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Spectre (1972)

"I'd come here to meet a man who I'd vowed never to meet again…" so begins Spectre, yet another TV movie which got a theatrical release in this country (see also The Secret Of Seagull Island, Baffled), thus making it a borderline entry into the world of British horror films.

I say "borderline" because like Baffled, there's perhaps a bit too much American influence - it's a Gene Rodenberry script and once again betrays its real roots as the pilot for an American series, but it was shot here and is busting a gut (not literally, that would be horrible) with Brit stalwarts.

Spectre also happens to be quite a successful little horror film, and, if the series had been commissioned, would have seen the X-files arrive two decades early. Whether that would have been a good or bad thing is a matter of personal taste… put it this way, at least it would've meant that the bloody thing would have finished 20 years earlier, too…

Our narrator goes on to promise us "a slide into horrors unimaginable, a descent into corners of hell…" Now, I wouldn't go that far, but anyone expecting a typically pale and watered down story specially tailored for a conservative middle America is in for a shock. Strange goings-on, gore, Satanism and even a spot of female nudity are all on the cards…

The chap giving us the lowdown is one Doctor Hamilton (Gig Young), the man he's going to meet is old friend and sparring partner William Sebastian (Robert Culp). Hamilton is a stuffy establishment type. Sebastian, with his groovy pad and turtle neck sweaters, is a bit more avant-garde. The whole thing smacks of an updated Watson and Holmes, but it's a lot stranger than that. Sebastian's secretary is a witch (she snips off a lock of Hamilton's hair as he enters), and Sebastian himself informs us (almost as an aside) that part of his heart is missing - it has been stolen and placed inside a doll by person or persons unknown. Because of this he's not a well man (surprisingly). Hamilton himself has his problems too, telling his friend on hearing this: "You need better attention, not a compulsive drinker!"

Sebastian explains that he's brought the old drunkard over to help him solve a new case which has him stumped. Or as he puts it: "This case is so complex, so bizarre, that it's literally unexplainable!"

As a set up, the idea of a man crippled by witchcraft being helped to solve an unexplainable case by a self-confessed alcoholic is a bizarre one, to say the least. But just in case you felt you'd wandered into a left-of-centre episode of Father Dowling Investigates, things are about to get odder.

An attractive popsy (Ann Bell) by the name of Anitra Cyon is shown in, and she immediately tells Sebastian that she's changed her mind about him taking on her case. "I no longer want you to kill my brother… or rather, destroy what he has become."

She then tries to seduce Sebastian. But he grabs a handy book, opens it to a special page and pushes it into her face. She screams and starts burning up in front of him, disappearing into nothing (a Buffy-beating effect which actually deserves a round of applause).

The girl may have looked like Sebastian's employer, but she was not what she seemed. She was a gimp, a minor demon. Or a succubus. One or the other, I've written both down in my notes. Anyway…

Our intrepid pair jump on a plane to England, which is being piloted by the girl's brother Mitri (John Hurt). During the journey, thanks to a brief chat between Sebastian and Hamilton (or "Ham" as he is affectionately known), we find out that they used to work together as criminology investigators. Recently, Sebastian has started to believe in the paranormal and even dabbled a bit - hence his heart problem. Ham, meanwhile, is a realist who reckons his mate is one faggot short of a pyre. Ham's also a drunkard (we knew that) and an incorrigible womaniser.

Their reunion is cut short by plane problems, which Sebastian reckons is "perhaps a reminder of how sweet a full life would be… if it were offered…"

Once in England (shown yet again by - aaargh! - a quick drive past the Houses Of bloody Parliament), Sebastian decides to make an unscheduled stop at an old friend's house, but they find it in flames and the chap they've come to see lying in the middle of it, "torn to shreds". The demon responsible for this attacks (once again, a not-unscary moment, as all we see are flashes of its shadow), but they find protection inside a pentagram on the floor.

It's at this point that you realise this isn't going to be another Baffled - for one thing, Spectre has already had its fair share of unsettling moments. And just to add the icing to the cake, who should walk in now but Gordon "Cowley" Jackson, looking and acting like he's just stepped off the set of The Professionals, as Inspector Clavell of New Scotland Yard. He already knows Sebastian (shades of Holmes and LeStrade), saying: "We have had our disputes, but I still rank you as one of the world's leading criminologists…"

After ascertaining that this is only the latest of a line of similar murders, the pair carry on their journey to the Cyon residence, where Sebastian promptly collapses, complaining that something feels like it's being twisted inside him. He recovers enough to get inside, and they meet Jeffrey (James Villiers, oily as always), the brother Anitra supposedly wants killed.

The Cyon house proves to be nothing short of a death trap - there's ground glass in the wine, glasses explode on cue, the banisters aren't safe and vicious dogs prowl the grounds. A diary tells that during excavation work under the house, the demon Azmodeus was released - and Sebastian is less than happy about this, as this particular demon is number of in the demon hit parade. What's more, Ham wakes up to find a chesty lovely has invaded his bed, and before you can say "mid life crisis" two more walk in, dressed as a dominatrix and a schoolgirl. "Luckily", Sebastian is on hand to "save" him (I half expected Ham to utter "I bet you're gay" as he's pulled drooling from the room).

The demon is still up to his old tricks, and the trail eventually leads through a secret passage in a nearby mini-Stonehenge and under the house, to the place where Azmodeus was released from...

Spectre is actually a bit of a gem. It has to be said that I wasn't expecting great things from it, mainly because of the words "Gene" and "Rodenberry". But it's violent, sexy and barking mad, bursting with ideas and never boring (even if its creator had to throw in some suspiciously Klingon-like geezers towards the end). The demon attacks are all the more terrifying for happening off-screen, and there's a tremendous scene where a dog is found impaled on a tree, and as the characters discuss this development the dog's mate can be heard howling in the background. Sebastian carries a holy cross to ward off evil spirits, but Ham carries a Jewish star on a keyring (and why not?), and the final devil worship orgy scene (including a suspiciously over enthusiastic Jackson) has to be seen to be believed, if only because of the amount of female flesh on show (it allegedly features Penny "House Of Whipcord" Irving and Vicki "Virgin Witch" Michelle, but I didn't spot them). Definitely worth checking out, although apparently the gore and nudity was excised for TV and only appears on the theatrical version. With two cracking leading men, a fistful of great ideas and some real horror moments, it's a tremendous shame they never followed it up with a series.

"It's impossible for something to feel evil to the touch… am I imagining it?"

Last updated: February 27, 2010

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Spectre 1972


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