Children of the Stones – Paganism, Primitivism and Repetition

Children of the Stones was a horror television series made for children in the mid 1970s, and it is often claimed that people remember it as the most frightening thing that they saw as children in the 1970s. Which begs me to ask: what people were watching? Certainly, if the limits of their experience were Blue Peter (or rather, as this was on ITV, Magpie), this might possibly be true. But anyone who had even the most minor acquaintance with Dr Who during this period would have been used to far more juicy red meat.

Which isn’t to claim that there weren’t pleasure in Children of the Stones. It could be generally creepy and had some nice ideas (see more next week); and most intriguingly, it sits between two great Nigel Kneale classics: one of which it echos; and one of which it prefigures.

The Stone Tape is something that I remember as one of the scariest things that I saw as a kid (by which I mean the scariest television program not even the scariest thing that I saw on television). Like The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones tells a story of ancient stones that endlessly replay the past, a repetition that is dark, malevolent and seemly inescapable. And both have a very strong sense of pagan, pre-Christian powers that seem almost rooted in the landscape – and over which Christianity is mere insubstantial window-dressing.

Actually many of the MR James stories that the BBC used for their Christmas Ghost Stories also featured this sort of thing, too; and it turns up again in Kneale’s weird return to the Quatermass stories in the late 1970s, Quatermass (which featured the old professor on ITV for the first time). This series also features ancients stones, ancient evil and Kneale’s customary questioning of modernity (see my article, ‘An Unidentified Species: Horror, the Body and Early Television Drama’).

In fact, Quatermass even centers its evil on the same kinds of ancient stone circles that feature in Children of the Stones.

Next Week: Children of the Stones – Scary or Baffling?

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Beasts (1976) – Nigel Kneale’s Strange Creatures

I am currently watching Journey into the Unknown, which has only reminded me how wonderful Beasts was. The latter was a one-time-only series of six horror plays, all of which were written by Nigel Kneale, the creator of the Quatermass stories and the Old Testament God of television horror. That fact alone should be recommendation enough but the series was an absolutely corker.

Of the six plays, my least favorite is Special Offer, probably because I am not a big fan of Pauline Quirke, whose weird supermarket employee is the central character. Odd things are happening in a supermarket, and an unseen creature seems to create havoc there, all of which proves fun but not nearly as disturbing as the events in other stories of the series.

Baby is also okay but pales by comparison. It involves a couple who find an odd object built into the fabric of the cottage that they are renovating, an urn containing the dried corpse of a strange unnatural creature. The mixture of pregnancy, witchcraft and domestic breakdown are well developed and genuinely unsettling but, to my mind, it is still not the best of the series.

In the The Dummy, however, the series really excels and it concerns an actor who is so bound up with a horror monster that he has made his name playing, the Dummy of the title, that he becomes possessed by the monstrous creation and suffers a horrifying breakdown. Here, as in the other stronger stories, the focus is on psychological processes and there is a slow but inexorable build-up of tension as we watch the psychological crack up.

However, my three favorite stories in the series are During Barty’s Party, What Big Eyes and Buddyboy. The first is probably the most familiar story but it features a central trick which is quite brilliant. Essentially, the world is taken over by killer rats … in one night! Great. This could have been an absolutely terrific and trashy horror tale, but instead Kneale tells the whole thing through techniques that make the story far more terrifying. First, the entire story is told within one household and with only two characters, as a husband and wife gradually realize the nature and scale of the horror. Secondly, we see nothing and the entire evidence for the horror remains purely aural. In other words, the couple start to suspect something is wrong when they hear odd noises under the floor, noises that become progressively louder and more frequent. Also, their link to the outside world is a radio playing in the background, the show being Barty’s Party, the kind of banal, cheerful nonsense that was typical of BBC radio at the time. The horror is therefore even more shocking for slowly chipping away at not only the couple’s nerves but the radio show’s facade of gaiety.

What Big Eyes is really difficult to describe and also largely revolves around a small number of characters as Michael Kitchen confronts an old man who experimenting with wolves (the wonderful Patrick Magee). Magee’s character believes a weird theory of evolution, which involves lycanthropy, and he is trying to turn himself into a wolf. He also has a devoted daughter who accepts her father’s faith in his own genius, even if he is shunned by others as a madman. Essentially, then, what we have is a fantastic retelling of the old mad scientist story, but with a terrifying psychological realism in which the arrogant over-reacher dominates and demeans his daughter, who willingly takes the humiliation because she believes in his superiority. I must say, having been raised in a Stalinist household, I found this a really moving story but I won’t spoil the end for you, which you will either find absolutely heart-rending or a massive let-down. I found it the former – the let-down is the tragedy … for everyone!

Finally, there is Buddyboy, and this one is going to prove even trickier to describe. Okay so let me get this out of the way right at the start: this episode is about the revengeful ghost of a dolphin. There, I have said it. It is out in the open. So we can push on. Despite what seem like one of the most unlikely, ridiculous, and inescapably campy premises in human history, this is one of the most chilling, moving, weird and wonderful horror plays ever. There, I have said that too, and while anyone who knows me also knows that I am prone to wildly exaggerated claims, I think that few people who watch this will actually disagree with me.

It concerns a sleezy sex-industry entrepreneur (Martin Shaw) who is looking for new properties and decides to take over an old disused aquarium. A vicious parasite who gains a sadistic pleasure from exploiting others, Shaw’s character quickly recognizes that the owner of the old aquarium is terrified of something and he can hardly stop himself from using this knowledge to get one over on the man.

The whole episode is drenched in atmosphere and the slow revelations of people’s viciousness and cruelty are tense and horrific. If the end almost comes as a disappointment, it is due to the extraordinary build-up. For me, this is the standout episode due to its really creepy, eerie tale of suffering and pain.

As you have probably guessed, then, the series is distinguished by two key features. First, the stories all revolve around ‘creatures’ (the unseen force in Special Offer; the strange mummified monster in the wall in Baby; the horror monster that is The Dummy; the rats in During Barty’s Party; the wolves of What Big Eyes; and the dead Dolphin of Buddyboy. However, in all these stories, these ‘creatures’ operate in relation to human beings, and it is these human characters who may be the real ‘Beasts’ that Kneale is concerned with.

Second, the series is also distinguished by a rather odd relationship to horror as a genre. On one level, the stories aim for a resonance that associates it with ‘serious’ drama and yet, at the same time, the series does not exhibit a contempt for, or embarrassment with, horror as a genre. Instead, it seems to embraces generic materials but gives them weird and unexpected treatments, treatments that make no distinction between popular generic entertainment and serious drama. Kneale was clearly trying to break out of certain confines but it is refreshing to find that it is not genre itself that he saw as limiting. In other words, Kneale seems to have been trying to genuinely experiment with the genre, to create something that was both fresh and familiar, serious and entertaining.

But I supposed that I had better get back to Journey into the Unknown.

Strange But True!

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When I posted my first item about a week ago, I had no idea what was coming next. The ideas expressed there were originally developed (in more detail) in the introduction to a special edition of Intensities: A Journal of Cult Media, and in an article on the Quatermass programmes that appeared in the edition. Amazingly, since then, I have heard that both the journal and the special edition have been resurrected from the dead and can now be found at the following locations:

The Journal:

http://intensitiescultmedia.wordpress.com/

The special edition:

http://intensitiescultmedia.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/intensities-the-journal-of-cult-media-4-mysterious-bodies/

Enjoy!

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.