Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Four: When it Works

Of course, despite its problems, Journey to the Unknown can be real fun, and there are certainly episodes that are genuinely effective. The Madison Equation isn’t a work of genius, but it is an interesting detective/horror story. It concerns a brilliant female scientist whose husband, motivated by resentment at her success, plots to kill her. More importantly, he decides to use her brilliant creation, a super-computer, to perform the perfect crime.

However, the whole thing backfires when he, rather than his wife, becomes is the victim of the death that he had planned for her, and a detective is assigned to investigate his murder. As the detective gets to work, however, he finds that the pool of suspects rapidly decrease and eventually – SPOILER ALERT – the solution proves both fantastic, horrific: the murderer is the computer!

By using the computer to plan the murder, the husband has alerted the machine to his intentions, but the machine has acquire more than an independent intelligence – it has acquired emotions and has fallen in love with its creator.

It may not be the most stylistically inventive of the series, or the most scary (although the end does pack a nice punch), but it’s a really well executed story. In some episodes, brilliant short stories like Miss Belle or Girl of My Dreams are pretty much ruined by being over-extended beyond their neat little scenarios – the original stories for both episodes were much like jokes, in which the tale largely works to set up a brilliant twist in the tail, or moment of poetic justice, but by over-extending these set ups, both episodes blow the final denouement, which ends up feeling too slight (or obvious) given the long build up. The Madison Equation, on the other hand, balances its elements and the build up is proportional to the resolution.

The case of Poor Butterfly is someone different. Its not the best story in the world, and its not actually frightening. However, it is a ghost story with a wonderfully melancholic tone, which it maintains with mesmerizing skill. At first, its hard to see where the whole thing is going, but give it time: the episode has a fragility and a sense of atmosphere that is quite engaging; and it provides a glimpse of the ways in which the series could have really made its mark. Several other episodes have a similar quality (Someone in the Crowd, Eve) but tend to distract the viewer with silly stories. Poor Butterfly isn’t the best story in the world but it doesn’t have Dennis Waterman falling in love with a mannikin, which is certainly creepy but for the wrong reason – well, at least for British viewers who are familiar with Dennis Waterman.

Atmosphere is also vital to the two best episodes in the series, Paper Dolls and Matakitas is Coming. The first is a creepy story about a group of identical young boys with the power of mind-control. It’s very similar to Village of the Damned in some ways, but it has a unique sense of atmosphere and suspense. It is also a story that that allows the series to define its own identity, being quite distinct from the kind of horror-thriller associated with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but also from the explicitness with which Hammer was associated.

The same is also true of Matakitas is Coming, which (in addition) has the benefit of a tight, claustrophobic setting in which Vera Miles finds herself to be trapped overnight in a deserted library with a supernatural killer on the loose. It should also be noted that the build-up of tension is magnificent, largely due to the expert handling of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a classic figure of British television who would also become famous for his Beatles documentary, Let it Be. I won’t say too much about the story for fear of ruining things, but its strongly recommended.

And with that, I think its time to move on from Journey to the Unknown.

Next week: The Walking Dead

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Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Three: Horror Writers, Television and Alternative Definitions of Genre

The presence of Harrison also demonstrates something else. The stories are not, like most Hammer films, references back to the classic Gothics stories of literature or to the Universal horror pictures. There is no Frankenstein, Dracula, Werewolf or Mummy here. Instead, the stories are based on writers such as Cornell Woolrich, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Donald Westlake. Robert Bloch also appears as a screenwriter, even if he is adapting other people’s rather than contributing stories of his own. In this way, the series relates to a version of horror that is often forgotten and includes both the nightmarish thrillers of Woolrich and the stories of Matheson and Beaumont, a version of horror that had been central to television horror until at the least the late 1960s and is probably exemplified by Joan Harrison’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Although often remembered today as a writer of crime thrillers, Woolrich was very much talked about as a horror writer in the 1940s, and he had written several scripts for silent horror films during his time in Hollywood. He is also remembered for his nightmarish tales of psychological breakdown. In fact, many of his protagonists are psychological victims who have lost their memory and find themselves in terrifying worlds that they cannot comprehend.

This is also the central premise of his story for Journey to the Unknown, except that in this case, the protagonist (Stephanie Powers) is not the victim of a knock on the head but a suicide, whose dead body is brought back to life by a scientist. However, although alive, the poor girl has lost her memory, and her previous life is a mystery to her. In many senses, then, it looks like a familiar Woolrich story except that its protagonist is one of the living dead.

Similarly, Matheson, Beaumont and Bloch had all written horror, science fiction and noirish thrillers, which they did not see these as separate categories. Elements that we might associate with one term or another were often blended within their stories, and they even described their stories in ways that we might find surprising today. In his autobiography, for example, Robert Bloch describes his time as part of the Lovecraft circle of writers, when he was writing in the style of Lovecraft; but he does not refer to this writing as horror (with which these kinds of stories are commonly associated today) but as science fiction. Given these stories are concerned with alien monsters that are trying to invade the world, one can see how he could have understood the type of fiction associated with Weird Tales as SF rather than horror.

Westlake is also interesting in this context. Although probably best known for his comic caper thrillers, often featuring the wonderful Dortmunder (God, I love these novels – if you haven’t read a Dortmunder novel, you are really missing something), he has also written a variety of other stuff. In the mid-1980s, he wrote the screenplay for a fantastic slasher film, The Stepfather, which is an absolute classic. He also wrote the famous Parker novels, under the pseudonym of Richard Stark. These are tough, vicious thrillers that were most brilliantly adapted for the screen with Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Boorman. I also recently read Memory, a posthumously published thriller that he wrote back in the 1960s, which is a really wonderful Woolrich-style horror-thriller that is absolutely brilliant. And heartrending.

Anyhow, Journey to the Unknown demonstrates the continuing survival of a 1940s version of horror, just around the time when the first studies of the horror film were coming out and were largely marginalizing or excluding this tradition from what would become the canonical definitions of horror throughout most of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

To be continued: next week – Journey to the Unknown – Part Four: When it Works

Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Two: Joan Harrison in the Hammer House of Horror

It’s not just the American stars in cheap boarding houses that are odd. Journey to the Unknown was one of Hammer’s attempts to break into television and it was produced by Anthony Hinds, but it also featured Joan Harrison as an executive producer. I am not sure how much involvement she really had, or whether she simply owned rights to some of the stories, but a collaboration between Hammer and Harrison is worthy of comment.

Harrison’s film and television career started when she was employed as a secretary to Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s but, by the 1940s, she had graduated to screenwriter and had credits in various key Hitchcock films of the late 1930s and 1940s, notably Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur. By the mid 1940s, however, she had taken another step forward, and established herself as one of only three women producers in Hollywood, and one who was a specialist in the new horror-thrillers.

By 1944, she had not only written an interesting film, Dark Waters, in which Merle Oberon is menaced in the Southern Bayous, but was the producer of the highly influential, Phantom Lady, one of the films seen as establishing the noir style, and was a fantastic horror-thriller adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel. She then followed this up with another horror-thriller, Uncle Harry. The latter film was also as being highly significant at the time and gave the wonderful George Sanders a really terrific role. She then moved on to a series of other noirish thrillers, Nocturne, They Won’t Believe Me, and Ride the Pink Horse although it was in television that she became a really major player when she became the producer (with Norman Lloyd) of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a show in which she, and not Hitchcock, was the real creative force.

She would also be associated with Suspicion, which I have already written about, but it was Alfred Hitchcock Presents that was the hugely influential success and it ran from 1957-1962 before being converted into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour from 1962-1965.

Anyhow, Journey to the Unknown is an odd hybrid. It features the type of stories that were featured in Alfred Hitchcock Presents on the one hand, and the more seedy, sensationalism in which Hammer specialized on the other; and this was clear in the general aesthetic. The show was in color but, after the famous fun-fare credits, the color seemed an odd choice in the drab British locations – despite the color, things look VERY gray.

The shows also seemed to wrestle with the restrictions of television. Alfred Hitchcock Presents was very much about a sardonic tone and grim twists, but was also careful not to be graphic in its horror. Everything was about suggestion and atmosphere. But Journey to the Unknown wants to be graphic – it just can’t be! In short, the series seems to lack the sense of quality with which Harrison was associated, but also lacked the sensationalism for which Hammer was known.

For Harrison, its a sad end to an illustrious career.

To be continued: next week – Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Three: Horror Writers, Television and Alternative Definitions of Genre

Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Too Bloody Right

Journey to the Unknown isn’t exactly bad. There is lots to enjoy, particularly if you are nostalgic for late 1960s and early 1970s kitsch – although that is also its problem. I just found the whole look and feel of the show so distracting. Its odd to see major Hollywood stars (and some less major Hollywood ‘stars’) coping with the run-down seediness of 1960s British life. For example, its quite disconcerting to see Stephanie Powers (the girl from The Girl from Uncle and one half Hart to Hart) grappling with a 1960s British gas meter. No wonder that she wants to commit suicide!

Weirder yet is Patty Duke (only a year after Valley of the Dolls) being sent to stay in a cheap seaside guest house at the end of the season – the landlady tells her that Patty that her employers must really value her, given that they have sent her there to recover from something unspecified, but I had a completely different response – obviously there is something very wrong with the landlady (that goes without saying) but is this all a sinister plot by Patty Duke’s employers to drive the poor girl crazy?

Even when things are supposed to be up-market, as in The New People, where Robert Reed and his wife move into an upmarket suburban neighborhood, the 1970s interiors are just too in your face. They don’t have the feel of a naturalistic setting that stays in the background but conjure up a fantastically weird land that time forgot!

However, its the odd mixture of elements that makes Journey into the Unknown both fascinating and awful. As should have become clear, this was a British television series but featured lots of American ‘stars’ that often seem to have been dropped into the British context with little or no convincing explanation – and even when there is an explanation, the juxtaposition still just looks ODD!

Also some stars are real stars, if somewhat faded as in the case of Joseph Cotton, Vera Miles, Barbara Bel Geddes; some are established or up-and-coming, such as Patty Duke, Julie Harris, Carol Lynley and Stephanie Powers; some are those loveable television personalities such as Robert Reed (who never makes me feel anything except happy, whatever tosh they put him in); but there are also hordes of less stellar figures like David Hedison, Michael Callan, Robert Lansing, George Maharis and Michael Tolan. Oh, and one episode features Brandon De Wilde, who was once the little boy in Shane!

Having said that, one story also features Roddy McDowall as a hip, young thing who uses words like ‘groovy’, which is about as near to heaven as one can wish for. McDowall is one of those actors who can make gold out of anything. Even the material that he is given here.

The stars are also interesting in other ways. Cotton is obviously there to evoke memories of his 1940s horror collaborations with Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchock and others (Journey into Fear, Shadow of a Doubt, Gaslight, Love Letters, The Third Man, etc). Vera Miles was in Psycho, while Barbara Bel Geddes might be best remembered for her role as Miss Ellie in Dallas, but she was also in various thrillers, particularly Hitchcock’s Vertigo. If Patty Duke doesn’t have the same associations, Julie Harris had given an absolute stand out performance as Eleanor in The Haunting only five years earlier; Carol Lynley had be the terrified victim in Bunny Lake is Missing in 1965 (she would also appear a few years later in … you guessed it, The Night Stalker); and a young Stephanie Powers had appeared in Experiment in Terror (1962), which I have mentioned elsewhere.

However, the story is quite different with the younger men. Only Roddy McDowall seems to have had much of a background in horror, but what a background! He had a great little part in Fritz Lang’s horror-thriller, Man Hunt in 1941; he was Malcolm in Orson Welles’s mad, crazy Gothic take on MacBeth; he was in two episodes of Suspicon, neither of which I have been able to get hold of; he was in iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery; and of course he WAS the star of the Planet of the Apes films, and not only appeared in every one of the five films, but became the star of the series after the first two – he even went on to star in the television series, too.

In general, then, the series is an odd mixture of elements and references so that, when they called it Journey to the Unknown, they weren’t joking – you just never know what you are going to get!

To be continued: next week – Journey to the Unknown – Part Two: Joan Harrison in the Hammer House of Horror