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.

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Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Three: Horror Writers, Television and Alternative Definitions of Genre

The presence of Harrison also demonstrates something else. The stories are not, like most Hammer films, references back to the classic Gothics stories of literature or to the Universal horror pictures. There is no Frankenstein, Dracula, Werewolf or Mummy here. Instead, the stories are based on writers such as Cornell Woolrich, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Donald Westlake. Robert Bloch also appears as a screenwriter, even if he is adapting other people’s rather than contributing stories of his own. In this way, the series relates to a version of horror that is often forgotten and includes both the nightmarish thrillers of Woolrich and the stories of Matheson and Beaumont, a version of horror that had been central to television horror until at the least the late 1960s and is probably exemplified by Joan Harrison’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Although often remembered today as a writer of crime thrillers, Woolrich was very much talked about as a horror writer in the 1940s, and he had written several scripts for silent horror films during his time in Hollywood. He is also remembered for his nightmarish tales of psychological breakdown. In fact, many of his protagonists are psychological victims who have lost their memory and find themselves in terrifying worlds that they cannot comprehend.

This is also the central premise of his story for Journey to the Unknown, except that in this case, the protagonist (Stephanie Powers) is not the victim of a knock on the head but a suicide, whose dead body is brought back to life by a scientist. However, although alive, the poor girl has lost her memory, and her previous life is a mystery to her. In many senses, then, it looks like a familiar Woolrich story except that its protagonist is one of the living dead.

Similarly, Matheson, Beaumont and Bloch had all written horror, science fiction and noirish thrillers, which they did not see these as separate categories. Elements that we might associate with one term or another were often blended within their stories, and they even described their stories in ways that we might find surprising today. In his autobiography, for example, Robert Bloch describes his time as part of the Lovecraft circle of writers, when he was writing in the style of Lovecraft; but he does not refer to this writing as horror (with which these kinds of stories are commonly associated today) but as science fiction. Given these stories are concerned with alien monsters that are trying to invade the world, one can see how he could have understood the type of fiction associated with Weird Tales as SF rather than horror.

Westlake is also interesting in this context. Although probably best known for his comic caper thrillers, often featuring the wonderful Dortmunder (God, I love these novels – if you haven’t read a Dortmunder novel, you are really missing something), he has also written a variety of other stuff. In the mid-1980s, he wrote the screenplay for a fantastic slasher film, The Stepfather, which is an absolute classic. He also wrote the famous Parker novels, under the pseudonym of Richard Stark. These are tough, vicious thrillers that were most brilliantly adapted for the screen with Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Boorman. I also recently read Memory, a posthumously published thriller that he wrote back in the 1960s, which is a really wonderful Woolrich-style horror-thriller that is absolutely brilliant. And heartrending.

Anyhow, Journey to the Unknown demonstrates the continuing survival of a 1940s version of horror, just around the time when the first studies of the horror film were coming out and were largely marginalizing or excluding this tradition from what would become the canonical definitions of horror throughout most of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

To be continued: next week – Journey to the Unknown – Part Four: When it Works