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Tabula Rasa

Splinters in the Mind's Eye

Part 1: The Host

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#3, 1994

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena, the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye. Therefore the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore television is reality, and reality is less than television.
Dr Brian O'Blivion
Videodrome

And thank you Mr Cronenberg, for those words of comfort for us all.

Modern technology seems to have three main aims. (Or rather, the people that build it do, for let's not get caught in the trap of the machine versus the machinist, which is a larger topic than we need discuss now. If your television refuses to play Neighbours on general principles, then it's time to go and re-read Frankenstein.) These three aims are, of course, reducing physical labour and risk, spreading information and blowing the other person into as many pieces as possible.

There is all sorts of debate about which, if any, of these aims are desirable, and, naturally enough, most people are diving in and doing things, leaving the debate to others, or for later. It's not only the way the world works, but I have my suspicions that it wouldn't work any other way. Now the first aim has been pretty much accepted by all and sundry as a nice thing to have -- the Luddites have long gone. The third one is of more pressing concern, and it is my firm belief that horror fiction is a great argument against violence -- horror is concerned with characters, with stripping away the surface detail of both violators and victims and showing us the human in each. I say it a lot, and I said it again, but it is not our main concern here.

Our concern, and indeed that of this whole issue, is the pursuit of information. In the introduction to the censorship section I'll mention one reason why the debate over this subject is being fought so severely, but here is another one. With most television these days we have to start wondering, not about whether we are able to have access to all that the world has to offer, but whether we should bother.

Let's get it out of the way and repeat Mr. King quoting Mr. Ellison. TV does not suck, it is sucked, and the teat is poisoned. And further, 'it has become a like a fat old spayed tomcat dedicated to the preservation of the status quo and to the concept of LOP -- Least Objectionable Programming. Television is, in fact, like that fat, wimpy kid who most of us can remember from our childhood neighbourhoods, the kid who was always picked on because he was always afraid of being picked on.' [18].

Let's not worry now about the fact that television, with all its faults, plays such an important, almost defining, role in many people's lives. That it is, in general, pureéd pop culture. And let me say that I'm currently watching about six hours a week of the stuff (which is, for various strange reasons, more than it's been for a long time) and I have no desire to watch more or less than this, but I still scan the TV guides to see if something interesting comes on, and sometimes it does [1].

In other words, let's not talk so much about television as the good bits of television, exercise some of our supposed power to choose what we do and don't want to see. The fat, wimpy kid that everybody picks on may have led a wretched life, but also has some stories to tell.

The history of horror on television is really the history of the anthology show, and while there are other types of program that are simply better suited to the medium, this is the oldest and most dependable of the formats. And it all started less than fifty years ago, in 1949.

In theory the anthology show should be reasonably hard to talk about, simply because they are made up of a large number of different stories, with no continuing characters and a variety of writers and directors. In practice this isn't too much of a problem, because a large number of the these shows have their own unique style and rationale. The most obvious example is the Twilight Zone tale, which is pretty much a well-defined subset of fantasy, but there are many others, from straight mystery to macabre comeuppances. It is the producer's role, in most cases, to maintain this constancy (along with other factors such as budgetary constraints), and certainly this sort of 'behind-the-crew' job is of far more interest than their cinematic counterparts.

The earliest TV show of interest to us first appeared in 1946 America as four 'specials', only becoming a regular series three years later. This was Lights Out (1949-51), a program introduced with a close-up on a pair of eyes and a bloody hand reaching for the light switch. Its rationale was the 'thunderstorm mystery' and featured haunted houses, the walking dead and other such devices to unsettle the unwary tuned in for a half hour at nine pm, Tuesdays. As well as presenting stories especially written, it had already divined the marvellous wellspring of previous horror authors and adapted stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

Buy Me

Good evening. When I was a young man, I had an uncle who frequently took me out to dinner. He always accompanied these dinners with minutely detailed stories about himself. But I listened -- because he was paying for dinner. I don't know why I'm reminded of this, but we are about to have one of our commercials.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Television has been, like no other medium, defined by the commercialism that surrounds it. Indeed, in the States this was a far more explicit control pre-60s when shows would have a single sponsor and it was, almost literally, the advertising executives that controlled content. This all changed during a huge scandal when it was revealed that all the game shows on the air at the time were in fact rigged, and the outcry moved the industry closer to the situation we know today (and all the old game shows were axed (and all the ad men become TV executives)).

Horror has been among the most affected, not only because it's hard to sustain mood around people having orgasms over chocolate bars, but also because advertisers are nervous putting their money into something of 'questionable taste'. Targeting this group is still the major tactic of censorship organisations. It is important to realise there are alternatives. I recently saw a great little doco from Britain on Clive Barker which managed to be pretty explicit in content and had only a single short commercial break, dividing the program into two neatly labelled halves.

The actual ads themselves are a different topic -- basically little slabs of alternate reality where a given product actually matters. Naturally enough they're generally annoying -- being loud and noticed is the best strategy in this game. I've heard it said that they should also provide some socially redeeming function, which seems slightly odd in context. Mind you, while I tend to agree that people can choose to spend their own money on what they think suitable, I also think that the networks should stick with their audience rather than products looking for one, which ain't necessarily so.

One thing is true, advertising provides another route whereby talent can make itself known and work up to greater things. Ridley Scott, Jodie Foster and George Romero come immediately to mind as three who got their start selling things.

As Alfred Hitchcock said, radio is just television with the tube blown, and Lights Out was based upon a very successful radio program of the same name (in turn developed from Everyman's Theatre). The original show-cased the talents of one Arch Oboler, a craftsman of the audial medium (he came up with the one about the giant chicken heart and, more importantly, he made it work) who would later do good work in the cinema. And since we're talking about the radio (which needs an essay in itself) we should mention another American show, Inner Sanctum, whose actor Raymond Johnson and producer Himan Brown came up with, in 1941, the now-familiar concept of the worrisome host introducing each story in the series.

Lights Out followed this recently begun tradition with Jack La Rue as the presenter, and its initial transition to the visual was produced by Frank Coe.

But it wasn't alone for long, and 1949 was a date also shared by the British Appointment with Fear (1949-55) and the American Suspense (1949-53). These were also adapted from radio, and Appointment with Fear is particularly interesting. Its speciality was the locked room mystery and had commenced in 1943, the creation of the American writer John Dickson Carr. The radio version was narrated by the enormously popular Valentine Dyall, 'the Man in Black', who would go on to his own radio series as well as present the TV version (getting caught up in the action on occasions, I am told). Dyall spent many years in various mediums, and though he died in 1985, he is possibly still known by many fantasy fans as the Black Guardian from Doctor Who (as well as appearing in The Goon Show and the Doctor Who radio play Slipback). Once again the program was a mixture of new material and adaptions of the likes of Poe and Stevenson.

The third of this early trio, Suspense, was essentially similar, hosted by Sebastian Cabot and ten years after its initial run was revived briefly as a film series.

These were all successful programs, serving the cause at the initial stages of the West's most paranoid hours. There were a number of others as well into the Fifties such as The Web, Danger and The Clock, as well as a fair representation of straight drama, along with crime, science fiction and a whole range of other themes. It would not have been the easiest of times, and if you think advertisers hold unreasonable sway these days, well, see the accompanying box for more details.

One particular program managed not only to present fine examples of the televised art, it managed to become enormously popular and say rude things about its sponsors, all starting in 1955. It was at the urging of the MCA talent agency's Lew Wasserman who believed that a certain director could increase his audience from millions to tens of millions. It wouldn't have taken too much convincing, this certain director had a keen eye for self-promotion, and his popularity and instantly recognisable style not only drew in the viewers but also the money. The director was Alfred Hitchcock, murder was on his mind and he earned something like $129,000 for each half-hour program, those he didn't direct, that is.

I mention money because it's an important consideration in television. In fact it's the consideration, but I digress.

Anyway, it all came off beautifully, and lasted in its original format till 1961, when the half hour show was turned into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which lasted till 1964. The main advantage it had over its predecessors was that it was pre-recorded and could aim for a much higher level of technical proficiency. And while only eighteen were directed by Hitchcock (whose only other TV work was a miscellaneous episode each of Suspicion and Ford Starline) the stories themselves bore the unmistakable stamp of his style. Black humour and gruesome incident and innocent façades hiding pathological and sexual deviances. All suitable for 1950's television of course, though he was stretching the limits about as far as they would go. It was part of the moral code at the time that the bad guys must be bought to justice. This often wasn't the case in the stories themselves, and would be added as an afterthought by Hitch himself.

And there were his introductions, which were pure undistilled Hitchcock, and they were wonderful. He wasn't a writer, though he could choose them well enough and in this case it was one James B. Allardice who provided the words. But he had been given explicit instructions, and Hitch's delivery made it perfect.

But even this was only a pre-cursor, for the horror TV anthology show was still a couple of years from its finest hour. We have spoken briefly about a show's particular rationale, and in 1959 the first of a trio appeared that would provide the clearest definition of the overall form. I've already mentioned The Twilight Zone (1959-64, 151 eps), and its comrades in harm were The Outer Limits (1963-65, 49 eps) and Thriller (1960-62, 69 eps).

The Zone was pretty much the exclusive baby of one Rod Serling, host, creator and principle writer. Now here was a man who had found his place, an ex-parachutist and boxing champ, he captivated his audience with his brand of quiet, creepy morality play. He would later go on to host, with less creative input, The Night Gallery (1969-73) and its bastard cousin Sixth Sense (1972), as well as write a number of cinematic screenplays, but not to the same acclaim. The only thing to compare The Zone's success to is probably Star Trek for sheer recognition factor, though Serling's show was appreciated more at the time than Roddenberry's (and was, if I may say, somewhat better constructed). And while an argument can be given to the effect that the program doesn't actually belong in a history of horror at all, it certainly was meant to unsettle its audience, and some of the other writers, most notably Richard Matheson and even Bradbury himself, were producing chillers.

There is no doubt about the remaining two of the trilogy, though The Outer Limits was nominally a science fiction program. In reality it was a monster of the week show, each episode came complete with what Joseph Stefano, the guiding creative force for most of the run [2], along with Leslie Stevens, called the 'bear'. Sometimes they looked pretty silly, but they were handled with style and a dark noir sensibility that won acclaim, not to mention the opening credits which have achieved their own immortality. We can control the horizontal. We can control the vertical.

And Thriller was the most overtly, perhaps proudly, horror show, certainly closer to the traditional roots of the genre. One episode, for instance, was contemporarily described as 'an outrageous mad scientist tale jammed with Gothic trappings -- a house with secret corridors, zombified cadavers... and so on' [94], and to make it complete an eighty year old Boris Karloff lent both his name and a large amount of dignity to proceedings as host and occasional actor (indeed the series really had its roots way back in that magic year of 1949 with a TV show called Starring Boris Karloff, then Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff, neither format working at the time). While matters sexual and profane weren't to be seen on TV screens of the time, don't believe it was all sugar and spice. Particularly in the period before Kennedy's assassination television was displaying frequently and (to an extent) graphically violent crime shows, the likes of The Untouchables, and it was in this environment that Thriller achieved the success it did. Even the adapted material was becoming more relevant and while older shows had used Poe and Hawthorne, it was exploiting the Lovecraft generation [3].

As must already be apparent, TV depends a great deal on previous work, taking the short stories and, in rarer instances the writers themselves in it's eternal quest to fill up the airtime. And while shows like Thriller were doing the best they could, somebody discovered an alter-native that no TV program could better.

Old movies.

It was known as Shock Theatre and it distributed the old Universal films, and a great deal more, coast to coast, to audiences far larger than ever before. I don't want to delve too deeply into movies on television, after all, it is not their native medium and they generally suffer in the translation (I can think of one exception, as I prefer the TV version of The Omen I've seen, where the only cut was the concatenation of nine shots of a head rolling down into one. But even this is with the ads edited out and in comparison to the video, and I do suspect seeing it at the cinema would be nice indeed. There are of course many, many other examples of the sheer pointlessness of a TV version, other than as an indication of a movie's good points that can be later tracked down for full impact). But Shock Theatre (referring to the initial distribution package) added one ingredient that was already quintessential TV, and that was of course the host. John Zacherle, known initially as Roland and most famously as Zacherley (sic), was the best of them. It was he who started the somewhat irreverent (but generally amusing) habit of inserting himself into a story. A scene in a morgue would cut to Zacherley on the slab, waving. Or perhaps he'd be dressed up as a peasant, complete with the obligatory burning torch.

I have a theory that, ads and all, the experience of late night horror is almost an ideal way to enjoy the genre. You need the right movie of course, anything by Hammer is particularly conducive to mood, and you need to wrap yourself in a blanket and be alone in the room, if not the house. It's an environment where suspension of belief is easiest to achieve, and has a spontaneity lacking in picking a video or going out for the evening. Again I'm not trying to imply this shows the movies in their best light, but it's an experience worth having. And the host is also an important element. Elvira is really the only one to have hit these shores in recent memory (and that hasn't been for a while, come to think of it) but she knew how to pick 'em. Not including her sporadic appearances, the last long-term Creature Feature spot was back on Channel Seven during my HSC year. I wish I'd actually watched most of them. Bugger.

But back to that which was actually made for television. We've looked at a reasonable number of horror anthology shows, and there were a lot more of them in the periods in question. Neither was the 70s lacking, though nothing really stands out as exceptional, and as well as producing one of the first, Britain was having its own successes with Late Night Horror (1967-68, actually designed specifically to give BBC personnel experience in making colour TV), Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88, 110 eps, a vehicle for Roald Dahl's twisted imagination) and even Hammer's House of Horrors (1980, 13 eps) and Hammer's House of Mystery and Suspense (1984-86, 13 90-minute eps) [4].

Now we're getting slightly closer to home, certainly closer to what's available in your local video store. In fact the wide availability of videos has had a reasonable impact on the television industry, particularly in what might be called the 'cult' sections, in which horror falls dead centre. It is becoming a form which will be taped by the fans -- a significant if not overwhelming part of the audience -- perhaps watched several times and compared with other stories, in the same series or elsewhere.

This may be the case, demonstrably so in some instances, but it hasn't stopped another major force in the industry -- nostalgia. What is patently obvious in the world of cinema at the moment has been a force on the small screen for a few years longer. The two most obvious examples here are the literal remake of episodes (as well as some new material) from Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985, 80 eps, five years after his death, Hitch was equally droll in computerised colour) and The Twilight Zone (1985-87, 80 eps, Serling had died in 1975, and lived on only as a ghostly form in what are probably this sub-genre's best opening credits).

Perhaps surprisingly, the colour version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents comes off quite well. It had high production values and a seeming reverence for its material -- though of course making a feature out of the recycling of plots doesn't change the fundamental problem of the practise. The Twilight Zone handled the update better, starting with attending to one of the main drawbacks of the original -- fixed length stories (some of the old eps would take a good twist and ten minutes of story and, by necessity, stretch it mercilessly into half an hour). But I'm going to be stricter here and say that the lack of horror content becomes a real problem. Once again the chillers are there (the best I've seen of late is Nightcrawlers, directed by William Friedkin no less) but a more sophisticated audience leaves the majority of material looking a little pointless [5].

There are always TV shows which just don't work particularly well and Monsters (1988) may have had individual triumphs but will serve well enough as an example. But let's pick on something a little more interesting, if only just. Freddy's Nightmares (1988-90, 44 eps) is the show for which the word gratuitous was invented. It has no real purpose for existing bar the fact that lots of people watch the movies, but it still manages to have a style and structure all its own.

Mr Englund himself does the hosting honours of course, and each ep is divided into two closely related halves. And symbolically it actually works, the better episodes really do pick up a particular theme and take it to its nightmarish conclusion. In execution (not to mention the all important gore-quotient for the movie fans) it falls far short of any ideal, but it's interesting to watch them trying.

And then there are the TV shows which work very well.

Despite what I've said about individual styles and the like, it still strikes me as a little strange that the continuing success of horror on television is so tied up in anthology shows. Perhaps it is simply an offshoot of the enormous popularity of the short story in the genre, and it can be argued that the short form can present horror at its most uncompromising. But this is television, and compromise is the name of the game. But whatever the form, one thing will always almost always guarantee success -- sheer talent. So it's perhaps not surprising that names of the calibre of George Romero and Richard Donner (of The Omen and many other things) are associated with the two best examples of a continuing modern anthology series (let's overlook Spielberg's Amazing Stories at this point -- much for the best).

Tales from the Darkside (1983-???, ??? eps, with Romero as an Executive Producer and occasional writer) perhaps sensibly dispensing with a host (bar the somewhat insipid credits), and more than that. It has seemingly sacrificed a well-defined style for the sake of variety, and individual stories move from straight horror to nice little character studies to straight comedy, and from less-than-successful stories to really good work. Well worth catching hold of.

And that's the least I can say about Tales From the Crypt (1988-, 65 eps, Donner acts as producer and occasional director) which maintains a standard between high and excellent. Based on the old EC comics its combination of macarbe humour, true shocks and energetic production values make for compelling viewing.

Maybe it's cheating just a little, however. It is, after all, made for cable and is able to circumnavigate a lot of the restrictions of conventional TV. But then, maybe working without restrictions actually allows better material to be created.

Fancy that.

And now, for a regularly scheduled break.
Don't go away.

Go to Part 2

Notes

[1] And let's not even consider the technology involved in broadcasting twenty-four frames a second of (usually) high-quality picture and audio signal over large areas. Even being able to pick up a single radio station out of the many broadcast boggles my mind.
[2] who started off as a composer and somewhere along the line wrote the screenwriter of Psycho. Incidentally, The Outer Limits (originally Please Stand By!) is also notable for being one of the first independent productions that was then sold to a network, in this case Daystar Productions selling to ABC.
[3] By this I mean the likes of Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, the Weird Tales group. Lovecraft himself wasn't adapted particularly often for TV, but since the movies haven't managed to do it properly, this comes as no great surprise. The writer was done some justice in the 70s in Serling's Night Gallery, with an adaptation of Pickman's Model that won great acclaim (mostly due to the efforts of make-up artists Leonard Engelman and John F. Chambers, who won an Emmy for their effort).
[4] On second thought, did anything happen in the seventies, other than an apparently watchable Lovecraft adaption? Why is it that all the good stuff is either nostalgia from the 60s or the more slick modern variety?
[5] I obviously wasn't that sophisticated in high school, and greatly enjoyed the first season or two, at least before the extra syndicated season dived into the boredom zone.

 

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