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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Small-Screen Revolution: A History of Horror TV, Part 4

With the onset of cable television over the course of the 1980s, horror TV underwent something of a transformation. For some time, the increasing brutality on the big screen had posed a challenge to those working on the little screen, who were bound to far more stringent restrictions. But cable, free of the censoring influences of sponsors, would allow them at last to compete on an even playing field.

As it would a decade later in the area of straight drama, HBO led the way. They had given the public a taste of what they could do with The Hitchhiker (1983), an intriguing cross between Twilight Zone and Hitchcock, but even that wasn't enough to prepare audiences for what they were about to unleash at the end of the decade. While the networks continued to churn out popular yet tame material like the vampire cop series Forever Knight (1989-96), HBO took a gamble by infusing sinister new life into a potent old horror franchise.

With Tales from the Crypt (1989-96), horror fans finally got everything they loved about modern theatrical fright films, right in the comfort of their own homes. Using stories--many taken from the legendary EC comic book of 30 years prior--introduced each week by the grisly Crypt Keeper, the show took full advantage of HBO's wide berth, never skimping on the violence and gore, and relishing every minute of it with typical Gaines-ian glee. It was everything the old anthology series of the past had been, taken to a bold and horrifying new level. Plus, it was funny as hell, which made it HBO's first smash hit series.

There was still horror to be found on traditional channels, to be sure, but the old guard almost seemed to have given up trying to keep up, knowing their hands were tied. Instead, the focus switched to the juvenile, and a mini-phenomenon of horror shows for kids emerged. With series like Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1991-96), Eerie, Indiana (1991-92) and the animated Beetlejuice (1989-91), producers no longer had to worry about pleasing an adult horror audience that had grown tired of TV's limitations. Perhaps the best example of all was the wildly successful Goosebumps (1995-98), based on a line of kids' novels by R.L. Stine that were huge back when J.K. Rowling was still a schoolteacher.

When it did try and deal with more grown-up horror, it seemed like broadcast TV was still stuck in the rut of tried-and-true formulas. You had attempts to feed of the success of the past, such as the ill-fated relaunch of Dark Shadows (1990), as well as made-for-TV sequels like Psycho IV (1990) and The Omen IV (1991).

A spate of Stephen King adaptations made the best of network restrictions with mixed results. While some, like The Tommyknockers (1993), proved largely forgettable, others, like the miniseries It (1990) and The Stand (1994) proved quite chilling, if flawed. Some have even argued that the first of the two, featuring the nightmarish clown Pennywise portrayed by Tim Curry, could be one of the finest adaptations of King's work shown on screens of any size.

After spending years taking a beating against the ropes, conventional broadcast TV finally rebounded in 1993 with its first mega-hit in years. Inspired by Kolchak: The Night Stalker of two decades prior, Fox's The X-Files became a hit of massive proportions, helping to propel the fledgling network to major status, and creating a passionate, loyal fan base. The cryptic, supernatural adventures of Agents Scully and Mulder captivated, with their hints of alien invasions, vast government conspiracy and the thin veil of normalcy that protected the regular world from the perils of the unknown.

The series ran for 10 seasons, and attained a popularity rivaled among sci-fi/horror TV only by the likes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone (and like them, it also made the leap to the big screen). Best of all, it was intelligently written, providing the genre's first breath of fresh air in decades. Nevertheless, for the most part, it would prove to be the exception.

When it came to boob tube scares, the cutting edge continued to be on the pay channels. Showtime threw its hat in the ring in 1993 by teaming directors Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter for the anthology movie Body Bags, and later by reintroducing audiences to an old property with the vastly underrated New Outer Limits (1995-02), as well as Poltergeist: The Legacy (1996-99). Even a commercial cable channel like TNT was able to get into the act, bringing beloved genre commentator Joe Bob Briggs on board to host a series of theatrical horror films packaged as "Monstervision" (1993-00). Nothing like that had been attempted on regular TV since the heyday of the "horror hosts".

By the middle of the 1990s, the entire continental United States was wired for cable. The rules had changed. But that didn't mean that the lower channels on the dial were ready to give up the ghost, if you'll pardon the pun. Although the future of televised horror clearly lay in pay TV, another one of those fledgling broadcast networks was about to pull off just what Fox had done with The X-Files. But this time it would be a show set even more firmly within the scare genre, and as such would become arguably the most successful and beloved "pure horror" TV series of all time.

Other major shows:

  • Jeckyll & Hyde (1990)
  • Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
  • The Langoliers (1995)
  • Kindred: The Embraced (1996)

Soon to come: Part 5 - Triumph of the Tube

Part 1: Fear Invades the Living Room

Part 2: Terror Comes of Age
Part 3: How to Scare Without Losing Sponsors

3 comments:

Fungii said...

X-Files went for 10 seasons! Holy shit, when does the 10th season box set come out?? ;)

Good article. I was waiting for you to mention you-know-who, but it looks like she'll get her due in the next installment.

B-Sol said...

Ah, you catch on fast, Fungii!

Jonathan "JR" said...

Do you remember Dr. Morgus on channel 11? He was a goofy horror host on Saturday mornings, sort of a cross between Elvira and Dr. Forrester from MST3K. It was on his show that I first saw Phantasm - and it scared the hell out of me! IT'S NEVER OVER, BOY!!

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