Truth or Scare

It was with great trepidation that I approached the recent 6-disc DVD collection of ONE STEP BEYOND, available through Film Chest Media. The reason wasn’t because I was frightened of the classic supernatural anthology series that ran on ABC-TV from 1959-1961 (although many episodes are genuinely creepy). It was because, in the age of High Definition Blu-Ray, I’m reluctant to tackle a company primarily associated with public domain titles.

Now, before I go any further, let me state that this release is likely my favorite ever from this company. It is probably the best edition of the many p.d. DVD sets glutting the market. Thus, I recommend it to fans of the show – although with reservations. The main caveat is that the collection is incomplete. Out of the 96 episodes shot during its three-season run, this set comprises only 70 (only!). 70 isn’t bad, they are presented in chronological order, and they can even be accessed via an enclosed guide sheet (which also gives you the broadcast date and a brief synopsis).

To further understand my approval and frustration, one needs to probe the history of this quirky underrated goose-bumper.

It’s been incorrectly called the first horror anthology show to be broadcast on American television. This false claim is mostly due to the fact that it beat Twilight Zone to the airwaves by eight months (January 20th/September 22nd). But even if that wasn’t the case, it wasn’t anywhere near this oft-touted boast. Not surprisingly, it was Arch Oboler who bested ONE STEP BEYOND via the television adaptation of his radio horror series Lights Out, which debuted on U.S. TV in 1949!  Likewise, occasional supernatural subject matter crept into subsequent anthologies, such as Science-Fiction Theater and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. So let’s nip that in the bud right off the bat. The original hook for ONE STEP BEYOND, as conceived by Merwin Gerard, was the declaration that every story was based upon true-life, unexplained strange phenomenon.  And that was enough for me.

I first became a fan during the 1970s, when Channel 5 in New York would run it nightly. The turn-off for me then was the print source – scratched-to-hell, splicy 16mm syndication copies from the Worldvision Distribution Company, which had originally produced the show. I was intrigued by the plots, and also was greatly amused by the semi-conscious, monosyllabic intros by John Newland, or, as he was credited, “Our host into the unknown.” Indeed, Newland’s comments, while delivered in often subtle sinister tones, are the precursor for foreboding I.D. Channel reality TV-type audio, currently the rage and hissed by copycat on-air commentators. I find it funny, but nevertheless entertaining in that Ed Wood/Criswell way (“The amazing story you are about to see is a matter of human record.  You may believe it or not.  But the real people who lived it – they believe it, they know…they’ve taken that ONE STEP BEYOND!”). Newland’s no slouch, however, and does convey a thoughtful, quiet menace with a modicum of intelligence. Think Steve Doocy, but with functioning brain cells.

Newland was, in fact, an actor of modest means who after uninspiring post-WWII tenure at Warner Bros., drifted, like so many discarded contract players, into TV. Whilst on Letters to Loretta (better known as The Loretta Young Show), he was able to try his hand at directing, and thereby found his forte. Newland directed every episode of ONE STEP BEYOND (and likely, in Jeffersonian terminology, probably “had a piece of the pie”). What got him the BEYOND gig was a smattering of well-received directorial efforts on such diverse 1950s shows ranging from The Thin Man to Hitchcock to Bachelor Father (post-BEYOND, he would helm such iconic fare as Thriller, Night Gallery, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Checkmate, Route 66 and Star Trek).  In 1957, Newland directed an independent John Beal drama for the big screen, That Night. It pretty much went nowhere here, but became a huge across the pond, where it won great acclaim and two BAFTA nominations, including one for Best Film. It is probable that this also propelled him to push for the final season of BEYOND to be entirely shot in the U.K.

While it’s easy to poke fun at the Newland intros and closing tags, I must admit that it was through ONE STEP BEYOND that I initially heard the now-common terms paranormal, telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, telemarketing (okay, not that one) spontaneous combustion, possession, psychic phenomenon and, my ole Huckleberry friend, hallucinogens.

The credentials behind the scenes of ONE STEP BEYOND are enormously impressive. The legendary Collier Young (Ironside, Cannon, The Bold Ones) produced the show in conjunction with the even more legendary Joseph Schenck. The series was first shot at Universal-International, then moved over to the MGM facilities (which, I also believe, was the route of Twilight Zone). No less than Russell Metty shot the debut episode (The Bride Possessed) where anxious, lovey newlywed Virginia Leigth (The Brain that Wouldn’t Die’s immortal Jan-in-the-Pan) goes all three-faces-of-Eve on startled groom Skip Homeier in order to find culprit who murdered her in a former life. BOOM!  How’s that for right out of the starting gate? The overworked Larry Marcus was the story editor on BEYOND, and often scripted episodes himself; otherwise, shows were farmed out to the formidable likes of Francis Cockrell, Charles Beaumont and Don Mankiewicz. Suffice to say, the series is incredibly well-written and generally quite engrossing. This high-quality writing is magnificently appended by the amazing casts that were assembled throughout BEYOND‘s three-year span. One must really take their hat off to Newland, who is actually a really good director, both with actors and with transforming tight schedules and budgeting into something visually interesting and compelling. Of course, if one had to pick the singularly memorable aspect of ONE STEP BEYOND, it would be the haunting title theme (dubbed “Fear”), composed for a theremin, by Harry Lubin. It became a minor sensation after the show’s debut and even resulted in a best-selling LP (later on, The Ventures did a fantastic cover of the theme on their seminal 1964 album, The Ventures in Space).

Among the terrific thesps included in this set, are Charles Bronson as an over-the-hill boxer (The Last Round), Torin Thatcher as a witch-hunting Lord, not of the era’s McCarthy variety (Doomsday), Julie Adams as a divorced mom who brings her young son and alcoholic ex together in a most unusual way (Epilogue). Then there’s The Tingler‘s Pamela Lincoln as a freaked-out deb convinced she’s about to be a victim of death-by-chandelier (Premonition). Joan Fontaine and Warren Beatty mix it up (in The Visitor), while Cloris Leachman as an award-winning photographer discovers that her mild-mannered “natural” subject is a long-deceased wife-killer (the great Marcel Dalio) in The Dark Room.  Can’t not mention Pernell Roberts as one of three tortured French WWI soldiers, condemned to death as an example of cowardice (The Vision, an almost phantasmagorical take on Paths of Glory).  Can you blame Patrick Macnee for getting a bit pissed at newlywed bride Barbara Lord because she has reservations about their reservations on The Titanic (The Night of April 14th)?  Or dysfunctional couple Mike Connors and Yvette Vickers from ditching their trapeze act in The Aerialist?  And check out Brainwave. That screaming kid sailor, terrified during a Japanese attack on his ship, is none other than Robert Osborne; with George Grizzard and Whit Bissell also on-board, he possibly mistook the voyage for the TCM cruise.

Sadly, the missing episodes are of greatest loss to the show’s likely key purchasers, as they comprise the lion’s share of the final British season, featuring such genre giants as Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Anton Diffring, Andre Morell and Peter Wyngarde. Also criminally absent is the show’s most famous (and infamous) entry, The Sacred Mushroom, the only true documentary attempt by BEYOND‘s creators wherein Newland journeyed to Mexico to experience the effects of “special” ‘shrooms, all in front of the camera. “It was the series’ most popular episode,” remarked the psychedelic-bound host. And that was probably just with the location crew!

The success of the 1970s revival prompted Newland to pitch a follow-up, 1978’s Next Step Beyond, which flopped, lasting a mere 25 installments.

In 2009, Paramount (which had obtained the rights to the now-defunct Worldvision library) released a DVD set, One Step Beyond – the Official First Season. They never proceeded from that point (at least, to my knowledge). I surmise that, as the show had fallen into public domain, they figured, “Why bother?” Too bad.

Many of the DVD-R bootlegs are culled from homegrown, smeary VHS copies, taped off 1980s Cable broadcasts. This is what I expected with the Film Chest set. Imagine my delight when I popped in the first disc, only to be enthralled by spectacular 35MM, near-pristine imagery. I had never seen this show looking so good, and, natch, a great print of anything elevates the viewing experience. Alas, I spoke too soon. By Disc 3, the episodes morphed into the dupey (but still more-than-acceptable) evocation that usually defines a public domain title. The perk here is that the early 1960s credits (not the syndication reissues) are intact, brandishing the complete title ALCOA PRESENTS ONE STEP BEYOND. I guess it’s not such a big deal, and I much would have preferred the superlative quality being a constant (in all fairness, Film Chest does present a disclaimer on the jacket cover, and I suspect Discs One and Two utilized the transfers mastered for the abandoned Paramount release) although an acceptable trade-off would have been each ALCOA PRESENTS ep concluding with a “Curses, foiled again” end credit. Seriously, until Paramount decides to do a complete Blu-Ray box set (and they should), the Film Chest edition is the best way to go. And, at under twenty bucks, it’s not such a bad trip to take. With or without mushrooms.

ONE STEP BEYOND.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1]; Mono audio.  Film Chest Media Group.  CAT # FC-514.  SRP:  $19.95.

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