Welcome back to our bi-weekly series on Gene Roddenberry’s work between Star Trek incarnations. Last time we looked at the most optimistic post-apocalypse ever filmed, Genesis II. This time we check out Gene’s take on devil worship, Spectre.
I hadn’t seen Spectre yet when I decided to write this series of reviews. From what I had read the film was a straight horror/mystery focusing on the occult. Considering much of this series is going to examine Gene’s attitude toward sexuality and gender roles I was a bit worried about how Spectre would fit into that narrative. So, when the kinky schoolgirl and the dominatrix showed up halfway through the movie I literally let out a fist-pumping “YES!”
By 1977, when Spectre
aired, people in the United States were well aware of both personality-based cults and alternative religions. The nation’s youth were exploring everything from Eastern mysticism to pre-Christian European paganism. Such “witchcraft cults” were the subject of horror movies like 1969’s Curse of the Crimson Altar
. But it wasn’t until 1981, with the rise of the so-called “Moral Majority” and the publishing of fabricated memoir/case study “Michelle Remembers”, that Satanic Cults in particular and their penchant for rape and human sacrifice became a national obsession. Not even Twisted Sister
was safe. So it comes as an interesting little surprise that Gene Roddenberry produced a film on Satanic ritual abuse four years before Christians lost their collective minds over it.
With the help of Samuel A. Peeples, the creative force behind the pilot episodes of both the original Star Trek and it’s animated series, Roddenberry not only headed off the Christian Right, but Chris Carter as well. Spectre, at it’s core, is an X-Files episode with an orgy tacked on to the end. It features the unlikely pairing of Robert Culp as William Sebastian, the always prepared criminologist and occult expert, and Gig Young as Dr. Amos “Ham” Hamilton, the medical doctor man of science. While this is certainly not the first depiction of paranormal investigation put on film – Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which had a very similar premise had just finished airing two years earlier – it was the first time I can find that a believer and a scientist were paired as a foil for one another. Together William and Ham work to solve the mystery of Cyon House while dodging hell demons, death traps, lizard men, and hordes of sex nymphs.
And sex nymphs there are aplenty. I could almost make the case that Spectre is more of a low-grade sexploitation film with the trappings of a horror/mystery than a horror/mystery with sexual undertones. Gene had already written and produced the sexplotation flick Pretty Maids All in a Row in 1971, so this would have been a genre he was quite familiar with. The film even begins with William being cornered by a sultry succubus pretending to be his latest client, Anitra Cyon. The creature visits while William is trying to convince Ham to come with him to London to investigate her case. In a previous encounter with a demon, William was near fatally wounded by a voodoo doll. There is a wound in his heart, yet no object ever pierced him. Ham is to keep watch over his condition and make sure he doesn’t overexert himself “physically or sexually” lest he succumb to his wound.
The succubus uses all its feminine wiles to convince William that there is no need for him to go to London. All the talk of her brother Geoffrey being possessed was a mistake, and every supernatural goings-on was easily explainable. The interaction brings to mind Jim Kirk and every single woman he’s ever encountered in space. William is having none of it and keeps attempting to get the succubus to touch something religious in nature until he finally thrusts the Book of Tobin into her chest and she begins to painfully vaporize. Ham attempts to enter the room during her death throes, but William pushes him out and locks the door until the succubus is fully extinguished.
Ham, partially out of loyalty but mostly to find out what happened to the hot chick, finally agrees to go to London. They take the Cyon’s private plane which is piloted by the youngest and meekest Cyon sibling, Mitri, played by elephant man and alien incubator John Hurt. William spends the entire plane ride trying to convince Ham that the occult is real, something he could have easily done if he’d just let Ham see the succubus exploding on his library floor. But nay! That would be far too easy for an internationally renowned, fancy-pants criminologist.
There are quite a few opinions about the genesis of the relationship between William and Ham. Like most Roddenberry pairings the duo have good chemistry and their friendship is believable and, at times, down right touching despite their stark differences. Some find parallels in the Spock/McCoy relationship, but I don’t see it. Spock is a blank faced rationalist. William is an overly bright madman with strange ideas about the unseen world. McCoy is a humanitarian and optimist with an righteous moral center. Ham is a drunk with a cynical take on everything. Spock and McCoy also couldn’t exist without Kirk binding them together. Even in his absence he’s all they can talk about. Holmes and Watson are a closer match, but while Holmes was mad, he was also grounded in the material world, and Watson was always more impressed with Holmes than skeptical. William and Ham really are something unique: a pairing not seen again until The X-Files twenty years later, but unfortunately lacking Mulder and Scully’s secret desire to dry-hump one another.
I couldn’t help also feeling that Ham is a stand in for Roddenberry. Gene has inserted himself into his work on a few occasions, including as the boy-genius Wesley Crusher, whose first name is Gene’s middle one. But where Wesley is the Gene of his innocent youth, Ham is adult Gene with all his adult foibles and eccentricities. He’s an addict, a lech with a penchant for high cheekbones, and a skeptic with very little patience for superstition or the supernatural. He’s also insanely lovable in a hapless, middle-aged white guy sort of way. Young even resembles Roddenberry, to a certain extent, in build, stature, and lopsided smile.
On landing in London, William and Ham head for the home of a Dr. Qualus at #3 Merlin’s Muse. Qualus has been working with the Cyon family and observing their bizarre behavioral changes. When they arrive, the place is on fire and Qualus is found dead on the edge of a pentagram drawn on the floor. William collects Qualus’s journal and escapes what appears to be a hell beast scraping at the door when the police arrive.
Merlin’s Muse, voodoo dolls, succubi, lost biblical chapters, pentagrams. It’s only twenty minutes in and you already get the sense that Roddenberry and Peeples are going to try to cram every single esoteric/magical reference they can into this thing. Just wait until we get to the Neolithic stone ring in the backyard. But first, the sex nymphs.
Our heroes finally arrive at the Cyon home meeting both the real Anitra Cyon and her allegedly possessed brother, Geoffrey. Fluttering about the giant, creepy old manor is one scantily clad barely-legal after another, waiting on their every need and providing the occasional peck on the lips. Geoffrey’s other guests include business men from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, constituting the only diversity in the entire film. Together they suggest a kind of Illuminati set to control the world’s markets.
William is immediately smitten with the Cyon art collection and especially with a Boucher painting. Boucher, of course, is the porniest painter of France’s porniest classical art period so it makes total sense in a Satanic den of iniquity.
The real Anitra is not as sultry as her succubus doppelgänger. She refers to herself as matronly. Mitri says she’s boney and old-maidish. The only real difference is some makeup and a blow dry, but that was about all the Venus Drug did to Mudd’s Women and Gene wanted us to think that was a big deal too. Ham, however, thinks she’s hot as she is and repeatedly says so. This is, indeed, the woman he crossed an ocean for.
Geoffrey claims he is nothing more than a rich hedonist and the devil has nothing to do with his orgiastic proclivities. He is merely living out the lifestyle all men want but women like his sister rein in through their puritanical sensibilities. This, in a nutshell, shows the downside of the sexual revolution that characters like Hugh Hefner represent: the normalization of the entitled male banging his fists on the table yelling “it’s me who’s repressed!” as he surrounds himself with women who bend to his every wish. It also lines up with Genesis II’s
thesis that sex would never happen unless men initiated it. And if a woman does initiate (as in Lyra-a and the succubus) she must be evil or at least after something. Geoffrey is obsessed with his own satisfaction, but could he even name one part of the female anatomy and tell us its function? Doubtful. Sure he’s the antagonist and this lifestyle will lead to his family’s eventual downfall, but you can’t demonize female objectification with a film brimming with it. At some point the audience is going to suspect it’s really a celebration.
After several mysterious yet milquetoast attempts on William and Ham’s lives including bits of glass in their drinks and an unstable hand rail, the duo settle in to study Dr. Qualus’s journal in their waterbed equipped rooms. Waterbeds, of course, are the ultimate symbol of hedonism and proof that dear Geoffrey Cyon has made a pact with the devil. Qualus’s journal is written in Coptic, which William is fluent in. It tells the tale of Geoffrey’s decent into an archeological dig and the accidental release of Satan’s mightiest demon, Asmodeus, who’s symbol is a big, red “A”. Fortunately for us, Asmodeus corrupts his victims through lust, hence the sex nymphs and waterbeds. It’s all coming together people!
That night Ham awakens next to a topless nymph who buzzes in the aforementioned school girl and dominatrix. They both refer to him as “daddy” and offer him booze and riding crops. William walks in on the scene and the expected stammering awkwardness ensues.
Much of Spectre is very by-the-numbers plot wise. Comedic scenes are juvenile, dangers seem to be placed there because they need to be and not because they actually ratchet up the tension, and the third act twist is visible from the moment the heroes walk into the spooky mansion. Geoffrey is pegged as the villain so early on that there is no possible way he could be the real big bad unless the writers are completely incompetent. The only real scare in the whole film is when William and Ham discover the mini Stonehenge in the Cyon backyard and are suddenly attacked by two large dogs that, because of some shockingly expert cinematography and editing, appear to jump out of the ground. It’s a frustrating moment of competency that makes you wonder why the whole film couldn’t be this good.
After twenty more minutes of mostly inconsequential running about, William and Ham find the entrance to Asmodeus’s tomb. It’s got everything: a sacrificial altar, creepy kid drawings, invisible walls of evil, and a terrified, spread eagle nymph. What a Judæan monster with a Roman letter for its symbol was doing locked up in a pagan tomb 3,000 miles from the Holy Land only Gene and Sam know for sure, rest their souls. But, by Merlin’s Illuminati succubus, I want to believe!
William has a sudden pain in his voodoo wound and Ham rushes him out, grabbing a golden seal on the way and leaving the nymph to her fate. William later melts down part of the seal to cast a golden bullet for an 18th century dueling pistol he’s brought with him. Customs was definitely lax in the 70’s.
With gun and bullet in hand, but inexplicably not yet loaded, William and Ham return to the underground liar. As William loads the gun he drops the bullet behind a distinctly un-Neolithic looking hinged door. When they push the door away to look for the bullet they discover… dum dum dum… Mitri’s mummified body! Apparently Mitri has been dead the whole time and Asmodeus has been using his form and not Geoffrey’s despite Qualus’s journal directly saying otherwise.
Suddenly, a Satanic orgy/sacrifice parades itself in with Anitra as the guest of honor. All the Illuminati business men are there cavorting with the sex nymphs whose bosoms are now shaking free from their loose bindings (at least in the extended Euro cut). It’s like Manos, The Hands of Fate meets Eyes Wide Shut but with little people because why not? Mitri, showing his true form, demands that Geoffrey rape and murder their sister, but Geoffrey, out of love, breaks the demonic spell and refuses. The job then falls to William, who’s voodoo doll is in Mitri’s possession. William, seemingly under the command of Mitri, moves to kill Anitra with Geoffrey begging him to snap out of it. And out of it he does snap because that’s what heroes do. He clasps the golden seal together and hurls it into the fire at Mitri’s feet turning him into the Gorn. No, not the actual Wah Chang Gorn. That would have been cool. This is some other toothy lizard man with big, blank, white eyes.
William fires his golden bullet at the Lizardman/Mitri/Asmodeus causing the ancient crypt to start caving in and the heads of an entire UNESCO subcommittee to spontaneously explode. The heroes escape with Anitra in tow. Asmodeus never quite falls down dead, but rather disappears into the depths of the crypt as the fire grows around him, leaving room for another appearance down the road. After all, this was supposed to be the pilot episode for a series. You can’t expect to defeat Satan’s right-hand man on you first day at work.
This is basically confirmed when Anitra hand delivers William’s payment at his state-side office: the Boucher painting he admired so much on first arriving at the Cyon house. And right on the painting, below the reclining nude is the mark of Asmodeus. Ham and Anitra leave William to admire his new acquisition and to finally consummate the tension that had been growing between them throughout the film. But they don’t leave for a walk on the town or a nice dinner. They head straight for William’s library to bone because that’s the kind of comfort a woman who just lost her entire family wants. William even tells Ham which book to hit her with in case she’s another succubus.
I think it’s pretty apparent by now that this is not one of my favorite post-Star Trek Roddenberry projects. Except for the great chemistry of the protagonists and the Benny Hill style eroticism, there’s nothing much here to tell us this is a Roddenberry production. There’s no multiculturalism, no optimism, and no humanism. In fact, you get quite the opposite. The cast is all white, the world is full of hidden evils you can never fully defeat, and, worst of all, the supernatural exists.
That last quality was the one Gene apparently wanted most for the burgeoning series: the magic would be real. Ghosts would be ghosts, monsters would be from hell, and nothing would turn out to be a Scooby Doo style rubber mask. This flies in the face of Roddenberry’s most fundamental conviction that ours is not a demon haunted world. Again and again, Roddenberry the skeptic produced stories that tore apart religion and revealed idols like Apollo and the gods of the Edo and V’ger to be false. Spectre seems to turn that philosophy on its ear.
Not to say that an atheist can’t write a ghost story, but when atheism is one of your core personal and professional tenets it just seems odd to create a show that not just perpetuates magical thinking but reenforces the dogma of religious fundamentalists. By ignorantly mishmashing several disparate cultures into the modern idea of Satanism, Spectre
plays out like a Chick Tract
And while I enjoyed The X-Files
a lot, I also realize how much it reenforced our culture’s supermarket tabloid science denial. After all, the X-File
era gave birth to mainstream interest in fringe ideas like alien abductions, Area 51, and the moon landing hoax. It also played into our still growing fears of the kind of government and medical conspiracies that leave millions of kids unvaccinated and many cities’ water supplies unfluoridated. Remember when Jonathan Frakes tried to sell you a dissected alien body? That was pedaled on FOX as a documentary. Sometimes The X-Files
would take the stuff it spawned in the real world and incorporate it back into itself like two snakes eating each other’s tails. It was hard to know who was feeding who. I’m not saying The X-Files
made us gullible or that Spectre
caused the very real and damaging
Satanic cult witch-hunt of the 80’s and 90’s, but certainly neither of them helped.
In the end, Chris Carter is a guy who’s looking for the right evidence so he can believe
. Gene Roddenberry was a militant humanist who was patted on the back for twenty-six pages in a magazine of the same name
for making the world safe for evidence-based reason through film and television. To me, Spectre
is a bit of a black spot on that record.
Random thoughts and observations:
• Majel Barrett has her best non-Star Trek
cameo in this film. She plays William’s enigmatic assistant who dabbles in magical potions. Her few commanding minutes on screen kind of make me wish she’d gone to London instead of Ham.
• Speaking of Majel and Ham, her character cures Ham of his alcoholism on his arrival to William’s home with a hair trimming and some hoodoo. Ham immediately gets sick with even the smallest sip of booze. It’s one of the few legitimately funny moments in the film, but I can’t help thinking it robbed Ham of an interesting flaw that could have added some level of chaos to the very formulaic plot.
• Ham carries a Star of David and his first name is Jewish, but his last name is not, suggesting he’s the product of an interfaith marriage.
• William carries a very ornate and ancient crucifix with him on their first visit to the crypt. He hides it in a crack in the sacrificial alter before leaving but it never shows up again. If it had any effect on the climax I didn’t notice.
• A year after Spectre was rejected, Sam Peeples became story editor for the live-action Filmation show, Jason of Star Command. It co-starred James Doohan and reused much of the canned music and sound effects from Star Trek: The Animated Series.
• I can’t help wondering why Gene didn’t call up horror writer Robert Bloch (“What Are Little Girls Made Of”, “Wolf in the Fold”) to help with this instead of Peeples. As a Lovecraft fanatic, a murder cult story would have been right up his alley.
• Spectre’s opening title font is Libra Regular written in all lowercase. Don’t you feel better knowing that?
Next up: The Questor Tapes