Theatre of the Damned Blog

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Monday, 10 October 2011

Ghost Stories and the rebirth of the anthology

I know we're not supposed to spill the secrets, but it's closed now so where's the harm? I'm not going to be revealing explicit plot details, but all the same - if you haven't seen it and are waiting for a revival - this post ain't for you. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!




Ghost Stories is perhaps the greatest success story for horror theatre since The Woman in Black. Like the earlier mystery, Ghost Stories also opened in a smaller non-London theatre, beginning its life in the Liverpool Playhouse in early 2010, before rapidly moving to the Lyric Hammersmith and from there to the Duke of York's theatre in the West End. What makes Ghost Stories' success particularly remarkable is that the format which it emulates, that of the anthology film, is one which is rarely seen in either modern cinema or television. Ghost Stories takes its cues from Britain's great heritage of portmanteau films, anthologies which brought together short mystery or horror stories through a linking narrative which more often than not had a fiendish twist in its tale.


It's a format with obvious attraction for fans and followers of the Grand Guignol tradition; it involves a similar balancing of tones and themes, and similarly rewards a short attention span and desire for constant change of scene and setting. From its inception as an opportunity to showcase the works of several directors, as earlier revue films had displayed a range of studio stars, it was most frequently linked to the mystery and horror genre. The basic concept was born in Germany with 1924's Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, though American Julien Duvivier is in many ways the father of the anthology format, following up 1942's anthology drama Tales of Manhattan (which wackily pioneered the framing story by following the various owners of a tail-coat) with Flesh and Fantasy, the first widely distributed and English-language horror anthology. Though its content is fantastical rather than horrific, the supernatural is frequently invoked and death a recurring theme.

'You're going to DIE...You're to KILL!'...erm...what?
Flesh and Fantasy is notable for containing a spiffing version of Oscar Wilde's 'Lord Arthur Saville's Crime', a minor classic which our friends at Le Nouveau Guignol revisited in their own style earlier this year, as well as for introducing the blackly comic framing story which would become the hallmark of a good anthology. Here it is a variation on the 'you'll never believe what happened to me/what I dreamt about last night' structure common to so many later anthologies, as two gentlemen spend an evening in their club nattering about the occult. Here too is the framing debate between skeptic and believer, which would be expanded upon in stunning fashion in the next major portmanteau horror, which also happens to be the greatest and most sophisticated horror film ever made, Ealing Studios' Dead of Night.

Why....hello...Sylvester...
Arriving a few short months after the end of World War II, Dead of Night exhausts all praise. A cast including Michael Redgrave and glamour-puss Googie Withers relate their strange experiences to a visiting estate agent (played by professional ditherer Mervyn Johns in the role of his career) who is determined he has seen each of them before in a half-remembered dream. The five short stories which they narrate vary wildly in tone, from the outright horror of 'The Ventriloquist's Dummy' to the comic brilliance of 'Golfing Story' via the ethereal slightness of the easily forgotten (but actually rather neat) 'Christmas Party'. Every story is a joy, even the derivative 'Hearse Driver' has Miles fricken' Malleson in it. Two of them, the aforementioned (and archetypal) Dummy story and another involving the purchase of a possessed mirror, rank among the most unsettling material ever filmed. What raises Dead of Night so far above its peers, and where its legacy can be felt at the absolute heart of Nyman and Dyson's Ghost Stories, is the wrap-up of the framing device. To say too much about the end of that show, or of the film which it pays such affectionate homage to, would be to risk ruining two wonderful surprises. Suffice to say, though Ealing's horror film is over 65 years old, and carries a family-friendly PG certificate, the last five minutes will shred your nerves raw. Though the structure of Ghost Stories owes at least as much to Amicus' 1972 Asylum (and we're coming to that), it is the poster for Dead of Night which cheekily appears in the opening slide-show.

And this from the studio that brought you The Lavender Hill Mob 
The thread really picks up with Amicus Productions and the barking mad Dr. Terror's House of Horrors in 1964, particularly as this isn't intended to be a comprehensive look at the anthology format, but special mention has to be given to Three Cases of Murder, if only because it so often isn't, and that forgotten British portmanteau from 1955 simply has to be seen. The opening story, in which a man is drawn into a painting and threatened by a crazed entomologist, is one of the few moments in horror history to compare with the sucker-punch ending of Dead of Night. It was withAmicus, however, that the tropes of the anthology format were truly solidified. There's the camp lunacy of Torture Garden, in which Burgess Meredith runs a crap theme park and a woman is knocked out of a window by a possessed piano, the scenery shredding turn by Jon Pertwee in The House That Dripped Blood and the genuine brilliance of Tales from the Crypt and From Beyond the Grave.

They're filled with incredible actors, even the rubbish stories have the good manners not to outstay their welcome and, perhaps best of all, the twist is always (to quote The Penny Dreadfuls) 'THEY WERE DEAD, ALL ALONG!' Though there have been a multitude of excellent (and execrable) anthology films produced in the years since Amicus closed its doors, it was this small English studio, which began producing teen musicals such as It's Trad, Dad! which defined the genre. When the anthology film is spoofed or referenced in popular culture, as it was in the only funny episode of well-intentioned Steve Coogan vehicle Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible, it is the Amicus film which is invoked. Even The Simpsons annual 'Treehouse of Horror' has an Amicus vibe, as the structure of EC horror comics is melded with that of the portmanteau framing narrative.

Sylvester's come a long way...
In many ways the anthology has then never gone away, it has merely been imported to America, which proved far more enthusiastic about it throughout the 1980's and 90's. It provided a cinematic alternative to popular television series such as Tales from the Darkside and The Twilight Zone, each of which boasted its own movie. However, when the portmanteau finally returned to British shores, it started, as is with so many of the best things, with The League of Gentlemen. Four of the most original and exciting writers and performers of the past decade. Their first major success came in two residencies at the Canal Cafe Theatre, London, where the three performers in the League (Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton - Jeremy Dyson remaining ensconced backstage with his typewriter and wicked imagination) appeared onstage in immaculate tuxedos and Bryllcream, wartime radio announcers with a cackling, pitch-black sense of humour.

Belying their clean-cut appearance, the League transformed themselves into a range of twisted characters whose lineage owed as much to The Wicker Man as to Monty Python. To keep the punters coming back for more, the League bravely promised 'Never The Same Show Twice!' as a sort of Barnum & Bailey ploy to guarantee repeat visitors. As Leon Hunt argues in his insightful article on the League, this had the effect of creating rapidly accreting worlds around the characters, as the constant need for fresh invention necessitated the frequent return of characters and scenarios which had proven the most popular and fruitful. By the time they earned their Perrier in 1997, a more or less cohesive world had developed, and the strange, slate grey and rain-drenched twilight zone of Royston Vasey was beginning to take shape.

The League, victorious at the 1997 Edinburgh Fringe
It first appeared as the town of Spent in the League's transition to BBC Radio with On the Town with the League of Gentlemen, a precursor to their later TV success. Already a harbour for the League's array of miscreants and malcontents, it solidified into the familiar Royston Vasey by the time of their first television appearance in the cold January of 1999. With an episodic structure which blended the sketch show with the comedy drama, and at the same time hinted obliquely at an over-arching narrative, The League of Gentlemen was immediately hailed as a distinctive and highly original television debut. By the time the second series aired in 2000, the show was attracting audiences of up to 4 million viewers, and its characters and catch-phrases had begun to weave their way into popular culture. Very much The Mighty Boosh of the early 2000's, key phrases such as 'Are You Local?' and 'Hello Dave!' were constantly quoted and reproduced on a thousand T-shirts.

Papa Lazarou - an unlikely cultural icon...
From its inception, The League of Gentlemen took advantage of the League's move to television to increase their use of classic horror movie tropes and cliches. The mysterious 'special stuff' which Hilary Briss sells from beneath the butcher's counter, the inferno which engulfs Tubbs and Edwards shop in tribute to James Whale's Frankenstein and the Denton twins, lovingly on loan from the Overlook Hotel.

Steal from the best
Where the first two series were saturated in admiring references and nods to classics of horror cinema and literature, it was the 2000 Christmas Special which finally gave them license to tear out the stops and let their love for the Hammer and Amicus films of old run riot. Three short stories featuring some of the League's most popular characters, and presented without the conventional laughter track, the special was the most overtly horrific material they had produced, lampooning an exhausting list of British horror films. The special was structured in portmanteau fashion around three unwelcome visitors to the generally unwelcoming church of Reverend Bernice Woodall, their three desperate tales revealing an array of diabolic happenings. True to the conventions of the anthology genre, the framing story itself then turns feral and the Reverend is revealed to harbour a horrific secret of her own.

An even darker side to Royston Vasey
The episode's structure plays explicit tribute to the portmanteau film which has been a staple of British horror and mystery cinema, and the individual stories are similarly laced with references and tributes. The first story, in which bickering couple Charlie and Stella step up their feud with the aid of a little black magic, is inspired by the creepy Donald Pleasance piece in From Beyond the Grave; the second involving Herr Lipp is reminiscent of Donald Sutherland's vampire mix-up at the end of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors and the final wrap-up succeeds as both a tribute to the twist ending of an Amicus horror, as well as  offering a surprisingly chilling re-appearance by one of the show's most twisted characters.

10 years later and Dyson was deep in development of Ghost Stories, bringing his evident love of the genre to an entirely new audience. None of its individual tales contain direct lifts from earlier films (well, the second one sort of nicks its premise from Creepshow 2...sort of) they are all assuredly modern, and though the tricks they play have been seen many times before, considerable effort has been made to play upon modern fears and paranoias, to include new technology and contemporary character types. The overall structure may be heavily indebted to Ealing Studios' finest 80 minutes, but the haunted and their hauntings are 21st Century up-to-date with a vengeance. There's even something of Pennywise lurking in the bizarre numbered storm-drain.

David Cardy in (my favourite bit of) Ghost Stories
While Dyson was taking on London theatre audiences (and winning), the other League members were busy with their own tributes to the golden age of horror. Gatiss fronted the impressive three-part History of Horror for the BBC, while Pemberton and Shearsmith celebrated Halloween with their own take on the portmanteau with Psychoville Halloween. Occurring in a dream-like backwater of the show's ongoing plot-line (taking place as it does between series 1 & 2, but with much of the action occurring in flashback) it was a playful interlude in a series which is often preoccupied with its over-arching narrative. The conscious nods to Amicus were everywhere, and nowhere more explicit that in Dawn French and Steve Pemberton's re-enactment of 'The Neat Job' from 1973's The Vault of Horror, with Pemberton finding his odds and ends in a pickle in place of Terry Thomas.

An EC-approved end for Pemberton in Psychoville Halloween
Elsewhere the previous residents of Ravenhill Hospital are cleverly woven into classic horror scenarios, with David and Maureen ending up in a filial take on American Werewolf and Oscar Lomax into a story which surprisingly seems to take its inspiration from a story in the less than inspired John Carpenter anthology Body Bags.

It's a superb piece, its heights exceeding even those of its parent show. What the Psychoville special achieves, like the League of Gentleman Christmas episode before it, is the perfect mixture of the horrific and the comic. The stories are of alternating seriousness, and even within the episodes, as in the first story in which Shearsmith's caustic Mr Jelly is tormented by demonic trick-or-treaters, there is an effective balance of character comedy and chills. In retrospect this has always been the key to the perfect anthology, and its one which the form inherited from the douche √©cossaise of the Grand Guignol. Dead of Night has  hapless golfers, Dr Terrors has Roy Castle pursued by racist stereotypes, jazz and a wind machine and Vault of Horror has Terry Thomas's penis in a jam jar. Even when Amicus is at its most serious there is always one story which injects a barmy note of the camp or the grotesque to lighten the mood. Asylum is about as bleak as the British anthology ever became but there's still a story about a magic three-piece and a shambling shop dummy. In Ghost Stories we have the story of a young boy haunted by a goat-like demon in the most farcical manner.

Like the golfing story in Dead of Night these are partly placed for variety, to entertain and change the pace, but they're also there to make the horror (when it arrives) cut all the deeper. The League of Gentlemen Christmas special surprised many with its lurch into the truly macabre, which hit a nerve because it came like a rug pulled out from under you. The laughter stops, and the emotional openness which comedy encourages becomes a vulnerability. It's a topic Tom will be turning to in more detail later this week, one which we bear constantly in mind when planning our own portmanteau plays. It's one of the defining features of all anthology horror, and it's one which the four men of the League have brought back to its rightful prominence.

- Stewart Pringle





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