A History of Horror
with Mark Gatiss Episode 1Airdate: October 11th 2010. UK. BBC4
I have really mixed feelings about the first episode of Mark Gatiss’ A History of Horror, currently airing on BBC4. I’ve got lots of grumbles sure (haven’t I always) but the whole thing was so well put together and showed the genre in such a positive light that I’d have a hard time condemning it on just one episode.
It had me hooked right from the first moment so I really shouldn’t complain. It starts off with what I first thought (for a few seconds) was the original pre-credits, Edward Van Sloan introduction to the 1931 version of Frankenstein and I was all ready to throw up my hands in outrage because they were screening the clip in the wrong aspect ratio when I realised that it wasn’t actually the original version but a really well done parody of it. Some of the words were changed but a lot of the key expressions from the original were used and the guy they got standing in for Edward Van Sloan was so absolutely brilliant at mimicking the mannerisms, intonation and timing of Van Sloan’s original performance that I couldn’t help but be impressed. This was an amazingly well done parody.
Now I don’t know much about the writer/host of this show other than he’s done some stuff with Doctor Who and he was in the recent Sherlock mini-series as Mycroft Holmes so I can’t really comment on the job he’s done here compared to much of his other work. What I can say is that I suspect that a lot of the problems I had with the rest of the episode feel like they are just due to budgetary restrictions and so are therefore probably not Mr. Gatiss’ fault... and to be fair to him, he did start off with a disclaimer stating that he was only covering the bits he was interested in and not giving a full history of horror cinema (like that was ever really going to happen anyway... I wish).
Also, to be fair to him, my only real problem was with the lack of detail and, basically, a lack of any new or revelatory material dealing with the time period he was talking about... in other words, there was nothing we didn’t already know at the end of the programme that we’d not heard before since it was all stuff that has been put in various books over the years (notably by universal Horror scholar David J. Skaal whom I’m surprised Mr. Gatiss didn’t interview or at least acknowledge in the credits of this episode. But then again, Gatiss did happen to pick on my personal favourite period of movie horror for his first episode... the early 30s to the late 40s... when the Universal Monster was King of the Horror Hill and RKO was distributing those fantastic but more subtle alternatives to them, produced by Val Lewton. Quite frankly I could have watched an entire ten hours straight just on the first few Universal movies alone so I guess I was never going to get enough detail to satisfy my own cravings for this particular period.
I was surprised, however, that classic Universal characters like The Mummy and The Wolfman were relegated to just minor mentions given their importance to those early films. Ditto for Lon Chaney Jr who in his time there played all their main characters - Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy and the Wolfman and who was the only person until very recently to play his titular Wolfman character Lawrence Talbot. He was a very important player in those early Universal movies but the documentary was more interested in his dad (another great) than it was his equally iconic son.
Was also surprised that when Mr. Gatiss was detailing the end of Lugosi’s career, he failed to mention his poverty row pictures and his infamous collaboration with Edward D. Wood Jr, which I think just about says it all in terms of the state Lugosi found himself in at the end of his life.
And I also grudgingly admit to possibly being a bit of a movie curmudgeon when it comes to this stuff because I was waiting for my favourite Universal Horror werewolf movie to come up, the 1935 Werewolf of London which was their first stab at it and which pre-dates Chaney Jr’s more famous version by 6 years... and it didn’t get a mention.
So, for me, there were some glaring omissions which I personally would have said were essential moments of celluloid history to cover... but to be fair this was probably pitched at novices to the genre and maybe too much to quickly would have been a bit of an overload. And I have to say my main complaint was not with Gatiss’ writing and delivery, which were both concise, well written and well pitched, but with the revelation that one of my favourite genre directors, John Carpenter, thinks so little of the cycle of movies produced by Val Lewton. That was something of a disappointment to me.
Hmmmm... maybe it’s a cop-out but I can’t really get to grips with this series just based on one episode. I’d say it’s pitched at novices but there were some little in-jokes, such as that Van Sloan parody at the start, which were not made apparent within the main text of the show and which seemed pitched squarely at viewers a little more familiar with the material. Plus it had a nice “needle-drop” soundtrack on it too, with cues from the period under scrutiny like Franz Waxman’s gorgeous Creation music from Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein juxtaposed with equally beautiful cues from 30 years or more later like the use of Pino Donnagio’s museum music from De Palma's Dressed To Kill.
So it was all a bit of a mixed bag for me on the first episode I’m afraid but that’s not a bad thing... I’ll definitely watch the next one to see what that’s like. And that Gatiss character seems an amiable enough chap and seems quite photogenic... what with all that gingery-red hair contrasting nicely with blueish lighting schemes. It looks like he’ll be covering the Hammer Horror movies for his next show. Now this is good news for me since I know relatively little about the Hammer films... I’ve literally only seen around maybe fifty of their horror movies and only read two books about them so I’m quite eager to learn about this little unexplored niche of traditionally British horror movie making. So I have to say... I am quite looking forward to seeing the second episode now.
Hopefully it will give me something to get my teeth into. :-)