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

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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

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.

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).