Our Favourite Screen Scream Queen Finds Out Revenge is kinda like a Butterfly…
An adulterous woman murders her husband. Little knowing he will return in another guise.
Circle Of Fear opening 1973, capnvid47 and photos © Sony Pictures Television
The world of TV is full of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) inspired shows. These are notable for those eerie presenter prologues and narrations for those chilling tales with a twist. With episodes boasting an all-star cast of Hollywood’s finest from then and now.
This (sadly) one-off series was first known as Ghost Story (1972) with actor Sebastian Cabot playing Winston Essex. Winston Essex was the mysterious Mansfield Manor hotel owner who narrated those episodic supernatural stories of ghosts, witches, voodoo and more.
Unluckily for the powers that be behind this show, Cabot left the Ghost Stories series with his final appearance in episode 13. At this time, the show was noted to be suffering from low ratings. These poor ratings seem quite shocking now with episodes written by prolific writers.
They included writers such as Richard Matheson (who wrote the romantic time travel novel Bid Time Return which was filmed as Somewhere in Time (1980)) and Robert Bloch (famous for those horror films Psycho (1960) and Asylum (1972)). The prestigious guest star list for Ghost Story episodes included Jason Robards, Helen Hayes, Karen Black, Doug McClure, Angie Dickinson and Jodie Foster.
In January 1973, Ghost Story was given a complete overhaul. The narrator and presenter gimmick was ditched and the show was given a new title, Circle of Fear. This show also had now a new Hitchcockian inspired dramatic theme tune and colourful and funky 1970s credits.
But despite these changes, the show ended after 10 more episodes. These Circle of Fear stand-alone episodes had famous guest stars including Tab Hunter, Shirley Knight, Patty Duke, Martin Sheen and Kim Darby. Writers for these episodes included Harlan Ellison (writer of Star Trek, The City on the Edge of Forever (1967)) and Mann Rubin (who later wrote the eerie sci-fi Brainstorm (1983) and some Dynasty (1981-89) episodes).
The first of the Circle of Fear episodes offered an impressive cast with the leading role played by Hitchcock’s most famous blonde. For today’s review, I’m happy to announce a tale of revenge from the grave with Psycho‘s Janet Leigh in Death’s Head (1973).
This story tells of unhappily married Carol (Leigh) a middle aged woman who detests all things creepy crawly. Carol is married to the apparently older Steve (Gene Nelson), a successful lawyer who cares more for his dead insects than her. Steve’s collection of insects of all kinds are stuffed and framed after their death.
His prized exhibit is a Death Head’s moth of (as Darlin’ Husband stressed) such size that it wouldn’t look out of place in a Jurassic Park (1993-) movie. Carol has other interests, mainly her husband’s greying at the temples, work partner and friend, Larry (Rory Calhoun).
After some flirty behaviour from her, we learn that she’s been having a torrid affair with Larry since god knows when. But now Larry feels kinda crap about it, telling his friend he should pay more attention to his attractive wife. Saying this is more a friendly gesture, than a warning. Anyway, Steve insists Larry takes Carol out to a marina for the day, while he does insect stuff.
At the marina, the loved up couple visit a stall with some rather freaky (but cute) toffee apples with spooky faces. Carol then hears a young gypsy girl promoting her herbal products and this piques Carol’s interest. On visiting this girl’s shop, she is selling “potions and elixirs” and “all things real and imagined” behind her 1970s beaded curtain.
The young gypsy (Ayn Ruymen) sells Carol a potion that will kill her husband. The gypsy tells Carol this poison cannot be detectable after death, all she needs is the courage to use it then she’ll be a free woman. On return home, later that evening Carol – with murder on her mind gives this potion to her trusting husband in his evening drink.
He drinks it despite it tasting funny. He immediately doesn’t feel too good and he falls to his death. Carol then plays the grieving widow. This as the nightmares real and imagined start as that huge Death’s Head moth is seen fluttering manically above her head…
After this Carol then sees – with some really comical early special effects – to see her husband’s face on that huge Death Head moth’s body. Carol tells the doctor (Joshua Bryant) and the neighbour (Doreen Lang) that Steve died of a heart attack.
Then Carol calls her lover as soon as the wellmeaners leave, telling him Steve has died, but not telling him the truth on how he passed away. However, after the funeral, she’s haunted by Steve’s prized moth with her dead husband’s face and nightmares. These nightmares also feature the gypsy (Madeleine Taylor Holmes) who is now old and cackling like a true James Bond villainess.
Carol also feels insects on her body that aren’t there and has visual and auditory flashbacks of her trip to the gypsy’s shop at the marina. These flashback and nightmare scenes are accompanied by Janet Leigh swatting herself, screaming a lot and generally looking freaked out (and not in a cool 70s kinda way).
These are also accompanied by the “moth” now seen on the wall, but with its body showing a wee skull rather than Gene Nelson’s shocked face. This skull face changing with what looks like the inspiration for smileys and other emoji-like faces, dependent on the plot. Then Carol gets dumped by Larry. On a return visit to the gypsy (now young again), Carol is warned about the Death Head moth lore and legend.
The gypsy explains that the Death’s Head moth legend (far too late in telling this now murderess) tells how this moth is possessed by the “disembodied” spirit of her dead husband. She adds his tormented soul can only rest in peace if he finds a mate. Carol returns home. It’s a stormy night and a continual, eerie buzzing is heard…
I did enjoy the 1970s feel to this time with the story itself although was a little bit too predictable. The seventies ambience of funky colours, graphics, the beaded curtain and the sight of terracotta inspired everything that brought me to this decade.
Leigh herself had a 1970s shag hairdo a la Susannah York in X, Y and Z (1972). The men wearing some natty 70s paisley patterned pyjamas and flares for every occasion. Leigh herself had a groovy 1970s wardrobe and was very much the stylish widow.
The story with its combination of characters with an unhappy wife, gypsies, legends, poisonous potions and revenge was fun to watch as the more ridiculous parts of the tale developed, rather than scare the crap out of you.
This episode was directed by James Neilson the man behind the camera for The Magical World of Disney (1958-71) and a wide variety of genres. However, his role at Disney would have been more bizarre had Sebastian Cabot stayed on for one more episode.
Cabot, himself had been a voice actor on the Disney animated productions of The Jungle Book (1967) and a narrator on The Magical World of Disney. William Castle, a famous actor and producer in the world of Horror was the show executive producer. Castle producing and starring in films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The soundtrack from this episode – with some of it sounding quite Psycho like – is from Billy Goldenberg and Robert Prince.
This hour long episode felt about fifteen minutes too long, and it would (possibly) have added to the suspense more had many of those dream and flashback scenes been cut. The special effects were also amusing, including Gene Nelson’s head superimposed on a moth with this a laugh out loud moment.
Notable special effects included those (possibly) inspired by 1970s groovy Madam Sin (1972) and as then “acted” out by Robert Wagner. These showing his character’s death scenes from his point of view with soft focus camera effects implying his blurry vision and his then collapse from other weird camera angles.
However, the best (read worse) was the moth itself which reminded me of that bat in Love at First Bite (1979), ie the moth at the end of a fishing line and dangled in front of the camera lens. In a case of curiosity killed the cat, Darlin Husband and I continued to watch this horror-comedy series watching the next episode Dark Vengeance, with Martin Sheen and his on-screen wife Kim Darby.
This married pair in a few now-familiar scenes, with her getting nightmares and this time the couple being terrorised by a small wooden horse. Again, their tormentor seemed to be pulled along by an invisible bit of twine. Both of these episodes obviously seemed to be on a shoestring budget and with the sinister part of the storyline explained late on in the story. But both are certainly worth a view for those fantastic before and after they were famous casts acting their wee hearts out.
I did enjoy Janet Leigh in this silly excuse for a suspense tale, as she certainly proved her Scream Queen credentials as seen back then in Psycho and more recently in The Fog (1980). She shone in this leading role and gave it all she had, even if the script was a wee bit ropey.
Yet on watching her, it was hard to believe after seeing this performance she was the same cool and collected character I’d seen in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In this Cold War drama, Leigh played Eugenie Rose Chaney, the calming support and love interest to a man with recurrent nightmares of being brainwashed.
Equally this role in Circles of Fear was a complete contrast to Leigh’s other more wholesome roles including those in Little Women (1949) and two episodes of The Love Boat (in 1978 and 1985). In Death’s Head Leigh was excellent, she carried all her solo scenes so effortlessly. Here you genuinely feel her character’s fears and anxieties as her character’s fears of insects magnified to horror proportions. You were able to emphasise with her character to some level.
Yet she showed no remorse or guilt at her crime. Her character was all too keen to resume her affair with Larry once the funeral was done and dusted than to grieve for her husband. Leigh’s screams and anguished expressions were fantastically over the top and this skill was apparently hereditary after seeing her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (1978).
Both Nelson and Calhoun supported Leigh admirably, although this is arguably an episode to showcase her acting talents than theirs. Nelson showing his character was more interested in his insects than his wife. His concern for a dead spider, which he took great care in stuffing then mounting showed his character could be passionate about something rather than someone. Showing little affection for his wife, these insects instead getting his loving attention and Steve almost encouraging his wife to have a fling.
Calhoun seemed more concerned for his partner and their joint law practice than in continuing his affair with Carol. He seemed a more likeable character but was unable to resist Carol as she batted her eyelashes at him. Only ending their relationship after his partner’s death. Despite this, their romance seemed to have cooled for him at the time of the story. It was a nice change to see these older actors in these particular roles rather than a younger cast. This upping the story’s credibility (a little).
If you plan to watch this episode, the opening scene should come with a warning for arachnophobes. This is as a large spider is seen hovering over Carol in her bed, and this scene establishing her characters fear and hatred of insects. Although this spider appears to be another prop insect on a string, this does appear more frighteningly realistic than that darned moth.
This TV show was made as Janet Leigh continued her horror film and TV career, with her previous performance also with Rory Calhoun just one year before. The pair starring together in Night of the Lepus (1972), otherwise known as Rabbits. This is a horror film about mutant rabbits which is recommended for lagomorpholophiles (rabbit lovers) rather than phobes (those who are scared of bunnies).
It’s a film to hunt down for sure, for their co-star alone, DeForest Kelley. Kelley taking a well deserved wee break from being Dr McCoy in the Star Trek. On telling my Darlin Husband of this movie, quick as a hare, he stated “I’m a Doctor Jim, not a lagomorphologist”…
Weeper Rating: 😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: /10
Hulk Rating: /10
This post was added to Love Letters to Old Hollywood’s Janet Leigh blogathon. Other posts with these stars include Janet Leigh stars in The Manchurian Candidate, The Fog, Murder She Wrote, The Man From UNCLE and The Love Boat. She also is portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in Hitchcock. Rory Calhoun starred in Night of the Lepus, Hart to Hart and Fantasy Island. Doreen Lang starred in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and North by Northwest. Gene Nelson starred in Star Trek and Fantasy Island.