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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Triumph of the Tube: A History of Horror TV, Part 5

It becomes more difficult to judge a certain period in history the closer one actually is to it, which is why covering the recent history of horror on television can present something of a challenge. Nevertheless, most observers would agree that the past several years have seen a promising resurgence of the genre on the small screen, as it has proven more resilient against the competition of the movies than was previously thought possible. In fact, an argument can be made that horror TV over the past dozen or so years has been superior to horror film.

In part, this has been due to the innovations permitted by cable, but ironically, the most popular horror TV show of the past dozen years was to be found on plain old broadcast TV. And a third-rate network, at that.

Based on a somewhat forgettable theatrical teen comedy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer certainly didn't premiere in 1997 to a lot of elevated expectations. It didn't help that it was one of the tentpole shows of the brand-new WB Network, Time-Warner's low-rent black sheep of the broadcast dial. Yet it soon became a show that defied all expectation. Leaving the memory of its cinematic inspiration in the dust, it quickly built a rabid following using a more serious tone and a slick hipness that appealed to a young audience in a way few horror series ever had.

Sarah Michelle Gellar became the genre's next great female star, and an unlikely action hero in the title role. With the still-young internet hitting its stride, Buffy became an early favorite amongst online fans, who debated its every twist and turn in chatrooms, on messageboards, and everywhere in between. In some ways, it was the fan base of Buffy that helped set the standard of genre fandom in the internet age.

An unfortunate switch to the even more low-rent UPN contributed to the show's eventual demise, but it ran for seven solid seasons, and maintained such a hardcore following that show creator Joss Whedon recently brought about an eighth season in comic book form. In 1999, Buffy even spawned a nearly as successful spin-off, Angel, which itself ran for six seasons on the WB.

Buffy and Angel helped bring horror into the homes of a whole new generation of fans, and also proved that network TV could still deliver a tried-and-true genre phenomenon. A whole new sub-genre of teen-oriented (and even more specifically, teen girl-oriented) horror cropped up, as typified by another WB hit, Charmed (1998-2006)--a show about a coven of young, nubile witches that ran for an impressive eight seasons and boasted high-profile actresses like Alyssa Milano, Shannon Doherty and Rose McGowan.

Stephen King, that old warhorse of made-for-TV horror, certainly continued to be a presence in the network realm, bringing his controversial new adaptation of The Shining to ABC in 1997. Purporting to be far more faithful to the novel than Stanley Kubrick's 1980 theatrical version, which King was unhappy with, the movie divided the fanbase between King loyalists and those who felt that despite its creative licenses, the Kubrick film was a far superior work. Two years later, King would also pen his own original screenplay, The Storm of the Century, which was filmed as a mini-series for ABC as well.

With the turn of the century, however, cable TV programming was kicking off what many consider to be something of a golden age--one that is still going on, as a matter of fact. Originally cable programming like HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, Oz and The Sopranos was demonstrating what was truly possible outside the bounds of traditional TV. And before long, the trickle-down effect began to reach genre programming as well.

In 1999, Universal made waves with the introduction of a quirky, hip show called G vs. E (later changed to Good vs. Evil). Inspired by the edgy material of people like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, the show proved to be more of a landmark than its lack of ratings success would indicate. It didn't last more than a season, switching from USA Network to the Sci-Fi Channel along the way, but the show's smart writing and clever premise led to bigger and better things down the road for cable horror.

Before long, cable channels were cranking out more and more home-grown horror and sci-fi productions. Naturally, with the good came some bad, as well. Sci-Fi Channel began devoting itself more and more to original programming, including an Invisible Man series, as well as the never-ending stream of generally basement-quality made-for-cable movies (Mansquito, anyone?) which continues to this day.

There was a lot of experimenting going on, and fans were benefiting. Sci-Fi gave us a series based on the horror comedy Tremors (2003). TNT produced the interesting if short-lived Nightmares and Dreamscapes, a series based on the short stories of Stephen King. USA cast Anthony Michael Hall in the role made famous by Christopher Walken for a successful series version of King's The Dead Zone (2002-07). Bravo even put together the very enjoyable 100 Scariest Movie Moments (2004), a very popular mini-series in the format of shows like VH1's I Love the '80s, which continues to be re-shown every year.

In response, network TV put out the likes of a weak Twilight Zone retread (2002-03), the lackluster ABC movie Kingdom Hospital (2004), and Invasion (2005-06), an ill-fated X-Files knock-off which failed to benefit from having the smash hit Lost as a lead-in. By far, the most successful horror-themed network series to come out of the past few years would have to be the CW's Supernatural (2005-), which has managed to capture the same type of audience that made hits out of Buffy, Angel and Charmed.

But even that moderate success couldn't compete with what the folks at Showtime were cooking up, unfettered as they were with the concerns of sponsors. How best to capitalize on what fans loved the most about theatrical horror movies? Simple: Recruit some of the greatest creators in the business to make their own one-hour mini-movies that gave them everything a cinematic horror experience would.

The result was Masters of Horror (2005-07), a series of short films that featured A-level horror directors such as Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter and John Landis, as well as writers like Clive Barker and Richard Matheson. Highlights included Gordon's adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House, Argento's Jenifer, Carpenter's Cigarette Burns, Takashi Miike's Imprint and Hooper's adaptation of Ambrose Bierce's The Damned Thing.

Although the quality was occasionally erratic, the series was the classic example of the possibilities of cable horror. An attempted network TV version of the show, NBC's Fear Itself (2008-09), has only accentuated the difference--with tame, uninspired content that would ensure the show wouldn't outlast its first season.

After Masters of Horror, the floodgates were opened. Showtime followed up with an even-better project, the serial killer series Dexter (2006-), which has proven just as excellent as any highly regarded premium cable dramatic series out there. Not to be outdone, this season HBO unleashed its first genre series in many years with True Blood (2008-), the sleek and sexy tale of vampire-human relations in the Deep South that's steadily and quietly becoming one of the year's sleeper hits.

And beyond the traditional approaches to programming, cable/satellite has taken TV horror in directions previously undreamt of. In 2007, NBC Universal unveiled Chiller, the first major 24-hour horror television channel. The high-definition channel MonstersHD also offers around-the-clock terrors with crystal clear sound and picture. And FEARnet makes use of on-demand technology to offer its subscribers the ability to watch the horror movies they want, whenever they want.

In this day and age of tired torture porn and endless remakes, there are many who would suggest that TV horror has indeed become superior to its silver-screen cousin. With a combination of intelligent, quality programming and network willingness to provide for a voracious and often underfed fanbase, it's pretty hard not to agree. When it come to horror, the boob tube has certainly come a long way--from struggling out of the shadow of radio, to overshadowing its theatrical predecessor.

So the next time you're scouring the listings for a horror flick that's actually worthy of your $11, why bother? With the options available to lucky horror fans today right in their own homes, let them keep their Japanese retreads and PG-13 slashers. Stay home and enjoy!

Other major shows:

  • Spawn (1997-99)
  • Brimstone (1998-99)
  • Blade: The Series (2006)
  • Witchblade (2006-)
  • Moonlight (2007-08)

Part 1: Fear Invades the Living Room

Part 2: Terror Comes of Age
Part 3: How to Scare Without Losing Sponsors
Part 4: Small-Screen Revolution


AndyDecker said...

Television writing sure seems to be a lot more focused and interesting than movie writing today.

What is kind of interesting is that it mirrors so much other genre trends. You get the harmless horror light stuff like Charmed, and you get the hard stuff like Masters of Horror which has arguably more gore and sex than some 80s slasher flicks.

It is still debatable how many of these shows will pass the test of time; I truly doubt that they will leave the kind of impact the "classics" like Twilight Zone or Kolchak had.

It is kind of ironic that tv has the chance to be more experimental than the movie when it used to be the other way round. But what can you do if the most "original" concept in the last years actually was SAW. I don´t want to know how many potentially good ideas are rejected in favour of the next idiotic remake.

I seldom go to the movies any longer, and not one film I later watched on tv made me question the decision. Especially the genre movies.

B-Sol said...

As far as standing the test of time a la The Twilight Zone, in part it was a little easier for a show back then to endure since there were far less shows on TV, and the medium was much more new. Still, I think a show like Dexter has a really good chance of being revered by future generations. And Masters of Horror never quite got the recognition it deserved.

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