Children of the Stones – Scary or Baffling

So, having established that Children of the Stones was about ancient evil, I now have the somewhat disconcerting job of telling you what it is about in more precise terms. Which leaves me a little nervous. I am not sure that I know where to begin or what to say.

A father and son arrive in a village, which is surrounded by an ancient stone circle, and in which everyone is being taken over by some strange force that converts them into ‘Happy Ones’ – those vacantly happy people that you know aren’t right!

Gradually, the boy and his father begin to detect that something is wrong, and eventually track the problem back to something to do with the stars, the stone circle, an evil lord-of-the-manor-type and a time-loop that takes some getting your head around. I am not sure that I can make things much clearer than that…

Basically, events within the stone circle seems to keep repeating the same narrative cycle over time, and the elements of the show’s narrative seem to have occurred before inside the stone circle and to start again after the story’s closure.

Of course, those who love this show believe that this ‘difficulty’ makes the show profound and interesting, while I tend to find it baffling and incomprehensible. Oh, well.

The good news is that there are real compensations. If the story is about a cyclical narrative pattern, where everything has happened before, the show is one of the most familiar stories in children’s horror (and not in a bad way): you know the one where the kid’s can see that which the adult world is too blind to notice (Invaders from Mars); and where those responsible for socializing children turn out to be evil-doers.

Who didn’t believe, as a child, that their teachers are evil?

In order words, in these kinds of stories, the kids see through the adult world and save us all from its problems, even if they also annoyingly end up reaffirming a whole series of adult figures of authority in the process, particularly their parents!

Oh well, you can’t have everything – I did say that it was often baffling and incomprehensible.

Children of the Stones – Paganism, Primitivism and Repetition

Children of the Stones was a horror television series made for children in the mid 1970s, and it is often claimed that people remember it as the most frightening thing that they saw as children in the 1970s. Which begs me to ask: what people were watching? Certainly, if the limits of their experience were Blue Peter (or rather, as this was on ITV, Magpie), this might possibly be true. But anyone who had even the most minor acquaintance with Dr Who during this period would have been used to far more juicy red meat.

Which isn’t to claim that there weren’t pleasure in Children of the Stones. It could be generally creepy and had some nice ideas (see more next week); and most intriguingly, it sits between two great Nigel Kneale classics: one of which it echos; and one of which it prefigures.

The Stone Tape is something that I remember as one of the scariest things that I saw as a kid (by which I mean the scariest television program not even the scariest thing that I saw on television). Like The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones tells a story of ancient stones that endlessly replay the past, a repetition that is dark, malevolent and seemly inescapable. And both have a very strong sense of pagan, pre-Christian powers that seem almost rooted in the landscape – and over which Christianity is mere insubstantial window-dressing.

Actually many of the MR James stories that the BBC used for their Christmas Ghost Stories also featured this sort of thing, too; and it turns up again in Kneale’s weird return to the Quatermass stories in the late 1970s, Quatermass (which featured the old professor on ITV for the first time). This series also features ancients stones, ancient evil and Kneale’s customary questioning of modernity (see my article, ‘An Unidentified Species: Horror, the Body and Early Television Drama’).

In fact, Quatermass even centers its evil on the same kinds of ancient stone circles that feature in Children of the Stones.

Next Week: Children of the Stones – Scary or Baffling?

Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special Part II: Let’s Do the Timewarp Again, If You Insist!

So, last week I noted that one of the interesting things about Strictly‘s Halloween night special was its sense of the key horror monsters and sub-genres, but it seems that I didn’t elaborate enough. So, let me be a bit clearer.

If this year was all very ‘Tim Burton’, the central feature is less about the director of Edward Sissorhands (and mate of David Cameron), but rather about a version of the Gothic that brings together the classic Universal monsters with fairy-tales and folklore.

As a result, there isn’t much Jigsaw (from Saw) or Freddie (from Nightmare on Elm Street) or Jason (from Friday the 13th) or even Michael Myers (from Halloween). In fact, there was a marked absence of serial killers altogether. Not even Norman Bates or Hannibal Lector get a look in.

Instead, Frankenstein’s monster was on hand to usher the dancers off stage, but Leatherface was nowhere to be seen.

Similarly, while last year was relatively free of the Tim Burton touches, it relied on the same conception. There was a Scooby Doo dance routine, and an mad scientist number. The classics were also evoked through a performance that featured circus freaks, and another with a hint of vampirism. Even when series winner, Louis Smith, gave us a zombie dance, it was less Night of the Living Dead and more the return of the Graveyard Ghoul. In other words, his zombie was a monster that was more closely associated with folklore than cinema. It is therefore striking that other routines also included another corpse-bride-type ghoul, a sinister warlock and a rather sexy Little Red Riding Hood, featuring Girls Aloud’s Kimberley Walsh simultaneously attracting and rebuffing a sexually predatory wolf – or at least that was my reading of what was going on…

Nor were things so different this year. The association with black magic and zombies cropped up again in a voodoo-themed dance, while there was an absolutely baffling (to me) number involving scarecrows (okay so there are a few horror stories involving scary scarecrows, but these scarecrows were hardly scary and I wouldn’t say that the scarecrow had a particularly strong association with horror or Halloween … maybe its just me).

There was a female vampire from Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and a rather fabulous ‘lady from the lake’ routine, in which the clothing was suggestive of ghosts and/or the walking dead, but that was about it. In another dance sequence, ghostly, cobweb-covered portraits became animated, which is always nice, and we got yet more cases of graveyard dead. There was Dave Myers from the Hairy Bikers doing the Monster Mash in make up that made him look like Michael Keaton from Beetlejuice; and another Tim Burton film was referenced in a routine that drew heavily on Mars Attacks! But as so often happens most of the references in the other routines went straight over my head. Quite what the shirtless rugby player had to do with Halloween completely escaped me.  But then, just when we were feeling a bit confused, Susanna from the Breakfast News was chased by a werewolf, just to reassure us that we knew where we were again.

And of course everything is done with a sense of campy dress up which is less Tim Burton and more Rocky Horror.

Strictly Come Dancing – The Halloween Special

[It’s from last year but what the hell!]

So it is another week when the REF has kept me from more worthwhile pursuits like discussing Tales from the Crypt, or Dead of Night, or the final episode of Dexter, which kept me up half the night – not from fear but from a really heartfelt sense of melancholy. Of course, I won’t say why, and not just because of SPOILERS – when I get the chance, I want to take some time with this series, which has given me so much pleasure over its various seasons. I don’t know about you but, when its on form, I find it really moving…

Okay, moving swiftly on, before someone calls the psych-ward, I thought I would give a moments thought to the fact that it was Halloween this week, and rather than finding myself with Jamie Lee Curtis in the house, a serial killer on the loose outside and a double bill of Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World on the TV, there seemed to be very little Halloween related on the box – except for a Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special.

For those of you who are not privy to the wonders of British Saturday Night Television, Strictly Come Dancing is the show that is called Dancing With the Stars in the US – although the BBC version is the original, which also discovered Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, who are judges on the British version, too.

The Special basically involved the same format as usual, but with Halloween-themed costumes, routines and songs, and judges’ paddles that were shaped like ghosts. Not particularly scary, but with a lot to tell us about horror television.

First, one gets an interesting glance into what is imagined to be the popular perception of the key horror monsters and sub-genres, although, second, we also got a very selective tradition that seemed to largely consist of a version of the Gothic that had been filtered through Tim Burton – even when we get a reference to science-fiction-horror, it was less The Thing from Another World or Creature from the Black Lagoon than a case of Mars Attacks!

Then, there is the question of what happens to horror when it becomes something that can be used to ‘theme’ regular programming, like a Christmas Special. Which of course makes me immediately wish that we had a Johnny Cash Horror or Halloween Special, along the lines of the great man’s Christmas Specials from the 1970s. I can see him singing ‘The Man Comes Around’ on it as clear as day – or night!

And of course that raises the question of horror tastes. Loads of people who claim not to like horror wouldn’t have a problem with this kind of show, while lots of horror fans would hate it. I might like both but largely as an exercise in schizophrenia (in the horror sense of the term – split personality – rather than the clinical sense).

But separating this kind of horror material out from ‘real’ horror seems to simple to me. What it shows us is the complex ways in which horror is part of a common cultural language, on television and in other media, which may produce a variety of different kinds of identification. People may claim to hate horror in one context and yet have no objection to the genre in other contexts or at particular times of year.

Hell, Christmas television is full of material that would be dismissed as wildly inappropriate at other times of the year, but which is given a certain license at yuletide – remember the episode of Beverley Hills 90210 where Steve ran into Santa Claus?!?!

Anyhow, I am now taking votes on the scariest thing in the Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special – there is a lot to choose from!

The Clangers (1969-1974) – Whatever the Hell You Call It!

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.

A Day Late and a Penny Short

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cult-Film-Stardom-Cultification-ebook/dp/B00AINH8DQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382297447&sr=8-1&keywords=kate+egan+cult+stardom

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.

Peter Cushing, Hammer and Television

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.