“Last Rites for a Dead Druid” (1972) by Alvin Sapinsley

The 26th of January, 1972. Seventeen episodes into the second season of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, the latest horror-anthology show from the acclaimed creator of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). Already, this new Night Gallery series had proved a surprise for Lovecraft fans—while there was nothing Lovecraftian about “Miss Lovecraft Sent Me” in the first episode, viewers would be amused by the short burlesque “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture” in episode 8, as well as serious adaptations of “Pickman’s Model” (episode 11) and “Cool Air” (episode 12). There were other adaptations from the Weird Tales too…Seabury Quinn’s “The Phantom Farmhouse,” a favorite of Lovecraft’s, was adapted in episode 5 and Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Devil Is Not Mocked” in episode 6, along with stories from August Derleth, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Margaret St. Clair, and others.

Yet if a viewer were tuning in on that particular January night, the eighteenth episode of the season, they would watch “The Waiting Room” and “Last Rites of a Dead Druid”—paired together because each episode featured one of the stars of the recently-canceled Beverly Hillbillies—and probably never guess that in the latter they were seeing yet another Lovecraft adaptation…albeit one so completely twisted by Hollywood as to be basically unidentifiable to Lovecraft fans. How it got that way is a bit of a story unto itself.

Scouring his shelves, [producer Jack] Laird was often guided in spirit by the hand of tireless anthologist August Derleth. His 1946 collection Who Knocks? produced “The Phantom Farmhouse and “The Dear Departed,” and the original stories from which were adapted “The Painted Mirror,” “Death on a Barge,” and “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” came from a 1947 August Derleth anthology, The Sleeping and the Dead.

Scott Skelton & Jim Benson, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery An After-Hours Tour 92

No story “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” appeared by that title in The Sleeping and the Dead, but the book did include “Out of the Æons” (1935) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft. Hazel Heald and August Derleth were both dead by 1971, so it isn’t clear who was paid for the rights to the story, but when it came time to adapt the story for television the producers of Night Gallery turned to a reliable name: Robert Bloch.

“LARSON/72: What screenplays have you done for NIGHT GALLERY?

BLOCH: I did two things; adaptations of “Logoda’s Heads (Derleth) and “Out of the Eons” (Heald). “Logoda’s Heads” was broadcast last season and apparently came over quite well, although I was unable to see it. “Out of the Eons” was broadcast under a new title (“Last Rites for a Dead Druid”), and with a new story which bears not the slightest resemblance to Hazel Heald’s—or mine; something about a Druid statue in Santa Monica!”

Randall D. Larson interviewing Robert Bloch, The Robert Bloch Companion 126-127

In discussing how he had adapted Derleth’s “Logoda’s Heads,” Bloch explained:

I tried to stick as closely as I possibly could to the original […] because I know very well from first-hand experience how authors resent having their material drastically changed.

Scott Skelton & Jim Benson, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery An After-Hours Tour 240

If Bloch tried the same thing with “Out of the Æons,” the resultant teleplay may well not have worked for the producers of Night Gallery. Budgets and shooting schedules were tight in the second season, with many episodes using borrowed sets from other productions and minimal special effects. The productions made do, or tried to, with good actors, excellent camerawork, and tightly-written scripts that packed the maximum tension into the allotted minutes…

…or played it all for laughs. One of the noted shortcomings of the second season of Night Gallery was Jack Laird’s efforts to inject humor into the dramatic series, most notably the short vignettes featuring classic monsters which he tended to place in between longer dramatic segments. In a post-The Munsters era, these efforts at levity were stale and trite, but there were more subtle and sardonic uses of humor in the series too. In “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture” for example, the eponymous professor is lecturing on the Cthulhu Mythos—and the eager students are named August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and H. P. Lovecraft! Hazel Heald was supposed to appear too, but she was trimmed from the final cut.

In any event, Bloch’s script was given to Alvin Sapinsley, who had written for the show before. Sapinsley stripped out everything except the most basic idea of the story, and in his own words:

I tried to insert a little humor […] because, I must confess to you, there was not a great deal of humor in the people who ran the program—except Jack Laird, who can be a very funny man. […] It was called Out of the Eons. […] I forgot who wrote it, but my final version was so far removed from the original short story as to be unrecognizable. […] I used the statue I had at the bottom of my garden as a stepping-off point. […] In fact, the statue is still in my backyard.

Scott Skelton & Jim Benson, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery An After-Hours Tour 268, 269

There is a certain irony here: Hazel Heald’s original story, as submitted to Lovecraft, appeared to be about “the basic idea of a living brain discovered in an ancient mummy” (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 603), from which Lovecraft expanded and wrote out his story of an antediluvian priest trapped in living death; Sapinsley, in adapting the story, did to Lovecraft what Lovecraft had done to Heald—and retained little more than Heald’s original idea in his rewriting. Sapinsley’s script was originally titled “Silent Partner,” but was eventually broadcast as “Last Rites for a Dead Druid”—and in that last ditching of subtlety, becomes almost the perfect example of how Hollywood can take a good story and turn it into something pretty much unrecognizable. If a reader didn’t know better, they might think it an adaptation of Seabury Quinn’s “The Stone Image” (1919)—about a wife who buys an ancient stone idol that torments her husband and moves at night—but given how obscure that story is, the parallels are probably coincidental.

“Last Rites for a Dead Druid” could stand as an archetype of the difficulties in tone that beset Night Gallery’s second season. It is a very Hollywood production: the dark druid is named Bruce the Black, like a four-color comic book character, and the scene has been shifted from Massachusetts in the 1930s to sunny suburban California in the 1970s, and in place of awesome antiquity the horrors being faced are marital infidelity and barbecuing cats. Horror and humor are so tightly intermingled that it’s obvious Sapinsley was writing very tongue-in-cheek.

Yet for all that, when considered on its own merits “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” isn’t bad television. While Sapinsley’s script has nothing on Heald & Lovecraft for cosmic horror, within the constraints of telling a slightly dark and twisted story in 22 minutes and 26 seconds under a tight budget, it is relatively effective. The most glaring fault—if fault it is—may be the ambiguity of character Mildred McVane (played by Donna Douglas), who appears at the beginning of the story to initiate the action, and is there at the ending in a Twilight Zone-esque twist. Sapinsley’s original title “Silent Partner” perhaps suggests that McVane was meant to be in league with the petrified druid…but the possibility is only raised, never made definite. Perhaps there was a key scene to this story that was excised at some point which would have tied up the loose ends.

For Lovecraftians, “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” represents a lost opportunity: what could have been another early Cthulhu Mythos adaptation becomes instead something of a footnote. In that sense, it greatly resembles The Shuttered Room (1966) by Julia Withers. One gets the impression that Hollywood simply didn’t know what to do with the Mythos at this period—for all that major films successfully incorporated bits and pieces of it, damn few Lovecraftian stories able to make it through the gauntlet of Hollywood producers and come out recognizable. Ironically, two of those were “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air” in Night Gallery…but not “Out of the Æons.”

As of this time of writing, episode 18 of Night Gallery is not legally available to stream, but the entire season is available on DVD.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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