Another weekend with no fun, so I thought I should pose you all a question. It’s pretty obvious that I am just stalling, but what do people out there think: Are The Clangers a suitable topic for a blog on fantastic film and television? They may not be horror (even I might struggle on that one) but they are from outer space. Does that make the series an example of science fiction? Whatever the hell you call it – it’s fantastic in my book!
And just because it kind of reminds me of The Clangers – there are various vague visual parallels but I would feel uncomfortable about claiming much more – here is the trailer for the very wonderful The First Men in the Moon (1964). This is so good that I will even forgive the presence of Lionel Jeffries, but then it is a Harryhausen movie.
Yes, I have been up to my ears in REF business this week (if you don’t know what the REF is; trust me, you don’t want to know). Anyhow the upshot is that I haven’t had time to do an entry for this week so I will have to engage, instead, in another exercise in shameless self-promotion. And just for those of you who might worry about this sort of thing: no, its not a new article but one from a short while back that I thought people might enjoy, even if the book is a trifle expensive. Also, I would like to make a big point of stressing that this piece that was s a co-written by Shane Brown, who is a wonderful man!
‘“The Screen’s Number One and Number Two Bogeymen”: The Critical Reception of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in the 1930s and 1940s’, in Kate Egan and Sarah Thomas, eds., Cult Film Stardom, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012, pp. 243-258.
So, right, we all know that Peter Cushing was a major star of the horror film, a pillar of the Hammer productions, and a perennial figure in British horror films beyond Hammer. But what has all this got to do with television? Well, Hammer wasn’t quite the transgressive producer of cinematic horror that it is now remembered as being. On the contrary, its association with television was vital to its early years.
Before the release of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), it has even specialized in film versions of BBC radio and television shows. From 1948, it had made three film versions of Dick Barton, Secret Agent and, by the 1950s, it would achieve considerable success by adapting Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment and its follow-up, Quatermass II, into films.
So what has any of this got to do with dear old Peter Cushing? In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Cushing may have made films in Hollywood with figures such as Laurel and Hardy, but he was also known as a serious actor, and even appeared in Olivier’s Gothic film version of Hamlet in 1948, the American posters for which proclaimed: ‘Shrouded mist, clad in rusty armor, a horrifying spectre stalks the great stone battlements of the ancient castle. Its one command is . . . kill . . . kill . . . KILL!’.
By the 1950s, however, Cushing was dividing his time between Hollywood historical films such The Black Knight (1954, with Alan Ladd) and Alexander the Great (1956, with Richard Burton) on the one hand, and prestigious BBC television dramas on the other: Cushing even played Darcy in a 1952 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
However, the drama that was probably most central to his casting in The Curse of Frankenstein was his starring role as Winston Smith in the Nigel Kneale adaptation of 1984 in 1954, a production that was highly controversial and explicitly referred to as an example of television horror at the time.
Indeed, Hammer followed up The Curse of Frankenstein with another Cushing vehicle (NOT The Horror of Dracula, 1958) but an adaptation of another Nigel Kneale television play, The Abominable Snowman (1957)
Nor was this the end of the relationship between Cushing and Hammer on the one hand, and television on the other. In the 1960s, Cushing would appear on television in a Sherlock Holmes series that developed the role that he had played for Hammer in 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles; and in 1965 and 1966 he would appear in film versions of BBC’s Dr. Who (in Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth – 2150 A.D., the latter being a particular favorite of mine).
Actually, the two Dr. Who films weren’t made by Hammer, but by one of its rivals, Amicus, but they still illustrate that Hammer and its rivals clearly sought to associate themselves with television, long before the supposed decline into ventures such as On the Buses in 1971.
What can I say about the glory that is the original series of Scooby Doo? It is one of those shows that makes me want to sound like some BBC arts presenter, who gushes with superlatives about the rich, artistic quality, the genius that evokes Leonardo, Michelangelo. You know, that kind of stuff. I even want to suggest that our brave hero’s cry of ‘Scooby Dooby Dooooo’ reminds me of Yeats…
I know that Scooby is back with a vengeance, and it is a deep pleasure to see youngsters worshiping at his majestic feet but (and now I definitely sound like a BBC arts presenter decrying the decline of western culture) it’s just not as good as it once was. Yes, folks, I am getting old.
But what can Scooby and the Gang tell us about horror and television. Well, first, there is the association with children that we discussed a while back. The show started in the late 1960s, which was only about ten years after horror films were the first major package of films that were sold to television and developed a huge following among the kids.
Indeed, most of the humor in the series relies on a high level of familiarity with the history of the horror film. Each week, the gang would run into yet another classic monster or classic monster movie type, and the series depends upon a familiarity with these monsters, their mythologies and the narratives with which they were associated.
None the less, the show was actually strongly associated with a particular period of horror. Despite the psychedelic clothes and van design, the series is strongly rooted in the monster-hunter narratives of the 1940s, as exemplified by the Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s.
If the Sherlock Holmes films are now remembered as detective stories, they were known as ‘mysteries’ at the time; and the term ‘mystery’ was not a separate category from ‘horror’ but meant stories of the strange, weird and uncanny. Holmes was therefore usually hunting down supposedly supernatural monsters, and even when the mystery was not a monster on the loose, the ‘mystery’ was not just a puzzle to be solved but a seemingly impossible phenomena that seemed to defy logic – even when the work of Nazis or criminal gangs.
It is therefore worth remembering that the Scooby gang drive around in ‘The Mystery Machine’, and they are teenage detectives in search of clues. They were monster hunters in much the same way as Holmes in the 1940s or Carl Kolchak in the 1970s.
This also relates to a theme that is central to the 1940s but also to horror from the Gothic novel to the present: the tension between the rational and the irrational. In the Holmes narratives, the conflict revolves around the possibility of supernatural explanation versus the power of Holmes’ rational logic. Would he be able to counter the supernatural; to give it a rational explanation? Or would the forces of the supernatural and the irrational win out?
Of course, like the Scooby gang, Holmes always finds a rational explanation; as does the detective in The Beast With Five Fingers. But in other narratives, the supernatural wins out and ridicules the powers of rational thought. Think about The X-Files for a moment!
However, Scooby Doo, Where are You? may have seemed to follow a rational logic but, let us be honest, who really cared about the key figures of rational normality, Fred or Daphne? Walking blocks of wood! Instead, it was disruptive monsters on the one hand, and the mad antics of Scooby and Shaggy on the other, that provided excitement. And Scooby and Shaggy were driven by an obsessive preoccupation with food; not the desire to solve the mystery (they ran to food and away from the mysterious and uncanny).
They are driven by the body, not the mind; they continually lapse into irrational panic; and it was usually their slapstick clumsiness that captured the menace, not Fred and Daphne’s carefully laid traps. And then, of course, the two blocks of wood are finally upstaged by Velma, who explains everything; and she was in almost all ways far closer to Shaggy and Scooby than Fred or Daphne, being another teenager outsider: the bespectacled smart girl. God, one can only imagine the humiliation that Daphne must have heaped upon her in the locker room back at school!
At the present, teen horror series a huge on television following Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in which Buffy’s group called themselves the Scooby gang); and, consequently, while Buffy may have been highly important in industrial terms, Scooby Doo hangs over the whole output (from Buffy to Pretty Little Liars,Supernatural, Teen Wolf, and The Vampire Diaries) like some grand ur-text; or some renaissance master: Leonardo, Michelangelo …