By John C. Alsedek:
Back in 2005, I had left my previous life in the world of professional bicycle racing and was figuring out what to do next. My first idea? To start up an online TV station, Ghoulapalooza TV. So I started hunting down old public domain movies and TV shows to run on it; I managed to come up with copies of 1950’s anthology shows such as Tales of Tomorrow and Lights Out and also stumbled upon a pair of anthologies I’d never even heard of before. One of them was The Veil, an obscure series starring Boris Karloff. And the other? A show featuring another legend of horror, Lon Chaney Jr. The show was 13 Demon Street.
Lon Chaney Jr. has been a favorite actor of mine ever since I was a kid. Back then, I didn’t know about the tragic turns of his career and his life—I mean, I could see that he looked pretty rough in his more-recent performances, but I didn’t think that deeply about it. What I did think about was how, in his best roles, Chaney was able to convey a genuine sense of humanity, of vulnerability—even when he was playing a monster; his signature role as "The Wolf Man" is certainly a good example of that.
By the late 1950s, Chaney's Universal glory days of playing the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and Dracula were long past. But he was still working regularly in films and television, largely in supporting roles. Though he had his detractors, Chaney also had significant supporters, including famous producer Stanley Kramer, who included Chaney in films such as High Noon and The Defiant Ones; Kramer once stated to the press that whenever he read a script that included a role too difficult for most Hollywood actors, he would call Chaney.
It was through the auspices of another supporter, screenwriter/director/producer Curt Siodmak, that Lon Chaney Jr. ended up in 13 Demon Street. Siodmak had written the screenplay for The Wolf Man back in 1941, and the two men had stayed in contact thereafter (which is curious, as Chaney had once broken a vase over the head of Siodmak's older brother, director Robert Siodmak). So when Siodmak came up with the concept of 13 Demon Street, he brought in Chaney to act as the show's narrator.
The basic concept of 13 Demon Street was this: each show began during a stormy night with a pan-in on the front door of a gloomy house, the number "13" prominently displayed upon it. The door would open and the camera would continue to pan in on a ramshackle living room/study, where Chaney—looking disheveled and a bit desperate—explained why he was dwelling in such unsavory quarters:
"Number 13, Demon Street. I am condemned to live here, to suffer on this earth eternally, as a punishment for my sin; it is said that no greater outrage was ever committed by any mortal. But, should I find a crime more heinous, my terrible punishment will end."
From there, Chaney would segue into that week's episode, the idea being that The Creator (and the viewer) could compare the crimes committed in the episode with the unspecified one committed by Chaney's character (I love that his sin is so awful as to remain unnamed, but it does make comparison pretty difficult). Not a bad premise, right? Unfortunately, the end product didn't quite live up to the promise. . . .
13 Demon Street was a joint Swedish-English production, with some English and American actors mixed in amongst the Swedes; the shows were all done in English, but with Swedish subtitles. It was filmed at Nordisk Tonefilm Studios, which I'm guessing was the Swedish equivalent of Monogram Pictures in Hollywood (i.e., low budget). And unfortunately, it shows. I hadn't watched any episodes of 13 Demon Street since 2005, so I revisited a couple the night before I wrote this. The first thing that struck me about the show was how rudimentary it was; I'd grown up watching well-filmed/written/acted shows such as The Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond that premiered the same year that 13 Demon Street was produced, and the latter show very much suffers in comparison. The acting is very hit-or-miss (which isn't entirely fair, as the Swedish actors weren't performing in their native language), the writing is functional but not all that engaging, and the production values are more like a Poverty Row film than something made for one of the major U.S. networks. For me, it works at a certain level as a functional horror series and as a curio. But there are a lot of like-minded but better shows to choose from out there.
In total, thirteen episodes were produced; while they did make it onto television in some European markets, I don't think the hoped-for U.S. syndication deal ever came through. However, 13 Demon Street did eventually make it to U.S. television . . . sort of. In 1961, three episodes were stitched together into a feature-length film called The Devil's Messenger, with newly filmed segments of Chaney as Satan replacing his previous narration. The Devil's Messenger went on to be a staple of late-night programming throughout the remainder of the 1960s and throughout the seventies. Today, 13 Demon Street is available on YouTube, at Archive.org, and on DVD from Something Weird.
On the subject of anthology shows that never quite made it to prime time, I mentioned a show called The Veil earlier. We'll be taking a look at that lost Boris Karloff series next time. 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.