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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British Actors and Horror

Love this trailer, particularly the bit where Lionel Atwill tells the heroine that he has always found ‘in his experience’ that the female of the species is more responsive to electrical impulses than the male – which of course prompts the question: experience of what?

Anyhow, the relevance of this is that I’m taking a break this week – too many deadlines coming at me all at once. But I thought I should share something, so here is news of a recent article of mine that people might want to check out … or not! Of course, Lionel is only a minor player in this piece, which largely concentrates on Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price.

It’s About Time British Actors Kicked Against these Roles in “Horror” Films’: Horror stars, psychological films and the tyranny of the Old World in classical horror cinema

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

Volume 33, Issue 2, 2013

pages 214-233

This article is an examination of the ways in which Englishness was associated with horror long before the success of Hammer, the British studio that in the late 1950s and 1960s became synonymous with a particularly English version of Gothic cinema. During the 1930s and 1940s, many key horror stars were English or signified Englishness; and the article explores the ways in which this was due to a preoccupation with themes of psychological dominance and dependence during the period. In other words, the threat of psychological dominance and dependence that preoccupied horror films meant that the horror villain was often associated with the spectre of old-world despotism in relation to which the United States defined itself as a rejection. Furthermore, these psychological themes also demonstrate that, during this period, the horror film either included, or was intimately related to, the gangster film and spy thriller so that most horror stars played a range of horror villains, gangsters and spies. However, rather than focusing of figures such as Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Lionel Atwill or George Zucco (the British actors most commonly associated with the horror film during this period), the article will concentrate on a series of actors closely associated with horror in the period, but who are not necessarily remembered in this way today—Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price—stars who demonstrate the ways in which psychological themes not only connected the horror villain, gangster and spy but were also related to the spectre of old-world despotism.

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

Algernon Blackwood (1936) – a host of fears

As my dear friend, Derek Johnston, is fond of reminding me, the first night of scheduled television in the UK ended with a couple of ghost stories told by Algernon Blackwood. Also, as Derek usually adds, this choice by the BBC drew on formats familiar in their radio service. Like Lights Out, then, this event illustrates the ways in which, in its early years, television horror initially drew on models from radio, rather than cinema. Nor was this transmission a one-off event, and Blackwood appeared on television for a number of years afterward, where his recital of horror stories became a regular feature of the schedules. So much so, that the BBC continued the format in later years, when Lord Dunsany followed Blackwood as a horror narrator.

However, there are also other aspects of these shows that are worth commenting upon. The format draws on the tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition that is used in a range of different types of television programming (Jackanory, the News, etc.) but seems to have acquired a particular significance in relation to horror. Television horror has used the figure of the narrator as a frame for its horror tales in a way that is very rare in cinematic horror. The use of John Houseman at the start of John Carpenter’s The Fog is one of only a handful of cinematic examples, but given Houseman’s was a close collaborator with Orson Welles, the fact that he is telling a ghost story to a group of children huddled around a campfire, and that the film’s central character runs a radio station, which she uses to hold a community together in the face of vast supernatural forces, this opening may be highly suggestive in ways that should become clear later.

First, while this technique is rare in cinematic horror, radio horror was fond of this convention, as can be seen in the case of ‘the Man in Black’ from Appointment with Fear and later The Man in Black, but also in a range of other examples (see Richard Hand’s Terror on the Air!). Similarly, it is a major feature in television horror: Alfred Hitchcock Presents used the great director as a host, who book-ended the stories with his macabre wit; Thriller employed the figure of Boris Karloff in a similar way; The Twilight Zone featured Rod Serling; Great Mysteries had Orson Welles; The Night Stalker and The Norliss Tapes both had fictional characters narrate their stories (the former was told by Carl Kolchak while the latter were supposed to be the taped files of David Norliss, although it never developed into the series that it appears to have been designed to become); Night Gallery was (again) hosted by Rod Serling; Tales of the Unexpected was, at least initially, introduced by Roald Dahl; Tales from the Darkside had an unnamed narrator; and Tales from the Crypt had the crypt-keeper. Even the screenings of horror films on television have a long history of being introduced by horror hosts, a practice that dates back to 1957 when ‘Shock Theater’ showed a series of Universal horror films on television that were often hosted by figures such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’.

One function of these horror hosts is that they were able to create a sense of consistency across different stories. Without Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions, Alfred Hitchcock Presents would not have been a show but simply a series of individual plays. In this way, these hosts also work as a kind of guarentor or brand that can encourages trust and a sense that people know what to expect.

On another level, they operate to set the tone, to generate a sense of anticipation by hinting at the horrors to come, or a sense of light-heartedness that encourages viewers not to take things to seriously or even overtly ridicule what they are about to watch- horror hosts such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’ established an overtly camp relationship to the films that they introduced; and both Hitchcock and Karloff established a sense that the macabre stories that they introduced were meant to establish a playful relationship with their audience and did not simply pander to unhealthy tastes.

To some extent, then, the figure of the narrator in television horror works to illegitimate the horror story and another way in which it seeks to do so is by relating the horror tale to a tradition of oral storytelling. Rather than simply gruesome stories, the shows are aligned with more comfortable notions of the traditional bedtime story: Blackwood’s stories were read just before the end of transmission as a way of signalling the close-down and sending everyone off to bed. But they were also reminiscent of the fireside story and particularly the horror stories traditionally told to children around camp fires on dark nights – which is explicitly what Houseman is doing at the opening of Carpenter’s The Fog.

These associations are interesting in other ways. First, they relate the narration not simply with oral traditions but traditions associated with childhood; and, second, they associate such acts of storytelling narration with special events that occurs outside of normal, everyday life. The bedtime story is a transitional tale that takes the child from the world of everyday life to the world of sleep and dreams; and while the fireside story takes place within the domestic interior, the campfire story takes place at a time outside normal everyday schedules (normally a holiday period) when the child can stay up late and when the child is often away at camp. Sleepovers are also commonly associated with the oral telling of frightening tales, and again it is often seen as special occasions when do not have to return to their respective homes at the end of the day, as would normally be the case, but when they can stay together and stay up late,

But the horror host does more than simply associate these stories with oral storytelling. The common description of them as hosts is also significant. Television horror is often seen as inappropriate to the home, and the uncanny literally means unfamiliar and its Freudian use is drawn from Freud’s ‘unheimliche’ or unhomely. But there are questions about why anyone would let the uncanny into our homes (television commonly being seen as a primarily domestic medium). One answer may be in the term ‘host’, a host being someone who often welcomes you into their home. In other words, the host may work to mediate between the world of domestic security and the world of unsettling horror. Rather than audiences welcoming horror into the domestic, the host takes them out of their domestic existences and welcomes them into the world of horror.

Much has been written about the television as a technology that mediates between the home and the world beyond it, either enabling people to stay inside while remaining aware of the world outside, or enabling people to travel without leaving the comfort of their living rooms. The horror host captures something of this quality, acting as a conduit between the domestic interior and the world outside. But such a conduit does not simply keep things separate but always puts them in play with one another. Sometimes this is felt as pleasurable escape from routines of domestic life, sometime a threatening blurring of the line between the two worlds, and sometimes as calling the distinctions between the two into question: as Alfred Hitchcock is famously quoted as saying,’One of television’s great contributions is that it brought murder back into the home, where it belongs.’

Lights Out (1946-1952) – Radio to TV

If you like stuff like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, you should check out Lights Out. It was a TV show that ran from 1946-1952 and featured the kind of weird stories and situations that would make those later shows famous. It also illustrates one of the key issues about television at the time. Although many critics today see television horror as a poor relation to cinematic horror, Lights Out was an adaptation of a radio horror show that had started in the 1930s. The radio show was hugely popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s and, after 1936, it was associated with the figure of Arch Oboler, an outspoken anti-fascist who was fond of social and political themes.

Also, during this period, it was radio, rather than cinema, that was the mass medium, and horror was one of its key genres at the time. For example, if one looks at the radio output of Orson Welles during the late 1930s, it is striking how many of the stories that he adapted were clearly associated with Gothic horror. Furthermore, he not only decided to make Dracula the first radio production of his Mercury Theater radio show, but his infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was clearly intended as a horror story and was broadcast on Halloween. Welles had even built up a major reputation on radio as the voice of The Shadow, a radio superhero with mystic powers and an emphatic association with horror. (For more on Welles, radio and horror, see my article, Shadows and Bogeymen: Horror, Stylization and the Critical Reception of Orson Welles during the 1940s.)

Consequently, the kinds of horror that one finds in Lights Out are very different from those associated with cinematic horror at the time. Indeed, 1946, when Lights Out started on TV, was precisely the point at which the cinematic horror cycle of the 1940s went into decline before the resurrection of horror in the 1950s, with the SF-horror films that followed The Thing from Another World (1951). (It fact, it is interesting that Lights Out had already been playing with the relationship between horror and science fiction on the television well before 1951.)

Lights Out did not focus on monsters, or on Gothic villainy, but rather on the weird and uncanny. In The Dark Image, for example, a wife is menaced by a mirror that was the property of her husband’s former lover. Initially oppressed by its presence, she eventually finds herself trapped on the other side of the glass, her rival having taken her place in our world. Furthermore, the process of her entrapment in the mirror is fascinatingly visualized, and requires one to rethink the common claim that television is somehow less visual than cinema and is therefore a problematic medium for horror.

The sequence is highly visual and uses trick photography to convey the notions of doubling, transference and entrapment, but it does not do so in a literal way. It does not aim for verisimilitude but for something more suggestive or metaphorical. In other words, it demonstrates that, even in the late 1940s and early 1950s, television was clearly a visual medium, and that it was experimenting with visual techniques of story-telling, even if it sometimes visualized things in terms that were different to those common in the cinema.

It is no surprise then that Rod Serling claimed to have been inspired by Oboler and by shows like Lights Out. Of course, you shouldn’t expect the kinds of production values on which Serling was able to count a decade later but, as a fun-filled glimpse into an imaginative and experimental period of television horror, Lights Out has much to offer.