Saturday, November 27, 2010

One Step Beyond: "Make Me Not a Witch" (Worldvision/Alcoa, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a show we'd recently downloaded called "Make Me Not a Witch" from the late-1950's TV series One Step Beyond, a combination Twilight Zone knockoff and anticipation of The X-Files that distinguished itself from the other anthology TV series in its genre (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and the earlier but more recently rediscovered Tales of Tomorrow) in that all its stories dealt with the supernatural. As John Newland, who not only hosted the show the way Rod Serling did The Twilight Zone but also directed many of the episodes, including this one, said in his closing commentary, "Next week, and every week, we'll be bringing you the personal records of the rarest kind of human experience: man's adventure in the world of the unknown, that mysterious psychic world beyond our five senses. This is your invitation to take with us that astonishing... one step beyond."

"Make Me Not a Witch" stars Patty McCormick, three years after her star-making role as Rhoda, the bratty serial-killer girl in The Bad Seed, as Emmy Horvath, daughter of rustic farmer Jed Horvath (Leo Penn) and his wife (Eileen Ryan), who suddenly discovers she has the ability to read minds. Mom is discomfited by this and dad is outright hostile -- in so many words he tells Emma that her new-found power is a curse from the devil -- so, even though the family isn't Catholic, she goes to see the local priest (Robert Emhardt) to tell him about the gift and ask if that means she's a witch (hence the show's title). If this were being made today she'd probably read the priest's mind, find that he wanted to molest her and get the hell out of there A.S.A.P., but this being 1959 the priest is a sympathetic character. Meanwhile, in a rather abrupt series of cuts, we see two children stranded on a little rock in the middle of the local bay (we're in Massachusetts, though the rustic accents the actors affected sounded more Midwestern to me); it's the end of a spit of land that at low tide can be walked to, but at high tide disappears altogether.

Then, in another confusing cut, we end up in a hospital room watching an old fisherman (Pedro Rigas) who's about to die and who's already lost the power of speech. It seems that he's the one man who knows where the two missing children are, but he can't say anything -- so the priest goes to the Horvaths' home and pleads with Emmy's parents to let her go to the hospital and see if she can obtain the information by reading the fisherman's minds. After a lot of suspenseful misgivings she does so, only to realize that she can read the fisherman's mind, all right, but she can't understand it -- it turns out because he's thinking in Spanish. So the priest, who does know some Spanish, tells her simply to repeat the words the old man is thinking without thought of what they mean, the priest is able to translate them, the kids are saved -- and then Emmy loses her gift as quickly as she got it. I had good memories of One Step Beyond because my mother, with her long-standing interest in the supernatural, was especially fond of it and watched it regularly in reruns in the early 1960's, and though I think some of the other episodes in the show were stronger than this one, it was still well plotted (except for those glaring cut-ins of characters whose significance only becomes apparent later), well acted and effectively staged by director Newland. It certainly would be interesting to see more of the episodes!