Mid-century emasculation: The House in Cypress Canyon

Remembering a radio horror drama with a very cinematic power.

Brad Stevens
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Cathy Lewis (left), co-star of the chilling radio drama The House on Cypress Canyon, here in 1949’s The Story of Molly X

Cathy Lewis (left), co-star of the chilling radio drama The House on Cypress Canyon, here in 1949’s The Story of Molly X

Despite its title, Sight & Sound tends to privilege the visual over the aural. Indeed, although the magazine frequently dedicates articles to television, it rarely, if ever, covers radio. The assumption seems to be that the former is related to cinema in a way the latter isn’t.

Yet, in the 1940s, American radio interacted with Hollywood filmmaking much as television would during the following decade, sharing writers, directors and actors while frequently exploring similar thematic territory. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), for example, draws far more heavily on its auteur’s radio background than on any cinematic models.

Orson Welles recording his 1933 War of the Worlds radio broadcast

Orson Welles recording his 1933 War of the Worlds radio broadcast

In my pre-teen years, before I became interested in film, my two passions were for American comic books (sight) and old radio programmes (sound). At the time (the mid-1970s), companies with names such as Memorabilia Records and Nostalgia Lane were releasing vinyl LPs of radio shows from the 30s, 40s and 50s. My first encounter with Orson Welles came about thanks to a two-disc set of his 1938 The War of the Worlds broadcast, and I became familiar with the voices of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi long before I ever saw them on-screen, thanks to discs of, respectively, The Wailing Wall (Inner Sanctum, 1945), The Mask of Medusa (Mystery in the Air, 1947) and The Doctor Prescribed Death (Suspense, 1943).

The radio show that really stayed with me, though, was The House in Cypress Canyon [see escape-suspense.com], broadcast on 5 December 1946 as part of the series Suspense, and released on vinyl by Radio Records. It was written by Robert L. Richards (who later co-wrote Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950)) and directed by William Spier (also a screenwriter, notably of Roddy McDowall’s sole directorial effort The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970)). Robert Taylor (whose contemporaneous role in Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946) is mentioned during the opening spiel) and Cathy Lewis star as James and Ellen Woods, a married couple who move into a new home in the eponymous Canyon and discover it is haunted by some malevolent force which takes possession of Ellen, gradually transforming her into what appears to be a werewolf (though this word is never used).

Among the most fascinating things about this 30-minute gem is its portrayal of a haunted house which, quite unlike its predecessors in Gothic literature – imposing, ancient and usually crumbling edifices wherein the sins of the past make themselves felt – is “just an ordinary little California house about halfway up Cypress Canyon… just an ordinary, undistinguished little house.”

In its emphasis on the haunting of a modern residence, The House in Cypress Canyon anticipates Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). But even Hooper’s film ultimately traces the supernatural occurrences in a recently constructed housing development to a Native American graveyard located directly beneath it. Cypress Canyon, on the other hand, underlines its house’s newness, notably via a framing story in which the main narrative is linked to a manuscript found in an unfinished building (which will, it is implied, play host to these events at some point in the near future) that was started before the war, and only completed afterwards.

World War II and its impact on American masculinity is The House in Cypress Canyon’s central concern. The house itself is divided into gendered zones by the estate agent who shows the Woods around, and describes the den as “a very attractive little room, particularly for a man.”

Unmentioned by this estate agent is a locked closet “in the little alcove off the den” wherein those female energies repressed by the marriage accumulate. It is in this closet, from which menstrual blood mysteriously flows at night (only to just as mysteriously disappear in the cold light of day), that the possessed Ellen will be found by her husband, standing “rigid. Her arms at her sides. Her fingers, extended like claws. Her lips… drawn back in a grin like an animal at bay.”

Robert Taylor

Robert Taylor

It is now generally accepted that men who fought in WWII found it difficult to readjust to an America in which women had achieved a significant degree of independence during their absence. Though liberated femininity may have superficially retreated into the ‘closet’ in this postwar world, the terrors of the autonomous female and the threat of castration she has to offer remain disturbingly near the surface: when James reaches out to touch his phallically ‘rigid’ wife, she “very deliberately… turned her head and sunk her teeth until they met into the flesh of my forearm.”

I’m not certain why I found this story so compelling when I was ten years old, but suspect I saw my parents’ marriage reflected in that of the central characters, a placid exterior obscuring tensions and resentments which were permitted to simmer unacknowledged just out of view. The House in Cypress Canyon pursues this idea with remorseless logic, moving almost inevitably from James Woods’ insistence that he is nothing more than an average American male, “a very ordinary person” whose assumptions about gender roles bear no relation to the horrors he encounters (“There’s nothing in the past life of either one of us to suggest remotely any cause or reason for the dreadful thing that has invaded our lives. Our married life has been in no way different from that of millions of other average, reasonably happy and congenial families”), to a climax in which he murders his wife with a shotgun, subsequently turning the weapon on himself.

In its refusal to definitively impose either a supernatural or a psychological explanation, this is a key Gothic text. But it also bears a fascinating relationship to several films from quite different genres: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), as well as those westerns and small town melodramas of the 1950s which defined masculinity as essentially neurotic, and marriage as a prison. Although its mise-en-scène is strictly aural, The House in Cypress Canyon’s emphasis on the dark underbelly of suburban America suggests what Douglas Sirk’s films might have looked (or at least sounded) like if they’d been produced by Val Lewton rather than Ross Hunter.

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