Thursday, October 27, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 27

Series: Hammer House of Horror

Episode: “The Silent Scream”, in which Hammer’s quintessential star, Peter Cushing, makes a small-screen appearance as a seemingly kindly concentration camp-survivor who hires ex-con Brian Cox to care for his menagerie of caged animals. Little does Cox know that Cushing intends him to be the latest addition to the menagerie and that a fellow does not need to be imprisoned in a concentration camp to survive one. Cox’s situation and escape attempts are nerve wracking and Cushing is even more evil than he ever was as Dr. Frankenstein. A last minute twist really solidifies the position of “The Silent Scream” as the greatest installment of Hammer House of Horror.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 26

Series: The X-Files

Episode: “Home”, in which the discovery of the corpse of a severely mutated newborn leads to circumstances even more lacking in taste than that particular discovery. Mulder and Scully never encountered anyone like The Peacock Family of “Home”, and network TV hadn’t, either. This episode was so intensely disturbing that it earned its own special viewer warning and has the distinction of being the only X-Files episode with a TV-MA rating. Back in 1996, this kind of stuff simply did not appear on a network, not even a network like FOX. I personally could not believe what I’d seen. If the episode’s goal was to shock and disturb, it did its job like no other (though the subsequent “Sanguinarium” episode is the one that earns the pure gross-out award).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 25

Series: Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Episode: “Horror in the Heights”, in which elderly people in Chicago’s Roosevelt Heights are being mysteriously murdered, and our favorite paranormal investigative reporter, Carl Kolchak, discovers that a Hindu demon called the Raksasha is to blame. Our favorite Hammer Studio screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, wrote the topical script (with rewrites by future Sopranos bard David Chase) that deals with the squalid conditions of the Heights’ residents (which include the great comedian Phil Silvers). They just assume that the horrible droves of rats and anti-Semites that plague their neighborhood are responsible for killing their friends. The portrayals of the Jewish populace are a bit broad, but this is still a pointed episode that demands we stop throwing our elderly away with the trash. And, of course, Darren McGavin. Darren McGavin forever.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Monsterology: Monster Houses

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

Welcome home! You’ve had a tough day digging ditches in some inhospitable mound of dirt or hacking away at a keyboard in an even less homey office cubicle. What you need now is to hang up your boots and settle into your lazy boy. Your home is your castle, your one bit of security and privacy in an increasingly insecure and inprivate world. It is so inprivate that we have to make up new words like “inprivate” to indicate how inprivate it is.

But wouldn’t it be a stone drag if you were settling in to relax in your sanctuary and the walls started bulging unnaturally or bleeding even more unnaturally? Wouldn’t it simply ruin your night if that thing you haven’t even finished paying the mortgage on yet sucked your precious little daughter into the electrical system or made you want to pick up an axe and chop up your precious little son?

Monsters come in all shapes, sizes, and smells, but one thing that unites the mass of them from werewolves to robots is that they somehow resemble organic beings. One of the few exceptions is the monstrous house. The fact that it has no arms or legs or teeth makes the monster house highly unusual and really very wrong (though not completely beyond anthropomorphization, as we shall see). The fact that a house is such a mundane thing, a thing intended to protect and comfort, makes it highly insidious, especially when it turns against the children who dwell in it, as it so often does.

First of all, we must distinguish the monster house from the haunted house. In a haunted house, the monster is some form of ghost. It may make the windows rattle or the chairs fall over, but that ghost is the central threat, not the place it chooses to haunt. That would be like blaming Dracula’s castle for the vampire’s poor behavior, which would be unfair to a perfectly fine castle. The nasty things a ghost does can be accomplished by any breathing, visible asshole. Ghosts or other such entities may be responsible for making a monster house monstrous, but a true monster house takes on a life of its own; it is the threat.

The first truly enduring monster house remains the definitive one. Published in 1839, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” largely passed over specifics to dwell on off putting descriptions of the title building. The unnamed narrator approaches the house, and it instantly casts its spell on him, bashing him with waves of depression and unease. He has not even interacted with its weird inhabitants before getting a very strong sense that the House of Usher is a bad place. He even emphasizes its inherent monstrousness by trying to describe it in anthropomorphic terms, noting its “vacant and eye-like windows.”

Is it the house that has seemingly poisoned Roderick and Madeline Usher, both of whom suffer from odd maladies such as Roderick’s intense aversion to sound and his sister’s general malaise and tendency to lapse into catatonic states? Is it responsible for the subtextual moral decay of the siblings, whose relationship may not be entirely platonic? As the narrator drifts through the foreboding house, it reacts violently to the presence of one who might uncover its strange and dirty secrets. It begins cracking in disapproval. When the ultimate abomination comes to light—Roderick’s premature burial of catatonic Madeline—the house has a total nervous breakdown. As the short story’s title spoils, the House of Usher falls—quite literally. The building collapses, claiming the poisoned siblings as its victims while the narrator manages to escape the domestic tomb. In a perversion of home security, the house would rather self-destruct than allow its familys ugly secrets come to life, even if that means wiping out the family in the process.

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 24

Series: Night Gallery

Episode: “Green Fingers/The Funeral/The Tune in Dan’s Cafe”, in which Cameron Mitchell is a sleazy industrialist who wants to build a factory on the property of gardening-enthusiast Elsa Lanchester. Mitchell would have probably backed off if he’d known just how effective the sweet, old lady’s green fingers are. “Green Fingers” soars with a macabre script by Rod Serling (based on R.C. Cook’s short story), creepy direction by John “Saturday Night Fever” Badham, the star of the greatest monster movie ever made, and an awesome tribute in Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Green Fingers” (song not included in this episode). Our next painting is a morsel of fun silliness from Richard Matheson in which a vampire plans the funeral he never got a chance to have. The mourners look like the cast of The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t. Yay! The portrait at the end of our museum of miscreants depicts Susan Oliver and Pernell Roberts as a couple incessantly blabbing about their flailing marriage in a bar while the same crappy country song plays over and over on the juke box. Apparently, it was the song that was playing when another doomed couple was swept up in violence at the joint years ago. Despite some groovy psychedelic solarization effects and an elegantly filmed shoot out, this last tale is a whole lot of nothing. The other two are essential Halloween season viewing.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 23

Series: The Groovie Goolies

Episode: “Population Party”, in which The Groovie Goolies do the same things they do in every episode of The Groovie Goolies: crack corny jokes, spout catchphrases (“I needed that!”; “A-wa-roo-roo-roo!”), violate innumerable copyrights held by Laugh-In, look rad, and sing catchy bubblegum pop songs. This episode basically stands out because the songs “1-2-3” and “Population Party” are two of the series' catchiest.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

31 TV Shows for 31 Days of Halloween Season: Day 22

Series: Twilight Zone (1980s revival)

Episode: “The Shadow Man/The Uncle Devil Show/Opening Day”, in which the nerdy kid from “Charles in Charge” finds a bodyguard in a silhouetted boogie man that lives under his bed and ends up abusing that newfound power. The nightmare-stoking nocturnal appearances of the Shadow Man are what make Joe Dante’s segment unforgettable. The other segments—one a silly yet pretty unsettling short about a Satanic Captain Kangeroo and the other a role reversal tale in which Jeffrey Jones is the victim of a murder plot hatched by his wife and her lover (directed by John Millius, who wrote Quint’s U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue in Jaws!)—are pretty good, too.
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