A History of Horror is a three-part series focusing on three seperate periods of horror in film.
Directed by – John Das
Written by – Mark Gatiss
Starring – Mark Gatiss, Jonathan Rigby, Michael Roberts, John Carpenter, Donnie Dunagan, Sara Karloff, Carla Laemmle, Gloria Stuart, Sheila Wynn
Sorry guys but lately I’m addicted to episodic documentaries. It happens sometimes! While I’m currently waiting for the next episode of Moguls and Movie Stars (previous reviews here and here) I stumbled across A History of Horror. That basically just combined my two favorite things right there, the history of film and my love of horror. How could I pass it up. This episode covers the Universal era of films, focusing mainly on Dracula and Frankenstein as well as the careers of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Tod Browning, James Whale and Val Lewton. It wasn’t the most informative show I’ve seen but there are some fun interviews with Gloria Stuart and Sara Karloff that I felt highlighted a great show.
Right from the start we’re informed that Mark Gatiss isn’t about to cover it all. In fact he states that it’s a very personal selection of films he’ll be looking at. I haven’t watched all the episodes yet but I’ve read some people complaining about his choices for the third episode. Gatiss pretty much addresses that from the start and while his opinion may not match everyone’s, at least we know it’s his opinion. While he may not cover a very wide variety of films, he does manage to get some up close time with some amazing pieces of history.
He gets right to it by beginning with Lon Chaney and his role in The Phantom of the Opera. The focus here is on the amazing work Chaney did with makeup and I was surprised to learn that Chaney did much of his own makeup on films. Gatiss gets to snap on some rubber gloves and check out Chaney’s personal makeup kit, complete with a very uncomfortable looking glass eye that he used in one performance. Just to make sure that he always had the best look for his makeup, Chaney had a life cast done of his head so he could practice his effects on that before applying them to himself. It’s kind of creepy to think that Chaney carried his own head in a bag from movie to movie!
Gatiss then moves on to Dracula and Frankenstein and he spends the majority of the hour-long episode following the career of Boris Karloff and, to a lesser degree, Bela Lugosi. There’s nothing really in-depth here but I’m a huge fan of the Universal films myself with Karloff being one of my favorites of the time. There’s a great interview with Gloria Stuart who starred in The Old Dark House with Karloff and she manages to crack a few jokes in between stories of what a great man Karloff was. Stuart only recently passed away so I have to imagine that this may be one of the last interviews with her.
The coverage of Lugosi is much thinner and he seems to have been trapped by his role in Dracula. Bela Lugosi was set to make a very small sum of money for his performance in Son of Frankenstein until Karloff and Basil Rathbone demanded that he receive a larger salary. That shows just where the careers of the two greatest Universal monsters had gone. Covering both the films allows for Gatiss to explore a few films from Frankenstein director James Whale and Dracula director Tod Browning, in particular Browning’s work Freaks. Slightly controversial in its use of actual circus sideshow performers, Freaks quickly tanked at the box office but has certainly gone on to become a classic.
As you can see, Gatiss is quite selective in what is presented. He has a quick little interview with John Carpenter as they discuss the work of Val Lewton like Cat People. Carpenter doesn’t think very highly of the film but Lewton was only producer for the film so I’m not sure why so much focus on him. Again, this is what Gatiss wants to present so we either accept that and enjoy what he has to offer or change the channel. I was sticking around and I’m looking forward to the second episode which covers the Hammer years of horror. That’s an area that my knowledge is very slim in so I’m hoping to learn a thing or two.
Under the marquee – Will