John Hollingsworth Morse was a noted film and television director responsible for an eclectic variety of U.S. television series from the 1950s through 1980s, starting with the Star Wars precursor, Rock Jones: Space Ranger, and the still-in-runs Adam-12, The Dukes of Hazzard, and McHale’s Navy. Whenever you watch old World War II film clips—especially the Battle of Normandy—chances are Morse was on the film crew that captured those images.
It was during his time working in U.S. television that Morse met a young actor who recently broke into the business and had a few small roles in a few films and since forgotten U.S. television series. And he saw something special in that actor.
By the late ‘60s, screenwriter John C. Higgins was in the business almost 40 years and ready to retire. He quickly became a go-to talent in the film noir and murder mystery genre (precursors to Italian Giallo), most notably the Spencer Tracy vehicle Murder Man (1935) and The Black Sheep (1956), starring noted Sherlock Holmes actor, Basil Rathbone. Moving into science fiction, Higgins worked on the reimaging-rewrites of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 classic literary tale as Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and an early, shot-in-Philippines Burt Reynolds action film, Impasse (1969).
So, you’ve been cast in your first leading-man role crafted by two respected filmmakers backed by one of the biggest film studios in the world—responsible for The Defiant Ones, High Noon, and 12 Angry Men—United Artists. This film is going to be a box-office smash. Your film is going to be a bigger hit than the film it’s emulating, one that reignited the horror genre: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1969). You’ll even predate The Exorcist and The Omen. . . .
Not when you’ve stepped into The Twilight Zone. In the plot-twisty Rod Sterling universe, the studio is unimpressed with the lackluster end result of the film.
“What in the hell is this crap?” chomps the film executive on his cigar. “I wanted Rosemary Baby and I got Ed Wood with an oil painting,” storms the executive out of the theatre with Louise, his gum-snapping “secretary” in hip-sashaying pursuit. “I’m going to lunch. And put all of my calls on hold for the rest of the day.”
“Yes, Mr. Weinstein,” high-pitches Louise.
“Kid, you’ve got a lot of nerve pulling that crap, making jokes about me,” Mr. Weinstein snaps at this burgeoning screenwriter. “Your never-was writing career is finished.”
“Gulp,” goes my throat.
“So, Mr. Weinstein, what about—.”
“Thank god we shot on the cheap for slave wages in the Philippines,” the executive grumbles to himself. “Just have them dump it into the Drive-Ins, Louise.”
And with the stroke of a pen, the studio works up some garish artwork and dumps the film into the American Drive-In circuit on a double-bill with another shot-in-Philippines masterpiece: Superbeast (1972).
“What the hell?” shouts Tom Selleck at the first sight of the poster. “This isn’t what . . . the script was . . . but I. . . .”
I know Tom, ain’t it a kick in the head?
What was intended as a Tom Selleck-starring vehicle instead becomes a showcase for Vic Dias, the requisite evil-jolly fat man of Filipino cinema who starred in over 100 films, most notably: the female-in-prison flicks The Big Bird Cage (1972) and Black Mama, White Mama (1973). So with Daughters of Satan and Superbeast, Vic got his first unintended double billing.
So, while Magnum’s future partner and spin-off sidekick, Gerald MacRaney, aped Norman Bates in his first leading-man role in Night of Bloody Horror, ‘ol Tom found himself in what is best described as an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. And to keep things interesting: the filmmakers stunk-up the joint with red herrings by ripping off an Amicus Studio picture, which were rip-offs of Hammer Gothic-mystery tales. And to annoy us: they’ve added a screeching déjà vu soundtrack. Oh, no. This is Night of Bloody Horror all over again; they stole the soundtrack from another sci-fi/horror film. And to really piss us off: they made their pseudo-Spanish Giallo picture in Manila because they were too cheap to shoot in Madrid and let the maestro, Paul Naschy, shoot it.
“Bla, bla, bla. I’m going to the IMDb for a synopsis,” you scoff.
Tom Selleck stars as James Robertson, a Manila-based antiquities dealer who specializes in unusual and unique art works and can’t explain his fascination with an old, gory oil painting depicting a trio of witches being burned at the stake.
“So, can I see the ‘ancient tapestry’ that you think you have?” smarmy Tom says to piss off the curator of Treasures of the Orient and release the curse.
“Oh, most honorable Magnum, let me show you this painting.”
“What? You’re joking. This is a really shitty knock off of Spanish colonial-era art . . . but that one witch looks like my wife, Chris, who looks like Barra Grant who appeared on episodes of TV’s Gunsmoke and Barnaby Jones,” ponders Tom.
So what do you do, Tom? Get the hell out of the creepy shop and hop the first plane out of Manila?
These people are more clueless than the cast of a Paul Naschy movie.
So Chris stops wearing the crucifix Tom gave her for her birthday and, if she’s smart, she’s contemplating divorce because, well, Tom’s “eye” for art obviously ain’t paying the bills. I mean, what’s with the Marsha Brady wardrobe fashioned from of ugly curtains and wallpaper? No wonder Chris is stressed and hallucinating wispy, disembodied voices calling “Damien” to her in bed.
No, wait. That’s The Omen, and it wasn’t even made yet. That’s right; these ghosts are calling out “Christina” to her. So Tom takes down the painting and . . . yeah, right.
“Why are you being so bitchy, more than usual, Chris?” scowls Tom. “And why did you stop wearing the crucifix?”
“Your mother sucks cock in hell,” spews Chris.
“Wow, should I go to the drugstore and get you something for your PMS?” whimpers Tom, wiping away the pea soup from his face. “And sweetie, quit auditioning for that role in The Exorcist. I love you, but it’s not going to happen. You’re not as good Anissa Jones from Family Affair and she didn’t get it. And this film ain’t that good, either.”
“. . . Hey, what’s that fish smell? Tom’s face scrunches. “Who are all these random strangers that suddenly seem to know me? Why are they chasing me in the streets? Who killed the shop keeper that sold me the painting? Who killed my shrink that was well-versed in Filipino folk lore?”
Screenwriters call them “red herrings,” Tom. It has something to do with the painting. Get rid of it.
“Hey, that new friend of my wife’s, she looks like Tani Guthrie from TV’s Adam 12, Cannon, Dragnet, and Emergency who also got kidnapped by a demon-slave cult in The Thirsty Dead that shot down the street from our set—and she looks like one of the witches in the painting.”
Tom, buddy. She is of the witches. Get rid of the painting. Screw Chris. Take it out back and burn the damned thing. Save yourself. She’s not “Chris.”
“No, I like it. It’s kitschy. The fact that the painting’s images mystically change and it seems as if the invisible hand of Satan is ‘painting’ it doesn’t bother me.”
“Tom, your wife, who’s not a dog person, befriended a random dog; the dog hates you—and the very same dog that was in the painting disappeared from the painting,” I yell at the TV. “You’re a friggin’ idiot, Magnum!”
Did Paul Naschy write this movie? Someone call Alaric de Marnac and “morning star” Tom out of his misery.
So, for those of you keeping track: we got two pissed off witches in the revenge-queue. We got the dog. We need one more witch to complete the painting. I wonder who the executioner will be. . . .
“Hey, how come the new housekeeper my wife just hired looks like one of the women in the painting?” says the deserves-a-Gerald MacRaney-cranium-chop victim.
Oh, look she’s brandishing the ostentatious ceremonial dagger—the same prop from the very promising Amando de Ossorio-boob-fest-sacrifice-over-a-bed-of-spikes prologue.
You’re hired. No windows required. Start in the bathrooms.
Then Tom goes outside to check on some strange noises—only to be attacked. Or was he? Oh, shit. It’s that dues ex machina, dream-within-dream-enigma-wrapped-in-a-riddle screenwriter crap again. Hey, be thankful Tom didn’t have a cheap Gerald MacRaney, swirly-spiral optical-effect backdrop to show us he’s going off the deep end. What? No Paul Naschy-cum-George Romero out-of-left-field zombies just for the hell of it?
Come on, Magnum. Get your shit together. Do we need to call Michael Knight to program it into KITT and solve this case? I mean, come on, dude. Look at that painting over there. You’re a dead ringer for the infamous Spanish Inquisition witch hunter, Sir Diego Roberson. Don’t you remember that he gave the ‘ol “Alaric de Marnac”-curse to you and your descendants before you struck the match?
And that, boys and girls, is the story of the painting of the three witches from the infamous 16th century Duarte Coven, who, along with their dog, Nicodemus, the Hound of Hell, were burned at the stake in 1592 in Spain. Why were we in Manila in South East Asia: again, because it was cheaper than shooting in Spain.
“And what’s the moral of the story?” Gabe Kaplan asks the Sweathogs.
“What? Where?” Big Surprise. Bud from Urban Cowboy is stumped. The true sign of an idiot: dump Madolyn Smith for Sissy.
“Ooh! Ooh! Mr. Kotter!” calls out Horseshack, “The moral of the story is that stupid Americans shouldn’t be moving into creepy houses in Manila like some half-assed American-not-yet-made-remake of a J-Horror film shot in an Asian-less Japan with blue eyed-blonde hair American TV actresses.”
“Wow, there, Mr. Kaw-ter. Life sure was rough for future ‘80s TV detectives,” says Freddy “Boom Boom” Washington.
Case solved and class dismissed. Now get the hell out of here and go bother Mr. Woodman. I have more narcissistic articles that I must attend.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.