Actor and writer Mark Gatiss is no stranger to the macabre, having made a considerable name for himself with the blackly comic The League Of Gentlemen. A History Of Horror, meanwhile, sees Gatiss turn presenter for a very personal journey through his favourite genre, taking in globally accepted cultural touchstones – James Whale’s Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi’s unforgettable turn as Dracula – along with much admired but less obvious movies such as Cat People and The Body Snatcher.
In the first of a three part series, Gatiss explores the golden age of Hollywood horror, stretching from its early days in 1920s silent cinema through to the classic monster pictures of the 30s. His BBC backing allows him some remarkably exclusive access, from an exploration of the quite beautiful set from 1925’s The Phantom Of The Opera, which remarkably, still stands, to the make-up kit of that movie’s star, Lon Chaney Sr.
Even more insightful are Gatiss’ interviews with the ageing stars of those classics of early 20th century cinema, from Donnie Dunagan, who played the young Peter in Son Of Frankenstein and provides a wonderfully personal account of his appearance with the legendary Boris Karloff, to the recollections of Gloria Stuart, who starred in 1932′s James Whale’s The Old Dark House.
The path Gatiss treads through screen history is a perhaps familiar one, at least to horror buffs, but his decision to concentrate on the characters behind the movies makes his journey far more emotionally involving than it might otherwise have been. The contrast between Karloff, who embraced his career-making role of Frankenstein with relish, and Bela Lugosi’s irritation with being typecast as a suave vampire, is poignant, and a fate that awaited many actors who later dabbled in the horror genre.
Gatiss makes for an oddly stern presenter, showing some of the Edwardian gravity he recently brought to the screen as Professor Cavor in his adaptation of The First Men In The Moon, but his knowledge and passion for his pet topic is nevertheless evident throughout.
Classic scenes from Frankenstein are revisited, and Gatiss heads to the actual spot where the film’s infamous scene of infanticide was shot. In it, Frankenstein’s tragic monster, in a moment of innocent clumsiness, throws a child into a lake. It’s a moment that shocked audiences at the time and still provides a jolt even today. To see Gatiss standing in the self-same spot, located just a few miles from the Hollywood hills, is surreal, indeed.
A History Of Horror is by no means a mere gushing trip back through Hollywood’s early flirtation with the grotesque, however. An appreciative look back at the influence of 1942’s suggestive, shadowy Cat People is brilliantly undercut by a savage dismissal from auteur John Carpenter, who impatiently says that, had director Jacques Tourneur shot Jurassic Park, we probably would never have seen a dinosaur at all.
It’s this candid insight that really sets Gatiss’ history of horror from the numerous other accounts we’ve seen in the past. Its focus is narrow, and Gatiss makes no bones about the fact that his choices of films and actors is purely a personal one, but this subjective take on the evolution of screen horror proves to be its master stroke.
Indeed, the next two episodes look even better, with Gatiss turning his attention from Hollywood studio horror to the likes of Britains’s own Blood On Satan’s Claw to George Romero’s underappreciated vampire classic, Martin. On the strength of this first episode, I can’t wait.