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 Barré 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|
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?|
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.|
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. Barré 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|
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.
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>.