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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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.