TV review: A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss

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A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss BBC4

THOUGH in many ways a textbook example of a factual documentary series, A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss was hampered slightly by the conflicting demands of its remit.

Billed as an unashamedly personal essay in which the actor and writer eulogised three pivotal eras in the history of horror cinema, it strove to educate newcomers while appeasing aficionados. The inherent problem there is that, as engaging and well made though it was, the series was necessarily weighted more towards the newbies than the hardcore.

Horror fans would have been disappointed that Gatiss opted for a broad overview rather than an in-depth study, whereas newcomers must have been irked by the wealth of plot-spoiling clips from films they hadn't seen. But what else could he do? A scholarly analysis would've alienated the section of the audience he hoped to recruit. And how else to illustrate his favourite films without showing their standout scenes? It was a tricky balancing act.

In some ways it reminded me of Jonathan Ross' seminal guide to cult cinema, The Incredibly Strange Film Show, although that succeeded both as an introduction and thorough examination by concentrating on a single film-maker in each episode.

Nevertheless, Gatiss's programme was beautifully produced and crafted with love. I didn't learn a lot that was new, but I enjoyed the experience of following him on his impassioned and authoritative voyage.

In the third and final episode he focused on the last great era of American horror: the 1970s. Abandoning the gothic trappings of earlier eras, and partially inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's unprecedentedly shocking Psycho, young beardies such as George A Romero, Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter set the benchmark for modern horror.

Unlike previous episodes, Gatiss was fortunate in that these film-makers are still alive, resulting in engaging accounts on the making of classics such as Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Whether these films really were intended as savage commentaries on the sociopolitical tumult of the times, or merely ground-breaking efforts to put the willies up J Public, was never satisfactorily resolved. Not that it matters. They're great films, innately subversive, intentionally or not.

It was a shame Gatiss couldn't get interviews with William Friedkin and David Cronenberg to talk, respectively, about The Exorcist and Shivers, but his analysis of both was nevertheless astute. And it was nice to see some love for the often maligned The Omen, as well as one of Romero's more overlooked films, Martin.

Accompanied by its director John Carpenter, a visit to Halloween's eerily unchanged, eerily perfect Californian suburbs inspired Gatiss' wistful closing lament about the formulaic slasher films it inadvertently influenced and with which we're still being barraged today.Despite brief, honourable nods to the horror films which have emerged from Asia, Spain and Mexico in recent years, Gatiss argued that the 1970s represented the last sustained gasp of British and American horror. I had to agree. It's hard to envision that in 20 years time, BBC4 will host an affectionate tribute to the bland remakes and mindless torture porn of modern horror cinema.