Dan Curtis

Dan Curtis has had a wonderful and diverse career but it is as a producer of made-for-television horror films that I most admire him. While working as executive producer for Dark Shadows, he produced his first made-for-television horror film, an adaptation of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968) starring Jack Palance. In 1970 and 1971 respectively, he then made two film versions of Dark Shadows, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, after which he returned to television with the fabulous made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker (1972).

These various examples represent the key features of Curtis’s productions. If Dark Shadows was Gothic and campy, Curtis’s later productions can largely be divided into two key types. On the one hand, there were a series of Gothic adaptations, along the lines of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and on the other were a series of films in which classic monsters (vampires, werewolves, etc.) prowl the twilight zones of contemporary America. If the first type usually sought to evoke a sense of literary prestige, restraint and respectability, the second were less restrained and often humorous or campy.

Following The Night Stalker, Curtis made a rare excursion into the female Gothic with The Invasion of Carol Enders, in which a young woman is possessed by the spirit of a murder victim; but soon returned to type with a sequel to The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, a film that borrowed heavily from horror classics such as The Man in Half Moon Street (1945: which was later remade by Hammer as The Man Who Could Cheat Death, 1959), and featured a man preys upon the living to prolong his own life.

The success of these productions lead to The Norliss Tapes, which seems to have been designed as the pilot for a television series that was never made (unfortunately), and featured Roy Thinnes (from The Invaders) as an investigator into weird paranormal cults. Certainly there are preposterous things the movie but Thinnes has a wonderful presence and the device of telling the story through taped recording that he has made and are the only clue to his ‘disappearance’ helps create a real sense of atmosphere, mystery and menace.

An adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray followed as did another modern day horror story, Scream of the Wolf, and adaptations of both Dracula and The Turn of the Screw. But by the late 1970s, Curtis was beginning to diversify his made-for-television horror productions. Both Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night were anthologies that featured several different stories but Curse of the Black Widow was yet another monster on the loose in contemporary America.

However, by the early 1980s, Curtis had moved into the production of prestigious historical mini-series such as The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, although he would also receive credits when Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker were briefly revived on television.

However, it is for his productions of the late 1960s and 1970s that he will be best remembered and it is an impressive body of work. Although the films associated with Richard Matheson, who wrote many of his made for television films, are the most respected examples, some of his other films have their own pleasures. I have a particular fondness for Curse of the Black Widow, which has a kind of weird, batty charm – hey, it stars Patty Duke (Neely O’Hara from Valley of the Dolls) and Donna Mills (Abby from Knot’s Landing) as rival sisters, one of whom also finds that she is cursed to become a killer spider at regular intervals! The question is: which one? The other question is of course: how can you resist such a premise? I know that I can’t.

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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.