Halloween time and so my top 5 horror television of the 21st century.
The Walking Dead (2010 -, currently in 5th season)
The Walking Dead has recently started its fifth season and is attracting groundbreaking viewing figures for cable television. The new series is already living up to the consistent high quality expected, especially with the strong lead performance of Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, now weary, grey-bearded, greasy and blood-splattered but ever determined to keep his band of survivors, comrades and family, safe.
Carl: Dad, you can’t keep me from it.
Rick: From what?
Carl: From what always happens.
Rick: Yeah. Maybe. But I think it’s my job to try.
But the most satisfying aspect of The Walking Dead is how it uses one of the most well trod genres in horror: zombies.
Essentially, zombies (from here on known as walkers) haven’t changed a great deal since Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966), but now the advantage of a long running series such as The Walking Dead allows time for them to mature in the walker equivalent of a fine cheese and horribly waste away in front of us. Season 5 has noticeably ramped up the gore with walkers visibly decomposing as they lurch towards their victims. The best scene to illustrate this came in the second episode, with walkers trapped in a flooded basement where Rick and co find themselves fighting off rotting and waterlogged horrors.
Penny Dreadful (2014 -, 2nd season planned)
Watching Hammer’s 1958 Dracula recently, I sadly realised how unsatisfying the film is. It reworks Bram Stoker’s novel for the screen admirably enough but adds little – critically I think it fails to reinvent the Dracula story in an interesting way other than offer a dash of colour and cut-glass English accents. Although Dracula is now regarded as a film classic (being notched up to five stars by the Radio Times for its last terrestrial viewing), I think that Hammer became more inventive when they started to play around a bit more adventurously with the well known stories – Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), or find new things to do with tired genres, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974). Of course it didn’t always work so well – see Dracula AD 1972 (1972).
Forty years on, Penny Dreadful still manages to be creative with the same limited source material, mixing together both Dracula and Frankenstein with a dash of Dorian Gray and the Wolfman and a background setting of the Grand Guignol. What works so well is how Penny Dreadful both respects the originals and alters them to introduce unexpected surprises. The scene where Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear) murders Van Helsing (David Warner) is one such audacious twist. Like the original 19th century penny dreadfuls, the series honours only the essence of the originals.
Most terrifying though is the presence of Eva Green as the possessed Vanessa Ives:
Hannibal (2013 – , 3rd season planned)
Hannibal recasts a more recent familiar character from horror, Hannibal Lecter, and upends the familiar image of him incarcerated in a dark, gothic dungeon ( The Silence of the Lambs (1991)). This time it is Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who is usually the prisoner, with Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) free to follow his monstrous pursuits. In another alteration, journalist Freddie Lounds, first played by Stephen Lang in Manhunter (1986), is now a woman (Lara Jean Chorostecki).
Hannibal is a slow burner and at times very ponderous and overly talky:
Hannibal: I gave you a rare gift, and you didn’t want it. You would deny me my life.
Will: Not your life.
Hannibal: My freedom then, you would take that from me. Confine me to a prison cell. Did you believe you could change me the way I’ve changed you?
Will: I already did.
But Hannibal is also very, very frightening, particularly with the events that are not directly connected to Lecter, such as the activities of the insane acupuncturist played by Amanda Plummer. He isn’t the only monster on the loose.
The success of Hannibal has started a trend of remaking famous horror films as a tv franchise, for example the story of the young Norman Bates in Bates Motel (2013 – , 3rd season planned), which throws away the Psycho (1960) rulebook to introduce a modern day setting instead of the more logical 50s one. Although I’m not sure if this is down to design or just laziness.
American Horror Story (2011 – , currently in 4th season)
The genius of American Horror Story is how it reboots for each season, with a new theme and cast of characters played by the same repertory company of actors, notably Jessica Lange. The four seasons to date cover a modern day haunted house, a 60s mental asylum, a coven of witches bouncing between 1840 and the present day and a 50s freak show. The first series used music from classic cinema films, notably Bernard Herrmann’s score from Twisted Nerve (1968) and the second started a theme of using recognisable characters from films such as Pinhead from Freaks (1932). More subtly, Stevie Nicks features heavily as things progress.Of all my choices, American Horror Story makes best use of the 13 episode season structure, peppering it with surprises and red herrings.
American Horror Story has zombies too, in the season 3 Halloween episodes, and season 3 also delivers its own take on Frankenstein with Evan Peters as the frustrated creature. The best thing about American Horror Story is that it is at times totally, totally mad. See the Name Game Song from season 2:
If Penny Dreadful resembles the periodicals from the 19th century that it takes its name from, then American Horror Story is the modern day equivalent of the Victorian melodrama.
Game of Thrones (2011 – , 5th season planned)
Despite the White Walkers, dragons, giants and the like which give the appearance of an adult fantasy series, the real moments of horror in Game and Thrones stem from what the very real human characters do to each other. The beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) starts this whole horrible sequence of events, leading to the multiple killings at the red wedding the poisoning of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and the shocking death of Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal). And this only touches the surface. It’s not just the grisly murders. The fate of Theon Greyjoy, anyone?
If we’re talking horror in its purest sense, the The Walking Dead is probably the best of the bunch. For camp lunacy and inventiveness, American Horror Story wins hands down and is my choice for Halloween viewing this year. But ultimately Game of Thrones comes out tops for acting and overall quality. What’s interesting (although fingers crossed for Penny Dreadful) is that all of the above are long term series – television certainly has a thirst for horror.