Scooby Doo, Where are You, Now that We Need You?

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 …

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Doomwatch – The Future Looks Bleak … Again

One of the shows that had a real impact on me as a youth, and which is strangely under-appreciated today, was Doomwatch, in which a team of British investigators look into the disturbing side-effects of contemporary science. Created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pendler, who had previously worked on Doctor Who, the series concerned a government unit led by Professor Quist, a deeply moral figure who spends most of the series fighting the dark forces of the British establishment.

There is a film version and some later spin-offs but the key period (for me at least) was three series that ran in the early seventies, and featured weekly stories in which Quist and his team battle bureaucracy, big business and killer rats.

The first episode, “The Plastic Eaters”, featured a new microbe that gets out of hand (it is developed to eliminate waste) and develops an appetite for plastic. Planes start falling out of the skies and all manner of other mayhem ensues. It is a wonderfully apocalyptic scenario, but was followed each week by a succession of potentially world-destroying scientific mysteries for the team.

Which brings me to the killer rats. The episode that I remember the best was “Tomorrow, The Rat”, in which science creates a race of super-rats that threaten to overwhelm humanity. One of the reasons that it was so effective was that it was around the time of panics over the side-effects of warfarin on rats – in that context, the idea of the world being taken over by super-rats was particularly and James Herbert’s The Rats would come out only a few years later (1974).

Why this show isn’t available on DVD is a complete mystery to me. Okay, so there are missing episodes, but that is no excuse. What is the BBC thinking?

Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt and a Much Needed Break

I am taking a few weeks off on holiday so the next issue won’t be posted until Sunday, 22 September. Sorry about that. In case you are really feeling deprived, you can check out a new article of mine.

‘With Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre on their side’: German stars, the psychological film and 1940s horror

in Studies in European Cinema

Volume 9 Issue 2-3

September 2012

This article is an examination of two ‘German’ stars and the ways in which they were understood in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, after their departure from Nazi Germany. From an analysis of reviews and articles through which these two stars, Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt, were presented to audiences in the United States, the article will not only demonstrate that they were predominantly understood as horror stars in the period but also that this was due to the ways in which the figures of the horror villain, gangster and spy were seen to be linked with one another at the time. If all three figures were usually presented as being motivated by psychological compulsions, particularly a despotic desire to dominate and control others, the violence that they inflicted upon their victims was presented as being predominantly psychological, not physical. These figures sought to psychologically dominate, control and even destroy others. It was for this reason that Siegfried Kracauer claimed that one of the central features of 1940s horror was its ‘theme of psychological destruction’.

Arrow (2012-Present) – It Shouldn’t Work but It Does!

Arrow is a weird one. It is the creation of Greg Berlanti, a specialist in family melodramas such as Everwood and Brothers and Sisters, but it is a superhero story with some really dark, horrorish elements. It also seems to be part of a larger shift for Berlanti, who has  gone into superheroes big time with No Ordinary Family (with which I can see the connection back to his earlier work) but also the Green Lantern film and its follow up, and reports of a new series with DC’s The Flash.

In Arrow, Oliver Queen has been stuck on an island for the last five years, after his ship went down in those uncharted waters in which the super-rich like to hang out. But before his discovery of the island, when he and his father are fighting for existence in their life-raft, the old man has persuaded Oliver to right his wrongs back at home and has then committed suicide. Which all leaves Oliver rather traumatized. Oh, and did I mention that Dad was also a super-rich industrialist who seems to be mixed up in some super conspiracy and has left a list of the people involved in his evil plan… Well, actually, it turns out to be the evil plan of John Barrrowman, but more of that later.

Once back in the bosom of his family, Oliver quickly sets about punishing the evil doers using athletic and archery skills that he has picked up on the island. So what we basically have is a lot of family dynamics and vigilante violence, which makes for a very odd, but hugely enjoyable, series that tries, unconvincingly, for a post credit-crunch social conscience.

In addition, the backstory of Oliver’s hellish time on the island, which is called purgatory or something, is told in flashback, so that the series feel a bit like Lost in reverse – everyday life punctuated by flashbacks to a weird island where God-knows-what is going on.

And then there is the fourth unlikely ingredient – a cast that seems to have been collected from BBC’s early Saturday night schedule. The evil super-villain (and closet archer) is played by John Barrowman, who may have been Captain Jack on Torchwood but also appeared on seemingly endless Saturday night talent shows with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Graham Norton. Also, Oliver’s new Dad, or rather the man who is now married to his mother, is Colin Salmon, who was previously a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing (that’s the original BBC series that Dancing with the Stars was based on).

I know I should think the whole thing doesn’t hang together but I find it strangely compelling and not just because of Willa Holland, who plays Oliver’s teenage sister, Thea – she was also Mini Cooper in The OC a while ago – and she is clearly the most intelligent and perceptive character in the entire series. She has a sharpness and a spikiness that is hugely welcome in the show, and I simply can’t wait for the point at which she gets her own superhero identity. In fact, I am surprised that it is taking them so long, the whole series feels ripe for her to replace Oliver and carry the show on her own!

British Actors and Horror

Love this trailer, particularly the bit where Lionel Atwill tells the heroine that he has always found ‘in his experience’ that the female of the species is more responsive to electrical impulses than the male – which of course prompts the question: experience of what?

Anyhow, the relevance of this is that I’m taking a break this week – too many deadlines coming at me all at once. But I thought I should share something, so here is news of a recent article of mine that people might want to check out … or not! Of course, Lionel is only a minor player in this piece, which largely concentrates on Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price.

It’s About Time British Actors Kicked Against these Roles in “Horror” Films’: Horror stars, psychological films and the tyranny of the Old World in classical horror cinema

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

Volume 33, Issue 2, 2013

pages 214-233

This article is an examination of the ways in which Englishness was associated with horror long before the success of Hammer, the British studio that in the late 1950s and 1960s became synonymous with a particularly English version of Gothic cinema. During the 1930s and 1940s, many key horror stars were English or signified Englishness; and the article explores the ways in which this was due to a preoccupation with themes of psychological dominance and dependence during the period. In other words, the threat of psychological dominance and dependence that preoccupied horror films meant that the horror villain was often associated with the spectre of old-world despotism in relation to which the United States defined itself as a rejection. Furthermore, these psychological themes also demonstrate that, during this period, the horror film either included, or was intimately related to, the gangster film and spy thriller so that most horror stars played a range of horror villains, gangsters and spies. However, rather than focusing of figures such as Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Lionel Atwill or George Zucco (the British actors most commonly associated with the horror film during this period), the article will concentrate on a series of actors closely associated with horror in the period, but who are not necessarily remembered in this way today—Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price—stars who demonstrate the ways in which psychological themes not only connected the horror villain, gangster and spy but were also related to the spectre of old-world despotism.

Kindred: the Embraced (1996) – The 1990s that You May Have Chosen to Forget!

The 1990s was a weird period for television horror. It started with the magnificent kookiness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991), continued the gloriousness of The X Files (1993-2002) and managed to achieve a monumental hat-trick with Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). But it also brought us some other stuff, like Kindred: The Embraced (1996)

This last show was so 1990s but also such a mess. If one remembers the other three with a sense of misty-eyed nostalgia, Kindred: The Embraced profoundly reminds one that the good old days only seem so in retrospect, and that nostalgia is when one remembers the good bits and forgets the bad bits. Nostalgia like remembering old romances, in which one has forgotten why one ever split up. But just because one can’t remember why one split up, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t very good reasons.

So what we have is an Aaron Spelling produced television horror series that lacks the camp fun of Satan’s School for Girls and tries to mix the ‘attitude’ from Spelling’s masterwork, Dynasty (1981-1989), with the atmospherics of Twin Peaks, while throwing in a lot of Godfather-style underworld politics … but with no clear rationale. The result is a cocktail but not a tasty and intoxicating one. Instead, its not exactly sickly but is still a rather unappealing concoction. It is not exactly that the flavors clash but rather that something vital is missing, something that would bring them together and make them work in harmony.

Instead, what we get is lots of stylish people giving one another huge amounts of attitude (the Dynasty bits), lots of atmospheric lighting, lots of ominous noises and dirge-like music (the Twin Peaks bits) but nothing whatsoever actually happens. Even the action sequences seem to be strangely languid, so that people bust into flame or jump through windows in slow motion to the sound of melancholy music…

To the extent that there is a plot, it starts with C Thomas Howell as a maverick cop called Frank (warning no cop show thrills on offer here!), who is trying to nail underworld king, Julian Luna (get it? Luna = moon = creature of the night…) Frank is also having an affair with one of Julian’s ex-lovers but, unbeknownst to him, both she and Julian are vampires.

Anyhow, this poor woman falls in love with Frank – don’t ask me why – and their relationship threatens the vampire world so she has to be punished. This vampire underground is full of rules: no vampire must tell a human that vampires really exist; no vampire can harm a human; or take more blood from a human than is strictly necessary for their survival, etc. etc. Are these vampires, vegetarians or party-poopers? But having transgressed these rules, Frank’s lover decides to accept her fate and spontaneously combusts; but only after she makes Julian promise that, if she accepts her punishment, he will protect Frank from the vampire underworld.

Her crime is that, by revealing her true nature to Frank, she has threatened the fragile existence of the vampire underworld, which survives through the ‘masquerade’, i.e, through the deception or conspiracy that keeps their non-human existence a secret from the human world. It is typical of the show that the vampires don’t call this a secret, or a conspiracy, but rather use a pompous term like ‘masquerade’.

But Julian also has other problems to deal with. He is the prince of the vampire underworld and is struggling to maintain a precarious peace between its numerous vampire clans – this is where the Godfather-style politics comes in. In other words, Julian is trying to protect vampires and humans from one another, but Frank doesn’t understand this and hates Julian – Frank believes that Julian is just a run of the mill untouchable gangster but his attitude doesn’t change much when he realizes that Julian is also a vampire.

So basically, Julian has his work cut out protecting Frank, while Frank tries to destroy him, and while his vampires confederates all want to destroy Frank. Nightmare!

And all the while, Julian just keeps trying to make everyone see, especially Frank, that humans and vampires can co-exist. Of course, it would have been better, if the humans and the vampires had waged all out war against one another … well, better for us as viewers and for the survival of the series, which only lasted for eight seemingly interminable episodes.

But it is not simply that there isn’t much in the way of narrative that undermines the show, it is also the absence of anything resembling appealing characters. Frank is simply annoyingly stupid and one can sense Julian’s irritation that he has sworn to protect the fool – you can also sense that he would just love to tear the idiot’s throat out. But that doesn’t really make Julian much more interesting. In my book, vampires need to come in one of two types. They either have to really enjoy what they are doing, or they have to suffer a deep sense of self-hatred at their monstrous existence. It doesn’t much matter which, but they have to love or loathe their condition.

But Julian is neither type. He clearly doesn’t love his condition, and exists to police the joyless rules of the masquerade; but he doesn’t seem to sufficiently hate his existence either. Instead, he seems to accept his lot with the dull resignation of a institutional manager. You can sense his frustration with trying to get his subordinates to see sense and to act responsibly, but he gives off an aura of bored weariness rather than an existential despair or horrified self-hatred.

Of course, Kindred: The Embraced has its pleasures, although I must admit that I can’t think of many at the moment, but it functions much more powerfully as a kind of anti-nostalgia. Watching it is less like remembering the beautiful moments from a doomed love affair, and more like re-living all the frustrations, embarrassments and rows that led to the inevitable break up.