Monstravaganza: Classic TV Horror!

As part of our MONSTRAVAGANZA Week-Long Event, Black Maria has been fortunate enough to have some guest contributors join the party. Please welcome Terence Towles Canote,  who writes the pop culture blog A Shroud of Thoughts: .. We don’t often venture into the televised terrain, but Halloween is all about tricks, right? Boo!

Outside of the TV show Thriller with Boris Karloff, the soap opera Dark Shadows, and a few assorted episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, one does not often think of the horror genre when it comes to classic TV. That said, horror television actually had its heyday starting as far back as the late Forties! This should come as no surprise as horror anthologies had proven extremely popular on radio, where such shows as Lights Out, Suspense, and Inner Sanctum ran for years. It should also not be surprising that the suspense and horror anthologies of radio made the transition to television very early. Indeed, the television version of Lights Out appeared on NBC as early as 1946.

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Lights Out numbered among the oldest of radio’s suspense and horror anthologies, pre-dating both rivals Suspense and The Inner Sanctum, debuting on NBC in January 1934. It was the creation of Wyllis Cooper, who would go on to write several of the Mr. Moto films, as well as Son of Frankenstein. After Cooper left Lights Out, screenwriter and playwright Arch Oboler took over. The radio years were often marked by grisly plots laced with tongue-in-cheek and, more often than not, dark humour. If anything, under Mr. Oboler’s supervision, Lights Out became outré.

Lights Out made its debut onNBC  television as a series of specials from June to October 1946. These specials were broadcast live and produced by Fred Coe, who would go on to produce The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90. While the Lights Out specials received good notices, it would not be until 19 July 1949 that it would become a regularly scheduled programme. The first several episodes were produced by Coe, but by 1950, production duties were taken over by Herbert Bernard Swope Jr., who would go on to produce TV shows Dobie Gillis and The Five Fingers.

In addition to original radio scripts by Cooper and Oboler, the television version of Lights Out adapted the works of such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, August Derleth, and even the young Ira Levin. While reviews of the series standard run were mixed, it proved very popular with viewers. In fact, a June 1951 issue of Billboard referred to Lights Out as being the top rated mystery/crime programme on television. Unfortunately, on 15 October 1951, I Love Lucy debuted opposite Lights Out on CBS, resulting in declined ratings, and its last original episode aired on 29 September 1952. In 1972, NBC would attempt another Lights Out, but that ended with only a pilot.

While Lights Out was very successful on radio, it may well have been surpassed by the suspense/horror radio show, simply entitled Suspense. Indeed, running from 1942 to 1962, Suspense was one of the most successful, and prestigious radio shows of all time. It should come as no surprise, then, that its origins owe a debut to the “master of suspense” himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

In July 1940, CBS debuted a summer replacement entitled Forecast, which was essentially a weekly “audition” (the radio equivalent of a TV pilot) for a prospective new radio show. To direct,  CBS was able to get none other than Hitchcock himself. An agreement was struck between Hitchcock and producer William Wanger, that he would direct the show on the condition that he could also plug his latest film, Foreign Correspondent. For his episode,  Hitchcock adapted his own 1926 film The Lodger, and starred Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwynn.

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The “audition” for Suspense received a good response from radio listeners, with letters and phone calls pouring into CBS. Despite this, Suspense would not be added to the CBS schedule for some time. Fortunately, two events occurred that would guarantee  Suspense would become a mainstay of CBS Radio for twenty years. First, in 1941, the NBC Blue Network debuted Inner Sanctum Mystery, an anthology series delivering mystery, suspense, and horror with a dose of humour. It proved to be an enormous success. Second, in the summer of ’42, CBS needed a replacement for their radio show Random Harvest. With Inner Sanctum Mysteries a hit at the NBC Blue Network, CBS thought a suspense anthology would be a good idea. Fortunately, Suspense proved successful enough as a summer replacement, that it won a spot on CBS’s regular schedule.

Unlike its predecessors Lights Out and Inner Sanctum Mystery, Suspense was promoted as a prestige programme. Writer/producer William Spier largely shaped Suspense, supervising every script. Quality was not just expected from its scripts, but every other aspect of the show as well. Suspense featured top name stars from film and stage, including Anne Baxter, Humprey Bogart, Ronald Coleman Jospeh Cotten, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles, and many others. Bernard Hermann composed the theme to Suspense.

While Lights Out and Inner Sanctum Mystery tended to feature  horror, Suspense spanned genres with episodes that could be considered spy thrillers, mysteries, or horror. Suspense adapted The Thirty Nine Steps as well as H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror,The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie and Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak.

With the phenomenal success Suspense had seen on radio, it was quite natural that CBS would want to bring it to television,and therefore made its debut on 1 March 1949, broadcast live from CBS’s New York studios, and distributed through kinescopes to stations throughout the U.S. While the radio version had expanded from thirty minutes to an hour in length in 1949, the television version ran only thirty minutes. It retained Bernard Hermann’s theme music, although it was played on a Hammond organ rather than by an orchestra. In its early days, Suspense was produced by Robert Stevens, who would go on to produce Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

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To a degree, the television version of Suspense was largely similar to its radio predecessor, and as such, featured several big name stars over the years, including Jackie Cooper,Hume Cronyn, Nina Foch, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Jeffrey Lynn, Mildred Natwick, and Basil Rathbone, as well as up and comers like John Forsythe, Eva Gabor, Cloris Leachman, Jack Lemmon, E. G. Marshall, Lee Marvin, and Leslie Nielsen. And like the radio show, the TV version adapted stories from mystery and suspense writers as Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Cornell Woolrich, and also many of the original plays from the radio show.

But TV’s Suspense also differed from its predecessor, with a half hour running time, and featured more stories of horror. The first season alone featured adaptations of Lord Dunsany’s play A Night at the Inn, W. W. Jacobs’ story The Monkey’s Paw, and Joseph Ruscoll’s The Creeper.  In  later seasons Suspense drifted away from horror. Much of the reason was that the original teleplays also began to outnumber the adaptations. Still, horror would appear from time to time.

Particularly given the content of some of its earlier episodes, Suspense did occasionally court controversy. New York Times radio and TV columnist Jack Gould took issue with the episode Breakdown, in which a comatose man is nearly cremated. The episode Black Passage  caused a stir when a character was portrayed drinking blood.

Regardless, Suspense proved very popular. For the 1949-1950 season, it ranked #8 in the top ten highest rated shows, and it was still popular when its run ended in 1954. According to the 10 July 1954 issue of Billboard, CBS moved Suspense from 9:30  on Tuesdays to make room for the sitcom Life with Father. CBS offered Suspense’s sponsor, Auto-Lite (the manufacturer of spark plugs and automobile ignition wires), alternative time slots (and afterwards even alternative programmes), but Auto-Lite rejected both offers. Suspense came to an end.

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Even in 1957, CBS discussed an hour long, filmed version, along with a version of radio’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective, but while Richard Diamond made it to the small screen, Suspense was not revived .Flash forward to 1964,and  Suspense was revived as a summer replacement hosted by Sebastian Cabot, but it was a pale imitation of both radio and  television versions. The original Suspense radio show, finally ended its run on 30 September 1962. Given this date would be the last time the major radio networks would air anything in prime time, it is considered to be the end of Old Time Radio. Fittingly, Suspense, one of the most successful radio shows of all time, was the last prime time radio drama CBS ever aired.

Of the three major suspense and horror radio shows, Inner Sanctum Mystery (better known simply as Inner Sanctum) was the last to make it to television. Inner Sanctum Mystery was the creation of prolific radio writer and producer Himan Brown, who worked on radio shows from The Adventures of the Thin Man to CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. The title was taken from an imprint of Simon and Schuster for a series of mystery novels. Not surprisingly, then, like Lights Out and Suspense, Inner Sanctum Mystery was an anthology of suspense, horror, and mystery. Originally hosted by Raymond Edward Johnson, who introduced himself as “Your host, Raymond,” his episodes were laced with black humour, morbid jokes and puns, all delivered in a mocking voice. Quite simply, Raymond was the forerunner of such anthology hosts as Hitchcock of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone. While Raymond’s introductions may have been tongue in cheek, the episodes themselves were serious tales of horror and suspense. Raymond  joined the Army in 1945, and was replaced by Paul McGrath, who hosted the show for the remainder of its run. Inner Sanctum Mystery debuted on NBC on 7 January 1941 and ran until 5 October 1952. Inner Sanctum Mystery was so successful, it was adapted to other media. From 1943 to 1946 Universal Pictures produced six Inner Sanctum Mystery movies.

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The television version would differ from Lights Out and Suspense in one important respect–while they were broadcast live, Inner Sanctum was a filmed series. In the 20 June 1953 issue of Billboard it was announced that NBC’s Film division was lining up a television version of Inner Sanctum that would be shot on film and syndicated to local stations. It was being produced by Hi Brown Productions in Hollywood (here it should be noted that creator Himan Brown was on board for the television version). Its first episode was an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s The Stranger.

While the radio show leaned towards horror, the TV version  tended towards straight forward suspense and mystery. There were a few notable exceptions. In Lost in the Darka millionaire plots to regain his sight by purchasing another man’s eyes. In Watcher by the Dead, a man bets a friend that he can’t spend the night in a house with a dead man.

Inner Sanctum would not see the success of its radio predecessor. It lasted only one season, with its final episode airing on 2 October 1954. A total of 39 episodes were made. In 1992, ABC aired a TV movie inspired by the radio show, Seduction: Three Tales from the ‘Inner Sanctum’, adapting one of Himan Brown’s radio plays (The Two of Us).

Of course, not every suspense anthology from the Fifties was transplanted from radio. In fact, the autumn of 1949 would see three different suspense/horror anthologies debut, among which, one was hosted by Boris Karloff. In the late Forties, Karloff’s agent, David Susskind, from powerful MCA, put together a deal for the actor (whose movie and theatre career was currently in the doldrums) to host a radio and television series. Starring Boris Karloff, also known as The Boris Karloff Mystery Theatre and Boris Karloff Presents, was a half hour anthology series which debuted on September 22, 1949 on ABC. Starring Boris Karloff aired on radio on Wednesday, followed by the television broadcast on Thursday. From reports, the series was very similar to Mr. Karloff’s later show Thriller. Its debut episodes, Five Golden Guineas dealt with a hangman who unknowingly executes his own son. It very closely resembles the later Thriller episode Guillotine. Another episode, The Shop at Sly Corner, was an adaptation of the Edward Percy play of the same name, in which a Devil’s Island convict operates a suspicious antique shop.

Karloff put in a good deal of work on the show, so much so that MCA wanted to credit him as a producer. Ever the professional,  Karloff objected strenuously. He maintained he handled none of the production duties and that the credit should go to actual producer and director Alex Segal. The next payday, Mr. Segal noticed his cheque had increased from $75 a week to $125. While  Segal was not given a producer credit, Karloff’s anger had convinced MCA to give him a raise! Tragically, Starring Boris Karloff would only last thirteen weeks. Worse, not one episode survives.

It was only a few days before Starring Boris Karloff debuted that another suspense anthology had premiered. Mr. Black starred Andy Christopher in the title role, playing a representative of Lucifer who made sure that the villain always got his just desserts. Mr. Black debuted on ABC on 19 September 1949, but only lasted two months.

Only a little while after Starring Boris Karloff and Mr. Black debuted, yet another anthology aired. Hands of Murder debuted on 7 October 1949 on the DuMont Television Network and would undergo a title change to Hands of Destiny, then again to Hands of Mystery, all in the same year before changing back to Hands of Destiny two years later.

Hands of Destiny was produced on a shoestring budget and aired live. In fact, according to Tim Brooks and Earle F. Marsh in The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Shows: 1945-Present, Hands of Destiny was notable for its lack of sets and props. Lighting and camera angles were used to suggest the setting. Despite the low budget, Hands of Destiny received sterling reviews from critics, with even Walter Winchell praising its camera work.

For the most part the show featured traditional mystery and suspense, although it occasionally ventured into horror. In The Man in the Mirror a French aristocrat sees the face of a dead man in every mirror and hears his voice vowing vengeance. The Hiroshima Ghost centred on a man who died from the bombing of Hiroshima and returned as a ghost. Hands of Destiny even ventured into science fiction, with The Flying Saucers featuring a scientist contacted by aliens. Hands of Destiny ran until 3 April 1952. Sadly, like many DuMont shows, not one episode survives.

Among the shows that would debut in the wake of Lights Out and Suspense is one that is so undocumented that it is a bit of a mystery. Tales of the Black Cat aired around 1950 to 1951 and was broadcast from WCBS in New York City. It was hosted by James Monk and a jet black cat named Thanatopsis. There is very little information on Tales of the Black Cat , but the 20 January 1951 issue of Billboard reported that the show hit a snag when Thanatopsis had kittens and refused to leave them for shooting that day. Her adult daughter filled in for her. According to the 12 May 1951 issue of Billboard, the Ford Motor Company (the show’s sponsor) cancelled Tales of the Black Cat “because the show had run out of film.”

This apparently was not the end of Tales of the Black Cat. On 8 February 1952 an ad that ran in The Washington Post for a black cat to co-host “…a new weekly series, Tales of the Black Cat (WTOP-TV 10 PM Saturdays)…” with Bob Dalton (WTOP is now WUSA in Washington D.C.). Bob Dalton and the new Thanatopsis made their debut on 9 February 1952. This new version of Tales of the Black Cat would run until around 1954. Of course, it is not entirely clear if this version was an actual anthology series or an umbrella title for short films.

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While the cycle towards suspense and horror anthologies more or less ended by 1951, one more debuted in syndication in 1952. The Unexpected was produced by ZIV Television Programs and featured Herbert Marshall as host, and would be the last suspense/horror anthology to debut on American television for many years. This did not mean that horror would be entirely absent from the small screen. Alfred Hitchcock Presents debuted in 1955 and while it was primarily suspense and mystery, it would occasionally delve into horror. Then, of course, there was a little thing called The Twilight Zone, debuting in 1959.

Suspense and horror anthologies from the ’40s and ’50s may have been forgotten today, but they laid the groundwork for later anthologies. It is possible that without Lights Out and Suspense, we might not have Tales from the Darkside, or Tales from the Crypt, and even had an impact on episodic horror shows from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Supernatural. These shows really paved the way for TV horror today.

About Terence Towles Canote 3 Articles

Terence Towles Canote writes the pop culture blog A Shroud of Thoughts: www.mercurie.blogspot.com. He has been published in Capper’s Weekly, The Old Cowboy Picture Show, and other small press publications. He is the author of the book Television: Rare & Well Done: Essays on the Medium, available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. His book Imaginative Television will be
available in early 2015.

2 Comments

  1. The radio version of Suspense really didn’t step up the horror content until after producer William Spier moved on; Spier had an unwritten rule that the program wouldn’t be a “spook show” but he occasionally bent this to include the adaptations of The Dunwich Horror and Donovan’s Brain that you mention. Another famous Suspense horror outing during the Spier years is 1946’s “The House in Cypress Canyon,” a tale of werewolves and haunted houses starring Robert Taylor and Cathy Lewis. Great piece, Terry!

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