By John C. Alsedek:
Last time, I mentioned that back in 2005 I'd discovered a couple of old, never-aired television series while I was digging up public domain content for my own internet TV station. One of them was 13 Demon Street, starring Lon Chaney Jr. The other? It was also an anthology program featuring a legend of horror:The Veil, starring Boris Karloff.
In TV circles, Karloff is probably best remembered as the host and occasional star of Thriller, which aired on NBC from 1960–1962. But it wasn't his only television series. Way back in 1949, Karloff had hosted (and acted in) Starring Boris Karloff on ABC. The show was unusual because it ran both as a TV program and a radio program; essentially, each episode was done twice—once for TV and then again a night later (often with an entirely different cast) as a radio play. It's difficult to say just what the focus of Starring Boris Karloff was, given that no episodes have survived. However, from what little information remains about the show's 13-episode run, it was a horror fest in the Thriller vein. That wasn't the case, however, with Karloff's next anthology series, The Veil.
The Veil was created and produced by Frank P. Bibas, a longtime producer of radio and television commercials who would go on to win an Oscar in 1961 for the documentary Project Hope. Avid about the supernatural, Bibas was eager to take a somewhat different route than other anthology shows and tell stories based on real-life incidents rather than works of fiction. It’s a premise that the John Newland program One Step Beyond would take to national prominence in 1959, though as far as I know the shows developed independently.
The Veil had an unofficial pilot episode that ran on the anthology program Telephone Time, which was sponsored by Bell Telephone and hosted by the affable, bespectacled Dr. Frank Baxter. The story was "The Vestris," which concerned a 19th-century sailing vessel that is lured toward Arctic waters by a ghostly figure. It’s unclear to me whether "The Vestris" was a true pilot or just ended up being a sort-of pilot after the fact. But given that a number of key people who were involved in the production of "The Vestris" would go on to be part of the team making The Veil, I think a full-blown series might have been in the back of Bibas' mind.
Bibas shot The Veil for Hal Roach Studios in 1958, filming on their famous lot in Culver City—the same lot that had been the home of Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Will Rodgers, and so many other greats. He brought in Karloff (who had been in "The Vestris") as the host; he would introduce and wrap up each episode while standing in front of a massive roaring fireplace. Leon Klatzkin composed the theme music, an intriguingly baroque piece mixing theremin and woodwinds. And the great Karloff was set to star in nearly every episode. So what could go wrong?
In a word, money.
The legendary Hal Roach had given control of the studios over to his son, Hal Jr., in 1955; it wasn’t long before the company was hopelessly in debt and would end up closing for good in 1961. Combined with the collapse of a co-production arrangement with National Telefilm Associates, the nearly bankrupt Hal Roach Studios pulled the plug on production after just 10 episodes had been filmed. Even with an additional episode produced by another company added to the package, it was considered too few to shop to a network or air in syndication. So, while a couple of episodes were cobbled together into late-night TV movies, the series itself languished unseen for over thirty years before Something Weird Video put out The Veil on DVD.
So how does The Veil hold up? I'm sort of lukewarm on the series. In terms of production values (i.e., sets, costumes, cinematography), it's definitely closer to the Hollywood standard than 13 Demon Street—a step down from the Universal/MGM/Paramount level but good enough that it doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the episodes. The acting is likewise superior to that found on 13 Demon Street; while not exactly star-studded, The Veil has a lot of very recognizable sixties TV/film faces, including Whit Bissell, Jennifer Raine, Katherine Squire, and a pre-Avengers Patrick Macnee. But ultimately, the stories themselves are sort of bland—not bad, but a far cry from what Boris Karloff would be doing just two years later. Of the 10 episodes of The Veil, I think my favorite is "Food on the Table," in which Karloff plays a sea captain who poisons his wife so that he can marry a rich widow, only to find himself beset by a vengeful ghost. In a series where Karloff is most often cast as a kindly old man, it's a rare opportunity for him to play a thoroughly evil character, and he runs with it.
While it's a little sad that The Veil never made it to television, things probably worked out for the best. I mean, if it had, there might never have been a Thriller, which means that horror masterpieces like "Pigeons from Hell" and "The Incredible Doktor Markesan" would have gone unfilmed. And that would have been a true horror!
Earlier, I mentioned composer Leon Klatzkin, who created the music for The Veil. Well, Klatzkin is best known for creating the theme music for another 1950's series: The Adventures of Superman. Next time, we'll be headed back to the radio waves for a look at the radio version of Superman's tales. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.