Suspicion (1957-1958) – Short but Sweet

It has been one of those weeks. I had to do an entry for another blog, which was arguably on television horror – television weather reporting:

http://cstonline.tv/weather-or-not

Consequently, I haven’t had much time to write an entry for this week. However, I didn’t want to neglect my duties, so I thought I would make a few brief comments about Suspicion which I have been watching this week. It is a bit variable in quality. Some things are great but others, including an episode starting Audie Murphy, The Flight, are disappointing, or even a bit dull.

Part of the reason for the variable quality is that the talent seems to shift around a lot. Some episodes are produced by William Frye, who would make Boris Karloff’s Thriller and some are produced by Joan Harrison, who was also producing Alfred Hitchcock Presents at the time. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock was also associated with the series as an executive producer, and directed the first episode of the series, Four O’Clock.

In this story, E.G. Marshall thinks his wife is cheating on him and plants a bomb in his cellar to kill her and her lover. Unfortunately, small time crooks break in; and bind and gag him in the cellar along with the bomb. He is then forced to wait helplessly until four o’clock when he has set the bomb to go off. I won’t reveal the ending but the story basically follows his hopes and fears as he tries to attract attention to himself and to his predicament. It is therefore an incredibly simple exercise but one that is all the more impressive for its simplicity. Also, given that Marshall is mostly bound and gagged during the episode, his thought processes have to be conveyed through voice over in a manner that is very familiar from radio horror shows – whether Four O’Clock had previously been given a treatment in radio horror, I have not been able to find out yet. If anyone knows about this, I would be eager to hear.

Other episodes that I have really enjoyed include The Other Side of the Curtain in which Donna Reed keeps having a bad dream about something that lies on the other side of a curtain, but she can’t quite remember what; and is then accused of murdering her husband’s previous wife. Okay, so people act in ridiculous ways in the story, but frankly I don’t really care. Its a really neat little thriller and there is something genuinely eerie about her dreams and the tantalizing mystery beyond the curtain….

Heartbeat is also great and features David Wayne as a meek middle aged man who has suffered from a weak heart from childhood. However, when he is (mistakenly) told by a heart specialist that there is nothing wrong with his heart, he spends the day in search of excitement; while the doctor who has given him the wrong diagnosis enlists the police in a search for the thrill seeker so that they can warn him that any excitement might kill him. Again, I won’t spoil the ending but its a wonderfully bitter-sweet story packed with mounting suspense and some terrific documentary-style film-making in various locations, particularly Coney Island.

There is also a great little story, Rainy Day, featuring George Cole.

At its best, episodes of Suspicion are like hour long episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. At its worst … well, I haven’t finished them all yet, but so far the worst has been watchable, if uninspired. However, when its good, its great, so it was a real find for me: I accidentally purchased it while trying to track down Suspense (1949-1954).

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Satan’s School for Girls

Okay, so I just watched Satan’s School for Girls again, and what can I say. Its a knowing camp-fest that is produced by Aaron Spelling, who has done other horror productions: anyone remember Kindred: the Embraced in the mid 1990s? On the one hand, its really silly: the devil is on the loose in a girl’s school – the clue is in the title. On the other, its not quite silly enough – there is is a serious absence of the more obvious pleasures of this kind of nonsense. On yet another hand – okay, we are talking mutants with numerous hands here – its full of rather batty pleasures. Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd appear in pre-Charlie’s Angels roles, and while Cheryl is a major disappointment, Kate is perfect – but then she was always my favorite angel, so maybe I am just biased.

More importantly, it has various other iconic figures in various roles. The lead is the ever wonderful and perennially weird Pamela Franklin, who was wonderful as one of the children in The Innocents (1963), and was weird and creepy in various roles including non-horrors like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and horror-numbers such as The Nanny (with mad, bad Betty Davis), Our Mother’s House, And Soon the Darkness, and Necromancy (with madder, badder Orson Welles). However, its her role in the fantastic The Haunting of Hell House that will always stay with me – she is both creepy and sympathetic – and of course we are back in Richard Matheson territory. I am beginning to worry that this is turning into a Richard Matheson appreciation blog, not that this would be a bad thing.

Along with Franklin, there is also Roy Thinnes as a charismatic teacher who is trying to open up the kids’ minds (it is the early 1970s, when teachers still had notions about such things), but I think I will spare you much more about Thinnes for now, an actor who seems to be turning up in these posts with nearly as much regularity as Matheson. Finally, there is also Lloyd Bochner, or Cecil Colby from Dynasty, an actor with a voice that always reminds me of Orson Welles (see earlier posts) and has a long and distinguished career in horror. To be honest, his CV would make a a truly impressive list, and one would be hard pushed to find an example of a classic American television series that he hadn’t been in – Love Boat, Fantasy Island, you name it. None the less, he would also memorably appear in various examples of horror, such as Bloch’s The Night Walker, Boris Karloff’s Thriller and The Twilight Zone, a role which has become one his most fondly remembered – he even spoofed it in one of the Naked Gun films…

I am not sure that I am actually recommending Satan’s School for Girls. Its not The Night Stalker. Its not even Curse of the Black Widow. And it probably is representative of what Gregory Waller hates about the made-for-television film (although it still doesn’t fit many his actual claims about it). But it is also filled with hokey pleasures – and clearly borrows heavily from the female Gothic (borrowing here being tantamount to travesty), with its female investigator who solves the mystery, and its rather banal excuse for a climax in which the contemporary characters all investigate the mystery while holding oil lamps like something from a nineteenth century melodrama – hey, there’s been a power cut!

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968)

I recently rewatched Dan Curtis’s 1968 adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and found it surprising in a number of ways. I had remembered it as a (largely) faithful adaptation of the original story, and one that was concerned to demonstrate respectability and restraint. However, rewatching it, I was struck by how distinctly unfaithful it was; how it was explicitly intended as a re-interpretation of the original story. I was also struck by how much it didn’t feature the production values of later made-for-television films, but looked instead like a BBC quality drama of the period. It seems to have been entirely shot in the studio and looks very stagey.

Not that being stagey is a problem here. The film actually has that tight, closed claustrophobic feel that studio-shot television drama can create, and rather than simply feeling low budget, the stageyness actually works well with the horror material. The lack of naturalism in the sets somehow works with the fantastic elements of the story, and makes the monster look less ridiculous – it was often a problem in the late 1960s and 1970s that horror monsters were frequently dumped into settings that were modern and/or  naturalistic, a context in which the monster could look quite odd. Certainly this juxtaposition could be used to great effect, as in The Night Stalker, or the fabulous Time After Time, in which Jack the Ripper escapes from 19th Century England to 1970s San Francisco (using H. G. Welles’s Time Machine) where he finds that he fits right in (‘ninety years ago I was a freak; today I’m an amateur’); but this juxtaposition could also seem incongruous, as in Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 (although I must admit a fondness for The Satanic Rites of Dracula, which seems to neatly side step the problem).

However, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also notable for its interpretation of the story, which starts with an idealistic Dr. Jekyll being attacked by his blinkered fellow scientists, but soon starts to demonstrate that Jekyll may actually be the problem. While adaptations often present Jekyll as an idealist who looses control over his experiment, this adaptation actually ends up blaming Jekyll and presenting Hyde as his creation. It makes considerable efforts to demonstrate that Jekyll uses Hyde to act out his desires, desires that he can’t act upon or acknowledge as Jekyll. Hyde is not the dark half from which the idealist cannot escape; but that which the idealist creates to disown his desires.

Indeed, the story both opens and closes with a line from Delvin (Jekyll’s lawyer) which undercuts the normally idealistic claims of Jekyll’s research: ‘It has been said that many men find their way from the valley of violence to the palace of wisdom; but if all men must learn wisdom tomorrow through violence today, then who can expect that there will be a tomorrow.’ Jekyll may attain wisdom in the end (which is questionable anyhow) but his science is violent and destructive, and may involve an irresponsibility that threatens the very future of humanity. At the end, Delvin even reverses the normal values of the story when Hyde seeks to preserve himself by warning Delvin that ‘if you kill me, you’ll be killing Henry Jekyll’, a warning that Delvin dismisses in a most surprising way: ‘You don’t understand, do you? Jekyll deserves to die – he’s the one who’s responsible, not you.’

The adaptation is full of great performances, too. Jack Palance’s Dr Jekyll is terrific, and my only complaint is that the Hyde make up is a disappointment, and that Palance could probably have pulled off a wonderful Hyde (that was clearly distinct from his Jekyll) without the use of any make up. Billie Whitelaw (who at the time was regularly appearing in Samuel Beckett plays on the British stage and, whom the playwright referred to as ‘the perfect actress’) gives a wonderfully subtle and complex portrayal of a ‘dancer’ who becomes the center of Hyde’s villainous obsessions. Its worth watching the film if only for her confused emotions. Oh, and along the way we have various excellent turns by others, including the ever wonderful Denholm Elliot as Delvin.

In short, this is a really interesting made-for-television horror film and if you haven’t seen it, I would strongly recommended it and, if you have, it may well deserve another look.

Dan Curtis

Dan Curtis has had a wonderful and diverse career but it is as a producer of made-for-television horror films that I most admire him. While working as executive producer for Dark Shadows, he produced his first made-for-television horror film, an adaptation of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968) starring Jack Palance. In 1970 and 1971 respectively, he then made two film versions of Dark Shadows, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, after which he returned to television with the fabulous made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker (1972).

These various examples represent the key features of Curtis’s productions. If Dark Shadows was Gothic and campy, Curtis’s later productions can largely be divided into two key types. On the one hand, there were a series of Gothic adaptations, along the lines of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and on the other were a series of films in which classic monsters (vampires, werewolves, etc.) prowl the twilight zones of contemporary America. If the first type usually sought to evoke a sense of literary prestige, restraint and respectability, the second were less restrained and often humorous or campy.

Following The Night Stalker, Curtis made a rare excursion into the female Gothic with The Invasion of Carol Enders, in which a young woman is possessed by the spirit of a murder victim; but soon returned to type with a sequel to The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, a film that borrowed heavily from horror classics such as The Man in Half Moon Street (1945: which was later remade by Hammer as The Man Who Could Cheat Death, 1959), and featured a man preys upon the living to prolong his own life.

The success of these productions lead to The Norliss Tapes, which seems to have been designed as the pilot for a television series that was never made (unfortunately), and featured Roy Thinnes (from The Invaders) as an investigator into weird paranormal cults. Certainly there are preposterous things the movie but Thinnes has a wonderful presence and the device of telling the story through taped recording that he has made and are the only clue to his ‘disappearance’ helps create a real sense of atmosphere, mystery and menace.

An adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray followed as did another modern day horror story, Scream of the Wolf, and adaptations of both Dracula and The Turn of the Screw. But by the late 1970s, Curtis was beginning to diversify his made-for-television horror productions. Both Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night were anthologies that featured several different stories but Curse of the Black Widow was yet another monster on the loose in contemporary America.

However, by the early 1980s, Curtis had moved into the production of prestigious historical mini-series such as The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, although he would also receive credits when Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker were briefly revived on television.

However, it is for his productions of the late 1960s and 1970s that he will be best remembered and it is an impressive body of work. Although the films associated with Richard Matheson, who wrote many of his made for television films, are the most respected examples, some of his other films have their own pleasures. I have a particular fondness for Curse of the Black Widow, which has a kind of weird, batty charm – hey, it stars Patty Duke (Neely O’Hara from Valley of the Dolls) and Donna Mills (Abby from Knot’s Landing) as rival sisters, one of whom also finds that she is cursed to become a killer spider at regular intervals! The question is: which one? The other question is of course: how can you resist such a premise? I know that I can’t.