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Friday 15 December 2017

Gatiss knows his scary movie stuff

League of Gentlemen alumnus impresses with his history of horror

"This series is going to be unashamedly selective," promised Mark Gatiss of his three-part A History of Horror, and it was. There was no mention of Max Schreck in Nosferatu, which is still magnificently creepy today, or of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

In fact, the German Expressionist tradition to which these silent classics belong, and which was a major influence on early Hollywood horror movies, never got a look in. No matter; there was so much here to sink your fangs into that you forgive the absence.

Gatiss is a lifelong fan of horror movies (as a boy, he revealed, he'd even watch Pro-Celebrity Golf on the BBC in the hope Christopher Lee might be playing).

They're his -- and by a happy coincidence, my -- favourite type of films, meaning this was an unalloyed pleasure to watch.

Celebrity fans rarely make the best presenters, but Gatiss -- a member of the darkly comic League of Gentlemen -- is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his subject that it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it justice. He also knows a thing or two about scaring audiences. Crooked House, his wonderful trio of old-fashioned horror tales, revived the BBC tradition of late-night Christmas ghost stories.

Gatiss began with the first Hollywood horror movie proper, The Phantom of the Opera, featuring the great silent star Lon Chaney (not to be confused with his son, Lon Jr), whose extraordinary ability to transform his face and body earned him the nickname "the man of a thousand faces".

Gatiss lit up like an excited little boy on Christmas morning when he got to handle Chaney's personal make-up kit and the life-sized cast of his head he used to perfect whatever look he wanted to achieve.

"It's quite fitting that somebody so obsessed with dismemberment ended up with his head in a box," quipped Gatiss.

Gatiss met Carla Laemmle, the 100-year-old niece of Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle, whose 1931 Dracula lit the touchpaper of the horror movie explosion.

Carla spoke the first line of dialogue in Dracula and recalled the magnetic effect on women of the film's Hungarian star Bela Lugosi. In truth, Dracula is a mostly ponderous adaptation of a talky stage play.

But if that film creaked, the next Universal horror, James Whale's superb Frankenstein, soared. Boris Karloff's magnificent performance as the creature turned him from a jobbing actor into an overnight star -- but only, his daughter Sara wryly remarked, "after 20 years in the business".

What followed, however, was even better. Universal's dazzling creative run of the 1930s transformed horror films. Whale turned out two masterpieces -- the blackly comic The Bride of Frankenstein and The Old Dark House -- while Dracula director Tod Browning made the hugely controversial Freaks, which almost did for the studio and unwittingly helped usher in a new era of repressive censorship.

Although Gatiss briefly covered other Hollywood studios' stabs at horror, including Warner Bros' landmark Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, featuring Fredric March's striking single-take transformation (the effect was achieved using rotating colour filters and special make-up), and the subtle, psychological terrors of producer Val Lewton's movies for RKO, this first episode was really the story of Universal, and of the sadly divergent fates of Karloff and Lugosi.

While Karloff became a much-loved star who worked almost to the end of his life, Lugosi -- unable to escape the shadow of Dracula -- slid into drug addiction. While touring in an ill-fated stage revival of Dracula in the 1950s, he poignantly told his co-star, Sheila Wynn: "Dracula is Hamlet to me."

Whether you care for horror movies or not, this is a terrific series. Next week, Gatiss jumps to the full-blooded, full-colour movies of Hammer at its peak. I can feel my bloodlust rising already.

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