Thursday, April 19, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Thirteen-The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "The Sign of Satan"

by Jack Seabrook

If “A Home Away From Home” was a textbook example of how to take a short story and expand it to make a very satisfying hour of television, “The Sign of Satan” is the opposite. Adapted by Barr
é Lyndon from Robert Bloch’s 1938 short story, “Return to the Sabbath,” this is not one of the better episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, in spite of the lead role being portrayed by horror star Christopher Lee.

“Return to the Sabbath” was published in the July 1938 issue of Weird Tales when Bloch was only 21 years old, and it shows many signs of a young writer still trying to find his voice. (The story was published under the pen name of Tarleton Fiske.) The tale is narrated in the first person by an unnamed Hollywood public relations man, who tells the story of how he and studio assistant producer Les Kincaid stumbled upon a horror film called Return to the Sabbath when they stopped in a seedy Los Angeles burlesque house three years before. The film showed scenes of horror much more realistic than those typically seen in Hollywood productions, and the Black Mass portrayed onscreen left the audience stunned.

The narrator and his friend track down the film and learn that it was imported from Europe and shown by mistake; the star, Karl Jorla, is quickly signed to a contract and brought to America. On arrival, Jorla is as cadaverous in real life as he was in the film. He insists that he be the subject of no publicity and tells the narrator that the film was made by real devil worshippers, who are angry that it was shown to the public. The cultists blame Jorla and the film’s director, and Jorla is certain they are after him.


Gia Scala as Kitty
As the time to make his Hollywood debut draws near, Jorla becomes increasingly nervous, especially after he learns that the director of Return to the Sabbath was murdered in Paris and his body mutilated. Cult members begin trying to break into the studio to get Jorla, who disappears. When it’s time for his big scene to be filmed he has not been seen for three days and the decision is made to shoot around him. However, as the scene is shot, Jorla—in astonishingly accurate makeup as a decaying corpse—emerges from a crypt, rises up, and falls into a pit.

The crew rushes over to the edge of the pit, looks in, and sees nothing. Jorla is gone! The production shuts down and the news is hushed up. When the film is developed, all that is seen is a red scar of an inverted crucifix that had been displayed on the corpse’s chest. On the soundtrack, there is a murmuring voice that repeats an address in Topanga Canyon. When the police go to the address, they find Jorla’s body, dead at least three days, with the same scar on its chest. 


“Return to the Sabbath” is the work of a young Robert Bloch, consciously imitating his idol, H.P. Lovecraft, while writing for the best of the weird mystery pulps. The Hollywood angle is new, and would continue to pop up throughout Bloch’s career, but the writing does not yet reach the lyrical style that Bloch would develop by the late 1940s, nor does it hint at the sardonic, punchy prose he would go on to master in the 1950s and beyond. Instead, the story is filled with ellipses intended to leave horrible details to the reader’s imagination, as well as purple prose like: “The grave was moving!” and “Something emerged from the crypt!” It is an entertaining story that builds up to the twist ending where Jorla’s specter reveals the location of his body, dead at least three days. 


Costumes by Ed Wood?
Years later, Bloch wrote that he adapted his own stories for television unless he was busy working somewhere else. That must have been the case in early 1964, when “The Sign of Satan” was likely produced. The program was aired on May 8, 1964, near the end of the second season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, but the teleplay was not by Bloch—it was by Barré Lyndon. Sadly, there is very little about this show that is done right. It begins promisingly, with spooky music highlighting a scene from the European film with Jorla emerging from a coffin flanked by two robed men with candles. The full moon obscured by clouds briefly recalls Buňuel's surrealist shocker Un Chien Andalou, but the scene quickly deteriorates into a shoddy horror cheapie, with particularly embarrassing outfits on the young female cultists. 

Unlike the story, where the narrator and his friend stumble upon the film in an out of the way place and work to discover its origin, in the teleplay the producer, actress, and publicity man watch it in the producer’s living room and are already aware of its source. Jorla is brought to Hollywood and he is played by Christopher Lee, with his hair dyed jet black and very large eyebrows used in an attempt to make him appear exotic. Lee also affects a European accent that sounds more Hungarian than Austrian.

Since the episode is titled “The Sign of Satan,” Lyndon’s script takes every opportunity to have characters utter that phrase and show evidence of the “sign,” which appears to be a couple of curvy horns. At one rather embarrassing moment, Lee demonstrates the sign by clasping his hands together and putting both thumbs up, anticipating a favorable review by Siskel and Ebert that was unlikely to come. 





Jorla demonstrates the sign of Satan.
The program's direction, by Robert Douglas, is static and pedestrian, and by the halfway point it is little more than something one would see in a below average cop show of the time, as Lee drives down a street, gets out of his car, walks down an alley, etc. There is also a poorly executed scene where Lee locks himself in his room, takes a nap, and is attacked by a cultist who finds it very easy to break in. Although Lee is a head taller than his attacker, he has to be rescued by a studio guard who breaks into the room.

Even the final scene, which should have been the best part, is mishandled. Kitty, the actress starring in the horror film, approaches the crypt. The doors open briefly, revealing Jorla, who murmurs “To Pan Ga” and a series of numbers before the doors close. He does not look like a rotting corpse; he does not even look particularly unhealthy. When the crew views the footage it seems like padding, since the same scene is replayed almost verbatim. Unlike the story, where the image of Jorla disappears from the film but his voice is heard, the soundtrack in the televised version is also blank, and it is up to the script girl to look in her notes for the address where Jorla’s body is found (17259 Topanga Canyon). Finally, when the body is discovered, it is covered with a blanket that bears the sign of Satan—we do not even see Lee’s supposedly mutilated body.

Mediocre stories often make great films, and great books often disappoint when adapted for the screen. “Return to the Sabbath” is an average story that suffers in being adapted for television. Barr
é Lyndon (1896-1972) was the pseudonym of Alfred Edgar. He wrote the screenplays for several good films, including the Laird Cregar vehicles The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945) and George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (1953). He penned three episodes of Thriller, including the Bloch adaptation, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," as well as two Hitchcock hours. “The Sign of Satan” came near the end of his career, so its shortcomings should be forgiven.



Director Robert Douglas (1909-1999) had a long career as an actor in film before becoming a prolific director of episodic television. “The Sign of Satan” was one of four Hitchcock hours he helmed.

Christopher Lee, star of “The Sign of Satan,” will turn 90 this May, and is well known as one of the all-time greatest horror movie stars. Knighted in 2009, his film career began in 1947 and continues to this day. While he appeared on TV many times in the 1950s, his appearances in this medium after 1960 are rare. It is unfortunate that his talents were not used to their fullest in “The Sign of Satan." Still, having appeared in Horror of Dracula, the Star Wars series, the Lord of the Rings series, The Man With the Golden Gun—his career has been so long and so successful that it hardly needs to be discussed. Suffice it to say that Lee is one of the great film stars of our time. He even has his own website.

Gia Scala (1934-1972), the attractive actress who plays Kitty, had an undistinguished career but appeared in two episodes of the half-hour Hitchcock series, including playing the role of William Shatner’s doomed fiancé in “Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?” 


Gilbert Green as Max Rubini
Other cast members include Gilbert Green as Max Rubini, the producer, and Myron Healey as Dave Connor, the public relations man. The story, "Return to the Sabbath,” has been reprinted several times, in such collections as Opener of the Way (1945), Horror 7 (1963), 65 Great Tales of Horror (1982) and The Early Fears (1993). “The Sign of Satan” may be viewed online here.

It premiered on Friday, May 8, 1964, at 10 p.m. eastern time on CBS. Right before it, at 9:30, “Mr. Garrity and the Graves” premiered on The Twilight Zone.

Sources:

Bloch, Robert. "Return to the Sabbath." 65 Great Tales of Horror. London: Octopus, 1981. 43-54. Print.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.

IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.

"The Sign of Satan." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 8 May 1964. Television.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

"Yankee Classic Pictures." Yankee Classic Pictures. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <http://www.yankeeclassic.com>.

12 comments:

Matthew Bradley said...

The alterations to Bloch's story notwithstanding, I liked this episode very much, because of both Lee's presence and the atmospheric photography by John F. Warren, who later shot Hitchcock's dissapointing TORN CURTAIN. The footage from Jorla's imported film--which gives the phrase "cult movie" a whole new meaning--was very reminscent of Lee's mini-classic CITY OF THE DEAD (aka HORROR HOTEL), whose director, John Llewellyn Moxey, made the original NIGHT STALKER TV-movie. And the slo-mo shot of Jorla after he reappears was worthy of the great Mario Bava, who directed Lee in HERCULES AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (aka HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD) and THE WHIP AND THE BODY (aka WHAT!).

Also won't contest the assessment of Gia Scala's career as (largely) undistinguished, but she did make a memorable appearance in THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Genre fans may remember Myron Healey from THE UNEARTHLY, THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, the interminable U.S. scenes shot to pad out Toho's VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE, and the NIGHT STALKER episode "Mr. R.I.N.G."

In his autobiography, TALL, DARK AND GRUESOME, Lee related his surprise upon learning from Robert Douglas, an old friend, that Hitchcock himelf would not be directing the episode.

Jack Seabrook said...

I wanted to like it but I think the photography is anything but atmospheric. This is a very long 50 minutes! Honestly, I think the show as a whole is embarrassingly bad.

Matthew Bradley said...

Been watching some of the hour-long shows with my wife on Encore Suspense (haven't stumbled on any Bloch or Matheson episodes yet), and some of them really are slow. I imagine many felt, as with THE TWILIGHT ZONE, that the half-hours were better paced.

Walker Martin said...

Several years ago at one of the annual Pulpcons in Ohio, Martin Grams sold me the entire set of this hourly series, over 90 episodes. I watched this one a couple years ago and enjoyed it.

After reading this interesting review, I watched it again and still found that I liked it. I guess I'm just a lover of films adapted from WEIRD TALES. So I vote thumbs up for devil worship...

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Walker. I would love to see your collection someday . . .

mark slade said...

One of my fav episodes of all time! been an inspiration to my writing as well.

john kenrick said...

Spot on review, Jack. One thing to remember (I saw Sign Of Satan when it was first broadcast, with my parents, no less!): it premiered during that dreary six months to a year period after JFK's assassination. There was a spooky undercurrent in the land, lots of downbeat, apocalyptic or apocalyptic feeling movies.

The Twilight Zone captures the mood of the time to perfection in the obviously (even to me, as a kid) post-JFK assassination episode I Am The Night,--Color Me Black. It may look awfully contrived, even pretentious now, from a dramatic perspective, but as a time capsule, it's solid gold.

I don't know the production history of Sign Of Satan, so it may well have been made prior to November, 1963, but it doesn't matter to me. What made it work at the time was that dreadful dark mood that prevailed in the land.

It's small wonder why the Beatles and other British pop groups became so popular back then, as they were, literally, coming from a different place. Same with Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins.

As to America itself, Sign Of Satan was, sadly, tragically, closer to the mark as to how many people felt back in 1964. It captured a dark mood, and it scared the living daylights out of me.

As I recall, even my parents were rattled by it, if only just a bit. Viewed today, it's just an episode of an old black and white TV show. Back in the day it felt like Katie bar the door time...

Jack Seabrook said...

That's an interesting way to look at what looks like a really unimpressive episode today. There was a neat review over at the Twilight Zone Vortex recently making the same point about "Death's Head Revisited" and noting that it was on around the time of the Eichmann trial. I was trained in grad school by older English Lit teachers who still followed the New Criticism theory, so I tend to look at works of art in a vacuum, but I do understand the perspective of the sociological approach. I prefer to review the shows as if they were suspended in time, since I think that looking at external influences, while interesting, doesn't really deal with the question of artistic quality, if you see what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Jack, that's a flawed premise. All art is a snapshot of the time in which it was made. Looking at art in a vacuum misses the point. Technology, social/political climate and overall mood have great influences on art. Even the evolution of language has an effect on art. If you don't put the art into its perspective it would be quite easy to misinterpret it.

Some stories (songs, paintings) might not hold up well with time. Ever see an 80s film? Other stories transcend time. They both might be well written.

A story told from the eyes of a 1600s Parisian is completely different than one told from the modern Millennial living in Tulsa.

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't disagree with you. A political or sociological approach to a work of art can shed new light on its influences and intent, but a bad show is still a bad show. I think art that stands up as high quality is more interesting to delve into from other critical approaches.

Robert Jensen said...

I think the girls dressed in devilish costumes are cute and sexy!! At least that's the way I see it.

Jack Seabrook said...

Now that's something we can all agree about!