Tuesday, August 23, 2011

MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION was a horror anthology series which aired on ABC-Thames TV from 1966 to 1970. It ran for five series which adapted classic horror tales in the Gothic tradition. Do you wanna hear the good news or the bad news? The bad news is that the great majority of all the programmes were wiped in a penurious attempt to save money and re-use video tape. For this unbelievable affront to mankind, the powers-that-were should be taken to the pit and introduced to the pendulum! Of five series, only 8 episodes (and one two minute fragment of M.R. James' "Casting the Runes") remain; all the rest have been sent to oblivion. And now the good news: the surviving episodes are available on dvd (though not in the US folks). Thanks to our good friend Weaverman over at the Fleapit of the Mind, I have been able to see these episodes which, with no hint of exaggeration, can be called a treasure trove of horror goodness. Only two episodes from the first series remain while the entirety of series 2 and 3 are gone; thankfully all of the Thames 4th and 5th series have made it through to us (though each of these final two series only consist of 3 shows each). Episodes lost to us: J. Meade Falkner's "The Lost Stradivarius", Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Body Snatcher", M.R. James' "The Tractate Middoth", M.R. James' "Lost Hearts", Oscar Wilde's "The Canterville Ghost", M.R. James' "Room 13", Charlotte Riddell's "The Beckoning Shadow", Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Flying Dragon" and "Carmilla", Vernon Lee's "The Phantom Lover", M.R. James' "Casting the Runes" (except for a fragment), Algernon Blackwood's "The Listener", Osbert Sitwell's "A Place of One's Own", Sir Walter Scott's "The Devil's Piper", Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and L.P. Hartley's "Feet Foremost".
The first episode which survives is episode 3 which aired February 12, 1966: Edgar Allan Poe's "THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER". The episode is directed by Kim Mills and stars recurring actor/host David Buck as Richard (the unnamed narrator of the Poe story) visiting Roderick (Denholm Elliot) and Madeleine (Susannah York) Usher at their tarn-darned crumbling house. I must say here first of all that the art direction for this episode (and the entire series) is magnificent and really evokes the Gothic horror atmosphere. Or is that miasma? The teleplay is "freely adapted" from Edgar Allan Poe's story and it sure is. An entire sequence only hinted at in the Poe tale is shown here when Madeleine escapes from the House of Usher and meets Richard and his fiancee Lucy (Mary Miller) in town before she is forceably returned to Roderick's control. Clearly they'd seen the 1960 Roger Corman film of HOUSE OF USHER because Denholm Elliot is sporting his white Vincent Price wig and the catacombs underneath the house are slightly reminiscent of the earlier film. Elliot's Roderick is a little bit uninvolving and cold without the pathos and subtle scheming of Vincent Price's Roderick while Buck makes an engaging and likeable hero; if only he had played the part in the Corman movie instead of the thespically limited Mark Damon. Susannah York brings an evil malice to Madeleine which no one else I've seen has; Madeleine is usually portrayed as a tragic figure helpless against her brother's machinations but York makes her a true threat that Roderick is probably right to condemn alive to her coffin. Sadly, the ending is a bit of a let down with the resurrected Madeleine simply appearing, reaching out for Roderick and then dropping dead. One would have liked York to have some ghastly makeup on which attests to her torment in the tomb and, for a Madeleine portrayed with evil malice up till now, she is strangely ineffective once loosed from her coffin. The helpless Myrna Fahey managed to appear genuinely frightening and fully mad when she clawed her way out of the coffin and went gunning for Vincent Price; York's previous strength is somehow abandoned now as she appears merely bewildered and . . .well, helpless. Still a rather superb episode, though. And it looks gorgeous.
The next surviving tale is episode 4 which aired February 19, 1966: Mrs. Oliphant's "THE OPEN DOOR". This is a classic, much-anthologized short story that I first read as a wee child in my "HAUNTINGS" book with the creepy open door illustrated by Edward Gorey. The sets really conjure up the "Gorey" touch and once again are splendid (if perhaps noticeably studio bound). Dear old Jack Hawkins stars as the father summoned home because his son (Henry Beltran) has been seized with a "brain fever". The boy heard a disembodied, miserable voice near a stone doorway in the ruins of an old collapsed house pleading for it's mother to "let it in". The incredible sadness of the spirit was more than the boy could take and he pleads with Hawkins to do something about it. Hawkins seeks out the help of a skeptical doctor (Mark Dignam) and an old minister (dear old John Laurie) to "lay" the ghost. The episode is nicely directed by Joan Kemp-Welch with a deft touch for suspense in the scenes amongst the ruins when the spirit-child's voice is heard; as Hawkins departs the camera lingers a while in a slow tracking shot which ramps up the creepy quotient as we continue to hear the voice but see nothing.
The next surviving episode is from series 4 episode 19 broadcast November 4, 1968: J. Sheridan Le Fanu's classic gothic novel "UNCLE SILAS". From here on out, the episodes are more like movies; each is about double the length of the previous two and unspools at an average of 80 minutes each. "UNCLE SILAS" is a favourite of mine after having first seen the late 1980s telefilm "THE DARK ANGEL" starring Peter O'Toole and Jane Lapotaire and subsequently the late 1940's "UNCLE SILAS" starring Jean Simmons. Once again we have a magnificently art directed episode with Bartram Haugh suitably Gothic and sinister. Director Alan Cooke is also a fine hand at Gothic horror and does a superb job especially with the sinister torment and the old Gothic romance standby of the nightgown-clad heroine racing down a dark hallway. Maud Ruthyn (Lucy Fleming) is a young girl just a couple years shy of inheriting a fortune. Her father (dear old Merriman John Welsh) dies as leaves Maud in the custody of her disgraced Uncle Silas (Robert Eddison in a superbly appropriate villainous performance). Silas mouths caring platitudes while plotting Maud's downfall to gain her inheritance for himself. In cahoots with Silas is the horrid French governess Madame de la Rougierre (Patience Collier). The character of Uncle Silas is an old-time classic villain and needs to be played that way; Eddison nearly matches his fellow performers in the role Derrick de Marnay (1947) and Peter O'Toole (1987) who fittingly chewed the scenery like troupers. One can, in fact, see the influence of the earlier 1947 film on this teleplay and its all the stronger for it. A corker of a Gothic barnstormer.
We now have episode 20 aired November 11, 1968: Mary Shelley's "FRANKENSTEIN" directed by Voytek and starring Ian Holm as both Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. Inspired by a lecture by Professor Krempke (dear old Major Smith-Barton Richard Vernon), Frankenstein decides he'd like to cobble together a creature from dead body parts and promptly does so. The script follows reasonably close to the original novel and has Frankenstein reject his creation; the monster runs off to make its lonely way in the world, to pick up some pointers on language and social behaviour, and to plot his revenge on his creator. Unlike almost every other FRANKENSTEIN film out there, the old hermit is kinda a bastard in this one; in very short order he kicks the monster out of his hut without showing any of the nurturing care we've come to expect! Now maybe it's me but I found Ian Holm to occasionally lapse into some unbelieveably bare-faced overacting (mostly in the role of the monster); however it's not enough to sink the programme and it's not a bad show by any means. Director Voytek (!) has some fun with some bizarre camera actions and cutting but the episode seems somehow still rather leaden and over-serious. Of all the surviving episodes, I found this to be the weakest but it's still watchable and all together not too bad.
The last episode of series 4 is number 22 which aired November 18, 1968: Bram Stoker's "DRACULA" directed by Patrick Dromgoole and starring (amazingly) Denholm Elliot as the Count! What immediately seems to be terrible miscasting of the lead role actually turns out to be something of a surprise. Elliot in the role of the king of the vampires is actually quite good; the actor plays it more subtly than usual and looks very much thinner and more commanding than usual. With slicked back hair, dark glasses and a devilish goatee, Elliot actually looks kinda right in the role and thankfully does not speak with a cod Lugosi accent. Bernard Archard is vampire-hunter Van Helsing (also thankfully without the thick cod Dutch accent which sank Anthony Hopkins), Corin Redgrave is very impressive as the fly-munching Jonathan Harker (telescoped with the Renfield character), Susan George is a very fruity Lucy Weston (namechanged from "Westenra"), Joan Hickson appears as Lucy's mum and James Maxwell (outrageously hammy as the cane-wielding priest in Hammer's EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) is Dr. Seward. Once again, the art direction must be singled out as everything looks very tasty. The director also manages to provide some genuinely frightening moments (especially with the very aggressive (for 1968 television) vampire brides! Quite a respectable and effective DRACULA adaptation, folks.
The final series opens with Robert Louis Stevenson's "THE SUICIDE CLUB" originally broadcast on February 9, 1970. Here the programme changes over to colour from black & white. Mike Varney directs a cast including Bernard Archard, Hildegard Neil, Alan Dobie, Roger Booth and David Collings. A prince dons a disguise in order to go out on the town seeking adventure; what he finds is a young man with cream tarts who invites them to join "The Suicide Club". At the draw of a random playing card, one person is chosen to die by the hand of another randomly chosen person. There is no horror here but in fact a ripping adventure yarn which does a nice job of telling this classic Stevenson tale. While it may be a little on the subdued side, this episode is still a very interesting look-see.
Next up we have episode 23 which aired February 16, 1970: George Dibdin-Pitt's "SWEENEY TODD". Directed by Robert Collin, this one is a bit of a mind fuck. Based on the old "String of Pearls" penny dreadful, this version of the Sweeney Todd myth is unlike any you've seen before. First of all, Sweeney (played by Freddie Jones) is hallucinatory throughout the film and one is never sure what's actually happening and what's in the barber's mind. Combine this with the fact that actors Russell Hunter (Callan's own Lonely) and Peter Sallis (Gromit's own Wallace) played multiple roles (as does Heather Canning and all), the viewer is in for one disorientating ride. Sweeney's slitting of his customer throats was probably a bit too strong of a meat for 1970 telly so instead he merely pulls the lever and the customer goes hurtling down to the basement floor where Todd can leisurely saunter down to "polish them off" at his convenience. They still end up in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies but the lady is more of a peripheral character here. All the action centers on Sweeney and his mental meanderings. Not a great episode but still good.
The final episode aired February 23, 1970 and is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Jewel of Seven Stars" entitled "CURSE OF THE MUMMY" directed by Guy Verney. The story would later be filmed as the Charlton Heston snore-fest "THE AWAKENING". The telefilm opens with a pre-credit sequence in ancient Egypt which looks very very nice (there's that superb art direction again). An Egyptologist (Graham Crowden who spends the first two acts unconscious) has discovered a female mummy which he's brought back to England (sans hand, of course). He is struck down in the night by some mysterious malady (caused by a supernatural miasma oozing from a mummified cat relic) so his daughter (Isobel Black) calls in the doctor (Patrick speaking of "Callan" Mower) and the local police. A raving colleague of the archeologist (Donald Churchill) also shows up. Complications, as they say, ensue, mate. The mystery elements of exactly what the hell's going on are emphasized in the first two acts before we move on to the "resurrecting the mummified Egyptian queen as the reincarnation of me daughter" plotline plays out. It's all rather silly, of course, and Stoker was well on his way to a fried brain by this point but the telefilm itself plays it very stately and deliberate. Without a hint of comedy, it's all rather overwrought but still a fun episode as the viewer knows full well what's going to happen (a deliberate choice by the director, I might add) and derives enjoyment by waiting for it to actually pan out.
MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION is so enjoyable one grits one's teeth thinking about all the episodes we'll never get to see. The series, as stated numerous times, looks absolutely marvelous in black & white and in colour. There is also a bevy of superb British character actors in every single episode lending a tremendous amount of enjoyment to the proceedings. The series also provides a rare opportunity to see classic horror stories adapted for the screen which are never usually adapted -- and also it's a chance to see new takes on familiar old often-filmed warhorses like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA. Any way you slice it, Sweeney. . . MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION is a rare gem we can be thankful survives in any form.

Friday, August 05, 2011

STAY TUNED FOR RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT! WEEK. The mammoth "Joker July" feature is over. Now it's time for the comic cover of the day feature over on the right hand column to focus on the classic Gold Key comic book "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!". As a kid, very early I somehow managed to pick up several of those beloved Ripley's Believe It Or Not! paperback books reprinting the classic old newspaper comic strips done by Robert Ripley himself; so I was certainly familiar with Ripley before I first encountered the Gold Key comic book based on the same feature. The comic book, of course, dealt with ghost stories and sported those delectable painted covers. The very first issue of the Gold Key Ripley comic I ever came across was issue #52 pictured below. This issue featured the cover story of the "Beggar Woman of Locarno" which made quite an impression on me: a ghost story with a moral. I still have this issue and I bought it when I was nine years old in 1975. My grandmother and I used to walk from their huge Victorian house in Pennsauken, NJ up Westfield Avenue (past the old Walt Whitman Theatre built by my great grandfather) for untold blocks until we'd reach Thor's Drug Store. There I would buy candy, Black Jack gum, "You'll Die Laughing" monster bubble gum cards, Wacky Packs, and comic books. Here is where I snatched RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT! #52 off the spinning comic rack. I remember taking it upstairs to the second floor of my grandparents' house where my great grandfather Poppie Bear lived and reading it on his scratchy green couch. There is Poppie Bear. And there is the green scratchy couch. And there is me looking slightly younger than 9 but you get the idea.
Anyway, starting Sunday the Daily Comic Book Cover feature over there on the right will be dedicated to Gold Key's "RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT!" comic covers all week. Don't miss it. . .or you may be haunted!