BBC4’s A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss is an absolute must-watch. It airs tonight at 9pm, and will then be available via the iPlayer for the next seven days, as well as being repeated on BBC4 three times throughout the week.
Here are Five Things I think might convince you to tune in tonight for the first episode, Frankenstein Goes to Hollywood.
1. Access All Areas
Oh, what a lucky boy. Gatiss is given access to a number of interesting artefacts from horror film history and amongst the most astonishing are Lon Chaney’s make-up box, complete with a painful glass contact lens – bulky enough that it’s almost a glass eye, in fact – and a striking life-mask on which he practiced his designs and applications. The scene takes place in a creepy downstairs archive, and we’re dealing with artefacts of the dead, things that are often milked for spookiness, but the mood here is actually one of wonder and reverence.
Tod Browning was clearly a key figure in the history of early horror cinema, and the contribution of his film, Dracula to the development of Universal’s scary movie sideline is by no means downplayed – but neither are the film’s weaknesses. Later, Gatiss discusses Browning’s Freaks and he’s again even-handed, identifying the film’s flaws as well as successes. We get a brief, firm and fair look at two of Browning’s best known and most important films, and it’s such a relief Gatiss doesn’t fall into the kind of swooning to have blighted many other retrospectives….
Except… Well. I’ll get to his treatment of Val Lewton in a moment.
3. John Carpenter Puts Cat People In a Bag, Throws It In the River
I’m not sure I agree with John Carpenter’s dismissal of Jacque Tourneur’s Cat People, but I definitely understand it. His specific criticisms are so… well, so John Carpenter that they enlighten us as much to his own filmmaking style and outlook as that of Tourneur. This little interview segment was my personal highlight of the episode, and not least because it brings together two wildly different eras of horror film making at a single point of debate.
Gatiss appears to have Val Lewton on the brain. He refers shock technique of “bussing”, named after the sudden, loud appearance of a bus in a suspenseful, quiet scene of Cat People, as “Lewton bussing”. This is a rather less common name, but it sure gets the Lewton love in there. And do listen carefully during the Cat People discussion to compare how many times Gatiss mentions producer Lewton as opposed to Jacques Tourneur, the man who directed the film.
4. The Eastbourne Legacy
There’s a story in the film about the later life of Bela Lugosi that stands completely apart from the events seen Tim Burton’s biopic of Ed Wood. Gatiss travels to Eastbourne to find out just what Lugosi was doing there in his later days, and even gets to speak with one of his collaborators. This was a somewhat more dimensional filling-out of something I’d only ever read about in passing before. The Englishness of the sequence is befitting of Gatiss too, and another way in which his personality seeps into every nook and cranny of the programme.
Which, of course, brings me to…
I’m not really a fan of The League of Gentlemen, and Gatiss’ episodes of Doctor Who are not at all amongst my favourites, but here he proves to be a rather superb host. He’s informed, quietly opinionated, and definitely in love with horror movies; his narration is concise and, while there’s an awful lot he doesn’t mention (in the admittedly tight running time) this selectiveness does give us a clearer idea of his biases, his sense of priority and importance in this very personal history.
There are two episodes remaining, each of them dealing with a different era of horror filmmaking, and I’ll be keen to see how all three come together to provide a cogent overview. For the Universal and RKO era, however, this first instalment does very nicely. Don’t miss. And I’d strongly recommend staying with the channel for James Whales’ tremendous Bride of Frankenstein afterwards.
UPDATE: I want to hear what you thought of the show, down in the forum.