Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated TV Horror: Eric J. Lawrence ""

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Favorite Underrated TV Horror: Eric J. Lawrence

DJ Eric J. Lawrence has a radio show over at KCRW and I've been listening to it for a long time. I've said previously that it is truly my favorite radio program out there and that remains to be the case. He plays quite an eclectic mix of old songs, and is also my go-to source for new music as well. Check out the show here:

I can’t compete with the roster of expert midnight-movie mavens, VHS-hunters, gore hounds, and all-around cinephiles this great blog regularly features and list any horror films that are both truly underrated and worth their salt.  So I’ve aimed my viewfinder a tad askew and offer up my picks for underrated TELEVISION horror picks.  In addition to having to be good, my TV picks are hindered by the basic constraints the medium has – namely a general absence of graphic violence.  Thus my selections lean towards the creepy than the genuinely horrific.  But take heed: there are still nightmare-inducing things to be found here.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (dir. Clyde Geronimi, 1949)
OK, it’s my first pick and I’m already cheating!  Yes, this half-hour long animated version of the classic Washington Irving story was originally paired with The Wind & the Willows for The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, one of Disney’s 40s era package films (such as Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, etc.)  But I’d guess that most people today remember seeing it on the Disneyland TV series, where it originally aired in 1955 and was frequently rebroadcast around Halloween time through the 80s.  Bing Crosby is an odd choice for narrator, but I suppose his easy-going manner is meant to distract from the scares to come.  And scares there are, as however cartoonish Ichabod and his skinny horse are, the cackling, sword-swinging Headless Horseman and his red-eyed stallion are genuinely frightening.  Coupled with the atmospheric sounds and colors of Sleepy Hollow (designed, in part, by Disney legend Mary Blair), this thrilling sequence doesn’t cop out with unequivocal happy “Disney” ending.  It is left ambiguous as to whether it really was a ghost or not, the true mark of a story that will linger in the minds of impressionable kids and adults alike.
The Twilight Zone – “Twenty Two” (dir. Jack Smight, 1961)
This second-season supernatural story from Rod Serling’s legendary series rarely gets cited as among the show’s best episodes, but it is the one that I always looked forward to the most during the various holiday Twilight Zone marathons.  Riffing off of E. F. Benson’s early 20th-century story, “The Bus-Conductor” (but improperly credited on screen to Serling, via an anecdote from Bennett Cerf), the tale is often referred to as “Room for One More, Honey” after the line uttered by the creepy nurse in the morgue in the main character’s recurring dream.  Barbara Nichols perfectly embodies the showgirl with a nervous breakdown, and Lost in Space’s Jonathan Harris is always welcome as the unctuous, unbelieving doctor.  The fact that this episode is one of only six that were videotaped for budgetary reasons lends an extra unearthliness to the proceedings, especially in the climactic scene.  As Serling warns in the promo for the episode, “Be prepared to be spooked – it’s THAT kind of story!”
The Omega Factor – “Visitations” (dir. Norman Stewart, 1979)
This short-lived BBC series doesn’t get as much play as I think it deserves, coming somewhere between the playful sci-fi cliffhangers of “Doctor Who” and the intelligent speculative serials of Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass.  Running a mere ten episodes, The Omega Factor follows journalist Tom Crane (played by the late actor James Hazeldine) who investigates cases involving paranormal phenomena with the “assistance” of a secretive governmental organization.  He teams up with Dr. Anne Reynolds (played by Louise Jameson, the fourth Doctor Who’s foxy but feral companion Leela) as they tackle problems of ESP, possession, out-of-body experiences and such, setting itself up as a British precursor to The X-Files.  The pilot episode is the obvious place to start and is creepy in its own right, as it introduces the series’ main villain, the Aleister Crowley-like magician/psychic Edward Drexel (played with subdued menace by another Doctor Who vet, Cyril Luckham).  But the second episode is set in a haunted house that offers up some of the freakiest EVPs this side of Ghost-Hunters!
Ghostwatch (dir. Lesley Manning, 1992)
You know you’re on the right track if a highly-rated television show has only been broadcast once due to a flood of complaints from frightened viewers. Such is the case of Ghostwatch, a 90-minute mockumentary depicting a “live” television broadcast from a reportedly haunted house in London.  Much like Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, Ghostwatch succeeded in convincing lots of viewers that what they were watching was really happening (despite a “written by” credit at the beginning of the show).  To be fair, the creators craftily used real television presenters as actors playing themselves, including Michael Parkinson, the Larry King of the UK.  Setting up a story of a family beset by poltergeist activity, they were able to insert near-subliminal appearances of the ghost (nicknamed “Pipes”) throughout the show, keeping television viewers on their toes about what they thought they were seeing.  Due to complaints ranging from causing post-traumatic stress disorder in kids to supposedly inspiring the suicide of an 18-year-old factory worker with learning difficulties, the BBC put a ban on any rebroadcast of the show for a decade (although it lives on in various home video releases).  In hindsight, like with Welles’ radio broadcast, it all seems pretty obviously fictitious.  But it is so well done that it’s just as easy to fall into the scares as well, and its fingerprints are very visible in later films and shows, from The Blair Witch Project and theParanormal Activity series to innumerable ghost hunting TV shows.
The X-Files – “Beyond the Sea” (dir. David Nutter, 1994)
I’ve never been particularly frightened by the concept of alien abduction (clearly, it has never happened to me!), so I find this early, non-mythology episode in the first season of this classic series to be the spookiest of the whole run, mainly due to Brad Dourif’s portrayal of a serial killer who claims he can channel spirits.  This character (and performance) is similar to his role as the killer in The Exorcist III(which is certainly an underrated horror film I could cite), not to mention having gained experience voicing the murderous Chucky in the Child’s Play films. Nonetheless, the oily ease with which he convinces Scully that he can communicate with her recently dead father is shiver inducing.  An important episode in terms of giving both Scully & Mulder a taste of each other’s beliefs, it also features a potent scene of Scully seeing an eerie vision of her father who vanishes just before she receives a phone call alerting her to his death, ample time in a prison death-row, a funeral at sea, some suggested torture, and the creepiest use of a Bobby Darin song not involving Kevin Spacey’s horrible hairpieces. Bottom line is, if you’re looking for the definitive serial killer and Anthony Hopkins is unavailable, Dourif is definitely your man!

Honorable mentions:
Kolchak: The Night Stalker – “The Zombie” (1974 episode) - You try sewing up a zombie’s mouth!  Co-written by David Chase.
The Stone Tape (1972 BBC television play) - A technological ghost story from the creator of the Quatermass series.
Dark Shadows (1967 episode, somewhere around episode 180) РThe first in a series of s̩ances on the show, this one was best because the series was still being broadcast in black and white.

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