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

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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.

Teen Wolf (2011) – Subtexts that Hardly Qualify as Such

Some years ago my friend Harry Benshoff published a book called Monsters in the Closet in which he explored various ways in which horror has been associated with homosexuality and homosexual desire. For example, he suggests that the monster has often been figured as a disruptive force that threatens the heterosexual couple. When I recently watched season one of Teen Wolf (I do a lot of commuting!), I was rather taken aback by the extent to which the series seemed to have taken this premise and run with it – big time. It is awash with homosexual subtexts, subtexts that hardly qualify as subtexts – its a bit like Garth Marenghi’s great line: ‘I know writers who use subtexts and they’re all cowards. Okay?’

The story starts with a nerdy young boy, Scott McCall, whose best friend, Stiles, is the best thing in the entire show – far better than Scott. Stiles seems to have been made out of all the best DNA from 1980s teen comedies (and particularly teen horror-comedies). Scott and Stiles are also the kind of best buddies who climb in and out of one another’s bedroom windows, but when Stiles hears about a savage attack by a strange beast in the nearby woods, he insists that he and Scott go there and have a look see. And, wouldn’t you know it, Scott gets bitten by the strange beast … whatever it is.

Then Derek appears, a young hunk but one who is no longer young enough to go to high school; and he warns Scott that the bite will change him into a werewolf and that Scott needs the guidance of an older male mentor so that he can make sense of what is happening. But Scott says, no way, he has fallen for the new girl in school, Allison, who is different from the others (for a start, she appears to be about ten years older than everyone else – even Derek).

But the question is: who is doing all the werewolf attacks. Is it Scott? Is it Derek? Or is it another, even older ‘alpha’ whose identity is unknown but who wants Scott and Derek to join his pack.

Oh, and there is also a high school jock, Jackson, who continually wears an expression of hatred and disgust that screams ‘homophobia born of repressed homosexuality’ – he initially hates Scott and then spends ages trying to have the gift of becoming a werewolf bestowed upon him – he thinks that it will give him an advantage in sports or something…

But the key narrative problem is that every time Scott starts to get romantic with Allison, his inner werewolf kicks in and he has to stop.

Of course, what matters is not whether the show has a homosexual subtext, but what it is trying to do with it. As Benshoff points out, the association between homosexuality and the monster is a very double-edged sword that has some very real pleasures and some very real problems. But I will leave it to you to read his work, which I strongly recommend. Instead, I want to suggest that the search for homosexual subtexts can also cut both ways. Just as much as there are serious attempts to explore the meanings of homosexuality (such as Benshoff), there are also numerous attempts to simply ridicule others as ‘sooo gay!’ In other words, the search for, and identification of, subtexts can either be used to undermine or reinforce notions of ‘normal’ masculinity – whatever that is!

So what is Teen Wolf doing? At one level, it seems to be clearly working towards the establishment of the heterosexual couple, but that is hardly a surprise and may be little more than a narrative of convenience – a pretext that allows the show to play with lots of other material. On another level, the show is also associated with Russell Mulcahy, whose films have long been an exercise in high camp. For example, he directed Highlander, Ricochet, The Shadow, and was even the director of Rambo III before being replaced by Peter MacDonald due to ‘creative differences’. In television, he has also have a variety of credits, most notably (in this context) four episodes of Queer as Folk: USA.

But what does the association with Mulcahy really prove? While the search for homosexual subtexts can be a fascinating game, it is actually very difficult to decide what these subtext actually mean; and part of the reason is that it is often unclear whether these subtexts are supposed to be conscious or not. Sometimes the implication is that they are clearly not consciously intended but rather work at a subconscious (if not unconscious) level; but, others times, the implication is that they are conscious – that filmmakers are secretly smuggling materials into programming below the radar.

Of course, the interest of generic materials is often precisely due to their undecidability. Shows that use horror materials as a metaphor for something else can often be too conscious or obvious; and finally end up being bad metaphors and/or boring horror stories. While those that remain more ambiguous often end up being more telling and more fascinating. In horror, the fascination is often in the ambivalence – Dracula is neither straightforwardly attractive nor repulsive; and much the same is true of the Frankenstein monster.

Returning to Teen Wolf, given that its homosexual subtexts seem so overt that they barely seem to be subtexts at all, another question is also posed: is the homosexual subtext actually a subtext (material that is subconscious or secretly smuggled in below the radar), or is it actually consciously and explicitly aimed at specific markets. The whole thing has the feel of a joke that we are all expected to ‘get’ (or at least a significant number of us are expected to get). In other words, the makers do not seem to be taking the subtext very seriously but rather treating it as ‘camp’.

None of which tells you whether Teen Wolf is actually any good. For my part, I certainly found it to be fun, in a junk food sort of a way; and I am vaguely looking forward to the second season … I am not holding my breath or anything; but I will certainly give it a chance – if only to see if the subtexts are going anywhere.

Lights Out (1946-1952) – Radio to TV

If you like stuff like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, you should check out Lights Out. It was a TV show that ran from 1946-1952 and featured the kind of weird stories and situations that would make those later shows famous. It also illustrates one of the key issues about television at the time. Although many critics today see television horror as a poor relation to cinematic horror, Lights Out was an adaptation of a radio horror show that had started in the 1930s. The radio show was hugely popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s and, after 1936, it was associated with the figure of Arch Oboler, an outspoken anti-fascist who was fond of social and political themes.

Also, during this period, it was radio, rather than cinema, that was the mass medium, and horror was one of its key genres at the time. For example, if one looks at the radio output of Orson Welles during the late 1930s, it is striking how many of the stories that he adapted were clearly associated with Gothic horror. Furthermore, he not only decided to make Dracula the first radio production of his Mercury Theater radio show, but his infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was clearly intended as a horror story and was broadcast on Halloween. Welles had even built up a major reputation on radio as the voice of The Shadow, a radio superhero with mystic powers and an emphatic association with horror. (For more on Welles, radio and horror, see my article, Shadows and Bogeymen: Horror, Stylization and the Critical Reception of Orson Welles during the 1940s.)

Consequently, the kinds of horror that one finds in Lights Out are very different from those associated with cinematic horror at the time. Indeed, 1946, when Lights Out started on TV, was precisely the point at which the cinematic horror cycle of the 1940s went into decline before the resurrection of horror in the 1950s, with the SF-horror films that followed The Thing from Another World (1951). (It fact, it is interesting that Lights Out had already been playing with the relationship between horror and science fiction on the television well before 1951.)

Lights Out did not focus on monsters, or on Gothic villainy, but rather on the weird and uncanny. In The Dark Image, for example, a wife is menaced by a mirror that was the property of her husband’s former lover. Initially oppressed by its presence, she eventually finds herself trapped on the other side of the glass, her rival having taken her place in our world. Furthermore, the process of her entrapment in the mirror is fascinatingly visualized, and requires one to rethink the common claim that television is somehow less visual than cinema and is therefore a problematic medium for horror.

The sequence is highly visual and uses trick photography to convey the notions of doubling, transference and entrapment, but it does not do so in a literal way. It does not aim for verisimilitude but for something more suggestive or metaphorical. In other words, it demonstrates that, even in the late 1940s and early 1950s, television was clearly a visual medium, and that it was experimenting with visual techniques of story-telling, even if it sometimes visualized things in terms that were different to those common in the cinema.

It is no surprise then that Rod Serling claimed to have been inspired by Oboler and by shows like Lights Out. Of course, you shouldn’t expect the kinds of production values on which Serling was able to count a decade later but, as a fun-filled glimpse into an imaginative and experimental period of television horror, Lights Out has much to offer.