Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The big five: Scary TV

With apologies to House Next Door.

By and large, horror is not a genre that TV does well. Horror depends on putting characters in dire jeopardy; episodic TV depends on keeping them from it. You can juice this up by periodically killing a character (the Buffy model) or by turning your program into an ersatz anthology show (the Twilight Zone/X-Files model), but, in general, horror may be the hardest genre to do on TV. Here are five examples that, I think, actually work pretty well.

1.) The Twilight Zone -- "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"

The Twilight Zone is remembered, incorrectly, I think, as a horror show. It was really more of a science fiction show, and, indeed, the science fiction and allegorical elements are what works best now. Most of the stuff that probably seemed scary to those watching it in the 60s now just seems sort of laughable to contemporary audiences.

But not this episode. Written by science fiction/horror novelist Richard Matheson and directed by the esteemed Richard Donner, "Nightmare" is almost impossibly taut. As silly as the monster makeup looks now, the build-up to the close-ups on the monster is expertly done, as is that first shot of the shadowy figure making its way across the plane wing in the gloomy rain. All of this is anchored by William Shatner's just-this-side-of-hammy performance. The Shat has rarely been better, and The Twilight Zone was never scarier. I first encountered this episode during a New Year's Eve TZ marathon, and, even forty years after the episode's debut, it still cast an unsettling pall.

Also. . .The Simpsons made fun of it, so you know it's good.

2.) Garfield's Halloween Adventure

A personal choice, now.

I was not a horribly brave child. Overly sensitive to a fault, just the sound of scary music would send me into a fit of terrified paralysis (indeed, an earlier Garfield special also frightened me, largely because the characters confronted a panther -- something I had little to no experience with). So imagine how shocking I found THIS bit of Halloween goodness. Garfield and Odie go trick-or-treating and have the usual fun and hijinks and then, inexplicably, run into GHOST PIRATES.

Now, if you look above, you'll find that what frightened me was EXTRAORDINARILY mild, but this is still pretty intense for a kids' TV special, I would offer.

What made this all the worse is that all of my friends at school LOVED this special -- right down to the ghost pirates. So I pretended to have enjoyed it too, not letting on that I spent the entire last third of it with my face buried in a pillow.

Looking back now, I can see the design of the ghost pirates was pretty cool.

3.) Killer Bob from Twin Peaks

A lot of people found Killer Bob to be too concrete of a character to symbolize the rotten core of the town of Twin Peaks, but I find him to be marvelously unsettling (that almost unbroken shot above is maybe the most purely frightening moment I've seen on TV). While the character's purpose was sort of ludicrous, David Lynch's eye for scary-looking people (he apparently cast Killer Bob when he saw a crew member he thought looked frightening) lent every scene with Bob a chilling credulity. Lynch, like many great directors, lets happy accidents happen on set, and it's a shame his happy brand of paranoia hasn't meshed with television again.

4.) The X-Files -- seasons 1 through 5

The X-Files was the first successful pure horror series since The Twilight Zone. Heavily influenced by Twin Peaks (especially in its first season), the show crafted a mini-horror movie each week. Until it was undone by an increasingly lugubrious mythology, it was pitch-perfect entertainment -- the crime procedural as creature feature.

The best thing about an X-Files episode was often its teaser -- an artfully constructed horror piece that would tell the complete story of some extra's demise in a quick and easy fashion. The X-Files monsters were so cleverly conceived that the teaser always left you wanting to see just what the show's producers had dreamed up this week.

The show kind of fell apart in its last few seasons, but for those first few years, there was nothing scarier out there.

5.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- "Hush"

Buffy is another show that gets kind of an inflated reputation when it comes to scares. The show's true strengths were in its witty dialogue, its portrayal of community and its intricate plotting. But the fourth season episode Hush, with its creepy, floating fairy tale monsters, The Gentlemen, was genuinely terrifying. The clip above starts with the aftermath of The Gentlemen stealing the voices of everyone in town (so they can't scream when The Gentlemen remove their hearts), but quickly segues into a silent night when The Gentlemen float through town, their lumbering sidekicks loping along. The scene where Giles' girlfriend, Olivia, gets up and sees one at the window is masterfully timed.

I could have, of course, listed many other series, but I wanted to hear what TV has scared all of you (and I feel horribly remiss in not mentioning Unsolved Mysteries at all, as that was a standard scarer for my classmates and me back in the day).

And here's a bonus cartoon for you (who knows why Garfield scared me and this didn't?). Have a happy Halloween.


Joshua Houk said...

Millennium, Season 1. Unremittingly bleak, frightening, and tragic, and also paved the way for the modern police procedurals. You might not have CSI with its trademarked shots of gore if it weren't for Chris Carter's other show. And you certainly wouldn't have Medium, which stole Millennium's setting wholesale, right down to "hey, the kid might have special powers, too!" But, I digress. (But it is the family part that seals Millennium as a great show. Or even watchable, since everything else is as grim as it can get.)

And you'll wonder why Frank Black can only get acting roles in SciFi movies of the week nowadays. He's nothing short of brilliant here.

Season 1 is the most consistently good, although the "serial killer of the week" thing gets tired. Season 2, when Morgan and Wong took over, goes into embarrassingly silly conspiracy territory - with Terry O'Quinn playing a lead role! - but there's still more than a few episodes worth checking out. Same deal with Season 3; the producers tried to fix what Season 2 broke, and fail, but near midway the show regains its footing and starts hitting it out of the park again.

David Sims said...

Bob is benchmark terrifying for me. I remember that first reveal of him, the zoom into his face as he lurks at the bottom of the bed, in the early throes of Twin Peaks season 1. I couldn't sleep proper for a week.