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Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Monday, February 16, 2015

[Satanophobia] Alfred Hitchcock Hour: The Sign of Satan (1964)

When talent agent Dave Connor returns from a trip overseas, he comes bearing a gift for director Max Rubini: a highlight reel, of sorts, featuring three scenes from a little-known film starring European actor Karl Jorla. The scenes depict some sort of satanic ritual, and Jorla's portrayal of the cult member is so captivating that Rubini knows he has found the star for his next horror movie.

Alfred Hitchcock Hour - The Sign of Satan
Title Screen
A few phone calls are made, and Jorla arrives at the studio after a long flight. The press is there, but Jorla is camera shy, adamant in his refusal of publicity. He doesn't want anyone to know where he is, he says, as a matter of personal safety.

It is later revealed that the film that Dave Connor had come home with was financed by a genuine satanic cult for in-house use only, and it depicted an actual black mass. What's more, Jorla was once an arch priest of this cult, and he was excommunicated when the blame for the film's accidental release into the world landed on him.  If his former allies were to locate him, he would be killed without hesitation.

After one failed attempt on Jorla's life, pre-production on the film continues. But when it becomes time to start shooting the first scene, Jorla is nowhere to be found. No one has seen or heard from him in three days, it seems, and the filmmakers are getting worried. They decide to give him a little more time to show his face, and in the meanwhile, begin shooting around his character.

Just as his co-star Kitty Frazier, in her role as Princess Margarita, recites an incantation while standing before the titular Sign of Satan, a pair of doors eases open, and there stands Jorla, surrounded by fog, exactly as the script calls for. The shot is perfect, the director calls 'cut', and everyone goes to greet Jorla...but the man is gone, as if he had never been there.

A cryptic message that Jorla had muttered echoes through everyone's mind, and they deduce that it was a
Alfred Hitchcock Hour: The Sign of Satan - Princes Margarita
Princess Margarita
street address. There, covered by a ceremonial blanket and surrounded by candles, they find the murdered corpse of Karl Jorla...dead for at least three days.

Fan reception on this episode is decidedly mixed, some declaring it one of the most memorable outings of the series while others say that it was a case of wasted potential. I fall somewhere in the middle, enamored with some of the more effective sequences while disappointed with a bit of the filler.

It starts off with the footage of the black mass, as Karl Jorla seemingly rises from the grave. We the viewers immediately feel as if we are in for a real horror installment of the series, but the rug is pulled out from under us when we learn that the scenes we are watching unfold are actually just scenes from a movie that the characters are watching. It's not until a short time later, when we discover that the satanic rites were real, that we understand Hitch is serving this cocktail up with a meta twist, and this really is a horror episode after all (uneven as it may be).

Some viewers may find the satanic rituals at the onset of the episode to run a trifle longer than they need to, but for me, they were one of the highlights. They were deftly orchestrated (witness the cult members walking expertly in reverse through the catacombs), and, in some sense, quite believable. Not believable in that they seemed true to life, but believable in that the footage would have seemed right at home in one of the better satanic panic horror films of the era. It would have been more effective if it had been allowed to unfold of its own accord, though, without Dave Connor interrupting to explain to his associates everything that was happening onscreen.

Alfred Hitchcock Hour: The Sign of Satan - Jorla's Hands
Jorla's Hands
The character of Jorla is filled by Christopher Lee, portraying a somewhat different kind of character than we're used to. As he is being pursued by the Satanists, and is obviously terrified of their wrath, we feel a sympathy for him that is rather unusual. Although there would be nothing strange in feeling sympathetic for most people in the same situation, the fact that Jorla was, until a short time ago, a cult member himself makes him an odd man to feel bad for. He didn't leave the group because he had a change of heart or due to some moral conflict. He was excommunicated. Had things gone a different route, he may well have been one of the killers, and we would be rooting against him. Spending even the short amount of time with him that we did humanized him, which is something of an accomplishment in and of itself.

Jorla is played as a strange and intense fellow, but perhaps a bit too prone to melodramatic hand gestures. The rest of the characters are pretty thin characterizations, and too much time is spent listening to them discuss show business trivialities, and arguing with Jorla about where he's going to be staying during the film shoot. There was a scene where a detective followed Jorla as he left the studio for the day, and we see the carefully plotted route that he took to get home—including walking, driving a rental car, and taking a taxi—and yet, nothing at all came of the entire scene, making it feel superfluous in the grand scheme.

The same can be said of far too many scenes in this episode, and although there should have been plenty of material to mine and exploit, the end result feels padded and as if it would have been better suited to the original half-hour format—though to be fair, a 30 minute edit would probably have left me feeling as if it should have been expanded more. I'm convinced that the premise has a fantastic story within it, but the scriptwriter and director didn't manage to fully unearth it, which is a shame.

This episode was based on a short story by Robert Bloch, and maybe if Bloch had scripted it himself, things would have turned out better. Instead, those duties went to Barré Lyndon, who had previously adapted Bloch's story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" for THRILLER in 1961. He also wrote the script for the 1944 Jack the Ripper movie THE LODGER, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which had been filmed twice before—the first in 1926, coincidentally directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The episode was directed by Robert Douglas, whose résumé consists mostly of western and police television dramas—MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, ADAM-12, CANNON, and BARETTA among them. He was also an actor, appearing in a number of the same series that he would direct episodes of, as well as the thriller SECRET CEREMONY (1968) and the TV movie THE QUESTOR TAPES (1974).

Our starring satanist, Christopher Lee should require no introduction but for the uninitiated, he appeared in countless Hammer studio films (portraying Frankenstein's monster, Dracula and the mummy); THE WICKER MAN (1973) and THE WICKER TREE (2011); the LORD OF THE RINGS series; the STAR WARS prequels; and well over two hundred other credits that we don't have the time to cover here.

Lee's costars, though, might require a bit more explanation. Myron Healy (Dave Connor) was frequently seen playing the heavy in 1950s westerns, and appeared in a few titles geared toward the genre fan: mad doctor flick THE UNEARTHLY (1957); prehistoric monster movie VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (1962); killer grizzly thriller CLAWS (1977); classic sci-fi schlocker THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (1977); horror comedy GHOST FEVER (1986); and the electric horror film PULSE (1988).

Gia Scala (Kitty Frazier) had a career that lasted 14 years but only 31 credits. She got her big break when appearing on a game show, which lead to a studio contract. After appearing in films like THE GARMENT JUNGLE (1957) and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), her brush with fame became too much to bear. After one failed suicide attempt, she succeeded with an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills in 1972.

Gilbert Green (Max Rubini) was a Jewish actor who ironically played a Nazi several different times—in episodes of HOGAN'S HEROES (1966), MCHALE'S NAVY (1966), and, believe it or not, STAR TREK (1968). His first film role came in William Castle's 1961 movie HOMICIDAL, and he later appeared in EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962), DARK INTRUDER (1965, also written by Barré Lyndon), and NORMA RAE (1979).

Weird Tales July 1938 - Cover Image
Weird Tales July 1938
The short story that this episode was based on follows the same basic plotline, though it is a better read than this episode was a watch.  First published in the July 1938 issue of Weird Tales (under Bloch’s real name, don’t believe the myriad sources that claim it was credited to his pseudonym ‘Tarleton Fiske’), it's a much more gruesome account of the same incidents, as in Bloch's version, Jorla is a half-rotting corpse when he emerges from the grave. During the black mass, it is implied that Jorla murders a child with a ceremonial knife—which serves to make him even more unlikable in the story, as it is a distinct possibility that these events were real. As he moves throughout the film, he continues to rot and decay, a shambling but bright-minded zombie in service of Satan.

Bloch's story also makes several direct references to horror genre icons, like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, placing it more distinctly in our world. It is a first person account, told from the perspective of the studio's publicity man, so the more oblique and mysterious elements of the tale are more fitting. We only see and know what our narrator sees and knows, whereas with the television version, the camera goes where it pleases, yet still leaves us somewhat in the dark.

Weird Tales July 1938 - Table of Contents
Weird Tales July 1938 T.O.C.

Personally, I think that this concept is ripe for a remake. More than enough time has passed, and it's been a while since a solid satanic horror film has hit the theaters. This probably wouldn’t be the popular choice, but after seeing his LORDS OF SALEM (2012, to be covered later), I think that Rob Zombie could bring the rich visual style that this story deserves.  Base it on the short story and not the Hitchcock episode, expand the plotline a bit, keep it a period piece (but bring it into the 1970s, which would not only fall into Zombie’s aesthetic wheelhouse, but was also a decade which had its own occult renaissance) and I think it could be a hit.

—J/Metro

2 comments:

  1. I watched this film entitled The Sign of Satan and Sir Christopher Lee played a excellent part like all his films he puts a lot of effort into them to convince the viewer what he aims to do and say, sadly missed he is my favourite actor along side with Peter Cushing 2 fine actors of the film world. R I P Christopher and Peter until we meet again in the heavenly realm.

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