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.
Stigma was the BBC’s 1977 Ghost Story for Christmas offering. This was a radical departure for the series with a new story by Clive Exton in a contemporary setting. The only link with the previous films is director Laurence Gordon-Clark, who explains in a DVD extra from the 2012 box set that the production team had exhausted all further options of M.R. James adaptations for budgetary reasons and hence looked towards new material. Stigma is often ignored and I’m not aware of it ever being repeated since the original transmission. I’ve had mixed feelings about the contemporary Christmas films (one more was to follow in 1978) and tended to ignore them myself. Stigma turns out to be a clever and disturbing piece.
The 70s saw some bleak contemporary dramas, and many of the most memorable tended to involve menacing stone circles. Children of the Stones was a terrifying ITV children’s series from 1976, involving silent stones encroached upon by the modern world of motorways and ring roads. Three years later, the 1979 update of the long standing Quatermass depicted a society running down, with the Planet People, those who had rejected the modern world, drawn to the enchanting stone circle Ringstone Round. I’ve since been reminded of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service which was televised in 1969. Stigma is by far the least known of all of these but possibly the best effective drama of the three,
Full of subtle imagery, Stigma is a tale of blood, with the colour red running right through it. In the country cottage owned by Peter and Katherine, where they live with daughter Verity, there is blood red lingering from the glossy red front door of the house, through deep crimson nail varnish to a mouth watering red joint of beef – the colours seep through the film. Apart from this, Stigma is particularly understated – some snatches of Mother’s Little Helper and a glimpse of Their Satanic Majesties Request (Rolling Stones – geddit?) notwithstanding, there is no soundtrack at all.
The film is just half an hour long so it’s quick in execution. Arriving home, Katherine and Verity observe two workmen as they attempt to remove a huge stone from their garden, part of Peter’s plans to extend the path from the cottage. Beyond, in the next field, other stones linger eerily. A gush of wind breezes over Katherine. The stone is only partly shifted, and what follows is a horrible descent into her demise as she begins to slowly bleed. Peter arrives home but is oblivious to her plight, only noticing red wine on her dress. At least the beef is delicious. Verity remains an ambiguous presence to the end.
The cast is excellent. A prior To the Manor Born Peter Bowles, reminds what a decent actor he is, and Kate Binchy and Maxine Gordon as Katherine and Verity are also superb. What’s most effective about Stigma is Katherine’s attempt to hide the developing catastrophe, and her frantic efforts to do so are extremely effective. Binchy is very convincing in the role. But perhaps too much so – Stigma may not have been well received at the time because it strays far into the horror genre (I’ve filed it as such) much more than the fireside, port sipping territory of M.R.James. This is a shame, and maybe being produced independently from A Ghost Story for Christmas would have given it a greater legacy.
I’ve been writing annual reviews of A Ghost Story for Christmas for eight Christmases now. This is perplexing as the original series also ran for eight years and I’m yet to review the last – The Ice House. Spooky. 2013 sees another revival, with Mark Gatiss’s version of The Tractate Middoth. I’m really looking forward to it. Long may the series live.
You can’t survive Christmas without a decent slasher movie. If you can find one.
Originally released in 1984, Silent Night, Deadly Night received an extremely negative reception. The film critics Siskel and Ebert piously condemned it as “sick, sleazy and mean spirited”, and large crowds gathered at cinemas in the US to protest against the film. TriStar Pictures, its original distributor, pulled all advertisements six days after release and it was withdrawn soon after. In the UK, Silent Night, Deadly Night was never submitted for certification and the UK DVD was not released until 2009. The film is also now available for purchase on iTunes.
So what makes Silent Night, Deadly Night one of the most controversial films of the 1980s? Earlier films with a similar premise had gone unnoticed, particularly the Christmas segment of Tales of the Crypt in 1972 where Joan Collins is greeted by a murderous Santa Claus and the 1980 film Christmas Evil. Perhaps it was the advertising campaign, particularly posters and television trailers, which made significant emphasis on the killer being dressed as Santa Claus. Siskel and Ebert, perhaps not the greatest champions of the horror genre, further drew on several of what they viewed as indecent scenes in the film. Disappointingly, Silent Night, Deadly Night is just a bad film opposed to the potential of a lost shocking horror that may have matured over the years.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is only fascinating because it is so typical of an American 80s horror film, and sits comfortably with the run of infamous video nasties earlier in the decade. The age of the film can be easily dated with the generic music and almost obligatory scenes of nudity. The only hint of originality is the use of some innocent Christmas songs in the soundtrack which can disturb in the uncomfortable reminder that this is a seasonal film. The scant plot follows Billy, disturbed as a child when his parents are killed by a murderous Santa Claus. He grows up in a Catholic run orphanage, which only serves to increase his latent mania further, and he eventually turns into a crazed killer himself after landing a job in a toy shop. Apart from some odd humour injected by Britt Leach as Mr Sims the toy shop manager, there’s a familiar pattern of gruesome killings to follow. The film follows the model of Halloween and Friday the 13th where we know the identity of the killer from the outset.
Incredibly, four sequels followed and a remake later appeared in 2012 known simply as Silent Night. This film mostly does its own thing around the hunt for another murderous Santa, although does copy two keys scenes of the original – where Billy is left alone with his catatonic grandfather, who bursts into insane life to warn him that Santa Claus is out to get him – and the later key scene where the adult and now murderous Billy impales a victim on a pair of wall mounted antlers. However there is no “Billy” as such in this version, and the identity of the killer remains a mystery until the end, where his identity is badly fudged. This time round, odd humour is provided by Malcolm McDowell as a questionably beyond retirement age police chief. McDowell utters meaningless pockets of wisdom like “don’t put any avocado on the burger” with a straight face, one of the few actors who can get through bad films with his reputation unscathed.
Silent Night is the better made film of the two, with at least some attention to detail. But the degree of bad taste is no more or no less, and the zero amount of controversy surrounding this film demonstrates how we are now numb to the extremes of the genre. Today’s equivalents of Siskel and Ebert are now just as likely to complain that horror films of this nature are full of cliches rather than contain anything of bad taste.
According to Wikipedia, Silent Night made only $14,000 at the box office. The original has made 2.5 million to date. Go figure.
Any casual internet search will return various lists of the best haunted house films. Evergreen favourites such as The Haunting and The Innocents always appear. There is also a lesser known film that features regularly, the 1980 film The Changeling starring George C. Scott.
In The Changeling Scott plays a composer called John Russell who moves from New York to Seattle following the death of his wife and child. He rents a large, dark, cobwebby mansion and soon realises this is asking for trouble when he encounters a spectral presence. Haunted by the ghost of a child, who manifests itself in the form of knocking and shattered glass, Russell slowly pieces together a murder from the past that impacts on the life of a wealthy senator (Mervyn Douglas).
Ultimately the resolution is unsatisfying, involving a weird scene between Scott and Douglas, but the film is worth catching for its careful, eerie pace and the interesting Seattle location work.
The Changeling is also memorable for one of the best seance scenes I’ve seen in cinema, and the overall feeling of the film seems very familiar in today’s crowded market of dark and dusty spooky house films – most memorably I suppose in the likes of Sinister.
Halloween time and so my top 5 horror films of the 21st century.
House of the Devil (2009)
One of the most promising directors around is Ti West. He filmed House of the Devil in a faux early 1980s cinematic style and the delivery is entirely plausible, down to the opening titles, music and overall feel of the film. West manages to overcome any sense of self awareness that might have befallen a lesser director. The theme is also reminiscent of the era – When a Stranger Calls springs to mind – with its central character accepting a bizarre babysitting job and consequently becoming trapped in a rather unwholesome household.
House of the Devil is an impressive horror with an unsettling ending reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s also worth mentioning Tom Noonan as the weird Mr Ulman, outstanding in an unashamedly creepy role as the head of the demonic household. Ti West has recently followed with the slightly more sober but no less interesting The Innkeepers. Next up, he appears to be working on a couple of portmanteau horrors with other directors: V/H/S and The ABCs of Death.
The Mist (2007)
Adapted from a Stephen King story by Frank Darabont, the director who was also responsible for The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. This is firmly back in the usual King territory, and the setting is both familiar and horribly terrifying. A group of people take refuge from a sudden and oppressive mist inside a supermarket; some resorting to religious mania, other braving the unseen monsters outside and other fighting off the giant insects that get in.
The cast are very good and feature the excellent Marcia Gay Harden and the British actor Toby Jones. The Mist reminds of the later Monsters with its apocalyptic air, although this a much more impressive feature. The painfully ironic ending is one of the best and most shocking in modern cinema.
The best of the found footage genre, the Spanish film [REC] is the first of our top three 21st century horrors which are all interestingly foreign language films. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza deliver one of the most claustrophobic films ever made, set inside a dark and labyrinthine apartment block where an emergency team investigate some unusual, dark and violent goings on. Add to that a film crew, lock the doors and light the blue touch paper.
[REC] has now spread into a trilogy, with the second film being released in 2010 – also excellent – picking up exactly where the first left off. It introduces some fresh ideas into the tired found footage theme (look out for two cameras on the go here) and attempts to explain what is exactly going on without laboring the point too much. The third film, [REC] Genesis, spins off in another direction entirely with a wedding setting and, whilst bizarre indeed, received some very unkind reviews when it was released in 2012. The whole trilogy is essential viewing and the fourth, [Rec] Apocalypse, will be most welcome.
Switchblade Romance a.k.a Haute Tension (2003)
As we get to the top of the list the films now do get decidedly weirder. Strangely, with these last two I do think that the less you know about them will actually enhance your viewing. Switchblade Romance is a French horror directed by Alexandre Aja and the film has received some criticism for its audacious ending. Indeed it is difficult to digest, and apart from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games perhaps, I can think of no other film that is such a challenge to the viewers notion of cinematic rules.
However, I found Switchblade Romance engrossing, and the unexpected twist makes perfect sense if you watch closely and notice the clues. Aja is quite a master of pace, and the films edges quite comfortably into full on mayhem, and is essentially a story of obsession that focuses on the two lead female characters. The last scene is very effective, which plays a final subtle trick on the now exhausted viewer.
Finishing with another French horror, which was incidentally found too shocking in its native country and banned, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is an uncompromising masterpiece. Where my jaw hit the floor for the last two thirds or Switchblade Romance, it was there for the duration of Martyrs. The film is a series of unexpected twists and awful detours, and for this reason I would dissuade anyone from reading a synopsis of the film or finding out any more than the merest details before viewing. Believe me, it’s better that way.
The greatness of Martyrs is how it leads the viewer into totally unusual territory, and it is almost incomprehensible how anyone could actually think of such a nightmare series of scenarios. There’s also some similarity to Switchblade Romance in the dual female leads. Laugier has recently been snapped up by more conventional producers to revive the Hellraiser franchise. Perhaps he’ll do something interesting with it.
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