Wednesday 22 November 2017

Terrorvision

Watched by Canadian actor Michael Ontkean (as Sheriff Harry S. Truman) (right), American actor Kyle MacLachlan (as Special Agent Dale Cooper) examines the hand of German-born American actress Sheryl Lee (as the deceased Laura Palmer) in a scene from the pilot episode of the television series 'Twin Peaks,' originally broadcast on April 8, 1990. An unidentified actor as a morgue attendant (known as 'Jim') stands at the end of the gurney. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Ed Power

Ed Power

Creepy horror series are making a comeback to the small screen. Ed Power takes a look at the latest crop of ghosts, ghouls and zombies who have viewers hiding behind the sofa

With the exception of 'Mrs Brown's Boys' -- for how long are we all going to be having nightmares about THAT? -- television rarely creeps under the skin in properly scary fashion.

You can count on one hand -- better make that a severed hand with several fingers removed -- the number of truly frightening TV series in the entire history of broadcasting.

And we say that having sat through every single episode of the current 'Celebrity Big Brother'.

Unlike the written word, TV cannot terrify through the power of suggestion. Nor does it have the lazy, though admittedly very effective, option of papering the screen in gore.

In contrast to cinema, there have always been widely understood limits as to how bloody things can get. And a horror director unable to toss a bucket of entrails at the audience to get their pulses going is a bit like a pornographer forbidden from showing naked flesh.

You genuinely are on a hiding to nothing.

Still, every few years, someone attempts to turn this received wisdom on its head.

Horror seems to be going through one of those intermittent resurgences right now, with a number of shows working hard to make prime time that little bit creepier.

None will keep you awake all night in a cold sweat. But they might cause you to look over your shoulder when something goes bump in the spare room.

The most successful of the lot is 'The Walking Dead' from AMC, the US cable network responsible for 'Mad Men'.

A rather transparent attempt to capitalise on the ongoing vogue for all things zombie -- more than 2,000 people attended the Dublin Zombie Walk last year -- 'The Walking Dead' is set in a post-apocalyptic southern US, where 99pc of humanity has been transformed into brain-chomping undead (think Temple Bar at 3am with a bigger make-up budget).

Into this maelstrom of shambling ghouls is dropped deputy sheriff Rick Grimes, aka Andrew Lincoln from 'This Life' (unlike most Brits on American TV pulling off a decent native accent), leader of a standard-issue ragtag of desperate survivors.

With 'Shawshank Redemption' producer Frank Darrabont overseeing it, 'The Walking Dead' is predictably classy and thoughtful.

For horror diehards, that would appear to be the problem. While faring well with mainstream audiences, it has received a volley of raspberries from the zombie-loving hardcore.

Why so much emphasis on plot development and character, they complain? Couldn't there be more scenes of the hero squaring up to hordes of undead armed only with a chainsaw and some pithy one-liners?

From the opposite end of the shocker spectrum, 'American Horror Story' is from a man who knows a few things about evoking deep unease in viewers -- 'Glee' creator Ryan Murphy (you haven't seen scary until you've watched Gwyneth Paltrow covering Adele).

Set in a haunted mansion in Los Angeles, the show owes more to Stephen King (and the grim magic-realism of Neil Gaiman) than to the 'splatter' tradition that 'The Walking Dead' draws on.

It's arguably more frightening too -- for the reason that, like the best horror fiction, it unsettles through suggestion rather than by painting the screen red with body parts.

"I wanted to do something that sorta tapped into the different side of my personality," says Ryan, when asked why he chose to follow 'Glee' with something so grisly and spooky.

"I've always obviously been drawn to darker things. This is really about our love for horror, particularly which we felt as children and references from our pop culture youth.

"But, more than that, I like to create stuff just because I'm interested, like, 'I wanna watch a show about this.' There was a shortage of creature-baby-in-the-basement-shows on TV," he adds.

He was also keen that the horror resonated with viewers, rather than feel outlandish and camp.

"The show is about anxieties and fears that people have in their everyday lives," he says.

"So before we started doing the series we talked about universal fears, and home invasion was definitely one of them. Infidelity was another one. All the things that we're writing about are visceral, and people can relate."

In the US, 'American Horror Story' has been 'timeshifted' -- recorded on DVR and viewed later -- more than any other programme. Ryan believes audiences are too frightened to watch it when it goes out late at night.

"I think a lot of people don't like to watch this show at night before they go to bed. And I think a lot of people like to watch it in groups. Ultimately, I'm really proud to do a show that's too terrifying to watch when it airs."

It's early days, but the success of 'The Walking Dead' and 'American Horror Story' (recently renewed for a second season) seem to have prompted the industry to take another look at that scare-'em-up genre. The coming months will see, if not a deluge, then a promising trickle of horror shows.

First up is 'The River', a jungle-set drama from the producers of the genuinely terrifying indie movie 'Paranormal Activity'.

As with that film, the show is presented as 'found footage', being apparently cobbled together from the video tapes of a missing documentary maker.

Week by week, audiences will be invited to help piece together what happened to Dr Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), a famous nature presenter who goes into the Amazon basin in search of a tribe claiming to practise real magic.

At a recent press conference, the show's producer articulated some of the difficulties of making truly terrifying television drama. The biggest problem, they acknowledged, is that TV has to tread carefully when it comes to killing characters off.

On the big screen, the higher the body count, the scarier the film. On television, if you wield the axe too freely, then audiences lose interest.

Look how carefully HBO had to proceed with fantasy series 'Game of Thrones' when it killed off a major character in the finale of season one -- to the shock and, in some cases, outrage of viewers (no matter that the death featured in the novels on which the series is based).

Then again, maybe true horror is what happens when television puts away the fake blood and rubber masks and engages with the viewer at a deeper level.

Arguably, the scariest TV show ever was David Lynch's 'Twin Peaks', which spooked audiences through sheer, curtain-twitching weirdness.

Set in a small Washington state town, 'Twin Peaks' brought you out in a freezing sweat with its dancing dwarves, Kyle MacLachlan's undimmable boy-scout grin and, above all, the sense that, behind the normality, lay unimagined horrors.

David's message -- that nothing is as scary or bizarre as real life -- was more disturbing than all the zombies or haunted houses in the world.

'The Walking Dead', Mondays, FX, 9pm; 'American Horror Story', Fridays FX, 10pm

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