Made-for-Television Horror Films

The made-for-television horror film is an odd object. It gets a fairly dismissive treatment in Greg Waller’s essay on the subject (in his collection American Horrors) where he claims that it is preoccupied with the ‘child-less, married woman, twenty to twenty-five years old, who is before all else identified as a wife’ or the figure of the ‘psychic investigator’. Of course, the latter type is a rather strange one to take issue with as it includes examples like the rather wonderful exploits of figures such as Carl Kolchak, the protagonist of Matheson’s truly wonderful made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker, which most people agree to be a classic (and not just a classic of television horror but of horror more generally)!

The former type is also interesting but in a different way; and is based on an explicit preference for stories that do not ‘overwhelmingly adopt a narrative form based on the personal adventures of an individual protagonist or small group’ and in which ‘the horror is [not] localized, identified as a single incident’. However, this preference is also a gendered response. In other words, this response relies on an established options between the public and the private, in which the public is seen as ‘properly social and political’ while the private is ‘relegated to the realms of “escape”‘, the realms of the ‘localized’ and the ‘individual’. However, as Angela Partington claims, such a distinction is ‘a consequence of the critic’s class and gender-specific notions of’ politics, a notion that is quite at odds, for example, with ‘experience of working-class women’ for whom the social and political are experienced as precisely ‘private and emotional’ and vice versa: the ‘private and emotional’ are therefore deeply social and political.

Furthermore, such a position seems to oddly reject precisely those kinds of narratives that one might see as heirs to a long tradition of female Gothics. Consequently, if Waller is right about its prominence within made-for-television horror film, this category would benefit from a lot more discussion, and I hope to return to this in later entries. However, I am not at all convinced that made-for-television horror films are dominated by such types and, even if they are, there are still a wide range of other types.

The Night Stalker and its sequel, The Night Strangler, were examples of the psychic investigator, as was The Possessed, a rather weird made for television horror film in which James Farentino plays a mysterious figure who wanders the earth confronting evil and finds himself battling dark forces in a girl’s school. However, there was also a series of classic horror adaptations produced by Dan Curtis. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula (again written by Matheson) the terrifically tragic Jack Palance starred as the respective monsters, while The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw were built around other actors.

It should also be remembered that Stephen Spielberg started off in television and that his first film, Duel, was a made-for-television horror film (yet again written by Matheson) that was only given a theatrical release after its reception on television. The film tells the story of an ordinary man who, while traveling across country in his car, is menaced by a mysterious truck.

In short, there is a rich and diverse body of work within the made-for-television horror film. Some examples, such as The Possessed, are preposterous but fun. Others such as Duel or The Night Stalker are acknowledged as classics. And yet others, if Waller is right, represent a prolific, if largely forgotten, body of female Gothics.

Of course, the made-for-television horror film is very different from the made-for-television mini-series which I will discuss on another occasion but is another rich tradition that includes examples such as The Dark Secret of Harvest Home and numerous adaptions of Stephen King novels including Salem’s Lot (twice), It, The Tommyknockers, The Stand and The Shining. But that is for another day.

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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.