an ongoing psychical investigator format – predating such not-to-be pilots as Dark Intruder, Fear No Evil/Ritual of Evil, The Norliss Tapes and Spectre, and feeling quite a lot like the interesting if little-loved 1970s series The Sixth Sense. Indeed, the script could very easily have been remade as an episode of The Sixth Sense – which also tended to mix it’s-all-a-plot plots with proto-new age psychic phenomena.
Suave architect Nelson Orion (Martin Landau), who specialises in restoring crumbling old buildings, pursues a sideline as an occult investigator. He is called in to a meeting at midnight in a graveyard by Vivia Mandore (Diane Baker), wife of a rich blind guy (Tom Simcox) who is being bothered by phone calls direct from the crypt of his late, obsessed-with-premature-burial mother. Vivia is also unaccountably terrified of the new housekeeper Paulina – well, understandably, since Dame Judith Anderson plays her with a lot of her Rebecca weirdness, but Baker throws an astonishing fit of suppressed hysteria at the merest sight of the frownng biddy. It all dredges up business about an old case Orion apparently didn’t solve, involving a fake ghost in a Mexican church and a real murder (with, modishly, a hallucinogen murder poison). The Mandore estate is a regulation old dark house with a haunted window seat and the family crypt (lit throughout by flickering gaslight) is an admirable bit of gothic art direction, but a lot of the film takes place in Orion’s matte painting clifftop moderne house – which looks to be just begging to be pulled down by an earthquake, and has a great standing series set look with a spiral staircase and a huge hall with walls covered with pictures that might relate to his other cases.
Landau has a casual beachcomber look that gives him an unusual cool for this sort of character, and is nicely teamed with potential regulars Nellie Burt, as sceptic Mary Finch, and Leonard Stone, as Orion’s more grounded architect partner (what was it about 1960s architects that made them likely leads for fantastical shows – cf: Roy Thinnes in The Invaders?). Dolores Starr has an odd, sexy bit as a blonde on the beach who flirts with the hero in a scene that blatantly has nothing to do with the rest of the show. Stefano took over direction from an ailing Robert Stevens, and does a decent job – though there are pacing problems and oddly jarring effects thanks to the hastiness of throwing the whole thing together, then redoing it again as a feature. The Haunted actually plays better than The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre, with a truncated (less downbeat) conclusion that still doesn’t quite go the distance of sorting out who did what to who and why during the earlier, misdirection-heavy parts of the story. Some elements that seem clichés – the sudden supernatural wind that blasts through the crypt then dies down – because they were used so often in 1970s TV movies would actually have seemed innovations if the show had been aired when it was made.
A few bits of showiness are genuinely smart – an opening credits wipe whereby a wave seems to wipe out the whole of Los Angeles, a cut between a suspicious black vial and the upright black-clad figure of Anderson on the beach. One thing that doesn’t work is the ghost, played by Prsicilla Morrill – a superimposed, screaming negative image whipped up by the Outer Limits team which looks too much like one of that series’ alien bears (the Galaxy Being) and just doesn’t parse onscreen as supernatural. Stefano, riding that screenwriter-of-Psycho association, hauls in three stars who’d worked with Hitch (Diane Baker was just off Marnie) and evokes the Bates Motel menage by making monstrous presences of two twisted evil mother figures out to drive their children mad (and that’s not even counting the ghost) but seems more directly influenced by The Haunting and in a general sense by the doominess of Val Lewton’s films. I’d certainly have liked to see this as a series.