Christmas Shopping Horrors

Sorry, I have been so erratic lately but, once the REF was gone, Christmas appeared right around the corner! However, despite its stresses and strains, this year’s season of good-tidings has proved fascinating, horror-wise.

I’m not saying that I am now cool or anything, but, Great God, kids have changed. This year, when I asked friends and family what their kids wanted for Christmas, the responses that I got were repeatedly about things that harked back to my own (and once unpopular) fannish enthusiasms.

Most kids today, it seems, are into The Hunger Games, which looks pretty much like 1970s exploitation films (and their more mainstream Hollywood companions). In a futuristic world, kids are forced to battle it out TO THE DEATH as part of some evil, mass-mediated form of social control. It is part Death Race 2000, part Rollerball, part … well, part quite a lot of 1970s dystopian science fiction/horror.

In addition, many kids also seem to be into material that one friend summed up quite nicely with the phrase, ‘Gothic light’. For some of you, this term might summon up the terrible vision of Twilight, and certainly my niece, who is around ten says that this is her favorite book. However, not only is Twilight subject to quite unfair and completely contradictory criticisms (see my article and other pieces in a new collection on the subject) but there is a lot more to ‘Gothic light’, which sort of puts Twillight in a quite different light.

I had wanted to get one kid a copy of Eerie, Indiana, but it turns out that the show might be a bit old fashioned for them. Although, it turns out that my niece is really eager to watch Buffy, which is now back in vogue. Fantastic! Her favorite television show is also something called Wolfblood, which has completely passed me by and which I need to obviously check out.

But of course Christmas shopping was never going to be easy and, while the kids might love this stuff, their parents are, predictably, worried about it. The appeal to many kids is that these books, films and television series seem fascinatingly adult (for someone between eight and twelve) but that is precisely their problem for many parents.

I had thought about getting Warm Bodies, a wonderfully sweet, witty zombie/romance, with a killer performance by John Malkovich, but apparently the thought of a post-apocalyse zombie wasteland, however much it might be redeemed by love, might prove traumatizing to kids… Damn!

So, the encouragement was to go, instead, with something more appropriate to kids: Snow White and the Huntsman. This might have the star of the dreaded Twilight (who was once known as a fascinating androgenous child actor), and it may actually be darker and scarier, in my humble opinion, than Warm Bodies, but its based (however loosely) on a fairy tale and is therefore more appropriate for kids … apparently.

Of course, I would have thought that any child with half a brain cell would really want Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, if they knew anything about it, but if parents are going to object to Warm Bodies, they are never going to get over this joyous, endearing comic spatterfest – although what child could resist the charms of Tucker or Dale … I know that I can’t.

Ah well, maybe another Christmas.

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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 …

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.

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.