The Strange and Deadly Occurrence (Made-for-TV 1974)
The basic plot: California lawyer Mike Rhodes (Robert Stack) moves out to a spacious country home with his wife Christine (Vera Miles) and teenage daughter Melissa (Margret Willock), and very quickly strange things start happening. The family is unsure if it is an intruder who keeps harassing them or if the house is really haunted, but the local Sheriff Berlinger (L.Q. Jones) doesn’t believe anything unusual is afoot and thinks the family is just a bunch of city folk who are overreacting to normal country occurrences.
Det. Abilene’s rating: 3 (out of 5)
Analysis: An tight and efficiently-made little made-for-TV thriller, The Strange and Deadly Occurrence comes from what many viewers dub the mid-seventies “Golden Age” of movie-of-the-week telefilms. Directed by television veteran John Llewellyn Moxey (who helmed the original Charlie’s Angels telefilm, among many others), this production was surprisingly scripted by Sandor Stern, who eventually wrote the screenplay for 1979 ridiculously stilted (but financially successful) big screen ghost story The Amityville Horror. Not only is Occurrence a much better (though more modest) film than the turgid Amityville, but it actually avoids many of the ghostly pratfalls that Amityville would fall into. Above all, Occurrence doesn’t not divulge the source of the events plaguing the family until the finale, leaving the viewer uncertain as to whether supernatural activity is involved at all until the climax – which is much more effective than the leaden approach that Stern would take with Amityville, where the film seemed to work overtime just to convince us that something supernatural was occurring.
Not only is structure for Occurrence very sound, but even many of the individual set pieces are modestly very effective. Instead of lame events like swarms of flies and a babysitter harmlessly trapped in an ordinary closet, Occurrence gives a dead man in the swimming pool and a much more urgent sequence in which Christine is trapped in boiling sauna. Most viewers seem to recall the headless mannequin falling on top of daughter Melissa as the telefilms’ creepiest jolt, but the scene in which the entire family is huddled together in the living room while the unseen menace howls and screams outside is a surprisingly suspenseful TV moment. True, the film’s television origins are always obvious with the very small scale production values and the constantly drab photography, but the film remains more consistently entertaining than many better-budgeted, big screen ghost stories.
Another enjoyable aspect is that the family actually sticks together in this, rather than turning on each other or getting possessed like in many movies of this kind. Robert Stack always comes off like somewhat of a noble stiff, but he’s perfect as the caricature of strong leading man attributes (which is why he was a perfect fictionalized Eliot Ness) and he’s as handsome as ever with that ever-sexy baritone speaking voice. Vera Miles is exceptional as always, completely believable in every single movement, making it all the more tragic that this terrific actress’ big screen career was dashed when she got on Alfred Hitchcock’s bad side. Margret Willock is a bit too nasal-voiced for liking, but she’s certainly believable as a whiny teen, and L.Q. Jones is fine in the thankless role of the cop who doubts the family’s claims at every step.
Bottom Line: Solid from beginning to end, The Strange Occurrence is a good bet for viewers who love good mid-seventies telefilms or those who enjoy low-key ghost story suspense.