Tuesday, 9 November 2010

There Are Such Things

A History
of Horror
with Mark Gatiss Episode 3
Airdate: October 25th 2010.

Well, Gatiss’ personal journey through the history of horror continues and although entertaining as a series and really worth a watch, for me personally, this third episode didn’t quite press my buttons and, once again - and please remember that this is a very personal response due to familiarity with most of the material - my basic lack of oomph with this episode comes more from what has been left out than what has been chosen to showcase the genre.

Having said that though, Gatiss is an entertaining and assured personality to watch in this kind of documentary milieu and he instills confidence that he does know what he is talking about and isn’t, in any way, faking it. His love of horror shines through down to his little parodies of shots from movies like Psycho, The Omen and Halloween.

The episode starts well on a classic of the zombie genre, Night of the Living Dead. I won’t call it the first of the genre because it isn’t by a long shot (not even the first of the shambling wave of undead movies which it brought into popularity) but it’s certainly the most influential of its sphere. More importantly it’s one of the most successful low budget independent movies ever made, which had quite an impact on the explosion of the horror genre when it was realised that a cheap investment in this flavour of movie had a good chance of reaping a swift profit at the box office. It would have been nice, however, if Gatiss might have mentioned Herk Hervey’s phenomenal surreal ghost movie Carnival of Souls as a probable influence on Romero’s masterwork... at least in terms of what could be done with a budget made out of smoke and mirrors.

After this, the intrepid Mr. Gatiss rounded up Mr. Tobe Hooper and talked about one of only two films featured in this episode that I’ve never bothered to watch, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre... partially because I get squeamish about chainsaws but mostly because I’ve never really seen the point in watching this particular variant on what I am presuming is just another “body count” movie. Perhaps I am wrong though because both Mr. Hooper and Mr. Gatiss had some interesting things to say about it... except, like Psycho... as far as I am concerned, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a horror movie... it’s merely a thriller (and I’ll leave that argument there for now).

Next up was a tour into three of the more famous demon-child movies... those which involve either the devils spawn or a form of demonic possession. It goes without saying that these kinds of movies are shot through with strong religious overtones which can make them fairly unpalatable to people with either a strong religious persuasion or, equally, a strong anti-religious persuasion.

The first movie covered was Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby... which in my book is just an okay film. Mr. G then moved on to The Exorcist, which is a pretty good horror movie as it goes and is pretty much a masterpiece in sound design as it happens... probably its major feature actually as it would probably fall flat on it’s face without the contribution of the sound department. He then moved onto the first (and best) of The Omen movies, punctuated by some new interview footage with the writer, Mr. David Seltzer himself, which was nice to see. It’s here that I learned the one new thing in this episode that I hadn’t already known... that Charles Bronson was originally in the running to play the role made famous by Gregory Peck in The Omen.

A sidestep back to Romero and a small piece on his pseudo-vampire film Martin was up next. This is the other movie I’ve never bothered to watch... although people have been telling me to watch it for years. Mind you, they were saying that about Romero’s The Crazies for years and that one turned out badly for me. I think I need walking dead people to truly appreciate Romero. I suspect I’d actually prefer the remake of The Crazies to my experience with the original. I feel similarly about Romero’s segment in Argento’s Two Evil Eyes as being a “not great” piece of movie making. Anyway, that was a long way of saying that I shy away from Romero films that don’t feature shambling zombies and a small bunch of people in peril. So I’m not rushing out to see Martin anytime soon.

The next stop for this episode took us into David Cronenberg territory and took a long look at one of his early and best movies, Shivers. A film which was an early entry into a genre of horror which was, at one point in time, almost exclusively the province of horror that is what one still thinks of today when one describes a film as being Cronenbergian... the body/horror movie. Gatiss continued his interview with Barbara Steele, who I’d forgotten had a part in this movie, and her overly dramatic way of recounting events was, as usual, perhaps a little inappropriate but entirely entertaining (hmmm... I wish someone would interview Barbara Steele and Franco Nero in the same room at the same time... that would be hilarious).

Then a quick nod to consumer society and its much talked about metaphorical appearance in Romero’s Dawn of The Dead (a great, horror comfort movie to relax and unwind with on a Sunday afternoon) before arriving at Carpenter and his breakthrough movie Halloween. Now it has to be said that I’m a big admirer of Carpenter but I am not in any way an admirer of Halloween. I think it helped popularise American cinemas decline into the slasher movie but no mention was made as to where the true roots of the grubby US slasher film really lie... the Italian giallo. Argento’s huge influence on Carpenter (even to the music, listen to Halloween and then listen to Goblin and Gaslini’s score to Deep Red which came before it) was not once mentioned and nor was the real template to these kinds of movies... Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve) which is a dead ringer for the carbon copy US movies which came after it.

More disturbing for me was that he had Carpenter there but no mention was made of what is, for me, Carpenter’s greatest horror movie, The Fog. Which is a shame but what can one do? As I said before, for a series which has been as remarkable for what it hasn’t included as much as for what is has, I still think that with this short series, Mark Gatiss knocks it out of the park and gives people less familiar with these movies a very interesting taste as to what is out there for them to explore.

And, fittingly, the episode ends with another Universal horror introduction parody to bring us full circle to the one which opened the show with because... after all... there are such things!

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