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).

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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.