The Dead Zone (2002-2007) – There is Life in the King Story Yet

I didn’t know about The Dead Zone (the tv series) until quite recently, when it popped up in my amazon recommended list. Which isn’t always a recommendation. But I was intrigued, if only because it seems to have run for about six seasons and I hadn’t even heard of it. Also I had always been fond of the Cronenberg film version, which was always one of my favorite Cronenberg films: it has an emotional depth that is lacking in many of his yukky (but great) body-hororr classics and in his arty (and okay) later works. Also Christopher Walken’s performance really captured the lonely, doomed awkwardness of the novel’s central character, and the very presence of Herbert Lom, recreating his caring doctor from The Seventh Veil, by way of The Human Jungle, is a pleasure to relish. And unsurprisingly Lom delivers one of the most moving sequences in the film, when, armed with the insight that Johnny has given him, the elderly doctor wrestlies with whether or not to phone his mother that had formerly believed died during a Nazi purge in his childhood.

And of course the novel is one of my favorite Stephen King novel. I even remember (back in the 1980s) passengers on a London tube train slowly moving down to the other end of the carriage as I wept my eyes out while reading the last few pages of the novel.

In the series, however, Johnny Smith is played by Anthony Michael Hall, who is no Christopher Walken, and is best remembered (by me at least) for his role as the nerd in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and as the bad boyfriend in Edward Sissorhands. None of which is very encouraging. He also seems to specialize in one facial expression, a weird raised eyebrow that seems to imply: I am spooky; something weird is happening; I’m confused; I’m attracted to you; you’re going to die; its the end of the world! Almost anything really.

And yet, I actually like both him and the series, which was clearly filmed in Canada – it rains ALL the time. At one point, Johnny has to track down a serial killer who is triggered by rain, which basically means that the maniac is out almost every night. But even the rain-swept locations seem to work, although at one point, when Johnny heads off to NYC for an episode, the Big Apple looks suspiciously like small town America (or rather Canada).

Of course, Cronenberg’s film was also a Canadian effort, so the miserable weather only reminds one of the original film, and those involved in the series have done a quite neat job of littering the first series with stories from the novel, or vaguely recall stories in the novel, although these are padded out with other stories that were written for the series. By the end of series one, Johnny has even had his vision of the future that an evil political hopeful, Greg Stillson (played by Martin Sheen in the original movie), will bring into being, which brings the season to the edge of a nice cliffhanger and gives Johnny a major mission or story arc to take him through the next five season (presumably). After all, Smith dies in his final confrontation with Stillson in the book.

So, all in all, The Dead Zone ain’t half bad. Its sort of charming without being earth shattering, and I am actually quite looking forward to watching series two…

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The 1980s Anthology Show

So, here is a quiz for you. Put the following figures in order of promise, if they were associated with fantasy and horror television shows of the 1980s (and early 1990s): George Romero, Stephen Speilberg and Robert Zemeckis. Who is the most likely to produce the best and who would you expect to produce the worst?

Well, you would probably be wrong.

I am not saying that it is a work of genius but Tales from the Crypt (Zemeckis, 1989-1996) is was a fun show that tried to capture some of the trashy energy of the horror comics of the 1950s, much like the Stephen King collaboration with Romero on Creepshow. Amazing Stories (Speilberg, 1985-1987) is a polished (a little too polished, if you ask me) attempt to do a kind of updated Twilight Zone. It is fun but a little uneven, with several episodes descending into the syrupy nonsense that bedevils many Speilberg efforts – it was also (possibly because of its expensive production values) the shortest lived of the three series, and only ran for two seasons, while Tales from the Crypt ran for seven seasons and Romero’s contribution ran for four seasons.

Finally, Romero’s contribution was Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988), a rather odd effort. It’s not without its charm and it has some decent stories but it also has some stinkers. Many episodes, even though they are only half an hour long (or actually about 20 minutes without the adverts), seem hopelessly padded, the final twist being painfully obvious from the outset and the efforts at its deferment being strained beyond belief. Also, the visual style is beyond dull, with many episodes being stagey, wooden and making one yearn for the visual flair of an Aaron Spelling production.

If these shows confound expectations about their origins, they also demonstrate another interesting feature, which was a strong tendency within the 1980s. While there were numerous made-for-television horror films and mini-series during this period, the television shows that followed the series format were often obsessed with nostalgia. If Tales from the Crypt paid homage to the 1950s horror comics, both Tales from the Darkside and Amazing Stories are clearly attempts to recapture some of the glory of the anthology series of the 1950s and 1960s, shows such as The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone was even remade as series in the period (1985-1989); as was another classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-1989). The Outer Limits was also remade, although this was a decade latter (1995-2002).

So what is going on here? Well, one could related it back to debates over postmodern nostalgia, although this would seem to suggest that this nostalgia was less a ‘cultural condition of late capitalism’ than a more historically specific phenomenon. It could therefore be argued that it was simply an updating of the obsession with the popular culture of the 1950 and 1960s that one finds in the work that King, Romero, Speilberg and Zemeckis had produced back in the 1970s. Furthermore, these shows were produced in a period during which American television was going through rapid and dramatic transformations, and many of these shows were explicitly bound up with these changes. They can therefore be seen as examples of a classic strategy in which people look back to the past as a way of negotiating change.

Next Week: Tales from the Darkside: Wheat and Chaff.

Jericho Part II: Conspiracy, Cult Television and Genre

As season one comes to an end, and Jericho and New Bern finally engage in battle, the conflict is disrupted by the arrival of external military ‘order’. But this army are not the cavalry. As season two starts, it becomes clear that this army is not the United States military but an army that represents a new nation, with a new flag, and a new version of history. Initially, the re-establishment of order looks like a good thing, but Jake and Robert soon start to see problems with this new nation state and start to amass evidence that it is not the re-establishment of the US, but rather represents the very forces that destroyed the US in the first place, forces in which independent defense contractors are central.

Tragically, season three never happened. Season two was only made after immense fan pressure and the makers had to fit the entire season into a seven episodes, which was all the channel would fund, a situation that makes everything a bit rushed. But its better than nothing. Also, the cult status of the show has meant that the narrative has continued in other media, with novels and comics developing the story.

Clearly, then, the show has developed a major cult following (in 2007, TV Guide placed it in 11th place in its list of the Top Cult Shows Ever!) , and this is for many different reasons. Obviously the fantastic cast is a factor, and the wonderful characters that they play. Also the show is done with a sense of authenticity (I am not talking about the realities of nuclear attack here) with a grim vision of a small community struggling in a hostile post-apocalyptic environment. It has also got real emotional resonance, without the treacly qualities of shows such as Falling Skies. Family is important here and the stories are emotional, but the families in this show also have their painful, difficult and complex problems, problems that a bit of ‘quality time’ or a ‘group hug’ won’t solve.

Genre is also interesting here. As has already been indicated, the show treads a careful line generically. It does not deny its generic roots, as is the case with so much ‘quality television these days. The Wire was fond of saying that failure would have resulted in the series becoming a cop show, when that was evidently what it was; even my beloved Deadwood kept claiming that it wasn’t Gunsmoke, in an attempt to disavow its status as a Western. But Jericho also resists the inverse tendency of being too clever and knowing about its generic roots.

Instead, it tells the story with seriousness and commitment. If it has been seen to have traces of the western, and if it also draws heavily on Biblical narratives, the justification for discussing it here in a blog on fantastic television is that it is also clearly associated with science fiction and horror though its post-apocalyptic setting. For example, it concerns a community trying to survive when the technological supports of its society wither or fail, a concern that it shares with films such as Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and novels such as Earth Abides. The same can also be seen in cases such as The Day of the Triffids (the novel and television versions, if not the Howard Keel film version), or even Stephen King’s The Stand, both of which explicitly explore attempts to forge new social patterns in a post-apocalyptic world.

It is in this sense, then, that for all its association with the Western, Biblical Epic and even the Political Thriller, Jericho can also be seen as a contribution to science fiction and/or horror television. But whatever genre you may want to associate it with, this is a fine show that I would recommend in the strongest terms.

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.

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.