Unashamedly Selective: The Horror Documentaries of Mark Gatiss

mark gatiss

Unashamedly Selective:

The Horror Documentaries of Mark Gatiss

J.D. Collins dissects what makes Mark Gatiss's BBC Horror documentaries so entertaining, and also how elements can be seen in his work...

Let’s cast our minds back to October 2010. Halloween was upon us and BBC Four treated the masses to a new three-part documentary series on horror movies. The biggest draw was, of course, the choice of presenter being Mark Gatiss. Like his fellow Gentlemen, he is in a league of his own, with his solo projects as a writer and actor having established him as a distinguished auteur in British culture.

A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss (BBC, John Das and Rachel Jardine, 2010) achieves the seemingly impossible task of condensing fifty distinguished years of horror cinema into three, one-hour-long episodes; beginning with the history of Universal Monsters dominated by Dracula (USA, Todd Browning, 1931) and Frankenstein (USA, James Whale, 1931), followed by the impact of the Hammer films and closing with the American independent movies that brought the genre into more modern settings.

From the beginning, Gatiss states that due to his personal passion for horror, the series would be ‘unashamedly selective’ and that the choice of films and periods would be his favourites. Any viewer who may consider this statement a red flag for swapping mainstream titles in favour of obscure art-house fare need not worry; Gatiss narrates his pledge while the camera pans across his horror DVD collection. With classic titles bursting like an alien out of John Hurt’s stomach, including a range of Hammer titles and American films such as the George A. Romero Zombie trilogy and The Omen (UK/USA, Richard Donner, 1976) this is a history of horror… in a row! Rest assured, the films explored in this chronicle of horror cinema are exactly the ones you would expect. Both Universal and Hammer versions of Dracula and Frankenstein. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (USA, Tobe Hooper, 1974). The Exorcist (USA, William Friedkin, 1973). Halloween (USA, John Carpenter, 1978). These are not only Gatiss’s ‘unashamedly selective’ and personal favourites but are also the crown jewels of horror cinema and are favourites amongst fans.

This successful format of a personal journey that appeals to a like-minded audience is replicated in the subsequent documentaries. In Horror Europa (BBC, John Das, 2012) Gatiss journeys through the history of European horror cinema ranging from German Expressionism to the Italian Giallo and Spanish historical chillers. While a majority of these film titles would mainly be known by hard-core fans of foreign films, even the grown-up babies of the 21st century will have seen the grotesque image of Count Orlock in some description. The high quality of the BBC Four documentaries saw Gatiss promoted to BBC Two for M.R. James: Ghost Writer (BBC, John Das, 2013) and In Search of Dracula (BBC, Nathan Landeg, 2020).

With Gatiss writing all shows (bar In Search of Dracula which was written by Nathan Landeg), and with the talents of various directors across all programmes, purely on a production level, these documentaries are made with the highest level of love for the genre. The joy of any historical documentary is visiting significant places and Gatiss journeys to various film locations across the USA and Europe; locations include the original Paris opera house set from The Phantom of the Opera (USA, Rupert Julian, 1925), the Bates motel and house and Count Orlock’s castle; which he visited in both Horror Europa and In Search of Dracula. mark gatiss

The programmes also employ quirky re-enactments and breaking the naturalism of the presentation. In Horror Europa, the black-gloved killer appears behind Gatiss during his segment on Giallo thrillers. Robert Lloyd Parry, most famous for playing M.R. James in a one-man show, reprises the role in the 2013 James documentary, depicting a reading at a Chitchat Society meeting. Finally, In Search of Dracula sees actor Jack Derges perform the opening of the immensely dull 1897 theatrical debut of Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897), which was merely a read-through of the novel and took ‘four interminable hours.’

Another highlight is the opening to episode one of A History of Horror, which recreates a black and white filmed presentation that was played before Frankenstein (1931) in which Edward Van Sloan, who played Dr Waldman in the film, emerges from a curtain and offers the audience ‘a word of friendly warning.’ [1] In A History of Horror, the monologue is parodied and almost verbatim:

‘How do you do? Mr Mark Gatiss feels that it would be unkind to present this programme without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of horror films. Of the men and women of the motion picture community who sought to create monsters, without reckoning upon God. I think it will inform you, it will entertain. It might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not wish to subject your nerves to such excitement, now’s the time to, well… we warned you.’

Similarly recreated, with dialogue edits to fit the contents of the documentary series, the final scene of episode three also recreates a closing segment shown at the end of Dracula (1931) this time with Van Sloan in character as Professor Van Helsing:

‘Just a moment ladies and gentlemen. We hope that the memories of zombies, Leatherface, Michael Myers and company won’t give you bad dreams. So a word of reassurance, when you switch off the television and the lights have been turned out. And you dread to look behind the curtain, in case you see a face appear at the window. Well, just pull yourself together and remember, after all… there are such things.’ mark gatiss

Those who still relish physical media and own the Universal Monster collection will have seen these archive footage during the special features; most notably Professor Van Helsing’s closing speech in The Road to Dracula (USA, David J. Skal, 1999).  Even the finer details display Gatiss’s trademark wit; the title of episode one of A History of Horror is ‘Frankenstein Goes to Hollywood!

We are also treated to interviews with key figures of horror cinema including the Masters of Horror; George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Dario Argento and Guillermo Del Toro. Gatiss also met relatives of now-deceased figures, such as Mario Bava’s grandson Ray, Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara and Canon Adrian Carey, the son of Gordon Carey who was a friend to M.R. James during his time in Cambridge. Incredibly, Gatiss also met Carla Laemmle, the niece of Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, who appeared in Dracula (1931) and spoke the first lines of dialogue; which she impeccably recited to Gatiss. At 100 years old, he described her as a ‘spry centenarian.’ Perhaps the most enjoyable and intriguing interview is during In Search of Dracula when Gatiss visits Oakley Court, the exterior for The Brides of Dracula (UK, Terence Fisher, 1960) and has afternoon tea with various leading ladies who worked alongside Christopher Lee such as Joanna Lumley, Stephanie Beacham and Linda Hayden. They each share similar anecdotes regarding the serious approach Lee took when playing the famous Count and his love of listening to Opera. Going for afternoon tea with the interviewees seems appropriate for an English gentleman like Mark Gatiss.

Gatiss is a brilliant interviewer, as he never comes across like a creeping fanboy, but has sincere respect and admiration for the interviewees. The sheer joy that these participants have for taking part in such long-lasting works of art is evident with the passion they displayed during the interviews. We are blessed to have these conversations in existence, and perhaps with good timing. Sadly, since the first two documentaries were originally broadcast a decade ago, many of the participants have passed away, including Carla Laemmle, George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, Édith Scob and Jimmy Sangster.

I’ve always thought that successful documentaries are presented by passionate fans of a subject. As the horror genre is one that elicits such a strong and lifelong passion, Mark Gatiss is the most appropriate host for such a series. Wearing very suave and sophisticated suits, Gatiss has a very gentlemanly demeanour, and yet his subtle delivery and sardonic wit really do confirm his mother’s memory of him being ‘a very morbid child.’ The documentaries include some amusing anecdotes about his morbid childhood fascinations. Most memorably was, when holding a copy of Hammer Magazine – which he described as being a ‘Proustian moment,’ – this led to a story of when he was eleven and his parents attended a parent/teacher evening and were appalled by all his horror compositions, including one called ‘A Day at the Beach,’ which involved a decapitation. He was subsequently banned from watching horror films and buying Hammer magazine. The end of his horror exile came on a Friday night with the rare TV showing of The Revenge of Frankenstein (UK, Terence Fisher, 1958) and, upon his parents going to bed, he snuck downstairs to watch it with his sister and her boyfriend. Oh, the days before the internet!

Another quality to these documentaries is Gatiss’s very credible views on horror history which, for my money, makes him an underappreciated horror historian. He openly professes that 1978, the year Halloween was released, as being ‘the last sustained period of horror creativity’ as modern directors seem to follow in the footsteps of past innovators, but lacking their charm and relying too heavily on gore. Upon reflection, it’s very difficult to put an era stamp on any subsequent decades of horror cinema. Yes, there was torture porn in the noughties, but that genre lacks the sophistication and build-up of suspense as seen in the movies that Gatiss explores. mark gatiss

One particularly significant contribution Gatiss makes to the horror lexicon is in episode 2 of A History of Horror when he uses the term ‘folk horror.’ He explores the sub-genre through movies such as Witchfinder General (UK, Michael Reeves, 1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (UK, Piers Haggard, 1971) and The Wicker Man (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973). Although the term was first coined by Piers Haggard, the director of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, in a 2004 interview with Fangoria magazine, it was the segment in ‘Home Counties Horror’ – which Haggard was interviewed on – that many cite as popularising the term. [3] Although the genre, as Gatiss states, has ‘a common obsession with British landscape,’ it saw a significant boom in the 2010s with a range of ‘folk horror’ movies set across the globe; from Kill List (UK, Ben Wheatley, 2011) to Midsommar (USA/Sweden, 2019, Ari Aster).

For horror fans, these documentaries can be enjoyed by both the seasoned and newcomers as Gatiss explores movies that even the most long term fan might not necessarily have come across. In a 2015 interview for Mark Kermode’s online series Kermode Uncut, Gatiss refers to the sales of the 1932 movie Freaks (USA, Todd Browning, 1932) as havingspiked’ following A History of Horror. Although he humorously admits that it was by ‘about eight,’ he goes onto to say how ‘there was a noticeable spike’ and by ‘people who had never heard of it.’ [4]

Personally, these documentaries shaped my love of horror. Thanks to Horror Europa, yours truly is now a massive Dario Argento aficionado. And forget the Pyramid of Cestius or the colosseum, my first stop when visiting Rome will be Argento’s horror memorabilia shop Profondo Rosso; named after his movie Deep Red (1975, Dario Argento, Italy).

As a writer, Mark Gatiss has not only been inspired by his childhood influences, such as Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005 – Present) and Sherlock Holmes but has gone on to forge a career writing modern versions. His two most recent horror documentaries were essentially companion pieces to his latest projects. M.R. James: Ghost Writer aired on Christmas Day 2013 and just after his adaptation of James’s short story The Tractate Middoth (BBC, Mark Gatiss, 2013). The documentary displays both Gatiss’s love for both James’s short stories and the BBC adaptations which were often transmitted as a ghost story for Christmas. Gatiss has pushed for a revival of the format starting with Crooked House (BBC, Damon Thomas, 2008), The Tractate Middoth and he produced two further Christmas ghost stories including an adaptation of James’s Martin’s Close (BBC, Mark Gatiss, 2019). Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a 2020 ghost story was cancelled [5] but will return in 2021 with an adaptation of James’s ‘The Mezzotint’ (M.R. James, 1904). [6]

And 2020s In Search of Dracula followed on from the concluding episode of his brilliant BBC One miniseries Dracula (BBC, 2020, Jonny Campbell, Paul McGuigan and Damon Thomas) with Steven Moffatt. While Gatiss put his own stance on Dracula he also pastiches elements of past incarnations which were seen in the documentary; from Claes Bangs appearance resembling Bela Lugosi, recreations of scenes from Dracula (UK, Terence Fisher, 1958) and Dracula’s castle was filmed at Orava Castle, which was the exterior for Nosferatu (Germany, F.W. Murnau, 1922).  What I most admire about the M.R. James and Dracula documentaries is how much respect and admiration he has for both the stories and writers.

While Mark Gatiss has also presented documentaries on non-horror figures, most notably James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, John Minton and Aubrey Beardsley, it’s the horror documentaries that are particularly loved as, not only are they a passionate and comprehensive tribute to a genre that is too often overlooked, but also an insight into the mind and influences of a genius auteur. What’s next? I would personally love a documentary on Nigel Kneale or even the history of J-Horror. Whatever Gatiss presents next, it’ll no doubt be ‘unashamedly selective’ and appeal to all fans. Until then, here is his tutorial on how to make authentic movie blood. [7]


Sources

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yXgnrA5C9U 

[2] https://archive.org/details/Fangoria_230_2004_Dawn_Of_The_Dead_HQS_c2c/page/n71/mode/2up

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NkiEjzBgSE Kill List: The Folk Horror Revival

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qyy0cJo-2mE Kermode Uncut: Mark Gatiss

[5] https://www.radiotimes.com/tv/fantasy/mark-gatiss-christmas-ghost-story-covid-exclusive/

[6] https://www.seenit.co.uk/bbc-two-announces-new-mark-gatiss-christmas-ghost-story/

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhuR1VMkpXM

J.D. Collins

J.D. Collins

J.D. Collins talks, writes, watches, reads, dreams, eats, breathes, smells and possesses all things scary and funny. Host of Don’t Slam Your Podcast! A 2point4 Children Podcast. Author of Amazon ebook Reviving the Truth: A Critical Binge of The X-Files Post-2002. No relation to the names of his dogs, Mulder and Scully, who were inspired by the Catatonia song.

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