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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Terror Comes of Age: A History of Horror TV, Part 2

The 1950s was a time of experimentation in television, during which the medium was stretching its wings and trying to figure out exactly what it wanted to be. Much of the early programming could be rather basic in approach and concept. But by the end of the decade, the onset of pre-taping technology allowed for a more cinematic style, and the programming began to mature.

For the horror genre, that maturation took the form of a truly groundbreaking show which to this day remains among the most well-known--if not the most well-known--genre program of any kind. Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-64) began as a rejected pilot submitted to CBS in 1958, which thankfully was reconsidered and greenlit the following year.

Mostly written by Serling, each episode was narrated by the writer himself, and utilized a brilliant formula that set the standard for all anthology shows to come. Blending elements of horror, science fiction and fantasy, The Twilight Zone presented tales of the bizarre and unsettling, in which nothing was as it seemed. The conclusion of each installment would bring a shocking twist that was sure to keep the audience coming back week after week.

In classic episodes such as "Time Enough at Last", "Eye of the Beholder", "To Serve Man", "The Hitchhiker" and "Terror at 20,000 Feet", genre elements were used to both comment on the culture of the day and creep the holy hell out of viewers. With Serling at the helm, The Twilight Zone was one of the best written, directed and acted shows ever seen on television, and remains a benchmark in genre entertainment.

Naturally, such a successful formula did not go unnoticed, and it wasn't without its imitators. And although devotees of the show may object passionately to its description as such, The Outer Limits (1963-65) was by far the best of them. Focusing more on sci-fi than The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits still never failed to deliver nightmarish monsters each and every week, and its iconic opening ("There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture...") is arguably even more famous than that of its higher profile counterpart.

As innovative as Twilight Zone and its copycats may have been, they still fell within the tried-and-true formula horror had stuck with since the birth of TV: anthology. But by the mid '60s, programmers were finally willing to try something different.

It began with a pair of horror-comedy series which both debuted in the fall of 1964: The Addams Family (ABC) and The Munsters (CBS). The former was based on Charles Addams' morbid series of New Yorker cartoons, which had by then been running for 30 years. The latter was produced by Universal, and spoofed their famous movie monsters by placing them in a family sitcom setting. Although both shows ran for only two seasons, they have since been immortalized in syndication (and now DVD), and will forever be inextricably linked in the popular consciousness.

Still, it remained for television to produce a serious, non-anthology horror series. Ironically, when it finally did, it was almost by accident. When Dark Shadows debuted on ABC in the summer of 1966, it was a gothic soap opera, airing in the afternoon. But a year into its run, it introduced the character of Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid, changing the landscape of the show and sending its ratings through the roof. The reason was that Collins was a vampire. From then on, the show took on a supernatural horror theme, thus adding teenagers to its traditional audience of housewives. The brainchild of horror TV maven Dan Curtis, Dark Shadows ran five days a week until the spring of 1971, comprising 1,245 episodes in total.

Although perhaps on the wane by the end of the decade, anthology TV was far from dead. In fact, six years after the end of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling brought a color follow-up to the small screen: Night Gallery (1970-73). With a pilot episode that marked the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg, Night Gallery followed a similar format to the Zone, except that it often combined more than one story in a single episode. It also had less input from Serling, instead featuring short story adaptations. Unfortunately, Serling never matched the success of his first show, and was disappointed by his lack of control over the series.

With the level of sophistication for productions higher than ever, it looked for a time like the future of the genre on television was the made-for-TV movie. The late '60s and early '70s saw a bumper crop of quality examples. Among them was the 1968 adaptation of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, produced by Curtis and starring Jack Palance (they would resume their partnership with even greater results five years later.) A young Michael Douglas starred in the 1972 movie When Michael Calls, an ultra-creepy offering about a long-dead boy making contact with the living via telephone. Among the very best was Gargoyles (1972), featuring some of the earliest work of the late special effects legend Stan Winston.

By the early 1970s, horror on television had come a long way from the radio adaptations of 25 years prior. Nevertheless, it was facing an unprecedented challenge from a motion picture industry that was less restricted than ever before. Horror was changing, and although TV remained largely constrained by network censorship, it nevertheless found a way to stay relevant and innovative--as exemplified by a short-lived series that would prove to have a profound impact on the entire genre.

Other major shows:

  • Thriller (1960-62)
  • Late Night Horror (1967-68)
  • The Sixth Sense (1972)

Soon to come: Part 3 - How to Scare Without Losing Sponsors

Part 1: Fear Invades the Living Room


Anonymous said...

Wait -- how did you miss One Step Beyond? If I'm not mistaken, didn't it premiere a year before Twilight Zone? Would the network even have picked up TZ if OSB hadn't been reasonably successful?

You skip right from live TV and kinescopes to Serling while overlooking the second-best also-ran in televised genre anthologies. Not to mention the recent appearance on Google Video of John Newland tripping on 'shrooms.

Plus, ... the music. That show had the. Best. Music.

B-Sol said...

One Step Beyond actually debuted earlier the same year (1959), as a mid-season replacement show. I covered it in the first part of this piece (the link is at the end of the post).

Anonymous said...

My favorite episode of Twilight Zone is Time Enough at Last. I loved the end of the world scenario and also the irony of him breaking his glasses.

Dark Shadows is now pretty much all on DVD and I was disappointed when I finally hunted them down. I remembered the Dark Shadows remake in the early 90's(I was very upset when it got axed) and was hoping for that same feeling/story line in the original, especially when it ran for such a long time with such popularity. Then when I finally watched them, it almost put me to sleep -=- very sad for a Gothic Romance addict like me.

AndyDecker said...

I think a lot of the beloved classics have aged badly when seen today for the first time.

Especially stuff like Dark Shadows. Reading about it time and again seems to be more fun than actually watching it; it can never relate to the mythic quality such shows seem to have accquired along the years. (I remember watching an episode of Will&Grace of all things where they did a funny scene about a seemingly famous ep of Twilight Zone and thinking, wow, that must have left a big impression on the minds of writers back then who surely must have seen this as a re-run in their youth. I wonder if I will see such a thing 20 years from now only with an ep of Buffy or the X-Files *g)

I only watched the remake of Dark Shadows and frankly didn´t understand what was the big deal here, and some tv-movie called "Night of Dark Shadows" which I found cheaply made and terribly boring.

But reading about it and how it influenced this and that and the long line of novels Ross wrote etc, this is interesting.

I guess such stuff merits the old saying: you had to be there (to really appreciate it).

B-Sol said...

You have to remember that Dark Shadows was, first and foremost, a soap opera. Also, it caught attention at the time for being so different. But no, it doesn't quite hold up. The Twilight Zone, however, is unassailable in my opinion, and does most certainly hold up.

Anonymous said...

Yes the Twilight Zones are still creepy and relevant today which is really amazing that the stories can still hold up after all this time.

Anonymous said...

RayRay - Hell of a post. Nice work on the history. I think you and absinthe nailed it about Serling's The Twilight Zone. I was introduced to it the same way as to Star Trek - via my mother, watching it in late night syndication.

The Twilight Zone was a masterful undertaking and as stated continues to be relevant today. Another way to describe it is "timeless."

BTW: my mother, ever the wise one, shared your opinion about The Outer Limits. She alwas felt it was the cheaper knockoff to Serling's mastery.

Wes Fierce said...

Geez! I was hoping someone would slip the name of the next show that will be brought up. I want part 3! I also want to gush about the shows beyond part 2, but I dont want to ruin future segments lol.

B-Sol said...

Well, I suppose I can drop a hint. It's the show that's usually credited as the direct inspiration for the X-Files. And in case you're wondering, part 3 will kick off in the mid 1970s, and run through most of the 1980s.

cindy said...

oooh, i know what part 3 is about! (i LOVED that show!) i used to watch dark shadows as a kid, but i am guessing not when it first started, i would have been too young to get it, i think. (in '66 i was 6!) always remembered barnabas as a vampire in it. but it scared us silly at the time!

Fungii said...

Sorry, I know this is an old post, but you failed to mention one of my favourite horror anthology series from the seventies, namely Ghost Story/Circle of Fear! Man, I loved that show. Look at the people involved: Richard Matheson, Jimmy Sangster, Seeleg Lester and William Castle. Not to mention a slew of great actors. It was an awesome, if short-lived, series.

Still I'm glad someone else out there appreciates these old shows. :)

B-Sol said...

Thanks for the additions, fungii!

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