A History of Horror

Mark Gatiss is most definitely a Good Thing

A History of Horror

Although I am a major fan of The League of Gentlemen and used to spend many a happy afternoon standing outside the newsagent in my father's Derbyshire village muttering "This is a local shop for local people", I had never really considered where its creators got the idea for Edward and Tubbs's grotesquely upturned noses. Well, now I know. It's blindingly obvious when you think about it. It's a straight rip-off of Lon Chaney Sr playing the Phantom of the Opera.

In the first part of his new series, A History of Horror (11 October, 9pm), Mark Gatiss, one of the four writers who comprise the League, went to Hollywood where, in the bowels of a city museum, he found Chaney's make-up kit (Chaney, amazingly, did all his own make-up). He then followed this with a house call to 100-year-old Carla Laemmle, the only surviving star of the 1925 movie. And it was at her place, mid-conversation, that Gatiss applied his thumb firmly to his nose, and yanked it up and back. If Laemmle thought this rude, she didn't say so.

Gatiss has been a passionate fan of horror films since childhood, and this series is a personal and eclectic stroll through the genre. The first part was about horror's Hollywood heyday: 1925-50. In other words: Frankenstein (and sequels); Dracula (and sequels); the stars of these films, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi; and their directors, Tod Browning and James Whale. There were lots of creaky clips - I do love a bat on a string, don't you? - but this wasn't just another boring anthology show: Gatiss had put in the air miles and made the obligatory walk around the Universal lot.

To movie buffs, I expect his offerings were school-of-the-bleeding-obvious (in fact, I know they were; when I told my film-critic husband all about it over supper, he seemed, spookily, to anticipate my every sentence - a crushing experience). But I found it interesting: a bit mournful and plenty kitsch. Poor Lugosi. The Hungarian actor fell on hard times in the end and was forced to embark on a theatre tour of Dracula to British seaside towns, where audiences, by this time (it was 1951), were more inclined to laugh than to scream at his antics. "Dracula is Hamlet to me," he told one of his co-stars in the play, sadly. When he died, in 1956, he was buried in his cape.

Thanks to Gatiss, I am now also borderline obsessed with Val Lewton, producer of the 1942 classic Cat People and the inventor of what is known in movie circles as the Lewton bus. What's a Lewton bus? It's a moment in a film when, through a clever build-up of tension, an audience is made to jump halfway out of its skin by a perfectly ordinary event; rather than a werewolf jumping out from behind a closed door, say, the milkman does, or a friendly old neighbour. In Cat People, Lewton achieves this effect through the noisy pulling up of a bus in a darkened street, just when we are expecting something nasty to leap out and attack the film's heroine.

Gatiss is such a Good Thing. I sometimes see him in the street - he must live near me - and it's all I can do not to hurl myself at his gingery beard and beg him to come and have a latte; I would happily shell out for the bun of his choice. He gave us, with his pals, The League of Gentlemen, a classic of its kind. He has written for Doctor Who, Crooked House and the brilliant Sherlock, and he has turned in all manner of ace performances in other people's stuff, including a truly marvellous turn as Johnnie Cradock, husband of Fanny. The man even writes novels. Is there nothing he can't do? And how can one so productive maintain such high standards?

His career, built almost solely on his own excellent taste and judgement, is hugely cheering. His rise means that there is still a place for originality, talent and a certain kind of quirkiness; somebody, somewhere, seems to be listening to him. Not even the beard puts them off. Perhaps there is hope in the land of television commissioning after all.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?