Strictly Come Dancing – The Halloween Special

[It’s from last year but what the hell!]

So it is another week when the REF has kept me from more worthwhile pursuits like discussing Tales from the Crypt, or Dead of Night, or the final episode of Dexter, which kept me up half the night – not from fear but from a really heartfelt sense of melancholy. Of course, I won’t say why, and not just because of SPOILERS – when I get the chance, I want to take some time with this series, which has given me so much pleasure over its various seasons. I don’t know about you but, when its on form, I find it really moving…

Okay, moving swiftly on, before someone calls the psych-ward, I thought I would give a moments thought to the fact that it was Halloween this week, and rather than finding myself with Jamie Lee Curtis in the house, a serial killer on the loose outside and a double bill of Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World on the TV, there seemed to be very little Halloween related on the box – except for a Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special.

For those of you who are not privy to the wonders of British Saturday Night Television, Strictly Come Dancing is the show that is called Dancing With the Stars in the US – although the BBC version is the original, which also discovered Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, who are judges on the British version, too.

The Special basically involved the same format as usual, but with Halloween-themed costumes, routines and songs, and judges’ paddles that were shaped like ghosts. Not particularly scary, but with a lot to tell us about horror television.

First, one gets an interesting glance into what is imagined to be the popular perception of the key horror monsters and sub-genres, although, second, we also got a very selective tradition that seemed to largely consist of a version of the Gothic that had been filtered through Tim Burton – even when we get a reference to science-fiction-horror, it was less The Thing from Another World or Creature from the Black Lagoon than a case of Mars Attacks!

Then, there is the question of what happens to horror when it becomes something that can be used to ‘theme’ regular programming, like a Christmas Special. Which of course makes me immediately wish that we had a Johnny Cash Horror or Halloween Special, along the lines of the great man’s Christmas Specials from the 1970s. I can see him singing ‘The Man Comes Around’ on it as clear as day – or night!

And of course that raises the question of horror tastes. Loads of people who claim not to like horror wouldn’t have a problem with this kind of show, while lots of horror fans would hate it. I might like both but largely as an exercise in schizophrenia (in the horror sense of the term – split personality – rather than the clinical sense).

But separating this kind of horror material out from ‘real’ horror seems to simple to me. What it shows us is the complex ways in which horror is part of a common cultural language, on television and in other media, which may produce a variety of different kinds of identification. People may claim to hate horror in one context and yet have no objection to the genre in other contexts or at particular times of year.

Hell, Christmas television is full of material that would be dismissed as wildly inappropriate at other times of the year, but which is given a certain license at yuletide – remember the episode of Beverley Hills 90210 where Steve ran into Santa Claus?!?!

Anyhow, I am now taking votes on the scariest thing in the Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special – there is a lot to choose from!

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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.