For the last two years I've been hearing about Mark Gatiss from British horror fans who have been singing his praises as if he's the new "ace face" of horror. Having been very disappointed by "Crooked House" (2008), I was pretty much determined to hate the writer/actor responsible for that awfulness for all eternity.
I got the impression that Mark Gatiss was yet another of these so-called "horror experts" who the BBC likes to wheel onto every show that mentions the genre. In the '80s, we had the real big names of horror such as Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, and Clive Barker doing the chat show rounds, but something went horribly wrong in the '90s. When the BBC (and others) started forcing the John McCririck lookalike Kim Newman onto an unsuspecting public, it was time to either stop watching horror documentaries or kick the TV screen in to save yourself from dying by tweed suit overload and grinnygog-itis.
I don't really know where Kim Newman came from or how he ended up as the worst example of hairy-faced, British horror convention nerds. All I can say is that I bought his "Anno Dracula" novel and threw it away in disgust after only reading 4 pages. Horror fan or not, something about Kim Newman creeps me out and not in a good way. I couldn't concentrate on a single thing he said in interviews because I just wanted to punch the smug, self-satisfied smile right off his face. No, more than that, I wanted to see him get a damn good kicking live on TV.
Thus, I assumed that the BBC's "A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss" was going to more of the same superficial crap presented by another constantly grinning weirdie-beardie who I wouldn't like. I was wrong.
Although I can't say that Mark Gatiss has quite the same taste in movies as me, he comes across as a genuine fan and has the good sense to add the following disclaimer over a shot of his horror DVD collection:
"Because horror is such a personal passion of mine, this series will be unashamedly selective. I'm going to build my account around my favourite films and periods."I can't argue with that at all. It's exactly what I do on my blog, and it's what you should be doing on yours. While there are universals which objectively qualify whether one movie is good and another is bad, horror is mostly a very subjective experience.
As a documentary, there are some parts of "A History of Horror" which are weaker than others, no new information for the hardcore horror fan, but enough personally British stuff to allow those of us of the same age as Mark Gatiss to reminisce alongside him. It may not be the final say in horror documentaries, but it's more than just a primer for the casual movie-goer.
I too watched the same Hammer, Amicus and Universal horror movies on TV as Mark Gatiss did, I bought the same books and magazines, and I've met nearly all the same people at various conventions whom he interviewed. I haven't met John Carpenter, but I don't really want to. The documentary is Mark Gatiss' personal journey through great horror and shouldn't be seen as something shared by every horror aficionado. We all have different tastes and levels of interest within the genre. There are some younger horror fans who would have no idea who any of the stars he spoke to even are.
And so I sat through the three episodes of "A History of Horror" not really learning anything but still enjoying Mark Gatiss' obvious love of the genre. Owing to his sexuality, there are a couple of older movies which mean more to Mark Gatiss than they do to me, but he doesn't make a big deal out of them for that reason. For instance, he doesn't shove the gay stuff from "The Bride of Frankenstein" down everyone's throats, and I'm not even going to add the obligatory cheap joke about "even if he wants to" because he doesn't seem like that kind of chap at all. He sometimes dwells too long on what interests him rather than on why it interests him, but hopefully we already share the unspoken appreciation.
Mark Gatiss does repeatedly emphasise that he's from the North of England which is slightly alienating for a Southerner. Mark Gatiss doesn't have a broad Manchester accent so, if he hadn't said anything, I doubt that I would even have noticed where he came from. It still conjures up an image of no-nonsense, flat cap-wearing and whippet-walking Northerners who must have made him feel like quite an outsider at times. Give or take the regional differences, surely every horror fan feels a little bit different to the "normal" people though, don't they?
Mark Gatiss doesn't push the question of what it means to be a horror fan. It might have been more interesting if he had done, but then it would have been a documentary all about him rather than the movies he enjoys. I have to give him credit for not making everything Mark Gatiss-centric or playing the attention whore except when it was absolutely necessary. "A History of Horror" is no "Look at me, I'm Mark Gatiss!" vehicle.
Can you imagine Kim Newman in his attention-grabbing three-piece suits doing the same thing? Exactly. It would have caused broken TV screens across the country and a torch-bearing lynch mob descending into his parent's basement.
Mark Gatiss succeeded where so many horror documentary makers failed. He made his journey personal without it being about him. He made "A History of Horror" something to share rather than reflect one individual's tastes.
After "A History of Horror", I also watched the follow-up, "Horror Europa", which is more of the same only less so. "Horror Europa" is a continuation rather than a separate documentary which fills in a few more details about European horror in the same golden ages as were mentioned before. Again, Mark Gatiss is merely the amiable strand who ties the interviews together, but he has the balance right.
I didn't expect to like Mark Gatiss. I thought that I'd either be jealous of his success or annoyed by the ramblings of another "no-talent-know-all". Apart from "Crooked House", I don't actually remember seeing him in anything else before these documentaries. I'm not a comedy fan or Sherlock Holmes buff (outside of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) so no great surprise there. I'm a bit of a purist, so if it's not horror, I probably haven't seen it.
I have no idea what Mark Gatiss is like as a actor or a person, but as a presenter, he's found his niche. If there is anyone worthy to represent British horror at the present time, it's definitely Mark Gatiss.