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Tabula Rasa

Splinters in the Mind's Eye

Part 2: Darkening Shadows

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#3, 1994

Part 1

Somewhere along the line I said that modern technology existed to make life easier, or words to that effect. Of course, this generally means easier for the recipient of whatever is being achieved, and not for the poor buggers who have to actually design, test, implement and fix the application in question (I'm sure the recipient's of aim number three are particularly grateful for the attention).

But what I'm getting at here is that while television is pretty much the easiest thing in the world to consume, actually getting it onto the screen is a more arduous task, and coming up with a winning formula that is both worth watching and that people do watch requires something special. In part one we saw one of the most popular and long-lasting solutions to the puzzle, the anthology show. And while it's popularity can't be questioned, I'd suggest that this isn't the best way to utilise the technology -- it's simply the easiest option, and television can present a great deal more than just different stories every week. So let's look at some of the alternatives, and see if the full power of the medium can be attained.

The closest cousin to the anthology show are shows such as Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1972-75, 20 eps), The X-Files (1993-94, 24 eps) and even Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-90, 72 eps). These show the adventures of a continuing cast versus the monster of the week. The latter one is quite interesting and has had some success, concerning the search for cursed items originating in an old shop (and nothing to do with Jason or his Mum). Kolchak's also an interesting case, though once past the first movie the word 'gratuitous' starts becoming more and more apt. The first movie (tele-movie is the better word of course, as we're still talking made-for-television, but we're not concerned with that form here) was great, Richard Matheson doing what he does best, and Darren McGavin's weary visage drew over seventy five million viewers -- the biggest audience for a tele-movie to that date. A sequel was inevitable, a series only marginally less so.

This is when the trouble starts, and particularly so in this case, with a character initially designed for a one-off feature (or rather, adapted as such from Jeff Rice's then unsold novel The Kolchak Tapes). Carl Kolchak is a reporter who, over the course of The Night Stalker (directed by Dan Curtis), becomes disillusioned with his paper and the authorities as they seem more concerned with their own image than with reporting the facts and saving lives. The movie has a prologue and epilogue of Kolchak in a seedy hotel room, lost in an alcoholic haze, lamenting his lost love, and narrating his tale out of what seems sheer habit.

In the second movie, The Night Strangler (Matheson and Curtis again), he's back on form, rehired (in a different city, but with the same boss), and he still can't believe they won't print his story. Then comes the TV show, in which our cynical hero just keeps going after more and more outrageous greeblies. It was done well enough to have a respectable following, but didn't necessarily make much sense.

In horror particularly, a character's view on life is going to be hard pressed keeping in some sort of reasonable shape, particularly if they're an easily identifiable audience surrogate. Often then, it is preferable to have the main character somebody who is both better able to cope with life on the edge, and can maintain sympathy and a respectable distance from the viewers. Two good examples of this premise are Werewolf (1987-88, pilot plus 28 eps, worryingly created by Frank Lupo) and Forever Knight (1991, 22 episodes).

Werewolf was shown on local TV back at the same time as my high school craze with The Twilight Zone [1]. John J York was the hero of the piece (if you don't include Rick Baker's excellent FX, of course -- this was the man who got an Oscar for American Werewolf and is doing the honours on Wolf) and, yes, he's a werewolf, and would much rather not be. Thus the continuing impetus of the story is our hero fighting his own instincts, and nicely sandwiched between the law (a bounty hunter who soon discovers the advantages of silver), and the evil immortal he has to kill to, hopefully, become human again. It's a chase show, and just as Monkey would never get to India [2], these three would never resolve their conflict, and a host of different situations could be encountered week by week.

It's impossible to say just what the format of an 'average' episode of Forever Knight is like based on Australian screening thus far, as we've only had the pilot (a movie-length story cut in half) plus one before it was rudely removed. Certainly it was the adventures of Nick Knight, Vampire Policeman, and his own quest to become human (you wish these guys had read Tales of the Body Thief don't you, wherein Lestat did become human again and realised just what a wretched proposition it is). The series did seem to be setting itself up for a more interesting structure than Werewolf, with the 'evil' vampire [3] almost sympathetic as he asks Nick not to fight his own nature, while the side of law and order is Nick's own feelings of guilt, not to mention a hip pathologist trying to get him off the habit. Hell, even introducing Joan of Arc into the story was done well, and they did some really good things with a number of situations. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to any further adventures screened, and the program itself is returning to production after a long break for another twenty-six episodes starting in the next couple of months.

These examples have been in a fairly standard action/adventure format with twists, but that's not all the genre is capable of, by any means. It's been said that television's only real contribution to diversifying art forms is the music video (though I don't think we'll go into John Landis' Thriller at just this moment), but the sitcom and soap opera must be pretty close. It is not quite true to say that fantastical elements in such shows were only seen in the sixties, but efforts since then have been somewhat lacking, and it is The Addams Family (1964-66, 64 eps) and Dark Shadows (1966-71, 1225 eps, produced by Dan Curtis who would later do the Kolchak movies) that provide the quintessential example of each.

I probably don't need to say too much about The Addams Family as its recent popularity has left it readily familiar to modern audiences. Let me say again though, that it is the air of dignity and of self-assurance that makes the original show stand out so well, and even with the increased budget and macabre sensibilities of the modern movie versions, John Astin and Carolyn Jones made the roles of Gomez and Morticia their own, unsurpassed. "In an age where non-conformity was beginning to be regarded as an asset, not a liability, [they were] TV's proto-punks" [28 attrib]. In comparison The Munsters was just sad [4].

Memories

These examples don't necessarily have much relevance to a history or overview of the genre, but let me share some of my own recollections of the idiot box and its quest to get me behind the sofa.

Doctor Who figured largely of course, and my first memories of it are of Tom Baker being menaced by the Loch Ness Monster in Terror of the Zygons. Indeed Season 14ish, season 26 and various bits of the rest are still of great interest to the horror fan. Here is a show which gets around the problems of the main character's continuing development by practically refusing to allow it to occur -- presenting a hero who works best when at his most enigmatic, at once selfish and selfless, arrogant and willing to be amazed.

The Little Vampire was a Canadian show that (like The Girl From Tomorrow, actually) was a children's show that appealed to me later in life. It was the quintessential lonely kid fantasy and once again succeeded by portraying its supernatural elements (the vampire Rudiger and his sister Anna, who was always willing to induct the hero with 'only a little bite') with sense and dignity. It's always interesting to see what elements they overlook in this sort of thing, such as the complete absence of crucifix imagery.

The two things which really managed to scare me at an early age, however, was an episode of a BBC show The Eagle of the Ninth, about Roman occupied Britain -- the conflict of religion was a major theme and this particular episode finished with a clay bowl full of blood shattering without apparent cause. The build up was incredible and the moment truly etched. Secondly there was an episode I always thought was part of The Tomorrow People, but was instead something called Skye. Here a young boy was revealed to be an abomination against nature and he had to struggle out of a house as the numerous pot-plants and surrounding vegetation went on the attack. He was put into a cave for safe-keeping, and found next morning desperately warding off tree roots. Really nasty.

Dark Shadows, on the other hand, was a successful show that Australian audiences are almost completely unaware of, though it has played here now and again at odd hours. Whilst maintaining a constant fan club in the US its resurgence probably came a year or two early -- a thirteen hour mini-series of the show was made in 1991, just before the current obsession with old material that is leading to such big budget successes. It was a series that didn't start out with a clear sense of direction bar a desire to recapture the subtle nuances of the old Gothic, but soon evolved into an intricate and none too subtle melting pot of incredible ideas, from murder and curses and flashbacks, to parallel time streams and severed heads, all revolving around the character Barnabas Collins, Vampire (usually, and who wasn't even introduced until ten months in). To give you an idea of the action, let me quote a single paragraph from Kathleen Resch's twenty-eight page summary of Barnabas' ordeals:

Barnabas once again finds a Josette substitute, this time Rachel Drummond, governess to the two Collin's children, Jamison and Nora, but the beginnings of this romance are squashed when Angelique once again pops up (because Quentin and one of his Satanist friends were summoning the devil -- they got her instead). She insists that Barnabas introduce her to everyone as his fiancee, and threatens to ruin his mission if he doesn't. His regard for his family at this time being greater than his loathing for her, he agrees. Rachel would later die of a gunshot wound [135].
This was a show that didn't mess around and (judging from the plot summary, I'm afraid) managed a really nice continuing structure, with both variety and the resolution of long-standing dilemmas (Angelique, who originally cursed Barnabas to become a vampire and to see all those he loves die, became the last of many victims of her own curse, loving and dying, and the circle was complete).

Another of the many complaints against television is the amount of material that has to be generated, usually without enough time nor money. Dark Shadows took this to extremes and still managed to keep its audience watching -- a quick calculation shows they were pumping out about two hundred episodes a year for six years (or about once for each day you attended school between years 7 and 12, in the same time period).

Finally there are those television shows whose basic strategy is to simply out-weird their audience in order to generate the necessary demands of providing characters which will remain interesting over some period of time. The two most obvious examples here are The Prisoner (1967-68, 17 eps) and Twin Peaks (1989-91, 31 eps).

The Prisoner may not be familiar to many Australians as it was never screened here at all, though it generated a huge cult following in its native Britain and the United States. It's not really horror, but then it's hardly about espionage either, and any show dedicated to mind-fucking its principle character (not to mention the audience) is close enough for me. It was created by and starred Patrick McGoohan (who strangely turns up as a manipulative old scientist in Cronenberg's Scanners) and concerns a secret agent who has resigned from his position, and he's brought to the Village by somebody, and subjected to various physical and psychological tortures to determine just why he resigned in the first place.

The best of the episodes have a sort of hypnotic quality that can draw its audience into its own mind-games, and though the resolution is occasionally trite, it can often produce just the opposite effect. It's firmly in the British tradition of disgust at totalitarianism, and though I am not a great fan of it's style, it certainly has exerted no little influence.

Firmly in the David Lynch tradition, and too new for its influences to be properly charted (though pretty damn spectacular, in a number of cases) comes you-know-what. This was pretty much the reason television was invented in the first place, so that's all right.

I need more space than that available to discuss the series in any detail, but it is interesting to conjecture whether or not it would have been able to continue indefinitely had it not been cancelled. Certainly the latter episodes weren't as strong as the first season, but weren't too bad either (and I happened to like the last ep, which seemed to draw outrage from more devout fans).

Television offers the chance to see characters develop and change over a period of time, the full power of the medium, something that even the movie sequel has trouble portraying (Addams Family Values is an interesting case here). Indeed many series have trouble maintaining development and keeping the original rationale intact. The Prisoner had a definite beginning and end. Scully can't keep up her scepticism forever, and perhaps even Monkey will reach India.

Twin Peaks was doing it, in a variety of ways, some not so interesting (right, Audrey?), but it was doing it. Flux and change. Like a soap opera with endless schemes and marriages, or music video with its attention span of about three seconds, or up-to-the-minute reporting.

Television is a volatile medium, mostly dross, mostly ephemeral. But it has its moments and, otherwise, the off-switch isn't that hard to find.

Bibliography

[18] Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, Stephen King, Futura, London, 1981.

[28] The Addams Chronicles, Stephen Cox, Harper Perennial, New York, 1991.

[86] Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media, Les Daniels, Granada, London, 1977, c1975.

[94] The Television Late Night Horror Omnibus, by Peter Haining (ed), Orion, London, 1993.

[134] Epi-Log #3, Jim Mires (ed), ???, January 1991. And other various issues we sneaked a look at in the shops.

[135] Dark Shadows in the Afternoon, Kathleen Resch and Marcy Robin, Image Publishing, New York, 1991.

[136] The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto, Back Bay Books, Boston, 1993, c1983.

* Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Berthe Roeger, in Fangoria #3, O'Quinn Studios, New York, December 1979.

* Forever Knight Lives On, Michael Charles Rowe, in Fangoria #121, Starlog Communications, New York, April 1993.

* Interview with Jamie Leonardo, on JJJ-FM, Sydney, 1st July, 1994. In which he expounds about game shows and the like.

* Halliwell's TV Companion, Leslie Halliwell with Philip Purser, Paladin Books, London, 1985. It's Halliwell all right, who else would start a TV companion with an essay called 'What's the matter with Television?'

* Tales From the Crypt Trading Cards, Cardz Distribution Inc, Texas, 1993.

Notes

[1] Almost exactly the same time, that is, as the shows shared about five minute's similtaneous airtime on Thursday nights, much to my great annoyance and some programmer's twisted delight. Not to mention that only the first fourteen or so of the episodes were shown anyway.
[2] Did you know Monkey was edited to reduce a reasonably high-level violent conent? And you thought the fight scenes were just naturally chaotic.
[3] I don't know about Body Thief, but somebody's read The Vampire Lestat -- the fair-haired, impetuous Lacroix, his gentler, dark-haired 'friend' Nicholas, both in Paris -- sounds rather familiar, yes? The actual character was debuted in the 1990 TV movie Nick Knight, played by Rick Springfield. It never became a series and Paragon Entertainment took the premise and started again.
[4] The difference between these shows is duplicated and brought out even stronger in another pairing from the same era, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. The former program was a conflict between two well-defined cultures, interlocked far greater than either would admit -- matriarchal versus patriarchal, an obsession with style versus an obsession with means -- and the Alien Princess, weary of her own world and trying to fit into another -- without much success, but some incentive (mainly sex, actually, the rapport between Samantha and Darrin is always sexual [5]). Jeannie had the sex, at least it had Barbera Eden in a skimpy outfit, but no greater conflict or rationale to back it up. In a desperate effort to make this footnote applicable, I'll say that Cousin Itt was mentioned as being in Samantha's family (but only in a dream sequence), and they adapted a D. H. Lawrence short story, and there's an episode, Sam's Spooky Chair, which is actually a huge (and quite subtle, until noticed) in-joke about Alfred Hitchcock, and, uh, it's really good, so there.
[5] In which they were not alone. Morticia and Gomez seemed to be on a constant pheromone high and Herman and Lily Munster were the first sitcom couple shown to share a bed.
 

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