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RETROSPECTIVE: AN ANTIPODEAN ANTHOLOGY SERIES, “THE EVIL TOUCH” (1973-1974)

Tuesday, July 9, 2019 | Retrospective

Continuing on the Australian sub-theme running through a few of my recent posts, and the love of obscure horror anthology shows running through a few others, I decided it was finally time to take a look at the Australia obscurity known as THE EVIL TOUCH, which was produced down under and then shown here in the U.S. This show has (despite re-airings on Bravo and TV LAND) proven difficult to see, as no one has ever gotten around to releasing a nice DVD collection (Shout Factory, I’m looking at you). So I was forced to trawl through Youtube for inferior quality uploads, and as it is there’s still about 1/5 of the series unavailable at the current moment. So, what follows is my overview of 21 of the 26 episodes that comprise the series – adjust expectations accordingly.

Emerging through a malignant green vapor (and accompanied by a lilting, kind-of swingin’ theme) our cultured and droll host, Anthony Quayle, usually drops some classic quote or aphorism about murder and death before assuring us that there is “…a touch of evil in everyone…” The show (filmed in color at a time when Australian TV was still all b&w) trained an eye on overseas sales by heavily featuring American film & TV stars, who were often offered (on top of the free trip to Australia, presumably) an opportunity to direct the episode themselves. So the show is interesting for fans of 1970s actors, featuring the likes of Darren McGavin, Vic Morrow, Carol Lynley, Julie Harris, Leslie Nielsen, Ray Walston, etc. And what followed was, in many ways, your standard 70s anthology episode – although, interestingly, while I always considered this show an “Australian NIGHT GALLERY,” it actually ends up being much more an “Australian ROALD DAHL’S TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED” (or would that be an “Australian QUINN MARTIN’S TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED?). Only about half of the available episode feature non-crime genre elements, and there are a lot of hokey, creaky, “twist in the tale” type stories in which evil doers (or those planning to be) get their comeuppance and are laid low through coincidence, accident or unlikely plot twists: “Heart to Heart”, “The Upper Hand”, “Murder Is For The Birds”, “Marcie”, “Scared To Death” (which borrows its set-up from Honoré Balzac’s 1842 story “La Grand Bretèche”) & “Dear Cora, I’m Going To Kill You” are all examples from the available episodes.

“there is…a touch of evil in everyone…”

Putting those aside, I’m sorry to have to report that the supernatural genre episodes aren’t all that good either. The show works the usual tropes – TALES FROM THE CRYPT-styled “revenge of the dead” (“The Lake”, “The Obituary”), curses (“The Voyage”, “Never Fool With A Gypsy Ikon”) and ESP (“Death By Dreaming” – which might as well be an episode of THE SIXTH SENSE), to mostly stultifying effect. In fact, there are really only two interesting aspects to THE EVIL TOUCH episodes that I could see. First, they occasionally featured an atypical entry outside of their normal purview – and while usually just as weak as the others, the novelty make these episodes something to see: “Dear Beloved Monster” (Ray Walston has genetically engineered a giant lake monster – unconvincingly portrayed by a flat head that occasional bobs to the surface – that proceeds to devour people), “Campaign 20” (a time-travel episode in which a candidate for President in the 2020 election, in a world that mistrusts science – *cough, cough* – has invented a time machine which he uses to send an android back into the past to seduce away his opponent’s mother so that he’ll never be born. Goofy and stupid, sure, but interestingly odd!) or “Gornak’s Prism” (a deliberately comic episode in which Darren McGavin has a wandering eye, and so ends up using a magic prism to create different versions of his wife, who all may be more sexually aggressive but who all also seem homicidal).

Secondly, there are a few episodes that work because of good set-ups and strong follow-throughs. “Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie” spins a REAR WINDOW-styled yarn out of a wheelchair bound writer (Julie Harris) who accidentally sees her neighbor in another apartment kill someone on the evening of the titular holiday and (hosting her young niece and nephew at the time) must come up with a plan to repel the inevitable invader. The ending is unsatisfying hokum but everything before that is nicely taut suspense and prosaic detail. Darren McGavin (in “A Game Of Hearts”) is a doctor plagued by threats from a dead man who he used for a heart transplant – interesting for its grimly inevitable plot trajectory, and the fact that the haunting dead man is named…wait for it…Gabor Skorzeny (fans of THE NIGHT STALKER tv movie will understand)! “Kaiditcha Country” features a man driven mad by visions of an aboriginal witch-doctor (the only appearance of a specifically Australian element in a story) and the set-up (if not the pay off) of “Wings Of Death” is sufficiently creepy, with a vacationing couple in Central America who find their child has inexplicably disappeared in thin air from a roadside merry-go round (attempting to find & rescue him leads them afoul of a sacrificial cult of Eagle worshipers, believe it or not). But three specific episodes, while flawed, are probably worth seeing at least once…

Vic Morrow as a kidnapped horror film actor…

“The Trial” is a conté cruel in the mode of Todd Browning’s FREAKS, in which Ray Walston is a big-time property developer who finds himself kidnapped by the sideshow stars whom he used to work with as a geek when he was younger, and whose pier home carnival he is now evicting them from. This has a nice, grotty, nightmarish feel (and an ending that echoes classic film noir NIGHTMARE ALLEY).

In “The Fans”, Vic Morrow is alcoholic horror film star Purvis Greene who agrees to do a bit of publicity with two elderly fans in their remote home, only to discover that they’ve trapped him there and intend to punish him for his sins. It doesn’t really have an ending but it’s still kind of fun (Morrow is much better here than the cartoonish role he essays in “Murder’s For The Birds”).

Finally, “They” has Harry Guardino starring as a lecturer on over-population whose son is abducted by a weird cult of alien children (with dark circles around their eyes) who hope to indoctrinate him. Clumsily told (the “horse” bit is especially silly), and with an obvious ending, this still manages to evoke creepiness from kids reminiscent of the space invaders in THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) or the evil mutants of THE CHILDREN (1980).

So there you have it – unless those missing five episodes contain some perfect gem of an episode, it’s my opinion that THE EVIL TOUCH will likely remain an obscurity.

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“…THE EVIL TOUCH will likely remain an obscurity”

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.