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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How to Scare Without Losing Sponsors: A History of Horror TV, Part 3

As was already discussed at length in The Vault of Horror's history of horror movies, the early 1970s was a time of great change in the entertainment industry. In film, the death of the studio system and the fall of the Hays Code meant less restriction on filmmakers than ever before, as could be seen most clearly in the horror genre.

This was a problem for television. Because although social mores were adjusting and heretofore taboo themes were starting to be addressed on the small screen, many of the old restrictions were still in place, certainly much more so than on the big screen. While nudity and gore was the order of the day for the movies, the tube remained comparatively puritanical. For purveyors of televised terror, this added the challenge of capturing an audience despite being unable to compete when it came to much of what was defining horror entertainment at the time.

Ironically, TV networks nevertheless tried their best to beat the studios on their own turf. And so the 1970s became the era of the made-for-TV horror movie. Much of the time, this served only to accentuate the manacles which Standards & Practices had placed upon them--however, at its best, the movement served as proof of the power of effective storytelling over graphic visuals.

A solid example would be ABC's Dracula (1973) starring Jack Palance. But for every Dracula, there was a Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby (1973).

One of the efforts that found a place decidedly in the thumbs up category was a project spearheaded by producer Dan Curtis, who had also been responsible for Palance's Dracula. Based on a novel by Jeff Rice with a teleplay by genre legend Richard Matheson, The Night Stalker hinged on an intriguing conceit: scruffy reporter Carl Kolchak has an uncanny nose for the supernatural, and stumbles upon the case of a vampire preying on young girls in Vegas. Unfortunately, his abrasive reputation doesn't help him in getting anyone to believe him.

The Night Stalker TV movie was a such a success that a full-fledged weekly series was developed by ABC for the 1974-75 season, with the delightful Darren McGavin in the lead. Each week, Kolchak came face-to-face with a different monstrous menace. Despite its rigid, formulaic approach, the show managed to be both genuinely funny and genuinely scary.

Although its novelty caught the attention of a cult audience, it wasn't enough to keep the show on the air for more than a season. Nevertheless, Kolchak: The Night Stalker would become one of the most influential TV series in the history of horror. Most notably, Chris Carter has stated that it was the direct inspiration for his show, The X-Files.

But the short-lived Kolchak was an aberration during a time when stand-alone TV movies remained the order of the day. The two-part adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot (1979) was just as enjoyable and frightening as anything in theaters at the time, and the BBC's production of Count Dracula (1977) starring Louis Jourdan (which aired on PBS in America) is considered by some time to be the finest adaptation of Stoker's novel.

Outside the TV-movie, there wasn't much horror on TV to speak of at the time. It seemed that just maybe, network execs were under the impression that the current cinematic horror scene had rendered the episodic horror TV of yesteryear obsolete.

It wasn't until the dawn of the '80s that some dim signs of life began to appear again. In 1980, Hammer Films in the U.K. decided to capitalize on the weight of its name within the genre by introducing the excellent anthology show Hammer's House of Horror. And none other than George A. Romero, one of the States' most revered horror creators from the film world, stepped into the realm of TV with his own unique take on the tried-and-true anthology format.

Tales from the Darkside (1984-88) was at the same time a throwback and a bold step forward. While its very title and package were homages to that which had come before, the Romero-produced series wasn't afraid to change things up. It dispensed with the "host" gimmick, for one, and managed to push the envelope in terms of intensity more than any network anthology series had up to that point. Yet, it could also balance that out with liberal doses of black humor.

The success of Tales from the Darkside was definitely a turning point, and almost single-handedly lifted the concept of the horror TV series out of limbo. Pretty soon, everyone was trying to get in on the act. In 1985, two classic shows from the past, The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, were relaunched and rebooted for a new audience--and with effective results, for the most part. The fledgling Fox network cribbed the formula of the old Incredible Hulk series and gave it a horror spin with the vastly underrated series Werewolf (1987-88).

But the ultimate examples of television finally finding its groove in the wake of the new style of horror movie had to be the extension of the 1980s' two most successful horror flick franchises into TV-land. In the late '80s, both Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street gave birth to their own TV "spinoffs". Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-90) had nothing to do with the machete-wielding Jason, but rather focused on the exploits of a pair of antique dealers trying to recover cursed antiques from around the globe. Freddy's Nightmares (1988-90), hosted by Robert Englund as Mr. Krueger, followed more of the anthology format, spinning bloody tales of the unfortunate residents of Elm Street.

Freddy's Nightmares caught some attention from fans for raising the gore quotient higher than any TV series had done up to that point. Still, there was only so far it could go, and the show was a mere shadow of its R-rated cinematic counterpart. Although the late 1980s saw what was perhaps horror TV's biggest boom period in terms of the proliferation of shows, the reason it didn't last was that it once again reminded fans of the differences between the big screen and the small.

On top of that, through it all, the networks not only had to contend with the movies and the new VCR technology, but the burgeoning area of cable TV as well. Over the course of the 1980s, cable had been a juggernaut, spreading across the nation like wildfire. And in the case of the premium, sponsor-less channels like HBO and Showtime, the restrictions which had defined TV since its birth were non-existent. Anything went in the maverick new medium, and it would only be a matter of time before cable bigwigs realized this could be applied to original, episodic programming.

Just when it seemed that televised horror could never compete, cable had arrived to give the genre the shot in the arm it needed to stave off extinction. The gloves were off, and HBO was about to bring movie-quality horror into American homes for the first time ever.

Other major shows:

  • Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
  • Tales of the Unexpected (1979)
  • Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
  • Bates Motel (1987)
  • Monsters (1988)

Soon to come: Part 4 - Small-Screen Revolution

Part 1: Fear Invades the Living Room
Part 2: Terror Comes of Age


cindy said...

kolchak: the night stalker was one of my very favorite shows as a kid! and it was VERY scary at the time!

Wes Fierce said...

Just watched all the videos at the Werewolf fan site. Cant believe I missed that one growing up! With Rick Baker on the FX, even!

AndyDecker said...

I never read it up, so maybe I am wrong, but was The Hitchhiker not before Tales from the Darkside? If I remember correctly, its stories had more gore and even a bit of nudity compared to its competitors.

Kolchak was so good. It still is hugely enjoyable, formua, reset-button and all.

B-Sol said...

Werewolf was a hidden gem of '80s horror TV. And believe it or not, it has yet to be officially released on DVD.
Andy, I think you got me there. The Hitchhiker did indeed predate Tales from the Darkside by one year, and was on HBO five years before Tales from the Crypt! I think I will have to do some revising on the next chapter!

Anonymous said...

RayRay - Nice post. I never knew about Kolchak: The Nightstalker, until very recently, when it began playing ont he new horror channel, Chiller. I have seen a couple of episodes, and it is very enjoyable, notwithstanding the limitations of the medium and the time period.

B-Sol said...

It is great, you just can't watch too many episodes together, because it can get repetitive. My favorite one is "The Zombie", keep an eye out for it. By the way, a very young David Chase made his bones writing for this show, 25 years before he created The Sopranos.

The Prof. 8^{> said...

I agree wholeheartedly with you. Story-driven material like "Night Stalker" and "Werewolf" have so much more potential to scare. Since the '70s, the term "horror" has been equated with "gore" in Hollywood. But the concept of being "horrified" is overwhelmingly psychological. The best horror films push these more intellectual buttons, rather than just bathing the screen in blood and viscera.

B-Sol said...

A lot of people have pointed out the technical distinction between terror (psychological fear) and horror (physical revulsion), and I guess that applies here.

A.R.Yngve said...

TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE had some real high points -- I think the episode "The Devil's Advocate" is one of the finest horror stories ever shown on TV.

(Jerry Stiller plays the world's most misanthropic talk-radio host, and as he continues to spew bile he undergoes a frightening transformation... you might find a clip on YouTube.)

B-Sol said...

Yes, I remember that one, it was terrific. Tales from the Darkside always reminded me of a more sinister, cynical Twilight Zone.

The Headless Werewolf said...

Glad to see so much enthusiasm for WEREWOLF. Hopefully, we'll see an official DVD release--someday.

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