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.

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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.

Satan’s School for Girls

Okay, so I just watched Satan’s School for Girls again, and what can I say. Its a knowing camp-fest that is produced by Aaron Spelling, who has done other horror productions: anyone remember Kindred: the Embraced in the mid 1990s? On the one hand, its really silly: the devil is on the loose in a girl’s school – the clue is in the title. On the other, its not quite silly enough – there is is a serious absence of the more obvious pleasures of this kind of nonsense. On yet another hand – okay, we are talking mutants with numerous hands here – its full of rather batty pleasures. Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd appear in pre-Charlie’s Angels roles, and while Cheryl is a major disappointment, Kate is perfect – but then she was always my favorite angel, so maybe I am just biased.

More importantly, it has various other iconic figures in various roles. The lead is the ever wonderful and perennially weird Pamela Franklin, who was wonderful as one of the children in The Innocents (1963), and was weird and creepy in various roles including non-horrors like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and horror-numbers such as The Nanny (with mad, bad Betty Davis), Our Mother’s House, And Soon the Darkness, and Necromancy (with madder, badder Orson Welles). However, its her role in the fantastic The Haunting of Hell House that will always stay with me – she is both creepy and sympathetic – and of course we are back in Richard Matheson territory. I am beginning to worry that this is turning into a Richard Matheson appreciation blog, not that this would be a bad thing.

Along with Franklin, there is also Roy Thinnes as a charismatic teacher who is trying to open up the kids’ minds (it is the early 1970s, when teachers still had notions about such things), but I think I will spare you much more about Thinnes for now, an actor who seems to be turning up in these posts with nearly as much regularity as Matheson. Finally, there is also Lloyd Bochner, or Cecil Colby from Dynasty, an actor with a voice that always reminds me of Orson Welles (see earlier posts) and has a long and distinguished career in horror. To be honest, his CV would make a a truly impressive list, and one would be hard pushed to find an example of a classic American television series that he hadn’t been in – Love Boat, Fantasy Island, you name it. None the less, he would also memorably appear in various examples of horror, such as Bloch’s The Night Walker, Boris Karloff’s Thriller and The Twilight Zone, a role which has become one his most fondly remembered – he even spoofed it in one of the Naked Gun films…

I am not sure that I am actually recommending Satan’s School for Girls. Its not The Night Stalker. Its not even Curse of the Black Widow. And it probably is representative of what Gregory Waller hates about the made-for-television film (although it still doesn’t fit many his actual claims about it). But it is also filled with hokey pleasures – and clearly borrows heavily from the female Gothic (borrowing here being tantamount to travesty), with its female investigator who solves the mystery, and its rather banal excuse for a climax in which the contemporary characters all investigate the mystery while holding oil lamps like something from a nineteenth century melodrama – hey, there’s been a power cut!