Friday, January 11, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 45: The Next Step Beyond (1978-1979): "The Haunted Inn"

"The dramatization you are about to see is based on an actual investigated and documented case of psychic phenomenon. It is...the next step beyond."
-Opening narration for
The Next Step Beyond

The original One Step Beyond, a paranormal anthology which ran on network television from 1959-1961, remains one of television's classic ventures: a stylish, beautifully-shot and impeccably written) creepfest. Hosted by the late, great John Newland (who also directed all 96 installments of the show), the series always attempted to present its stories of the paranormal in accurate fashion (while still allowing for dramatic license).

Some of the great One Step Beyond episodes include 'If You See Sally," about a trucker picking up a strange young girl on a lonely road by thick of night. Or "Night of April 14," concerning the web of psychic events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. Or "The Haunted U-Boat," or "The Clown," or the truly outlandish (and utterly disturbing...) "Ordeal on Locust Street," which concerned...well, I can't tell you because that would ruin it.

Despite the artistic and popular success of this black-and-white series, not many viewers recall that almost twenty years after the premiere of One Step Beyond, John Newland was back on the air fronting a sequel or follow-up series, a 1978 effort that ran in syndication for one season, entitled The Next Step Beyond.

Unfortunately, this sequel had a meager budget ($92,000 per half-hour installment), and could not afford to shoot on film. Instead, the still-distinctly imperfect medium of videotape was recruited for the series. This was a severe blow to the look, atmosphere and feel of the series, a true and lasting pleasure of the original. In an interview with me for my book An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond, Mr. Newland spoke to me about the video-taped look of The Next Step Beyond. "It was very inferior quality," he readily acknowledged.
"We thought videotape was the medium of the future, but the results were not what we had in mind. We switched to 16mm half way through the series..."

Another problem with The Next Step Beyond was perhaps more serious in nature: the stories were -- for the most part - remakes of tales already dramatized on One Step Beyond.
"The remakes were a bad idea," Newland admitted to me. "We thought we could fool the audience, and we soon learned we couldn't."

It was for these reasons that John Newland counted The Next Step Beyond as the most disappointing experience of his long and auspicious Hollywood career. Fatally flawed by a cheap look and stale narratives, the sequel to a genuine treasure was a series that pleased no one...and then disappeared entirely from view; not granted even a cursory second hearing in reruns during the heyday of cable stations such as the Sci-Fi Channel.

One of the few episodes of The Next Step Beyond that was not a remake was "The Haunted Inn," written by Harry Spalding and directed by Alan Jay Factor. It stars James Keach as a wandering painter named Chris Stabler. As the episode opens he is on a road trip in a rural area - near "the crossroads" - but he misses his exit by sixty miles and is subsequently given directions to a nearby inn by a mysterious woman wearing a white dress. He proceeds to the inn, and promptly heads into what Newland's narration terms "an area of experience denied to most of us. He will find it by turns intriguing, puzzling, moving and eventually threatening, shocking and terrifying. It will leave him with a memory that will haunt him the rest of his days."

At the Inn, Chris is welcomed by a gaunt, creepy innkeeper named Peter Combs, and the other two guests staying there: an elderly ghost story writer named Mrs. Argus and lovely Lucianne...the very woman in white who directed him to the inn, but who enigmatically claims to have never met him before.

By night, Chris has trouble sleeping because he keeps hearing the raucous sounds of partying in the inn. When he goes to check on those rowdy guests, however, he learns there is no one there. There is no party...or so it seems. Investigating later, he and Mrs. Argus come across physical evidence of a party (overturned chairs and so forth), but again...no actual party guests.

Chris and Mrs. Argus continue to hear the strange sounds as the days progress, and Chris decides to take Lucianne and get out before something dangerous happens. He invites Mrs. Argus to join them, but she wants to stay. "I've never actually seen a ghost," she says. "I have to see what I have to see."

His last night in the Inn, Chris is visited in his bedroom not by the lover he expects, but a transformed Lucianne: a milky-eyed terror, a cackling demoness and apparition. Chris flees the supernatural siren and the inn after he spies the innkeeper - also with dead white eyes - strangling Mrs. Argus.

Chris goes to the police, who report to him that the Inn burned down several years ago. It once belonged to a wealthy young woman who liked to throw wild parties there. She committed suicide after one such event, and the townspeople - tired of the drama - torched the inn. It's been nothing but cinders for years. So Chris was staying in...what?

The episode's kicker: the sheriff and Chris find Mrs. Argus's twister body; her face frozen in an expression of sheer terror. She was murdered by an apparition, the ghost she just had to see for herself...

There are other episodes of The Next Step Beyond which are more accurate to the details of paranormal literature, but none which go for balls-to-the-wall, visceral horror like "The Haunted Inn." The goal here is simply to scare and there's something about the cheap look of the videotape and the simplicity of this "ghost story" that works in tandem to create an occasionally unnerving half-hour. Not a great show, but a decent one. And sadly, it's probably the best The Next Step Beyond ever got.

3 comments:

  1. I remember watching this episode as a kid in Singapore, probably early 80s, and scared witless. Thank you so much for this write-up.

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  2. I remember watching this as a kid one late night in Singapore, probably early 80s, and scared witless. Thank you so much for writing about this episode. It brought back many memories of my childhood, glued to the screen with Ellery Queen, Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Present, Tales From Darkside etc...

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  3. Anonymous7:18 PM

    There was one episode that looked particularly intriguing (and it was shot on film, not tape). It involved a cell at a women's prison that was supposedly haunted: every woman who was held in that cell committed suicide through hanging. One inmate was rescued and she told the guards that the ghost haunting the cell forced her into hang herself. Skeptical, one of the female guards decides to sit in the cell to see for herself, and surely she ends up hanging herself! The story ends with John Newland stating that this particular cell has remained vacant since. What I cannot remember: exactly WHERE this supposed prison is and the basis behind the ghost's hostility.

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