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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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 …

Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Three: Horror Writers, Television and Alternative Definitions of Genre

The presence of Harrison also demonstrates something else. The stories are not, like most Hammer films, references back to the classic Gothics stories of literature or to the Universal horror pictures. There is no Frankenstein, Dracula, Werewolf or Mummy here. Instead, the stories are based on writers such as Cornell Woolrich, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Donald Westlake. Robert Bloch also appears as a screenwriter, even if he is adapting other people’s rather than contributing stories of his own. In this way, the series relates to a version of horror that is often forgotten and includes both the nightmarish thrillers of Woolrich and the stories of Matheson and Beaumont, a version of horror that had been central to television horror until at the least the late 1960s and is probably exemplified by Joan Harrison’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Although often remembered today as a writer of crime thrillers, Woolrich was very much talked about as a horror writer in the 1940s, and he had written several scripts for silent horror films during his time in Hollywood. He is also remembered for his nightmarish tales of psychological breakdown. In fact, many of his protagonists are psychological victims who have lost their memory and find themselves in terrifying worlds that they cannot comprehend.

This is also the central premise of his story for Journey to the Unknown, except that in this case, the protagonist (Stephanie Powers) is not the victim of a knock on the head but a suicide, whose dead body is brought back to life by a scientist. However, although alive, the poor girl has lost her memory, and her previous life is a mystery to her. In many senses, then, it looks like a familiar Woolrich story except that its protagonist is one of the living dead.

Similarly, Matheson, Beaumont and Bloch had all written horror, science fiction and noirish thrillers, which they did not see these as separate categories. Elements that we might associate with one term or another were often blended within their stories, and they even described their stories in ways that we might find surprising today. In his autobiography, for example, Robert Bloch describes his time as part of the Lovecraft circle of writers, when he was writing in the style of Lovecraft; but he does not refer to this writing as horror (with which these kinds of stories are commonly associated today) but as science fiction. Given these stories are concerned with alien monsters that are trying to invade the world, one can see how he could have understood the type of fiction associated with Weird Tales as SF rather than horror.

Westlake is also interesting in this context. Although probably best known for his comic caper thrillers, often featuring the wonderful Dortmunder (God, I love these novels – if you haven’t read a Dortmunder novel, you are really missing something), he has also written a variety of other stuff. In the mid-1980s, he wrote the screenplay for a fantastic slasher film, The Stepfather, which is an absolute classic. He also wrote the famous Parker novels, under the pseudonym of Richard Stark. These are tough, vicious thrillers that were most brilliantly adapted for the screen with Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Boorman. I also recently read Memory, a posthumously published thriller that he wrote back in the 1960s, which is a really wonderful Woolrich-style horror-thriller that is absolutely brilliant. And heartrending.

Anyhow, Journey to the Unknown demonstrates the continuing survival of a 1940s version of horror, just around the time when the first studies of the horror film were coming out and were largely marginalizing or excluding this tradition from what would become the canonical definitions of horror throughout most of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

To be continued: next week – Journey to the Unknown – Part Four: When it Works