Flashy but familiar, bait-and-switch ABC Movie of the Week entry.
By Paul Mavis
Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection of rare, hard-to-find library and cult titles released The Eyes of Charles Sand a few years back, a television pilot that aired on ABC’s smash hit made-for-TV movie anthology series back in February, 1972. Written by Henry Farrell and Stanford Whitmore, directed by Reza Badiyi, and starring pros Peter Haskell, Joan Bennett, Barbara Rush, Sharon Farrell, Bradford Dillman, and Adam West, The Eyes of Charles Sand didn’t sell as series and it’s pretty clear why not. However, for vintage TV lovers–particularly those fans like myself who can’t get enough of these glimpses back into the “Big Three’s” made-for-TV movie “golden age”–The Eyes of Charles Sand‘s dreamy, showy direction, solid performances (and those ripped-off music cues) outweigh the obvious, misguided storyline. Fun viewing for these dark October nights.
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Successful L.A. businessman Charles Sand (Peter Haskell) awakes from a terrible nightmare: his Uncle Edward, eyes whited over, rises up from a coffin and points at him. Almost immediately, Charles’ Aunt Alexandria Sand (Joan Bennett) rings and demands that Charles come over to the Sand mansion at once. The reason? Charles’ Uncle Edward has just died. Disturbed by the nightmare, and the continuing visions of his dead uncle, Charles arrives and is informed by his aunt that as the sole surviving Sand, he has inherited the Sand family legacy, “The Sight,” an ability to see premonitions and future events–an ability he cannot control, or stop.
Charles is skeptical, but at Uncle Edward’s funeral, Charles “sees” a mummified corpse beckon to him at the Parkhurst mausoleum, and he begins to realize that something is terribly wrong. He consults his good friend, Dr. Paul Scott (Adam West), who advises seeing a fellow doctor, Sam Ballard (Ivor Francis), an expert in ESP. Charles fails Dr. Ballard’s test, yet the unwanted visions continue…as do frantic visits from the girl Charles saw at his uncle’s funeral: rich, beautiful, stacked Emily Parkhurst (Sharon Farrell).
Deranged Emily, this close to being put in an institution by her rich, worried sister, Katharine Winslow (Barbara Rush) and Katharine’s husband, Jeffrey (Bradford Dillman), fervently believes that her brother Raymond is dead–an obsession discounted as delusion by Katharine and Jeffrey. Emily insists, though, that she somehow saw Ray killed, but Jeffrey assures her she only saw Raymond fight with Jeffrey, before passing out–an event Emily can’t recall. It’s up to Charles Sand to help Emily, before it’s too late for both of them….
If you grew up during the early 1970s, The ABC Movie of the Week series and its subsequent “spin-off” nights were a high point of that era’s “golden age” of made-for-TV movies. The other networks soon had their own MTV series, but The ABC Movie of the Week was the gold standard, broadcasting the majority of “classic” MTVs we associate with that era. With today’s ever-widening platform of media content–we’re going backwards if Netflix wants me to watch on my phone and not my 72-inch monitor–it’s becoming more and more difficult to remember how exciting it seemed back in the early 1970s to have a series like The ABC Movie of the Week air a brand new “world premiere” made-for-TV movie once a week on the dial (by 1973, ABC had three nights of new movies airing each week).
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Prime time network TV viewing was very much a shared national pastime back then (with only three networks in the game, ABC, NBC, and CBS split up well over a hundred million viewers and more each night, with only piddling competition from local independent stations), and, hard to believe in today’s instantaneous download society, a seemingly crappy little one-shot, half-a-million-dollar-budgeted TV pilot could still feel like a “big event” for viewers back in 1972 (I still remember begging the old man to let me stay up to watch Satan’s School for Girls: “What’d you call it? What’d the kid call it? What’s it called? Satan’s School for Girls?…um…go ahead, we can watch that,”).
Movies/pilots like The House That Would Not Die, Tribes, Brian’s Song, Duel, Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole, That Certain Summer, The Night Stalker, Women in Chains, Dying Room Only, Go Ask Alice, Isn’t It Shocking?, Satan’s School for Girls, The Girl Most Likely to…, The Six Million Dollar Man, Trapped, Bad Ronald, Death Cruise, Get Christie Love!, Heat Wave!, Hit Lady, Killdozer, Locusts, Mrs. Sundance, Pray for the Wildcats (…Oh Great and Terrible TV Movie Gods: when will Thou art bless us with this classic on DVD?), The California Kid, The Day the Earth Moved, The Morning After, The Stranger Within, Winter Kill, Wonder Woman, Hey, I’m Alive, Satan’s Triangle, The Hatfields and the McCoys, The Legend of Lizzie Borden, and Trilogy of Terror–just to name a very few–became legendary memories for huge swaths of the TV-watching public during that early part of the decade. By the time The Eyes of Charles Sand premiered on Tuesday, February 29th, 1972, The ABC Movie of the Week, which had debuted in 1969, was the fifth most watched series on television, with even relatively minor entries like The Eyes of Charles Sand pulling in ratings numbers that would pole ax today’s TV programmers.
Now…the exact reasons why a largely forgotten movie pilot like The Eyes of Charles Sand wasn’t picked up for a series order are most likely lost to the sands of time. Maybe its premise was too similar to ABC’s mid-season replacement, Gary Collins’ fun The Sixth Sense, which had debuted just a month before The Eyes of Charles Sand aired? Maybe there was bad blood between the network and the producers once Oscar-winning composer Henry Mancini successfully sued everyone in sight when he discovered, quite by accident, that major cues from his big-screen Wait Until Dark score were lifted for The Eyes of Charles Sand without his permission, during an industry-wide music strike (listen carefully and you’ll also hear an instantly recognizable cue from Ron Grainer’s haunting The Omega Man score…didn’t anybody call up Ron for some of that lawsuit gravy?)? Maybe a network focus group didn’t respond to the pilot with the appropriate enthusiasm the network was looking for? Or was it simply a matter of ratings? That would be the best guest: ratings, despite b.s. to the contrary from high minded-sounding executives, are the only important factor in the TV biz.
The Eyes of Charles Sand certainly seems like it’s going to be a winner as it starts to unfold. Highly respected TV director Reza Badiyi (along with countless episodic TV outings, Badiyi designed the opening credit sequences for Hawaii Five-O, Get Smart, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show) grabs the viewer with an inexpensive but smartly designed little shocker opening, as Peter Haskell dreams about his dead uncle’s appropriately stylized funeral. Badiyi gives The Eyes of Charles Sand a dreamy, pensive pace (aided by Ben Colman’s gauzy, hazy cinematography, also used in Dan Curtis’ The Norliss Tapes), a measured tempo that not only creates a strange, waking nightmare quality for The Eyes of Charles Sand…but that also helps string out a fairly thin script.
Several jolting shock cuts and zooms ratchet up the scares, and as usual with these ABC MTVs, the production values, while shot on the cheap, still wind up looking first-rate. As for the cast, it’s excellent. Peter Haskell, always a welcome face when I was growing up on 70s TV, admittedly isn’t asked to do much here, but his quizzical, craggy features and quiet, serious demeanor are a good match for the character (Adam West has even less to do in a very small role). Joan Bennett, perfect for the mysterious, regal Sand matriarch, may have been cast because of her just-ended stint on ABC’s cult gothic horror soap, Dark Shadows, while Bradford Dillman, making his usual solid impression, lashes out quite nicely with his patented brand of cynical, smarmy villainy. It’s true that I’ve never had very much good to say about Barbara Rush, but credit where credit is due: she’s flat-out terrific here, giving a frenzied, unhinged turn at the movie’s climax that’s memorable. Equally fine is the beautiful Sharon Farrell, an under-utilized actress who should have had a bigger career; she’s not afraid to go off the deep end here, playing full-out the part of a crazed woman driven mad by horrific visions.
So what’s the (minor) problem with The Eyes of Charles Sand? Well…just read that synopsis again. Aaaaaaaaaand…you just figured out the mystery, didn’t you? That’s the biggest problem with The Eyes of Charles Sand: the mystery plot, which is almost ridiculously easy to spot the minute we’re introduced to Dillman and Rush. It’s given far too much emphasis here while the more intriguing occult angle is inexplicably pushed into the background. The set-up from writer Henry Farrell (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, What’s the Matter With Helen?) and Stanford Whitmore (Hammersmith Is Out, Baby Blue Marine, The Dark) sounds good: a wealthy young man has inherited second sight, and must then aid the various strangers he “sees” who are in danger.
However, as executed here, that promising premise is hollowed out by the fact that the “eyes of Charles Sand” have almost nothing to do with the actual plot. Charles really isn’t an active part of the plot at all. He has visions of Farrell, sure…but she comes to him, over and over again. He very slowly starts to put the mystery’s pieces together…but more time is spent on Farrell’s histrionics than in Haskell first coming to turns and then utilizing “The Sight.” In the fine, energetic slasher finale, SPOILER ALERT!, as Rush goes insane trying to stab and bash everyone to death (she’s really quite believably mad here), director Badiyi cuts away from Haskell for long, long stretches, to the point where we forget he’s wandering around the mansion, trying in vain to help someone.
In the end, what should be the central crux of The Eyes of Charles Sand–Sand’s family legacy, “The Sight”–really plays very little (if any) part in the plot, other than providing a few pleasant shock effects with his visions. What should have been predominantly an exercise in the supernatural, unfortunately pans out to be a stylish, reasonably enjoyable–but perhaps too predictable–stab at murder mystery. Still, these old network MTVs are like catnip to vintage television lovers, so The Eyes of Charles Sand is still recommended viewing for a rainy Saturday afternoon.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.