The most difficult television to float is the type of program known as the horror anthology. God love those who try, since they face an uphill battle: there just aren't that many horror fans, most horror fans are tough critics, and the anthology format allows no characters to identify with from episode to episode. In other words, there's very little to keep the viewer coming back. Legendary producer William Castle's Ghost Story aka Circle of Fear (hereafter referred to as Ghost Story for brevity's sake) tried mightily to keep those viewers coming back. It lasted for one season, 23 episodes, from 1972 to '73, and having never seen syndication (to my knowledge) could be looked at as a holy grail for TV horror fans of the right age. This extras-free, 6-disc set does good by Ghost Story in presenting sharp looking transfers that look as solid today as they must have in the '70s. If only the show itself held up as nicely. Though certainly not terrible, the show struggled to find its footing, changing names and abandoning its host mid-stream. Most damning, though, is the show's near-constant motif: numerous variations on "The Yellow Wallpaper", a story in which an unstable woman appears to be either haunted, or going mad. Although there are plenty of male characters around, cue up almost any episode and you'll see what I mean. Even when the men are somewhat privy to what's going on, their rational responses are mostly in contrast to the woman's hysteria.
If you're nostalgic for those forgotten horrors, as I am, you'll still find this series collection a good value: no matter how flawed, there is no replacement for anthology horror. In this case, the show's desperation first for acceptance, then for survival, created two serious flaws which probably doomed it to an early demise. Firstly, in hopes to provide a sympathetic recurring character, and to follow in the footsteps of earlier shows, Ghost Story commences with a horror host named Winston Essex. Played by Sebastian Cabot, Essex welcomes viewers to his 'house,' which appears to be a nice, old-fashioned Southern California resort. He never explains exactly what the house is, or why his guests stay there, offering only a specific story for said guests - a story of fear. The trouble with Cabot's Essex is his bland fašade. He's polite without being terribly personable, while supplying only a slight introduction to, and final summation of, the plot. He never actually interacts with his guests, nor do they appear with him, there are only nameless extras wandering in the background. In short, he brings nothing of value to the show.
Sensing this, his character is ditched by show-runners halfway through. As Circle of Fear, the show sports only a zippy, somewhat tense title sequence, (a bit similar to Night Gallery that - if you stretch your mind a bit - might bring to mind a 45 spinning on your turntable). Though some stories also abandon supernatural elements for straight-ahead suspense, there are still plenty of hysterical women for you to pity while simultaneously delighting in their creepy circumstances. With all the deluxe trappings of high-quality TV programing, like lots of location shooting, solid and realistic sets, and good actors, Ghost Story aka Circle of Fear will please and delight those who remember its original run. Giving viewers almost 23 hours of material to dig through, this Manufactured-on-Demand 6-disc set works out to approximately 2 bucks an episode, a smallish price to pay to be able to sit back any time you want and relive some fear of yesteryear. (Just keep in mind that, no, these stories aren't really very scary, and prepare yourself for the 'hysterical woman of the week'.
Episodes include: The New House: A standard melodramatic format about an 'unstable woman,' (pregnant, no less) about to become hysterical upon moving into what might be a haunted house. This show sets the standard plot for most of the other 22 episodes, with good performances, a measured pace, wonderful production design, and good use of shadows. The relatively creepy climax supports a howler of a sting at the tail end.
The Dead We Leave Behind: Employs Jason Robards as a well-meaning doofus of a park ranger who thinks buying a TV will satisfy his citified wife, who doesn't want to live in the woods. Somehow the TV leads him into an almost thoroughly coincidental cheating/revenge scenario (with a little living dead mumbo-jumbo thrown in for good measure). Also with a leisurely pace, the episode benefits from Robards doing a great beleaguered, semi-crazed, and sly performance.
The Concrete Captain: Honeymooning oldsters struggle to keep their rocky relationship going while getting mixed up with the legend of a ship's captain encased in concrete. (The captain died wedged between two rocks. Unable to move the body, his crew entombed him by the sea, in concrete.) This wasn't a good choice.
At The Cradle Foot : A dad has a premonition that his daughter will get shot while riding a carousel. Lots of slo-mo dream sequences ensue. Suspense is maintained through some time travelin' two-timin' what-the-heck-? action.
Other episodes include: Bad Connection with Karen Black, and The Summer House with Carolyn Jones in a mind-twister about a creepy house with a well in the basement. (Such set-ups rarely work out; this time, the woman begins to think the house hates her.) Also: Alter-Ego with Helen Hayes and an evil twin type torment, Half a Death with Pamela Franklin, House of Evil with Melvyn Douglas and Jodie Foster, Cry of the Cat with Jackie Cooper, Elegy for a Vampire with Hal Linden, Touch of Madness with Rip Torn, and Creatures of the Canyon, with Angie Dickinson as yet another (is she crazy) lady who's haunted by an evil Doberman that holds a grudge against her. Her own weird looking dog seems to be dead, or a creepy stuffed animal for the first few minutes, before turning in the best performance of the episode. As for suspense ... meh. Time of Terror with Alice Ghostly, follows a woman who feels abandoned in a creepy casino. This twist on "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" churns up some weird, disorienting feelings.
At this point, the series becomes Circle of Fear, delivering the final episodes: Death's Head stars Janet Leigh in a slow-burner that screws the pooch with silly moth-based shocks. Dark Vengeance drags young Martin Sheen through the wringer as his girlfriend is terrified by dreams of a menacing carousel pony. Attempts to boost fear with dynamic editing and creepy dream sequences prove limp and repetitive. Earth, Air, Fire and Water stars Frank Converse and Tyne Daly, Doorway to Death features Susan Dey and Leif Garrett, ("Go Seventies!") Legion of Demons stars Shirley Knight, The Graveyard Shift features Patty Duke and John Astin, Spare Parts features Susan Oliver, The Ghost of Potter's Field has Tab Hunter, and The Phantom of Herald Square makes us wonder why David Soul's star didn't shine much longer.
As with all anthologies, horror or otherwise, this is a mixed bag. But while horror fans can be tough critics, as time passes they become a forgiving lot. If you remember watching this show and its contemporaries, and your love of horror, thrillers, and suspense hasn't waned, you'll feel like it's Christmas every time you crack open the DVD case. Even those who never caught this on TV will feel right at home, enjoying or discreetly jeering episodes as warranted. The show is often clumsy. Too often the act of wildly thrusting the camera at an ominous prop is meant to create tension. Mostly, it makes you wonder at the skill level of the cinematographer. But most of the time serious actors do their level best to engage the material with honesty and craft. For all its fractured attempts to survive - changing names, losing its host, etc. - Ghost Story aka Circle of Fear still represents a worthy entry into the cannon of serialized fear.