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.

Tales from the Darkside: The Wheat and the Chaff II

Anyhow after sorting the chaff from the wheat, we reach the most effective episodes of season one, although I don’t want to over-sell the following episodes. They have some points of interest, but I could recommend quite a few things that you would be better off watching – actually an incredibly long list of things!

“I’ll Give a Million” is a relatively fun episode in which two mean business men make a pact with the devil, literally, when one of them comes up with a brilliant scam for fleecing the other. He offers to buy his friend’s soul for a million dollars, receipt of said item to be taken on death. As he points out, who would turn down a million dollars for something as intangible as a soul, and his victim agrees. But as his health starts to fail, the victim becomes ever more desperate to buy back his soul, and offers more and more for it each time. Unfortunately, the victimizer holds out for too long and his victim dies before he can cash in on his scam – at which point, a ghost appears with the property in question. The upshot is a heart attack, upon which the devil turns up to claim both souls.

“Pain Killer” is a slightly jokey tale of a man whose wife is giving him a pain, literally, and whose doctor (a rather charming Farley Granger) proscribes her murder as the only viable treatment, the murder to be done by a proxy. On her death, the ailment clears up immediately but, when asked to return the favor for another of the doctor’s patients, the man refuses with dreadful consequences.

“The Odds” isn’t really that good except for a wonderful turn by Danny Aiello as a bookie who cheats the fates, while “Slippage” has a great concept and a pretty pitiful execution: a young man gradually disappears as family and friends gradually forgot about him. “Mookie and Pookie” has an interestingly eerie quality, although I couldn’t for the life of me say why; and it concerns a sister whose twin brother dies having left instructions for her about how to finish a computer project on which he has been working, a project that has somehow downloaded his consciousness to his computer.

“The Madness Room” is absolute tosh but, for some reason, I really liked it. I saw everything coming a mile off but somehow the wooden predictability seemed to work here, as though the whole thing was a loving homage, which I don’t think it was. Anyhow, it concerns a couple living in an old house, and he has a weak heart and a best friend who seems a bit over familiar with the wife. When the three of them contact a ghost who resides within the house, the spirit tells them about a room that drives people mad, and obviously, they decide to search of the cursed room … I won’t bore you with the ending, which you have probably largely guessed, but it worked for me as an episode.

However, the two stand out episodes are “The False Prophet and “The Tear Collector”, if only because they are so extraordinarily weird. In the first, Ronee Blakley (a beautiful actress/musician, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Robert Altman’s Nashville, was married to Wim Wenders (1979-1981), worked with Bob Dylan and appeared in Nightmare of Elm Street) plays a woman who lives her life on the guidance of a computer fortune teller. When she encounters the latest version, it seems to fall in love with her but it also encounters competition from a preacher who wants her to live for the moment. The result is somewhere between a high-camp soap-opera and really far-out art project – but it isn’t predictable!

In “The Tear Collector”, a perpetually sad and tearful Jessica Harper runs into an odd but sensitive Victor Garbor, who values her tears and invites her over to his place so that he can watch her cry and collect her tears. Talk about strange fetishes! Anyhow, even more oddly, she thinks that she has found her soul mate and pays regular visits to this metaphysical pervert, until she finds that he is doing the same with a variety of different women (and seems to have been doing it throughout the ages!) Distraught, she break up with him and runs out into the road where she is nearly run over by a taxi, out of which climbs an attractive young man tells her that she has a beautiful smile – the tear collector’s strange attentions seem to have left her all cried out and she is now ready to live a happy life.

Of course, that description doesn’t begin to capture how weird this episode really is. It is almost worth watching the whole of season one just for this one episode … almost.