Sunday 11 July 2021

The Veil (1958)

The Veil was an ill-fated American horror anthology TV series made by Hal Roach Studios in 1958, with Boris Karloff hosting and also acting in most episodes. Unfortunately after ten episodes had been made Hal Roach Studios went broke. The series was consigned, unaired, to the vault.

This series was obviously influenced by the success of Alfred Hitchcock Presents which had demonstrated that an anthology series could be very successful indeed. While Alfred Hitchcock Presents concentrated on mysteries, always with a sting in the tail, The Veil takes an overtly supernatural approach. It's mostly not full-blooded horror but there is never any doubt as to the supernatural nature of the events which unfold.

It’s difficult to judge this series fairly since it didn’t go to air and the producers therefore did not have the opportunity to refine the formula or to discover which types of stories worked and which didn’t. The Thriller anthology seres which Karloff hosted a couple of years later was very successful because in that case the producers spent the first half of the first season trying to get that formula right. As a result Thriller moved more and more into outright horror territory because the first few experiments in full-blooded horror proved to be so popular. Had The Veil gone to air the weaknesses would presumably have been quickly ironed out.

As a result The Veil is rather erratic in quality. The potential was there but it needed to become more focused. Several episodes have great build-ups but they suffer from a failure to provide a totally satisfactory pay-off.

One thing you need to keep in mind is that this series is not aiming for visceral horror. It’s aiming for a subtle sense of mild spookiness. It mostly doesn’t deal with terrifying events but with unsettling inexplicable events. Most of the stories are to some degree left hanging and I have a suspicion that this is quite deliberate. The aim is not to resolve things in a definite way but to leave the viewer scratching his head in puzzlement, rather than scared out of his wits. We’re not supposed to be sure whether what we’ve seen is supernatural or not, in fact we’re not supposed to have any idea as to what the explanation really is. So we get stories that are suggestive, that are hints of odd happenings, rather than fully-developed stories.

Whether this was a wise strategy for the series to adopt is something we’ll never know. Since it didn’t go to air and remained unseen for many years there’s no way of knowing how viewers at the time would have reacted.

The result is that The Veil has an odd kind of feel that you’ll either like or you won’t. If you accept it as a series of atmospheric vignettes concerning strange occurrences then you’ll find that it has a certain appeal, but you do have to accept that the plots usually don’t go in for the kill in the way you’re going to expect.

Karloff tells us in his episode introductions that these are are all stories based on actual events, a claim that the viewer might choose to take with a grain of salt although in some cases it might well be true.

For most viewers the biggest attraction of this series is that Karloff appears in every episode as an actor and gets to play a wide variety of rôles, sometimes villainous, sometimes comic, sometimes as hero or victim. It’s a fine showcase for Karloff’s acting versatility.

The Veil remained lost in obscurity until the 1990s. Since then there have been several DVD releases. The Something Weird DVD release that I have (which is still available) includes the ten episodes that were known to exist at the time. The original backdoor pilot episode, made for another anthology series, and one further episode later came to light.

Episode Guide

Vision of Crime takes place in the late 19th century. A man is murdered in his shop. The somewhat disreputable Albert Ketch was seen running from the scene so he is quickly arrested. It all seems straightforward but it isn’t, because at the exact moment that Hart Bosworth was slain his brother George, hundreds of miles away on a ship bound for France, had a vision of the murder. He didn’t see the killer clearly enough to identify him but he did see enough to know that it was not Albert Ketch. Somehow George has to convince the police that Ketch is innocent but if he tells them he had a vision they’ll think he’s mad. Even his fiancée Julie will think he’s mad.

This episode boasts an impressive cast. There’s Boris Karloff as the blustering and rather inept police sergeant, Willmore, who takes charge of the case. There’s Patrick Macnee from The Avengers as the much more efficient Constable Hawton. And there’s Robert Hardy (who went on to fame as one of the stars of All Creatures Great and Small) as George Bosworth.

The first problem with this episode is the uneasy mixture of spookiness and broad humour. The second problem is the failure to develop the spookiness enough. And thirdly, it just doesn’t have any real suspense or mystery. It’s all too obvious and the resolution falls flat. It’s certainly a very disappointing start to the series.

Girl on the Road
, written and directed by George Waggner, is a major improvement. John Prescott is driving along near Lookout Point when he sees a girl who seems to be having car trouble. It turns out that her name is Lila and she’s run out of petrol. He offers to give her a lift so that they can get some petrol but he takes her to a bar instead. He’s obviously very interested in getting to know her and while she’s understandably cautious (his intentions seem a bit obvious) she seems at least mildly interested in him.

Then things take a slightly strange turn. She gets very frightened, for no obvious reason. She wants to leave, alone, but she does agree to meet him later that night at Lookout Point. They do meet, and things take a much stranger turn after an elderly man named Morgan Debs (played by Karloff) turns up and tells Prescott that Lila won’t be turning up, although she already has turned up. He tells Prescott that he should forget the girl.

Prescott has however become rather obsessed. He is determined to see Lila again. He is sure that she is in trouble. His efforts to find her again lead him to an unexpected discovery about the nature of her trouble.

The payoff is rather low-key and doesn’t have the punch that modern viewers will expect but it works reasonably well. The whole story has a nicely mysterious atmosphere with Prescott becoming increasingly bewildered, and increasingly unsure about what Morgan Debs is up to. I liked this one.

Food on the Table is the tale of a sea captain from 18th century Massachusetts. His most recent voyage almost ended in disaster when the ship was overrun by venomous snakes. Two crewmen died but now the ship has reached port safely. You would think that Captain Elwood would be anxious to see his wife Ruth but he isn’t. He dislikes and resents her (for reasons that will later be revealed). She turns up at the Mariners’ Club when he is carousing with his seafaring buddies. They’re just about to sit down to a splendid dinner when Ruth, n a jealous rage, hurls all the food onto the floor. When they get home we discover that one of those venomous snakes survived the voyage and is lurking in the captain’s luggage.

What happens next isn’t as obvious as you think it’s going to be. The captain’s marital difficulties will however shortly come to a head. And the supernatural will of course make an appearance. It’s a reasonably spooky tale. Karloff’s performance as Captain Elwood helps a good deal. This is not a bad little story.

In The Doctors Karloff plays an elderly Italian doctor, Dr. Carlo Marcabienti, in a small and very backward village. He is much-loved by all. A little girl gets very sick but there’s a fierce storm raging so the doctor’s son Angelo (also a doctor) has to attend the girl. The girl’s family won’t let him treat her because they don’t believe he’s a real doctor.

This is not a horror story. It’s simply a tale of an odd occurrence which seems to defy explanation. This seems to be the kind of story that was going to become a speciality of this series. The downside is that you don’t get a real horror pay-off but the upside is that you get an atmosphere that is mysterious and unsettling. I quite enjoyed it but going for quirky stories with a subtle hint of the supernatural was a risky strategy that would have left some viewers disappointed.

The Crystal Ball is another episode that is too subtle for its own good and again we don’t get a fully satisfying pay-off. Edmond is a young writer in 19th century Paris. His fiancée Marie gives him the big brush-off (she’s going to marry his rich publisher instead because she wants money) but she gives him a parting gift - a crystal ball. She thinks it’s just a harmless bauble but she’s wrong. Edmond sees things in the crystal ball, things that could have disastrous consequences. But consequences for whom?

This is another story that really needed a clever twist at the end (of the kind that Alfred Hitchcock Presents always provided) but we don’t get it. It’s another episode that feels strangely unfinished.

In Genesis an old farmer is dying. He has two sons. One, John, is a devoted son, the other (Jamie) stole some money and ran off to the big city. Now Jamie has returned in the hope of getting his inheritance. It all depends on the old man’s will. Or in this case wills - he seems to have made several wills. The vital clue is connected to a passage in the Bible and John and Jamie are modern versions of Esau and Jacob. It’s another story that involves the supernatural without being a horror story and once again the script needed to provide a bit more punch.

Destination Nightmare is about a father (played by Karloff) who wants his son to follow in his footsteps and take over his aviation business. He’s worried that his son doesn’t have what it takes. The tensions between them rise when the son almost crashes after seeing a vision. Maybe it has something to do with the father’s nightmares about the war. This episode is much more fully developed than most and pays off pretty nicely whilst still retaining that slight edge of uncertainty that was the trademark of the series. A very good episode.

Summer Heat
sees The Veil doing a Rear Window, or at least that’s the initial impression. A mild-mannered New York shipping clerk named Edward Page sees a murder committed in the building opposite his apartment. When the police arrive they find that the apartment in which Page claimed the murder happened is vacant. Page ends ups in Bellevue but the psychiatrist there (played by Karloff) is convinced that Page isn’t crazy. And then we get the twist. This is quite a decent episode.

The Return of Madame Vernoy is set in India and deals with reincarnation. Santha Naidu is a young woman who not only believes that she had a past life, she remembers that past life vividly. She was a woman very happily married to a M. Armand Vernoy. She died in 1927, shortly after the birth of her son. A year later she was reborn as Santha Naidu. M. Vernoy is now a man in late middle age but he is still very much alive. Santha can’t wait to tell him the good news that his beloved wife has been reborn. They can pick up their life together where it left off.

Things don’t go as smoothly as she’d expected. Her son Krishna, now a young man (and played by a very young George Hamilton), refuses to believe that Santha is his mother. M. Vernoy is thrown into an emotional turmoil. He doesn’t know what to believe. This is a fairly typical episode in the sense that there’s no horror, just something that is inexplicable and puzzling and disturbing for everyone involved. It is, typically for this series, very low-key. But it’s not a bad episode.

Jack the Ripper was actually made by a different studio but was acquired by Hal Roach Studios. They added the Boris Karloff intro and outro but Karloff does not appear in this episode. Walter Durst is a professional clairvoyant. Both he and his wife are convinced that his powers of clairvoyance are real. Walter has a dream in which a woman is murdered and the next day the body of Jack the Ripper’s second victim is found, precisely at the spot foretold in Walter’s dream. Walter goes to Scotland Yard but they simply laugh at him. And then he has another vision. This story has quite a similar feel to the episodes of The Veil so including it in that series made perfect sense, and was a nice way of saving some money. Quite a decent episode.

Final Thoughts

The Veil isn’t scary but it does offer a slightly unsettling slightly spooky feel which was what it was aiming for. If that doesn’t bother you then you’ll probably like it. If you’re expecting full-blown horror you’ll be disappointed. Either way it’s reasonably interesting and probably worth a look, especially if you’re a hardcore Karloff fan.

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