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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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

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).