It certainly starts promisingly, with a man fleeing in terror in a darkened building, with some Dutch angles to make it that little bit more disorienting. This opening scene is definitely more striking and more atmospheric in a subtly weird way than we would normally expect in a TV movie.
Then we see a man, obviously confused and afraid (and we assume it’s the same man), hammering on the door of an antiques store in the middle of the night. When the proprietor reluctantly lets him in the man buys an ornate full-length mirror. He can see something in that mirror that no-one else can see. Instead of his reflection he can see a man, a rather suave dark-haired man. He sees himself, and yet it’s not himself.
The frightened man is physicist Paul Varney (Bradford Dillman). It’s possible of course that Varney is seeing things because he’s drunk, or because he’s been doing drugs, or because he’s crazy. But he has to buy that mirror.
When the mirror is delivered the next day his girlfriend Barbara (Lynda Day) is not overly impressed.
Paul works with Myles Donovan (Carroll O’Connor) and Myles is taking Paul and Barbara to what he hopes will be an amusing party.
The host is Dr David Sorell (Louis Jourdan), a psychiatrist with an interest in the occult. He developed his interest in the occult as a result of a case a few years earlier, a case he refuses to talk about.
Dr Sorell has fun playing games with his party guests, demonstrating just how superstitious people really are, even people who consider themselves to be totally rational.
Then Paul is killed in an automobile accident. Barbara is devastated. She goes to live with Paul’s mother. Neither woman wants to be alone. Paul’s belongings have been sent to his mother’s house. Including that mirror.
Barbara starts to have some rather disturbing experiences. She sees Paul in the mirror. More than that, she can enter the mirror and touch him.
She decides it might be wise to consult Dr Sorell. She fears she is going mad.
As Dr Sorell soon realises, the problem is that she enjoys these experiences. Whether they are hallucinations, or ghostly manifestations, or paranormal phenomena, or vivid wish-fulfilment fantasies Barbara does not want them to stop. The truth is that experiences are not just emotionally comforting but also erotically gratifying.
Barbara is aware that she may be in some danger, at least as far as her sanity is concerned. But she cannot give up her times with Paul in the mirror.
You expect vampire stories to have an erotic undercurrent but you don’t necessarily expect that in a ghost story. And you don’t expect a 1969 American TV movie to be diving into the world of erotic horror. But this is indeed an erotic horror movie. It’s subtle and low-key, there’s no actual sex and no nudity, but the erotic undercurrent is very obvious and very overt. Dr Sorell even suggests to Barbara that she is merely having very vivid (and somewhat perverse) sexual fantasies.
Of course you could ask if this is actually a ghost story. At first it seems like it might be a ghost story but it soon becomes apparent that it’s not exactly ghosts we’re dealing with. It’s something terrifying and inexplicable.
Of course what we have is a woman who is having strange experiences, and a psychiatrist who believes that the woman is being as honest as she can be about what she experiences but he also feels that it’s possible that she may not have any understanding of what is happening to her. Dr Sorell has no evidence whatsoever that he is dealing with anything other than a delusional woman. So this is one of those horror movies that for most of its running time leaves us uncertain whether we are dealing with the supernatural, or the world of dreams and delusion, or possibly even a sinister plot to send a woman mad.
Eventually the movie will have to commit itself one way or the other but I’m not going to tell you whether the events really are supernatural or not.
We certainly are dealing with people who believe in the occult. At least some of the characters are definite believers. Others are on the fence. Dr David Sorell comes across as a guy who would probably prefer not to believe, but he’s neither a dogmatic believer not a dogmatic non-believer.
Louis Jourdan surprisingly enough did quite a bit of horror work on TV, most notably in the 1977 BBC-TV Count Dracula (in which he was absolutely superb). He’s very good in Fear No Evil, playing a sympathetic character. Carroll O’Connor is solid as Paul’s friend Myles. Lynda Day is extremely good as Barbara - she’s so sweet and innocent and yet at the same time she convinces us that Barbara is a woman of very strong passions, both emotional and sexual. Her passionate nature makes her reluctant to give up her love for Paul, even if he is dead. Wilfred Hyde-White is fun as David's friend and occult expert Harry Snowden.
The special effects are simple but effective and the mirror scenes are particularly well done and spooky.
Director Paul Wendkos worked mostly in television and made countless TV movies. He was clearly more than a hack. In this movie he shows plenty of flair and style. A rather flat lighting style was characteristic of TV (and TV movies) in this period but Wendkos manages some very effective atmosphere. He’s always trying to keep things interesting, and he’s always trying to keep things moving along.
Richard Alan Simmons wrote the screenplay from a story by Guy Endore and it’s a story that has just enough ambiguity to keep us interested without leaving us feeling that we’ve been cheated.
There were plans to produce a series of TV movies, with the working title of Bedevilled, with Dr David Sorell dealing with psychiatric cases involving hints of the occult, the supernatural or the paranormal. In fact a second movie, Ritual of Evil, was made and the Kino Lorber release includes both Fear No Evil and Ritual of Evil. Bedevilled could have been extremely interesting since Fear No Evil makes it clear that the intention was to avoid monsters and concentrate on psychological and existential horror.
The audio commentary is by Gary Gerani (who always does lively commentaries).
So I can now answer the question I posed at the beginning. No, the folks at Kino Lorber haven’t gone nuts. Fear No Evil really is good enough to justify a fancy Blu-Ray release. It’s a very cool low-key horror gem and it’s highly recommended.