With shows like "Supernatural," "The Ghost Whisperer," a new "Night Stalker" and similar shows hitting the network line-ups, horror/sci-fi fans have plenty to choose from this fall. It hasn't always been the case. Despite notable hits in the genre, including such beloved series as "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits," the fantasy realm – and horror in particular – has often struggled to survive on television.
This was particularly true in the very early days of TV, when nearly all original programming was broadcast live and restricted sets and production values made putting something genuinely spooky on the airwaves difficult. There were certainly attempts, however, as network executives hoped to duplicate the success horror had enjoyed on radio with such long-running shows as "Lights Out," "Inner Sanctum," "The Whistler" and others.
Alpha Video, purveyors of bargain-priced public domain films on DVD, have made a couple of rare early TV spook shows available on a disc titled "Lights Out and Other Supernatural Tales." Though the quality of both the programs and their presentation on the disc is highly uneven, it still provides some great fun for horror devotees looking for some retro thrills this Halloween.
TV versions of hit radio comedies had been embraced in the early days of TV, so it made sense for programmers to try the same thing with horror. It worked with "Lights Out," as the TV version of the legendary program ran for three seasons on NBC (four episodes had run on a local station in 1946, when TV broadcasting was truly in its infancy and few Americans had access to it). Amazingly, the live broadcasts were presented virtually year-round (no re-runs, though a few stories were performed twice), resulting in 156 episodes during its 1949 – 1952 run. Despite that prolific output, few of the shows survive. Videotape had yet to come into use and what little archiving was done in those early years of TV was done via kinescopes -- films of live broadcasts made simply by filming off a television monitor. Needless to say, the quality of the kinescopes is not great, but it does allow us a taste of some rare shows.
Alpha's collection includes two episodes of "Lights Out" from 1951: "The Passage Beyond" and "The Man with the Watch." Neither lives up to the best episodes of the radio show but "The Passage Beyond" comes tantalizingly close. It's a gothic haunted house story involving the ghost of a woman who murdered her unfaithful husband and her effect on a love triangle among the present inhabitants. While it ends disappointingly as a cornball morality tale, it builds in wonderfully atmospheric fashion, with effective lighting that even manages to survive the kinescope treatment. It must have looked wonderful on live television.
Far less effective is "The Man with the Watch," the story of a stranger from another planet who has made several urban dwellers vanish mysteriously. Set up as an unconvincing detective story, it's more silly than sinister and the performances are lackluster (look for the actor playing the title role struggling to remember his lines in a couple of scenes). Still, even in this lesser production, you have to admire the direction, which gave the show some effective camera movements in spite of the restricted space and even somewhat duplicated film editing by switching from one camera to another for dramatic effect.
It's hard to judge the "Lights Out" TV series on the basis of two episodes. We can get a better sense of another show on Alpha's collection. "The Veil" actually never made it to the airwaves, but ten episodes were filmed with syndication (a relatively new business model for television in 1958) in mind. Several episodes were also strung together for a couple of feature-length horror anthologies that received limited theatrical runs.
"The Veil" is by no means a great show, but a couple of episodes are quite effective and with Boris Karloff as host and frequent star, horror geeks will certainly want a peek at it. Included on this disc is one of the best in the series, "Jack the Ripper," in which a clairvoyant leads police to the identity of the infamous killer. Niall MacGinnis gives an excellent performance in the lead role of this well written, engrossing tale. The other episode on the disc, "The Return of Madame Vernoy," is not really a horror tale at all. An intriguing story of reincarnation in India, it features a nice supporting turn from Karloff that somewhat compensates for the off-putting casting of a young George Hamilton as an Indian. As they were shot on film, both episodes of "The Veil" look great, especially after the kinescope murkiness of the "Lights Out" shows.
Unfortunately, the last program on the disc is the worst in quality, suggesting not only bad source material but also a sloppy transfer that results in an annoying sort of strobe effect whenever people move quickly on camera. Still, early television and horror buffs will not want to miss "Witchcraft." There's very little information about this show, but it appears to be a pilot for a series (circa the early '60s) that was never picked up. Franchot Tone hosts and his introduction promises the show is a serious exploration of the supernatural based on the works of author William Seabrook.
Never mind the pretense, the episode ("The Doll in Brambles") is pure horror-melodrama, with a Frenchman unable to marry the girl of his dreams because her witch mother forbids it and uses voodoo rituals to get her way. The original "Night Stalker" himself, Darren McGavin, plays the Frenchman's American friend, who won't take a witch's "no" for an answer. Even with the terrible visual quality, this is a fairly entertaining yarn.
"Lights Out and Other Supernatural Tales" is a mixed bag in terms of content and quality, but without a public domain package like this, we might never see these forgotten slices of television history. The better episodes will be great additions to your scare shelf and, as is always the case with Alpha releases, you can't go wrong with a price (you can find it for $5.95 or less) that makes it as attractive as a purchase as a rental.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund