Have you ever had the feeling you’ve seen something before, but couldn’t quite place when or where? A sense of…deja-view? (Hold your applause and/or groans. It was a premium cable channel way before this stupid pun.) I’m sure it’s happened to all of us at some point, and because I’m an old it took me halfway through watching A Taste of Evil (1971), an ABC Movie of the Week, to realize I had seen the almost exact same plot rolled out in a movie earlier in the same week. Horror is incestuous, and it had to happen eventually, especially when the same writer pens both.
Originally airing on Tuesday, October 12th, A Taste of Evil won out over CBS’ Hawaii Five-O/Cannon block and poor NBC’s Sarge/The Funny Side (from the peacock graveyard – if you know what they are, let me know), but like many older TV horror titles, is never mentioned. But if gaslighting and sins of the past are down your lane, you could do a hell of a lot worse.
Let’s Swiffer our faux TV GUIDE (be gentle with that spine) and see what’s going on:
A TASTE OF EVIL (Tuesday, 8:30pm, ABC)
Years after being raped on her family’s estate, a young woman comes back home to find her mind may not yet be healed. Barbara Stanwyck, Roddy McDowall star.
We open on the Wilcox estate during a large outdoor party; 13 year old Susan is bored and heads off to her playhouse in the woods, but first we meet mom Miriam (Stanwyck – Roustabout), “Uncle” Harold (William Windom – Children of the Corn: The Gathering), and her dad before she does. Once she’s there, a shadowed figure of a man lurks in the doorway, lumbers towards her as she screams and we fade to black. Cut forward 7 years, and Susan (Barbara Parkins – Asylum) is returning home from a Swiss “resting facility” to live with mom and her new stepdad Uncle Harold, as OG dad has passed on to reruns. Harold leaves on a business trip, but Susan swears he’s following her around; before long she finds Harold dead in her bathtub. Except when she goes to show mom, his body has vanished. And that’s not the last time she sees him, either.
Enter Dr. Lomas (McDowall – Class of 1984), an old family friend who medicates Susan amongst growing worries of her grip on reality. And it does keep slipping; it’s confirmed Harold is still out of town yet he keeps showing up dead. Oh, and Susan is convinced that Harold is responsible for the horrible event of her past. And she can hardly wait until he returns from his trip…
A Taste of Evil (I have no idea what the title means either) is a sly thriller with more turns than a thing that turns a lot. Thanks to veteran horror helmer John Llewellyn Moxey (The Night Stalker), it moves at a slick pace even for a 75 minute programmer; his sharp sense of timing ensuring that even in the quiet moments there is movement, which comes in handy when an exposition storm hits the estate late in the game. Moxey’s energetic direction has always served him well even if the material is below his standards; luckily here it is not.
About that material and my burgeoning sense of deja-view. Yesterday for my other column Drive-In Dust Offs I covered a black and white thriller called Nightmare (1964), about a young woman who returns home several years after a traumatic event and is possibly gaslighted to make her insane (again). As I made my way through A Taste of Evil and felt almost the exact same beats, I rushed over to the Google machine and found they were both written by Hammer legend Jimmy Sangster. And while some of the cheese has a different flavor, make no mistake it’s almost the exact same maze. Come to think of it, Psycho II (1983) is kinda fonda this particular scenario as well. Regardless, Sangster is such a sharp scribe that I guessed wrong on a couple of twists even though I knew what the story was doing. I just missed out on some how.
I can’t comment on why Stanwyck, Windom, and McDowall are so effective in their respective roles without showing their respective hands, so I’ll just say that they may or may not be playing against type, and doing it well thank you very much. Parkins contributes as best she can with what amounts to a thankless role.
A Taste of Evil (oh TV Gods, please rewind and grant this another title) surprised me in ways I was not expecting, with a tale I had literally seen days before. That’s either a sign of clever filmmaking across the boards or an omen of encroaching agedness. I’m inclined to believe the former.