Tonight’s the night that Mark Gatiss’ personal History of Horror comes to a close on BBC4. Before I get on to praising it, I have a key criticism to get off of my chest.
After the first episode dealt mainly with the Universal monsters and Val Lewton’s corner of RKO, all pictures originally shot in something like a 4:3 Academy ratio, the second and third take us into a TV-era age of multiple aspect ratios. As is all too common, any clips used that don’t comply with the 16:9 format of the newly shot interview and talking head footage have been cropped. Gatiss’ preaches respect for these films, but the handling of the show’s look belies how this attitude was not extended through every element of the production. At best, this is a symptom of ignorance.
For the third episode the focus is on a wave of pioneering horror films that followed in the wake of Psycho. Indeed, I think the implication Gatiss leaves, that Psycho was the catalyst for a sea change in horror, is a solid observation. Furthermore, while his argument that Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was another key moment is hardly original, I’d contest that it’s also true.
Overall, this “American Nightmare” era of newly-empowered, socially and politically responsive films from the America of the 60s and 70s have been incredibly well documented – and far more comprehensively than here. Gatiss’ appears, quite refreshingly, to be addressing a non-Horror hardcore audience. How true his aim is, and how many uninitiated viewers the show manages to draw in (and, actually, now initiate) I couldn’t guess, but the best of Gatiss’ script should at least entertain both fans and neutrals.
As a dyed-in-the-wool advocate for the power, importance and relevance of horror cinema, I’d actually take some small issue with how Gatiss concludes. He seems to find contemporary horror movies rather less interesting, or intelligent, or even worthwhile than those he would have first met in his youth. He uses a bit of a wheedle, suggesting there are “some exceptions” to his whitewash, but I simply think he’s watching the wrong horror films – or is now just too grown up to feel the impact in the same way.
Here’s a highpoint: John Carpenter appears again, for the third time in three episodes. This time he’s drawn on the matter of his own films and, oddly, it isn’t quite as fascinating as hearing him talk about the work of others. But it’s still more than worthwhile, and while they barely scratch the surface of Halloween, Carpenter’s interview with Gatiss still left me smiling.
There’s some discussion of The Exorcist, and in particular the key moment in which the possessed Regan speaks in the words and the voice of a homeless man seen earlier in the film. Gatiss’ reads this as a suggestion that “the Devil is everywhere”, and while he isn’t clear, I was wondering if he intended to say that the homeless man actually was the Devil? My reading is different – that the demon can look into Father Karras and see the guilt he’s carrying for turning his back on the homeless man, and knows just how to wield this knowledge. Nonetheless, we agree that it’s one of the best moments in the film – though it was also obvious that Gatiss is rather more convinced by the film overall than I.
I’m sad to see the series end. I hope to see a home video release, hopefully with deleted footage – likely Carpenter getting stuck into a long list of the other films featured throughout – but I’m not too hopeful. The need to clear all of the clips would probably be enough to dissuade the BBC.
The last episode of Mark Gatiss’ A History of Horror screens tonight at 9pm on BBC4 and will be both repeated and available via the iPlayer throughout the rest of the week. Don’t miss.