Contains spoilers for Dead Set, Hammer House of Horror
Over the last ten days or so I’ve been catching up with various episodes from the Hammer House of Horror series currently airing over on ITV3 – and what a treat they are. The three I’ve caught so far – Charlie Boy, The Thirteenth Reunion and Silent Scream (see here for further details on the series) – have been grim, desolate fun (although they may look a little hokey by modern standards). However, the one thing that these three episodes have in common is that they are all unremittingly bleak, which is a quality I don’t think you see often enough in modern horror.
A little while back I read something (probably on a blog somewhere, I forget) that suggested that all narratives needed to possess a certain degree of hope to make them meaningful and worthwhile experiences, as if drama is some sort of route to 'self-improvement' – this is something that the Hammer House of Horror holds no truck with whatsoever. Each episode ends on a decidedly downbeat note, where hope is taken outside and given a good kicking on the basis that that is where true horror lies: to witness the protagonist of Charlie Boy die through no real fault of his own is both disturbing and unsettling, which is surely what any respectable horror narrative should be aiming for. The Hammer series does this with a frightening regularity, and mostly without any unnecessary gore (which usually isn’t scary in the slightest).
One of my favourite films is My Little Eye, which has an ending so bleak that it made me feel physically unwell – which I think is a good thing. Throw in Session 9 and Blair Witch, and you have a triumvirate of some of the bleakest, most morbid films ever made (is it simply a coincidence that all three films are all shot on video? Maybe there’s something about the everyday, ‘homemade’ nature of the medium that makes these films genuinely unsettling).
So with these films in mind, it gives me great pleasure to announce that bleak is back with a vengeance, in the shape of the Charlie Brooker penned Dead Set, showing on E4 at the moment (last episode tonight). The pilot episode was terrific: unnerving and, above all else, genuinely frightening (again, shot mostly on digital video by the look of things). Like the Hammer House of Horror, Dead Set’s milieu is contemporary Britain, a recognisable scenario to anyone who’s seen more than ten minutes of Big Brother. However, Dead Set doesn’t go out of its way to satirise reality TV – if you’re looking for satire, then no doubt you’ll find it, but there’s more to Dead Set than simply putting the boot into Big Brother and its ilk. Even before the zombies show up (sprinting this way and that in true 28 Days Later stylee), the studio setting is bleak enough: a kind of claustrophobic maze where stressed out producers bark orders at interns, who are only too happy to be involved in the subterranean hell of TV production.
Also, Brooker seems to have got the tone just right – in today’s Guardian, Anne Billson says this:
Because horror movies tend to approach their themes more obliquely than other genres, they often succeed in getting under our skin where more self-consciously "serious" mainstream treatments of contemporary issues fail to cause a dent. Horror films draw on metaphors that are not polished and hermetically sealed, but misshapen or amorphous, like the monsters themselves, which leaves all the more room for individuals to interpret them on a personal level.
Brooker understands this all too well, and that’s what makes Dead Set such powerful viewing. Its narrative doesn’t labour the point with regards to reality TV, but at its core there’s something dark, twisted and nihilistic: witness the treatment of Davina McCall. Rather sportingly, Davina gets bitten in the throat early on by a member of the undead, and spends the first two episodes banging her head unthinkingly on a door in an attempt to get at Patrick the producer. Of course there‘s a certain glee in doing this to a well known TV celebrity, but at the same time, Brooker uses Davina’s familiarity to paint something bleak and ultimately hopeless. Hope be damned - when TV is as good as this, who needs it?