Lights Out (1946-1952) – Radio to TV

If you like stuff like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, you should check out Lights Out. It was a TV show that ran from 1946-1952 and featured the kind of weird stories and situations that would make those later shows famous. It also illustrates one of the key issues about television at the time. Although many critics today see television horror as a poor relation to cinematic horror, Lights Out was an adaptation of a radio horror show that had started in the 1930s. The radio show was hugely popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s and, after 1936, it was associated with the figure of Arch Oboler, an outspoken anti-fascist who was fond of social and political themes.

Also, during this period, it was radio, rather than cinema, that was the mass medium, and horror was one of its key genres at the time. For example, if one looks at the radio output of Orson Welles during the late 1930s, it is striking how many of the stories that he adapted were clearly associated with Gothic horror. Furthermore, he not only decided to make Dracula the first radio production of his Mercury Theater radio show, but his infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was clearly intended as a horror story and was broadcast on Halloween. Welles had even built up a major reputation on radio as the voice of The Shadow, a radio superhero with mystic powers and an emphatic association with horror. (For more on Welles, radio and horror, see my article, Shadows and Bogeymen: Horror, Stylization and the Critical Reception of Orson Welles during the 1940s.)

Consequently, the kinds of horror that one finds in Lights Out are very different from those associated with cinematic horror at the time. Indeed, 1946, when Lights Out started on TV, was precisely the point at which the cinematic horror cycle of the 1940s went into decline before the resurrection of horror in the 1950s, with the SF-horror films that followed The Thing from Another World (1951). (It fact, it is interesting that Lights Out had already been playing with the relationship between horror and science fiction on the television well before 1951.)

Lights Out did not focus on monsters, or on Gothic villainy, but rather on the weird and uncanny. In The Dark Image, for example, a wife is menaced by a mirror that was the property of her husband’s former lover. Initially oppressed by its presence, she eventually finds herself trapped on the other side of the glass, her rival having taken her place in our world. Furthermore, the process of her entrapment in the mirror is fascinatingly visualized, and requires one to rethink the common claim that television is somehow less visual than cinema and is therefore a problematic medium for horror.

The sequence is highly visual and uses trick photography to convey the notions of doubling, transference and entrapment, but it does not do so in a literal way. It does not aim for verisimilitude but for something more suggestive or metaphorical. In other words, it demonstrates that, even in the late 1940s and early 1950s, television was clearly a visual medium, and that it was experimenting with visual techniques of story-telling, even if it sometimes visualized things in terms that were different to those common in the cinema.

It is no surprise then that Rod Serling claimed to have been inspired by Oboler and by shows like Lights Out. Of course, you shouldn’t expect the kinds of production values on which Serling was able to count a decade later but, as a fun-filled glimpse into an imaginative and experimental period of television horror, Lights Out has much to offer.

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Schalcken the Painter (1979) – Why Isn’t the DVD Available?

The BFI in all its kindness have produced a handsome box set of the Christmas Ghost Stories, which is very nice of them, but why is there no DVD available of Schalcken the Painter. Like Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You, it is technically not one of the Christmas Ghost Stories but while Miller’s ghost story makes it into the box set, Schalcken doesn’t, which is a pity as it is a favorite of mine. Its a particularly creepy story that I remember seeing when it was first shown as a episode of the arts series, Omnibus, in the late 1970s (Miller’s ghost story was also made for Omnibus).

Based on a tale by Sheridan LeFanu, who also created Uncle Silas and the vampire Camilla, the story is used by Omnibus as a way of commentating on art and painting, and as a way of exploring how issues of style and theme are connected. The story is even shot to look like the paintings that it explores.

Of course, the story that it tells is absolutely fantastic and it was not (I assume) intended as a literal piece of art criticism – I don’t think that the makers actually believed the story or saw it as the key to interpreting the paintings. But the story did provide a way of dramatizing certain the themes and obsessions that they presented as central to the painter and his creations.

The drama starts with the young Schalcken, when he is still an apprentice in the home of his master, Gerrit Dou. At this time, he is in  love for Dou’s niece, Rose. Unfortunately, Schalcken is too poor to be an acceptable suitor for Rose; and, into this awkward domestic scene, enters a strange, gaunt man of considerable wealth who offers Dou a fortune in exchange for his niece’s hand in marriage. Dou accepts the fortune and a contract is signed promising Rose in marriage to the stranger, despite Rose’s disgust at her ominous suitor.

Eventually, the wedding day arrives but, after entering the church for their wedding (the church where Rose’s suitor claims to have first seen his bride to be), neither Rose or her husband are ever seen again. Well, that is until, many years later, when Schalcken finds himself strangely drawn into the crypt of the church, where he seems to encounter Rose, who leads him to a bed within the crypt. After various lewd actions by Rose, she reveals that her gaunt husband is lying in the bed and, in front of a horrified Schalcken, she engages in a grim sexual performance with her husband.

The vision seems to shock Schalcken into unconsciousness and he awakens some time later to find that the bed is no longer where he had seen it, and that in its place is a tomb. The implication is clear: Rose has been sold to a corpse and her wedding bed is a tomb!

Elsewhere Derek Johnston has seen the story as one of ‘the tragic victory of commerce over love‘ but I read it somewhat differently. Rose isn’t simply sold to another man, but to death. The transaction converts Rose into property, into a lifeless commodity like cold, gold coins for which she is traded.

But Schalcken is not blameless here. Rose tries to persuade him to run away with her, but he says that he has no wealth to support them and that he will work so that he can buy her marriage contract back from her repulsive suitor at a later date – he accepts her marriage to another in the hope that he will be able to trade for her at a later date. In other words, he treats her like property, too; and he values wealth over love.

His vision is therefore interesting, because it disavows his own complicity in Rose’s destruction by suggesting that it is she who desires the repulsive coupling with the hideous stranger. In his vision, neither Dou, her gaunt suitor, nor Schalken are blamed and it is Rose’s sexuality that becomes questionable and even horrifying. Similarly, in his paintings (at least as the programme interprets them), Schalcken repeatedly displays his disgust at a world in which sex has become an object of commerce but, again and again, it is the women within these paintings who are presented as having commodified themselves, and chosen to trade sex for money.

But the story has show us precisely the opposite. Schalcken might choose to present himself as a victim and women as the cold, heartless marketeers of sex; but it is actually Rose who is the victim of a system of exchange between men, in which she and her sexuality are property to be traded, a system of exchange that only Rose has objected to, and with which Schalcken has remained complicit and from which he has hoped to profit. Even if he ultimately experiences disgust and alienation as a result.

In short, then, the programme is a beautifully put together little short story that is really creepy and rather disturbing. Oh, and Charles Gray as the narrator doesn’t hurt either!

Strange But True!

Image

When I posted my first item about a week ago, I had no idea what was coming next. The ideas expressed there were originally developed (in more detail) in the introduction to a special edition of Intensities: A Journal of Cult Media, and in an article on the Quatermass programmes that appeared in the edition. Amazingly, since then, I have heard that both the journal and the special edition have been resurrected from the dead and can now be found at the following locations:

The Journal:

http://intensitiescultmedia.wordpress.com/

The special edition:

http://intensitiescultmedia.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/intensities-the-journal-of-cult-media-4-mysterious-bodies/

Enjoy!

Welcome

In the mid 1980s, Gregory Waller claimed that ‘made-for-television horror would seem to be by definition impossible’. Nor is this position rare in commentary upon horror and even Stephen King in his study of the genre, Danse Macabre, argues that television is ‘dedicated to the pervasion of the status quo and the concept of the LOP – Least Objectionable Programming’, a situation that places it in tension with the horror genre, the ‘bedrock’ of which ‘is simply this: you gotta scare the audience’.

Nor have these assumption about television horror changed much since the 1980s; and, as Matt Hills points out, when looking ‘at more recent academic surveys of television and genre, one could still be forgiven for assuming that “Horror TV” … does not meaningfully exist as a category’ in so far as it does not even appear in volumes such as Creeber’s The Television Genre Book (2001) and many of the ‘possible candidates’ for a discussion of television horror (such as Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files) are ‘generically nominated in ways that render horror relatively invisible’.

Of course, there is now a huge amount of work on specific contemporary examples of television horror, with articles, books and even whole journals dedicated to Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, But most of this work concentrates on the period from the 1990s onwards, and often explicitly associates the emergence of such shows with changes in television, and the emergence of what is sometimes referred to as ‘TVII’. In this account, there is little challenge to the accounts of television presented by Waller, except that these accounts are restricted to a specific period of television history (‘TVI’). In other words, his position goes unchallenged in relation to earlier periods, but it is claimed that institutional and aesthetic changes in the 1980s not only made television horror a possibility but also well suited to the new era.

It would seem that, in the past, horror television was still ‘by definition impossible.

However, horror television certainly did exist in the past, and both Waller and King not only acknowledge its long history of horror television, a history that goes back to the very earliest days of the medium, but  also celebrate certain supposedly exceptional texts as classics. However, despite being anomalous or exceptional, it would seem that horror television is actually associated with many key moments in television history. For example, The Quatermass Experiment is often cited, whether rightly or wrongly, as one of the defining moments in the history of British television that is second only to the televised Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. In other words, as Charles Barr has argued, it was ‘a landmark … in intensity of audience response’, accounts of which have become legendary, and probably exaggerated, but the sense is that this series, like the Coronation were ‘must see’ events that made television essential viewing at a time when the medium was attempt to build its audiences.

The show was therefore pivotal both in the development of audiences and in its significance for the industry and it was developed as the BBC’s answer to the campaigns for a commercial competitor, a campaign that resulted in introduction of Independent Television in 1955. As a result, Lez Cooke argues that the series ‘may be seen to mark the moment at which television drama in Britain finally broke free from the shadows of cinema, radio and theatre to offer its first truly original production.’

Even when they were not pivotal to key historical moments of television, horror television is hardly rare and the landscape of television history is littered with classic examples, a brief survey of which would include, Lights Out, Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of 1984, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Out of the Unknown, Night Gallery, Dr Who, Dark Shadows, the BBC Christmas Ghost Stories, Mystery and Imagination, Brian Clemens’ Thriller, The Stone Tape, The Night Stalker, and Duel.

Indeed, in the early years of television in the UK, horror was seen well suited to the new medium and even before The Quatermass Experiment the BBC had been drawn to horror materials and, after World War 11 and the resumption of television broadcasting in the late 1940s, the BBC quickly turned to horror as the basis for many of its single plays. Two plays that are often cited as key examples of what the BBC referred to as ‘horror plays’ were Rope (January 1947) and The Two Mrs Carrolls (February 1947), although these were adaptations of theatrical hits, that would also be the subject of cinematic adaptations at around the same time, Jason Jacobs has demonstrated that the BBC used these horror materials in the hope that they would help the Corporation to establish a ‘new aesthetic’ for television drama that would both create a distinctive feel and exploit features seen as specific to the medium of television. As a result, Jacobs quotes a memo from Robert MacDermot, Head of BBC Television Drama, to Cecil McGiven, Head of Television, in which he suggests that ghost stories might be well suited to television, and could be used to ‘create a very effective eerie atmosphere’. Rather than a situation in which ‘made-for-television horror would seem to be by definition impossible’, the BBC seemed to both hope and fear that the ‘intimate’ quality of television would make it particularly effective as a horror medium.

Of course, this begs the question: if at one time horror was seen as well-suited to television, what changed? Also, can anyone name other examples of the horror plays?

In this blog, I want to start by discussing some of my favourite horror television shows, and some of my pet peeves. These may include some of the titles listed above but they will also include a range of other example: Beasts; Doomwatch; and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. However, while I plan to focus on television, I decided not to limit myself too much, which is why I have included film in the title of this blog. Also, given that not all horror television programming is exclusively or even predominantly identified as horror, I have gone for the slightly more open notion of ‘the fantastic’.

I hope people will get something out of what follows, or at least enjoy it. Oh, and please feel to suggest examples.