Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sleepy Hollow 2: Solid Schlock

Now we've cleared the difficult political stuff off the board, let's move onto something entirely more visceral: is Sleepy Hollow full of sufficient spookytimes?

The short answer to that is yes. It's not spookiness immune to a little humour - and if the idea of the Headless Horseman getting hold of an automatic weapon holds no appeal for you, then this is neither the program nor the blog (nor, perhaps, the existence) for you - but there's plenty of atmospherics packed in there. Nightmarish discoveries (and, er, nightmares), sinister trees, creatures that stand like men but who simply move wrong, it's all very well put together. For sure, there's little here that hasn't been seen before in film, but for a television series it's all astonishingly accomplished (there's a problem with suggesting this in itself is a reason to do things on television, but we'll return to what else is going on later). The final scene, especially, is - one CGI misstep aside - one of the best moments TV horror has come up with in recent years.

But pulling this off in a pilot is one thing. The obvious next question is: how long can this last. By their third seasons, both The X-Files and Supernatural - to take two other long-running horror (or at least horror-informed) shows - had both more or less given up completely on the idea of freaking out the viewer. The two shows had different reasons for that choice, as we shall see, but in both cases comments were made on the fact that the shows were moving away from "monster of the week" stories.

And here's the thing. I do not get why people think that kind of movement is a good thing.

If you want to put out pocket horror movies every week, I'd have thought the "monster of the week" format is exactly what you want to hew to. The X-Files had eight years to try matching the unsettling viciousness of "Squeeze", and they never even got close. The wilderness Americana of early Supernatural generated an atmosphere I'm still missing seven seasons later, no matter that by almost every measure the show's first season was its least accomplished.

But then that's because the makers of Supernatural decided they didn't want to make a horror movie every week, they wanted to explore how two brothers deal with life throwing a succession of revolting developments involving their family at them. Which, fine, if that's what you want to go for. What's important about that decision, though, is that it required the introduction of familiar elements - in this case, demons. And familiarity of concept is just fatal to horror. The slow-motion emasculating of regular villains in television series is well known (Buffy's vampires, Stargate: SG1's Jaffa, even the Daleks), but the problem is considerably more pronounced when creep-giving is your goal. There just wasn't any way to add in the narrative through-line and maintain the atmospherics (The X-Files made the same calculation, only in their case it was to push their Byzantine po-faced Labyrinth of Nonsense).

Like I say, Supernatural ended up better than it began (X-Files absolutely didn't), but still, I'd like to see a show stick with being as freaky as possible for as long as possible, And I think it can be done, too. Supernatural had basically the right idea - the obvious advantage TV horror has over film is the opportunity for character development. You use that to power the narrative, and then drench it all in lashings of undead fiends and loping monsters. Keep the story at the most simple possible level - upcoming apocalypse best prevented by killing all monsters, and off you go.

The most obvious objection here is how do you keep putting together scary movies when the ironclad rule is that the main characters cannot die? Which has some weight to it, I admit, but I don't think all that much, For all that a standalone horror movie has butchery options denied this kind of television series, no-one watched Halloween or The Fog seriously believing Jamie Lee Curtis wouldn't survive. The fact that horror movies can break the rules doesn't mean they can't work in situations when they're clearly going to stick to them. Indeed, another advantage TV horror has is that the utter bullshit last minute twist that has ruined so much of horror cinema [1] can no longer be employed to the same frustrating extent. So long as the show steers clear of menacing Ichabod/Abbie every episode only for Abbie/Ichabod to ride to the rescue at the last second, I don't particularly see a problem here.

I'm not saying it will definitely work. I'm saying it might, and I'd love to see someone try. It won't take long to discover whether or not they've given it a go.

[1] Especially post-Sixth Sense, though the twist there is fine as these things go. To what extent Shyamalan's film actually brought about renewed interest in twist endings, and to what extent it simply happened to appear at around the time a horror renaissance was underway in any case, I'm not sure.
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