There’s the usual stockpile when we mention horror anthology TV series. Twilight Zone sits firmly on top for most, and then follows Outer Limits, Thriller, Tales from the Crypt, Masters of Horror, Night Gallery, and on and on. (The rankings are up to you.) And sometimes, way down in the pile of yellowed TV Guides lays one that time forgot (and Nielsen killed). Witness NBC’s Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972), a one season and done series that provided solid stories well told over 23 episodes.
If the title seems confusing, it’s because it was known as Ghost Story for the first 13 episodes (plus pilot), and then Circle of Fear for the last 9. Low ratings prompted the name change, which proceeded when the show returned from the Christmas break. Rotund host Sebastian Cabot also didn’t survive the retooling.
So what sank the show? ABC aired Room 222/The Odd Couple opposite it, and CBS had their Friday Night Movies. Maybe it was the competition, or perhaps a sense of ennui had settled in with viewers; for anthology thrills NBC already had Rod Serling’s Night Gallery on Sundays, truncated to 30 minutes for this, its final season. Regardless of the reason for its demise, Ghost/Circle is worth seeking out just for the talent involved alone.
Executive produced by B movie Hype King himself, William Castle (House on Haunted Hill), Ghost Story was bookended by Cabot (best known as Mr. French on CBS’ Family Affair) as the proprietor, Winston Essex, of a spooky hotel called Mansfield House. Here’s a partial list of who else you’ll find in front of the cameras: Jason Robards, Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Meg Foster, Kim Darby, Patty Duke, Janet Leigh, Karen Black, Melvyn Douglas, Stuart Whitman, Rip Torn, and so many more. For some of the actors I’m sure it was just a chance to earn a few bucks, but I’d like to think the writing was appealing as well, considering who authored the episodes: Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, Jimmy Sangster, among other noted scribes, offered strong teleplays in an hour long format (and it was developed by Richard Matheson). Directorial turns by Richard Donner (The Omen), Leo Penn (The Dark Secret of Harvest Home), John Llewellyn Moxey (The Night Stalker), and other seasoned TV veterans ensured a consistency and stability to the shows.
The stability shows stylistically; there’s a uniformity to the look and feel of the episodes (which generally occurs on tightly budgeted TV), but most notably with the performances. Every episode features good work across the boards; nothing is overplayed but stays within the parameters set up by the scripts. (Let’s face it, other anthology show performances can be hit or miss depending on the director and material.)
And the scripts are where the heart of the show beats. The 50 minutes allowed give the episodes a chance to breathe and take their time; some people who remember the show would say they take too much time. I would disagree. Ghost Story/Circle of Fear doesn’t just focus on twist endings so popular with horror anthologies; with some shows, like Tales from the Crypt, it was expected, but this one doesn’t live or die by the comeuppance. Each episode unfolds at a measured pace to arrive at an unforced conclusion.
What type of stories? We have TV sets that show the future, including death (”The Dead We Leave Behind”), a deaf girl who has a psychic connection with her evil grandfather (‘House of Evil”), an unearthed hobby horse holds a generational curse (“Dark Vengeance”), glass jars containing ancient spirits create havoc for an artists’ commune (“Earth, Air, Fire And Water”). All this plus satanic cults, ghosts, killer dogs, twin turmoil, and so much more. And while some of the stories come off as simplistic (remember: don’t always look for the twist), they all have something to recommend; an intriguing plot or a particularly interesting performance. It’s as I said, a solid batch of stories.
Now, time has a way of tempering expectations; don’t go in expecting visceral thrills a la Tales, or brilliant moralistic turns like The Twilight Zone. Is it scary? Not really; I suppose by TV standards of the day I would go with ‘pleasantly chilling’. Aesthetically, I prefer Circle of Fear; dropping the Cabot intros and outros sets it apart from the format of those shows (and while Cabot is good, they add nothing to the overall feel). Although NBC claimed the retooling was to tone down the supernatural elements, they actually are still very much present. (They were just hoping people would buy the same product under a different name. Hey! This really is a William Castle production.)
But the big takeaway for me is one of discovery; the thrill of seeing something that was unjustly tossed aside and forgotten because it didn’t pass ratings muster. Ghost Story/Circle of Fear will never topple the shows at the top of the heap, but it’s nice to find something worthwhile near the bottom of the pile.
The complete series of Ghost Story/Circle of Fear is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.Next: It Came From The Tube: THE STRANGE POSSESSION OF MRS. OLIVER (1977)