Beasts (1976) – Nigel Kneale’s Strange Creatures

I am currently watching Journey into the Unknown, which has only reminded me how wonderful Beasts was. The latter was a one-time-only series of six horror plays, all of which were written by Nigel Kneale, the creator of the Quatermass stories and the Old Testament God of television horror. That fact alone should be recommendation enough but the series was an absolutely corker.

Of the six plays, my least favorite is Special Offer, probably because I am not a big fan of Pauline Quirke, whose weird supermarket employee is the central character. Odd things are happening in a supermarket, and an unseen creature seems to create havoc there, all of which proves fun but not nearly as disturbing as the events in other stories of the series.

Baby is also okay but pales by comparison. It involves a couple who find an odd object built into the fabric of the cottage that they are renovating, an urn containing the dried corpse of a strange unnatural creature. The mixture of pregnancy, witchcraft and domestic breakdown are well developed and genuinely unsettling but, to my mind, it is still not the best of the series.

In the The Dummy, however, the series really excels and it concerns an actor who is so bound up with a horror monster that he has made his name playing, the Dummy of the title, that he becomes possessed by the monstrous creation and suffers a horrifying breakdown. Here, as in the other stronger stories, the focus is on psychological processes and there is a slow but inexorable build-up of tension as we watch the psychological crack up.

However, my three favorite stories in the series are During Barty’s Party, What Big Eyes and Buddyboy. The first is probably the most familiar story but it features a central trick which is quite brilliant. Essentially, the world is taken over by killer rats … in one night! Great. This could have been an absolutely terrific and trashy horror tale, but instead Kneale tells the whole thing through techniques that make the story far more terrifying. First, the entire story is told within one household and with only two characters, as a husband and wife gradually realize the nature and scale of the horror. Secondly, we see nothing and the entire evidence for the horror remains purely aural. In other words, the couple start to suspect something is wrong when they hear odd noises under the floor, noises that become progressively louder and more frequent. Also, their link to the outside world is a radio playing in the background, the show being Barty’s Party, the kind of banal, cheerful nonsense that was typical of BBC radio at the time. The horror is therefore even more shocking for slowly chipping away at not only the couple’s nerves but the radio show’s facade of gaiety.

What Big Eyes is really difficult to describe and also largely revolves around a small number of characters as Michael Kitchen confronts an old man who experimenting with wolves (the wonderful Patrick Magee). Magee’s character believes a weird theory of evolution, which involves lycanthropy, and he is trying to turn himself into a wolf. He also has a devoted daughter who accepts her father’s faith in his own genius, even if he is shunned by others as a madman. Essentially, then, what we have is a fantastic retelling of the old mad scientist story, but with a terrifying psychological realism in which the arrogant over-reacher dominates and demeans his daughter, who willingly takes the humiliation because she believes in his superiority. I must say, having been raised in a Stalinist household, I found this a really moving story but I won’t spoil the end for you, which you will either find absolutely heart-rending or a massive let-down. I found it the former – the let-down is the tragedy … for everyone!

Finally, there is Buddyboy, and this one is going to prove even trickier to describe. Okay so let me get this out of the way right at the start: this episode is about the revengeful ghost of a dolphin. There, I have said it. It is out in the open. So we can push on. Despite what seem like one of the most unlikely, ridiculous, and inescapably campy premises in human history, this is one of the most chilling, moving, weird and wonderful horror plays ever. There, I have said that too, and while anyone who knows me also knows that I am prone to wildly exaggerated claims, I think that few people who watch this will actually disagree with me.

It concerns a sleezy sex-industry entrepreneur (Martin Shaw) who is looking for new properties and decides to take over an old disused aquarium. A vicious parasite who gains a sadistic pleasure from exploiting others, Shaw’s character quickly recognizes that the owner of the old aquarium is terrified of something and he can hardly stop himself from using this knowledge to get one over on the man.

The whole episode is drenched in atmosphere and the slow revelations of people’s viciousness and cruelty are tense and horrific. If the end almost comes as a disappointment, it is due to the extraordinary build-up. For me, this is the standout episode due to its really creepy, eerie tale of suffering and pain.

As you have probably guessed, then, the series is distinguished by two key features. First, the stories all revolve around ‘creatures’ (the unseen force in Special Offer; the strange mummified monster in the wall in Baby; the horror monster that is The Dummy; the rats in During Barty’s Party; the wolves of What Big Eyes; and the dead Dolphin of Buddyboy. However, in all these stories, these ‘creatures’ operate in relation to human beings, and it is these human characters who may be the real ‘Beasts’ that Kneale is concerned with.

Second, the series is also distinguished by a rather odd relationship to horror as a genre. On one level, the stories aim for a resonance that associates it with ‘serious’ drama and yet, at the same time, the series does not exhibit a contempt for, or embarrassment with, horror as a genre. Instead, it seems to embraces generic materials but gives them weird and unexpected treatments, treatments that make no distinction between popular generic entertainment and serious drama. Kneale was clearly trying to break out of certain confines but it is refreshing to find that it is not genre itself that he saw as limiting. In other words, Kneale seems to have been trying to genuinely experiment with the genre, to create something that was both fresh and familiar, serious and entertaining.

But I supposed that I had better get back to Journey into the Unknown.

Moon of the Wolf (1972) – Stars, Location and Atmosphere

Given last week’s discussion of Barbara Rush, plus the revelation that my most visited post is Satan’s School for Girls (and with nearly twice as much interest as its nearest rival), I felt inspired to spend some time on Moon of the Wolf, another made-for-television horror film of the early 1970s.

It starts David Janssen, who was a titan of the made-for-television film and mini-series of the 1970s, until his death in 1980 at the age of 48. He had made his name as Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (in which Rush had made a notable appearance as a guest star), and he would also star in the detective series, Harry O, which I remember fondly and premiered on television the year after Moon of the Wolf. His tired, world-weary persona never really took off in cinema, but it proved irresistible to television.

He therefore starred in a whole series of things, although there are two mini-series that are particularly worthy of note. The first of which was Centennial (1978-1979), an absolute monster of the blockbuster television mini-series, which told the history of Colorado across two centuries and, in the process, had ambitions to being a microcosm of the American story. It even ends with major ecological questions about the future. In this monumental narrative, Janssen took the role of narrator, his gravelly voice acting as television’s ‘Voice of God’ in much the same way that Charlton Heston’s voice has come to operate in cinema.

The same year, he also became God’s voice (in a different way) in The Word (1978), a really interesting mini-series (and kind of television horror story), in which he is hired by publishers to check the veracity of a new set of biblical documents that seem to provide a first hand account of the Christ, and that might finally authenticate the story of Jesus. However, his investigations reveal a far more complex story that involves conspiracy and deceit, although his ‘truth’ is eventually rejected and the ‘fake’ documents are finally accepted as genuine. The effect seems to be no less than the creation of a new society based upon virtually universal faith; but also one that is as much a dystopia as a utopia, given that it is not only based on a lie but also on faith rather than doubt. Here, of course, Janssen’s persona is perfect for the final revelation and the whole story works around that familiar suggestion that it is the struggle with doubt that is ultimately meaningful and valuable, rather than blind or uncritical faith. The mini-series even implies that the ‘faith’ on which the new society is based is actually a kind of mindless conformity and the ends up feeling like something from a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or one of those Star Trek episodes where the crew of the Enterprise encounters a Utopia but decide that paradise must be destroyed in order to stop people wandering around in a blissful daze.

After discussing The Word, I am eager to re-see it and wish I was writing about that, rather than Moon of the Wolf, which really isn’t that great, although it certainly has its pleasures.

Anyhow, the story involves a body that is found badly mauled and the local sheriff (Janssen) starts to investigate. As suspects start to emerge, the nature of the attack looks increasingly strange and anyone in the audience who has any familiarity with this kind of thing soon begins to catch on (if the title hadn’t already alerted them) that a werewolf is on the loose. But who is it? Suspicion is directed at various characters, although the brother and sister of a wealthy, local family seem to be central to events. This couple is played by Bradford Dillman and – you guessed it – Barbara Rush.

Also, Rush and Janssen’s characters clearly have chemistry in the story, and one of the nice thing about 1970s television was that, unlike the cinema of the period, it was happy to provide roles for women like Rush who was in her mid-1940s at the time, roles in which they were not only leading ladies but were also supposed to be sexual beings with a past.

There isn’t a lot else to say about the plot, without giving the game away, but I should probably add that the creature effects are predictably awful (which never put me off a monster movie) and that the local color is excellent. Rather than simply being filmed in LA on studio lots, it uses a lot of Louisiana locations that give the rather slight story a considerable sense of atmosphere. Yes, there is a noticeable absence of explicit gore but that wasn’t what made-for-television horror films were all about. They excelled in atmosphere and suspense, qualities that are central to most of the classics of the type: Duel, The Night Stalker, etc.

And it is this quality that the stars also bring to the film. Janssen was capable of drenching a story with atmosphere without appearing to doing anything – not talking, moving, or anything at all. Similarly, Bradford Dillman is a fantastic character actor who was everywhere in the 1970s (he even ends up in Joe Dante’s wonderful Piranha)  but has never seemed to get the credit that he deserves. He seems to have a permanent aura of self-disgust born of corruption or compromise, an aura that works perfectly in this story. Oh, and Barbara proves fascinating, too – obviously – and she conveys a peculiar mixture strength and vulnerability (or should I say fragility). After my last entry, Kevin Heffernan (author of the wonderful Ghouls, Gimmick, and Gold) rightly observed on facebook that Rush ‘is a *huge* part of why Nick Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE works as beautifully as it does. Her quiet, terrified defiance of steroid-crazed patriarch James Mason is what keeps the film from tipping over into bathos and unintentional comedy’. He is absolutely right, and I love that phrase: ‘quiet, terrified defiance’. Anyhow, it is a similar balance of conflicting elements that makes her perfect for this story, too, so that it remains uncertain, right up until the final revelation, whether she is a potential monster or victim.

So, Hour of the Wolf is certainly no masterpiece but I have to recommend it for its sense of atmospherics, atmospherics that are largely due to its careful use of locations and its casting (in addition to the three main actors mentioned, the film is packed full of other great character actors).

Suspicion (1957-1958) – Continued: It’s A Rush!


So I have now nearly finished the second half of Suspicion and it actually keeps getting better. Doomsday is a really interesting heist story with Dan Duryea and Charles Bronson that concerns a bank robber whose genius for disguise has ensured that he hasn’t been caught, but his ruthless detachment from the world proves his undoing. It is a really interesting psychological thriller that is full of lovely twists and ironies.

The Bull Skinner is also a fantastic psychological drama in which Rod Steiger’s workman, Frank, becomes filled with hate when he is passed over for promotion and a new man is given the job in his stead. Fueled with a desperate need to prove his manhood – his wife is unable to get pregnant – Frank initially accuses his rival of not being a real man and then, after being partially responsible for an accident in which the rival looses his arm, Frank becomes obsessed that the rival is out to get him. In the process, the Steiger’s initially sympathetic character mutates into a monster that alienates everyone, even his wife.

There is an okay Bette Davis vehicle that is based on a Du Maurier story, and another episode that features an often adapted Ronal Dahl story about a wife whose domineering husband meets with some poetic justice when she leaves for a trip abroad. However, the stronger items include a fabulous story of psychological backstage warfare in the The Protege in which Jack Klugman tracks down a legend of the theater whose alcoholism has driven her into obscurity, the really really wonderful Agnes Moorehead – you know, she is in a lot of Orson Welles but is best remembered (by me at least) as Samantha’s mother in Bewitched – now there was a role!

Klugman tries to bring her back to greatness and enlists William Shatner in the mission, but there is a evil protege (hence the title) who makes Anne Baxter’s Eve look positively warm and supportive. I won’t spoil it by saying anymore. But without any supernatural elements or criminal acts, this ends up a really rather terrifying story of psychological torture!

Death Watch is a good, but not outstanding, story in which Edmond O’Brien (D.O.A.) plays a detective who is guarding a female witness, only to find out that one of his team has been hired to kill her; and An Eye for an Eye features both a really nasty kidnapper and the first outing for Ray Milland’s suave detective, Markham, who got his own series shortly after. I love Ray Milland so I can’t see anything but good here. The episode also reminds me a lot of those interestingly nasty horror-thrillers of the early sixties such as Cape Fear and Experiment in Terror (a really good horror film directed by Blake Edwards – honest go check it out!)

However, one of my favorites was The Woman Turned to Salt, in which a female divorce lawyer is called in to help a young woman who has fallen in love with an older man, a right smoothy played by the wonderful Michael Rennie (Klattu from The Day the Earth Stood Still). Right from the off, the lawyer knows that something is wrong with this older man but no one who has seen this sort of thing before needed her to give foreshadowing of the plot. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, he is an artist (usually a clear sign that something is wrong); he has designed his own house; and he can’t stop painting one of the pillars in his immaculately designed pergola. Oh, and did I mention that there was some mystery about his first wife.

I am not saying its a work of genius or anything but its a very nice, atmospheric little number.

However, I am going to claim genius for A Voice in the Night, which was based on a story by William Hope Hodgson and has one of those casts that only a late 1950s television series can muster. With only four actors in the entire episode, this episode manages to combine the talents of Patrick Mcnee (Steed from The Avengers) as a quite wonderfully preposterous sea-captain, with a bushy beard and everything; James Coburn as his mate (there don’t seem to be many people on this particular sailing ship); James Donald, one of those great British actors who plays a stiff upper-lip types in things like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape; and, finally, the ever wonderful Barbara Rush.

Ah, Barbara Rush, where do I start? She’s one of those great actresses from the 1950s who, along with Julia Adams, another favorite of mine, plays incredibly beautiful heroines, who are determined not to be left out of the action. It’s hardly surprising, then, that she was later cast in Batman as Nora Clavicle, a ‘feminist’ whose ‘Crusade for Women’ manages to oust Commissioner Gordon and replace him with Clavicle herself (see below). Also, in the early 1950s, when the science-fiction-horror film provided numerous roles for female scientists and other figures of public femininity, Rush had the opportunity to play a number of roles. (Is it just co-incidence that in the revival of The Outer Limits during the 1990s, she is cast as a character called Barbara Matheson?) For example, she’s wonderful as the heroine in When Worlds Collide and It Came from Outer Space (see above) but, in A Voice in the Night, she excels herself.

At the start of the episode, Mcnee and Coburn find themselves becalmed in a fog, and are then surprised to hear a voice coming from the mist. The voice begs for food but insists that a) they remove all lights and b) they send out the food without making physical contact. Of course, Coburn becomes suspicious but Mcnee is more sympathetic and curious. Anyhow, a short while later, having taken food to his ailing female companion, the voice returns and tells a strange story….

James Donald is the voice and his character had been a sea-captain, who had married a beautiful young woman (Barbara Rush). However, once married, she refused to stay at home and play the waiting wife but rather insisted that they travel the world together, sharing adventure, fortune and hardship. Nor is she some misguided fool, who is punished for refusing to accept her lot in life, and she clearly thrives during her life on the high seas, at least until the two are shipwrecked and left drifting at sea.

Eventually, they find an old ship that is covered in a strange fungus and total deserted; and, as they try to solve the mystery of the missing crew, the couple become aware that, although it looks as though the ship has been deserted for years, it has only been left for a few months. They also start to realize that no matter how much they try to keep the ship clean, the fungus keeps coming back at an alarming rate.

Eventually, they leave the ship for an island near by, only to find that this is completely over-run with the fungus and has no other form of animal or plant life. Eventually, they make camp on a patch of beach where, for some reason, the fungus can’t get a purchase, and they begin to plan ways of being rescued. However, when the fungus begins to grow on their skin, they acknowledge that they can never return to the world for fear of bringing the fungus with them.

Finally, at the end of the episode, having told this story, Mcnee and Coburn have a final revelation which I won’t spoil for you.

Along the way, the story explores the relationship of this husband and wife, and Bach’s character makes the issues more explicit when she discusses their situation as a kind of test, where people find out about the substance of their own selves and their relationships. But while this might have resembled Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Sartre’s No Exit, their story is one of bravery and love. The two share this situation because of their refusal to be separated into the spheres of man and woman, home and public life, and their decision to live life together in the world. But each time Donald proposes that they reverse this decision and attempts to adopt the role of masculine protector in relation to his wife, she not only rejects his attempts but she seems justified in her views. Rather than being punished for their decision to conform to the separation of spheres, their relationship and their reaction to the horror prove the rightness of that decision.

Anyhow, A Voice in the Night was, for me, the best of the series, and actually one of the best things that I have seen in a long time. Its imaginative, atmospheric, with wonderful characters and a really rich psychological dynamic. Its also that rarest of things: haunting. Oh, and it’s got Barbara Rush in it.