TV REVIEW: “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss”, BBC4, Mondays @9pm

In recent weeks the virtual synapses have been twitching with anticipation at the prospect of the venerable BBC devoting a series of programmes to the celluloid history of our favourite genre. Advance publicity suggested that it looked set to be treated with the seriousness that the subject has long deserved, and, moreover, that the host of the programme was himself a long-time horror fan. I am always wary of pinning hopes on something that’s yet to be, born I think out of a mix of frustration and past experience. Although Mark Gatiss may be a ‘dyed-in-the-blood’ horror fan like the rest of us, he is better known as a comedian and there was always the suspicion that, the latter being so, the producers would insist on playing it for laughs. Add in to that the fact that Halloween is encroaching (another victim to crass commercialisation), and I began to harbour a sinking feeling that it would turn out to be another one of those ‘light-hearted’ looks at funny-looking monsters and witches and ghouls.

My fears, thankfully, were completely unfounded. Mark Gatiss is a completely natural presenter and this first hour-long programme, if anything, spoke more about his heartfelt love of the genre than anything else. He has very much steeped himself in the lore of the horror film, purely motivated by his enjoyment of the thrills it can bring, and that came across very clearly. His take on the first era of horror in Hollywood was a very personal one, yet studied and without seemingly coming across as being unduly biased (with some exceptions, detailed below).

The programmes are split into eras, and the first episode looked at the beginnings of the modern horror film. Note the use of the word modern there – this didn’t touch on anything like the very first experiments in horror cinema, like Vampyr (1932), Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1921). This focused solely on the efforts of the Hollywood studios; I felt maybe that some kind of reference could have been made to the earlier films in order to provide some sort of context, as well as to emphasise that horror, as a cinematic genre, has a history predating the rise of Hollywood. It just appeared to be a slight disservice to those who’d gone before, but ultimately understandable in the context of an hour-long TV programme. Just a personal quibble, I guess.

Also, one has to look at this from a populist point of view, therefore Gatiss concentrated on three actors whose names are inextricably linked to horror cinema, and to some of the best known monsters in both film and literature: Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Each of these actors defined early horror cinema and also bequeathed to us the instantly recognisable images of The Phantom of the Opera (Chaney), Frankenstein (Karloff) and Dracula (Lugosi). I would also say they also helped to mould the image we have of Universal Studios with regard to their genre output in 1930s. The latter two actors are probably better known these days than Chaney, which is a great pity; it would be fair to assert that without all three the genre we love would be in a far poorer state than it is.

Gatiss added considerable depth by filling out the story through the reminiscences of some marvellous interviewees – among them Gloria Stuart, who starred as the female lead in 1932’s The Old Dark House (and who has since passed on at the grand old age of 100), Carla Laemmle (niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle and who also had small parts in The Phantom of the Opera [1925] and Dracula [1931]), Sara Karloff, daughter of the late actor, and English actress Sheila Wynn, who starred opposite Lugosi in the stage revival of Dracula when it toured provincial theatres in 1951.

The programme did range into non-Universal territory, but curiously it didn’t really get into any depth on other creatures such as the Wolfman, the Mummy or the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even given the fact that this was an ‘unashamedly personal’ tribute to horror, the brief mentions they did garner left one with the impression that they didn’t matter. The one studio who did receive more than a cursory glance, however, was RKO, specifically the productions of Val Lewton (Cat People [1942]). John Carpenter (Halloween [1978]), for all his venerability and status within the pantheon of horror demi-gods, irked me greatlywith his assertion that Cat People (and Val Lewton by extension) was wrongly lauded as a great film. I, and many others, consider it a superbly atmospheric piece of film-making, one of those films that rightfully features in the syllabi of film-studies courses as an example of how to build pressure and tension.

As a first episode, this was great stuff – it’s been a while since I sat transfixed watching a TV programme. Plus, I was pleased that Gatiss also saw fit to mention, in a little depth, one of THE most disturbing horror films of the pre-Hays Code period: Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks. It truly is a grotesque film, but not because of the people used as actors in it: what’s horrific are the attitudes of the humans, both on-screen and off. Gatiss pointed out that the circus members were treated sympathetically in the first two thirds of the film, and then, when the scheming (‘normal’) woman is discovered to have deceived one of the midgets in order to get hold of his fortune, all the prejudices that ‘normal’ society (ie contemporary cinema-goers) held against these unfortunates was given full rein. F. Scott-Fitzgeral was said to have thrown up after seeing a conjoined twin in the studio canteen. It IS a nasty film, but in ways that original the audiences would never have suspected.

Nevertheless, it’s more than a promising start to this three-part series. Next week, Mark Gatiss looks at another studio synonymous with horror films: Hammer. Looking forward immensely to it!!


4 Responses to “TV REVIEW: “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss”, BBC4, Mondays @9pm”

  1. Agreed, a brilliant programme. The only downside is, I didn’t realise they’d only made three! Looking forward to the next already though.

    The slipping away of Bela Lugosi’s career was very sad and poignant. I’d be interested in reading up on him at some point.

    I did find myself thinking of Nosferatu afterwards, too. But as you say, only so much you can cover in an hour.

  2. Gatiss is all over the BBC these days, but his particular brand of adolescent posturing does us no favours:

  3. I would agree with that up to a point – but I think the key here is that he has stated quite categorically that it is an unashamedly personal history og horror, and such that implies a weighting towards his own involvement and love for the genre. I have always understood the programmes to be on that level, and I would be the last to consider it an insightful ‘critical analysis’ of horror cinema. However, I do see it as a useful jumping off point for further exploration of the ideas and themes he talks about.

    For my part, I am enjoying the series – furthermore, I am grateful that the subject has been treated with at least some seriousness in the most mainstream of TV channels – that is at least a start.

  4. Universal Studios is still one of the best film studios and you can also visit their offices :

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