Saturday, 27 October 2012

TV PREVIEW: Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss, The American Road Trip: Obama's Story, Family Guys? What Sitcoms Say About America Now

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 27th October 2012.

Tuesday, BBC4, 9pm

Sunday, Channel 4, 7pm

Saturday, BBC2, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Halloween is almost upon us, which can only mean one thing: Mark Gatiss, on BBC4, looming from the shadows in the manner of a suave undertaker to tell us all about his favourite horror films.

A luxurious 90 minute special devoted to cult cinema classics, HORROR EUROPA WITH MARK GATISS follows in the wake of his well-received series from 2010, A History of Horror, in which he took a potted journey through the broadly familiar landmarks of the American and British branches of the genre. Bathed in clotted streams of crimson blood, his latest essay pays tribute to a “distinctive, diverse horror tradition” which both influenced and absorbed developments in cinema beyond continental Europe.

Encompassing every relevant 'ism' from German expressionism and Belgian surrealism, to sombre post-war realism and nightmare ruminations on fascism, it presents a sort of alternate history of horror cinema, or at least one that will doubtless prove unfamiliar to non-aficionados.

But therein lies the frustrating, albeit probably unavoidable, rub with Gatiss' horror documentaries: partly intended as an introductory overview, they do tend to spoil the twists and denouements of the very films he's encouraging us to seek out. His knowledge and enthusiasm are commendable, but this uneasy compromise between introduction and broad analysis does confuse the issue of who these programmes are aimed at exactly.

Nevertheless, it's still an enjoyable, witty and handsomely shot tribute to flamboyant horror titans such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and the expressionist pioneers of early German cinema. One of Gatiss' more interesting points is that the latter group were, in the wake of Germany's catastrophic defeat in World War One, intent on restoring their nation's pride by establishing cinema as a respectable art form. It's perhaps surprising that they chose to do so within a genre so often dismissed – at least by high-falutin' critics – as cheap and disposable.

Gatiss further explores the after-effects of war via the bitter, guilt-ridden pseudo-realism of French classics such as Les Diaboliques, and argues that the many grotesque characters played by the great silent actor Condrad Veidt essentially functioned as allegorical representations of German post-war trauma.

Not that European horror filmmakers were always ignited by such lofty aspirations. Gatiss is in his lip-smacking element when discussing the lurid exploitation flicks that emerged from the Italian horror boom of the '60s. These stylish, quasi-psychedelic fantasias resemble nothing so much as a contemporaneous Hammer chiller shot through the prism of a deranged mind. Your Lovefilm list may be heaving with this stuff by programme's end.

Arch of eyebrow and tailored of suit, Gatiss is an engaging guide to a rich, varied, eye-catching subject of which – lest there be any doubt – he's clearly hugely passionate about. Any programme that devotes time and respect to fantastically titled curios such as Who Can Kill a Child? and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is more than deserving of your rapt attention.

Four more years? That's the question at the heart of THE AMERICAN ROAD TRIP: OBAMA'S STORY, in which, ahead of next week's closely fought US election, Channel 4's Washington Correspondent Matt Frei travels through the swing states of the Midwest and the South to canvas the opinions of ordinary voters.

With many Americans feeling that their country is in terminal decline, Obama's chances of winning a second term are hardly set in stone. Frei meets middle-class (or what we would term working-class) people on the edge of destitution, who, despite Obama's promises of sweeping upward change, have come to realise that the American dream is a hopeless myth. “We were sold a line,” sighs one man, “and the line is a noose.”

And yet despite this widespread disappointment, it's fortunate for Obama that his Republican opponent, millionaire Mormon gaffe-trumpet Mitt Romney, currently looks about as electable as a rabid mongoose (he says, fingers crossed). No wonder the nutzoid Tea Party movement, who Frei drops in on, are so terrified and confused.

Unfortunately, despite the potentially interesting subject matter, Frei's report is superficial and unrevealing. He wastes time mocking a Mormon elder for the sacred underpants worn by those of faith, and, in one bizarrely irrelevant sequence, argues with his Sat-Nav while driving through Kentucky. I blame the heat.

Nevertheless, a portrait does emerge of America as a divided, messed up nation. But is that entirely accurate? In FAMILY GUYS? WHAT SITCOMS SAY ABOUT AMERICA NOW, historian Tim Stanley argues that TV comedies provide a more accurate illustration of American society than the ragingly polarised bickering of mainstream political debate.

Using as examples the likes of Modern Family, with its gay fathers and interracial marriage, and The Middle, about a recession-hit middle-class family, he shows how sitcoms throughout the ages have reflected and consolidated shifting attitudes. But even in these supposedly more tolerant times, subjects such as abortion and religion are still considered dangerously divisive.

Featuring insightful contributions from leading writers, directors, executives and critics, it's an interesting programme that proves, if any more proof were needed, that comedy remains one of the world's most valuable, risky and challenging art forms.  

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