In television writing these days serialisation is king. The modern water cooler moment involves people going on social media and WTFOMGLOLing the newest development. Almost any show you care to mention has a story arc or at least pays some thought towards an ongoing plot. This has created a new ‘golden age’ in TV with shows like Stranger Things, Game of Thrones and plenty of others becoming huge hits. The sheer volume of content available today across the various channels and streaming inevitably means shows have to do more to get your attention and keep it.
But in amongst this the television anthology is having something of a renaissance (although in a season long as opposed to episodic format), in particular true crime reconstructions and on the grislier end of the scale. It’s been one of the medium’s most enduring ways of presenting stories, especially in the early days of television when the idea of large casts of recurring and importantly evolving characters, story arcs or serialisation was decades away. The best episodes of the great anthologies feature characters you care about, compelling situations and brilliant endings, often using the twist in the tale, all in 25-50 mins. Like writing a genuinely good studio sitcom (check it out, that shit’s hard), that type of thing takes some real skill to do right. A bonus of the format is that the story usually has an end planned out from the start, avoiding the now repetitive issue of long-form shows screwing the pooch at their story’s conclusion. For every totally satisfying The Shield or Breaking Bad, there’s a Lost (somewhat…divisive) or The Sopranos (ha ha David Chase hates TV and he hates you too*).
Television was varied from the very start. What was produced in that first classic decade of television ranges across one-off plays, sitcoms, crime, westerns, science fiction and drama series. Shows like I Love Lucy, Dragnet, Naked City, Gunsmoke and many more are rightly still considered indisputable classics. And some of the early shows that focussed on the spooky and suspenseful remain some of the best of television and can compete in terms of creativity and sophistication with anything showing today. We’re going to take a potted-history tour around the best and worst these shows have to offer, taking in the odd relevant documentary series and starting here with America. The Twilight Zone is rightly considered one of the very best shows since TV’s inception and remains the gold standard for anthology series (and is something we’ll get to later). But it wasn’t the first to establish the format, nor was it the first to trade in themes of fantasy and horror. There was a smattering of mainly science fiction shows that quickly came and went in the ‘50s though a handful of notable precursors to Serling’s series helped confirm there was also an appetite from viewers for the macabre. We’ll get to Alfred Hitchcock’s TV thrillers in the next ‘episode’, but before that let’s cover three shows differing in quality that sought to bring the horrible into American homes as the 1950s came to a close.
Boris Karloff hosted and occasionally starred in the anthology show Thriller from 1960-62. Two years earlier however he had fronted and starred in another horror/suspense series called The Veil. Like One Step Beyond would claim, The Veil’s tales were based on allegedly genuine reports of supernatural experiences. A genial Karloff, usually standing in front of a roaring fire, would invite viewers to find out what lies ‘behind the veil’ and make up their own minds about whether what unfolds was real. The Veil would never really get the chance to make that invite however, as funding collapsed from the producer and only 10 episodes were ever made, with the series being buried in a warehouse for the next few decades. Although only a minor series, with many of the episodes being pretty basic stuff, it benefits immeasurably from Karloff as host and star, even though he’s not given that much to do. Always a charismatic actor, Boris keeps you invested in tales that in truth are pretty bland (compared to the horrors that were starting to unfurl in cinemas) and lack the writing stock of Serling and his stable of scriptwriters. It’s notable really as the forerunner to Karloff’s later, greater success with Thriller and as an early show that traded in the gruesome. It does also feature plenty of recognisable faces too, from the likes of Patrick Macnee to the kind of ‘hey, it’s that dude/woman from that thing’ appeal even minor shows usually had. If you do want to find out what lies beyond the veil, the show is available on Amazon for streaming and a number of cheap DVD releases.
One of those releases includes some episodes of another ‘lost’ show from the same time, the shot-in-Sweden 13 Demon Street. It featured a sorry-looking Lon Chaney Jr as its host, a condemned man trying to find in the stories he related someone who had committed crimes more heinous than him to take his place in the titular house of hell. The show never told us what Chaney’s character had done, only that there was no worse crime ever committed. Considering the innumerable epic scumbags the world has known and continues to know, presumably then the bastard deserves to still be there. It was created and sometimes written by Curt Siodmak, noted writer of The Wolf Man and I Walked with a Zombie amongst others. Long thought lost and available only in rough copies shared between collectors those hoping, based on talent involved, for a classic that needs rediscovery will be sorely disappointed. The reason for this? Oh, it’s really bad. Take an episode like The Black Hand. Even at the time it was made, this shockingly poor Hands of Orlac rip-off would have seemed unimaginative. Other episodes take with remarkable no-shits-given brazenness ‘inspiration’ from previous horror films and stories and do nothing with them, but unlike The Veil lack entirely in any charm or reason to exist and most importantly Karloff. It’s a cheap, badly made show and there’s no surprise it didn’t sell and quickly disappeared. If you want to find out just how bad, there’s all 13 episodes on YouTube, and they will certainly horrify you, but not for the right reason.
Happily another contemporary series, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (as it was originally known) took what The Veil had started and turned it into a 3-season, 96-episode run. Similarly to Karloff’s show, it presented to viewers what it claims were verified supernatural happenings that had no other logical explanation and invited us to decide for ourselves whether any of it was real. John Newland directed all the episodes and presented each instalment too, a comforting presence amongst the tales of psychic premonitions, hauntings, ghosts and revenge and justice from beyond the grave. Actors appearing in the series include British horror stalwarts like Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance and Peter Wyngarde amongst many other recognisable performers. Like any anthology show you could mention (even TTZ) it has its share of duff episodes, but that’s the joy of the format too – if one episode doesn’t thrill you or grip you, there’s a good chance the next one will. It had a fairly regular stable of writers throughout and is noticeably better written than the likes of The Veil. The first episode you will find in the series, The Bride Possessed, demonstrates this. Its tale of a newlywed woman taken over by the spirit of a murdered woman to reveal the details of her death is nothing surprising these days, something which affects all these types of shows as they helped popularise the twist in the tale for TV. But the performances, writing and direction by Newland help make it compelling and still effective, and act as reminder ‘50s TV wasn’t nearly as twee as you might expect. Newland would later direct the dark TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark for ABC in 1973 as well as front a short-lived, low budget revival called The Next Step Beyond in 1978 that lasted only 25 episodes. Currently, One Step Beyond is available for streaming on Amazon as well as on a number of (varying quality) DVD releases, and is well worth investigating.
Next up, the dark television thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock.
Boris Karloff’s The Veil by Tom Weaver
An Analytical Guide to Television’s ‘One Step Beyond’, 1959-61 by John Kenneth Muir
*Maybe I’m joking, maybe I’m not. Maybe I just can’t be arsed to decide one way or the other.