Returning to a Ghost Story directed by Richard Donner…
Remembering Richard Donner as he directed a chilling TV tale of possession and unrequited love of the supernatural kind.
Ghost Story & Banyon 1972 NBC Promo, Memory Museum
I was sad to learn of the passing of Richard Donner, a celebrated film director who often did a wee cameo in his movies. Film buffs and Richard Donner fans will have noted that I’ve reviewed more than a few films of his film career. I’ve reviewed those as diverse as Superman (1978), The Goonies (1985), Ladyhawke (1985), The Omen (1976), Conspiracy Theory (1997) and Scrooged (1988). These films however are just the tip of the iceberg on his versatile film and television career.
Just looking through this director’s huge filmography, I noticed that he also boasted an equally impressive television career with both episodes from a wide range of TV Series and TV Movies. The latter included Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975) with Linda Blair in the title role and Larry Hagman as her father. Television shows included four episodes of The Man from UNCLE (all 1964), three episodes of Kojak (1973 and 1974), two episodes of The Streets of San Francisco (both 1974), and an episode of Ironside (1972).
He directed more than a handful of episodes of The Twilight Zone, and from these, I have just added one to my review list. This was a really spooky one with William Shatner called Nightmare At 20,000 Feet. This is not that review… It is however a tribute to him with another spooky story… from the Ghost Story TV Series named The Concrete Captain (1972). It stars Stuart Whitman – who also starred in the Circle of Fear episode Death’s Head (1973) – and Gena Rowlands (who starred in The Notebook (2004)). For the story behind Ghost Story and how it merges with that of Circle of Fear, click HERE.
The Concrete Captain starts with some random scenes from the episode and then Winston Essex (Sebastian Cabot)’s enigmatic prologue. This time he burbles on about the sea in his opening monologue, and I’ll let you discover his closing one for yourselves. I’m guessing that the word sea could have been replaced with the topic of the day. He ponders about the secrets and mysteries of the sea and what the sea would talk about if it could speak. He then shamelessly plugs his hotel, saying he’s awaiting guests and toddles off.
Then he hands the telling of this story to Donner’s more than capable hands. This episode tells of a happily married couple Ed (Whitman) and Kate (Rowlands) Lucas who decide to take a wee trip to the coast to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. As she gazes wistfully at the sea, he surprises her with an unexpected anniversary gift. It’s a lump of concrete with a stick sticking out of it. Naturally, this gift is met with a few sarcastic comments from this loving pair.
He mansplains that the gift is called the concrete captain, and it’s based on a local true story. This story was based on the tale of Captain Jonathan Harker (Glen Wilder), whose ship ran aground in 1872, 100 years ago (this show made in 1972). After he was last to leave his sinking ship, he swam to safety but in the storm, he was pushed against the rocks.
Then things start to get a bit chilling… as almost immediately there are shivers up and down my spine. This when Kate suggests they stay in a nearby hotel, the Sea Shore Inn. She gives directions to get to the isolated hotel, even though she’s not been there before. Kate even describes the hotel accurately.
Then after the old fisherman, Daniel (Walter Burke) who owns the hotel says it’s shut for the season only lets them stay when she asks about staying there. After he tells the wind that “she”‘s returned, and a storm develops soon after I am freaked out.
In the hotel, Kate claims to hear the Captain calling for his wife, Katherine (Eugenia Stewart). We also hear the disembodied voice of his wife, Katherine telling him that she’s there. Then Donner piles on more suspense and horror after the pair visit the Concrete Captain. This as you would expect is just like her gift, ie a lump of concrete with a stick in it. Kate tells Ed he has to salute the Captain according to ye olde lore. And she blows a kiss to the Captain (which Ed understandably gets a bit niggled at).
After they return to the hotel and they snog the window jerks open.. and a storm is a-brewing. Kate tells Ed, more of the Harkers story, telling him that as Jonathan Harker was pushed in between two rocks, he was wedged between them. As he could not release himself, he was killed through the heart with a harpoon (hence the stick). And then the crew covered his dead body with concrete.. hence the concrete captain. (It’s here I silently thank Donner for not adding a flashback).
Kate spends a lot of time gazing at her gift. As a spooky spectre of a woman in ye olde dress looks wistfully at the hotel… Kate continues to hear the voices of the Harkers. The next day they can’t move on as Kate’s got a fever, and the kindly doc (Lloyd Gough) advises Ed they sleep in different bedrooms. Kate sees a ghostly image in the handheld mirror she finds in her room, which turns out to be Katherine’s room.
Kate also keeps disappearing (even after she’s sedated), and Ed usually finds her in a trance at the rocks near the Concrete Captain… and there is a trail of handprints are found in the sand nearby. There are lots of sudden appearances of the ghosts of the Harkers. After Kate’s health improves, they celebrate their anniversary in bed. Then after Ed suggests they move on he collapses and can’t use his legs…
As a director, Donner really added to the suspense and fear in this episode. This small cast of four mortal and two ghost characters added to isolated Ed’s increasing fears for his wife. He added familiar horror tropes including storms, and the old man Daniel’s presence. The Harkers story was added to over a number of the scenes, with more chilling elements added as it continued.
With the Harkers story added to throughout the episode, you are unsure of Jonathan and Katherine Harker’s motives… does Jonathan want to claim Kate and keep her there? Why does Ed collapse? What’s Daniel’s family secret? Why is June the 23rd significant? Why does the Concrete Captain ornament suddenly have some cracks on it? All these questions and more are answered in this chilling tale.
But Donner added to the unpredictability of this story, with those two spectral Harkers appearing and disappearing according to the storyline. These sudden often shocking appearances of these spectral beings added significantly to the eerieness of the plot.
They were shown as a glowing black and white negative of a person with Katherine in an old fashioned dress. She was not as spooky as her dead husband. Her husband is dragging his body – which had been encased in concrete – across the sand which as a black and white negative is the stuff of nightmares. This possibly explains why only handprints were found in the sand.
Donner’s directed scenes were accompanied by an unearthly musical score. Donner included scenes shot in the hotel. Here he excelled himself with these scenes often plunged into darkness or seen from the spectre’s point of view. The chills are also felt also with little touches such as Katherine’s broken mirror.
Fear was also felt in parts filmed outside in the storm and dark, where the darkness was accompanied by the wailing of the Harkers, you are captivated as this story unfolds.. it seems something is more spooky afoot with Kate apparently possessed by his grieving widow and the presence of her husband’s ghost proclaiming his love for her.
This tale was televised in 1972, following Donner’s episodes in The Twilight Zone and before his later episodes for Tales from the Crypt (1989-92). After this lengthy TV stint, Donner directed The Omen which is often touted as his breakout movie. This film is also often labelled as part of the horror, genre, led to Donner’s illustrious film career. This amazing career no doubt proving that for Donner, this film horror wasn’t such a cursed movie after all… as for him it was a Good Omen.