Daughter of the Mind (1969) Daughter of the Mind (1969) **½

     It’s easy to overlook the importance of the American Broadcasting Company’s “Movie of the Week” program; after all, it isn’t as though movies on television were anything new when the series debuted in 1969. Recycled feature films had been a staple of broadcasting schedules almost from the dawn of the US television industry, and by the early 60’s, it wasn’t uncommon to see foreign-made films sold directly into TV syndication without ever playing stateside theaters at all. Furthermore, ABC’s rivals at the National Broadcasting Company had teamed up with Universal International in 1964 on a venture called “Project 120” to produce original feature-length movies exclusively for broadcast on the network. Then the following year, American International Pictures muscled into the TV racket by adding original content made by the likes of Larry Buchanan to some of their syndication packages of overseas imports and old drive-in fare, and NBC replaced “Project 120” with the rather more efficiently managed “World Premiere” program in 1966. But all of those previous efforts to make movies expressly for TV were united by their sporadic production schedules and low output volume. ABC’s “Movie of the Week” was different. With careful planning and rigorous cost control, the network was able to air never-before-seen feature-length movies, week in and week out, for an entire television season— and ultimately for six entire television seasons. The program proved so successful that the other two networks quickly ramped up their own telefilm operations, while ABC added a “Movie of the Weekend” to the Saturday prime-time schedule in 1971. Realistically speaking, this sheer volume of production was the indispensable prerequisite for the strange and wonderful explosion of made-for-TV fright films in the 1970’s, since the pressure to crank the things out encouraged both genre diversification and conceptual boundary-pushing. Daughter of the Mind slightly predates that explosion, of course, but it seems rather apt that this early ABC Movie of the Week, which premiered when it still wasn’t quite the 70’s, also isn’t quite a horror film.

     Thirteen weeks ago, Mary Constable (Pamelyn Ferdin, from The Mephisto Waltz and The Beguiled), the daughter of computer scientist Dr. Samuel Hale Constable (Ray Milland, of The Premature Burial and The Sea Serpent) and his sculptor wife, Lenore (Dragonwyck’s Gene Tierney), died in a car crash. Her dad was driving. Not long after the funeral, Dr. Constable started noticing the girl’s toys shifting position in between his visits to her room, even though he always kept it locked up when he wasn’t in there actively grieving. Then he began hearing her voice when he was all alone— not just at home, but at work and even in his car as well. And finally, on the night when we meet him, Constable actually sees Mary. Indeed, he runs his car off the road when she suddenly materializes directly in front of him. Furthermore, on this occasion, father and daughter seemingly manage to communicate. Mary’s last words before vanishing just as abruptly as she appeared are pretty much the most heart-wrenching thing Constable has heard in all his life, however: “Oh, Daddy— I hate being dead!”

     Constable’s decades of dedication to the scientific method prevent him from leaping to the ardently desired conclusion that Mary has returned to him in spirit, but he hasn’t exactly kept quiet about his weird experiences. His supervisor at the private foundation where he works, Dr. Frank Ferguson (George Macready, from The Human Duplicators and The Soul of a Monster), is afraid he’s cracking up, but rather than pushing Constable to see a psychiatrist, Ferguson pays a visit to parapsychologist Alex Lauder (Don Murray, of Radioactive Dreams and The Viking Queen). Ferguson seems to be fishing for an on-the-spot verdict of “Yeah— your guy’s a loon,” which he could turn around and present to Constable, but Lauder takes an immediate, enthusiastic interest in the supposedly haunted man’s case. Indeed, after he’s had a chance to talk to Constable, Lenore, and Helga the maid (Virginia Christine, from House of Horror and Invasion of the Body Snatchers), plus Lenore’s chiropractor, Dr. Paul Cryder (Ivor Berry, of Fear No Evil and The Andromeda Strain), and his hydrotherapist daughter, Tina (Barbara Dana, of The Monitors), Lauder becomes so interested that he cancels his scheduled attendance at a conference in Switzerland to move into the Constables’ spare bedroom, so as to facilitate a full-scale investigation. After all, it isn’t often that a respected scientist comes forward to report a potential spirit visitation! Naturally, Lauder becomes only more determined to figure out what’s going on at the Constable place once he hears Mary’s disembodied voice with his own ears.

     Even more intriguing than the bare fact of Constable’s apparent interactions with a dead girl is their specific content. Mary’s ghost (if that’s indeed what we’re dealing with) says that other beings wherever she is are preventing her from manifesting as often or as fully as she’d like to, because they disapprove of “that war stuff” her father’s been doing. Constable is taken aback by that, because so far as he knew, his foundation didn’t have any defense contracts. Confirmation that the ghost knows what she’s talking about comes swiftly, however, and from two independent sources. On the one hand, Constable confronts Ferguson the next time he sees him, and the higher-ranking scientist admits that the Pentagon has been quietly chipping in for his research almost from the beginning. They see in Constable’s work the promise of a method for hacking and reprogramming the targeting data of an inbound ICBM— which really would be just about the only soft-kill technique capable of defeating an inertially guided weapon, leaving aside the question of how such a thing might actually work. And on the other hand, Lauder is contacted by Saul Wiener (Ed Asner, from The Todd Killings and The Satan Bug), the intelligence agent assigned to keep his eye on Constable. Wiener and his Pentagon liaison, General Augstadt (The Haunted Palace’s Frank Maxwell), believe that this whole business about Mary’s ghost is somehow a Communist plot to neutralize Constable before his work progresses far enough for its military applications to become a reality. Unsurprisingly, Lauder hadn’t even considered that possibility, but he’ll keep it in mind going forward.

     That’s about when Englishman Anton Bessmer (William Beckley, from The Picture of Dorian Gray and Young Lady Chatterley) shows up, acting as agent and interpreter for his Indian wife, Devi (Cecile Ozorio). She purports to be a psychic medium, and she certainly performs well enough on all of Lauder’s tests for extrasensory perception. If Devi is to be believed, Mary has contacted her as well in an attempt to keep the lines of interdimensional communication open with her father, in defiance of whatever otherworldly will is trying to interfere. Evidently this isn’t the first time the Bessmers have arrived at a stranger’s door with a message from the Other Side, either. Constable, growing more convinced by the day that he really is receiving spirit missives from his daughter, insists (much to Augstadt’s and Wiener’s annoyance) upon letting Devi perform a séance, although he also insists that it be conducted according to Lauder’s preferred experimental protocols. That séance yields the most startling evidence yet that Mary is back in some sense or other from the dead: a cast of her own hand in her mother’s sculpting wax, perfectly reproducing her fingerprints on the inside. That’s more than enough for Constable, and it’s all Lauder can do to persuade him not to abandon his research and go into hiding in Europe until after the parapsychologist has had a few days to run every test he can think of on that wax hand. And now that he understands what’s really at stake, Lauder calls in an unusual form of backup, consulting a retired carnival magician (John Carradine, from The Wizard of Mars and The House of Seven Corpses) for a crash course in advanced flimflam.

     Daughter of the Mind was based on a novel called The Hand of Mary Constable, by Paul Gallico. It had been a sequel in book form, but so far as I can determine, neither ABC nor anyone else ever made any effort to adapt its predecessor, Too Many Ghosts, to the screen. Gallico’s body of work was bewilderingly varied. He got his start as a sports journalist for the New York Daily News, where he made such a name for himself that he was able to sell a “greatest hits” collection of his old columns, called Farewell to Sport, when he left that business in 1938. Then for nearly 40 years, Gallico wrote a little of just about everything. He wrote ghost stories and mysteries, thrillers of both the crime and espionage varieties, romances, fables, fantasies, and picture books for children. Some of his more sentimental work brushes up against the boundaries of what we would now call magic realism, especially the stories about animals and their relationships with kids, simpletons, and social outcasts. My readers are perhaps most likely to encounter Gallico via The Poseidon Adventure (based on a novel of his to which it reputedly bears no very exact resemblance), but I think of him first and foremost as the author of a black-hearted little tale called “The Terrible Answer,” in which a scientist programs the mainframe in his lab with all the details of the love triangle he’s gotten himself into, only to have the machine recommend his suicide as the most beneficial outcome for all concerned. With a career like that forming the backdrop, a supernatural mystery that turns into a spy thriller midway through the second act seems both a little less bizarre, and a little less of a cheat.

     Daughter of the Mind is still pretty strange, though, because the details of the story are such that it doesn’t really function like a traditional phony ghost mystery, even though it certainly is a mystery about a phony ghost. Back when it was the norm for English-language movies about ghosts and hauntings to explain away their supernatural manifestations, the standard operating procedure was to position the hero as a detective (whether or not that was technically his job), with the a priori assumption that he was there to solve a crime. The ghosts, more often than not, acted merely as a complicating distraction from that effort. Daughter of the Mind, however, takes most of its cues instead from the paranormal investigator genre (hugely popular in pulp fiction throughout the first half of the 20th century, but weirdly underrepresented in the movies), in which the supernatural phenomena are themselves the mystery to be solved, and the expectation is that they’re authentic. It’s jarring, both for good and for ill, to see the techniques of the one genre applied to the other’s subject matter.

     This movie further messes with audience expectations by making the investigator nearly the only character apart from the person actually being haunted to take the possibility of the haunting seriously. The ghost mystery in either guise more often offers a choice between hard-headed skepticism or mystic enlightenment on the investigator’s part, with the other characters conversely embodying superstitious credulity or dull-witted materialism. And yet because both Lauder and Constable are scientists, they proceed by attempting to disprove the ghost hypothesis, coming to believe in it only when they are unable to do so to their satisfaction. (It’s psychologically astute, too, that Constable, with his vested emotional interest in any scenario that would return his daughter to him, is satisfied with a lower standard of evidence than Lauder. He may be a scientist, but he’s still a grieving father.) The result is that Daughter of the Mind is constantly zigging when you expect a zag, and vice versa. Sometimes that hurts the film, but it always keeps it from becoming boring despite its typical telefilm paucity of effective action or serious scares.

     I do, however, have to dock Daughter of the Mind half a star or so for the naked implausibility of its conclusion. The solution to the mystery does recall an old-school phony ghost flick, in a way that feels all the more insulting to audience intelligence coming after the carefully nuanced depiction of Lauder’s investigation and Constable’s reaction thereto. Maybe the magitech contrivances behind the faked-up haunting would have gone down easier in 1969, when James Bond still walked the Earth, instead of trundling across it in a Rascal scooter paid for by the NHS, but that sort of thing is a big part of why I’ve never been able to buy into 60’s spy movies in the first place. And within Daughter of the Mind’s own genre, well… I rolled my eyes when The Hands of Orlac resorted to such preposterous cheats, and I’m rolling them again now.



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