Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Kieran Fisher and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s.
Horror movies are rarely scary, and that’s especially the case with television horror movies. That’s not a negative, though, as horror doesn’t need to terrify to be good, but it makes for something extra special when an entertaining horror movie also succeeds in delivering some chills and thrills. The Strange and Deadly Occurrence is one of those special little TV horror movies.
When: September 24, 1974
The Rhodes family has left the big city behind and purchased a nice spread in the country outside of Los Angeles, and they couldn’t be happier. Michael (Robert Stack) and Christine (Vera Miles) both love the place, but their teenage daughter Melissa (Margaret Willock) is playfully concerned with the idea that the home might be haunted. Windows are left open, a presence disturbs the horses, and Melissa wakes one night convinced that someone or something was touching her face while she slept. Add in an unhelpful local sheriff (L.Q. Jones), a stranger offering to buy the house, a yard full of gophers, and more unsettling occurrences, and the Rhodes family might not be living there for long.
Creepy house horrors are commonplace, but The Strange and Deadly Occurrence succeeds even as a TV movie in delivering some terrifically unsettling sequences as something moves through the night both outside and inside. The film does great work leaving its identity muddled meaning viewers are prepared equally for reveals involving a ghostly threat, a killer, or even a Scooby Doo-like situation with someone trying to scare them out of the house. One beat involving a headless mannequin wobbling towards young Melissa is spooky as hell.
Director John Llewellyn Moxey had a healthy career on the big screen (The City of the Dead, 1960), but he’s perhaps best known for his volume and quality of television movies. He directed forty-one TV movies between 1963 and 1988, and many of them are genre favorites including The Night Stalker (1972), Home for the Holidays (1972), and Where Have All the People Gone (1974). The one we’re discussing here doesn’t seem to get the same kind of love, but it’s well deserving thanks in big part to Moxey’s effective direction.
Both Moxey and Sandor Stern‘s (Pin, 1988) script tell a tight tale, but the family never feels shortchanged on time meaning we get to see and appreciate their dynamic as the creepy weirdness begins to grow. That creepiness turns fairly chilling thanks in large part to Moxey’s use of first-person point of view. The same year that Bob Clark’s Black Christmas perfected the threatening POV on the big screen, Moxey was using it every bit as effectively on the small. From an opening shot, complete with breathing, that moves through the night to peek through the house’s windows to later appearances as it drifts through the house spying on the sleeping family, it delivers some truly frightening sequences.
Stack and Miles are both reliable veteran talents and deliver strong performances as a convincing couple dealing with troubles that start minor before taking a deadly turn, and the rest of the cast is equally committed. Jones doesn’t see much action, but he’s always a charismatic presence. The film moves briefly back to the city as Michael heads to work and such, but the bulk stays in and around the house and works well to establish the geography of the home and its surrounding landscape, all of which plays into the tension and story turns. The family even adopts a German Shepherd named Adolph, and while any horror fan knows how that’s gonna end up you’ve never seen it end so quickly.
The Strange and Deadly Occurrence is a mouthful of a title, but it delivers a tight 78 minutes of slow-building terror that left home viewers shaking in their knickers back in 1974. Much like a home in the country, it’s well worth the investment.
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