The Borgias – Boris Karloff is Back … and He’s Played by Jeremy Irons!

Okay, now I have to also admit to coming late to The Borgias, which was recommended by a colleague, Peter Kitson. Thanks, Peter.

I managed to consume the entire first season in about two or three nights and, while I won’t claim it was the best thing I have ever seen, it made for a fun-filled couple of nights, with more violence and nastiness than you could shake an incense burner at.

For those of you who don’t know their history, Papa Borgia was a Pope with lots of illegitimate children and mistresses, who played power politics and whose machinations involved also sorts of murderous plots.

Those of you who have heard or read my discussion of Edward G Robinson (a horror star during the 1940s) will already know that Little Caesar was associated with Borgia by critics in the 1930s, and the series clearly sought to cash-in on the success of The Soparnos. If this wasn’t marketed with the tagline, ‘the original crime family’, the world has surely gone mad. My guess would be that the show was specifically designed with that tagline in mind.

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Which is not to say that it is merely a rip-off. It is the creation of Neil Jordan, who knows a thing or two about both horror and Catholicism; and it is a wonderfully crafted tale of bloody intrigue.

But the real treat (and people who know me won’t be expecting this one) is Jeremy Irons. Not because he is Jeremy Irons – yes, its another posh British actor playing a nasty, vicious aristocratic type – but rather because Irons is playing one of the greatest horror actors of all time, Boris Karloff.

Irons’ portrayal of Borgia is, from the very first moment, a magnificent homage or impersonation of a whole slew of Karloff heavies. He has the bushy, hooded eyebrows working overtime and that funny mouth thing going ten to the dozen.

The whole thing feels like a more explicit version (both in terms of violence and nudity) of something like Tower of London, except that Karloff (Irons) has now displaced Basil Rathbone’s King Richard and taken center stage. Actually, to be honest, the performance is less Karloff in Tower of London and more his grim presences in films such as Graft, The Old Dark House, The Walking Dead and particularly British Intelligence (Secret Enemy in the UK).

So, while its not perfect, its worth seeing, if only for the return of the late, great, Boris Karloff. How I have missed him!

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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.

Suspicion (1957-1958) – Short but Sweet

It has been one of those weeks. I had to do an entry for another blog, which was arguably on television horror – television weather reporting:

http://cstonline.tv/weather-or-not

Consequently, I haven’t had much time to write an entry for this week. However, I didn’t want to neglect my duties, so I thought I would make a few brief comments about Suspicion which I have been watching this week. It is a bit variable in quality. Some things are great but others, including an episode starting Audie Murphy, The Flight, are disappointing, or even a bit dull.

Part of the reason for the variable quality is that the talent seems to shift around a lot. Some episodes are produced by William Frye, who would make Boris Karloff’s Thriller and some are produced by Joan Harrison, who was also producing Alfred Hitchcock Presents at the time. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock was also associated with the series as an executive producer, and directed the first episode of the series, Four O’Clock.

In this story, E.G. Marshall thinks his wife is cheating on him and plants a bomb in his cellar to kill her and her lover. Unfortunately, small time crooks break in; and bind and gag him in the cellar along with the bomb. He is then forced to wait helplessly until four o’clock when he has set the bomb to go off. I won’t reveal the ending but the story basically follows his hopes and fears as he tries to attract attention to himself and to his predicament. It is therefore an incredibly simple exercise but one that is all the more impressive for its simplicity. Also, given that Marshall is mostly bound and gagged during the episode, his thought processes have to be conveyed through voice over in a manner that is very familiar from radio horror shows – whether Four O’Clock had previously been given a treatment in radio horror, I have not been able to find out yet. If anyone knows about this, I would be eager to hear.

Other episodes that I have really enjoyed include The Other Side of the Curtain in which Donna Reed keeps having a bad dream about something that lies on the other side of a curtain, but she can’t quite remember what; and is then accused of murdering her husband’s previous wife. Okay, so people act in ridiculous ways in the story, but frankly I don’t really care. Its a really neat little thriller and there is something genuinely eerie about her dreams and the tantalizing mystery beyond the curtain….

Heartbeat is also great and features David Wayne as a meek middle aged man who has suffered from a weak heart from childhood. However, when he is (mistakenly) told by a heart specialist that there is nothing wrong with his heart, he spends the day in search of excitement; while the doctor who has given him the wrong diagnosis enlists the police in a search for the thrill seeker so that they can warn him that any excitement might kill him. Again, I won’t spoil the ending but its a wonderfully bitter-sweet story packed with mounting suspense and some terrific documentary-style film-making in various locations, particularly Coney Island.

There is also a great little story, Rainy Day, featuring George Cole.

At its best, episodes of Suspicion are like hour long episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. At its worst … well, I haven’t finished them all yet, but so far the worst has been watchable, if uninspired. However, when its good, its great, so it was a real find for me: I accidentally purchased it while trying to track down Suspense (1949-1954).

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!

Algernon Blackwood (1936) – a host of fears

As my dear friend, Derek Johnston, is fond of reminding me, the first night of scheduled television in the UK ended with a couple of ghost stories told by Algernon Blackwood. Also, as Derek usually adds, this choice by the BBC drew on formats familiar in their radio service. Like Lights Out, then, this event illustrates the ways in which, in its early years, television horror initially drew on models from radio, rather than cinema. Nor was this transmission a one-off event, and Blackwood appeared on television for a number of years afterward, where his recital of horror stories became a regular feature of the schedules. So much so, that the BBC continued the format in later years, when Lord Dunsany followed Blackwood as a horror narrator.

However, there are also other aspects of these shows that are worth commenting upon. The format draws on the tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition that is used in a range of different types of television programming (Jackanory, the News, etc.) but seems to have acquired a particular significance in relation to horror. Television horror has used the figure of the narrator as a frame for its horror tales in a way that is very rare in cinematic horror. The use of John Houseman at the start of John Carpenter’s The Fog is one of only a handful of cinematic examples, but given Houseman’s was a close collaborator with Orson Welles, the fact that he is telling a ghost story to a group of children huddled around a campfire, and that the film’s central character runs a radio station, which she uses to hold a community together in the face of vast supernatural forces, this opening may be highly suggestive in ways that should become clear later.

First, while this technique is rare in cinematic horror, radio horror was fond of this convention, as can be seen in the case of ‘the Man in Black’ from Appointment with Fear and later The Man in Black, but also in a range of other examples (see Richard Hand’s Terror on the Air!). Similarly, it is a major feature in television horror: Alfred Hitchcock Presents used the great director as a host, who book-ended the stories with his macabre wit; Thriller employed the figure of Boris Karloff in a similar way; The Twilight Zone featured Rod Serling; Great Mysteries had Orson Welles; The Night Stalker and The Norliss Tapes both had fictional characters narrate their stories (the former was told by Carl Kolchak while the latter were supposed to be the taped files of David Norliss, although it never developed into the series that it appears to have been designed to become); Night Gallery was (again) hosted by Rod Serling; Tales of the Unexpected was, at least initially, introduced by Roald Dahl; Tales from the Darkside had an unnamed narrator; and Tales from the Crypt had the crypt-keeper. Even the screenings of horror films on television have a long history of being introduced by horror hosts, a practice that dates back to 1957 when ‘Shock Theater’ showed a series of Universal horror films on television that were often hosted by figures such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’.

One function of these horror hosts is that they were able to create a sense of consistency across different stories. Without Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions, Alfred Hitchcock Presents would not have been a show but simply a series of individual plays. In this way, these hosts also work as a kind of guarentor or brand that can encourages trust and a sense that people know what to expect.

On another level, they operate to set the tone, to generate a sense of anticipation by hinting at the horrors to come, or a sense of light-heartedness that encourages viewers not to take things to seriously or even overtly ridicule what they are about to watch- horror hosts such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’ established an overtly camp relationship to the films that they introduced; and both Hitchcock and Karloff established a sense that the macabre stories that they introduced were meant to establish a playful relationship with their audience and did not simply pander to unhealthy tastes.

To some extent, then, the figure of the narrator in television horror works to illegitimate the horror story and another way in which it seeks to do so is by relating the horror tale to a tradition of oral storytelling. Rather than simply gruesome stories, the shows are aligned with more comfortable notions of the traditional bedtime story: Blackwood’s stories were read just before the end of transmission as a way of signalling the close-down and sending everyone off to bed. But they were also reminiscent of the fireside story and particularly the horror stories traditionally told to children around camp fires on dark nights – which is explicitly what Houseman is doing at the opening of Carpenter’s The Fog.

These associations are interesting in other ways. First, they relate the narration not simply with oral traditions but traditions associated with childhood; and, second, they associate such acts of storytelling narration with special events that occurs outside of normal, everyday life. The bedtime story is a transitional tale that takes the child from the world of everyday life to the world of sleep and dreams; and while the fireside story takes place within the domestic interior, the campfire story takes place at a time outside normal everyday schedules (normally a holiday period) when the child can stay up late and when the child is often away at camp. Sleepovers are also commonly associated with the oral telling of frightening tales, and again it is often seen as special occasions when do not have to return to their respective homes at the end of the day, as would normally be the case, but when they can stay together and stay up late,

But the horror host does more than simply associate these stories with oral storytelling. The common description of them as hosts is also significant. Television horror is often seen as inappropriate to the home, and the uncanny literally means unfamiliar and its Freudian use is drawn from Freud’s ‘unheimliche’ or unhomely. But there are questions about why anyone would let the uncanny into our homes (television commonly being seen as a primarily domestic medium). One answer may be in the term ‘host’, a host being someone who often welcomes you into their home. In other words, the host may work to mediate between the world of domestic security and the world of unsettling horror. Rather than audiences welcoming horror into the domestic, the host takes them out of their domestic existences and welcomes them into the world of horror.

Much has been written about the television as a technology that mediates between the home and the world beyond it, either enabling people to stay inside while remaining aware of the world outside, or enabling people to travel without leaving the comfort of their living rooms. The horror host captures something of this quality, acting as a conduit between the domestic interior and the world outside. But such a conduit does not simply keep things separate but always puts them in play with one another. Sometimes this is felt as pleasurable escape from routines of domestic life, sometime a threatening blurring of the line between the two worlds, and sometimes as calling the distinctions between the two into question: as Alfred Hitchcock is famously quoted as saying,’One of television’s great contributions is that it brought murder back into the home, where it belongs.’

Welcome

In the mid 1980s, Gregory Waller claimed that ‘made-for-television horror would seem to be by definition impossible’. Nor is this position rare in commentary upon horror and even Stephen King in his study of the genre, Danse Macabre, argues that television is ‘dedicated to the pervasion of the status quo and the concept of the LOP – Least Objectionable Programming’, a situation that places it in tension with the horror genre, the ‘bedrock’ of which ‘is simply this: you gotta scare the audience’.

Nor have these assumption about television horror changed much since the 1980s; and, as Matt Hills points out, when looking ‘at more recent academic surveys of television and genre, one could still be forgiven for assuming that “Horror TV” … does not meaningfully exist as a category’ in so far as it does not even appear in volumes such as Creeber’s The Television Genre Book (2001) and many of the ‘possible candidates’ for a discussion of television horror (such as Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files) are ‘generically nominated in ways that render horror relatively invisible’.

Of course, there is now a huge amount of work on specific contemporary examples of television horror, with articles, books and even whole journals dedicated to Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, But most of this work concentrates on the period from the 1990s onwards, and often explicitly associates the emergence of such shows with changes in television, and the emergence of what is sometimes referred to as ‘TVII’. In this account, there is little challenge to the accounts of television presented by Waller, except that these accounts are restricted to a specific period of television history (‘TVI’). In other words, his position goes unchallenged in relation to earlier periods, but it is claimed that institutional and aesthetic changes in the 1980s not only made television horror a possibility but also well suited to the new era.

It would seem that, in the past, horror television was still ‘by definition impossible.

However, horror television certainly did exist in the past, and both Waller and King not only acknowledge its long history of horror television, a history that goes back to the very earliest days of the medium, but  also celebrate certain supposedly exceptional texts as classics. However, despite being anomalous or exceptional, it would seem that horror television is actually associated with many key moments in television history. For example, The Quatermass Experiment is often cited, whether rightly or wrongly, as one of the defining moments in the history of British television that is second only to the televised Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. In other words, as Charles Barr has argued, it was ‘a landmark … in intensity of audience response’, accounts of which have become legendary, and probably exaggerated, but the sense is that this series, like the Coronation were ‘must see’ events that made television essential viewing at a time when the medium was attempt to build its audiences.

The show was therefore pivotal both in the development of audiences and in its significance for the industry and it was developed as the BBC’s answer to the campaigns for a commercial competitor, a campaign that resulted in introduction of Independent Television in 1955. As a result, Lez Cooke argues that the series ‘may be seen to mark the moment at which television drama in Britain finally broke free from the shadows of cinema, radio and theatre to offer its first truly original production.’

Even when they were not pivotal to key historical moments of television, horror television is hardly rare and the landscape of television history is littered with classic examples, a brief survey of which would include, Lights Out, Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of 1984, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Out of the Unknown, Night Gallery, Dr Who, Dark Shadows, the BBC Christmas Ghost Stories, Mystery and Imagination, Brian Clemens’ Thriller, The Stone Tape, The Night Stalker, and Duel.

Indeed, in the early years of television in the UK, horror was seen well suited to the new medium and even before The Quatermass Experiment the BBC had been drawn to horror materials and, after World War 11 and the resumption of television broadcasting in the late 1940s, the BBC quickly turned to horror as the basis for many of its single plays. Two plays that are often cited as key examples of what the BBC referred to as ‘horror plays’ were Rope (January 1947) and The Two Mrs Carrolls (February 1947), although these were adaptations of theatrical hits, that would also be the subject of cinematic adaptations at around the same time, Jason Jacobs has demonstrated that the BBC used these horror materials in the hope that they would help the Corporation to establish a ‘new aesthetic’ for television drama that would both create a distinctive feel and exploit features seen as specific to the medium of television. As a result, Jacobs quotes a memo from Robert MacDermot, Head of BBC Television Drama, to Cecil McGiven, Head of Television, in which he suggests that ghost stories might be well suited to television, and could be used to ‘create a very effective eerie atmosphere’. Rather than a situation in which ‘made-for-television horror would seem to be by definition impossible’, the BBC seemed to both hope and fear that the ‘intimate’ quality of television would make it particularly effective as a horror medium.

Of course, this begs the question: if at one time horror was seen as well-suited to television, what changed? Also, can anyone name other examples of the horror plays?

In this blog, I want to start by discussing some of my favourite horror television shows, and some of my pet peeves. These may include some of the titles listed above but they will also include a range of other example: Beasts; Doomwatch; and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. However, while I plan to focus on television, I decided not to limit myself too much, which is why I have included film in the title of this blog. Also, given that not all horror television programming is exclusively or even predominantly identified as horror, I have gone for the slightly more open notion of ‘the fantastic’.

I hope people will get something out of what follows, or at least enjoy it. Oh, and please feel to suggest examples.