Film Review: 'The People' (1972)

in film •  last month  (edited)


Kim Darby and William Shatner co-star in The People, an early 70s television film with an eerie atmosphere.

The People (1972), a made-for-television movie directed by John Korty (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman); starring Kim Darby, William Shatner, Diane Varsi, Dan O'Herlihy, and Laurie Walters.

This is one of the famous TV network “movies of the week” that saw their heyday in the 70s and which are fondly remembered by people who watched them as wide-eyed children, like me. Many of these made-for-television films covered subjects that were hard to find elsewhere, especially if you were a kid: sci-fi, supernatural thrillers, stalker films (Spielberg’s Duel -- 1971 was the most famous of this genre), devil-worshippers, and the like.

The People was produced by the legendary director Francis Ford Coppola and filmed in various parts of coastal Northern California. Sadly, there’s never been a restoration and the only DVDs available are terrible bootleg VHS transfers. It looks like there was also a VHS release at some point, so a used VHS might be found on Ebay or another auction site. A blurry VHS rip is posted on the YouTube channel TVTerrorland; it’s better than nothing. Possibly FFC may get around to releasing an official version on DVD, if he still has the master and still owns the rights.

Based on a series of stories by sci-fi writer Zenna Henderson, the film starts out with Kim Darby as a schoolteacher, Melodye Amerson, traveling by bus to take a new job in a tiny, isolated rural town called Bendo. She’s picked up by a young woman dressed like a Mennonite, named Karen (Laurie Walters). Once in town, she meets Karen’s family and the other villagers.

The viewer gets a real Children of the Corn vibe about Bendo, as all of the townspeople wear 19th Century clothes and don’t believe in singing, dancing, or even picking up their feet when they walk. (I’m fairly sure Stephen King watched this film when it came out; he would have been in his early 20s.) They’re secretive and give off an unfriendly manner. What’s more, they’ve hired other teachers previously for Melodye’s job, but none lasted for more than a month.

As a film, The People has all the earmarks of an old, well-worn horror trope: the outsider moving to a small, remote town and encountering a creepy religious cult with dark secrets. That, however, is not what’s going on here. The villagers aren’t cultists and they have a good reason for their strange, antediluvian ways. Eventually, Melodye earns their trust and is told about their secret, aided by a local doctor (William Shatner), who’s been studying "The People" because of their unusual immunity to common illnesses.

Kim Darby was a pretty famous actress in the 60s and 70s; her most famous role was as Mattie Ross in the original, John Wayne version of True Grit (1969). She’s also known for starring in one of the scariest and most famous “movies of the week,” Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), remade by Guillermo del Toro in 2010 as a big-screen feature starring Katie Holmes (I didn’t like the remake). In her heyday, Darby had a unique, Plain Jane wholesomeness that was a stark contrast to the glamorous actresses of her age, like Faye Dunaway or Jane Fonda. That quality serves her well in The People. Shatner turns in a low-key, fairly non-hammy performance as the doctor and Diane Varsi is good as Valancy, a Bendo villager who’s a kind of healer/priestess.

Side note: Darby and Shatner previously acted together in the original Star Trek episode, Miri, one of the better episodes in the series.

There is a superb atmosphere to The People and some very creepy scenes. It has some flaws, but it’s worth watching, if you don’t mind looking at a blurry VHS recording.

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I've got to admit, you completely blew me away with this one. I've never seen or even heard of The People (in my defense, I was negative-five years old in 1972). I thought I was familiar with damn near everything Shatner was involved with between the 60's to the 80's, but nope, never knew this existed. Glad somebody uploaded it so I can check it out. :)

I found a slightly better resolution upload on TVfanatic's page here:

This looks like it may have been taken directly from the VHS release (at the very least, the color timing and sharpness are much better), but ultimately I believe choice is paramount. Here's TVTerrorland's for comparison:

Lovely review as always, Jane. Can't wait to see what I missed with this one. :)

You're right, the first one does look a little bit better. I think both of those YouTube channels belong to the same guy, Chris Johnson. A few years back he had one monster channel under his own name, but it got zapped by the copyright cops. He may have been locked out of TVTerrorland because it hasn't been updated in a long time.

If you want "movies of the week" recommendations, have I got recommendations! Of the ones posted on those channels, Haunts of the Very Rich, Satan's Triangle, Crowhaven Farm, A Taste of Evil, and Reflections of Murder are among my very favorites. Reflections of Murder is a remake of Diabolique (much better as a remake than the crappy Sharon Stone version from the mid-90s).

Yeah, I noticed that when I went looking at his video feed that it had been something like three years since the last upload. That bites, but at least the files are around to be watched. :)

And...don't hurt me, but I don't think I realized the Sharon Stone Diabolique was a remake... XD

I would never hurt you my old pal, but Vincent may challenge you to fisticuffs :). The original is a French film from the 50s by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring his wife, Vera. Much admired by Hitchcock and De Palma fans.

Hahaha! I am not the agressive type.
I have never seen ( I think ) nor heard of Reflections of Murder. I doubt I've seen the 1990s Diabolique, although I might easily have seen it ( in the 1990s ) and forgotten about it.

@modernzorker and @janenightshade - I got to watch The People and - I have to be honest - it didn't do too much for me. Although I liked how it started out, it reminded me of one of my fav Australian movies, Wake in Fright, it felt pretty slow most of the time and I expected it to be more spooky / eerie. It felt like a less creepy version of Village of the Damned to me.

Although the extremely low res didn't help, I don't think I would have found it a lot more excitign with sharp images. I was able to enjoy it in a way though, just had somewhat higher expectations after @janenightshade 's review.

Yeah, it could have been creepier. The thing I liked about it is that it set you up to think it was a Children of the Corn type of thing, and it turned out to be totally different. Also, it's got The Shat! I couldn't find the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) for you, alas. It used to be on Amazon Prime, but it's not there anymore. It also used to be on YouTube, where I watched it a couple of years ago, but appears to have been taken down by the copyright cops. You might find it on a Tor bootleg site but just remember -- I didn't advise you to do that! Reflections of Murder is on YouTube:

Bad VHS but better than The People. YouTube is the only way to see it unless it's for sell on a bootleg DVD site. It's a remake of Diabolique updated to the 70s and set in Seattle, not France. The only thing I don't like about it is that Sam Waterston is too young to play the nasty headmaster. He was only about 30 in this film.

This sounds really like my cup of creepy movie tea. I guess I will need to risk a blurry VHS recording projected on my wall.

P.S. Is there way to find Don't Be Afraid of the Dark online? Can't seem to find the full movie on Youtube.
P.P.S. I seem to have missed out on a lot of great 1970s TV movies ( knowing that most of my favorite movies are from the 1970s, this is even more interesting ).

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