Mark Gatiss takes a look at horror cinema through the ages

24th Oct 2010 – UK readers should head on over to the BBC iPlayer page to view the first two (of three) 1 hour documentaries on horror cinema presented by League of Gentleman actor/writer Mark Gatiss. This brilliant series looks at horror cinema since the early part of century right through to the classic American period of the 1960s and 1970s with each programme focusing on a particular time period.

From the BBC:
Three-part series in which actor and writer Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who, Sherlock) celebrates the greatest achievements of horror cinema.

A lifelong fan of the genre, Mark begins by exploring the golden age of Hollywood horror. From the late 1920s until the 1940s, a succession of classic pictures and unforgettable actors defined the horror genre – including The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff.

Mark explains just how daring and pioneering these films were, and why they still send a chill down the spine today. He also traces how horror pictures evolved during this period, becoming camp and subversive (The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein, both directed by Englishman James Whale), dark and perverse (films like Freaks, which used disabled performers), before a final flourish with the psychological horror of RKO Pictures’ films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie), which still influence directors today. However, by the early 1950s the monsters were facing their biggest threat – the rise of science fiction films in the post-war atomic era.

Along the way, Mark steps into some of the great sets from these classic films, hears first-hand accounts from Hollywood horror veterans, discovers Lon Chaney’s head in a box and finds out why Bela Lugosi met his match in Golders Green.

The episodes will not be available after 9 days:
Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3 – BBC Four, 10pm Monday

Mark Gatiss (Actor/Writer)

Q and A with Mark Gatiss (courtesy of the BBC)

What’s different about your history of Horror from previous attempts to cover the subject?
I hope it’s infused with a genuine love of the genre. I’ve seen some documentaries which either treat everything very jokily or totally po-faced. We’ve had a lot of fun making this series but treat it with the proper respect it deserves.

What did you want to achieve with the series?
An accessible history of horror movies that’s unashamedly personal. I’ve left out some very famous films that I don’t happen to care for and, sadly, had to ignore some because of time constraints. It would be impossible to do justice to horror cinema in thirteen hours never mind three so forgive me if your favourites are missing!

How did you first become interested in Horror cinema?
The first film I can remember seeing on TV was ‘the Brides of Dracula’. I was instantly hooked.

Did you make any exciting new discoveries while making the series?

Watching some films I scarcely knew, such as the bulk of Mario Bava’s work. It’s absolutely incredible stuff. Also to be able to handle Lon Chaney’s actual make-up box and the wax head he used to model his grotesques looks upon. That was something.

Who were you particularly thrilled to meet?
It was amazing to meet people like Anthony Hinds and Jimmy Sangster whose names were legendary to me from my childhood but I suppose it would have to be Gloria Stuart, who has sadly just passed away at 100 years old. To be able to talk to someone who starred in ‘The Old Dark House’ was just amazing. Also Carla Laemmle, who could remember watching Chaney as Quasimodo scaling the front of Notre Dame Cathedral back in 1922 and Donnie Dunagan who was the little boy in ‘Son of Frankenstein’. His memories of Karloff and Lugosi were delightful, wise, funny and deeply touching.

Can the early movies (particularly from Episode 1) really still scare a modern audience raised on movies like Saw and Hostel?
Yes and no. It completely depends on the threshold of your own terror. I’m constantly amazed how many people say ‘Oh, I just can’t watch films like that’. You can look back on a film like ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ and see that it’s a beautiful, sly, strange work of art or Hammer’s first ‘Dracula’ which retains a wonderful, visceral power. In any case, I worry about people brought up on ‘Hostel’. I think we should tell the police about them.

Why did you stop in the late 70s?
We had to stop somewhere and the release of ‘Hallowe’en’ in 1978 seemed the perfect place. It’s a superb film. Almost perfect in its power to shock and scare. But it ushered the age of the slasher movie, effectively killing off ‘supernatural’ horror for a generation. Of course, there were exceptions but ‘Hallowe’en’ seemed the natural place to end.

In the final episode you mention that there have been some standout films since Halloween, which are your favourites?
The Shining. The Fog. American Werewolf. The Thing. Evil Dead II. Salem’s Lot. Silence of the Lambs…

Why should non-horror aficionados watch the series?
I think there’s a genuinely fascinating personal story spanning the three episodes. Not just my own affection for the films, but the journeys of actors like Boris Karloff and Peter Cushing and directors like George Romero and John Carpenter. And they should also watch because I say so.

In Episode 2, which deals largely with Hammer Horror, you say that this is the period that’s closest to your heart. Why do you love these films so much?
They were the films I grew up with and responded to the most. Having said that, your tastes change and I find I enjoy some of the later, less famous Hammers more than some of their most celebrated films.

Are there any particular films in the series you can highlight that have influenced your own work?
The Wicker Man (obviously!). Blood on Satan’s Claw. The Haunting. Cat People. I Walked with a Zombie. The Quatermass Xperiment.

You’re shipwrecked on a desert island, what one film from each era would you take to your castaway cinema?
Son of Frankenstein. The Devil Rides Out. Martin.

We’ll give you a Satanic Bible to read, but is there a particularly important book on the subject you’d take with you?
When I was seven or eight, I was bought a fantastic book called ‘The Movie Treasury of Horror Movies’ by Alan G. Frank, it became my bible. It’s packed full of the most amazing photos and is still fantastic to look at.

What Horror ‘luxury’ would you take?
There’s Lon Chaney’s Make Up kit, but that wouldn’t be much use on a desert island. I’d take the debris of the ‘Orca’ from Jaws so I could paddle home.

What are the best British Horror movies? Find out here.

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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    Punk Reply

    I enjoyed the series and Mark Gatiss did a sterling job on this much maligned subject. I seem to have an identical “horror” up bringing to Mr Gatiss, and I was so pleased that he named the book ” The Movie Treasury Horror Movies, by Alan G Frank, I was bought a copy of this fantastic book when I was about 9 years old (possibly to cheer me up while having a rare period of illness) and lost it many years ago, I also could never remember its name so tracking it down was almost impossible, until now!

    Thanks.

    PS The lack of a mention for Argento or Fulci in the series was criminal, but you can’t have everything!!

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