Friday, March 03, 2017

Cult-TV Flashback: The Sixth Sense (1972)


“You enter a strange room for the first time, yet you know you’ve been there before.  You dream about an event that happens some days later…A coincidence?  Maybe. But more than likely, it is extrasensory perception, a sixth sense that many scientists believe we all possess, but rarely use.”

-          From The Sixth Sense Press Kit, published in Senior Scholastic: “The Sixth Sense,” September 18, 1972, page 22).
-           

I am still troubled about the sad fate of The Sixth Sense, starring the late Gary Collins (1938-2012). After originally airing for two seasons on ABC in the early 1970's, this hour-long series was brutally cut-down to a half-hour length so as to be syndicated along with the episode catalog of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Mr. Serling even filmed new introductions in the famous black gallery for the re-crafted The Sixth Sense episodes. 

But The Sixth Sense’s “Night Gallery” stories, if you ever saw them, were always nonsensical, in part because they were trimmed down literally fifty-percent from their original running time.  It was this abbreviated, hacked-up The Sixth Sense that aired on The Sci Fi Channel in the 1990's, for instance. In 2007, Chiller ran episodes of The Sixth Sense, but I'm not certain if it was the chopped-up version, or the original.

Butchered in syndicated format, The Sixth Sense episodes are almost unwatchable. Characters appear without introduction or preamble, and allude to events that are no longer depicted.  Characters are alive in one scene and dead the next, with no explanation for how, why or when, their demise occurred. The series in this corrupted format is baffling and incoherent, to put it mildly.


This is a shame because fans and TV scholars are denied the chance to see the series as it was meant to be seen. By today's standards, some episodes may seem slow paced.  But -- like Sweet, Sweet Rachel -- the stories here are pretty intriguing and even visually dynamic.

I don’t mean to suggest The Sixth Sense is some kind of un-excavated genre masterpiece, only that it hasn’t been granted a hearing by genre fans in an un-corrupted form for over forty years.  No series deserves such a fate, frankly.

Imagine how well Star Trek would play cut down to a half-hour, or Kolchak, or Mission: Impossible.

Writer Anthony Lawrence originally created The Sixth Sense after the success of a 1971 TV movie titled Sweet, Sweet Rachel, which involved a parapsychology expert, Lucas Darrow (Alex Dreier) protecting a woman, Rachel (Stefanie Powers) from psychic assassins.  When the television movie proved successful in terms of ratings, ABC wanted a quick follow-up.  Lawrence and developer Stan Shpetner thus crafted The Sixth Sense, a series which would follow the adventures of another parapsychology expert, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins). 


During every episode of The Sixth Sense the preternaturally patient and calm Dr. Rhodes would investigate a complex mystery featuring psychic overtones.  That case might involve astral projection (“Face of Ice”), premonitions (“If I Should Die Before I Wake,”) automatic writing (“I Do Not Belong to the Human World,”) aura photography (“The Man Who Died at Three and Nine”), witchcraft (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright”), apparitions (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), spiritual possession (“With Affection, Jack the Ripper) cryogenics (“Once Upon a Chilling”) or even organ transplant (“The Eyes That Would Not Die.” Usually Rhodes solved the mystery at hand by working closely with a beautiful woman in jeopardy. 

This damsel-in-distress role was played, in various installments, by beloved genre actresses such as Mariette Hartley (“Eye of the Haunted”), Pamela Franklin (“I Did Not Mean to Slay Thee”), Stefanie Powers (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), Tiffany Bolling (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright), Lucie Arnaz (“With This Ring I thee Kill), Mary Ann Mobley (“Shadow in the Well), Carol Lynley (“The House that Cried Murder) and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave?”)


And among those talents working behind-the-scenes on The Sixth Sense -- at least for a time -- were Gene Coon, Harlan Ellison and D.C. Fontana.  I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Fontana in 2001, and our conversation veered briefly to The Sixth Sense.  She recalled to me that in her opinion, developer Shpetner was difficult to work with because he had so many story dislikes:

He didn’t like children.  He didn’t like women.  He didn’t like men…He didn’t like stories about sick people, or emotionally ill people.  He didn’t like stories about poor people.  He didn’t like stories about ethnic people.  Essentially it came down to us doing stories about rich white people who didn’t have any problems.  And that was a problem for me.”

Fontana’s tenure on the show was, perhaps not surprisingly, short-lived:  “I left one day, and Harlan Ellison left either the day before me or the day after me.  It all happened in fast succession, I can tell you that much…It’s too bad, because the potential for stories about extra sensory perception and abilities was great.”

The abundant flaws of The Sixth Sense are apparent today. For one thing, Dr. Rhodes always helped beautiful, young (25 – 35) white women, but never actively romanced any of them.  He just seemed to inhabit a white, upper-class world of beautiful, psychically gifted females. 

And secondly, as a character Rhodes was not permitted to grow or show much by way of passionate emotion. Collins’ performance on the series is actually kind of brilliant in a weird way, simultaneously minimalist and intense. 

But the writing never ascribes much by way of humor or personal life to the man.  As a lead character, Rhodes is certainly dedicated and helpful -- and physically capable – but we know precisely nothing about him save for his unwavering support for ESP and parapsychology studies. It would have been great if the series had more fully explored his background, including his childhood and the development of his abilities as a “sensitive.”


On the other hand, The Sixth Sense triumphed in two notable areas.  In the first, it features some great guest appearances by the likes of Joan Crawford (“Dear Joan: We Are Going to Scare You To Death”), William Shatner (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), and Lee Majors (“With This Ring, I Thee Kill.”).  Today, it’s a thrill to see Cloris Leachman, Patty Duke, Sandra Dee, Henry Silva, June Allyson and Sharon Gless, among others, get menaced by strange paranormal “phenomena.”

Of more legitimate interest is the series’ second strength: jarring and disturbing visuals and special effects.  Some of the imagery in the series remains downright haunting.  In “The Heart that Wouldn’t Stay Buried” a man is attacked by the statue of a bird, and it’s a trippy moment.  In “Witness Within,” jump-cuts, slow-motion photography and a nice eerie blend of light and shadow make a nocturnal attack almost pulse-pounding.  Likewise, in “Lady, Lady, Take My Life,” an insufferable bureaucrat is murdered by a psychic “cathexis,  and the he screen goes blood red (with terror) as the poor man suffers twin aneurysms. 

In one of my favorite episodes, the bizarre “Once Upon a Chilling” a man’s spirit is projected outside of his cryogenic chamber and his spectral face is coated in dripping, cracked ice…an image which terrifies rather than informs.  In moments such as these you can sense a real imagination in the visual presentation of the stories.  If the stories were all up to snuff, and not so predictable in terms of character, The Sixth Sense would have been a contender.


Some of the more intriguing episodes in the series include the one starring Shatner and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), written by Gene Coon.  And “With this Ring I Thee Kill,” starring Lee Majors and Lucie Arnaz proves a weird call back to Faustian legends and stories. The episode featuring Joan Crawford (and directed by John Newland) is also memorable, since it pits the Hollywood legend against Mansonite cult member crazies.  

In spite of flaws, The Sixth Sense must be viewed as something of a pioneer in terms of horror television programming.  It is the first horror-oriented series, for instance, to feature continuing characters rather than an anthology format.  It pre-dates Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) by two years, in this regard.  Considering that place of importance in the horror genre, the series certainly merits a better fate than to be cut to ribbons and offered only in a corrupt format. 

Failures and all, The Sixth Sense deserves a full DVD/Blu-Ray release with all twenty-five episodes restored to original formatting.

2 comments:

  1. John, interesting review of The Sixth Sense. The Night Gallery has been released on DVD. Hopefully, The Sixth Sense will be released uncut too. I have seen the butchered The Sixth Sense episodes as Night Gallery episodes for syndicate, too bad.

    SGB

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  2. Sheri3:49 AM

    The problems with The Sixth Sense in syndication were even worse than you described, John. Not only was Sixth Sense edited with a chainsaw and aired in wrecked fashion for its own syndication run with Serling's misleading Night Gallery-ish intros, but later on in the mid 1980's onward, those hacked-up Sixth Sense episodes were actually smashed together with actual cut-down episodes of Night Gallery and aired as Night Gallery, rendering BOTH shows completely insensible! So you'd tune into what purported to be an episode of Night Gallery, and after about 10 minutes it would cut away to some random scenes from a Sixth Sense episode, and back and forth between completely unrelated scenes from both shows until it jumped to an ending that might be from either show, or sometimes both. The first time I saw one of these, I was startled by Gary Collins suddenly popping up in the middle of Night Gallery with a completely different storyline, setting, and guest star. I recognized it as The Sixth Sense and thought an error had been made by the local station cueing up the wrong reel or something. Then he disappeared without warning and we were back to Night Gallery. Return from commercial, there's Collins again. You talk about weird! After a couple more viewings it was obvious what had happened. It was the most atrocious and insensible treatment of TWO good TV properties in the history of television!

    I think at least some of the full episodes of The Sixth Sense must actually exist because a few have turned up complete on Youtube. "Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave?" is still there, and I've seen "With This Ring" and "The House that Cried Murder" there not too long back. So it ought to be possible for a DVD release to be compiled of at least a good portion if not all of the show.

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