The Unearthly World of “Camera Obscura” | Rod Serling’s Night Gallery Retrospective

After the highs of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s next series, Night Gallery (1970-73) is a series that has a strong hit/miss rate. For every excellent episode like “The Doll”, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” or “The Caterpillar”, there is a terrible elongated comic relief sketch or clunky mock-terrifying piece let down by bad visuals, bad production design or bad accents. For example, Daniel Haller’s Mario Bava-influenced “I’ll Never Leave You – Ever” ends up looking cheap rather than atmospheric with its interior Welsh farmland, plus John Saxon’s quasi-Pakistani/Irish accent as “Ianto.”

It was a series that was often experimental, but not exactly successful. It adapted Lovecraft, Poe and Robert Bloch among many others. However, the directors it nurtured were a plum bunch of rising stars. These included Steven Spielberg, John Badham, and especially the French-born Jeannot Szwarc, whose atmospheric European-influenced style was a favourite of creator Rod Serling. Badham, later to direct Saturday Night Fever (1977) and the Gallery-like Dracula (1979), had a good eye for the gothic, which “Camera Obscura” clearly shows. 

“Camera Obscura” is from the second series of Night Gallery and was televised on 8 December 1971 on NBC. It is based on a short story by British horror writer Basil Copper. One unusual feature for an American series was Serling and producer Jack Laird’s choice to adapt a lot of British short stories often found in the Pan Book of Horror Stories. The likes of Algernon Blackwood, E.C. Tubb, Joan Aiken, 50s starlet/ghost story writer/Howard’s Way star Dulcie Gray and R Chetwynd Hayes found their work being put on American TV. In some cases, including that of “Camera Obscura” and Dulcie Gray’s “A Feast of Blood”, the original UK setting was used. So, we have the “Little Europe” backlot of Universal Studios doubling for an unnamed English provincial industrial town. This is Universal-land disguised as sub Hammer country.

The opening exteriors are tinted sepia to get rid of Californian sunlight, though the Hollywood hills are still visible. A pre-Star Trek DS9 Rene Auberjonois, fresh from his role as the original Father Mulcahy in Robert Altman‘s M*A*S*H (1970) plays William Sharsted Junior. He’s a sniveling moneylender with a nasal Cockney accent who visits the house  of Mr. Gingold, an elderly eccentric. Gingold is played by an unrecognisable Ross Martin, best known in his role as Artemus Gordon in The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969). Here, he has a convincing accent, moustache, glasses and grey Harpo Marx wig.


Sharsted is a cruel man, and wants Gingold to give him three hundred pounds, and gleefully tells Gingold he is removing another elderly local of his home. Gingold presents Sharsted with the Camera Obscura, despite Sharsted’s pretensions that he has no interest in photography (ironic considering in real life, Auberjonois is actually a photographer himself). The Camera Obscura shocks Sharsted, as he sees images of the town and such “Briddish” settings as Victoria Greens and the Corn Exchange from thirty years earlier, buildings that have since been destroyed in the Great War. Confused, he lambasts Gingold as a trickster trying to put Sharsted off and leaves. 

However, once Sharsted is outside, he suddenly realises that he is in the past. The world is now given an unearthly green tint to show that we are no longer in the normal world, as well as hiding the fact that this is Hollywood, California c.1971. Victoria Greens and the Corn Exchange still exist and the lights are still operated by gas, operated by a bedraggled, sinister giggling lamp-lighter. Sharsted finds himself initially in a loop, unable to run out of the area  surrounding the lamp. He breaks out, only to be confronted by zombie-faced ghouls played by Hollywood resident ‘Brits’ (including Irish-born Brendan Dillon) with bits of tissue paper stuck to their painted faces, creating a truly memorable race of ghouls in Victorian Burke and Hare outfits. Sharsted is then met by his own father, before finally being surrounded on the steps of the Corn Exchange – trapped forever, as Gingold watches on through the Camera Obscura. 

Atmospherically made, well-acted despite a few duff accents from supporting actors, it  works a treat. The backlot is used to its advantage. Both Auberjonois and especially Martin give memorable performances. Badham uses the limitations to his advantages, creating an unforgettable, weird and chilling tale.  

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