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A History Of Horror (2010)
Presenter: Mark Gatiss

review by J.C. Hartley

Broadcast over three weeks, on BBC4, this personal history of cinematic horror was the latest offering from Mark Gatiss who, with his involvement with Doctor Who, Sherlock, and the recent adaptation of H.G. Wells' First Men In The Moon, is at least going some way towards redressing the dearth of SF and cultish viewing on the BBC.

Gatiss looked at what he saw as three ages of horror. The classic era, associated particularly with the output from Universal Studios, the 1960s and the reinvention of the horror film in England under the auspices of Hammer Studios, and finally the rediscovery of the horror film in the USA up to the late 1970s.

As a personal history, Gatiss was able to discuss the genre in terms of his own engagement with it, make his own choices of films, and illustrate his points with a set of clips rather more enlightening than the usual '100 scary moments from the movies'. He didn't slavishly tie himself to chronologies and themes, and while he rather overused the endorsement that a particular film was one of his favourites, this was the idea, after all. He avoided any 'why do we like to be scared' cod-psychology.

The format allowed for potted biographies of Chaney, Lugosi, and Karloff, and interviews with some remarkably spry actresses from those early Universal offerings. He also found time to offer a little appreciation of the great Peter Cushing, as well as interview directors from the Hammer years, and British actress Barbara Steele who worked with Mario Bava, Roger Corman and David Cronenberg.

John Carpenter goes on record as saying he found the great Val Lewton overrated, for never delivering on the menace his films accumulated. Gatiss looks suitably shocked at the heresy, and then concedes the argument rather than taking issue. Perhaps Gatiss just didn't want to take Carpenter on, although his subsequent voiceover redresses the balance somewhat.

I was more shocked at how little mention director Jacques Tourneur got compared with producer Lewton. Of course, Lewton and Tourneur were working in more restricted times than were to affect Carpenter as a director. And there is the counter-argument that once you go beyond the tease, and put out, so to speak, there comes the necessity of providing greater and more unexpected thrills to keep the audience engaged.

In the horror film this has resulted not in subtler and more refined explorations of menace but in ever more gory and explicit demonstrations of cruelty. A challenging addition to the genre is franchised and endlessly regurgitated until the audience is offered Saw 6, 13 Jason Voorhees films, 10 Michael Myers movies, nine Freddy Kreuger movies and ever on.

Carpenter to his credit acknowledges that what followed his own Halloween were cheaply made exploitation flicks, and his production did rather open the door for lesser fare. Carpenter won me over by identifying the scariest moment in Psycho as the killing of Arbogast on the stairs. For him the appearance of the killer out of nowhere is what gave the moment its jolt. For me it was this, coupled with the notion that even an authority figure, or at least a representative of authority, the dispensers of justice and retribution to the wrong-doers, were just as likely to become victims as the traditional weak and terrified fugitives.

The shooting of Frankenstein's monster in the eye, in Hammer's The Curse Of Frankenstein, is cited as a pivotal moment in his future career by Carpenter. Gatiss identifies it as the shot that rang around the world of horror. Carpenter says that what made it shocking was that not only was the creature shot in the eye, but thick red blood oozed out between the creature's clamped fingers. To someone whose memory of Hammer horror was through late night viewing on a black and white set, the vivid Eastman colour in all its restored majesty brought home how sensational these films must have appeared.

Hammer introduced sex to the horror film in England, or at least a more explicit acknowledgement of sex. Mario Bava was busily doing the same in Italy. Barbara Steele is an exotic and expressive witness to his work. It's very funny about her later appearance in Cronenberg's Shivers, listening to Steele's comments, and watching some of the footage; it is tempting to think that Ridley Scott's Alien owed some of its genesis to that earlier picture.

Gatiss covers The Exorcist, and The Omen, and continues the rehabilitation of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre - which in my day was demonised as a 'video nasty' but has come to be seen as a classic in its own right. Watching someone being splattered with fake blood at an American horror convention Gatiss observes to the camera, "60 minutes boil-wash; it's the only thing that'll get it out." Gatiss acknowledges that with age his tastes have changed, he sees the back-end of the 1970s as a high-point for the horror film, and has more sympathy now with the well-crafted ghost story.

The interviews, film clips, and Gatiss' own knowledge and enthusiasm for the genre made this an entertaining study. He declined to make value judgements and his criticisms were studied rather than partial. As someone with only a limited interest in horror, mainly because of squeamishness and a nervous disposition, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an examination of a genre but I would imagine it gave pleasure to enthusiasts as well.

A History of Horror




Mark Gatiss



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