Hollywood lost another icon this week as influential writer Richard Matheson passed away at his home in Calabasas, California at the age of 87. Even if his name is not immediately recognizable, his stories certainly are. He wrote the most instantly recognizable episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Steel.” His work has been produced by dozens of important directors, including everyone from Roger Corman to Steven Spielberg. His novel “I Am Legend” was made into at least three different films in three different decades with three different legendary lead actors: Vincent Price (The Last Man on Earth), Charlton Heston (The Omega Man), and Will Smith (I Am Legend). Matheson could work in any medium, be it short stories, novels, movie scripts, or teleplays, all with the same inspired results. Illustrating his supernatural side in 1977, he provided the screenplay to one of his more understated works, a T.V. movie called The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver.
The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver stars horror legend Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror, House of 1000 Corpses) as Mrs. Miriam Oliver, an unhappy woman trapped in a stifling marriage who is haunted by a recurring nightmare in which she repeatedly attends her own funeral. Her lawyer husband, Greg (George Hamilton from “Dynasty”), wants her to stay at home and have children, but she is not ready for that just yet. One day, she wanders out shopping and, on impulse, buys a bright red blouse and a blonde wig. When she tries her new purchases on she is transformed into a different woman, not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. She begins to do things that she would never do before, such as dance seductively in public and rent beach cottages without her husband’s permission. She also starts to refer to herself as “Sandy” and, soon enough, people that she meets begin to recognize her as a woman named Sandy who died five years earlier. Is Miriam being haunted by Sandy’s ghost, or is it all just a trick of her unstable mind?
Written during a stretch in the seventies when Matheson was doing a ton of writing for television, The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is a toned-down terror tale that still manages to get in a few shocks. It is a curious mixture of horror and fantasy, walking the line between being a psychological thriller and a full blown ghost story. The narrative is a slow burning mystery, but it leads to an inevitable jaw-dropping ending that is vintage Matheson; the startling ending of The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver fits right in with the writer’s work on “The Twilight Zone.”
Director Gordon Hessler (Scream and Scream Again, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park) puts his dark and dreary stamp on Matheson’s screenplay, and The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is as eerie as television movies come. The direction is little uneven and lacking focus in places, but there are certain areas of the film that show off Hessler’s talents. The most noticeable examples of the director’s keen vision are the nightmare sequences of Miriam at her own funeral. Everything about the scenes is surreal and overblown, from the low-laying fog in the graveyard to the long walk down the hallway of the crypt that leads to Miriam’s casket. The sequences are strung together with a combination of point of view and low angled shots, putting the audience right into the scene with Miriam. As if the fact that the woman is at her own memorial isn’t frightening enough, Hessler turns up the creep factor with anti-continuity editing and jump cuts, but does it slowly and deliberately. Matheson’s script may outshine Hessler’s direction for most of the film, but Miriam’s nightmare sequences are good samples of the director keeping up with the writer.
The performance of Karen Black in The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is inconsistent, but still effective. She’s not incredibly adept at capturing the differences between when she is playing Miriam and when she is playing Sandy, but she brings plenty of subtle nuances to her role. For example, at one point after Greg sees Miriam in the red blouse and blonde wig, he asks her “who are you then?” Black, in the middle of taking the blouse and wig off, gives a great reaction to the line, indicating that, at that point, even she does not really know the answer to the question. Typical of television actresses, Karen Black goes from irritating to amazing in the blink of an eye, but her performance in The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver really transforms her into the humble housewife.
The musical score for The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is provided by prolific television composer Morton Stevens, the man responsible for the theme song to “Hawaii Five-O.” The soundtrack differs greatly from that of a theatrical released film; the entire thing sounds new but familiar, filled with the type of music that the viewer just can’t quite put their finger on. Characteristic of T.V. horror movies, the score goes from typical to unsettling at the drop of a hat, throwing dissonance into highly recognizable melodies. Stevens’ music is just campy enough for television, and The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is a great vehicle for his schlock.
Although The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is not one of Richard Matheson’s better known screenplays, Matheson is a writer who has never written a word that wasn’t worth reading. Someone who is hungry for Matheson’s work would do well to check out this overlooked gem of a television movie.