We're In A Golden Age of Horror Television
The horror community, more so than any other die-hard group of entertainment fans, has to constantly be defending itself. While this year’s Oscars are important to the genre, Get Out and Shape of Water being nominated in so many prestigious categories, the genre is still on the defensive. Vulture reported Monday:
“That’s all the more important because some of our new members say they ran into interference from an older, more traditional wing of the Academy when it came to evaluating Peele’s movie. “I had multiple conversations with longtime Academy members who were like, ‘That was not an Oscar film,’” said one new voter. “And I’m like, ‘That’s bullshit. Watch it.’ Honestly, a few of them had not even seen it and they were saying it, so dispelling that kind of thing has been super important.” Said another new Oscar voter, herself a veteran of awards-season campaigns, “I think Get Out is a movie that we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as an Academy movie two years ago. It doesn’t really fall into any of the boxes that we think these movies do. It came out in February, and that’s almost never worked for Academy … it actually is provocative. It questions everything. It’s brilliant.”
NOW do you believe in institutionalized racism? Because there it is, plain as day. But far from the maddening Academy crowd, a new op-ed from Stu Heritage for The Guardian dropped on our desks today titled "Small scream: why TV's horror shows are scarily bad".
I know, just...read this little passage:
“Almost without exception, any attempt to do horror on television falls at the first hurdle. The perfect home for horror will always be cinema. Horror works best when it’s a hit and run; when it comes crashing in out of nowhere, unfolds over 90 minutes, builds to a nightmarish crescendo and then disappears again.”
Sure, Stu. Sure.
The article, simply put, is pure conjecture. That conjecture is built on a wobbly structure of what this writers concept of “horror television” is meant to be, and in a larger scale what horror even is. We’ve had this conversation over, and over, and over and over again. The cultural definitions that audiences attempt to ascribe to horror do not define the very vast genre of fright films. You know this, I know this, Stu doesn’t know this. Maybe one day he will. But let’s focus on where this hit piece truly falls apart: today’s library of horror television.
Of the 650+ word article, it takes him 300+ words to finally mention one modern horror TV show. The show? Hemlock Grove, the much maligned and oft-forgotten Netflix Original that was produced by Eli Roth from the book by Brian McGreevy. Come for the terrible Famke Janssen accent, stay for future IT star Bill Skarsgard! The show, which premiered five years ago, is a far cry from today’s genre television, owing itself tonally to the slow declining wave of Vamp-TV that was ushered in with HBO’s True Blood in 2008. Talk to any true horror fan and they will either 1. Have never seen Hemlock Grove or 2. Will tell you that it is not indicative of horror television even remotely. Strike one.
A sentence later: From Dusk Till Dawn, the El Rey network adaptation of Robert Rodriguez’ and Quentin Tarantino’s seminal vampire action flick. Didja catch that? Action flick. Rodriguez’ film clearly lives within the confines of the horror genre, while playing out like an early Carpenter flick (who’s own film Vampires would suffer due to similarities in plotting to Dusk). No one was going to From Dusk Till Dawn to be scared, in congruence with Hemlock Grove that played like a slightly more sinister daytime soap. Strike two.
He finally brings up American Horror Story near the 400 word mark (200 more words left to make his point! Will! He! Go! All! The! Way!). Here he finally makes some sense:
“No matter the subject, every season of American Horror Story always has a good four-to-five episode stretch where we’re presented with nothing but directionless padding.”
No argument there! While we do have Ryan Murphy to thank for showing studios that not only can you tell a long, twisting horror story (sans the Zed Word) in 12 parts, but it also will be a cultural phenomenon. Which it is. You cannot argue that AHS isn’t a resounding success, seven seasons and a million Funko Pop and DeviantArt pages later. But it does pad, and pad hard. But what he disregards in his one sentence judgement of the series is how exciting it is that we never know what we get, even if the bag is mixed. Let’s use his argument against him. In regards to the horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:
“The horrific final dinner table scene is almost entirely unexplained, and that’s the scariest part.”
You know what is also almost entirely unexplained? MOST OF AMERICAN HORROR STORY. And while historically our fears are intrinsically tied in to how as a culture we react to the unknown, by putting all of their cards on the table (as Ryan Murphy tends to do in every aspect of his art), we are confronting fear face to face. We’ve been scared of the dark for centuries, but when we have a Cartoon Villain in the Oval Office, it’s integral that we see the monster. We’re already seeing one every day. But I feel that this is where Stu and I’s path, on artistic principal alone, clearly diverge:
“As a medium, it thrives on detail, and detail is the death of horror.”
Lemme fix this quote:
“As a medium, it thrives on detail, and detail kills horror films for me.”
Ok, thats better. Let’s not make rash declarations that are not backed up by fact. The Exorcist and The Shining are two of the most detailed horror works (have you SEEN Room 237?) I’ve ever read and seen, and both have had television adaptations that have worked, specifically The Exorcist and its ties to the film franchise. He then cherry picks one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,
“...if every episode explained something new about Shatner’s psyche or the airline’s pre-flight safety checks or the monster’s relationship with its parents – then it’d be about as scary as a damp sock.”
The cheeky examples he gives are purely a straw man fallacy, offering exaggerated examples to make it easy to tear down the idea of episodic horror television. That’s because it’s a fucking terrible example. Nightmare works because of the claustrophobia of the trapped confines of the flight cabin, with the ticking clock of a cross country flight ratcheting the tension of a man petrified, as the walls of the cabin close in on Shatner, he grasps to the one sliver of the outside safety, which is invaded by an unthinkable monster. It wouldn’t work because it would never work (Fox’s LA to Vegas proof positive that In-Flight Entertaiment is just as bad on the ground as it is in air). You know what would make an excellent episodic show if we must pull from the famous TZ vault? How about The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, where a neighborhood block in small town USA are besieged by paranoia against their neighbors as they believe an alien invasion is imminent? Or even It’s a Good Life, where six year old Anthony has godlike mental powers that he wields abusively over the adults around him. The worlds that Serling built within a mere 25m are massive and would make killer prestige film. Fucking. Pun. Intended. Our boy Stu ends with his take on what he finds to be quality horror television. Brace yourself, you’re not going to guess what it is…
THE WALKING DEAD.
There’s no argument that the cultural impact that The Walking Dead has had is anything short of Earth shattering. And for a while, everyone loved Rick and company trying to survive. For about four seasons. Four seasons after that the pitfalls the show have deeply fallen in have nothing to do with the horror aspect of the content, but the general tone. Face it, after the 2016 election and subsequent trash fire of Trumps first year, the bleakness of The Walking Dead is off putting. There’s only so many times the same “Group meets new people, Rick is worried, new people are evil, Rick tries to save the day, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat.” until no one cares anymore. A lot attributed the exodus from the show due to the brutality of some fan favorite deaths at the beginning of Season 7, but by that point most of us were just glad Steven Yeun can make something worthy of his growing talents than the endurance test I am sure it is to film a season of the show. He also name drops Bates Motel as “arguably the best horror series ever made”, but in the following sentence he makes this claim about Psycho:
“...it owed more to Breaking Bad than Psycho in its depiction of a slow slide into evil. It wasn’t about a lunatic running around murdering people.”
Strike fuckin' three, y'all. Fuck right off if your takeaway from Hitchcock and Bloch’s groundbreaking work is that it’s simply about “a lunatic running around murdering people”. You can’t make an argument for something that you categorically do not understand.
He ends his piece by referring back to his entire reasoning for writing this: the news of Blair Witch being developed into a TV series, which is all we know. No plot, no creatives, no idea. Just a title, and that its in development. This clearly was enough to set him off to write this piece, which if you look between the lines is just a 600 words bemoaning why all horror TV isn’t just Black Mirror, a show so sad and bleak that it practically begs you to not binge watch it. He takes pot shots at Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 which is unmistakably hated but has taken quite the re-evaluated turn in the last five years as a fascinating, if not wholly workable, sequel to a classic.
But why did I spend less than one hour writing 1400 word rebuttal to a 600 word article? Because of the gaps that he consciously left out. Not a single mention of David Lynch’s triumphant return to television, Twin Peaks: The Return? A testament not only to the art of Lynch/Frost, but also to horror television as a whole? Not a word, but he has time to write snide jokes about Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. What about any one of the three seasons of SYFY’s Channel Zero, which week after week give us beautifully coherent-incoherent nightmare fuel? The Exorcist, which was mentioned briefly above, is probably the most commercial example of how horror works as TV, at the very least in it’s magnificent first season. It takes the mythos and molds it like clay into something familiar and frighteningly new, and arguably makes the Friedkin’s film better. No mention still of the hilarious Ash Vs Evil Dead, the gone too soon Penny Dreadful or Salem, the latter of which is the closest thing we’ll ever get to an HP Lovecraft story on the small screen. Do you even Stranger Things, bro? Supernatural's one two punch of Ackles and Padalecki to handsome for you? Are you the certain brand of fan who, through clenched teeth, will argue that The X-Files is only sci-fi? Were you too cool for school for iZombie, The Strain, Scream, Outcast, Z Nation, and the original Kolchak? But most egregiously, and in your best Kyle McLachlan:
How’s Hannibal? HOW’S HANNIBAL?
I’ll end this diatribe with this, directed at you Stu, but also at the general film/tv criticism crowd: what pleasure do you get from writing about your hate? And then ask yourself, how could I have written this to be more productive rather than wallowing in reductive glee? In other words, what the hell did horror TV did to you that not only would you refuse to fully research your topic, but so much so that you feel the need to warn people about horror television? But most importantly:
What’s your fucking point?