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.

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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.

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.