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

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

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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.

Satan’s School for Girls

Okay, so I just watched Satan’s School for Girls again, and what can I say. Its a knowing camp-fest that is produced by Aaron Spelling, who has done other horror productions: anyone remember Kindred: the Embraced in the mid 1990s? On the one hand, its really silly: the devil is on the loose in a girl’s school – the clue is in the title. On the other, its not quite silly enough – there is is a serious absence of the more obvious pleasures of this kind of nonsense. On yet another hand – okay, we are talking mutants with numerous hands here – its full of rather batty pleasures. Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd appear in pre-Charlie’s Angels roles, and while Cheryl is a major disappointment, Kate is perfect – but then she was always my favorite angel, so maybe I am just biased.

More importantly, it has various other iconic figures in various roles. The lead is the ever wonderful and perennially weird Pamela Franklin, who was wonderful as one of the children in The Innocents (1963), and was weird and creepy in various roles including non-horrors like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and horror-numbers such as The Nanny (with mad, bad Betty Davis), Our Mother’s House, And Soon the Darkness, and Necromancy (with madder, badder Orson Welles). However, its her role in the fantastic The Haunting of Hell House that will always stay with me – she is both creepy and sympathetic – and of course we are back in Richard Matheson territory. I am beginning to worry that this is turning into a Richard Matheson appreciation blog, not that this would be a bad thing.

Along with Franklin, there is also Roy Thinnes as a charismatic teacher who is trying to open up the kids’ minds (it is the early 1970s, when teachers still had notions about such things), but I think I will spare you much more about Thinnes for now, an actor who seems to be turning up in these posts with nearly as much regularity as Matheson. Finally, there is also Lloyd Bochner, or Cecil Colby from Dynasty, an actor with a voice that always reminds me of Orson Welles (see earlier posts) and has a long and distinguished career in horror. To be honest, his CV would make a a truly impressive list, and one would be hard pushed to find an example of a classic American television series that he hadn’t been in – Love Boat, Fantasy Island, you name it. None the less, he would also memorably appear in various examples of horror, such as Bloch’s The Night Walker, Boris Karloff’s Thriller and The Twilight Zone, a role which has become one his most fondly remembered – he even spoofed it in one of the Naked Gun films…

I am not sure that I am actually recommending Satan’s School for Girls. Its not The Night Stalker. Its not even Curse of the Black Widow. And it probably is representative of what Gregory Waller hates about the made-for-television film (although it still doesn’t fit many his actual claims about it). But it is also filled with hokey pleasures – and clearly borrows heavily from the female Gothic (borrowing here being tantamount to travesty), with its female investigator who solves the mystery, and its rather banal excuse for a climax in which the contemporary characters all investigate the mystery while holding oil lamps like something from a nineteenth century melodrama – hey, there’s been a power cut!

Algernon Blackwood (1936) – a host of fears

As my dear friend, Derek Johnston, is fond of reminding me, the first night of scheduled television in the UK ended with a couple of ghost stories told by Algernon Blackwood. Also, as Derek usually adds, this choice by the BBC drew on formats familiar in their radio service. Like Lights Out, then, this event illustrates the ways in which, in its early years, television horror initially drew on models from radio, rather than cinema. Nor was this transmission a one-off event, and Blackwood appeared on television for a number of years afterward, where his recital of horror stories became a regular feature of the schedules. So much so, that the BBC continued the format in later years, when Lord Dunsany followed Blackwood as a horror narrator.

However, there are also other aspects of these shows that are worth commenting upon. The format draws on the tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition that is used in a range of different types of television programming (Jackanory, the News, etc.) but seems to have acquired a particular significance in relation to horror. Television horror has used the figure of the narrator as a frame for its horror tales in a way that is very rare in cinematic horror. The use of John Houseman at the start of John Carpenter’s The Fog is one of only a handful of cinematic examples, but given Houseman’s was a close collaborator with Orson Welles, the fact that he is telling a ghost story to a group of children huddled around a campfire, and that the film’s central character runs a radio station, which she uses to hold a community together in the face of vast supernatural forces, this opening may be highly suggestive in ways that should become clear later.

First, while this technique is rare in cinematic horror, radio horror was fond of this convention, as can be seen in the case of ‘the Man in Black’ from Appointment with Fear and later The Man in Black, but also in a range of other examples (see Richard Hand’s Terror on the Air!). Similarly, it is a major feature in television horror: Alfred Hitchcock Presents used the great director as a host, who book-ended the stories with his macabre wit; Thriller employed the figure of Boris Karloff in a similar way; The Twilight Zone featured Rod Serling; Great Mysteries had Orson Welles; The Night Stalker and The Norliss Tapes both had fictional characters narrate their stories (the former was told by Carl Kolchak while the latter were supposed to be the taped files of David Norliss, although it never developed into the series that it appears to have been designed to become); Night Gallery was (again) hosted by Rod Serling; Tales of the Unexpected was, at least initially, introduced by Roald Dahl; Tales from the Darkside had an unnamed narrator; and Tales from the Crypt had the crypt-keeper. Even the screenings of horror films on television have a long history of being introduced by horror hosts, a practice that dates back to 1957 when ‘Shock Theater’ showed a series of Universal horror films on television that were often hosted by figures such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’.

One function of these horror hosts is that they were able to create a sense of consistency across different stories. Without Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions, Alfred Hitchcock Presents would not have been a show but simply a series of individual plays. In this way, these hosts also work as a kind of guarentor or brand that can encourages trust and a sense that people know what to expect.

On another level, they operate to set the tone, to generate a sense of anticipation by hinting at the horrors to come, or a sense of light-heartedness that encourages viewers not to take things to seriously or even overtly ridicule what they are about to watch- horror hosts such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’ established an overtly camp relationship to the films that they introduced; and both Hitchcock and Karloff established a sense that the macabre stories that they introduced were meant to establish a playful relationship with their audience and did not simply pander to unhealthy tastes.

To some extent, then, the figure of the narrator in television horror works to illegitimate the horror story and another way in which it seeks to do so is by relating the horror tale to a tradition of oral storytelling. Rather than simply gruesome stories, the shows are aligned with more comfortable notions of the traditional bedtime story: Blackwood’s stories were read just before the end of transmission as a way of signalling the close-down and sending everyone off to bed. But they were also reminiscent of the fireside story and particularly the horror stories traditionally told to children around camp fires on dark nights – which is explicitly what Houseman is doing at the opening of Carpenter’s The Fog.

These associations are interesting in other ways. First, they relate the narration not simply with oral traditions but traditions associated with childhood; and, second, they associate such acts of storytelling narration with special events that occurs outside of normal, everyday life. The bedtime story is a transitional tale that takes the child from the world of everyday life to the world of sleep and dreams; and while the fireside story takes place within the domestic interior, the campfire story takes place at a time outside normal everyday schedules (normally a holiday period) when the child can stay up late and when the child is often away at camp. Sleepovers are also commonly associated with the oral telling of frightening tales, and again it is often seen as special occasions when do not have to return to their respective homes at the end of the day, as would normally be the case, but when they can stay together and stay up late,

But the horror host does more than simply associate these stories with oral storytelling. The common description of them as hosts is also significant. Television horror is often seen as inappropriate to the home, and the uncanny literally means unfamiliar and its Freudian use is drawn from Freud’s ‘unheimliche’ or unhomely. But there are questions about why anyone would let the uncanny into our homes (television commonly being seen as a primarily domestic medium). One answer may be in the term ‘host’, a host being someone who often welcomes you into their home. In other words, the host may work to mediate between the world of domestic security and the world of unsettling horror. Rather than audiences welcoming horror into the domestic, the host takes them out of their domestic existences and welcomes them into the world of horror.

Much has been written about the television as a technology that mediates between the home and the world beyond it, either enabling people to stay inside while remaining aware of the world outside, or enabling people to travel without leaving the comfort of their living rooms. The horror host captures something of this quality, acting as a conduit between the domestic interior and the world outside. But such a conduit does not simply keep things separate but always puts them in play with one another. Sometimes this is felt as pleasurable escape from routines of domestic life, sometime a threatening blurring of the line between the two worlds, and sometimes as calling the distinctions between the two into question: as Alfred Hitchcock is famously quoted as saying,’One of television’s great contributions is that it brought murder back into the home, where it belongs.’

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.