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TV REVIEW: Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, BBC2, 24th December 2010, 9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , on December 27, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Starring John Hurt, Gemma Jones, Lesley Jones and Sophie Thompson

Updating a classic of any kind is a somewhat hazardous undertaking – some adaptations work, others fall flat on their faces. Anthony de Emmony’s take on MR James’ Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, shown on BBC2 on Christmas Eve, falls somewhere between the two. In other words, it was neither a bad stab at it, nor was it a great one.

John Hurt plays James Parkin, an astronomy professor, who leaves his wife Alice in a nursing home while he visits one of their favourite rambling haunts – a seaside village in the off-season. While there he chances upon a ring on the beach, and from that point on his world is turned upside down as inexplicable events start happening, events which upset the foundations of his self-assurance and beliefs.

This is, indeed, the core of MR James’ story – a Cambridge professor (without a wife in this instance) going off on a golfing holiday to improve his game and, during a brisk walk on the coast, he finds the ruins of a Templar preceptory. Digging around he comes across a small cavity in which he finds a whistle. When he gets back to the hotel he scrutinises the object, including blowing it – the trigger for the events that follow.

Necessarily, with the updating come changes to the elements of the story to make it more contemporary to today’s audience. The cloistered world of Cambridge professors and dons, archaeologists and scholars is long gone and, whilst academia is still a mysterious world to some, the class divisions which ruled social hierarchies in James’ day no longer pertains to the same degree. In fact, James wrote about the threats, as he perceived them, to the world in which lived and whih gave such force to his tales: the ghosts in his stories can be seen to be emblematic of the social forces battening against the class system, and the slow crumbling of the Victorian and Edwardian order. In that respect, I think that some of the power derived from the tension between the social stratiufication has been slightly dissipated in the BBC version. In de Emmony’s adaptation, however, the missing element is replaced by the main character’s reluctance at having to put his wife in a nursing home – throughout the programme he frets at the decision, calling the home regularly to make sure she’s okay, indicating that at conscious level he’s dealing with his own ghosts.

Hurt’s character came across as a very confused, lonely and somewhat pedantic man, trying to find solace and perhaps reassurance and justification for his actions regarding his wife. By going back to the seaside resort, he hopes to find pleasant memories to assuage his fears with – naturally, what he actually found (it being a ghost story) was far more than he bargained for. His pedantic corrections of the hotel receptionist’s misconceptions of astronomy (mistaking him for an astrologer – again perhaps a reference harking back to the fin de siècle Victorian era – this was also the time of the Golden Dawn and the revival of the esoteric sciences in general) were inevitably intended to establish his credentials as a man of rationality – however, this rationality was subsumed by his confused emotions, thereby leaving me with an impression of fussiness and lack of connection. Compared to the same character as portrayed by Michael Hordern in Jonathan Miller’s 1968 Play for Today production, I felt that Hurt was a little flat in the role –I didn’t really empathise with James Parkin as strongly as I would have liked. For my money, Hordern’s slightly bumbling, somewhat comical and bookish, insular Parkins was much closer to the man in James’ story.

As the Freaky Trigger Hauntography blog pointed out, in a post dated 11thDecember 2009, there was a lot of comedy in the original story – which, in a tour de force of storytelling, makes the supernatural elements of the story that much more frightening. The comical figure of Parkins, with his absolute confidence in himself and rigid belief that ghosts just don’t exist, contrasts sharply with two other elements in the story: the other main player, The Colonel, and the ghostly apparition itself. The jolt at the end of the story, contrasted with the jocularity of Parkins, is what produces the shock – that a seismic shift in perspective has occurred in the professor’s outlook, and that there are things that not even science can explain. Remember also that during James’ lifetime interest in all things spiritualist was going on and that serious research was being conducted into psychical phenomena – there was the whole Victorian fin de siécle spiritualist movement, the Society for Psychical Research had been founded in 1882 and even in the early 2oth century the venerable magazine of scientific reporting, Scientific American, regularly devoted its pages to the results of experiments trying to determine the nature of these phenomena.  As the 20th century progressed, belief in these elusive will o’ the wisps faded, and the inherent power of science and empirical evidence asserted itself; even so, there’s a feeling in the stories that MR James believed that there were things, manifesting themselves as ghosts and spectres, that our scientific knowledge was unable to comprehend because we didn’t possess the requisite knowledge.

I also felt that the sequences involving the mysterious figure weren’t particularly effective (unlike the 1968 version, which actually freaked me out slightly) – perhaps in this case, because the figure was revealed in broad daylight, it didn’t have quite the impact. Perhaps it should have been filmed at twilight, because the sheer terror of the figure, as exemplified in the dream sequence in James’ story, isn’t quite pulled off here in my view. In addition, the disturbances were fairly standard happenings, with even a nod to Robert Wise’s The Haunting with the frenzied door-rattling. I also thought that a much more solid connection between the ring and the storm that blew up during his first night’s stay could and should have been made. Plus, as was pointed out by Lee Thompson on a Facebook thread, the denouément was very reminiscent of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu film. Looking at it again, I would have to agree.

Before anyone thinks anything, it wasn’t all bad. For starters, the small cast of characters, just four people, served this production well – the very fact that not many people were around added immensely to the eeriness. The settings were well-used too – the hotel was deserted apart from James Parkin, the receptionist and the implied but never seen chef or other staff. The fabric of the hotel itself felt haunted, a feeling helped enormously by the way it was atmospherically photographed. The scenes in the nursing home, with all the residents sitting and vacantly staring at walls emphasised the soullessness of where his wife had ended up. The beach scenes were also well done – Parkin was the only human being for miles around and a sense of true isolation was telegraphed. In that sense, the intrusion of the ghostly figure was a small shock, but it still remains something that could have been done better, I think.

I think the major problem for me, however, having read the story, is that the connection to James’ tale is tenuous at best. There are elements of the source material in there, but they were so diluted that it made it an entirely different story. I would never pretend to be an expert in these matters, and I am all for people reinterpreting classics, but in this instance perhaps setting it in the Edwardian period might have actually produced a better adaptation, so in effect you would have a double seismic jolt – that of material separation between this world and the unseen one, and also a temporal distance. The Edwardian period is as alien to us as the moon is. Perhaps having someone else to play off against (à la The Colonel) would have been a good prop – while the implication that the receptionist’s implied belief in astrology was meant to highlight the dissonance between the two views, it didn’t quite get emphasised enough.

It was a brave attempt, but one couldn’t help feel that so much more could have been done with the material. I would still hope, however, that the BBC will continue to commission more of this kind of adaptation of classic ghost stories for the small screen, perhaps employing someone who understands the genre on a deeper level, both its dynamics and its motifs. Whatever one thinks of the end product, I for one think that this kind of programme should make an appearance on our TVs a lot more often.

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

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , , , on October 26, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

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)

TV REVIEW: “Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women”, Wednesday, October 21st, BBC4, 9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Tragedy and great art appear to be well-acquainted bedfellows in the history of culture. People seem to harbour a notion that, in order to truly produce immortal prose, poetry or art, artists have to have suffered lives that know no happiness, to experience a deep grief of the soul –  and this is the fire in which that immortality is forged. If that is indeed the case, then the subject of this BBC4 documentary, Edgar Allan Poe, fully deserves his place in the pantheon of literary greats.

There’s absolutely no question that Poe endured a very hard life – in equal measure it was as a result of some events being completely outside of his ability to influence but also there was much where he lost conscious control. Alcoholism was a recurrent feature of his life and, indeed, played a major role in his death – it started in his teens, possibly as a result of his inferiority complex gained through his social circumstances and his relationship with his uncaring adopted father. When his adopted mother died, his father cut him off completely without any means of supporting himself.

In this programme, however, crime-writer Denise Mina explores the relationship that this tortured soul had with the women in his life, namely Eliza Poe (his mother), Virginia Clemm (his first, and only, wife), Frances Sargent Osgood (poet and darling of the New York literary scene), and Sarah Helen Whitman (eccentric poet, essayist, transcendentalist, and Spiritualist). Through his often damaged encounters with these women, his writing took on the dark and malign shapes it did, implying that had he NOT had them the Poe we would know today would have been very different, if we’d have known about him at all.

Mina makes a very strong case here – certainly all these women are separated from Poe either through tragedy or the strict social mores of the day. He first tasted death at just two years old, when his mother Eliza died of tuberculosis: she was an actress, a profession that was considered just a notch above prostitution. Not a great start in life then. To a small child, his mother constantly ‘dying’ on stage and yet miraculously coming back to life afterwards was normal. Consequently, reanimation of the dead is a frequent theme in his work, and it would be fair to say that his early theatrical experiences, tied in as they are with the first woman in his life, is where it all started. This notion appears to have bled into real-life – certainly, according to this programme, he did have trouble understanding why his mother never came back after she died for the final, and very real, time.

Another recurrent theme, which is also played out in real life, is loss. Poe loses his first (and only) wife, his cousin Virginia Clemm, to the same disease that took his mother – tuberculosis – after a long, five-year battle with it.  Her death was hastened, it appears, by revelations (through malicious letters sent to her by the noted poetess and love rival, Elizabeth Ellet) of his dalliance with another fêted poetess Frances Sargent Osgood. Then, after the breaking-off with Osgood and Virginia’s death, there came Sarah Helen Whitman, a writer and poet, who was described as being full of ‘eccentricities and sorrows’, much like her erstwhile suitor himself.  However, bad luck was to dog Poe yet again in this potential match, as Whitman’s mother disapproved of the engagement, even threatening her daughter with disinheritance should she get married to him.

All powerful stuff, which coalesced and was funnelled into a rare literary talent. Poe was, in many ways, caught between the word and his weakness for the bottle – desperate expressions of needing to seek relief from the pressures that life brought with it, in particular his life. The atmosphere of 19th century America is well evoked, and the sense of poverty and struggle, for Poe personally and by extension the greater society around him, is palpable. Writing has never been a secure profession, and it was even less so back then. Effectively, Poe was the first professional Victorian writer, the advent of magazines in the 1830s allowing people to see the possibilities of being authors and getting paid for it. Ironically, despite Poe’s popularity, tapping as he did into the primal fears of his readers, he died penniless and in bizarre circumstances.

Poe has influenced an enormous catalogue of writers since, like Agatha Christie, Walt Whitman, Jules Verne and Denise Mina herself. He was a genuine literary pioneer, mining the veins of rich source material to be found in the deepest, darkest and blackest corners of the human mind. He brought the Gothic to the masses and made it popular. Mina strongly brought out those qualities which elevated him above many others digging in the same seam, and, furthermore, emphasised just why his writing is so powerful, by tying his disatrous relationships into the themes evident in his stories. Death and loss were constant themes in his own life; naturally, he sought to exorcise their influence on the written page. People responded, and shot him to fame. But fame can destroy as well as enrich: additionally one has to be prepared for it, no matter how much one craves it. Poe definitely craved it, but equally I think he was totally unprepared for what it brought him.

My only criticism: the soundtrack, composed mostly of long excerpts from 80s goth bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, The Mission and Fields of the Nephilim. Okay, so I make no bones about being an ex-goth, even to admitting that I saw some of these bands myself – however, I felt that hearing the strains of the songs from my younger days jarred somewhat with the subject matter, in terms of the time period covered. It seemed like whoever edited it heard the word ‘Gothic’ and thought it would be clever idea (or perhaps ironic) to use them. Ultimately though, I guess it’s just a minor quibble, tied to personal taste.

After watching this I ended up wishing that the BBC would commission more of these type of programmes and not just for tHalloween. Horror is, for me and for many like me, a year-round interest, and I for one would love to indulge in watching documentaries about horror in general and horror-writers in particular. The quality of this programme just goes to show what can be done when producer’s and programme commissioner’s minds are put to it. Maybe we should give them a hint by showing our approval for these welcome efforts.

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

Posted in Reviews, TV on October 19, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Ask any horror fan (and many non-horror fans, too, if it comes to that) to sum up the English conception of the genre and it’s a certainty that the name Hammer will feature heavily in any answer. In fact, if truth be told, the very name has become soaked in the Kensington Gore so beloved of the studio; Hammer and horror have achieved a species of verbal symbiosis, each word seemingly being dependent on the other. You can’t think of horror without thinking Hammer, and you most certainly can’t think of Hammer without thinking horror. Hammer is, in fact, synonymous with horror.

After last week’s first episode of Mark Gatiss’s very personal, but never less than fascinating, take on the History of Horror(currently being broadcast on BBC4), the pendulum now swings from Hollywood back to the very birthplace of the horror genre itself: Britain. If Hollywood was about lavish sets and big drama, British horror was on a much smaller and, dare I say it, more intimate scale. As Gatiss pointed out, money was always tight at Hammer – but rather than that being a weakness, the producers, scriptwriters, directors and technicians turned it to their advantage. As a consequence, Hammer produced some memorable films.

Mark Gatiss did an excellent job of parlaying the essential ‘Englishness’ of these productions, starting with the very title of the episode itself – Home Counties Horror. Despite the copiously liberal amounts of Kensington Gore used in their films, there is still a certain charm and gentility evident in them – epitomised best, perhaps, by the two icons of British horror cinema, Peter Cushing OBE and Sir Christopher Lee. In much the same way that the early Universal (therefore American) horror genre film came to be associated with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (ironically both non-Americans), Cushing and Lee came to represent not only horror but Hammer itself. If nothing else, Cushing was the quintessential Englishman, with Lee not very far behind.

However, one aspect of the programme that Gatiss is most definitely to be congratulated upon is the fact that he gave a serious analysis of the output of Hammer – the studio’s productions (and the studio by association) are often seen as being camp and therefore lowbrow. It’s easy to forget in these less conservative and censorious times that many of the things we take for granted in our genre films, like gore and nudity, held a real shock value back then. In this regard, Hammer was a pioneer, pushing the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable and thereby chipping away at what would be seen as ludicrous taboos now. Likewise, it’s too easy for us, as members of the sophisticated present-day audience, to deride those early films, thinking of them as more like comedies than serious movies intent on scaring people, simply because we have no context in which to frame them. Gatiss’s analysis did much to do just that and restore them to their rightful place, to set them against the standards of the day and also to emphasise their essentially transgressive nature.

(This can especially be applied to Piers Haggard’s 1971 film Blood on Satan’s Claw, a film that I have yet to see. This was termed ‘folk’ horror – using the word folk almost as a pejorative, decrying the pagan and immoral superstitions of the rural and pastoral past, thereby painting our ‘ignorant’ forebears in an even darker and more primitive light. The world was moving forward at the beginning of the 70s, in terms of both society and technology, and the message seemed to be that the past was unenlightened and brutal, and should rightfully be left behind where it can’t harm us.)

Once more, Gatiss brought on some fascinating guests, including producer Anthony Hinds, scriptwriter and sometime director Jimmy Sangster, and the late director, Roy Ward Baker. Honours for the best guest of the night would have to go to Barbara Steele, however, the Scream Queen herself, star of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and still quite the looker even now. I would have liked to have heard a few words from Christopher Lee himself, considering he’s the only one left of the Cushing/Lee double act, but I suspect he was off filming somewhere and was unavailable to be interviewed. What we did get however (and which more than made up for it), was some delightful archive footage of Cushing being interviewed, including one alongside that other icon, Vincent Price.

Gatiss also touched upon a few other aspects of the story of British horror cinema, most notably the output of Amicus Films, a late rival of Hammer’s. This particular studio specialised in portmanteau films – shorter films connected by bridging segments. They were never wholly as successful as Hammer, and appear to be more the domain of the dedicated fan these days. Having said that, they did contribute in their way to the rich, gore-spattered tapestry that constitutes the history of horror on this side of the Atlantic. Gatiss also alluded to the influence Hammer had on other directors, including Roger Corman and his fantastic Poe cycle of films (and who was also one of the delightful guests) plus the aforementioned Italian Mario Bava.

Once again, what seeped through most of all from this programme was Gatiss’s deep love of, and appreciation for, horror. No better illustration of this was provided by the segment where Mark recounted an incident in his childhood of being banned from watching or reading anything to do with horror – simultaneously reverentially holding a vintage copy of The House of Hammer magazine (issue #3, I believe it was). His eyes lit up at the very sight of the mag and at the reminiscence itself. This is a man who isn’t afraid to acknowledge his roots, or his debt to the genre,  and his delight in being able to share that enthusiasm with an audience is completely unalloyed. That one segment probably sums up the tenor of the whole series for me.

I’m enjoying this short history immensely and that is also my one biggest complaint about it – three programmes isn’t enough to explore the whole panoply that the horror genre offers to people who take the trouble to delve into it. To paraphrase the words of that other quintessential British character, Oliver (Oliver Twist):

“Please sir, can I have some more?”

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

Posted in Reviews, TV on October 12, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

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!!