Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special Part II: Let’s Do the Timewarp Again, If You Insist!

So, last week I noted that one of the interesting things about Strictly‘s Halloween night special was its sense of the key horror monsters and sub-genres, but it seems that I didn’t elaborate enough. So, let me be a bit clearer.

If this year was all very ‘Tim Burton’, the central feature is less about the director of Edward Sissorhands (and mate of David Cameron), but rather about a version of the Gothic that brings together the classic Universal monsters with fairy-tales and folklore.

As a result, there isn’t much Jigsaw (from Saw) or Freddie (from Nightmare on Elm Street) or Jason (from Friday the 13th) or even Michael Myers (from Halloween). In fact, there was a marked absence of serial killers altogether. Not even Norman Bates or Hannibal Lector get a look in.

Instead, Frankenstein’s monster was on hand to usher the dancers off stage, but Leatherface was nowhere to be seen.

Similarly, while last year was relatively free of the Tim Burton touches, it relied on the same conception. There was a Scooby Doo dance routine, and an mad scientist number. The classics were also evoked through a performance that featured circus freaks, and another with a hint of vampirism. Even when series winner, Louis Smith, gave us a zombie dance, it was less Night of the Living Dead and more the return of the Graveyard Ghoul. In other words, his zombie was a monster that was more closely associated with folklore than cinema. It is therefore striking that other routines also included another corpse-bride-type ghoul, a sinister warlock and a rather sexy Little Red Riding Hood, featuring Girls Aloud’s Kimberley Walsh simultaneously attracting and rebuffing a sexually predatory wolf – or at least that was my reading of what was going on…

Nor were things so different this year. The association with black magic and zombies cropped up again in a voodoo-themed dance, while there was an absolutely baffling (to me) number involving scarecrows (okay so there are a few horror stories involving scary scarecrows, but these scarecrows were hardly scary and I wouldn’t say that the scarecrow had a particularly strong association with horror or Halloween … maybe its just me).

There was a female vampire from Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and a rather fabulous ‘lady from the lake’ routine, in which the clothing was suggestive of ghosts and/or the walking dead, but that was about it. In another dance sequence, ghostly, cobweb-covered portraits became animated, which is always nice, and we got yet more cases of graveyard dead. There was Dave Myers from the Hairy Bikers doing the Monster Mash in make up that made him look like Michael Keaton from Beetlejuice; and another Tim Burton film was referenced in a routine that drew heavily on Mars Attacks! But as so often happens most of the references in the other routines went straight over my head. Quite what the shirtless rugby player had to do with Halloween completely escaped me.  But then, just when we were feeling a bit confused, Susanna from the Breakfast News was chased by a werewolf, just to reassure us that we knew where we were again.

And of course everything is done with a sense of campy dress up which is less Tim Burton and more Rocky Horror.

True Blood – Surely Sex and Violence Shouldn’t Be This Boring?

True Blood has been a phenomenal success. It has been going for five seasons; I keep reading about it as a classic example of quality television; and people are repeatedly telling how good it is. My friend, Brigid Cherry, has even edited an academic book on the subject. (Note to self: given the quality of Brigid’s work, I should probably read this, despite what I am about to say).

The problem is that I really don’t ‘get’ this show. I watched the first series, and I really had to force myself to through it; it wasn’t a pleasure; it was more like pulling teeth. I had heard so much about how good it was that I felt obliged to give it a try; but, seriously, it was painful. The characters really grated; the plot seem to meander about all over the place; but most unforgivably the sex and violence were just boring.

It was as if, having secured a deal with HBO, the program makers just went a bit loopy. Brett Mills once (brilliantly in my opinion) described watching The Dark Knight as like having someone shout ‘look at how profound I am being’ for two and a half hours! True Blood felt like the program makers were shouting ‘look what we can get away with on cable’, which sought of destroyed any tension or shock or thrill. Surely sex and violence shouldn’t be this boring!

On another level, the sweet seductions of vampirism with its sensual appeals seem to be reduced to the hit of crack or a kinky one night stand. Neither of which look very enticing – just a bit sleazy. God, maybe I am getting old but it just doesn’t seem to be any fun any more. But, then again, maybe its not me. I am not singing the praises of The Vampire Diaries, and should really write a entry on the show, which certainly has numerous irritations; but, frankly, I would rather curl up with a box set of this bunch of whining teenagers than spend more time with the inhabitant of Bon Temps (which is as far from a good time as I care to get).

I keep seeing endlessly comparisons between True Blood and the Twilight saga, comparisons in which Twilight is not only a bit of a straw man but critics even seem a little unfair to Twilight. It is like claiming that Night of the Living Dead is more gory than Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein: it is a meaningless comparison and both of these films are more fun than True Blood (and Twilight).

If you really want a slice of Southern Gothic (another irritating attempt to avoid the horror label), you would be much better off with the Sonja Blue novels by Nancy A. Collins, particularly Tempter. But of course they haven’t made a television series out of those novels – and that would really test the ‘freedom’ of cable.

The Walking Dead – the Clue is in the Title!

I have just finished watching the end of season three of The Walking Dead and I remain a little mystified. Its alright – quite diverting really – but it has had enormous viewing figures in the US given that it is shown on a premium channel, a situation which I simply can’t fathom. It’s not bad. As I say, it’s quite diverting, but it’s also strangely static. Certainly, there is action but it often lacks any sense of narrative drive.

In the first season, Rick wakes up in hospital to find the world has been over-run by zombies and he sets out to find his family. But this potential quest does not organize the show, so he finds them pretty sharpish. His family are with a group of survivors that are camped outside a major city and, for some reason, a lot season one seems to be spent going back and forth between the camp and the city. Stasis. The group then hit the road (although its not clear why) and find a high security lab, where the horrible truth is explained to them. And then, they head out the road again … and again, without much sense of a quest.

In season two, they hang around on a farm for a while.

In season three, they find a prison, move in and then have some disagreements with the neighbors over in Woodbury.

To be fair, I am still watching it, which is more than can be said for True Blood, but any discussion of the latter show will have to wait for another time.

Lots of people claim to love how dark and morally ambiguous The Walking Dead is. Who should we really fear – the zombies or other humans? But that is hardly shatteringly original – it is actually central to Night of the Living Dead. Also, the show is actually not that bleak. The lead characters are hugely sentimental, particularly about babies and young children (even if Rick’s son may be turning into a merciless killer – oh, yes, please!) Not that I mind sentiment, but the characters seem to spend a lot more time worrying about interpersonal relationships – has my wife run off with another man; whose child is she carrying; is the father of the child a psychotic killer? – than they do about the zombie apocalypse knocking at the door.

If you really want to see bleak, see Frank Darabont’s fantastic movie, The Mist, which the series resembles in many ways. (Darabont was the creator of The Walking Dead but was booted off the show sometime during season two.) However, The Mist is far darker and far more frightening and far more tightly constructed.

What I am trying to say, and struggling with, is that The Walking Dead is much more like a soap opera than a story about a zombie apocalypse – again, I have nothing against soap operas (and not in the sense that some of my best friends are soap operas) but the zombie terror often feels to be simply a minor inconvenience within the narrative, or a backdrop against which other issues dominate, or an occasional interruption to the proceedings.

Even the violent carnage, when it does arrive, feels very odd. It is properly violent, with blood and brain splatter aplenty, but somehow none of it feels very horrifying or shocking. Certainly, there are great moments: in one episode Andrea is tied up in a room, where a close friend is slowly dying and will therefore soon become a zombie and try to eat her, and this sequence is simultaneously horrifying and heart-rending. But most of the time, as Rick and others shoot, stab and slice their way through armies of zombies, or are turned into hamburger by hordes of the shambling undead, the gore seems to lack resonance.

None the less, it is great to see Gale Anne Hurd back to what she does best. I worship this woman, but she hasn’t done anything worthy of her in ages. This is the woman who co-wrote The Terminator, produced Aliens and not only produced The Abyss but was the inspiration for its fabulous heroine. James Cameron has, in my less than humble opinion, never done anything as good as when he was married to her. She was the one that kept his ambitions in check and gave his films a real sense of authenticity and (dare I say it) economy. Even The Abyss, a massively over-ambitious project, with an ending that tries hard but fails to work, looks like a model of restraint when compared to Cameron’s later work. Don’t get me wrong – I love Terminator 2: Judgement Day – but it is already loosing the raw, exploitation origins of his greatest work, or rather the work that he made in partnership with Gale Anne Hurd.

It is also fun to see Andrew Lincoln in the role of Rick. Really? The actor who played Egg in This Life as a tough American policeman? Really? Wasn’t Egg the wettest of a group of rather wet twenty-somethings. Even more strangely, he’s actually alright in the new role.

However, my favorite moment in the show is  towards the end of the third season, where Andrea decides to leave Woodbury and travel to the Prison, a journey that seems to take quite a time when people travel it by car. However, not only does the distance seem to shrink when Andrea does it on foot but she finally works out how to cope with the zombies, a discovery that no one before or since has thought of. She runs. Or rather she gently jogs, and the walking dead (as I said, the clue is in the title) can’t catch her. It is only when she stops to hide from some humans that are hunting for her that she is attacked by zombies. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to learn from her experience, or pass the news on to anyone else, so I guess that, by season four, most of the cast won’t have the benefit of this brilliant technique for staying alive.

Ah well, there are more pressing problems, like finding formula for the baby and making sure that you spend quality time with the kid, so that he doesn’t go around shooting the innocent and defenseless.

Next Week: Falling Skies: Paedophiles from Outer Space