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Archive for July, 2010

Mario Bava

On the occasion of his 96th birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

Best known as a director for his seminal Italian horror films, Mario Bava (1914-80) was also a celebrated cinematographer—like his father, Eugenio—and dabbled memorably in the SF genre in both capacities. The father of another prolific horror director, Lamberto (who assisted Mario from 1965 on), Bava was trained as a painter, and began his filmmaking career in 1939.

Bava shot Ennio de Concini’s breakthrough pepla (sword and sandal films), Le Fatiche di Ercole (The Labors of Hercules, aka Hercules; 1958) and Ercole e la Regina di Lidia (Hercules and the Queen of Lydia, aka Hercules Unchained; 1959). He also served as the uncredited co-director on two films he was photographing for Riccardo Freda, which blended elements of horror and SF.

I Vampiri (The Vampires, aka The Devil’s Commandment, Lust of the Vampire; 1956) told of a modern-day Elizabeth Bathory kept youthful by transfusions from unwilling women. Caltiki, il Mostro Immortale (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster; 1959) was a Mayan “god” discovered in a cave by treasure-hunting archaeologists, a flesh-eating blob that is ultimately unleashed in Mexico City.

In between, Bava photographed Paolo Heusch’s La Morte Viene dalla Spazio (Death Comes from Outer Space, aka The Day the Sky Exploded; 1958), in which an astronaut accidentally creates a climate-altering shower of asteroids that threatens the entire world. He must then persuade all the nations of the Earth to unite, using their atomic arsenals to blow the asteroids out of the atmosphere.

Bava’s skill at salvaging Freda’s films and another peplum he had photographed for Galatea with Steve Reeves, Jacques Tourneur’s La Battaglia di Maratona (aka The Giant of Marathon, 1959), led the studio to offer him carte blanche on his official directorial debut. (Freda reportedly urged them along by deliberately abandoning Caltiki in midstream, thus allowing Bava to strut his stuff.)

Said debut, La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of the Demon, aka Black Sunday; 1960), was based on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Vij,” and remains unsurpassed. It launched the career of Italy’s “scream queen,” British-born Barbara Steele, who was unforgettable as 200-year-old vampire witch Asa and her look-alike descendant, Princess Katia, but with whom Bava sadly never worked again.

Through 1977, Bava directed almost two dozen features in various genres, leaving a unique visual stamp on each, and sometimes prefiguring an entire subgenre. He photographed and/or co-wrote many of his films (often without credit), working miracles of style over substance on limited budgets, and was the first to admit that the scripts foisted upon him were occasionally beyond help.

Bava’s own peplum, Ercole al Centro della Terra (Hercules in the Center of the Earth, aka Hercules in the Haunted World; 1961), lacked Reeves as Hercules, but compensated with abundant atmosphere and Christopher Lee as the vampiric villain, Lico. Lee returned opposite Daliah Lavi in La Frusta e il Corpo (The Whip and the Body, aka What; 1963), one of Bava’s finest horror films.

La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, aka The Evil Eye; 1962) formed a clear template for the horrific crime thrillers known as gialli, popularized in the 1970s by Dario Argento. Another influential early giallo was Bava’s tale of a faceless, black-gloved serial killer, Sei Donne per l’Assassino (Six Women for the Murderer, aka Blood and Black Lace; 1964).

The latter starred Cameron Mitchell, as did the Viking epics Gli Invasori (The Invaders, aka Erik the Conqueror; 1961) and I Coltelli del Vendicatore (Knives of the Avenger, 1966). Bava was able to secure the services of a bigger name, Boris Karloff, to host and play a Russian vampire in his anthology horror film I Tre Volti della Paura (The Three Faces of Fear, aka Black Sabbath; 1963).

Bava was less suited to such spaghetti Westerns as La Strada per Forte Alamo (The Road to Fort Alamo, 1964) and Roy Colt & Winchester Jack (1970). One of his efforts in this genre, Ringo del Nebraska (Ringo from Nebraska, aka Savage Gringo; 1966), was directed primarily by Bava but credited for legal reasons to Spanish director Anthony Roman (Antonio Román), whom he replaced.

Widely regarded as one of the unofficial inspirations for Alien (1979), Terrore Nello Spazio (Terror in Outer Space, aka Planet of the Vampires; 1965) was Bava’s most overt SF effort, yet its scenes of astronauts rising from their graves rivaled those in many a horror film. It concerns a pair of space crews who answer an interstellar distress call and are then taken over by alien intelligences.

Le Spie Vengono dal Semifreddo (The Spy Came from the Semi-Cold, aka Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs; 1966) brought back mad scientist Vincent Price from Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), now creating explosive female androids. SF elements also appeared in Diabolik (aka Danger: Diabolik; 1967), based on the comic strip about a thief who uses high-tech gadgetry.

Bava’s last period horror outing, Operazione Paura (Operation Fear, aka Kill, Baby…Kill!; 1966) had ravishing visuals that influenced no less a filmmaker than Federico Fellini. He continued to work in the genre, with Una Hacha para la Luna de Miel (Hatchet for the Honeymoon; 1969), as well as outside it, with the sex comedy Quante Volte…Quella Notte (Four Times That Night; 1969).

Bava disliked the script of Cinque Bambole per la Luna d’Agosto (Five Dolls for an August Moon; 1969), a rip-off of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. Anticipating Friday the 13th (1980) and its ilk, the series of creative deaths in Reazione a Catena (Ecologia del Delitto) (Chain Reaction [Ecology of Crime], aka Bay of Blood, Twitch of the Death Nerve; 1971) seems almost his rebuttal.

Producer Alfredo Leone was so delighted with Bava’s work on Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga (aka Baron Blood; 1971) that he was once again given carte blanche. Using the same leading lady, Elke Sommer, Bava created Lisa e il Diavolo (Lisa and the Devil; 1972), a poetic and surrealistic horror film so unusual that—to his dismay—it proved initially impossible to distribute.

In the wake of The Exorcist (1973), Lisa had many of its scenes replaced with new material featuring Robert Alda as a priest exorcising Sommer, and was released as La Casa dell’Esorcismo (House of Exorcism; 1975). The original surfaced at last, but Semaforo Rosso (aka Cani Arrabbiati [Rabid Dogs]; 1974) stayed uncompleted and unreleased for decades because of financial problems.

Such disappointments plagued the end of Bava’s career, with his final feature, Shock (1977), being dumped on the U.S. market under the misleading title of Beyond the Door II; he also provided uncredited visual effects for Argento’s Inferno (1980). But he has left us with a rich legacy of splendid visuals, and a new generation is discovering his work on DVD, often in its intended forms.

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Here at BOF, it’s not enough merely to spread The Gospel According to Matheson; we have to make sure we also debunk any of the Matheson misinformation that has an unfortunate tendency to metastasize on the Internet.  Case in point:  I Am Omega (2007), a straight-to-video feature specifically designed to rip off that year’s Will Smith version of I Am Legend, which it beat to the marketplace by a month.  It was produced by a company called The Asylum, the makers of The Day the Earth Stopped (2008), 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Invasion of the Pod People, Transmorphers (all 2007), Snakes on a Train, Pirates of Treasure Island, The Da Vinci Treasure (all 2006) et derivative cetera, which probably tells you all you need to know about I Am Omega.

Or not, since some sources—sadly including the generally reliable, if not infallible, IMDb—persist in referring to I Am Omega as an adaptation of I Am Legend.  The Asylum clearly fostered this misimpression by conflating the titles of Matheson’s novel and its second screen incarnation, The Omega Man (1971), which followed The Last Man on Earth (1964).  Always willing to take one for the team, I have finally and reluctantly subjected myself to this low-budget opus, and can get the official stuff out of the way immediately:  the script is credited to Geoff Meed (clearly a renaissance man who also essays the second-male-lead role of Vincent), period, end of story; no mention of Matheson, which would in any event have brought down a horde of lawyers on behalf of Warner Brothers.

Yes, I am savvy enough to know that there is such a thing as an uncredited adaptation like Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka The Crimson Cult, 1968), the AIP/Tigon film that is patently based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House,” which later became an episode of Masters of Horror.  But as we know from John Hamilton’s Tigon history Beasts in the Cellar, it began life as a Jerry Sohl screenplay entitled Dreams in the Witch House, and with or without Lovecraft’s name on it, a point-by-point comparison between story and film leaves no doubt in the observer’s mind what its origins are.  So it became my unenviable task to sit through I Am Omega while asking, “Is this really an uncredited adaptation of I Am Legend, or just one of the most shameless rip-offs ever?”

Okay, let’s start with the similarities.  Survivor mourning family while barricaded near California city against countless predators mutated by viral plague?  Check.  Daily forays into said city using map coordinates?  Check.  Potential savior of mankind with antivirus in blood?  A feature of the films rather than of the novel, but I’ll allow it, because that has become such a standard fixture.  Boy and girl drive off into sunset?  Check—uh, what?  Yes, you read that right:  Renchard (martial-arts star Mark Dacascos) is neither the last man on earth nor the “legend” of Matheson’s bitterly ironic ending, and because it is not he but Brianna (Jennifer Lee Wiggins) who is immune, he even loses that unique status.

Via a webcam, Brianna requests rescue from downtown Oxnard, telling Renchard that her caravan was attacked by zombies (which I don’t believe are ever referred to as such) en route to Antioch, where thousands of the uninfected are safe in the mountains.  This makes the film less like a Matheson adaptation and more like a “premake” of the Smith version, to whose script one suspects Meed had access.  Ironically, while the vampires in The Last Man on Earth resembled and may have helped to inspire the zombies in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), these in turn resemble and may have been inspired by the gorier zombies in his Dawn of the Dead (1978) and subsequent sequels.

Renchard refuses her request, citing the presence of a huge “hive” of zombies in the center of the city, but then is confronted by ex-Marines Vincent and Mike (Ryan Lloyd), who have come from Antioch to rescue Brianna because of her immunity.  Knowing that Renchard, a former special-ops soldier, has planted time bombs to blow up the city, they want him to lead them in through the sewers and—unwilling to take no for an answer—destroy his home to force his help.  Mike is killed in the sewers, and Vincent stays behind to avenge him while sending Renchard on alone to find Brianna, although unfortunately the car they commandeer to effect their escape soon crashes during an attack by zombies.

House director Griff Furst elicits a performance of extraordinary range from Dacascos, who mostly emotes with the sensitivity of a rolling pin, yet upon receiving Brianna’s first uplink over-reacts like a Warner Brothers cartoon character, and when sharing the screen they vie to outdo each other in atrocious acting.  Appearing in the nick of time, Vincent unexpectedly wounds them and abducts Brianna, preferring this Darwinian utopia to the “pisshole” he believes will resume in the event of a cure.  Renchard tracks them down, killing Vincent before he can rape and murder Brianna, and they flee before the bombs go off…but since the foregoing has n-o-t-h-i-n-g to do with Matheson, my verdict is clear.

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Sitrep 7/27/10

Received the following from the managing editor at McFarland yesterday, and won’t take the time to editorialize just now, but will keep you posted:

Today we have shipped proofs for your book, Richard Matheson on Screen, via UPS to the address you provided. You can now carry out your final two jobs, proofreading the book and creating an index. A form letter with general instructions accompanies the proofs.

Publication is now very near—most books go to the printer just days after we receive the proofs and index.

Your book is tentatively scheduled to be sent to the printer 4 weeks from today’s date. To avoid delays, please give the proofs and index prompt attention.

We look forward to bringing your book into print soon.

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If anybody cares, BOF celebrates its six-month anniversary today.  Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Celebrated genre author (Anno Dracula), historian (Nightmare Movies), and journalist Kim Newman notes in his excellent BFI Companion to Horror that bestselling British novelist James Herbert (b. 1943) “has succeeded Dennis Wheatley as the Default British Horror Writer.”  It’s an interesting comparison, because when I read Herbert’s Haunted—which in my Jove paperback edition bears no fewer than four blurbs from Stephen King—I felt it was in need of the same kind of expert streamlining that Richard Matheson’s 1968 screen adaptation gave to Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out.  Herbert’s novels have also been turned into what Newman calls such “largely undistinguished” films as David Hemmings’s The Survivor (1981), Robert Clouse’s Deadly Eyes (1982, based on The Rats), and writer-director Carlo Carlei’s Fluke (1995).

Haunted was brought to the screen in 1995 by British director Lewis Gilbert, an Oscar nominee for Alfie (1966) whose diverse résumé encompasses the naval adventures Sink the Bismarck! (1960) and Damn the Defiant! (1962); the James Bond films You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and Moonraker (1979); and the comedy Educating Rita (1983).  Gilbert also produced the film with its co-star, Anthony Andrews, and shared credit with Tim Prager and Bob Kellett on the screenplay, thus providing the period setting (1928) for which Herbert’s 1988 novel seemed to cry out.  A 1905 prologue depicts at the outset what is withheld in the book, as young David Ash (Peter England) is traumatized by the drowning of his twin sister Juliet (Victoria Shalet), and by subsequently seeing her eyes open as she lies in her coffin.

Aidan Quinn is well cast as David, a professor of psychology who debunks psychic phenomena, but after he exposes fraudulent medium Madame Bronsky (Linda Bassett)—another sequence shown only in flashback in the novel—she speaks to him in Juliet’s voice.  Soon after, David is summoned by a letter from Tess Webb (Anna Massey, the daughter of Raymond and brother of Daniel) to his boyhood home of Surrey, where Christina Mariell (lovely Kate Beckinsale) meets him and brings him to Edbrook House.  Massey appeared with Keir Dullea in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) and the Matheson-scripted De Sade (1969), as well as in Peeping Tom (1960), Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), Amicus’s The Vault of Horror (1973), and two John le Carré adaptations, The Looking Glass War (1969) and The Little Drummer Girl (1984).

Teased by Christina and her brothers, Robert (Andrews) and Simon (Alex Lowe), for her belief that Edbrook House harbors a ghost, Nanny Tess is terrified by a visit from family physician Henry Doyle (John Gielgud, with a dozen roles still ahead of him before his death in 2000), a character not found in the novel.  During an apparent ghostly manifestation, the wind blows David into the lake, where he sees Juliet underwater and almost drowns before Christina pulls him out.  Finding a 1923 newspaper with an article cut out, he has his secretary, Kate (Geraldine Somerville), locate the original, according to which the widowed Mrs. Mariell drowned herself in the lake, rather than dying with her husband in India as Tess and Christina told him; next, David is mystified by a fire that inexplicably breaks out in the cellar and just as suddenly disappears.

David consults Dr. Doyle, who says that both he and Tess suffer from survivor’s guilt, and asks Christina to leave with him, but she claims that Robert will never allow it, and then makes love with him.  Awakening to an empty house the next morning, David follows a mysterious figure to the cemetery, where the grave of the Mariell siblings indicates that they died in a 1923 fire at Edbrook House, and then to Dr. Doyle’s equally deserted home, where the figure—revealed as Juliet—explains that he, too, has been dead for years (although his ghostly presence remains unexplained in the script).  Ignoring Juliet’s warning that he will be safe only if he stays with her, David drives off with Christina and grabs the wheel to avoid hitting Juliet when she appears in the middle of the road, whereupon David is thrown clear while the car rams a tree and explodes.

Returning to the house, David confronts Tess, who explains that Mrs. Mariell killed herself when she came home unexpectedly one day to find Simon drunk and Christina having sex with Robert, whom Tess claims was born evil and corrupted the others.  The three have haunted her since she locked them in the bedroom and set fire to it, and after they kill her the house bursts into flames, from which Juliet saves David, but as Kate welcomes him home, we see Christina following him at the railroad station.  The ending differs substantially from Herbert’s, in which David’s psychic colleague is frightened to death when she comes to warn him of the danger she sensed; Christina had been a dangerous schizophrenic; Juliet is an evil spirit who conspires against David with the Mariell siblings, blaming him for her death; and Nanny Tess sets Edbrook ablaze to banish them.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) asserts that Haunted “references” Matheson’s The Legend of Hell House (1973), yet I was unable to spot a specific homage, and I think it could be argued that I am unusually well qualified in that department.  They do have one significant similarity, however, because neither is a typical “we’ve got to get rid of this ghost” story, but rather a “who’s haunting whom?” story, in which determining the very nature of the haunting itself is the object of the exercise.  This is especially true in the novel, where Juliet and the Mariells form a kind of unholy alliance to punish David not only for Juliet’s death but also for his theories and the “wall of nonbelief” that guilt made him erect, but even without it, Gilbert’s version is—up to a point—a fairly faithful and satisfying dramatization, with handsome production values and a solid cast.

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As some of you already know, in addition to writing my own blog, I have taken to haunting the blogosphere in general in an effort to spread the word about my forthcoming book Richard Matheson on Screen.  Without endorsing or condemning too many specific sites, I thought this post might provide an interesting account of my adventures to date, and since Matheson wrote one of the best-known episodes of the original Star Trek, “The Enemy Within,” the title seemed like a no-brainer.  (Note:  I tried three different online calculators to convert today’s date into a Stardate, and got three different answers, so I can’t particularly vouch for the one above from http://www.trekguide.com/Stardates.htm.)

The indispensable first step in such a campaign was to set up a Google Alert that sends me daily e-mails listing every mention of Matheson on the Internet, and while going through them all is time-consuming, you can’t make an omelet without taking time to break some eggs.  They range from obscure blogs (say, this one) to well-known sites, e.g., the Huffington Post, where he was misidentified on July 14 as the writer of the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “Third from the Sun,” actually adapted from his story by Rod Serling.  If that seems like nitpicking, be aware that the columnist was using Matheson’s supposed authorship of the episode to exemplify a particular moment in history, whereas the short story had been written a decade earlier—hey, an obsession is a harsh taskmaster.

As a relative neophyte in the blogosphere, I’ve found this to be a learning experience in many ways, like the fact that there’s some really weird poetry out there by a guy named Richard Matheson, who I’m pretty sure isn’t my Mr. Matheson.  I learned that “Button, Button”—basis for the recent train-wreck The Box—was adapted on radio long before its mid-’80s Twilight Zone incarnation, which I wish Paul Stuve and I had known when we compiled our exhaustive “ographies” (bibliography, filmography, etc.) for The Richard Matheson Companion.  And there is a forthcoming Moonstone Comics graphic novel based on Matheson’s The Night Strangler; we were able to include their earlier version of The Night Stalker, adapted by Kolchak creator Jeff Rice hisself, no less.

But most of all, I’m learning that for a guy I always felt was underappreciated, Matheson seems to be mentioned on a whole lotta websites, even if it’s only a throwaway line like, “Hey, all, I just finished reading I Am Legend, and now I’m repairing my sink.  Here are some photos of the sink.”  In fact, I Am Legend is by far the most frequently mentioned of his works, accounting for perhaps half of each day’s links, sometimes simply among a list of books the blogger recommends, or is reading, or has just read, or wants to read.  Since a lot of bloggers seem to be heavily into zombies, there is no shortage of references to the fact that it also inspired George A. Romero’s seminal zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, although the three official feature-film versions get their share of discussion, too.

Obviously, the object of the exercise is to create grass-roots awareness for my magnum opus, which I hope will be of some interest to the author and/or readers of any blog post about Matheson, but I don’t want my comments to be merely commercials.  So I try not only to provide some feedback on the post—which, after all, is what comments are for—but also to offer some interesting Mathesoniana, or the occasional correction, before I slip in my little plug at the end.  I must say that so far these people have been very supportive (if they acknowledge my comments at all), expressing a desire to read the book when it is finally published and, in a few cases, even requesting links from which it can be ordered.

Some have been amazingly generous, like the Bradburymedia site (see blogroll at right) that I belatedly discovered—via a hitherto overlooked incoming links feature on WordPress’s “dashboard”—had posted the cover of my book and links to both the McFarland page and my BOF profile of Bradbury/Matheson pal William F. Nolan.  Trust a warm-hearted guy like Ray to inspire such a fan site, which is probably what this one would have become for Matheson if I didn’t have so many other, lesser cinematic and pop-culture interests.  I’ve also struck up a desultory and very pleasant blog-comment and e-mail exchange with William Schoell, who has been examining the various incarnations of I Am Legend on his Great Old Movies blog, and is the author of several genre-film books in my home library.

Other sites, which I don’t fully fathom, appear to be encouraging people to purchase a DVD or other merchandise, yet since they seem to be personal blogs, I don’t see how the blogger benefits except by getting his or her name out there, but if readers are in a buying mood, so much the better.  Reading some of these can be intensely disheartening, like one with five or six uniformly negative “reviews” of Steven Spielberg’s Matheson-scripted Duel—a classic by any reasonable standard—along the lines of, “It has no story,” “It was stupid,” or “Nothing happens.”  One envisions these “critics” IM’ing their comments (if such a thing is even logistically possible; I neither know nor care) in between rounds of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, all the while wondering if they will ever lose their virginity.

There’s a pretty lively, at times acrimonious, Twilight-inspired debate going on nowadays between the pro-sparkly and anti-sparkly camps, but since the net result is an increased interest in vampires, I’ll cheerfully jump on that bandwagon without taking sides, as I am unfamiliar with Twilight and its sequels.  I’ve seen I Am Legend recommended as further reading for those who love Twilight, and as a corrective for those who hate it, so I’m not alone in considering Matheson a nonpartisan choice.  His impeccable vampire credentials also include the stories “Dress of White Silk,” which influenced Anne Rice, and “Blood Son”; scripting the two original Night Stalker TV-movies, which influenced Buffy creator Joss Whedon; and adapting Dracula for the Dan Curtis TV version starring Jack Palance.

Well, I’m no expert, God knows, but it looks as if that’s how we sell our wares in this here 21st century of ours, since I’m unlikely to be booked on Good Morning America to talk about how great Richard Matheson is when they could probably get Richard himself.  Because I get no advance against royalties on this one (unlike my two previous Matheson projects, although those would have averaged out at a hilariously minuscule hourly rate), literally every sale counts, and I’m out there sellin’ this thing one copy at a time.  The law of averages suggests that sooner or later, some fellow blogger will take umbrage over my shameless shilling, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying my educational experiences in the blogosphere, and would like to thank all those, both named and unnamed, who’ve helped.

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Joyous tidings have recently been announced for fans of both classic television and the Southern California Sorcerers (aka “The Group”), namely that the anthology series Thriller will be released on DVD in its entirety by the ever-outstanding Image Entertainment on August 31.  Thriller ran for two seasons (1960-62) on NBC, initially following the same network’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents; both shows were produced by Universal’s television arm, and Hitchcock supposedly pressured them to cancel Thriller because he thought it was too similar.  Indeed, Thriller had much in common with his show:  suspenseful stories, an instantly recognizable host in the form of Boris Karloff, and many of the same personnel (e.g., Herschel Daugherty and John Brahm, who with fifteen and eleven episodes, respectively, were its most frequent directors).

Among those personnel were several Group members, with episodes written by Richard Matheson (“The Return of Andrew Bentley”) and Charles Beaumont (“Guillotine,” based on the story by Cornell Woolrich, and “Girl with a Secret”).  By far the most active was Robert Bloch, who supplied scripts or original stories for many episodes of both shows, including some of the most memorable.  But as with the Hitchcock series and England’s Amicus Productions, which filmed Bloch’s “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” as The Skull (1965) before hiring him as a screenwriter, he was recruited for Thriller only after three episodes (“The Cheaters,” “The Hungry Glass,” and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”) had been adapted from his work by other writers.

Never as well known as The Twilight Zone or the Hitchcock show, Thriller has its adherents, including Stephen King, who called it “probably the best horror series ever put on TV,” noting in Danse Macabre that “after a slow first thirteen weeks, [it] was able to become something more than the stock imitation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that it was apparently meant to be…and took on a tenebrous life of its own.”  The show initially focused more on crime and mystery, and many of its early problems can be traced to uncertainty regarding its direction and the tensions between creator Hubbell Robinson and his original producer, Fletcher Markle.  The latter and his associate producer and story editor, James P. Cavanagh (a veteran of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents), were soon supplanted by two new producers, Maxwell Shane and William Frye, brought in to handle Thriller’s crime and horror episodes, respectively.

Shane, who had already adapted Woolrich’s work in Fear in the Night (1947) and Nightmare (1956), left after basing “Papa Benjamin” on another of his stories, and Frye, who produced the remaining episodes, soon gave the series a distinctive flavor by mining the pages of Weird Tales.  That famed fantasy pulp is, of course, best known for featuring the work of H.P. Lovecraft and such protégés as August Derleth and Bloch himself.  Directed by Brahm and written by the show’s most prolific contributor, Donald S. Sanford, “The Cheaters” was one of only two episodes—the other being the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation “The Premature Burial” —that were actually introduced with the host’s frequently quoted tagline, “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller!”

This was to be the first of ten episodes written and/or based on works by Bloch, including William Shatner’s only two appearances, “The Hungry Glass” and Daugherty’s “The Grim Reaper”; coincidentally, Matheson scripted Shatner’s only two Twilight Zone outings, “Nick of Time” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and both writers later contributed to his best-known series, Star Trek.  Bloch adapted “The Weird Tailor” and “Waxworks” (both directed by Daugherty) from his own stories, which he later recycled in the Amicus anthology films Asylum (1972) and The House That Dripped Blood (1970).  His other Thriller episodes were “The Devil’s Ticket,” Brahm’s “A Good Imagination,” Daugherty’s “’Til Death Do Us Part,” and John Newland’s “Man of Mystery,” all based on his own work.

Newland, whose Thriller episode “Pigeons from Hell” is often called the single most frightening story ever done on television, also directed “The Return of Andrew Bentley,” which Matheson adapted from a Weird Tales story by Derleth and Mark Schorer.  Although Beaumont and fellow Group member Jerry Sohl adapted Lovecraft’s work in The Haunted Palace (1963) and Die, Monster, Die (1965), respectively, Matheson never did, despite his successful Poe films for the same studio, AIP.  “He wasn’t my kind of writer—too heavy,” he told me in an interview for Filmfax.  “Heavy stuff.  You know, he’d spend fifty pages talking about some Eldritch horror that is so horrible to describe that he can’t possibly do it, and then in the last ten pages he describes it.  I mean obviously, the man was brilliant, I just don’t care for that kind of writing….But the show Thriller, the whole thing had a Lovecraft atmosphere to it.”

For the full story of this neglected show, see Alan Warren’s This Is a Thriller: An Episode Guide, History and Analysis of the Classic 1960s Television Series, to which I am greatly indebted.  For a blow-by-blow account of Bloch’s involvement, see my contribution to Benjamin Szumskyj’s The Man Who Collected Psychos: Critical Essays on Robert Bloch, some of which I have drawn on here.  And, needless to say, you can read more about “The Return of Andrew Bentley” in Richard Matheson on Screen; all three books are, or will be, published by McFarland.

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Several years ago this review was commissioned, and then cancelled, by A Magazine That Shall Remain Nameless.  I’d put a lot of work into it, and was very distressed that it wouldn’t see the light of day (not to mention getting stiffed for my fee).  For all I know, these books may be out of print by now, but in the era of eBay and its ilk, older books are easier to obtain than ever, so the idea of running this doesn’t seem so crazy as it once would have.  In any event, I’m glad someone will finally see it, even if I still won’t get paid.  Hope you enjoy it.

 

 AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY: THE COMPLETE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF ROD SERLING, VOLUME ONE, edited by Tony Albarella.  Gauntlet Press, hardcover, 488 pp., $66 (numbered edition), $200 (lettered edition)

 

THE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF CHARLES BEAUMONT, VOLUME ONE, edited by Roger Anker.  Gauntlet Press, hardcover, 440 pp., $66 (numbered edition), $250 (lettered edition)

 

THE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF JERRY SOHL, edited by Christopher Conlon.  BearManor Media, trade paperback, 177 pp., $18.95

While accepting his second consecutive Emmy Award for The Twilight Zone for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama in 1961, Rod Serling famously thanked “three writing gremlins who did the bulk of the work:  Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Clayton Johnson.”  With the Twilight Zone scripts of Matheson and Johnson already published, an ambitious program by Gauntlet Press is now immeasurably enhancing the literary legacy of that seminal anthology show by issuing those of Serling and his remaining “gremlin,” Beaumont, in multiple volumes edited by Tony Albarella and Roger Anker, respectively.  The first book of Serling scripts includes a message from his widow, Carol; appreciations by Matheson (whose short story “Third from the Sun” was adapted into one of them) and Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon (whose screenwriting career began with the mid-1980s Zone revival); tributes by cast members and producer Buck Houghton, Albarella’s detailed commentaries, photos, and various “rarities.”

The book begins with both of the show’s pilots (“The Time Element,” an episode of Desilu Playhouse, and “Where Is Everybody?”), and explains its origins as an outgrowth of earlier Serling scripts for mainstream anthology shows such as Kraft Television Theater and Playhouse 90, which discomfited sponsors and networks with their controversial content.  With Emmys in hand for “Patterns,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” and “The Comedian,” Serling sought an SF/fantasy vehicle to “camouflage” his de facto morality plays, and “The Time Element” (an hour-long expansion of a live show written in his college days) delivers, whisking William Bendix back to December 6, 1941, when his frantic warning is unheeded.  “Where Is Everybody?” actually “cheats” by explaining its outré scenario, as an amnesiac desperately seeks signs of life in an abruptly depopulated town, although it is otherwise a textbook Twilight Zone case, and ironically, Serling altered the ending, which reveals the man as an astronaut whose ability to undergo isolation is being tested, in a prose adaptation.

The scripts constitute a cross-section of autobiographical details from Serling’s life, like the wartime Philippine Islands setting of “The Purple Testament”—where a soldier sees in their faces which of his comrades will die—and recurring themes in his work, such as the prize-fighting milieu of “The Big, Tall Wish,” in which a boy wishes a boxer to victory.  Albarella explores the creation of the classic “Eye of the Beholder” (although omitting its original title, “A Private World of Darkness,” also taken from Serling’s narration), famed for its shock ending wherein a bandaged outcast is revealed to be a beauty by our standards, in a world of porcine man-monsters created by the great William Tuttle’s striking makeup.  A tale of two families fleeing an apocalypse, “Third from the Sun” shows Serling’s skill at adaptation, while an instructive comparison between drafts reveals why a lesser episode like “A Most Unusual Camera,” whose titular gadget photographs the near future, might have been better with the simpler ending in an alternate version, written eighteen months earlier.

“The Mind and the Matter,” with comedian Shelley Berman as a chronic malcontent who repopulates the world with duplicates of himself, and “The Dummy,” highlighted by Cliff Robertson’s tour de force performance as a ventriloquist terrified by his wooden companion, round out this initial offering of nine scripts from the ninety-two Serling wrote.  Like Beaumont’s, they are faithfully reproduced by Gauntlet in their oversized original typescript format, with revisions and hand-written corrections included to shed additional light on the development of these enduring episodes, although purists might prefer that they had been published in their original order, rather than selected from the first three seasons.  Albarella displays an admirable awareness of the key support provided by Serling’s many collaborators on both sides of the camera, including composers Bernard Herrmann and the late Jerry Goldsmith, ace cinematographer George T. Clemens, directors Douglas Heyes and Richard L. Bare, and an impressive roster of actors, several of whom offer recollections.

Contractually obligated to provide 80% of the scripts himself, Serling wanted to use the best in the business to help out with the rest and, like Gene Roddenberry with Star Trek years later, turned to the members of the burgeoning “Southern California School of Writers,” more familiarly called The Group, with Beaumont and Matheson his first recruits.  Beaumont brought an entirely different sensibility to the new series:  “Whereas Serling’s tales often explored the human condition and were rooted in sentimentality and nostalgia, Beaumont’s…usually took on darker themes:  nightmares from which there was no escape, voodoo curses, encounters with Satan,” as Anker notes of his debut, “Perchance to Dream.”  That nail-biter, about a man who fears the fatal effects of a recurring nightmare, is one of several scripts in this volume to be based on Beaumont’s published stories, such as “The Howling Man,” “The Jungle,” and the unproduced “Gentlemen, Be Seated,” the last of which depicts a dystopian future where laughter is outlawed—but still practiced in secret.

Again, the scripts are presented in chronological but not sequential order, and in this case it is an especially curious editorial decision, in light of the mini-biography that Anker weaves through his commentaries, concluding with Beaumont’s premature aging and early death at thirty-eight, which leaves the reader wondering where he will go in Volume Two.  Anker expands upon the material from his introduction to Beaumont’s Selected Stories (Dark Harvest, 1988), and like that estimable edition, this offers a superb Group portrait, with reminiscences by Matheson (who also wrote the foreword; Zone scribe Earl Hamner contributes an afterword as well), Johnson, Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, and others.  Another and even more moving perspective is provided by the eldest of Beaumont’s four children, Christopher, a fellow television writer who speaks eloquently in his preface and elsewhere in the book of his father’s talents as both a parent and an artist, and of the special moments afforded them before Chris was left fatherless at the age of only sixteen.

“Person or Persons Unknown” is a quintessential Zone original about a man who is suddenly a stranger to all who knew him, while Beaumont used a lighter touch on “A Nice Place to Visit,” as a crook’s heavenly afterlife turns out to be in  “The Other Place” (the original title), and “The Prime Mover,” with Buddy Ebsen as an amiable telekinetic.  Among his best-known episodes are “The Howling Man” (under whose title Tor reissued the Selected Stories in 1992), in which an unwitting traveler releases a captive Satan, and “The Jungle,” a terrifying tale of voodoo vengeance whose opening scene bears a strong resemblance to a sequence in Burn, Witch, Burn (1962), the film he wrote with Matheson.  Credited with fully a third of the fourth season’s eighteen hour-long scripts, Beaumont is represented here by his first, “In His Image,” and last, “Passage on the Lady Anne”; based on “The Man Who Made Himself” and “Song for a Lady,” respectively, they concern an android who quite literally meets his maker and a bickering couple on an ill-fated voyage. 

No discussion of Beaumont’s Twilight Zone work is complete without mentioning the uncredited colleagues who jumped in when the charismatic writer—famed for his ability to dazzle network executives at pitch meetings—was unable to handle his heavy workload, especially during his rapid decline due to a degenerative disease, most likely Alzheimer’s.  Chief among these initially unsung heroes was the late Jerry Sohl, and BearManor Media has, appropriately, just released a volume of his three Twilight Zone scripts produced under Beaumont’s byline; their earlier collection Filet of Sohl, also edited by Group expert Chris Conlon, contained two Zone teleplays that were never filmed.  Unlike the others, Sohl’s have been typeset, and two are previously unpublished:  “The New Exhibit,” the only one of the half-dozen hour-long shows bearing Beaumont’s name that he did not write himself, and “Queen of the Nile,” the last episode of the original Zone to credit him, although “Dead Man’s Shoes” and “Shadow Play” were remade in its ‘80s incarnation.

Echoing House of Wax (1953) and Robert Bloch’s Thriller episode “Waxworks,” “Exhibit” casts Martin Balsam as the curator of a fading wax museum’s Murderers’ Row, dangerously obsessed with his charges and their crimes, while “Queen” concerns an ageless actress with a secret, a scarab beetle that proves fatal for anyone who gets too close to her.  Sohl’s standout episode is the fan favorite “Living Doll,” in which a girl’s Talky Tina toy announces and carries out its intent to kill her wicked stepfather, and it is interesting to note that the script calls for the doll to be larger and more menacing in appearance, à la Child’s Play (1988), though the concept is probably even more frightening as it was finally filmed.  Of necessity, this is a more modest affair than the Gauntlet titles, with a brief introduction from Conlon but no episode commentaries or photos, plus an invaluable afterword in which Johnson explains the origins of A Touch of Strange, an abortive anthology series that he, Sohl, Matheson, and Theodore Sturgeon discussed while all four were writing for Star Trek.

Reading these twenty-one taut teleplays, it’s easy to escape back into The Twilight Zone and experience once again the thrill of discovery one had when watching “Eye of the Beholder” or “The Howling Man” (both directed by Douglas Heyes, who speaks candidly about the challenges they offered and his disagreements with Beaumont) for the first time.  And one can see how actors like Earl Holliman in “Where Is Everybody?,” Richard Conte in “Perchance to Dream,” Richard Long in “Person or Persons Unknown” and Telly Savalas in “Living Doll” were given the extraordinary gifts of stories and characters that pitted them against forces beyond their control or understanding, allowing their acting talents full rein.  Given his literary background, it is not surprising that Beaumont’s scripts make for slightly better reading, with shot descriptions presumably more detailed than those in an average teleplay, but all three books are brimming with the imagination, ingenuity and diversity that have kept The Twilight Zone thriving in reruns since it made its debut, forty-five years ago.

As Rod Serling told TV Guide in 1959, “the half-hour film can probe effectively, dramatize and present a well-told and well-filmed story….We want to tell stories that are different.  We want to prove that television, even in its half-hour form [as The Twilight Zone was for four out of its five seasons], can be both commercial and worthwhile.”  No greater proof of that theory need be offered than these unforgettable excursions from a trio of master storytellers, whose work will outlive them all, and enrich us for years yet to come.

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