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.

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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.’