Here’s one that’s been rapping on the back door of my consciousness for a long time screaming to get out. I first saw this ABC tv movie when it premiered in 1972, and then a few times subsequently when it played in repeats. When the Fantasy Island pilot aired in 1977, it seemed to me to be sort of a retread of this film. As did the 1977 Eagles tune “Hotel California”. I think the film made a big impression on me, got etched into my 7 year old brain, and then I didn’t see it or hear about it for decades. Reconnecting with it again was a fun puzzle…couldn’t remember the name, so I had to work backwards from the cast.
Haunts of the Very Rich is a sort of Who’s Who of 70s sit com stars and other tv actors plunked down in the middle of Sartre’s No Exit. The cast includes Lloyd Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Ed Asner, Robert Reed, Anne Francis, Donna Mills and Tony Bill (whose biggest credits have been as director and producer). When we first meet this little microcosmic bunch they are on a private jet which is taking them to an unknown resort destination. They’ve all come in response to a mysterious brochure, which promises a vacation that will fulfill their wildest dreams of happiness. (All but Asner, who claims to be there by mistake). When they finally arrive at “The Portals of Eden” it does seem to live up its name — a tropical paradise. The hotel manager, played by Moses Gunn, seems very much a prototype for Fantasy Island’s Mr. Roarke, right down to the white suit. (If you recall, in the original tv movie, Mr. Roarke was a somewhat sinister figure.)
But almost immediately, things begin to turn. A storm knocks out the power. Food and water become scarce. The native servants disappear. The guests become irritable, worried, combative. Gradually, they begin to piece together their reality: they are all dead and this place is hell. What intrigues the viewer is the slow reveal of the backstory. We learn how each guest died, and we have some suspicions of why they are consigned here, yet none of them seems like really BAD people in any obvious way. Asner comes off the worst as a rude, pushy, racist businessman. Reed is a chain-smoking priest who is having a crisis of faith and is investigating pagan religions. Bridges is a sort of good-time Charlie and swinger. Anne Francis seems to have been a suicide, which some believe merits a place in Hell. The other three characters are harder to suss. Leachman’s foible is vanity perhaps. Presented as homely in the early scenes, she is there for a beauty make-over. And Donna Mills and Tony Bill seem simply vapid and rich. Maybe that’s enough. Camels and eyes of needles, and all that. But the general impression you walk away with is, “These people are going to hell? I guess we’re ALL going to hell.” Which makes it a sort of indictment of society at large.
While the hell of each of the characters seems to be the loss of their illusions, Leachman and Bridges seem to have the opposite arc. They’re stressed out about their predicament just like the others, but they’ve also found a new happiness. They’ve fallen in love. That is, until….
Of course, watching it after all this time provides added pleasures. While it may sound existential, it’s a total 70s TV movie cheese-fest from beginning to end. And not “sophisticated” cheese either. Cheez Wiz. From the first frame to the last.