As we await the arrival of the third decade of the 21st century, the way we watch films and tv shows has changed considerably since I was a wee snip of a lad back in the 70s and 80s. Back then, a horror-based television series was a rare thing indeed.
We only had four channels and had to wait for what seemed like forever for anything produced in the USA to air here in the UK. When we got the latest in US television, it was usually some action or detective shows like Magnum PI or The A-Team. Now don’t mistake that for a complaint. I lapped those shows up like many of my advanced years. I would sit there every weekend waiting for Airwolf to blow up some enemy fighter planes, or watch as B.A. drank his roofied milk so that they could get him on a plane.
Horror based tv shows were, sadly, few and far between. We had the odd gem which will pop up in this list, but it wasn’t really until the 90s when British television discovered there was an audience for scary programming.
Here in the 21st century, every other show has a horror theme. In fact, there is at least one announcement a week that claims that some classic horror movie will receive the tv series adaption treatment. Just yesterday, I read that Halloween is to be the next franchise to be passed on to the small screen. Chucky is also set to become a boob tube character, although news on that has gone a bit cold of late.
With so many horror shows on offer, it’s a case of weeding the wheat from the chaff. For every Ash vs Evil Dead (which sadly didn’t quite make this list), there is an American Horror Story. Seriously, I don’t get the love for this show. It seems to be a horror series made by people who don’t know or understand the horror genre. I recently tried watching the summer camp series and had to give up. Suddenly, everyone was a killer and became so convoluted and chaotic that I jumped ship.
I figured, why not compile my own list of shows that I have loved over the years? So here it is. I haven’t included The Walking Dead. What started as a great show went downhill fast. I eventually stopped watching what had become a fairly boring soap opera with the odd zombie in it. This is just my opinion, as is this list, but I stand by it.
So, without further ado, here is my list of favourite horror, tv shows:
10: Tales From the Crypt (1989 – 1996)
Created By: Steven Dodd, Starring: John Kassir, Lance Henriksen, Bobcat Goldthwait, William Sadler, Michael Ironside & Whoopi Goldberg.
“Heads, I win. Tails, you ooze!” – The Crypt Keeper.
Tales was my first introduction to the world of the horror anthology, and what an introduction it was. If ever there was a show ripe for reinvention, then Tales From the Crypt is it. Sure, we have the new Creepshow, currently available on the Shudder streaming service and it’s great, but I would love for the daddy of this format to receive the same loving attention.
Everything about Crypt appealed to my young, horror-loving self. That awesome theme tune from Danny Elfman. The Crypt Keeper with his “Hello Kiddies,” and witty intro’s. Most of all it was tuning in each week for the individual stories directed by a wealth of talents, like, Tom Holland, Fred Dekker and Robert Zemeckis to name a few.
The sheer talent involved made each episode feel more like a little movie. It’s easy to look back of TFTC and accuse it of being kinda cheesy by today's standards but back in the 80s, the 11-year-old me found it to be all manner of creepy. I also credit this show for my weird/dark sense of humour that has been both a blessing and a curse throughout my adult life.
Standout episodes are 'The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,' directed by Richard Donner (The Goonies, Lethal Weapon), and 'Abra Cadaver,' directed by Stephen Hopkins (A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: Dream Child). The latter has a great nod to Reanimator.
If you missed out on Tales From the Crypt, it’s definitely worth tracking down and binge-watching.
09: Mr Mercedes (2017 - )
Created By: David E. Kelley, Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway, Justine Lupe & Holland Taylor.
“I’ve been a cop for 35 years, and I know all about protocol, and there is a time to dump it in the shitter. This is one of those times.” – Bill Hodges.
Adaptions of the works of Stephen King are nothing new. Since Carrie (1976) there have been countless movies based on the books of horrors greatest author. Some have been wonderful, – i.e. Misery, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption. Most, Sadly, have been shite, i.e. The Lawnmower Man, The Langoliers.
Adapting King has become the thing to do over the last few years, since I.T. Chapter 1 was such a huge financial success. Once again, though quantity isn’t a substitute for quality. While I enjoyed I.T. Chapter 1 and (although, not as much) Chapter 2, I thought the recent remake of Pet Semetary was dreadful.
When I first read Mr Mercedes, my brain conjured an image of the book's protagonist Bill Hodges. The character that took form in my head was pretty much Brendan Gleeson. It’s as if Gleeson was born to play this character, and the result is one of the greatest tv characters for years.
Hodges is an arsehole. A loveable arsehole for sure but an arsehole none the less. When we first meet him, he is retired, washed up, a borderline alcoholic and suicidal. His career ended after Hodges failed to bring to justice The Mercedes Killer, a maniac who used the titular make of car to run down and kill a crowd of people at a jobs fair. The Mercedes Killer is the Moriarty to Hodges Sherlock, and his failure to apprehend him has ruined his life.
Suddenly, Hodges finds himself snapped out of his funk by the sudden arrival of taunting letters from someone claiming to be Mr Mercedes. This gives Bill a new lease of life as he vows to hunt him down once and for all.
It was a stroke of genius turning King's trilogy of books into a tv show. It wouldn’t have worked as a film. The story lends itself perfectly to a series, and Bill Hodges is a joy, especially when he goes off on one of his many rants.
Season 3 has just concluded. Whether they renew it for a 4th season remains to be seen.
08: Freddy’s Nightmares (1988 – 1990)
Created By: Wes Craven & Jeff Freilich, Starring: Robert Englund, Lar Park-Lincoln, Jeffrey Combs, Brad Pitt & Lori Petty.
“Hope he doesn’t bite off more than he can chew.” – Freddy Krueger.
Much like Tales From the Crypt, Freddy’s Nightmares was an anthology format only instead of The Crypt Keeper, our humble host was none other than cinematic dream demon, Freddy Krueger.
Towards the end of the 80s, Freddy Krueger was basically the horror equivalent of Elvis Presley. He was literally everywhere. Lunchboxes, trading cards, pencil cases. It always seemed a little odd, marketing someone who was basically an undead, homicidal paedophile to a target audience who were too young to be watching the Elm Street films in the first place. I probably shouldn’t comment too much as I was one of those under-age audience members.
It stood to reason that Freddy would end up on the small screen given his appeal and for the most part, it worked.
Apart from a couple of episodes, the series as a whole had nothing to do with the movies. The creators opted, instead for separate horror tales that had little to nothing to do with Freddy himself, except for series one-episode one, 'No More Mr Nice Guy,' which dealt with the trial of Fred and the subsequent revenge that the Elm Street parents exacted upon him and, episode 7 – 'Sisters Keeper,' which sees Freddy have his revenge on the daughters of one of the parents who murdered him. Both episodes are excellent extensions of the Elm Street franchise.
The series overall is an entertaining enough idea that ran for two seasons and it was a treat for Fredheads to get a little more Freddy beamed into their homes on a weekly basis.
07: Hammer House of Horror (1980)
Created By: Brian Lawrence & David Reid, Starring: Peter Cushing, Brian Cox, Pierce Brosnan & Denholm Elliott.
From the film studio that brought us the very British, very technicolour versions of Dracula and Frankenstein came another horror anthology series.
I remember seeing the episode, 'The House That Bled To Death' as a kid, and it scared the shit out of me. I don’t think I slept for at least a month.
Looking back at it now as a battle-hardened horror veteran, it’s still easy to understand how little me was traumatised by that particular episode.
Other notable episodes are 'The Two Faces of Evil,' which tells of the horrors of doppelgangers, in a creepy, dreamlike atmosphere and, 'Silent Screams,' which tells of a former Nazi (Cushing) who performs secret experiments in a quiet, English, suburbia.
While I really love this series as a whole, I tend to watch a few of the episodes through rose-tinted glasses. There are a couple of episodes that really aren’t very good, but I find them enjoyable because of nostalgia more than anything else.
06: Bates Motel (2013 – 2017)
Created By: Anthony Cipriano, Carlton Cuse & Kerry Ehrin, Starring: Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Nestor Carbonell & Olivia Cooke.
“Why do crazy people keep gravitating towards me?” – Norma Louise Bates.
One of the more recent series on the list, Bates Motel ran for five seasons and told of the early life of Norman Bates (Highmore) and his relationship with his mother, Norma (Farmiga).
As a fan of Hitchcock’s Psycho, I found that Bates Motel took a few creative liberties with the story. What elevates the show, however, to such a high place on this list is the performances from both of its leads. Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga are fantastic. Their dysfunctional family dynamic played out brilliantly and Norman's slow descent into insanity was both believable and understandable.
On the other hand, Norma’s struggle to raise and protect her son to the point where she is partly responsible for his becoming unhinged is at times heart-breaking.
A five-season run was the perfect length for the show to avoid growing both stale and silly.
If you haven’t gotten round to watching Bates Motel yet, then you should correct this immediately. The whole thing is on Netflix and it’s well worth the time.
05: Masters of Horror (2005 – 2007)
Created By: Mick Garris, Starring: Robert Englund, Henry Thomas, Angus Scrimm, Jeffrey Combs, Tony Todd & Derek Mears.
“The only question is which one of you is the bigger psycho?” – Stacia
It’s an idea that seems so brilliant that it’s a wonder it wasn’t thought up long before.
Masters of Horror is another anthology series that ran for two seasons. The twist this time around is that each episode was directed by a horror legend. So, with this in mind, we had stories from the likes of John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper & Don Coscarelli, to name a few.
Each episode also featured appearances from iconic actors of the genre, such as Robert Englund, Tony Todd and Jeffrey Combs.
The standout episode has to be John Carpenter’s ‘Cigarette Burns’. This episode tells the story of a movie theatre owner who is hired to search for the only existing print of a film so notorious that its single screening caused the viewers to become homicidally insane. It’s Carpenter’s best work in years and easily the strongest story in the series.
Also worth mentioning is Imprint by Takashi Miike. Imprint is the tale of a man who in 1800s Japan returns to find the woman he loves. He is informed by a deformed prostitute that she has passed away and while she and the man sit drinking Sake; she recounts the story of her life. It’s a dark, twisted yarn, and we would accept little else from Miike.
It’s a shame we only ever got two seasons as the format is rife for more and could have become a long-running show. Hopefully, one day, it will be something that is resurrected.
04: The Haunting of Hill House (2018 - )
Created By: Mike Flanagan, Starring: Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Carla Gugino & Victoria Pedretti.
“Mom says that a house is like a body. And every house has eyes and bones and skin. A face. This room is like the heart of the house. No, not a heart, a stomach.” – Nell.
I have said it before and I will say it again. Mike Flanagan is one of the best filmmakers, working in horror today. I reviewed Doctor Sleep earlier this year, and I was torn over how I felt about it. Having watched it again, my opinion of it became a more favourable one.
What Flanagan created with Hill House was both terrifying and beautiful in equal measures. A story of a family, torn apart by a tragedy only to find that they need each other more than ever, later in life. Oh, and there are ghosts. Lots of ghosts. Seriously creepy fucking ghosts.
There are a couple of standout episodes. The first of which is ‘The Bent-Neck Lady.’ This episode is heart-breaking and severely disturbing all at the same time. It’s episode 6, ‘Two Storms’ that comes out on top as the best episode of the season. Filmed as a single take that flits between present day and the young Crain family, ‘Two Storms’ is a masterclass in film-making. It is probably one of the more clever examples of television I can recall ever seeing.
There is a second season (of sorts) heading our way, titled The Haunting of Bly Manor and if it’s only half as good as Hill House, it will be a highlight of 2020.
03: The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964)
Created By: Rod Serling, Starring: William Shatner, Rod Serling, Lee Marvin & Cliff Robertson.
“You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, the Twilight Zone!” – The Narrator.
Regardless of whether or not you have seen a single episode of this show, I would bet a kidney that you know the theme tune.
The Twilight zone walked the line between horror and sci-fi, but when it crossed that line into full-on horror it was truly terrifying. One such example is the episode ‘Living Doll.’ The episode serves as a precursor of such films as Childs Play and Annabelle. The story tells of a little girl who receives a doll called Talking Tina as a gift. Everything seems perfectly normal at first with Tina reeling off phrases like “Hi, I’m Talking Tina and I love you.” Perfectly innocent and cute, right? Well, it isn’t long before things take a sinister turn and Tina takes a disliking to the little girl's father and starts spouting less innocent phrases such as “I hate you and I’m going to kill you.”
It’s a very creepy and unnerving episode.
Other classic episodes include Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Poor old Bill Shatner is having a bad day. Stuck on a nighttime flight, he notices something on the wing of the plane. It’s a monster, and it begins to dismantle the plane. Understandably, Bill freaks out. Who wouldn’t? The problem is that nobody believes him and everyone thinks he is going crazy. It’s an episode of legendary status and has probably been parodied more than any other tv episode.
The series was recently brought up to date by Jordan Peele (Us, Get Out) and it’s also great and worth checking out.
02: The X-Files (1993 – 2018)
Created By: Chris Carter, Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi & Robert Patrick.
“Trust no one.” – Deep Throat.
Much like The Twilight Zone, The X-Files wasn’t primarily a horror show, but when it did horror, it did horror right.
For anyone who somehow missed it, The X-Files focused on a couple of FBI agents, Mulder (Duchovny) and Scully (Anderson) who investigate the strange and spooky cases that the rest of the FBI consider to be a joke. Mulder is a believer who, after witnessing his sister being abducted by what he believes to be aliens is desperate to seek the truth. Scully is the sceptic who was initially put on the case to debunk her partner’s wild claims.
The shows frequent dips into the world of horror were, at times, terrifying. Who can forget the episodes ‘Squeeze’ and 'Tooms,’ about a serial killer who can manipulate his body through the tightest of spaces to gain access to his victims? Or ‘Home’ which is basically The X-Files meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a family of inbred freaks called The Peacocks brutally murder those that they cross paths with.
The episode ‘Chinga,’ was even written by horror master Stephen King.
While The X-Files followed an episodic story format, I always found that the best episodes were actually the ‘Monster of the week’ episodes.
If we live in a golden age of television, it is largely thanks to the X-Files, which changed the face of tv forever.
01: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003)
Created By: Joss Whedon, Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Masters, Anthony Head, Alyson Hannigan & David Boreanaz.
“In every generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” – Rupert Giles.
It all started with a crappy movie. 1992s Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a bad movie. Even its writer, Joss Whedon knew that his creation had been messed with to an extent that it no longer resembled what he had set out to make. So, thank God he decided to make his vision into one of the greatest television shows ever made.
After the events of the movie (which are acknowledged to some degree) Buffy (Gellar) and her mother relocate to Sunnydale, where Joyce hopes her daughter can keep out of trouble and Buffy hopes she can put her Slayer days behind her and live a normal life. Their hopes are dashed because Sunnydale happens to be situated on a Hellmouth. What are the odds?
No sooner has she unpacked then she finds herself hounded by the school librarian, Rupert Giles (Head) who also happens to be her Watcher. The vampire with a soul, Angel (Boreanaz) whose intentions towards Buffy aren’t all business, and a host of Vampires and Monsters who want to take a pop at the Slayer.
Buffy’s brilliance lies in its writing. Whedon is one of the smartest writers in the business and Buffy was his passion project. The dialogue was constantly witty without becoming tired and every episode that Whedon wrote and directed was a gem.
While comedic in its approach, Buffy could tread the realms of scary horror with the greatest of ease. Growing darker with each season, much like the Harry Potter films, where things got darker and heavier the older the characters grew.
Who can forget the season four episode ‘Hush?’ The gentlemen were easily the scariest television villains up to that point. Or the season two episode, ‘Killed By Death,’ where sick children are picked off by the terrifying Der Kindestod, who comes across like a creepier Freddy Krueger.
It wasn’t all about the scares. Buffy had a heart. If you didn’t weep like a baby during season fives ‘The Body’ where Buffy comes across her dead mother, then you are dead inside.
There is a rumour of Buffy being rebooted, and I honestly hope this isn’t true. Buffy is perfect and is my favourite, all-time television show. A reboot wouldn’t change this. I just don’t see how they could improve on what we already have.
So, this is my list of my top 10 horror shows. Once again, feel free to argue, speculate, and generally let your feelings be heard. Until next time, “I seem to be having a slight case of nudity here.”