Archive for bbc4

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.