Last week you saw a list of five horror films that our esteemed film editor, Dan Abbott, considers truly brilliant. As a companion piece, I thought I’d present you with a list of five television shows to send you shivering into that cold night. Television is an often underrated medium for Horror; anthology television like Tales From The Crypt through Goosebumps to even The Simpsons‘ annual Treehouse of Horror episode have given people their weekly fix of terror for years.
I should establish to begin with, this list won’t feature any jump scares, there aren’t any cats in the shadows. Horror television often revels in the disquiet that follows a terrifying event. Twin Peaks is a small town in America rocked by the murder of Laura Palmer, a local teenager. Enter Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Machlachlan), an FBI agent sent in to investigate the case. I won’t spoil any more of the plot but to say that this is Horror at its most existential, there are chances the serial killer at work doesn’t truly live on our physical plain, it features more horrific imagery and genuinely unsettling moments in its pilot episode than most films will ever manage. If you have nothing else planned for Halloween, you could do a lot worse than to binge the entire first series and enter the dark, twisted imaginations of David Lynch and Mark Frost. You may not return the way you entered.
It seems partially cheating to include this on the list considering the heavy debt it owes to Twin Peaks but considering the immense cultural impact it seems to have had (based solely on my Facebook newsfeed). Created by Bryan Fuller of pushing Daisies fame and adapted from the popular series of Hannibal novels, it concerns Will Graham, a hunter of serial killers who has a fascinating ability to enter the mind of criminals. Of course it being called Hannibal, he eventually meets the eponymous Doctor and from there on one of the most bizarre crime-fighting teams possible is formed. The show cleverly uses a lot of surreal imagery and slow dream-like pacing but twisting everything to feel like an extended nightmare, notice the use of stag antlers to present threat. The cast is fantastic, everyone from Mikkelson as Lector through Laurence Fishburne as Will Graham’s boss to fantastic guest stars like Gillian Anderson and Eddie Izzard, the writing and directing is moody and atmospheric as you’d like but most importantly, the killings are gruesome as hell and despite the surreal qualities of everything else, chillingly real.
Another recent addition, this time bringing you horror with a distinctly gothic flavour. Created by writer John Logan and director Sam Mendes, Penny Dreadful stars Timothy Dalton and Eva Green as a big game hunter and a medium who experience paranormal phenomena, meeting famous figures from the literature of the time including Dorian Grey, Frankenstein and of course, his creature. What separates this programme from the multitude of other gothic horrors on television is its willingness to be excruciatingly slow. The second episode surrounds a seance that lasts for nearly twenty minutes. It’s quite uncompromisingly slow but also never less than chilling. It’s a program that truly understands how to build and how to pull back, finding a slow poetry in the macabre. This has an intriguing distance from the idea of horror television as, by my own opinion, it’s not particularly ‘scary’ in the most obvious sense, but it is thoroughly aware of its ability to thrill and to imprint an image and it does it well.
The Twilight Zone
The best anthology show there has been or will be. Rod Sterling, Richard Matheson and all the other writers crafted some of the tensest, most awe-inspiringly brilliant horror, sci-fi, drama, comedy, basically everything over its run. From the paranoid ranting of William Shatner in Nightmare at 20,000 ft. to the mysterious god-like child sending anyone he doesn’t like to ‘the cornfield’ in It’s a Good Life, when it was at its best, Twilight Zone was some of the best acted, best written, best directed television available. It’s quite astonishing how well they hold up as well. So much of 50s – 60s television seems excessively dated whereas somehow beyond the occasional technological reference it has managed to tap into impressively universal fears and create something that could in theory still be terrifying long into the next century.
The League of Gentlemen/ Psychoville/ Inside No.9
I couldn’t be bothered to pick one of the three above but truly between them they represent some of the most idiosyncratic television ever produced. The joy of The League’s vision is that they are all clearly in love with horror enough that they know when to make things purely funny, when to blend and when to go for straight horror such as the last episode of Inside No.9. They also have the advantage that, in comparison to other similar shows, they’re all fantastic actors. In less capable hands the characters of Psychoville could have turned into broad caricature but with the light touch of the actors they find hidden depths you wouldn’t expect from a comedy show about psychopaths. Like most other shows on this list, they lean towards the polarising, you either love them or just don’t get it but if you can adjust to their rather bizarre sensibility, you will be greatly rewarded.