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) – 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