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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

ONE STEP BEYOND: THE OFFICIAL FIRST SEASON -- DVD review by porfle

Two wonderfully strange television series premiered in 1959. One was Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone", an anthology that placed normal people into fantastic circumstances that usually involved some kind of ironic twist. The other, which arrived ten months earlier, was also an anthology, and its characters also found themselves in weird situations that were often tinged with irony. But unlike "Twilight Zone", which was brimming with fanciful situations, imaginary creatures, and science-fiction elements, "One Step Beyond" drew its inspiration from actual accounts of the supernatural which were claimed by the host, John Newland, to be true.

Eschewing the pure fantasy elements of Serling's show, one of the strengths of "One Step Beyond" was the feeling it instilled in the viewer that they were watching something that not only could happen, but could happen to them. Newland constantly reminds us of this in his framing narrations throughout the 22 episodes found in the 3-DVD set, ONE STEP BEYOND: THE OFFICIAL FIRST SEASON. His dignified, rational demeanor lends additional credence to the incredible stories of supernatural phenomena which he relates with such calm conviction and wry confidence.

These tales run the gamut from ghost stories to psychic phenomena and all manner of unexplained occurrences in between. Some, such as "Twelve Hours to Live", stretch their premises a bit thin and don't offer much in the way of surprise or suspense. We know that when Will Jansen (Paul Richards) is trapped in his wrecked car on a deserted construction site and begins crying for help that his wife Carol (Jean Allison) will somehow sense his peril and come to the rescue. The trouble is, it takes her half an hour to do so and the situation gets tiresome pretty quick.

"Echo", with Ross Martin as a man just acquitted of his wife's murder who foresees his own death in a mirror, not only doesn't go anywhere but it doesn't really make much sense, either. Another story whose twist is telegraphed long in advance and then takes forever to arrive is "The Aerialist", with Mike Connors ("Mannix") as a trapeze artist driven suicidal with guilt after he drops his father during the family's act. Still, the young Connors is interesting in the role, and the fact that his faithless wife is portrayed by schlock-film goddess Yvette Vickers is a definite plus.

Any quibbles I might have are minor in comparison to the wealth of entertainment value contained in this set. The premiere episode, "The Bride Possessed", gets things off to a chilling start with the great Skip Homeier as a newlywed whose bayou-born wife (Virginia Leith, a fine actress best known as "Jan in a pan" from THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE) suddenly starts speaking in an unfamiliar voice and acting like an entirely different person. Skip soon discovers that she's been possessed by the ghost of a woman whose unsolved murder was ruled a suicide.

"Emergency Only" is of interest since it features Marlon Brando's sister Jocelyn as a psychic who warns a skeptical man of the impending disaster that he'll encounter should he board a particular train. In "Epilogue", recovering alcoholic Charles Aidman awakens to find his estranged wife Julie Adams (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) frantically beckoning him to the site of a mine cave-in which has trapped their young son--and in which she herself was buried beneath tons of rock. "Premonition" is the strange tale of a budding ballet dancer (soulful child actress Beverly Washburn) who adamantly refuses to enter a room after foreseeing her own death beneath a falling chandelier.

Something about this show--whether it was John Newland's assured direction (he helmed all 22 first season episodes and many more), the well-written scripts, or the scintillating subject matter--seemed to inspire several of the guest stars to deliver outstanding performances. In "The Devil's Laughter", familiar character actor Alfred Ryder is fascinating to watch as a condemned man who must be released after numerous attempts to hang him result in inexplicable failure. (Lester Mathews of WEREWOLF OF LONDON co-stars.) Genre sweetheart Luana Anders is marvelously effective in "The Burning Girl", in which she plays a firestarter whose fits of fear and anxiety prove dangerously combustible. "Get Smart" star Edward Platt plays her father.

"The Vision", about a group of WWI soldiers court-martialed for throwing down their weapons after witnessing a heavenly apparition, boasts a strong ensemble cast including Pernell Roberts (sans toupee'), Bruce Gordon, H.M. Wynant, and Richard Devon. Maria Palmer is heartrending as a lonely wife who finally finds a little romance and affection from a man who isn't there (via a Ouija board) in "The Secret." And Patrick Macnee, not yet one of "The Avengers", is a man whose new wife (Barbara Lord) is having terrible nightmares about their upcoming honeymoon cruise on the grand new luxury liner Titanic in "Night of April 14th."

The best episodes combine moving human drama with situations that are truly unsettling and sometimes downright creepy. One of my favorites is "The Dead Part of the House", featuring another fine ensemble cast. Philip Abbott is a grieving widower moving into a large old house with his sister Joanne Linville (the Romulan commander in the Star Trek episode "The Enterprise Incident") and his young daughter whom he has woefully neglected in his grief. Played by charming child actress Mimi Gibson, the little girl soon discovers that one of the upstairs bedrooms is still occupied by three previous tenants who become her playmates. The only thing wrong with this is--they're dead. Philip Ahn of "Kung Fu" also stars as their wise servant, Song.

More eerie encounters with the restless dead include "The Haunted U-Boat", with Werner Klemperer ("Hogan's Heroes") as an unwilling passenger on a German sub that's bedeviled by an unknown entity pounding on the hull to be let in. "Image of Death" is the story of a husband who murders his wife with the help of his lover, only to find that a strange stain on the wall is beginning to resemble the screaming countenance of his dead wife. And "The Navigator" is a seafaring ghost story with Don Dubbins and Robert Ellenstein as a First Mate and Captain whose vessel is steered off-course by a stowaway (Olan Soule) whose body later turns up among the wreckage of a ship that lies along their altered course.

Some of the other notable faces that turn up during the course of the season are Walter Burke (getting to play something besides a leprechaun for a change), Cloris Leachman, Ben Cooper, Sandy Kenyon, Ann Codee (THE MUMMY'S CURSE), Douglas Kennedy, William Schallert, a dark-haired Patrick O'Neal, Reginald Owen, Skip Young, BLADE RUNNER screenwriter Hampton Fancher, Wesley Lau, Doris Dowling, Percy Helton, Sandra Knight, Warren Stevens, Barry Atwater, Jon Lormer, and Robert Webber.

The image quality is very good (in beautiful black-and-white) except for some occasional rough patches. Aspect ratio is 4.3 full-screen with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. Extras include an extended version of pilot episode "The Bride Possessed", a TV promo, the original Alcoa Aluminum opening, and the cheesy 1990s version of the main titles sequence seen on the Sci-Fi Channel. There's also a brief audio interview with writer Don Mankiewicz, whose account of scripting the episode "Epilogue" casts some doubt on the veracity of these stories--according to him, the producers had temporary dibs on a standing mine tunnel set, and needed him to whip up a story to go along with it!

Rather than wielding a sledgehammer of shock and sensation, ONE STEP BEYOND: THE OFFICIAL FIRST SEASON is filled with the kind of spine-tingling campfire tales that get under your skin and make it crawl. So the next time you're in a spooky mood, this is just the thing for some late-night viewing with the lights off.


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2 comments:

Max the drunken severed head said...

This is the sort of well-informed, detailed review that can shape opinions. It certainly shaped mine! I'll be buying the set!

Thanks!

porfle said...

Thanks, Max! You are the sort of well-informed, intelligent reader who can make my day!