TV REVIEW: “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss: ep #3”, BBC4, Mondays @9pm

Out of the three episodes, I was least fussed about seeing this one, as I’m not a particularly a fan of ‘modern’ horror films (although, as always, there are notable exceptions). If it had been broadcast a couple of years back, then the story would have been the opposite. Not so long ago, I loved all the slasher movies, the gory bloodbath films and the viscerally bloody cinematic spectacles that both the independents and Hollywood were dishing out. However, these days I am much more at home with the older, more suggestive movies, the ones where imagination plays as much a part of experience as anything that’s actually put on screen (and the reason why my tastes have changed is for another blog).

However, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It did show clips from a few particular ‘modern’ favourites of mine, like The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead, but even these are less reliant on viscerality than they are on implication and psychological horror. The same goes for David Cronenburg’s films, also discussed. Although his films are wetly disgusting, they still have an intellectual underpinning that elevates them above mere superficial gory viewing fare, an aspect that was well brought out by Gatiss.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, is where this episode started, as it helped to redefine the thinking of film-makers in the wake of its release – it was still a big studio production, though, with adequate financing to help it along. However, it also paved the way for the advent of the modern horror-shocker as we know today. Gatiss rightly then points to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as the film, a thoroughly and unashamedly independent production, that truly encouraged imaginative film-makers to push things further and also make the point that you didn’t necessarily require a big budget to create something special. It also strongly emphasised that you didn’t need to be part of the studio system in order to make films that a) had impact and b) made money – all it required was creativity, imagination and ingenuity.

Fim-making is very different today – CGI has democratised the industry in such a way that the ingenuity displayed by the Romeros, Tobe Hoopers, William Friedkins, David Seltzers and John Carpenters of the world is no longer an essential prerequisite. And that has been to the detriment of the industry ( a view I believe that’s shared by Gatiss). Gatiss decided, then, that his history should end with 1978’s Halloween, although I think that’s jumping the gun a bit (see below). It’s undoubtedlyan influential film, but for all the wrong reasons. Even Carpenter was self-effacing enough to acknowledge that it spawned a legion of cheaply-made, unimaginative excuses to splash as much gore in pointless celluloid catalogues of murder and mayhem (and that self-effacement at least earned him a little bit of the respect back he lost after his comments about Val Lewton). As he said, Halloween was made cheaply and made money – but that formula doesn’t always work out, as many subsequent would-be Carpenters discovered.

Although not mentioned, but which nevertheless I think was very subtly implied, this trail ultimately lead to the infamous slew of ‘video-nasty’ films that emerged in the mid eighties. I’ve seen most of them in my time, uncut, and although many are laughably mediocre, some of them are informed with a mean-spirited nastiness that has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Certainly, even today, the pushing of the bounds of both taste and people’s nerves forces film-makers to enter into territories where there shoudn’t be any need to go.

Having said that, although the point at which Gatiss stopped his history was necessarily a personal choice and in some ways a correct one, as Stephen Volk rightly pointed out to me there have been excellent films [from that same era and*] since Halloween, such as Carrie and Hellraiser for example. Gatiss did reference some newer releases, such as the Ring films, The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage, but these are all foreign-made, rather than either American or British. Just why that is, is anyone’s guess, but, for my part, I believe it’s because there’s less emphasis on cheap thrills and more on creativity and artistic sensibilities in these countries. I think that mentions at least of some of the better films of the last two or three decades would have been a good idea, rather than leave one with the impression that after Halloween nothing good has come out of horror cinema, when it undeniably has. Maybe this is where a fourth instalment would have been useful.

Despite  the many omissions, of either notable studios or films, this has indeed been both a meritorious and welcome series. It’s one of the drawbacks, I suppose, of the TV medium, limited by both time and budgetary constraints – there will always be something that will get left out. Overall, however, this has been a useful survey of genre cinema (with the two previous episodes my particular favouroites, on reflection) and I can only hope that somewhere along the line something deeper and more detailed will be attempted. And that it won’t just be commissioned in time for Hallowe’en either.

(*Text amended to reflect the comment made by Stephen Volk below – and my reply)

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2 Responses to “TV REVIEW: “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss: ep #3”, BBC4, Mondays @9pm”

  1. Simon – sorry. i didn’t mean “since” Halloween….. Carrie was 1976, Halloween 1978. But in my own list of faves, I’d put Carrie above The Omen. 🙂

    • Nevertheless, Stephen, I think you made a good point… there HAVE been other good horror films out there, both from the same era AND since then…

      And the error of interpretation was all mine – I neglkected to check the date of Carrie, something which I would normally do….

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