Dan Curtis

Dan Curtis has had a wonderful and diverse career but it is as a producer of made-for-television horror films that I most admire him. While working as executive producer for Dark Shadows, he produced his first made-for-television horror film, an adaptation of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968) starring Jack Palance. In 1970 and 1971 respectively, he then made two film versions of Dark Shadows, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, after which he returned to television with the fabulous made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker (1972).

These various examples represent the key features of Curtis’s productions. If Dark Shadows was Gothic and campy, Curtis’s later productions can largely be divided into two key types. On the one hand, there were a series of Gothic adaptations, along the lines of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and on the other were a series of films in which classic monsters (vampires, werewolves, etc.) prowl the twilight zones of contemporary America. If the first type usually sought to evoke a sense of literary prestige, restraint and respectability, the second were less restrained and often humorous or campy.

Following The Night Stalker, Curtis made a rare excursion into the female Gothic with The Invasion of Carol Enders, in which a young woman is possessed by the spirit of a murder victim; but soon returned to type with a sequel to The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, a film that borrowed heavily from horror classics such as The Man in Half Moon Street (1945: which was later remade by Hammer as The Man Who Could Cheat Death, 1959), and featured a man preys upon the living to prolong his own life.

The success of these productions lead to The Norliss Tapes, which seems to have been designed as the pilot for a television series that was never made (unfortunately), and featured Roy Thinnes (from The Invaders) as an investigator into weird paranormal cults. Certainly there are preposterous things the movie but Thinnes has a wonderful presence and the device of telling the story through taped recording that he has made and are the only clue to his ‘disappearance’ helps create a real sense of atmosphere, mystery and menace.

An adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray followed as did another modern day horror story, Scream of the Wolf, and adaptations of both Dracula and The Turn of the Screw. But by the late 1970s, Curtis was beginning to diversify his made-for-television horror productions. Both Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night were anthologies that featured several different stories but Curse of the Black Widow was yet another monster on the loose in contemporary America.

However, by the early 1980s, Curtis had moved into the production of prestigious historical mini-series such as The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, although he would also receive credits when Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker were briefly revived on television.

However, it is for his productions of the late 1960s and 1970s that he will be best remembered and it is an impressive body of work. Although the films associated with Richard Matheson, who wrote many of his made for television films, are the most respected examples, some of his other films have their own pleasures. I have a particular fondness for Curse of the Black Widow, which has a kind of weird, batty charm – hey, it stars Patty Duke (Neely O’Hara from Valley of the Dolls) and Donna Mills (Abby from Knot’s Landing) as rival sisters, one of whom also finds that she is cursed to become a killer spider at regular intervals! The question is: which one? The other question is of course: how can you resist such a premise? I know that I can’t.

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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.

Murder, She Wrote (1984) – No Really!

I know that it surprises people, but I have always been a sucker for Murder, She Wrote. There is something that I find compulsively comforting about the show.

Of course, some people will object that it’s not horror and, while I would concede that it’s not exactly fantastic, except in the sense that it is fabulous, the show was closely related to horror from the first, if only through its association with a version of horror that we have tended to forget. In the 1940s, when Angela Lansbury became a star (Angela plays the show’s amateur detective, Jessica Fletcher), the horror genre clearly included murder mysteries so that the Sherlock Holmes series (with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) was understood as a horror series, and even Rene Clair’s film version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was explicitly seen as a horror film: it was even given its New York City premiere on Halloween.

As if to illustrate the point, the first episode of Murder, She Wrote starts with what appears to be a staple of the 1940s horror film, the Gothic (or paranoid) paranoid woman’s film. The episode opens with a young woman in a nightgown who is cautiously climbing the staircase of an old house while carrying a candlestick, a woman who is suddenly surprised by an axe-welding man at the top of the stairs. Of course, it is then revealed that we are actually watching the rehearsal of a play, the mystery of which Jessica has already solved (she is has gained admission to the rehearsal for reasons that now escape me).

Furthermore, in this first episode, Jessica is writing the novel that will make her famous as a mystery writer, a book whose title also emphasizes that the series is making no distinction between the detective story and the horror story. Her novel is called, The Corpse Danced at Midnight, and when she goes to Hollywood later in the season to complain about a film producer’s adaptation of her novel, she does not object that it is being turned into a horror film, but into an ‘low-budget’ horror film that is directed at teenagers.

All of which should be unsurprising, given the casting of Angela Lansbury, a fascinating actress with a long and illustrious association with horror. Her breakthrough was in the now classic 1940s horror film, Gaslight, in which Ingrid Bergman is tormented by her completely bonkers husband, Charles Boyer. Although she was only seventeen at the time, and this was her first film role, she was nominated for an Oscar in the role; and was quickly cast in another horror film the following year, MGM’s hugely expensive film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Many of her most famous film roles have similarly played on this association with horror and she was brilliantly cast as the evil mother in The Manchurian Candidate. This is a really chilling portrayal in a film that is as much a horror story as is a political thriller; it was after all made in 1962 only two years after another film about a young man who is psychologically dominated by his mother – Norman Bates in Psycho.

Furthermore, for reasons that I can’t even begin to speculate on, she has repeatedly been associated with horrific materials in child-related films (or films that were not always children’s films but played with the association between horror, children and fairy tales). She played a friendly witch in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the singing teapot (Mrs. Potts) in Beauty and the Beast, and also appeared in another story of witchery and childcare, Nanny McPhee. In a more adult context, she also played a rather sinister grandmother/storyteller in The Company of Wolves.

Even on the stage, where she became a major icon of the Broadway musical, she gave a celebrated performance as Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the recent film version of which had Helena Bonham Carter in Angela Lansbury role.

Of course, I won’t try to persuade you that Murder, She Wrote is awesome – you will have to form your own opinions about that – but I love it. But Angela Lansbury is a different matter. If you haven’t discovered how awesome she is, you really need to do some research!