Sunday, 17 November 2013

17 - Great Horror TV of the Present

It’s Horror Television weekend this weekend, so here’s a rundown of some horror-related TV shows that are currently running (or are between seasons). As always, this is not an all-inclusive list and is not assembled in order of merit.

Three seasons in, and this show doesn’t seem any closer to making any sense. It’s an explosion in a horror trope factory, with characterisation varying according to the needs of the episode. It’s also highly addictive and one of the most enjoyable shows on TV.

Unlike pretty much any other TV show, there are no recurring characters, events or plots between seasons – just a recurring cast. It’s like a repertory theatre company on the TV, working on a Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt –style anthology show, but with a new story every season rather than every episode. Season one dealt with a haunted house but brought in murder, suicide, rape, school shootings, serial killers both fictional and real, and the Antichrist. Season two, set in a mental asylum, takes in elements of religious horror, Nazi war atrocities, serial killers and aliens. Season three, taking place in Louisiana, so far seems to be dealing with witchcraft, voodoo, feminism, celebrity, family and the music of Stevie Nicks.

The reshuffled cast has advantages and drawbacks – if you like a particular character, they won’t be back next year, but the actor probably will. On the other hand, if you don’t like the character, that actor will probably be back next year. With the change of characters and locations comes a change of relationships, meaning that a couple in one season may be relatives or enemies in the next – so, if you like their chemistry, it’s liable to change.

I love it, but it definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste. Try the first episode from each season, and keep going if you like it.

HORROR HIGH POINT: Both from season 2, either the reveal of the identity of serial killer Bloody Face, or the real-world horror of a coat-hanger self-abortion.

One season in, and I’m already hooked on this modern-era telling of the story of young Norman Bates and his mother. It’s not Hitchcock and it’s never going to be, and it’s not exactly Bloch either, but it’s also not Van Sant. Think of it as like Smallville, but with a very different future costume for the young protagonist.

Freddie Highmore does a wonderful job as the young Norman, with Vera Farmiga in the role of Norma. Their relationship is as much of a mess as you’d expect, and it looks like it’s going to get worse. My biggest criticism of the show is that there’s too much other stuff going on in the town – the show’s creator openly acknowledges the debt it owes to Twin Peaks in terms of small town with big secrets storytelling, but I think the show may have been better served toning these elements down. Ask yourself how shocking Norman’s crimes are going to be in a town where a burning man was shown hanging in the street in broad daylight – the background should be kept to standard soap and cop drama levels.

I hope this show lasts long enough to get to the point where we already know Norman’s story – I don’t know whether I want it to end with a full retelling of Psycho up to and including Norman’s capture, or just with Marion Crane’s arrival at the motel.

HORROR HIGH POINT: The first time we realise that a conversation between Norman and Norma only happened in Norman’s head.

Another classic novel/movie psychopath transplanted to the small screen for a prequel, though this show is just as much about Will Graham as it is about Lector. At present they only have the rights to characters and situations from Harris’ first Lector book, Red Dragon, and nothing from the later novels. So we can have Jack Crawford, for instance, but not Benjamin Raspail.

One season in, and it’s already the best horror series on TV right now – and one of the best-looking shows out there too. Part contemporary prequel, part serial-killer-of-the-week procedural and partly an examination of lector’s work with a young patient, the show manages to juggle all sides very well. Again, I’m concerned at how much else they have going on around the stories we know about – does the parade of killers diminish the effect of Lector, Dolarhyde and Gumb, do they just blend in amongst all the others?

I look forward to seeing how they continue from the shock ending to season one, and I hope they can maintain the quality level. Just dial down the serial-killer-of-the-week stuff to one every few weeks, maybe with an episode or two in-between dealing with the fallout?

HORROR HIGH POINT: The corpse totem pole on the beach was particularly wonderful.

The longest ongoing series on today’s list, with more episodes under its belt than all the other shows put together. If you’ve never seen Supernatural, it’s pretty straightforward (just like the overly-simplistic title) – two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, drive across America in a big black muscle car listening to classic rock and fighting monsters. For a network show it doesn’t skimp on the blood and guts either, getting away with things on a regular basis I wouldn’t think were possible on mainstream US TV.

As the show progresses, it moves away from the monster-of-the-week stuff a little and brings in angels and demons far more often(possibly too often), but it’s always retained a sense of self-awareness and has managed to avoid becoming too po-faced and serious, staying just this side of falling too far into its own mythology. It’s willing to take pot-shots at itself and has the same awareness of its online fan community that The X-Files and Buffy had – and while it has never hit the heights of Buffy or Angel, it’s also managed to steer clear of their lows.

More than anything, this is the show that gave me one of my all-time TV heroes – Bobby Singer, played by Jim Beaver. Bobby is a gruff Midwesterner, an expert in the supernatural and owner of a salvage yard. He’s the closest thing to a father in the boys’ lives since the death of their father. He’s the archetypal non-nonsense, warm-hearted working class man, but Jim Beaver brings so much heart to his delivery that he moves past the stereotype. Frankly, I’d lose the boys in a heartbeat for a series about Bobby.

HORROR HIGH POINT: For straight-up ick, probably the lustful couple who start to eat one another, tearing out chunks of bloody flesh. For dark comedy mixed with irreparable harm to the viewer’s inner child, I’d have to pick the giant teddy bear’s suicide attempt.

Dismissed by some as “Twilight with blood and boobs”, True Blood occupies the middle ground between supernatural drama and straight-up soap opera. Six seasons in and we’ve had vampires, shapeshifters, werewolves, faeries, serial killers, witchcraft, exorcism, Greek mythology, rape, suicide, voodoo and more – all wrapped up in a big bow of southern-fried cliché. Oddly, the closest comparison in tone I can find would be Desperate Housewives, which was a soap opera turned up to 11. 

The main focus of the show is Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress with telepathic abilities. Initially focussing on her blossoming romance with vampire Bill Compton, the show expands out to delve into the rest of the community around her and deals with life in a world where more and more of the supernatural is becoming public knowledge.

The True Blood of the title is a synthetic blood substitute sold as a bottled drink, the existence of which has enabled vampires to “come out of the coffin”. Parallels are drawn between the vampires’ struggles for acceptance and various other civil rights struggles in history (especially US history), the difference being that vampires actually pose a threat to those who embrace them – the metaphor breaking a little at times under too much examination.

Like American Horror Story, True Blood definitely isn’t for everyone. On the other hand, it probably has the best opening title sequence on TV.

HORROR HIGH POINT: Going more for the gore again, but vampire stakings on True Blood aren’t the convenient dustings of Buffy and Angel – there’s basically an explosion of blood and guts, as if the skin and bones just vanished. Short version – ick go splat.

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