Sweet, Sweet Rachel (1971 TVM)

US / 71 minutes / color / ABC Dir: Sutton Roley Pr: Stan Shpetner Scr: Anthony Lawrence Cine: James Crabe Cast: Alex Dreier, Pat Hingle, Louise Latham, Steve Ihnat, Brenda Scott, Chris Robinson, Stefanie Powers, Richard Bull, Mark Tapscott, John Hillerman, William Bryant, John Alvin, Rod McCarey.

This was the movie that gave birth to the TV series The Sixth Sense, which ran for two seasons, totaling 25 hour-long episodes, in 1972. Sweet, Sweet Rachel is often described as the series’ pilot, but as far as I can ascertain—TV is decidedly not my field—this wasn’t the case: it was more a matter of the series being developed from a successful TV movie, as would happen a while later in a somewhat related area of fiction with The Night Stalker (1972) and the 1974–5 Kolchak series based on it. Unlike the case with Kolchak, the transition from TVM to series saw a complete change of personnel and character names.

While playing ESP games using tarot cards, millionaire Paul Stanton (McCarey) has a vision of beloved wife Rachel (Powers) in a cemetery, pleading for his help. Believing he’s rushing through the cemetery gate to her side, he plunges from a high window to his death.

Stefanie Powers as Rachel.

Call for university parapsychologist Dr. Lucas Darrow (Dreier) and his blind but psychically gifted protégé Carey Johnson (Robinson). It doesn’t take them too long to realize that malevolent ESP is at play, but who could be the psychic murderer?

“It’s got to be telepathic hypnosis,” concludes Lucas. “There’s nothing else. Brainwashing from a distance.”

The trail soon leads the intrepid duo to the widowed Rachel’s family: her spirit medium aunt, Lillian Piper (Latham), Lillian’s portly husband Arthur (Hingle) and their hot but spiteful daughter Nora (Scott), who claims Rachel murdered Paul because it was Nora whom Paul loved, not Rachel.

Alex Dreier as Lucas.

These seedy three have closed in on Rachel, clearly keen to get their greedy little mitts on the fortune she’s inherited from Paul.

The investigation is not without its dangers, since Lucas proves susceptible to the murderer’s psychic attacks and Carey can, it seems, do oddly little to help him. The best of these mental assaults takes place in a road tunnel through which Lucas and Carey are speeding when a ghastly specter of Lillian appears on the road ahead of them, hurling ethereal imprecations.

Brenda Scott as Nora.

Leonora Piper was one of the most renowned mediums of the Spiritualism craze during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; believers reckon her work represents proof of the afterlife while rationalists dispute that appraisal, regarding her instead as a clever fraudster. In Sweet, Sweet Rachel the name of Rachel’s cousin, Nora Piper, is quite clearly an allusion to her psychic predecessor. However, since it’s not Nora but her mother Lillian who’s the professional spirit medium—and, it’s implied, a fraudulent one—the message is a bit muddled.

Louise Latham as Lillian.

Pat Hingle as Arthur.

There’s a hint that the relationship between Nora and her father, Arthur, is not quite as it should be. However, this being a 1970s TV movie designed for primetime viewing, the avenue is left unexplored.

Brenda Scott, who played Nora, seems to be an interesting character—not just for her very extensive TV career but because all three of her marriages have been to the same man, actor Andrew Prine. It seems to have been one of those sad cases where two people who’re madly in love just can’t stand the strain of living together.

Chris Robinson as Carey.

All in all, Sweet, Sweet Rachel has something of the feel of a movie based on a Henry Farrell novel, and not just because of a titular similarity with one of the better known of those, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). By far the most famous of the Farrell movies was the melodrama WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), but he was more commonly associated with significantly lesser features, B-movies (even if not released as such) that had a certain skewedness that make them, I feel, of special interest to noir enthusiasts: HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN (1970 TVM), The HOSTAGE (1967), What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) and the like. Sweet, Sweet Rachel has that same skewedness, although the supernatural component hinders rather than helps the melodrama. The way the plot falls apart a little toward the end seems another similarity.

I haven’t—unless memory’s deceiving me—seen any of the series that was developed from this movie, but I’m now quite interested to do so; apparently there’s a DVD set available. As for the movie itself, it’s definitely an intriguing curio: an hour or so moderately well spent.

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