20th Century Fox
Directed by Clive Donner
Produced by Gene Roddenberry, Gordon Scott and Danny Steinmann
Written by Samuel A. Peeples and Gene Roddenberry
Based on a story by Gene Roddenberry
It’s safe to say that Gene Roddenberry needs no introduction. In this Internet day and age is it possible there are those who do not know the name of the man who created what is unarguably one of the best-known and most profitable entertainment franchises of the 20th Century? We’re talking “Star Trek” of course which has lasted now for 45 years, innumerable paperback and hardcover novels, enough comic books to wallpaper a Borg Cube inside and out, eleven theatrical movies, five live television series and one animated. But all that came much later after “Star Trek” lived on in reruns and became first a cult then a mainstream classic. During the 70’s, Roddenberry worked on a number of pilots that never caught on that appeared as Made-For-TV Movies.
There was “Planet Earth” Roddenberry’s riff on Buck Rogers about a 20th Century scientist frozen in suspended animation then thawed out in the 22end Century. Roddenberry liked that idea so much he actually remade “Planet Earth” not once but twice. Roddenberry must have really liked the name Dylan Hunt because it was the hero’s name in all three versions and eventually wound up as the name of the main character in “Andromeda”. In whatever version, it didn’t click with anybody so he presented “The Questor Tapes” about an android in the modern world learning to be human. That also went nowhere although Roddenberry returned to that theme with his character of Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and that brings us to the movie we’re talking about now, SPECTRE.
SPECTRE is extremely different from Roddenberry’s other work for a couple of major reasons: One, all of Roddenberry’s other pilots were firmly in science fiction and two, the main characters in the other pilots were square jawed, true-blue heroes with stalwart hearts. SPECTRE is a supernatural thriller whose heroes are deeply flawed men crippled both emotionally and physically but together their respective and diverse skills make them a formidable team.
William Sebastian (Robert Culp) is one of the world’s best criminologists. If you ask him he’ll tell you he’s is the best. He summons his old partner Dr. Hamilton (Gig Young) to his side to help him on his latest case. Sebastian has been contacted by Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell). A member of the immensely wealthy and powerful Cyon family. Anita claims that her older brother Sir Geoffrey Cyon (James Villiers) is possessed by a demon and she wants Sebastian to prove the possession is genuine and destroy the demon.
Why does she call in a criminologist and not an exorcist? It’s explained that William Sebastian, because of his incredible deductive abilities and off-the-chart I.Q. has left the field of conventional criminology out of boredom and now uses those methods to solve mysteries dealing with the supernatural. Dr. Hamilton (we never do find out his first name…Sebastian generally just calls him ‘Ham’) was his partner for many years until they had a falling out but now Sebastian needs Hamilton to keep him alive. Sebastian’s heart is damaged due to witchcraft and the only reason he’s alive is thanks to the spells his secretary/assistant/personal witch Lilith (Majel Barrett) casts to ward off the spells. But her spells can only do so much and Sebastian needs a doctor he trusts who can deal with his abrasive personality and constantly monitor his condition.
Upon arriving in London where the Cyon family lives, Sebastian and Hamilton meet up with Mitri Cyon (John Hurt) the baby of the family held firmly under the domination of his brother Sir Geoffrey who lives an openly hedonistic lifestyle that would make Hugh Hefner blush. There are attempts on the lives of the various members of the Cyon family by demonic forces and Sebastian deduces that it may not be Sir Geoffrey who is possessed. There’s more than enough evidence that either Mitri or Anita could be under the power of the demon Asmodeus. Sebastian and Hamilton have more than enough on their hands not only trying to uncover who is truly possessed but avoiding getting killed themselves.
I’ll tell you right from the start that SPECTRE isn’t going to scare you at all. It wouldn’t scare any of today’s five-year olds who have been raised on CGI and buckets of gore. But it is a tremendous amount of fun to watch mainly for the performances of the two leading men. Robert Culp and Gig Young play the story absolutely straight, as a modern day Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigating the supernatural and it works damn well. This movie has a wonderfully intense performance by Robert Culp and Gig Young is right there backing him up all the way. Ten minutes into the movie you’re totally convinced that these are two old friends who have been through a lot together.
It’s also interesting in that the two main characters aren’t all that heroic. William Sebastian is a towering egomaniac secure in his intellectual arrogance but the man is emotionally dead as a brick. Dr. Hamilton is an alcoholic womanizer and doesn’t give a damn who knows it. Apart they’ve lost their direction in life but together they compliment each other and make one whole person. It’s interesting to watch these two flawed characters as they piece together not only the mystery of Cyon House but their own troubled souls as well. But it’s not all psychological insights…there’s a couple of murders to solve, with the victims being torn apart by demonic claws and there’s a Druid temple under a Stonehenge-like formation of rocks where forbidden orgies and sacrifices are held in the light of flaming pits. And for those of you who need your eye candy, the movie has plenty of beautiful, busty women walking around in those clingy, lacy gowns that women in British horror movies always seem to be wearing.
John Hurt is also very good here and I was amazed to see that even back in 1977 he looked middle-aged. The rest of the British supporting cast is equally capable. Out of all the busted pilots Roddenberry made, I like SPECTRE the best and I’m really surprised that no one ever thought to try and turn this into a series, especially after Roddenberry’s death when apparently his wife (Majel Barrett) was giving TV producers every random idea Roddenberry ever wrote to turn into a series. With today’s CGI and the flawed nature of the lead characters, SPECTRE could be a terrific series. Of course, it would be hard to find actors to match the excellence of Robert Culp and Gig Young. And maybe it shouldn’t even be tried. SPECTRE as it is stands as a wonderful entertainment from Gene Roddenberry and shows he knew his way around a Druid temple as well as he did the bridge of a starship.