Highcliffe Manor was a creepy old mansion in New England owned by Helen Blacke that was home to the Blacke Foundation, a research institute owned by an eclectic group of oddballs including: mad scientist Frances, mechanical man Bram Shelley, womanizing preacher Ian Glenville, huge Korean assistant Cheng, sexy secretary Wendy, creepy housekeeper Rebecca, and evil doctors Koontz and Sanchez. Written by
Marty McKee <email@example.com>
The name "Bram Shelley" is a portmanteau of the names of Bram Stoker and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the authors respectively of the famous English language horror stories *Dracula* and *Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus*. See more »
excellent potential -- all squandered by the third episode
The pilot episode -- and only the pilot episode -- of *Highcliffe Manor* was (within the constraints of late 1970s television) a hilarious parody of the more coyly atmospheric B-grade Gothic horror films of the 1950s. It starred Shelley Fabares as the Widow Blacke, a well-meaning but oblivious woman who inherits a "mad scientist" mansion set on an archetypically Gothic island off the New England coast when her husband dies in a mysterious laboratory explosion. In short order, the audience meets the dead Berkeley Blacke's cadre of fellow scientists, skulking men trying to take over the world by cloning all its leaders; Berkeley's mad scientist mistress Dr. Francis Kisgadden and her hulking assistant; a self-deluding and ineffectual "Great White" imperialist missionary just back from South Africa (in the 1970s tradition of mocking racism for easy laughs); an eerie maid whose warnings are always misunderstood by the Widow Blacke; and a group of vaguely Eastern European villagers who place a curse on the Widow Blacke for the unspecified evil which surrounds the manor.
Not long after, the audience meets the wonderfully named Bram Shelley, a "bargain basement bionic man" being constructed by Dr. Francis Kisgadden out of the remains of the late Berkeley Blacke combined with corpse parts dug up from local graves and crude cybernetic parts designed from an erector set. The interplay between Bram (played by Christian Marlowe) and Dr. Kisgadden (Eugenie Ross-Leming) was one of the strengths of the pilot and the second episode, as the amnesiac and half-human Bram, isolated in the dungeon laboratory, struggled with moments of a genuine sense of ontological angst among the volley of over-the-top jokes and cheerful cheesiness of the actors.
However, either the writers or the network had no idea how to continue the parody without enraging television censors; it was rumored that the networks did not consider American audiences intelligent enough to understand satire or parody. So instead of embracing the cheesy madness of it all or moving into incisive genre commentary or social commentary, the series quickly took the cowardly route of safely "zany" sanitized sex jokes and gelded "outrageous" humor that was outrageously tepid rather than humorous. By the time the series was canceled after its sixth episode, almost no one cared.
Unfortunately for the pilot, what seemed remarkable in 1979 has become standard or even hackneyed over the three-plus decades since, and what seemed daring on television is now commonplace, so only a historian of popular culture will recognize what made the pilot seem so delightful when it first aired.
I give the series a '6' because its '9' pilot and '8' second episode almost balance out the '1' earned by its final episodes.
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