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.

Ace of Wands (1970-1972) – British Television Horror for Kids

There is a whole wealth of fantasy stuff that was produced for British kids in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a strange story. On one hand, it is worth remembering that some of the first films sold to television were the old Universal horror films, which were transmitted as part of children’s entertainment in late 1950s America. These films were already seen as dated when compared to the horror films that were being produced at the time: these films were being sold to television at around the same time as Hammer was having its first successes, Les Diaboliques was drawing huge crowds to art cinemas, and only a short time before Hitchcock and Michael Powell would make (respectively) Psycho and Peeping Tom.

So what does this tell us? Well, that the relationship between children and fantasy is an odd one: on the one hand, horror and fantasy are often associated with children, partly because they are seen as ‘childish’ and ‘silly’ when compare to more ‘adult’ and ‘serious’ forms such as social realism; but. on the other, they are often seen as worrying in relation to children. Fairy tales and Father Christmas are usually alright for the children, while the rest of us know that they are nonsense; but many people worry that children’s imaginations are fragile things that can’t handle things like the rest of us; and that they therefore can’t distinguish fiction from reality and might be traumatized by horror and fantasy.

Consequently, while horror is often seen as only fit for children, it is also often restricted to adults; and children’s horror is either derided for not being scary enough, or for being too scary. Even Dr Who provoked the censors in the 1960s and 1970s.

Anyhow, British television produced a whole slew of fantasy and horror television for kids in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of it was great, like Doctor Who; some of it was wonderfully awful (what the hell was Martin Landau doing in Space 1999); and some of it was wonderfully weird, like Ace of Wands.

In this series, Tarot is a a mystic magician who battles all manner of weird and wonderful menaces with his supernatural powers – you know, telepathy and all that kind of stuff. He is also supported by two assistants (like the good doctor) and an owl called Ozymandias. In the first two series, the assistants were Sam and Lulli, but they were replaced in the third season by brother and sister, Chas and Mikki. Although it should be mentioned that there were strong parallels between the both sets of assistants. For example, both Lulli and Mikki shared a telepathic link with Tarot (and had similar names).

Unfortunately, there aren’t many of the episodes left, although series three is available on DVD, and is well worth a gander. It’s the counter-culture for kids, sort of…

In one story, the local market is being driven into decline by some strange curse, but it also becomes clear that the situation is being manipulated by an evil corporate figure who lives in a strange, white, sealed office at the top of a large modern tower-block that overlooks the market: critiques of gentrification and corporate capitalism in a show for kiddies. Of course, the politics of the show as a whole is a little more odd: the corporate bigwig commands via a counter-cultural gang, who terrorize the market; and, in another story, Tarot and his assistants combat an evil threat to NATO, in which old ladies are the enemy! And then, in yet another story, the menace are a group of beautiful young people who are giving away expensive domestic appliances to the elderly but turn out to be plotting something dastardly that involves the old folk being endangered by their appliances, or something…

I am not claiming that Ace of Wands is a work of genius, but its great fun, and demonstrates that Dr Who was far from being the only game in town during the period. In fact, the period was a fertile one for children’s fantasy television, and we write these stories out of the history of horror and fantasy television at our peril!

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

The Dead Zone (2002-2007) – There is Life in the King Story Yet

I didn’t know about The Dead Zone (the tv series) until quite recently, when it popped up in my amazon recommended list. Which isn’t always a recommendation. But I was intrigued, if only because it seems to have run for about six seasons and I hadn’t even heard of it. Also I had always been fond of the Cronenberg film version, which was always one of my favorite Cronenberg films: it has an emotional depth that is lacking in many of his yukky (but great) body-hororr classics and in his arty (and okay) later works. Also Christopher Walken’s performance really captured the lonely, doomed awkwardness of the novel’s central character, and the very presence of Herbert Lom, recreating his caring doctor from The Seventh Veil, by way of The Human Jungle, is a pleasure to relish. And unsurprisingly Lom delivers one of the most moving sequences in the film, when, armed with the insight that Johnny has given him, the elderly doctor wrestlies with whether or not to phone his mother that had formerly believed died during a Nazi purge in his childhood.

And of course the novel is one of my favorite Stephen King novel. I even remember (back in the 1980s) passengers on a London tube train slowly moving down to the other end of the carriage as I wept my eyes out while reading the last few pages of the novel.

In the series, however, Johnny Smith is played by Anthony Michael Hall, who is no Christopher Walken, and is best remembered (by me at least) for his role as the nerd in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and as the bad boyfriend in Edward Sissorhands. None of which is very encouraging. He also seems to specialize in one facial expression, a weird raised eyebrow that seems to imply: I am spooky; something weird is happening; I’m confused; I’m attracted to you; you’re going to die; its the end of the world! Almost anything really.

And yet, I actually like both him and the series, which was clearly filmed in Canada – it rains ALL the time. At one point, Johnny has to track down a serial killer who is triggered by rain, which basically means that the maniac is out almost every night. But even the rain-swept locations seem to work, although at one point, when Johnny heads off to NYC for an episode, the Big Apple looks suspiciously like small town America (or rather Canada).

Of course, Cronenberg’s film was also a Canadian effort, so the miserable weather only reminds one of the original film, and those involved in the series have done a quite neat job of littering the first series with stories from the novel, or vaguely recall stories in the novel, although these are padded out with other stories that were written for the series. By the end of series one, Johnny has even had his vision of the future that an evil political hopeful, Greg Stillson (played by Martin Sheen in the original movie), will bring into being, which brings the season to the edge of a nice cliffhanger and gives Johnny a major mission or story arc to take him through the next five season (presumably). After all, Smith dies in his final confrontation with Stillson in the book.

So, all in all, The Dead Zone ain’t half bad. Its sort of charming without being earth shattering, and I am actually quite looking forward to watching series two…

Terra Nova – Beware, Corporations Are Stripmining Your Past!

Terra Nova is a science fiction series with monsters. Sometime in the future, the ecosystem has gone kaput but a rift in time has handily turned up which allows people to travel back millions of years to when dinosaurs ruled the earth but American corporations (a far more vicious predator) have not yet been invented. So when Chicago cop, Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara), falls foul of the law (his family decide to have a baby in defiance of the new quota system), he manages to escape into the past along with his family and a host of other ‘pilgrims’.

Given that time travel only works one way in this series (until a plot turns up that allows it to work both ways), he can’t be sent back to the future where he pay can for his crimes and the authorities in the new Jerusalem find that his skills as a cop come in very handy: nobody in the future, it seems, had thought of sending cops into the past but have rather thrown all their energies into sending back scientists and soldiers…

Anyhow, once in the past, the Shannon family settle down to a nice life (this is a Spielberg production), although luckily there are some issues to disrupt their idealized domestic arrangements. First, the past into which they have been dropped is full of dinosaurs, many of which are unfamiliar and/or unpredictable, so there are lots of opportunities for them to munch on the humans and threaten the homestead. Second, there is a political conflict going on in the past. The settlers are led by tough military man, Nathaniel Taylor (the wonderful Stephen Lang), who is in conflict with the ‘sixers’, a group of rebels who live outside the compound and are trying to undermine it. Worse still, his estranged son is out there too, and he is writing on rocks!!! Honest, I kid you not – it is really mysterious.

Of course, with Stephen Lang in the role of Taylor, his intentions are already deeply suspect. After all, Lang is an actor that has built his reputation by playing psychopaths and his casting in the show is clearly supposed to remind one of his evil commander in the mega-hit, Avatar. Taylor’s suspect character is also emphasized by the casting of O’Mara as Shannon, given that the younger actor has a history of Oedipal time-travel narratives and played Sam Tyler in the American version of Life on Mars, in which he was pitted against Harvey Keitel’s Gene Hunt.

But (SPOILER ALERT) it soon transpires that Taylor is not a bad man, and is actually trying to protect Eden from the sixers, who are in league with evil corporations back in the future (along with Taylor’s wayward son): the corporations plan to strip the past of its resources and ship them into the future. Clearly, this is not a show that has any interest in the paradoxes of time travel.

Of course, the irony here is that the show is itself a virtual strip-mining of the past. It is a Frankenstein’s monster that has been made up out of earlier objects of popular culture, as are many of Spielberg’s projects. There are bits of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, bits of Avatar (except that here there are good and bad colonialists – pilgrim family settlers are good and strip-mining corporations are bad – but more of that later), and of course the homestead, the sixers and the new Eden start looking a lot like something out of a western. Oh, and Jim is a Chicago cop, so a lot of the plots are straight out of a cop show.

Furthermore, as should have become abundantly clear, the whole thing is a literal rip-off of the American story itself. Terra Nova is the new world; the pilgrim settlers are, well, pilgrim settlers; the new world is an explored Eden that doesn’t feature the pesky problem of the ‘indians’ – this time, the settlers have really got there first and have laid claim to virgin land that really hasn’t already been settled by others.

Of course, I am not complaining about the show’s plundering of the past – what text doesn’t work with the languages that surround it – but it is all a bit too obvious and contrived. Great popular culture makes the old into something new again; this makes something old into something that is all a bit too familiar. In both senses of the word. If it is too reminiscent of other things, this is partly because the show all a bit too comfy and cosy. In fact, unlike the western, in which the frontier is both opportunity and danger, and often feels quite bleak and tough, the world of Terra Nova, despite its monstrous dinosaurs and rebel sixers, all feels a bit to easy.

And of course part of the reason for this is that the show is far too concerned to operate as a family show. Its plots are all about the Shannons as a family, and even Taylor starts looking increasingly like a rather cantankerous grandad. In fact, it starts feeling a lot like Lost in Space, the TV series not the bewildering film version. Well, Lost in Space without all the weirdness that the Robinson family was forced to confront!

Grimm – It’s All About The Sidekicks!

I must admit to having a real fondness for Grimm. It is a mess, and its makers seem to find it impossible to make the hero interesting. But it is the peripherals that matter here. The series is partly the creation of David Greenwalt, who brought us Angel, which gives you a fair sense of what the show is like. Its sort of angel mixed with some fairy-tale horror.

Of course, fairy-tale horror is so hot right now. In movies, there is  Snow White and the Huntsman and, in television, there is Grimm and Once Upon a Time. I am guessing that this is some sort of post-Twilight attempt to develop horror properties that have a strong female angle, but it also makes for a nice change of gear. In fact, Grimm‘s use of the pacific northwestern woods, and of sets that visually remind one of fairy-tales, actually makes the series look pretty good and quite atmospheric.

The problem with the show is, as I have indicated, its hero, Nick Burkhardt, a cop who discovers that he is descended from a family of Grimms. But what are Grimms? They weren’t just a couple of brothers who collected folk-tales but a group of monster hunters that are endowed with superpowers and a monster-killing destiny! The problem is that I am both confused about both their powers and their destiny.

At first, it seems that their destiny is to battle evil, but then Nick quickly works out that there are a whole series of species of ‘monsters’ and many of them are benign or, at least, feature individuals that are able to suppress their urges and live in harmony with humans. So it turns out that Nick is actually a nice Grimm and that most Grimms in the past were pretty much racist vigilantes – or worse! May even seem to have done the bidding of the key force of evil in the series, The Varrat, a kind of aristocratic, fascistic association for evil that I am still trying to understand. But they are bad (or at least some of them are!)

But if Nick’s destiny seems confused, his superpowers are even more weird. In short, they seem to boil down to two key abilities: the ability to see monsters for what they really are (all other humans are simply too unimaginative to be able to process reality); and the ability to fight brilliantly with weapons that he has never used before. Oh, and he has a really impressive library, which he stores in a trailer (kind of like a super academic!) But the trailer also contains an impressive arsenal of strange weapons (which isn’t like a super academic, or none that I know anyhow).

The trouble is that Nick just isn’t very interesting. He doesn’t seem to have any ‘story’. By series two, even his girlfriend has forgotten who he is! Okay, so that’s supposed to be the result of magic but I think that it is also a sign that the makers have spotted the problem.

None of which does anything to dampen my enthusiasm for the show. If Nick is a little boring (and I feel mean saying this when the actor that plays him is trying so hard to do something with his impossible role), the series is chock full of great characters; and I find myself watching each episode with a thrill, while thinking of all the great spin-off shows that they could create.

Of course, leader of the pack is Monroe, a friendly werewolf, who is one of Nick’s numerous sidekicks, and the coolest cat (canine) on television. He is funny and engaging; has an interior struggle; and I can’t wait for the forthcoming Werewolf of Portland, a fantasy project that I have invented in my own head.

I must admit to also being quite excited about the spin-off with Rosalee, Monroe’s partner, where she battles evil from her store of magic and potions – unfortunately, Monroe and Rosalee would have to split up for this and that would be a shame as they are a lovely couple. Their nervous romance is one of the key pleasures of the series.

Another great series would feature Nick’s police captain, Sean Renard, who is a member of one of the royal families of Europe (the evil, monster ones) and probably a member of the Varrat (but I am not sure). He’s great. I love him. And I still don’t know if he is good or evil. But, frankly, I don’t care.

I could also imagine a pretty good series with Nick’s girlfriend (so long as she can dump Nick). In the first series, she was incredibly boring and her only real function was to represent that ‘ordinary’ life of happy domesticity that was now lost to Nick. So basically she was kept ignorant of everything happening elsewhere in the show. However, by the end of series one, she was brutally pulled into the main plot and, as series two progressed, she becomes more and more interesting – as she forgot about Nick entirely and developed a narrative of her own.

Even Nick’s partner-in-crime (or crime-fighting), Hank, is more appealing than Nick. He’s human but learning to cope with a reality in which monsters exist, even if he can’t quite see them with the clarity that Nick can. I can’t quite see how he could become the centre of his own spin-off but he is still more interesting than Nick.

Tales from the Darkside: The Wheat and the Chaff II

Anyhow after sorting the chaff from the wheat, we reach the most effective episodes of season one, although I don’t want to over-sell the following episodes. They have some points of interest, but I could recommend quite a few things that you would be better off watching – actually an incredibly long list of things!

“I’ll Give a Million” is a relatively fun episode in which two mean business men make a pact with the devil, literally, when one of them comes up with a brilliant scam for fleecing the other. He offers to buy his friend’s soul for a million dollars, receipt of said item to be taken on death. As he points out, who would turn down a million dollars for something as intangible as a soul, and his victim agrees. But as his health starts to fail, the victim becomes ever more desperate to buy back his soul, and offers more and more for it each time. Unfortunately, the victimizer holds out for too long and his victim dies before he can cash in on his scam – at which point, a ghost appears with the property in question. The upshot is a heart attack, upon which the devil turns up to claim both souls.

“Pain Killer” is a slightly jokey tale of a man whose wife is giving him a pain, literally, and whose doctor (a rather charming Farley Granger) proscribes her murder as the only viable treatment, the murder to be done by a proxy. On her death, the ailment clears up immediately but, when asked to return the favor for another of the doctor’s patients, the man refuses with dreadful consequences.

“The Odds” isn’t really that good except for a wonderful turn by Danny Aiello as a bookie who cheats the fates, while “Slippage” has a great concept and a pretty pitiful execution: a young man gradually disappears as family and friends gradually forgot about him. “Mookie and Pookie” has an interestingly eerie quality, although I couldn’t for the life of me say why; and it concerns a sister whose twin brother dies having left instructions for her about how to finish a computer project on which he has been working, a project that has somehow downloaded his consciousness to his computer.

“The Madness Room” is absolute tosh but, for some reason, I really liked it. I saw everything coming a mile off but somehow the wooden predictability seemed to work here, as though the whole thing was a loving homage, which I don’t think it was. Anyhow, it concerns a couple living in an old house, and he has a weak heart and a best friend who seems a bit over familiar with the wife. When the three of them contact a ghost who resides within the house, the spirit tells them about a room that drives people mad, and obviously, they decide to search of the cursed room … I won’t bore you with the ending, which you have probably largely guessed, but it worked for me as an episode.

However, the two stand out episodes are “The False Prophet and “The Tear Collector”, if only because they are so extraordinarily weird. In the first, Ronee Blakley (a beautiful actress/musician, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Robert Altman’s Nashville, was married to Wim Wenders (1979-1981), worked with Bob Dylan and appeared in Nightmare of Elm Street) plays a woman who lives her life on the guidance of a computer fortune teller. When she encounters the latest version, it seems to fall in love with her but it also encounters competition from a preacher who wants her to live for the moment. The result is somewhere between a high-camp soap-opera and really far-out art project – but it isn’t predictable!

In “The Tear Collector”, a perpetually sad and tearful Jessica Harper runs into an odd but sensitive Victor Garbor, who values her tears and invites her over to his place so that he can watch her cry and collect her tears. Talk about strange fetishes! Anyhow, even more oddly, she thinks that she has found her soul mate and pays regular visits to this metaphysical pervert, until she finds that he is doing the same with a variety of different women (and seems to have been doing it throughout the ages!) Distraught, she break up with him and runs out into the road where she is nearly run over by a taxi, out of which climbs an attractive young man tells her that she has a beautiful smile – the tear collector’s strange attentions seem to have left her all cried out and she is now ready to live a happy life.

Of course, that description doesn’t begin to capture how weird this episode really is. It is almost worth watching the whole of season one just for this one episode … almost.

Tales from the Darkside: The Wheat and the Chaff I

I have been working my way through series one of the Tales from the Darkside over the past couple of weeks, which hasn’t been a punishment or a pleasure. Some episodes are fairly effective, although none are outstanding, and there is a lot of other stuff to get through. The central idea – that there is a ‘darkside’ to human experience – is a bit of a catch-all that lets the series pretty much get away with any old thing, and it is therefore a bit difficult to get a handle on what it is even aiming for – there is a bit of the old horror comics, a bit of the Twilight Zone and lots of other bits thrown in for good measure.

Some stories, like the pilot episode, “Trick or Treat”, are morality tales in which wicked people get their comeuppance. Others just seem mean. In “The New Man”, a man trying to do right by his family after years of alcoholism is stunned by the presence of a son that he can’t remember and his failure to remember the boy drives his family away – they think that he has started drinking again. Which is of course what then happens. Initially, one thinks that it might be some clever way of exploring the experience of alcoholism, until the twist ending sees his replacement being similarly stunned by the presence of exactly the same boy, who is again claiming to be his son… In other words, we have just seen the story of a man trying to do right but destroyed by a malicious fate.

However, this meanness is preferable to the repeated attempts at humor, which are often quite irritating. In “A Case of the Stubborns”, Eddie Bracken plays a man so stubborn that he won’t admit to being dead, much to the annoyance of his family and the local community. The story features an performance by a young Christian Slater, but its laughs are forced, as are those of “Djinn, No Chaser” – hey, the title says it all! “Word Processor of the Gods” is a lot more successful, if only because it features the wonderful Bruce Davison as a writer who is bequeathed a fantastic new word processor that can delete aspects of reality and execute new versions, a tool that allows him to completely rewrite his life and replace all his disappointments with the objects of his desire.

Episodes such as “Anniversary Dinner” and “Answer Me” are simply clumsy, with the first of these setting up its big twist a bit too obviously, while the second is simply incoherent. A woman is kept awake by a phone ringing next door, and slowly finds out that someone had committed suicide in the room next door some time before. But then she might be the woman next door – and then she is menaced by a woman on the phone (who might be her again) and then the phone itself seems to come after her… Maybe I wasn’t paying attention properly but then again watching Jean Marsh talk to herself for an entire episode is likely to make one’s mind drift onto other things.

If these two episodes are clumsy, other episodes are just plain weird. “All a Clone by the Telephone” features a man who is menaced by his answering machine, but that looks fine when compared with “Inside the Closet”, where a young student moves into a room in the house of a weird old professor and starts to hear noises coming from a very small door in the corner of her room. Sometimes the room is locked and other times it is open; sometimes it is empty and other times it is full of stuff that may be the property of her landlord’s mysterious daughter. Anyhow, it then turns out that there is some sort of small rubber monster living there and it drags the poor girl into the closet before going downstairs to the professor for a cuddle – is this the mysterious daughter? What the hell is going on? If anybody has any clue to what this is all about please let me know.

Next Week: Tales from the Darkside: The Wheat and the Chaff II

The 1980s Anthology Show

So, here is a quiz for you. Put the following figures in order of promise, if they were associated with fantasy and horror television shows of the 1980s (and early 1990s): George Romero, Stephen Speilberg and Robert Zemeckis. Who is the most likely to produce the best and who would you expect to produce the worst?

Well, you would probably be wrong.

I am not saying that it is a work of genius but Tales from the Crypt (Zemeckis, 1989-1996) is was a fun show that tried to capture some of the trashy energy of the horror comics of the 1950s, much like the Stephen King collaboration with Romero on Creepshow. Amazing Stories (Speilberg, 1985-1987) is a polished (a little too polished, if you ask me) attempt to do a kind of updated Twilight Zone. It is fun but a little uneven, with several episodes descending into the syrupy nonsense that bedevils many Speilberg efforts – it was also (possibly because of its expensive production values) the shortest lived of the three series, and only ran for two seasons, while Tales from the Crypt ran for seven seasons and Romero’s contribution ran for four seasons.

Finally, Romero’s contribution was Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988), a rather odd effort. It’s not without its charm and it has some decent stories but it also has some stinkers. Many episodes, even though they are only half an hour long (or actually about 20 minutes without the adverts), seem hopelessly padded, the final twist being painfully obvious from the outset and the efforts at its deferment being strained beyond belief. Also, the visual style is beyond dull, with many episodes being stagey, wooden and making one yearn for the visual flair of an Aaron Spelling production.

If these shows confound expectations about their origins, they also demonstrate another interesting feature, which was a strong tendency within the 1980s. While there were numerous made-for-television horror films and mini-series during this period, the television shows that followed the series format were often obsessed with nostalgia. If Tales from the Crypt paid homage to the 1950s horror comics, both Tales from the Darkside and Amazing Stories are clearly attempts to recapture some of the glory of the anthology series of the 1950s and 1960s, shows such as The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone was even remade as series in the period (1985-1989); as was another classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-1989). The Outer Limits was also remade, although this was a decade latter (1995-2002).

So what is going on here? Well, one could related it back to debates over postmodern nostalgia, although this would seem to suggest that this nostalgia was less a ‘cultural condition of late capitalism’ than a more historically specific phenomenon. It could therefore be argued that it was simply an updating of the obsession with the popular culture of the 1950 and 1960s that one finds in the work that King, Romero, Speilberg and Zemeckis had produced back in the 1970s. Furthermore, these shows were produced in a period during which American television was going through rapid and dramatic transformations, and many of these shows were explicitly bound up with these changes. They can therefore be seen as examples of a classic strategy in which people look back to the past as a way of negotiating change.

Next Week: Tales from the Darkside: Wheat and Chaff.

Apologies

I am not sure what happened this week. A post should have gone up last sunday saying that I was away, but I am now back and a new post will be going up tomorrow.

So in an attempt to make amends, you will find the Matheson scripted Scream of the Wolf (1974) above. Enjoy!

True Blood – Surely Sex and Violence Shouldn’t Be This Boring?

True Blood has been a phenomenal success. It has been going for five seasons; I keep reading about it as a classic example of quality television; and people are repeatedly telling how good it is. My friend, Brigid Cherry, has even edited an academic book on the subject. (Note to self: given the quality of Brigid’s work, I should probably read this, despite what I am about to say).

The problem is that I really don’t ‘get’ this show. I watched the first series, and I really had to force myself to through it; it wasn’t a pleasure; it was more like pulling teeth. I had heard so much about how good it was that I felt obliged to give it a try; but, seriously, it was painful. The characters really grated; the plot seem to meander about all over the place; but most unforgivably the sex and violence were just boring.

It was as if, having secured a deal with HBO, the program makers just went a bit loopy. Brett Mills once (brilliantly in my opinion) described watching The Dark Knight as like having someone shout ‘look at how profound I am being’ for two and a half hours! True Blood felt like the program makers were shouting ‘look what we can get away with on cable’, which sought of destroyed any tension or shock or thrill. Surely sex and violence shouldn’t be this boring!

On another level, the sweet seductions of vampirism with its sensual appeals seem to be reduced to the hit of crack or a kinky one night stand. Neither of which look very enticing – just a bit sleazy. God, maybe I am getting old but it just doesn’t seem to be any fun any more. But, then again, maybe its not me. I am not singing the praises of The Vampire Diaries, and should really write a entry on the show, which certainly has numerous irritations; but, frankly, I would rather curl up with a box set of this bunch of whining teenagers than spend more time with the inhabitant of Bon Temps (which is as far from a good time as I care to get).

I keep seeing endlessly comparisons between True Blood and the Twilight saga, comparisons in which Twilight is not only a bit of a straw man but critics even seem a little unfair to Twilight. It is like claiming that Night of the Living Dead is more gory than Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein: it is a meaningless comparison and both of these films are more fun than True Blood (and Twilight).

If you really want a slice of Southern Gothic (another irritating attempt to avoid the horror label), you would be much better off with the Sonja Blue novels by Nancy A. Collins, particularly Tempter. But of course they haven’t made a television series out of those novels – and that would really test the ‘freedom’ of cable.