As the hoary old cliché goes, sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination. This usually doesn’t apply to TV horror, which lives for the payoff; but Haunts of the Very Rich (1972) is not the usual. With this one, the payoff is all in the setup – and it’s delicious.
First airing on Wednesday, September 20th, 1972 as an ABC Movie of the Week (I know, they’re almost all ABC – what can I say? They ruled the horror roost), Haunts was up against The Carol Burnett Show/Medical Center on CBS and the NBC Mystery Movie. I’m sure a lot of folks were watching Carol, but if they scooched over to ABC they could watch Lloyd and Ed bicker in the underworld. Bridges and Asner that is – and yes, I said underworld.
Is that a spoiler? Only if you don’t watch past the first fifteen minutes. What’s our hellfire singed TV GUIDE say?
HAUNTS OF THE VERY RICH (Wednesday, 8:30pm, ABC)
A group of wealthy travellers are flown to an exotic locale known as The Portals of Eden, without any knowledge of how they got on the flight, or why they have arrived at their destination. Lloyd Bridges, Cloris Leachman star.
That’s the meat of it, but I’ll try to stretch it out a bit. Our little teleplay opens up in the sky, as a smarmy nightclub singer chimes in over the credits, dripping musical butter into your lobes that makes “Feelings” sound like “Highway to Hell”. The camera opens up to the lounge of the plane, as seven passengers are served refreshments by the stewardess. Among our doomed clientele are the above mentioned Bridges as a serial philanderer hitting on single Leachman, while Texan tycoon Asner grumbles in his seat, as an Asner is wont to do. We meet a newlywed couple who get the least screen time (even though the wife is played by future TV goddess Donna Mills), a rundown wife and mother of three (Anne Francis), and a forlorn reverend (Robert Reed – papa Brady himself). None of the passengers seem to know where the plane is heading, but each one slowly doles out clues as to their character.
When they land, they are greeted by the loquacious Mr. Seacrist (the always amazing Moses Gunn), manager of The Portals of Eden, a regal island resort. Taken to their rooms, each finds it tailored to the experience they’re looking for – whether it’s relaxation, romance, or in Asner’s case, a flea bitten motel room, as he “wants just a bed for the night so he can catch the first plane out.” Catching on yet? I know you are. After a lovely first evening, the island is hit by a tropical storm; no power, no water, food is running low. Mr. Seacrist promises that a plane will come the next day. And the next. It never comes, so Seacrist leaves to get help himself, leaving our strandees to bicker amongst the rotting fruit and contaminated water. Before he returns, they all come to a shocking realisation that will change their vacation plans forever…
THEY’RE ALL DEAD! C’mon, you knew that by the time the plane landed at The Portals of Eden. But this is the fun of the movie – we know they’re dead, but they don’t. And I’m sure at the time it was played out as a mystery, but by the time the storm hits, you’re two steps ahead of our doomed travellers. Clues are peppered all throughout the program; not visually, but through the dialogue. References to their former lives, emotional windows into their fears, and the like provide tasty bon mots for the eager viewer to savor. William Wood’s teleplay wisely stays away from trying to portray any sort of fallen garden; sorry folks, no eternal hellfire or trident gouging at the Hades Hotel. (Although, if they piped that horrific theme song through the PA system nonstop, that would certainly shrivel my soul.)
What we do get is a sort of metaphysical chamber play; a chance for some good character actors to bounce off each other and interact in intriguing ways. When the passengers start to catch up to the audience, they question, one by one, how they ended up there – whether through sickness, or domestic unbalance. And the conversations – questioning mortality, etc. are fascinating in a pulpy Psyche 101 way. But if they are in hell (and the last line of the show emphasises the word, so, I’m sticking with yes), it’s not spelled out specifically what they did to end up there. I mean, greed is bad, as is cheating on a spouse, but if I believed in that sort of thing (and I’m not sure I do) I’m thinking the scales aren’t tipping that much in Lucifer’s favor. But, this is probably more a function of time constraints than any shortcomings in Wood’s script.
Paul Wendkos was a veteran TV director by this point, and he seems to relish the opportunity to throw a troupe of talented actors in a room and watch them go at it. He runs a tight ship; which is good because there isn’t a lot of activity involved, other than a group of people roiling in turmoil. Everyone plays to their strengths and doesn’t stray from their normal personas too much, with the exception of one Robert Reed. His reverend is taciturn, quiet, withdrawn; he has a great moment where he laments what he believes hell really is, and it showcases another side to Mr. Brady that viewers were not prepared for.
Haunts of the Very Rich (agreed, that title is more acrid than any bottomless pit) upends the standard TV horror trope of providing the big finish. By the time it reaches its inevitable conclusion, the viewer has already visited the destination and boarded the plane back home. That’s okay – unlike the guests at The Portals of Eden, we always have the option to return.Next: It Came From The Tube: SALEM’S LOT (1979)