Autodidact: self-taught


A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss

by V. L. Craven

A History of Horror

In 2010, Mark Gatiss ( Crooked House , League of Gentlemen, that show about Sherlock Holmes with that Cumberfellow) did a three-part series for the BBC about the history of horror in the cinema.

The first episode (Frankenstein Goes to Hollywood) starts with the Phantom of the Opera and is a paean to Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and other pioneers in horror cinema. Gatiss travels to Hollywood to see Chaney’s make up kit and visit locations and people involved in early horror films like Dracula, which was the first horror film with sound. And Frankenstein, where he visits both the sound stage village and the lake where the monster met the little girl. One of the people he talks with is Barbara Steele, who appears in other episodes of the series.

The episode also covers quite a few early horror films that haven’t garnered as much attention, though deserved more than they received. There’s also a bit about the classic Freaks, which disturbed young Mark.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

The Count looks a bit unsettled, as well.

The second episode (Home Counties Horror) begins with the Hammer films, which were filmed in Britain. We’re onto the colour era of films, which made blood—which they actually showed—that much more terrifying. The first colour horror film made in Britain was The Curse of Frankenstein and starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Then we get on to the Hammer version of Dracula, where Lee takes over the Lugosi role.

There’s also discussion about the prudishness of the British film board that asked for cuts to avoid sexually suggestive material. This episode also has a fantastic story from Gatiss’ childhood as a young horror-lover whose weekly compositions where about such delight subjects as decapitations. There’s also a touching ode to Peter Cushing.

This one covers the Corman films based on Poe stories, as well, which are sort of the U.S. versions of Hammer films. Gatiss talks with Corman and talks about Vincent Price as a centrepiece of those.

The second episode  goes from the Gothic era to the English country sort of horror like the Wicker Man and Witchfinder General.

imagine opening a cupboard door and seeing that. Gah.

imagine opening a cupboard and seeing that. Gah.

The third episode (The American Scream) concerns the revival of horror, which takes place back in the States, beginning with The Night of the Living Dead. Gatiss interviews George Romeo and Tobe Hooper. Hooper, of course, directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Once those independent films began making money, big production companies began making films. Including Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. And the first horror blockbuster, The Omen, which was a sort of U.S./U.K. combination film being written by an American, but starring many English actors and being filmed primarily in England.

Gatiss also visits lesser-known films like Romero’s Martin about a teen boy who may be a vampire or may just not be able to talk to women with any aplomb. Cronenberg and his love of body-horror is then discussed. Then back to Romero and Dawn of the Dead.

The final section is on slasher films, which was properly ushered in by Halloween. Gatiss sits down John Carpenter about his inspiration and philosophy of filmmaking. Then our intrepid host carries on about where horror is going.

The Omen 1976 final frame

Terrifying, terrifying places.

Gatiss is clearly an enormous horror fan—at the start he admits that the films he chooses to highlight are his personal favourites. There’s a great love for the works and humour throughout. And bits and bobs of trivia—prior to playing Frankenstein’s monster, Karloff had been in eighty films, yet he was still virtually unknown for example–keep the viewer interested.

This is an excellent introduction to horror for people curious about the origins of the once again popular genre. It’s also sure to please devoted fans, who will no doubt find a friend in the engaging Gatiss. Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing a book entitled British Gothic Cinema, which will appeal to a similar audience. So be sure to check back in for that.

[Update: the British Gothic Cinema review will be next Friday]


Skeleton, Inc.

by V. L. Craven

Skeleton, Inc

Skeleton, Inc. was supposed to be a reality television series about the Villemarette family and their business, Skulls Unlimited International , but it was deemed too graphic and disturbing. Still, at least we get the pilot, in which they render a Barbary Lion from recently deceased carcass to a fully articulated skeleton. It’s pretty impressive. And not for the faint-of-heart or weak-of-stomach.

And if you think a fully-grown lion is scary, a skinned one looks like something Clive Barker wishes he could invent.

See you in your nightmares.

See you in your nightmares.

In the show they don’t hold back–we see everything from the skinning process, where they remove the entire hide in one piece, to the disemboweling, the flensing (removal of muscle from bone), the boiling (the way you remove most flesh from bone) and Dermestid beetles  (the scavengers that will get whatever’s left after flensing and boiling). They also talk about the challenges of working with dead things in a place like Oklahoma, where the heat is trying to decompose your subjects as fast as possible. (If maggots bother you, be forewarned. Someone leaves something out in the heat and…it doesn’t go well.)

The only bit that got to me was the way the brains were removed, which involved a heavy-duty suction device and was not a pleasant thing to witness. As stomach-churning as that bit was, the machine was invented by the owner of Skulls Unlimited, Jay Villemarette, so I still had to admire the man’s ingenuity, you know, whilst holding down my lunch.

Jay Villemarette

Way to go, Jay! Now pass me a bucket.

The majority of the people featured were Villemarettes–there are three sons and then one daughter who works in the office with their mother. I was a little bummed out that the daughter wasn’t more into it, as it would have been fantastic if she’d been right up to her shoulder in lion entrails with her brothers, but perhaps that would have happened if the show had been picked up  for an entire series.

Also in the pilot episode the family had to repair a cracked Humpback Whale pectoral fin. They were clearly trying to inject some sense of urgency into the situation, which was a little awkward, but it was still interesting to watch people wrestle with something so massive.

There was only a little information on the actual company, but I would have been interested to learn more. There’s some info on the site, but it would have been cool to have a tour of the warehouse in the show, especially of all of the human skulls they have. They ship all over the world and have an incredible number of specimens, some one-of-a-kind, some educational reproductions of extinct species and all sorts of other things.

I highly recommend checking out the episode (I saw it on Netflix) and browsing around their site.


The Secret of Crickley Hall

by V. L. Craven

The Secret of Crickley Hall

The Secret of Crickley Hall is a three-part series about a family of five that loses the son, a boy of five. He simply disappears from a playground one day whilst with his mother. In an effort to mitigate the pain of the one year anniversary, they relocate from London to picturesque Crickley Hall in the north of England for a few months. The mother (Suranne Jones) has a psychic connection with her son, which ceased upon his disappearance, but resumes upon the family’s arrival at Crickley Hall. Amid the protests of her husband and at the physical and mental risk of her daughters–one of whom is Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones–she presses on, engaging the help of a local medium, looking for answers.

Interweaving with this story are the events of 1943 when orphans were evacuated from London during WWII to the Crickley Hall, which is run by the Cribbens, a pair of siblings of whom Dickens would be proud. They subscribe to the belief that deprivation and corporal punishment are the best inducements to learning. When a teacher, an orphan herself (played by Olivia Cooke from Bates Motel), comes up from London and protests the harsh treatment, she’s soon sent on her way, but vows to save the children. Even if it means risking her own life.

The stories become increasingly enmeshed, as the more time the family remains at Crickley Hall, the more the horrific occurrences of the past begin to haunt them, until a devastating confrontation between the past and the present.

Olivia Cooke

The series was based on the novel by James Herbert. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of someone who’s read the book and seen the series. But as someone who’s only seen the show it was quite well done. There was one reveal I saw coming, but overall, the acting, direction, writing, etc were up to par for BBCOne. The pacing was particularly handled well, which can be difficult over several episodes of this sort of show. There were several moments during the final episode where I found myself holding my breath–the level of suspence was excellent.

I highly recommend this one for fans of ghost stories or stories well told in general.


Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

by V. L. Craven
Ichabod Crane, Respectfully Dedicated to Washington Irving by William J Wilgus (1819-53)

Ichabod Crane, Respectfully Dedicated to Washington Irving by William J Wilgus (1819-53)

There’s a new show based on Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. I was going to give it a miss, but then I found out they shoot it where I live and it’s always fun to play spot-the-location. My introduction was a cartoon, which I’ll get to, but I wanted to compare some of the adaptions (cartoon, film and TV series) and realised I hadn’t read the story. So that came first. It’s available from Gutenberg  for free.

Irving’s writing is incredibly atmospheric and he captures nature beautifully. The characters are two-dimensional, though, and not likeable–particularly the protagonist and his crush, Katrina van Tassel. Typical of a short story, there isn’t a great deal going on–the descriptions and atmosphere are the selling points. Oh, and prepare yourself for the casual racism. This was written in the early 1800s. It’s pretty minimal compared to other things I’ve read written during that time, but it’s still there. Be warned.

Legend of Sleepy Hollow Disney

This was the only scene I remembered.

As mentioned, my introduction to the story was the Disney cartoon , made in 1949. Which, upon, re-viewing, was rather disappointing. My young mind had glossed over the romance, greed, and singing and paid sole attention to the spookier aspects like the headless horseman and chase through the woods. The singing, however, does happen in the story. In fact, the cartoon is holds very close to the source material. They leave out the racism, thankfully, and they cut down on the general spookiness, but overall it’s quite accurate.

What was odd was that I could have sworn there was a bit where Brom Bones and his friends had pulled the prank where they chased Crane, pretending to be the Horseman. Because I was expecting it in the Burton adaptation. I have a very clear memory of this happening. The way the brain works, wow.

'I swear, I'd lose my head if it weren't screwed on... DAMMIT'

‘I swear, I’d lose my head if it weren’t screwed on… DAMMIT’

Many years later (as in decades) Tim Burton remade the tale with a bunch of spectacular actors, including Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman. This will probably always be the definitive version for me because it’s Burton, whose aesthetic pleases me greatly, and because of the aforementioned cast. He changed…nearly everything. Except he made two very minor characters mentioned in passing in the story into important characters in the film.

Burton’s version is visually dark–it’s Burton, what do you want?–though the story happens in Autumn in New England when everything would have been reds and golds and oranges. Ichabod was, indeed, a wimp, so that remained the same, but Katrina became a witch (something that would carry over into the TV series), rather than the vacuous flirt from the story and cartoon and there was blood and a real horseman. Something that’s left up in the air in the story and cartoon.

Sleepy Hollow TV Show

Eventually spring will come to Sleepy Hollow…that won’t be spooky…

So then Fox announced they were making a television show called  Sleepy Hollow  and I was sceptical. How could they take a short story and make it into a series? But after reading this review  I decided to give it a shot and I’m glad I did.

The first two episodes were the set up and people getting to grips with their roles in the battle with the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The third episode felt like the first ‘real’ episode, if that makes sense. The one where they work out who a baddie is and take it down, Buffy-style. The entire show is very Buffy-like–dramatic and supernatural and occasionally laugh out loud funny. They’ve already renewed it for a second series, which I’m very glad to hear, particularly since our landlord’s daughter is now working on the show.

And I get to pretend I live in a city like Sunnydale, but I’m not one of the stupid people who gets killed on a regular basis. Seriously, that place must have had a ridiculously high death rate.




Da Vinci’s Demons

by V. L. Craven

Da Vinci's Demons

I’ve recently had the opportunity to catch up on some television recommended by GetGlue . One of the shows is Da Vinci’s Demons, which is an original show by the Starz network, and dramatises the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Going into the show, the only things I knew about our man was that he was ambidexterous, likely bisexual, and an artistic genius.

After watching the first series, I’m sticking to that set of things, as I’m sure all sorts of facts were altered to make the show more interesting. That’s fine by me, as I’m not a history major, though I would be interested in what was changed. It was fun to see some of his more fanciful creations on screen, though. And Florence was beautiful as always.

I most enjoyed their version of ‘Charlie vision’, which is what they called what happened on Numbers when Charlie began explaining his current plan for saving the world with some algorithm. They do something similar on Da Vinci’s Demons, but the graphics are in the style of Da Vinci’s sketches.

The plot of the first series is Da Vinci trying to solve an ancient puzzle with his brilliant mind whilst also being caught up in the political intrigue between the Medicis in Florence and the Vatican in Rome. During this he is also juggling his complex love life (to say he makes poor choices in this department would be an understatement).

This isn't from a Saw movie.

This isn’t from a Saw movie. It’s something Prince Charming below has.

Then, episode six happened. It was entitled ‘The Devil’ (each episode was named after a card in the major arcana). Da Vinci’s quest takes him to a castle in Wallachia. From afar, he and his friend and assistant notice something odd around the walls… people impaled on spikes. They ride up and are met by the owner of the castle and his men. The owner in question is Vlad Tepes. Dracula.

Wow, was that a fun episode. The set was aptly dark, but I wish they’d thrown up the lights a bit so I could have got a better look at his castle. There was a spectacular skull and long bone chandelier and skulls in the torches. I’m sure there were loads of other fantastic details I simply couldn’t see due to the murk.

Vlad Tepes

Not that the darkness is a hindrance for someone with no soul.

The entire first series was only eight episodes, but a second series has been ordered, so I’m looking forward to that.

If you’re looking for something based in reality–there was a very good show called  Doing DaVinci , which aired on the Discovery Channel where a team of designers built and tested some of DaVinci’s designs. Some with more success than others. The list of things they attempted to build is here.

The official website for Da Vinci’s Demons is here with extras and behind-the-scenes footage along with air dates and ways to watch the show if you don’t have cable. If you saw the show, let me know what you think.


Oddities and Odd Folks

by V. L. Craven

I’ve only recently discovered the Science Channel’s shows Oddities and Odd Folks Home. And they could not be more up my street.

Science Channel Oddities Logo

It all starts with Oddities, which is about a real life curiosities shop in New York called Obscura, where the owners Mike and Evan revel in the macabre and grotesque. If you’re in need of a two-headed pig foetus in a jar or a bone saw from 1921, they’re the ones to call.

Their YouTube channel has loads of great clips from various episodes and the first two series (they’re on the fourth now) are on Netflix in the US. If you live elsewhere and watch the show, please leave a comment to let me know if it’s available where you are.

If you can’t make it to New York, you can shop on their website , which is mostly logoed merch, but it’s still pretty cool.

[Now, I must fangirl for a moment. This is not something I do very frequently. I can’t remember the last time I did, actually, so enjoy this.]

Ryan Matthew Cohn works at Obscura and… is a rather attractive fellow.

Ryan Matthew Cohn Oddities Black and White

Hello, good sir.

And he wears a suit all the time.

Ryan Matthew Cohn Oddities Black and White suit and skull

So… Do you come here frequently?

And he likes to play with dead things.

Ryan Matthew Cohn Oddities Beauchene Skull

And WHO is your lovely friend?

I’m happily married and all that, but I’d love to go to fun places with Mr Cohn. The Mutter Museum would be great. And I want to wander around his house and look at everything. Because I bet it would be AWESOME. We saw a bit of it in the eighth episode of the first series, but I want more of a snoop. Luckily, there are loads of photos of his collection on his Tumblr page .

He has a website with some of his skeletons and skulls, cufflinks and a bracelet I would wear all the time.


Aside from Mr Dark & Handsome, one of the most entertaining parts of the show are some of the regular customers.

In the first episode, we meet Edgar Oliver, who is a playwright, poet and performance artist.

I was thinking how brilliant it would be to have something he said in the first episode as a ringtone. And, because the Internet is fantastic sometimes, it already exists. Set it as your ringtone today!

He also did a reading of Poe’s ‘The Raven’. Because of course he did.

And this brings us to Odd Folks Home, which, bizarrely, does not have a website of its own, but is nonetheless wonderful. (YouTube has some clips, naturally.)

I dig the Harry Potter meets Danny Elfman music. I’ll wait whilst you scrape your chin up off the floor.

It’s hosted by Mr Oliver up there and features some of the more eccentric regulars at Obscura and their fabulously macabre collections. In the first episode, we got to see more of Laura Flook , the model/mortician/dress designer. (She also has a website .) Ms Flook is sort of Wednesday Addams crossed with Lilith Sternin (Frasier’s wife from Cheers). In other words, I want to be friends with her. And I want to read her book, which is not being made at the moment and that bums me right out. If someone has a copy you’d like to lend me I’d be super careful with it and would return it posthaste upon reading it.

And her dog’s name is Trocar. Trocar wears a ruff. There is nothing about that I don’t love down to the molecular level.

So if you haven’t already, check out the shows and if you’ve been to Obscura, tell me what you bought/sold/saw.

[In doing research for this post I’ve discovered that the Science Channel has two other shows–Oddities: San Francisco & Dark Matters: Twisted but True. If you’ve seen either of those, leave a comment and let me hear your thoughts, please.]


Crooked House

by V. L. Craven

Crooked House


Ghost stories were highly popular at Christmastime with the Victorians (think A Christmas Carol ) and, in that spirit, on Christmas Eve, I watched Crooked House . It’s billed as a television series on Netflix, but at an hour and a half total it can be watched in one sitting.

A young man takes an ancient door knocker to an antiques dealer, played wonderfully creepy by the screenwriter, Mark Gatiss, who explains it’s likely from Geap Manor, which was destroyed some time ago. There’s all sorts of stories about odd goings-on in the house, three of which the dealer tells to the young man. The man takes it home and increasingly unsettling things happen, prompting him to try and rid himself of the cursed object, only to find it returning, seemingly of its own accord.

Saying more would ruin the plot, but each story is well-done and the atmosphere is handled beautifully. A fun, eerie diversion best watched on a rainy evening, I give it 8/10 and would definitely recommend it.


Come Sue with Me

by V. L. Craven

aaaaaaaall of the offensiveness

Come Fly with Me is a new sketch show by Matt Lucas and David Walliams, the people behind Little Britain.

This one is set in and around an airport in London with Lucas and Walliams playing all of the main characters.


Just when I thought House doing black face was the most offensive thing British people could get away with that Americans could never do…

Lucas and Walliams show up and do their level best to offend everyone.

Starting with Precious Little, a black woman who runs a coffee shop. She’s lazy, hypocritical and always singing songs about Jesus.

My hypothesis is that, whilst writing the series, Lucas and Walliams had a giant poster reading, ‘Leave No One Unoffended.’ A good drinking game would be to take a shot every time someone says or does something that would get an entertainer in America sued blind.

Interestingly, there are no American characters, either being offended or being offensive. They get everyone else, though, including Welsh, Irish and Scottish people, so they’re not only taking the piss from those who have different amounts of melanin in their skin.

During the commentary of Little Britain in America David Walliams said he’d sometimes forget he was dressed as an old woman and would be trying to chat up girls between takes. So, in Come Fly with Me the actors had to stand around in public between takes while dressed as some staggeringly racist characters. There had to be moments when they were standing there thinking, ‘What the hell have I done… This seemed like a much better idea when we were writing it…’


If Buffy and Angel Moved to England

by V. L. Craven

They’d be in the same universe as Hex.

Rather than vampires, we have witches, voodoo and Azazeal, a fallen angel here to make life difficult for very specific people.

Set at a remote boarding school I would have happily killed to attend (Englefield House, pictured below), there’s a blond heroine we’re supposed to believe isn’t popular and her best friend, lesbian Thelma Bates. There’s some really well-done, subtle tension between the two friends (and an obligatory but nevertheless hot snogging scene at the start of the second or third episode) until Thelma is sacrificed. These things happen, you know.

If this was my school I would have actually turned up

It’s available on Netflix for the Yanks, and I’d recommend it for Buffy/Angel fans. The production values are the same though some of the fx make up far surpasses Buffy and Angel.

My personal favourite parts (aside from the girls kissing) are some of the adult supporting characters. Anna Wilson-Jones is one of the teachers at the school and I’ve been a fan of hers since she played the ex-girlfriend in Spaced. Another fav of mine is Colin Salmon, who plays the principal of the school. He was excellent in the second Prime Suspect and a total wanker in the eighth series of Bad Girls. Katy Carmichael is also a joy and quite different from Twist, the character she played in Spaced.

The chief differences between this show and Buffy are: nudity, sex and language, which they have in Britain, as well as characters having tongues when they kiss. Hey, at least they’re keeping it real. Also, the storyline takes the entire series to play out rather than the let’s-kill-the-monster episodic storylines of Buffy.

One thing that drives me crazy (other than the repeated mispronunciation of “nephilim”) is that the ghost, while brilliantly played, can touch things with no problem, but not people. I know it’s just a bit of fun, but explain how an entity can use the same hairbrush a living person does but cannot also touch that person.

That aside, it’s a pretty show to look at and a fun ride.

[The upper portion of this post is a repost from a previous blog. Original post date: 9 December, 2007. The following was added at posting:]

The lead actress in Hex (Claire Skinner) plays the governor of a prestigious university in England in Trinity.

This show only lasted one series of 8 episodes (a common length for British shows). It’s difficult to categorise. Drama, comedy, supernatural something, evil Americans running some sort of nefarious scheme through an upper-class club… Charles Dance was in it. He was great. The adults were fine, but the student characters were straight out of a stereotype machine. The last half hour of the final episode had me shouting, ‘NOW you get interesting?!’

So… watch it or don’t. But the scenery is nice. It was filmed at Dulwich College, London.


Black Books, How I Love Thee

by V. L. Craven


Because I have an unbelievably short attention span I have to be doing at least two things at once or else I can’t concentrate on anything. I’ve been working on adding notes and quotes from books to this site and that requires having something else happening in the background. Oh look, Black Books, the best show in the history of time. If you like books you must see this show. If you like British comedy, watch it. If neither of those things appeal to you I haven’t the foggiest why you’re reading my blog as we have nothing in common. Nothing, I tell you.

Of course, I’ve seen all three series many, many times, but it always makes me laugh. I watched it all a couple weeks ago, actually. So I thought I’d change it up a bit and put it on with the commentary, which is the three stars Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey and Tamsin Grieg talking about the show. Holy christ, I’ve been laughing my ass off. It’s mostly them saying, “Look how great/shite/thin/sick I look!”, talking about how great the extras were or bitching about how stupid the script is. (The show was written by Moran. I love people who can slag themselves off, which sounds naughty but isn’t.)

Of course, after this I’ll have to dig out my Dylan Moran CDs and Bill Bailey DVDs.

And I curse you people for only making three piddly series worth. In England, they hate themselves and they think everything they do is rubbish so they do stupidly short TV series–6 to 8 episodes per year is typical of comedies. Meanwhile, in the US they think everything they do is effing brilliant so they run some tired concept into the ground by doing a total of a hundred episodes when they ran out of steam aaaaages before.

More Black Books! Less Yank crap! (And I’m still pissed at the Brits for inventing Pop/American Idol. Don’t think brilliant shows like BB and Spaced gets you any slack.)

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