A week or so before my birthday several years ago, my wife called me up and asked if I preferred The Wild Wild West or Gunsmoke. A strange request, I thought at the time, since we had not recently discussed any western television programs from the 1960s, but I answered honestly that The Wild Wild West was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid, I still liked it, and my family rarely watched Gunsmoke back in the day because there was probably something on another channel that my dad liked better. Ergo, I never developed any particular fondness for the latter program. I certainly did for the former.
Imagine my very pleasant surprise upon opening my gift on the 25th of that month to find within the festive wrapping paper a DVD set of all four seasons of The Wild Wild West. I binged it right away, and still return to it on occasion. To this day, I find it the most re-watchable of the shows I loved as a child.
And the populace rises up in unison to issue a resounding, “So what? It’s a western. We’re here to celebrate all things horror. Wrong genre, doofus!”
Ah, but it’s not so far away on the genre spectrum as one might think. To begin with, The Wild Wild West was the progenitor of all things steampunk. Coming as it did in the midst of the secret agent craze, sparked by James Bond and fueled by myriad secondary spies of all shapes and sizes and colors, outfitting a pair of 1870s Secret Service agents with gadgets secreted within cowboy boots and gun belts and hat bands was a natural. While the various gewgaws and thingamajigs dashing hero James West (Robert Conrad) and his not-quite-as-dashing but dazzlingly brilliant sidekick Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) used in their never-ending war on the foes of the United States during the Grant administration were theoretically possible for the period, there were also frequent excursions into the realm of science-fictional fantasies. And at least one episode that could be considered to be horror.
So it was that, a few days ago, I popped the pertinent disc into the player and reviewed with great pleasure the 12th episode of the second season, “The Night of the Man-Eating House”.
All 104 episodes had titles that started with “The Night…”, by the way. In case you were wondering.
The mission James and Artie were tasked with in that broadcast of December 2, 1966, required them to return an escaped prisoner, played by Hurd Hatfield (star of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945), to jail. They were accompanied by a sheriff played by William Talman, best known as District Attorney Hamilton Burger on the Perry Mason TV show. The prisoner, Liston Lawrence Day, had spent thirty years in solitary confinement for treason. He broke away from his captors and found his way to his former home, a plantation house so thoroughly infused with the spirit of his late mother that injury to the structure caused her to cry out in pain. She held the good guys hostage and tried to kill them so as to enable her son to escape. Meanwhile, Day was somehow restored to his youthful appearance and vigor. Thus rejuvenated, he conspired with the ghostly mansion to bedevil our heroes.
A most unusual episode, in several ways. As far as I can recall, it’s the only one with a supernatural element. It’s one of the few, if not the only one without a lovely young miss in a feathered bonnet and a hoop skirt for James West to suck face with in between fistfights. And it is the least violent episode I think I ever saw, as there was no one for our fearless hero to punch but one old/young man. The violence that permeated the program’s entire history inevitably attracted the attention of a variety of parents’ groups resolved to force the networks to tone down the bloodletting and fisticuffs, which eventually resulted in the show’s demise.
It all came to an end on April 11, 1969, without any additional expeditions into the outré. There were two subsequent television movies before Martin suffered a fatal heart attack while playing tennis in 1981, and a 1999 feature film that was not well-received, for very good reason. Conrad passed away in 2020, and that was it for The Wild Wild West.
But for just one night, one singular evening when I was eight years old, the best adventure-espionage-western-science-fiction program of its time was also a horror show. And that is still pretty darn groovy, even sixty-six years later.
So as always, true believers in televised terrors, I bid you to be afraid.
Be very afraid.