The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse): clever and intelligent combination of horror and science fiction

Marvin Chomsky, “The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse)” (1968)

I don’t recall this series from my childhood yet when I heard the theme music in this episode’s opening credits, it seemed very familiar so I assume that it did feature on Australian TV in the late 1960s. Various distinguished gentlemen are disappearing in a hotel in a town and US agents James West (Robert Conrad) and his partner Artemus Ward (Ross Martin) set out to investigate the strange incidents. In the course of his work, West meets a young woman Lavinia Sedgewick (Sharon Acker) who invites him to dinner at the Sedgwick family mansion where he discovers the building is under a mysterious curse that may be linked to the murders and disappearances at the hotel due to its emblem: three knives embedded in a heart.

West is the action-man of the heroic duo while Ward does the brain work, dons the weird disguises and uses his ventriloquist ability to save his skin. Through West’s leg-work which brings him in contact with Lavinia’s grandfather and his spooky physician Dr Maitland (Jay Robinson) and Ward’s own investigation, disguised as a French diplomat staying at the hotel, which puts his life in danger a couple of times, the agents discover a horrible secret: the Sedgewicks suffer from a genetic disease that causes rapid ageing and Dr Maitland is seeking to cure the disease permanently by using the kidnapped men as guinea pigs to test a special serum he has developed. The problem is that while the serum works on animals and stops or slows down the ageing process, it has the opposite effect on humans and when West sees the kidnapped gentlemen in a cell, he is horrified to see they have all been rapidly aged.

This is a clever episode that mixes elements of horror (a haunted house with secret passages and a prison below, an apparently innocent woman harbouring a terrible secret, a bed that impales people dead, a housemaid who seems surly and who might be an ally – or the villain’s assistant) and science fiction (a mad scientist searching for the elixir that gives immortality) in a Western genre and a common TV narrative format: strange things happen to innocent people, two agents are summoned to snoop around and find out what’s going on, one of the agents is captured which leads the other to the villain’s lair, the entire business culminates in and is settled by some punch-ups, the crooks are rounded up and sent to jail and all loose ends are tied satisfactorily. The motivations of the various major characters are explained throughout the episode, the science seems quite plausible (one must remember the action takes place in the nineteenth century when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was barely understood, let alone all the sciences that the theory as midwife enabled later) and the horrors that Dr Maitland’s nostrum causes are dramatic enough without appearing overdone and campy.

The acting is excellent, Robinson as the creepy and deranged physician and Acker as the desperate Lavinia probably the most outstanding. One notes that a couple of black actors play hotel clerks; this is credible from a historical viewpoint, black men often having been employed as cowboys, farmers, clerks and workers in the American West, but would come as a surprise to most people raised on old Hollywood Westerns where black people hardly ever featured. The music used is a mixture of the conventional orchestra-based soundtrack music of the period and some analog synthesiser tone melodies. The episode does rely on some cheap effects such as repeating thunder noises when a storm rages during the night. Set design and interior details, including those of objects used, look typical of the style and period of the 1870s.

“The Night of the Sedgewick Curse” shows that you can combine far-out science fiction and horror ideas in a plot-line that doesn’t need to be campy or feature wacky characters. The episode’s coda in which Ward attempts to feed West a healthy vegan lunch to prolong his life is comic without being cartoony, the actors playing their dialogue and actions straight. Characters show some sympathy and concern for others, even those others like Lavinia who turns out to be a femme fatale and who suffers tragically.

 

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