TV horror lives and dies by the pen. From the ‘50s to the ‘90s, network TV shows and movies simply couldn’t carry the weight of special effects, and the content restrictions placed on TV (before the advent of cable, I’m talking the Big Three – ABC, CBS, NBC) back in the day did not allow for the most part a visceral experience. (Oh how times have changed.) So often the tale itself would have to suffice, and if it was gripping enough, blood speckled walls and torn limbs weren’t even necessary. Case in point: The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977), an NBC Monday Night at the Movies written by none other than Richard Matheson, starring Karen Black.
Premiering Monday, February 28th, 1977, Strange’s beat down would come at the hands of ABC’s Monday Night Movie (I just love the creative monikers), which regularly trounced any and all comers in that time slot. No matter; keeping your dial tuned to the Peacock Network meant you were in for an intriguing mystery that unfurls in surprising ways.
Let’s crack open our probable TV GUIDE for that week and see what we have:
THE STRANGE POSSESSION OF MRS. OLIVER (Monday, 9pm, NBC)
After having nightmares of her death, a prim housewife finds herself adopting the persona of a promiscuous blonde woman. Karen Black, George Hamilton star.
Miriam Oliver (Black – Burnt Offerings) and her husband Greg (Hamilton – Love at First Bite) are a recently wed, well to do couple. The film opens on an image of a burning house, followed by a scene of Miriam being escorted to view a body at a funeral home, first by Greg, and then suddenly by a stranger (Robert F. Lyons – Dark Night of the Scarecrow). When the casket is opened for viewing, Miriam sees her own lifeless body on display. Cut to Miriam waking up screaming in bed; it was just a dream. The next day while out shopping, the listless and bored Miriam is drawn to a shop selling blouses and wigs. She is particularly keen on a blonde wig and red blouse; almost hypnotized, she has visions of dancing in a club in this very same get up. When she returns to reality she purchases the blouse, and the next day, the wig.
Soon Miriam becomes obsessed with being this other woman (she decides to call herself Sandy) and seeks refuge at a beach house in a small, seaside town. However, people start to recognize her in the blouse and wig…as Sandy. Is Miriam possessed by a deceased woman? Possibly schizophrenic? Is she losing her mind, or is her husband trying to push her over the edge?
There are essentially two stars here; Karen Black and Richard Matheson. This script could easily fall into The Twilight Zone, of which he penned several memorable episodes. Matheson’s scripts frequently rose above the fray due to his passion for character construction and clever plot development. Miriam is a withdrawn wallflower at the start of the movie; Greg wants to begin a family but she is reluctant for reasons not made clear – at first. Matheson imbues his characters with enough conflict and personality to hold our attention; a master of the short form, he knows you have to be able to grab an audience’s attention and never let go until the final frame. The film is very much Miriam’s journey, and Matheson guides us through his meticulous, clockwork storytelling. By the final reveal, you’ll just smile at how it all falls into place.
Director Gordon Hessler was well known to genre fans on both big and small screens; Scream and Scream Again (1970) is probably my theatrical favorite, and Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973) his best reviewed on the tube. (Ironically inclined folk will pick Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. Please don’t.) He was an uneven talent, but does solid work here; his dream sequences are effective and he keeps things moving (shouldn’t be too hard to do – it’s only 72 minutes long). His strength was always with actors, and Strange is no exception.
George Hamilton has never been too far removed from his sun kissed persona; a raised eyebrow here, a smirk there, and then a “when’s lunch?” is generally how he gets it done. Surprisingly, that aloof attitude works for this movie; Greg’s obliviousness to Miriam’s needs is the catalyst that sets the story in motion. The rest of the cast are fine but the narrative focus is squarely on Black’s shoulders, and she doesn’t disappoint. She and Matheson had previously teamed for Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror (1975), a very effective anthology that had her playing the lead in each story. Here, she assays two roles; that of the diminutive Miriam and the confident Sandy. Matheson seemed to tailor these scripts just for Black, because she effortlessly finds the differences, big and small, between the characters, and through her subtleties and his words, they never show their hand until the very end.
A modest mystery with a thrilling wrap up, The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is a solid example of an interesting story that holds no truck with explosions (okay, there’s one), but would rather entertain with a knotted tale, told through a mighty pen.Next: It Came From The Tube: THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME (1978)