October 22, 2021

Hammer's Journey to the Unknown

Hammer TV series Journey to the Unknown title screen
This post is part of The Third Annual Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, co-hosted by Barry at his Cinematic Catharsis blog and Gill at RealWeegieMidget Reviews. Don't forget to check their sites for many more reviews of thrilling works by Hammer Films and Amicus Productions.

Hammer Films will always be fondly remembered for its revival of the classic monsters starting in the late 1950s, and for launching Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into superstardom.

Less well known are the company’s forays into television, with the anthology series Journey to the Unknown leading the way in 1968, followed by Hammer House of Horror (1980) and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984).

House of Horror is probably most familiar to the casual fan, being available on both DVD and Blu-ray as well as several streaming channels. House of Mystery and Suspense is out of print, and doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere in the U.S. And then there’s Journey to the Unknown, which, as a complete series, never saw a good home video release.

That’s a shame, because in its 17 episode run, Journey to the Unknown presented a great mix of psychological suspense and supernatural horror in contemporary settings. Several of the episodes were based on stories by acclaimed writers, including Robert Bloch, Cornel Woolrich, Donald E. Westlake and Charles Beaumont (of Twilight Zone fame), and the talented casts were headed by name actors such as Joseph Cotten, Julie Harris, Vera Miles, Patty Duke and Roddy McDowall, among others.

The series was co-produced by Hammer and 20th Century Fox Television for broadcast in the U.S. on ABC-TV; it later aired in the UK on the ITV network. American actors were featured prominently in order to make it more attractive for the U.S. market (more on the production backstory later). 

Journey to the Unknown debuted on ABC on September 26, 1968, with the last episode airing in January of 1969. Wanting to get the most out of their investment, the network repackaged eight of the episodes into four TV movies (Journey into Darkness, Journey to the Unknown, Journey to Murder and Journey to Midnight), adding hosts Patrick McGoohan, Joan Crawford and Sebastian Cabot to introduce the segments. These aired between 1969 and 1971. 

Being a lifelong horror fan, I was fortunate to catch Journey to the Unknown when it originally aired. I was immediately intrigued by (or should I say spooked by) the show’s eerie title sequence, with its whistled theme music (composed by Harry Robinson) and nighttime shots of a rider-less roller coaster in an abandoned amusement park.

I recently revisited the series. Most of the episodes live up to the uncanny atmosphere of the title sequence, with only a couple of clunkers that are dead on delivery (inevitable even in the best anthology shows). The episode that made the biggest impression on me the first time around, and that still holds up very well, is "Poor Butterfly," with American Chad Everett headlining the cast.

“Poor Butterfly,” original airdate Jan. 9, 1969

Have you ever had a dream where you were a fish out of water, finding yourself in some unknown place with people you don’t know, maybe inappropriately dressed (or not dressed at all!), and clueless as to how you got there and where to go?

Such is Chad Everett’s situation in “Poor Butterfly” (except for the not dressed part). Steven Miller (Everett), a wealthy American working in London, gets an invitation to a formal costume party from a person he can’t remember ever meeting. After conferring with colleagues, his curiosity gets the better of him, and he sets out in his vintage 1929 Bugatti motorcar (!!) to the countryside location.

Miller gets lost on the winding country roads, and when he flags down a local man to inquire about the way to Measham house, he only gets an uncomprehending stare for his troubles. He finally locates a sign pointing the way, and when he rolls up in front of the country estate, he finds a number of other antique cars parked outside.

He walks into a bustling, elegant costume party, with most of the partygoers dressed in costumes from various periods of British history. American to the core, Miller changes into his Jesse James costume, further marking him as the proverbial fish out of water. The place seems to be suspended in time, with the antique cars filling the driveway, and partiers dancing the Charleston as if it was still the 1920s.

Chad Everett as Steven Miller, "Poor Butterfly," Journey to the Unknown, 1969
Dressed up as Jesse James, Steven is ready to steal some hearts.

Still mystified that he doesn’t know anyone, Miller tries to talk to the host, Sir Robert “Bobby” Sawyer (Edward Fox), who acts as if he knows the American. But talk is difficult in the tumult of the party, and Sawyer’s answers are evasive.

Another partier who seems to know Miller is an ethereal beauty, dressed in a butterfly costume, who catches Steven’s eye from across the room. As the group begins a round dance, she whispers to Miller that she hoped he would come. After the dance, when Miller asks her how she could anticipate the arrival of someone she doesn’t even know, she coyly explains that she was simply hoping he would come around to her during the dance.

The “poor butterfly,” Rose Parkington (Susan Brodick), cousin to Bobby and seemingly at home among the effete revelers, is nonetheless wistful in the midst of all the gaiety, and as vulnerable as the creature that her costume mimics.

She has a fiance, John, an eminent London surgeon who is too busy to make it to the party. Regardless, she attaches herself to the handsome American stranger as if he was her last chance at happiness.

The atmosphere turns darker and more threatening as Rose’s friends notice how much time she is spending with Steven. Costumed guests that seemed jovial and charming at the beginning turn menacing as Rose starts pleading with Steven to take her to London.

As a storm approaches, with thunder rumbling in the distance, Rose becomes increasingly anxious. Steven suspects he’s being used merely as a chauffeur to take Rose to her precious fiance, but in the face of her desperation he agrees to give her a ride. But first he has to get more gas from a reserve pump located a few miles from the estate.

Susan Brodick and Chad Everett in "Poor Butterfly," Journey to the Unknown, 1969
Rose is deathly afraid of storms.

As Miller is trying to unlock the gas pump, the storm hits full force, and he’s forced to wait it out in the car. Unaccountably, he has trouble again finding the house, but when he meets up again with the local villager who was so unhelpful, what he learns from the old man and his wife has him questioning his senses.

Masquerades in the movies have a high weirdness quotient. People in costumes and masks are figuratively not themselves, and each one is a potential mystery, possibly even a threat. Much of the cast in “Poor Butterfly” is credited not by their characters’ names, but by their costumes: Queen Victoria, Admiral Nelson, Friar Tuck, Aviator, Red Queen, and March Hare.

Add to this the disquieting idea that they seem to know all about you, but you know nothing about them, and you have the makings of a simmering nightmare. Steven and Rose stand out like sore thumbs, he in his old west costume, and she in her delicate butterfly costume.

As Steven complains about his being out of place, Rose shoots back, “Is it so important to know why you’re here? Can’t you just enjoy yourself?”

Except that Rose is clearly not enjoying herself, and has an agenda that is causing concern among the other guests, who slowly but surely tighten a disapproving web around her.

In a bit of foreshadowing, Steven comments on Rose’s costume: “Why the butterfly?... they’re such sad creatures, butterflies, especially the rare ones. You see them for a minute, then [snapping his fingers] they’re gone.”

Susan Brodick in "Poor Butterfly," Journey to the Unknown, 1969
Rose is an especially rare species of butterfly.

Little does he know that he won’t be able to help this poor butterfly. Based on a story by actor and writer William Abney, Jeremy Paul’s script masterfully intersperses the building suspense with poignant moments, culminating in a resolution that, even as it unravels the mystery, leaves a lingering feeling of dread.

Chad Everett is well cast, with his all-American accent and demeanor serving to set him distinctly apart from the cold, upper-crust gentility of the other party-goers. The same year that “Poor Butterfly” was broadcast, he began the role for which he’s best remembered, that of Dr. Joe Gannon in CBS’ long running series Medical Center (1969-76).

Susan Brodick (Rose) has only a relative smattering of acting credits, but after “Poor Butterfly” she managed to secure parts in two other Hammer horrors, Countess Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (both 1971).

Fans of action-adventure may appreciate the presence of Edward Fox as “Bobby” Sawyer and Bernard Lee as the crusty old villager. Fox was the stealthy assassin in The Day of the Jackal (1973) and specialized in playing military officers in dozens of films. James Bond fans know Lee as the original “M,” who gave orders to three different Bonds (Connery, Lazenby and Moore), finally wrapping up the role with Moonraker in 1981.

Bonus episode: "Matakitas is Coming," original airdate Nov. 28, 1968

Most people don’t normally associate libraries with murders and hauntings, but every relatively large library building has its share of lonely, shadowy corners that, under the right circumstances, can send a chill down the spine.

Besides Vera Miles, the star of "Matakitas is Coming" is a cavernous old library full of shadowy spaces, dusty statuary, and the malevolent spirit of at least one long-dead serial killer.

Miles plays June Wiley, a hard-working crime writer for a popular London magazine. Her colleagues, and even her fiance, wonder what a nice person like June is doing writing about grisly murders.

When a co-worker manages to reserve some precious time for June on the microfilm machine at the local library, she has to delay her date, telling her fiance that she’ll meet him later at the movie theater. (Yes Virginia, you used to have to crank through miles of microfilm to research old newspaper stories.) He jokes sourly that the only way to spend any time with her is to commit murder.

June is researching unusual murders of the past for an article, and one of the more horrifying examples she comes across is that of a librarian some forty odd years ago in the very building she’s using. It was the last in a series of ritual murders committed by the library’s own caretaker, an extremely sketchy chap by the name of Matakitas.

June discovers that Matakitas boasted at his trial that he murdered the women to provide brides for his master, the Devil, and that as a reward for his service, he’d receive a special diabolical dispensation. She’s so engrossed in her work that she forgets the time, and finds to her chagrin that the place is empty and she’s been locked inside.

Gay Hamilton and Vera Miles in "Matakitas is Coming," Journey to the Unknown, 1968
June discusses her library fines with the librarian.

She’s relieved to find that a young library clerk (Gay Hamilton) is also inside, but the woman is nervous, doesn’t have a key to get out, and is of little help. When June finds a phone and calls for help, she’s taken aback when the operator insists the number she is trying to call doesn’t exist. When she manages to get a hold of the police station, the duty officer berates her for making a crank call when she explains that her 1968 model car is parked outside the building she’s trapped in.

It begins to dawn on her that something’s not right, and, with a growing sense of dread, she asks the exasperated operator to tell her what the date is. Somehow, June is not only trapped in a spooky old library, she’s also trapped in the past. It’s September 19, 1927, the day when Matakitas murdered the librarian, and the exact time when he committed the heinous act is fast approaching.

"Matakitas is Coming" is the highest rated episode of the series on IMDb, and it’s easy to see why. It takes one of the stronger lead actors of the series, Vera Miles, places her into what ordinarily would be a nice, safe setting, a library, and proceeds to tighten a noose of diabolical evil around her.

However, If there is anyone who can meet the challenge of being trapped in a dark, foreboding building with supernatural evil afoot, it’s June Wiley. She is smart, resourceful, and loves a good mystery (although perhaps not under these particular circumstances).

In countless horror movies, the telephone is that everyday convenience that never works when it’s needed -- the line is always dead (or there’s no cell service). It’s a nice touch that while the library’s telephone seems to be in perfect working order, it might as well be dead, as the outside world of 1927 can’t understand what June Wiley from 1968 is trying to tell them.

Vera Miles on the phone in "Matakitas is Coming," Journey to the Unknown, 1968
June has a direct line to 1927.

Fully cognizant that she’s not in Kansas anymore, June becomes a psychic sleuth, sensing that the spirit of the murdered librarian is trying to communicate with her, first through a record playing by itself in a deserted room, then through books that are pushed one by one off the shelves by an unseen hand.

There’s a lot going on in just an hour-long episode -- ritual murders, devil worship, time travel, spooky sounds, unseen spirits, and clocks ticking toward apparent doom -- but the various elements combine like pieces in a big, eerie puzzle as the story, and June, wend their inexorable way to a fateful conclusion.

Vera Miles, with over 160 acting credits, was always a welcome and classy addition to any movie or TV show she starred in. Her greatest contribution to the horror genre was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where she played Lila Crane, sister to the unfortunate Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), and a dogged sleuth who solves the mystery of the Bates Motel. She reprised the role in Psycho II (1983).

Leon Lissek as the creepy Devil’s servant Matakitas makes the most of a brief flashback scene in which he lectures the court that is about to condemn him to death: “I did nothing but obey the commands of my mighty protector! My master has spoken and I… I am his instrument on earth!” In his perverse earnestness, he looks and sounds like a young Peter Lorre.

Matakitas: the Devil's wedding coordinator.

And then there’s the third star, the library. Interior shots of "Matakitas" were filmed at the City of Westminster’s Mayfair Library, a charming old world building located in the heart of London. The Library retired from show business with just the one credit, but remains a popular wedding venue (and not only for disciples of the Devil).

Behind-the-scenes: Hammer’s Journey to Unraveling Work Relationships

Hammer got the ball rolling on its first TV series in the spring of 1967 when Hammer co-founder James Carreras teamed up with counterparts at 20th Century Fox television to develop an hour-long horror series provisionally titled Fright Hour.

The ABC TV network agreed to broadcast the series in the U.S., and Fox appointed Joan Harrison, screenwriter, former assistant to Alfred Hitchcock, and the renowned producer of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to oversee the project as executive producer.

But the series ended up being costly to Hammer in more ways than one. According to Hammer historians Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, the series’ arduous post-production process “lead long-term supervising editor James Needs to quit, [and] it was also a contributory factor in Anthony Hinds’ later decision to resign his directorship.” [Hearn and Barnes, The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007, p. 125]

Although Hinds thought well of Harrison, he chafed at being “demoted” to a line producer:

“I was miserable in the role of producer with an all-powerful executive producer from ABC over me. I had been my own boss too long. Jim Carreras ‘sold’ me as a package to make the series. ABC in America decided that as I’d had no experience in television, they ought to send over a representative, who was Joan Harrison -- with whom I got on very well. But I found myself doing a production manager’s job because she had to take over, and I hated that. I hated being demoted. But I had to do it. I had to stay with it, all the way through, hating every minute of it.” [Chris Fellner, The Encyclopedia of Hammer Films, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, p. 224]

Where to find it: Watchable episodes are available on YouTube, and on DVD from specialists in rare TV. 

October 8, 2021

Films From Beyond’s 1st Annual F.R.I.G.H.T. Awards

The 2021 Films From Beyond F.R.I.G.H.T. Awards
It’s that time of year again, when monsters of all shapes, sizes and descriptions claw, bite, slash, stomp, strangle and create general mayhem in Halloween marathons on innumerable channels.

Here at Films From Beyond, we believe in a variety of approaches to horror, as long as they’re done the B movie way: creatively and imaginatively, with a modicum of resources that precludes self-indulgently throwing everything but the kitchen sink into a mega-budget box office rip-off.

Speaking of different approaches, it’s one thing to generate scares from very ambulatory vampires, werewolves or axe-wielding maniacs, and quite another to chill audiences with small, inanimate objects that spend most of the time collecting dust on some dark, forgotten shelf.

And we’re not talking dolls, puppets or ventriloquists' dummies. Those benighted things are right up there with clowns in the supposedly-cheery-but-downright-creepy-and-often-terrifying category. Just ask any fan of Dead of Night (1945), The Twilight Zone, Charles Band’s Full Moon productions, and/or the Annabelle series. They’ve become a horror genre unto themselves, and deserve their own post (or two).

Nope, we’re talking about assorted curios, bric-a-brac and gewgaws, no bigger than a bread box, that bide their time in cobwebbed attics, dank basements and dark closets, waiting for the unwary to help them unleash their evil into the world.

All the items profiled here are smaller than a bread box.
The Devil's bread box, straight from Hell's Kitchen (apologies to Gordon Ramsay).

To honor those intrepid filmmakers of yesteryear who took a chance and made effective horror movies about small inanimate objects, we’re instituting our first annual F.R.I.G.H.T. awards: the most Frightening Relics, Items, Gadgets, Heirlooms and Talismans in vintage B horror movies.

Winner: Mummified Animal Part Category. The Monkey’s Paw (1933)

W.W. Jacob’s short story, first published in 1902, is not only the definitive cautionary tale to be careful what you wish for, but it's also a masterful exercise in getting the reader’s own imagination working overtime to send shivers down the spine.

The story has been adapted many times on the stage, radio, film and TV. I hadn’t seen any of the film adaptations until I attended the Monster Bash convention in Mars, PA in 2019 (see my review of the convention here). One of the highlights of their film program was the 1933 RKO version, starring Ivan Simpson, Louise Carter, and C. Aubrey Smith. The film was considered lost until 2016, when a French-dubbed version surfaced. Thanks to film historian Tom Weaver, who secured a copy, Monster Bash was the first time the film had been shown anywhere since the discovery.

The film gets steadily darker and gloomier as the wishes play out, and, in an imaginative bit of business, with each unfortunate wish, one of the paw’s fingers curls up.

Lobby card, The Monkey's Paw, 1933
"I hope that's our GrubbyHub delivery!"

Poster, 13 Ghosts, 1960
Winner: Ghastly Ghost Goggles Category: 13 Ghosts (1960)

Producer-director William Castle was well into the gimmicky-showman phase of his career when 13 Ghosts debuted. Previously, he'd had buzzers installed in select theater seats for when The Tingler appeared onscreen, and a skeleton on a cable flew over theatergoers’ heads at special screenings of House on Haunted Hill.

In 13 Ghosts, Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods), a paleontologist who is having trouble making ends meet for his family, learns that he has inherited a creaky old house from his enigmatic uncle, Dr. Plato Zorba. The catch: the place comes with a collection of ghosts, which Zorba rounded up from all around the world.

They can only be seen with a special pair of goggles that the old man invented… and thus the gimmick, which Castle dubbed “Illusion-O.” In the film’s initial theatrical run, when Cyrus put on the strange goggles to view the ghosts haunting his house, a sub-title cued audiences to use the special ghost viewers that they were issued. According to Castle biographer John. W. Law,

“Eastmancolor was used to develop the process for including the ghosts in the film. While the feature was shot in black and white, the ghosts appeared in red and were shot on a blue background, so when the viewers put on the blue and red tinted glasses the ghosts appeared.” [John W. Law, Scare Tactic: The Life and Films of William Castle. Writers Club Press, 2000, p. 82]

Beyond Illusion-O, the film’s charm came from interspersing the creepier ghostly manifestations with a bit of comic relief.



Poster - The Mask, 1961
Winner: Ancient Hallucinogenic Ceremonial Mask Category: The Mask (1961)

A long time ago in a small, midwestern town far, far away, a local fast food joint advertised free 3D glasses with every purchase, to use for an upcoming TV broadcast of an obscure 3D horror movie. Yes, one of the scrawny nerds who dutifully made a purchase in anticipation of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was me.

While the 3D effect with cheap cardboard glasses and an old console TV was disappointing, I nevertheless became a big fan of The Mask (not to be confused with Jim Carrey’s 1994 fantasy-comedy). According to IMDb, The Mask was groundbreaking: the first Canadian horror film, the first Canadian 3D film, and the first to be widely distributed in the U.S.  It tells the tale of a respected psychiatrist, Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens), who is treating a disturbed young archaeologist. The man insists that an ancient ceremonial mask he has been examining has taken over his mind and is urging him to kill. The patient commits suicide, but not before mailing the mask to Barnes, who in turn finds himself falling under the spell of the accursed thing.

Like 13 Ghosts, the film’s mundane black and white world is periodically interrupted by spooky 3D sequences. When a sepulchral voice commands Barnes to “Put the mask on NOW!”, that’s the viewer’s cue to don the 3D glasses.

The 3D sequences are as weird and nightmarish as can be, as if H.P. Lovecraft, Salvador Dali and Tim Burton got together to design a bad LSD trip. According to lore, producer-director Julian Roffman initially hired renowned visual effects artist Slavko Vorkapich to design the scenes, but his concepts proved too expensive, so Hoffman did most of the work himself.

See my full review here.



Poster - Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, 1965
Winner: Stacked Deck of Infernal Tarot Cards Category: Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965)

The titular Doctor Shreck (the name means “terror” in German), played by Peter Cushing, joins five bored strangers in a train compartment. To pass the time, the Doctor offers to tell the mens’ fortunes using his deck of Tarot cards, which he calls his “house of horrors.”

The Death card pops up each time Shreck does a reading (which in actual Tarot practice is not necessarily a bad thing). The unfortunate travelers’ fates include meet-ups with werewolves, vampires, sentient killer vines, voodoo practitioners and disembodied hands.

This was the first anthology horror film produced under Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg’s Amicus Productions banner. The contributions of Hammer veterans Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and director Freddie Francis, along with a solid performance by an up-and-coming American actor, Donald Sutherland, went a long way to making the film a success. Many highly entertaining anthologies followed, including The House that Dripped Blood, Asylum, Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, among others.

At the time of its release, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was generally well-received on both sides of the Atlantic. The Times (London) called it an “[Un]critical pleasure. The writer, Mr. Milton Subotsky, has hit on a convenient formula. None of it is very original but at least each of the episodes is short enough not to pall. Mr. Freddie Francis directs with efficiency, which once or twice rises to real inspiration.” In the U.S., Variety found it “A usefully chilly package which will offer audiences mild shudders and quite a lot of amusement.” [ Bruce C. Hallenbeck, British Cult Cinema: The Amicus Anthology. Hemlock Books, 2014, p. 63]

That might seem like faint praise, but considering the establishment media’s disdain for all things horror at the time, they were practically rave reviews.



Poster - The Skull, 1965
Winner: Cursed Skull of a Notorious Evil-doer Category: The Skull (1965)

Messrs. Cushing, Lee and Francis also teamed up for Amicus’ The Skull, with Milton Subotsky contributing a script based on a story by Robert Bloch.

Dr. Christopher Maitland (Cushing), an avid collector of occult objects, is offered the skull of the infamous Marquis de Sade by a sketchy dealer (Patrick Wymark). He at first resists temptation, and is told by the skull’s previous owner, rival collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) that the thing is possessed by evil, and in turn can possess its owner.

Obsessed with the skull, Maitland goes to the dealer’s flat to buy it, but finds the man dead. As he tries to steal away with the skull he encounters a caretaker, a struggle ensues, and the man is accidentally killed. Maitland starts having nightmares, including one in which he is condemned in a surreal courtroom and forced to play Russian Roulette. In the meantime, the malignant skull grins evilly on a shelf in its new home.

Essayist Steven Thornton credits director Freddie Francis and Peter Cushing for making The Skull such an effective exercise in atmospheric evil:

“The contribution of Freddie Francis should not go without recognition. In its final reels, the shots from the skull’s point of view, filmed through an enlarged cranial mock-up, are what most viewers remember. Subtler, but just as impressive, are the mood-building tableaux of Cushing eyeing the skull distrustfully and of the gale of wind that opens doors and turns picture frames askew. … [W]hat other director could have extracted as much menace from an ordinary bookshelf loaded with ominous bric-a-brac?…

Peter Cushing … was right at home with such emotionally involving material. The change of expression when Maitland begins to feel the skull’s influence or when he observes the cross hanging from his wife’s neck are techniques right out of the actor’s playbook. … In addition, Cushing had to play his character sympathetically while still maintaining the touch of conceit that put Maitland on the pathway to Hell. This was unquestionably a demanding role, one that few genre actors of the period could have pulled off as convincingly.” [Steven Thorton, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head: The Skull” In Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Peter Cushing, Anthony Ambrogio, ed., Luminary Press, 2004, p.121]