Sunday, July 25, 2010

September 18, 2009: Psychobabble Presents: A Horrible History of Horror TV!

Today is the 45th anniversary of the debut episode of “The Addams Family” and this September 24th finds “The Munsters” celebrating that same milestone. These two ooky, kooky birthdays have got me thinking about one of TV’s fringiest genres: the horror program. Horror has never gotten a claw-hold on the small screen the way it has in cinema houses, while dumb sitcoms, cop shows, and doctor shows continue to proliferate. Perhaps this is because it’s hard to sustain terror week after week on an episodic series. The anthology seems to be the horror program’s favored format, but it’s difficult to get viewers to tune in every week without familiar characters to follow. While a respectable number of horror shows have aired since TV’s cultural breakthrough in the 1950s, many of them were short-lived. Even indelible shows like “The Addams Family and “The Munsters” only lasted two seasons. But the appeal of even some of the most fleeting horror TV shows has endured long beyond their original airings.

Who is America’s most beloved family: The Munsters or the Addamses?

So the golden age of the Universal horror film had ended in the early 1940s when the genre had basically devolved into silly (but, let’s face it, wonderful) “monster rally” pictures in which Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man would find various ways to meet up and mete out mayhem. The last of these was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), a film that essentially ended the careers of Universal’s most celebrated spooks but also proved that horror and comedy could be successfully wed (more on that later). Then came the ‘50s. Horror seemed alive and well in the form of E.C.’s wonderful comic line that included Tales From the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, and The Vault of Horror, but a crack down from publicity-hungry psychiatrist Dr. Fred Wertham, who’d written a disparaging study called Seduction of the Innocent (1954) that spuriously linked horror comics to juvenile delinquency, led to a senate investigation that shut down the horror comic industry. The rise of science-fiction’s popularity also helped put horror to bed for much of the ‘50s. Suddenly drive-ins were inundated with nuclear-age fear films about giant tarantulas and ants that completely lacked the Gothic atmosphere of classic horror. Many parents and prigs and priggish parents no doubt heaved sighs of relief under the assumption that horror was dead. But much like the corpses in a George Romero movie, it was about to experience a second-life. And it would do so with plenty of help from an unlikely ally: television.

In the ‘50s, TV threatened to displace the movies as America’s favorite pastime. That’s when cunning filmmakers started looking to fresh and zany gimmicks like 3-D to lure viewers out of their living rooms and back into cinemas. Many of these gimmicks were married to cheapy horror movies, most notably those of master-huckster William Castle, but they didn’t really give the genre the revival it so needed. Rather it was TV’s “Shock Theater” (debuted in 1957) that really sparked off a renewed fascination in classic horror. Every night on “Shock Theater” a wise-cracking horror host trotted out one of 52 original Universal monster pictures, and for many kids in the ‘50s, it provided an eerie introduction to Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, and their ilk. No doubt inspired by E.C.’s “ghoulunatics”— the Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper, and the Old Witch— local “Shock Theater” hosts such as Zacherely in Philadelphia and Vampira in Los Angeles rose to international stardom. The movie series sparked off a renewed interest in horror that led Forrest J. Ackerman to launch his beloved magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. At the same time Hammer Studios in England started remaking many of the classics being broadcast on “Shock Theater”.

A “Shock Theater” ad for Lon Chaney Jr. in Son of Dracula. One of the greatest horror pictures ever made? Maybe not.

As horror films were enjoying new life on TV, their popularity started trickling down to original programming. 1959 saw the debut of “One Step Beyond” and “The Twilight Zone”, two science-fiction anthology series that often dealt with horrific subject matter like ghosts, witches, devil dolls, and a gremlin that only William Shatner could see. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” didn’t tend toward the supernatural, but it did bring murder into households every week from 1955 to 1962 (and 1962 to 1965, when it was expanded from 30 minutes to 60 and renamed “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour”). A popular and quite well-respected “Twilight Zone” rip-off called “The Outer Limits” took a piece of the action from 1963 to 1965.

By the ‘60s, the horror revival was in full gloom. Ackerman’s magazine became a fave among adolescent boys. Hammer was rolling out its bloody but stylish flicks to audiences throughout the globe, and pioneering indie-auteur Roger Corman had finally found his niche when he began producing a series of terrific pictures based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Even respected filmmakers like Hitchcock (Psycho, The Birds), Georges Franju (Eyes Without a Face), Michael Powell (Peeping Tom), and Roman Polanski (Repulsion) created artful and provocative horror films, although it wasn’t always to their benefits (Franju’s masterpiece was relegated to half of a double-feature with a schlock-o-rama B-picture called The Manster and the violent, controversial Peeping Tom almost ruined Powell’s career). Naturally, television could not offer anything as edgy as these films, but it did provide some monster-inspired entertainment in “The Munsters”, which starred a family based on Universal’s most famous creeps (dad’s a Frankenstein monster, sonny’s a werewolf, Grampa’s a Dracula) and “The Addams Family”, which was based on the deliciously macabre comic strip by New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams. “The Munsters” was a lightweight parody of the stale family-sitcom format embodied by dross like Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show. Instead of conventionally pert moms like Jane Wyatt and Donna Reed, “The Munsters” delivered the Vampira-esque Lily Munster (who, let’s face it, was way sexier than Wyatt, Reed, and the lot). As fun as “The Munsters” is, and as important as it is for providing lots of ‘60s kids with a gateway to more serious monster entertainment, it pales next to “The Addams Family”. Another spoof of family sitcoms, “The Addams Family” featured the lustiest marital relationship on TV (has there ever been a sitcom mom and dad as passionately in love as Carolyn Jones’s Morticia and John Astin’s Gomez?) and morbid jokes about murder, suicide, and sex that would never pass muster on contemporary network TV. Meanwhile, non-horror programs like “Route 66”, “The Lucy Show”, and “The Monkees” got in on the act by airing monster-themed episodes.

Dracula, Davy Jones-ula, and Wolf Man Micky Dolenz on “The Monkees”

“The Addams Family” and “The Munsters” had become TV sensations almost as quickly as their formulas were regarded as moribund, and both programs heaved their last gasps in 1966. That same year, ABC debuted American TV’s first serious horror program, although it appeared in the schlocky soap opera format and took six months to introduce elements of the supernatural. When “Dark Shadows” began, it was merely a Gothic alternative to TV’s melodramatic modern-day soaps. Then six months into its run, ghosts were introduced into the plotline. “Dark Shadows” didn’t really take off, though, until the first appearance of Barnabas Collins, a suave vampire played memorably by Jonathan Frid. The completely unprecedented horror-soap became a cult smash with increasingly unconventional ‘60s housewives— and their monster-obsessed kids— and soon the program was populated by witches, werewolves, zombies, and other creatures of the night.

At this point, horror seemed as though it had been fully integrated into popular culture. “Dark Shadows” enjoyed a successful five-year run on weekdays. In the early ‘70s, the monsterrific cartoon “Groovie Goolies” dazzled kids pumped up on Count Chocula-derived sugar buzzes every Saturday morning. “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” had been in perpetual syndication since they’d been canceled. Still, horror was never quite comfortable in its small screen incarnation and was in short supply on series TV throughout the ‘70s. Rod Serling fared the best with three seasons of “Night Gallery” from 1970 to 1973, but the show failed to recapture the magic of “The Twilight Zone”. Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a highly rated made-for-TV movie based on Jeff Rice’s novel The Kolchak Papers, wowed TV viewers in 1972 with a story about a vampire-hunting reporter (Darren McGavin), but the series it spawned only survived 20 episodes. “Monster Squad”, a Saturday-morning series about a criminologist who employs Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster to help him fight crime, aired for a single season from 1976–1977, and its legacy has been limited to sharing a title with a 1987 film best remembered for the lame line “Wolf Man’s got nards.” Horror was enjoying a healthier life in the form of cheaply produced made-for-TV movies, which included a few good efforts like Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), Trilogy of Terror (1975), Louis Jourdan in Count Dracula (1977), and Salem’s Lot (1979). Some even helped launch the careers of future superstars like Wes Craven (Stranger in Our House [1978]) and Steven Spielberg (Duel [1971]).

Then came the 1980s. More than any decade before, the ‘80s suggested that horror had finally found its place on TV. It began across the pond with a wonderful product from Hammer Studios, which had ceased to make feature films four years earlier. “Hammer House of Horror” was a well-produced, sophisticated horror anthology series that finally treated the genre with a degree of seriousness not afforded it by sitcoms, kiddie shows, and soap operas. Nor was it a program like “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits” that perched more in the sci-fi camp than the horror. “Hammer House of Horror” was a full-blooded creep-fest replete with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, although it seems to have had relatively little influence on its American successors. The show that really revived the supernatural anthology in the ‘80s was “Tales From the Darkside”, a syndicated series masterminded by E.C. Comics-freak and “Living Dead” legend George Romero. The series lasted an impressive four seasons from 1984 to 1988, and its skin-crawling combo of pitch-black humor and creepy narration won it a cult audience on late-night TV. The show also lured an impressive roster of writers, including Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Harlan Ellison. One of the most revered writers in the genre got a show all to himself in 1985 when cable TV’s HBO launched “Ray Bradbury Theater”, an anthology of adaptations of the sci-fi / horror writer’s work. The series lasted a record-breaking six seasons (well, record breaking for a supernatural series, at least). Back on non-pay TV, Steven Spielberg offered “Amazing Stories”, which was more of a “Zone”-inspired sci-fi / horror hybrid than a pure-horror program like “Hammer House of Horror” or “Tales from the Darkside”. Still it boasted some of the most memorable TV shockers of the decade, particularly in a great episode titled “Go to the Head of the Class” in which a couple of high school kids play a prank that turns their nasty English teacher (played with psychotic glee by Christopher Lloyd) into a headless ghoul. “Amazing Stories” became a mid-‘80s sensation, but like so many of its otherworldly predecessors, it was not able to sustain its thrall over audiences and was canceled after just two seasons. Other anthologies like a revival of “The Twilight Zone” and “Friday the 13th: The Series” (no relation to the slasher film series) experienced similarly short runs. In 1987, the fledgling FOX network broke the anthology mode with “Werewolf”, a lycanthrope serial that owed a great debt to the “Incredible Hulk” program from the ‘70s. FOX paid the price for veering from convention as the show only survived 28 episodes.

Just as the ‘80s were on their way out, an anthology series splattered across the airwaves that finally delivered fully and remorselessly on the genre’s promise. Unlike “Tales from the Darkside”, HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” paid direct respect to E.C.’s horror comics, and the Crypt Keeper got a makeover as an animatronic talking corpse. While that character was actually kind of annoying, the series had terrific production values, strong scripts, top-notch actors, and most important of all, its place on cable TV allowed it to fully indulge in all the gore its black little heart desired. “Tales from the Crypt” was the most successful strictly horror series ever on TV, lasting an astounding seven seasons from 1989 to 1996, generating two feature films, and making a superstar of its yappy puppet host.

Horror continued to thrive on TV throughout the ‘90s in various guises. There was David Lynch and Mark Frost’s “Twin Peaks”, a genre-defying program that drew inspiration from several well-worn TV genres: cop show, soap opera, sitcom, and horror. Its demonic villain Killer BOB may be the scariest character in television history. Starved for some originality, audiences turned “Twin Peaks” into a sensation during its brief but damn-fine first season. When Lynch and Frost refused to solve the “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” mystery at the beginning of the second season, these viewers (many of whom had yet to become fully conditioned to unconventional television) grew frustrated and abandoned the show. The second season of “Twin Peaks” was tarnished with flagging ratings (ABC TV did it no favors by constantly switching time slots), but the foot of unusual television was now lodged firmly in the door. Several “post-Peaks” weirdies followed: “Northern Exposure”, “Picket Fences”, “American Gothic”, “Eerie, Indiana”, and most popular of all, “The X-Files”. Owing debts to both “Twin Peaks” (both shows featured David Duchovny as an FBI agent, although he was only a cross-dresser on “Peaks”) and “Kolchak”, “The X-Files” split its time fairly equally between sci-fi and horror, and it thrilled critics and a devoted cult of geeks alike. So did Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spin-off “Angel”—both featuring vampires that could apparently play in the sun as long as they’d packed their umbrellas. Most of these ‘90s horror shows upped the amount of graphic violence permissible on network television. In Denmark, auteur/provocateur Lars von Trier delivered “The Kingdom”, a bizarre, sepia-tone miniseries that melded “Twin Peaks”, The Shining, and “ER”. Kids were treated to “Goosebumps”, an anthology series based on the popular R.L. Stine books, and “Tales from the Crypt Keeper”, a kiddie cartoon spin-off of the adult series. The decade also saw less momentous works like "Poltergeist: The Legacy", an “Outer Limits” revival, and “Baywatch Nights”, an asinine attempt to adapt an implausibly popular show about tits into an “X-Files”-style supernatural investigative series.

Killer BOB and Cousin Maddie on “Twin Peaks”

Some of these shows that got their start in the 1990s, most notably the Whedon programs and “The X-Files”, helped carry horror into the new millennium, but few significant horror shows debuted in the ‘00s. There was yet another “Twilight Zone” revival (with Forrest Whitaker playing Rod Serling) and a Showtime series about a team of Grim Reapers called "Dead Like Me", which emphasized drama and comedy over chills, as did the network series “Reaper”. By far, my favorite creep-show of the ‘00s was a short-lived BBC series created by extraordinary comedian Steve Coogan called “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible.” The series is part “Hammer House of Horror”, part “Tales from the Crypt”, and all hilarious. Coogan is unrecognizable and brilliant as the Alfred-Hitchcock-Meets-the-Crypt-Keeper host, Dr. Terrible. Almost as grand as Coogan’s spoof is the BBC series “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”, a send up of von Trier’s “The Kingdom”, “Hammer House of Horror”, and Stephen King.

Steve Coogan was truly diabolical as Dr. Terrible

The majority of the ‘00s may indicate that the desecrated ground gained by horror TV in the ‘80s and ‘90s has rotted through. But despair not, fans! The massive popularity of HBO’s current vampire series “True Blood”— coupled with television’s devotion to beating trends to death— guarantees that we’ll no doubt see the danse macabre continue on the small screen in the coming decade (a show called “The Vampire Diaries” has already made its way to the new Fall TV schedule) . I for one say bring on the hit-and-miss anthologies, the tired revivals, the cable-TV gore-a-thons, and the wise-cracking sitcom mummies, because TV horror has to get its due sooner or later.
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