Made-for-Television Horror Films

The made-for-television horror film is an odd object. It gets a fairly dismissive treatment in Greg Waller’s essay on the subject (in his collection American Horrors) where he claims that it is preoccupied with the ‘child-less, married woman, twenty to twenty-five years old, who is before all else identified as a wife’ or the figure of the ‘psychic investigator’. Of course, the latter type is a rather strange one to take issue with as it includes examples like the rather wonderful exploits of figures such as Carl Kolchak, the protagonist of Matheson’s truly wonderful made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker, which most people agree to be a classic (and not just a classic of television horror but of horror more generally)!

The former type is also interesting but in a different way; and is based on an explicit preference for stories that do not ‘overwhelmingly adopt a narrative form based on the personal adventures of an individual protagonist or small group’ and in which ‘the horror is [not] localized, identified as a single incident’. However, this preference is also a gendered response. In other words, this response relies on an established options between the public and the private, in which the public is seen as ‘properly social and political’ while the private is ‘relegated to the realms of “escape”‘, the realms of the ‘localized’ and the ‘individual’. However, as Angela Partington claims, such a distinction is ‘a consequence of the critic’s class and gender-specific notions of’ politics, a notion that is quite at odds, for example, with ‘experience of working-class women’ for whom the social and political are experienced as precisely ‘private and emotional’ and vice versa: the ‘private and emotional’ are therefore deeply social and political.

Furthermore, such a position seems to oddly reject precisely those kinds of narratives that one might see as heirs to a long tradition of female Gothics. Consequently, if Waller is right about its prominence within made-for-television horror film, this category would benefit from a lot more discussion, and I hope to return to this in later entries. However, I am not at all convinced that made-for-television horror films are dominated by such types and, even if they are, there are still a wide range of other types.

The Night Stalker and its sequel, The Night Strangler, were examples of the psychic investigator, as was The Possessed, a rather weird made for television horror film in which James Farentino plays a mysterious figure who wanders the earth confronting evil and finds himself battling dark forces in a girl’s school. However, there was also a series of classic horror adaptations produced by Dan Curtis. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula (again written by Matheson) the terrifically tragic Jack Palance starred as the respective monsters, while The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw were built around other actors.

It should also be remembered that Stephen Spielberg started off in television and that his first film, Duel, was a made-for-television horror film (yet again written by Matheson) that was only given a theatrical release after its reception on television. The film tells the story of an ordinary man who, while traveling across country in his car, is menaced by a mysterious truck.

In short, there is a rich and diverse body of work within the made-for-television horror film. Some examples, such as The Possessed, are preposterous but fun. Others such as Duel or The Night Stalker are acknowledged as classics. And yet others, if Waller is right, represent a prolific, if largely forgotten, body of female Gothics.

Of course, the made-for-television horror film is very different from the made-for-television mini-series which I will discuss on another occasion but is another rich tradition that includes examples such as The Dark Secret of Harvest Home and numerous adaptions of Stephen King novels including Salem’s Lot (twice), It, The Tommyknockers, The Stand and The Shining. But that is for another day.

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Murder, She Wrote (1984) – No Really!

I know that it surprises people, but I have always been a sucker for Murder, She Wrote. There is something that I find compulsively comforting about the show.

Of course, some people will object that it’s not horror and, while I would concede that it’s not exactly fantastic, except in the sense that it is fabulous, the show was closely related to horror from the first, if only through its association with a version of horror that we have tended to forget. In the 1940s, when Angela Lansbury became a star (Angela plays the show’s amateur detective, Jessica Fletcher), the horror genre clearly included murder mysteries so that the Sherlock Holmes series (with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) was understood as a horror series, and even Rene Clair’s film version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was explicitly seen as a horror film: it was even given its New York City premiere on Halloween.

As if to illustrate the point, the first episode of Murder, She Wrote starts with what appears to be a staple of the 1940s horror film, the Gothic (or paranoid) paranoid woman’s film. The episode opens with a young woman in a nightgown who is cautiously climbing the staircase of an old house while carrying a candlestick, a woman who is suddenly surprised by an axe-welding man at the top of the stairs. Of course, it is then revealed that we are actually watching the rehearsal of a play, the mystery of which Jessica has already solved (she is has gained admission to the rehearsal for reasons that now escape me).

Furthermore, in this first episode, Jessica is writing the novel that will make her famous as a mystery writer, a book whose title also emphasizes that the series is making no distinction between the detective story and the horror story. Her novel is called, The Corpse Danced at Midnight, and when she goes to Hollywood later in the season to complain about a film producer’s adaptation of her novel, she does not object that it is being turned into a horror film, but into an ‘low-budget’ horror film that is directed at teenagers.

All of which should be unsurprising, given the casting of Angela Lansbury, a fascinating actress with a long and illustrious association with horror. Her breakthrough was in the now classic 1940s horror film, Gaslight, in which Ingrid Bergman is tormented by her completely bonkers husband, Charles Boyer. Although she was only seventeen at the time, and this was her first film role, she was nominated for an Oscar in the role; and was quickly cast in another horror film the following year, MGM’s hugely expensive film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Many of her most famous film roles have similarly played on this association with horror and she was brilliantly cast as the evil mother in The Manchurian Candidate. This is a really chilling portrayal in a film that is as much a horror story as is a political thriller; it was after all made in 1962 only two years after another film about a young man who is psychologically dominated by his mother – Norman Bates in Psycho.

Furthermore, for reasons that I can’t even begin to speculate on, she has repeatedly been associated with horrific materials in child-related films (or films that were not always children’s films but played with the association between horror, children and fairy tales). She played a friendly witch in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the singing teapot (Mrs. Potts) in Beauty and the Beast, and also appeared in another story of witchery and childcare, Nanny McPhee. In a more adult context, she also played a rather sinister grandmother/storyteller in The Company of Wolves.

Even on the stage, where she became a major icon of the Broadway musical, she gave a celebrated performance as Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the recent film version of which had Helena Bonham Carter in Angela Lansbury role.

Of course, I won’t try to persuade you that Murder, She Wrote is awesome – you will have to form your own opinions about that – but I love it. But Angela Lansbury is a different matter. If you haven’t discovered how awesome she is, you really need to do some research!

Teen Wolf (2011) – Subtexts that Hardly Qualify as Such

Some years ago my friend Harry Benshoff published a book called Monsters in the Closet in which he explored various ways in which horror has been associated with homosexuality and homosexual desire. For example, he suggests that the monster has often been figured as a disruptive force that threatens the heterosexual couple. When I recently watched season one of Teen Wolf (I do a lot of commuting!), I was rather taken aback by the extent to which the series seemed to have taken this premise and run with it – big time. It is awash with homosexual subtexts, subtexts that hardly qualify as subtexts – its a bit like Garth Marenghi’s great line: ‘I know writers who use subtexts and they’re all cowards. Okay?’

The story starts with a nerdy young boy, Scott McCall, whose best friend, Stiles, is the best thing in the entire show – far better than Scott. Stiles seems to have been made out of all the best DNA from 1980s teen comedies (and particularly teen horror-comedies). Scott and Stiles are also the kind of best buddies who climb in and out of one another’s bedroom windows, but when Stiles hears about a savage attack by a strange beast in the nearby woods, he insists that he and Scott go there and have a look see. And, wouldn’t you know it, Scott gets bitten by the strange beast … whatever it is.

Then Derek appears, a young hunk but one who is no longer young enough to go to high school; and he warns Scott that the bite will change him into a werewolf and that Scott needs the guidance of an older male mentor so that he can make sense of what is happening. But Scott says, no way, he has fallen for the new girl in school, Allison, who is different from the others (for a start, she appears to be about ten years older than everyone else – even Derek).

But the question is: who is doing all the werewolf attacks. Is it Scott? Is it Derek? Or is it another, even older ‘alpha’ whose identity is unknown but who wants Scott and Derek to join his pack.

Oh, and there is also a high school jock, Jackson, who continually wears an expression of hatred and disgust that screams ‘homophobia born of repressed homosexuality’ – he initially hates Scott and then spends ages trying to have the gift of becoming a werewolf bestowed upon him – he thinks that it will give him an advantage in sports or something…

But the key narrative problem is that every time Scott starts to get romantic with Allison, his inner werewolf kicks in and he has to stop.

Of course, what matters is not whether the show has a homosexual subtext, but what it is trying to do with it. As Benshoff points out, the association between homosexuality and the monster is a very double-edged sword that has some very real pleasures and some very real problems. But I will leave it to you to read his work, which I strongly recommend. Instead, I want to suggest that the search for homosexual subtexts can also cut both ways. Just as much as there are serious attempts to explore the meanings of homosexuality (such as Benshoff), there are also numerous attempts to simply ridicule others as ‘sooo gay!’ In other words, the search for, and identification of, subtexts can either be used to undermine or reinforce notions of ‘normal’ masculinity – whatever that is!

So what is Teen Wolf doing? At one level, it seems to be clearly working towards the establishment of the heterosexual couple, but that is hardly a surprise and may be little more than a narrative of convenience – a pretext that allows the show to play with lots of other material. On another level, the show is also associated with Russell Mulcahy, whose films have long been an exercise in high camp. For example, he directed Highlander, Ricochet, The Shadow, and was even the director of Rambo III before being replaced by Peter MacDonald due to ‘creative differences’. In television, he has also have a variety of credits, most notably (in this context) four episodes of Queer as Folk: USA.

But what does the association with Mulcahy really prove? While the search for homosexual subtexts can be a fascinating game, it is actually very difficult to decide what these subtext actually mean; and part of the reason is that it is often unclear whether these subtexts are supposed to be conscious or not. Sometimes the implication is that they are clearly not consciously intended but rather work at a subconscious (if not unconscious) level; but, others times, the implication is that they are conscious – that filmmakers are secretly smuggling materials into programming below the radar.

Of course, the interest of generic materials is often precisely due to their undecidability. Shows that use horror materials as a metaphor for something else can often be too conscious or obvious; and finally end up being bad metaphors and/or boring horror stories. While those that remain more ambiguous often end up being more telling and more fascinating. In horror, the fascination is often in the ambivalence – Dracula is neither straightforwardly attractive nor repulsive; and much the same is true of the Frankenstein monster.

Returning to Teen Wolf, given that its homosexual subtexts seem so overt that they barely seem to be subtexts at all, another question is also posed: is the homosexual subtext actually a subtext (material that is subconscious or secretly smuggled in below the radar), or is it actually consciously and explicitly aimed at specific markets. The whole thing has the feel of a joke that we are all expected to ‘get’ (or at least a significant number of us are expected to get). In other words, the makers do not seem to be taking the subtext very seriously but rather treating it as ‘camp’.

None of which tells you whether Teen Wolf is actually any good. For my part, I certainly found it to be fun, in a junk food sort of a way; and I am vaguely looking forward to the second season … I am not holding my breath or anything; but I will certainly give it a chance – if only to see if the subtexts are going anywhere.

Algernon Blackwood (1936) – a host of fears

As my dear friend, Derek Johnston, is fond of reminding me, the first night of scheduled television in the UK ended with a couple of ghost stories told by Algernon Blackwood. Also, as Derek usually adds, this choice by the BBC drew on formats familiar in their radio service. Like Lights Out, then, this event illustrates the ways in which, in its early years, television horror initially drew on models from radio, rather than cinema. Nor was this transmission a one-off event, and Blackwood appeared on television for a number of years afterward, where his recital of horror stories became a regular feature of the schedules. So much so, that the BBC continued the format in later years, when Lord Dunsany followed Blackwood as a horror narrator.

However, there are also other aspects of these shows that are worth commenting upon. The format draws on the tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition that is used in a range of different types of television programming (Jackanory, the News, etc.) but seems to have acquired a particular significance in relation to horror. Television horror has used the figure of the narrator as a frame for its horror tales in a way that is very rare in cinematic horror. The use of John Houseman at the start of John Carpenter’s The Fog is one of only a handful of cinematic examples, but given Houseman’s was a close collaborator with Orson Welles, the fact that he is telling a ghost story to a group of children huddled around a campfire, and that the film’s central character runs a radio station, which she uses to hold a community together in the face of vast supernatural forces, this opening may be highly suggestive in ways that should become clear later.

First, while this technique is rare in cinematic horror, radio horror was fond of this convention, as can be seen in the case of ‘the Man in Black’ from Appointment with Fear and later The Man in Black, but also in a range of other examples (see Richard Hand’s Terror on the Air!). Similarly, it is a major feature in television horror: Alfred Hitchcock Presents used the great director as a host, who book-ended the stories with his macabre wit; Thriller employed the figure of Boris Karloff in a similar way; The Twilight Zone featured Rod Serling; Great Mysteries had Orson Welles; The Night Stalker and The Norliss Tapes both had fictional characters narrate their stories (the former was told by Carl Kolchak while the latter were supposed to be the taped files of David Norliss, although it never developed into the series that it appears to have been designed to become); Night Gallery was (again) hosted by Rod Serling; Tales of the Unexpected was, at least initially, introduced by Roald Dahl; Tales from the Darkside had an unnamed narrator; and Tales from the Crypt had the crypt-keeper. Even the screenings of horror films on television have a long history of being introduced by horror hosts, a practice that dates back to 1957 when ‘Shock Theater’ showed a series of Universal horror films on television that were often hosted by figures such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’.

One function of these horror hosts is that they were able to create a sense of consistency across different stories. Without Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions, Alfred Hitchcock Presents would not have been a show but simply a series of individual plays. In this way, these hosts also work as a kind of guarentor or brand that can encourages trust and a sense that people know what to expect.

On another level, they operate to set the tone, to generate a sense of anticipation by hinting at the horrors to come, or a sense of light-heartedness that encourages viewers not to take things to seriously or even overtly ridicule what they are about to watch- horror hosts such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’ established an overtly camp relationship to the films that they introduced; and both Hitchcock and Karloff established a sense that the macabre stories that they introduced were meant to establish a playful relationship with their audience and did not simply pander to unhealthy tastes.

To some extent, then, the figure of the narrator in television horror works to illegitimate the horror story and another way in which it seeks to do so is by relating the horror tale to a tradition of oral storytelling. Rather than simply gruesome stories, the shows are aligned with more comfortable notions of the traditional bedtime story: Blackwood’s stories were read just before the end of transmission as a way of signalling the close-down and sending everyone off to bed. But they were also reminiscent of the fireside story and particularly the horror stories traditionally told to children around camp fires on dark nights – which is explicitly what Houseman is doing at the opening of Carpenter’s The Fog.

These associations are interesting in other ways. First, they relate the narration not simply with oral traditions but traditions associated with childhood; and, second, they associate such acts of storytelling narration with special events that occurs outside of normal, everyday life. The bedtime story is a transitional tale that takes the child from the world of everyday life to the world of sleep and dreams; and while the fireside story takes place within the domestic interior, the campfire story takes place at a time outside normal everyday schedules (normally a holiday period) when the child can stay up late and when the child is often away at camp. Sleepovers are also commonly associated with the oral telling of frightening tales, and again it is often seen as special occasions when do not have to return to their respective homes at the end of the day, as would normally be the case, but when they can stay together and stay up late,

But the horror host does more than simply associate these stories with oral storytelling. The common description of them as hosts is also significant. Television horror is often seen as inappropriate to the home, and the uncanny literally means unfamiliar and its Freudian use is drawn from Freud’s ‘unheimliche’ or unhomely. But there are questions about why anyone would let the uncanny into our homes (television commonly being seen as a primarily domestic medium). One answer may be in the term ‘host’, a host being someone who often welcomes you into their home. In other words, the host may work to mediate between the world of domestic security and the world of unsettling horror. Rather than audiences welcoming horror into the domestic, the host takes them out of their domestic existences and welcomes them into the world of horror.

Much has been written about the television as a technology that mediates between the home and the world beyond it, either enabling people to stay inside while remaining aware of the world outside, or enabling people to travel without leaving the comfort of their living rooms. The horror host captures something of this quality, acting as a conduit between the domestic interior and the world outside. But such a conduit does not simply keep things separate but always puts them in play with one another. Sometimes this is felt as pleasurable escape from routines of domestic life, sometime a threatening blurring of the line between the two worlds, and sometimes as calling the distinctions between the two into question: as Alfred Hitchcock is famously quoted as saying,’One of television’s great contributions is that it brought murder back into the home, where it belongs.’