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!

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