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Set the mood this Halloween with made-for-TV horror

By Robert David Sullivan

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Television is surely the most terrifying of all art forms. A classic example of thriller TV, The Outer Limits, says it all. At the start of each episode, a disembodied voice intones: "There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. . . . For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear."

If you become paralyzed with fear while reading a scary book, the pages won't keep turning themselves. But a television broadcast keeps right on going, coldly indifferent to viewers who have lost the ability to work the remote. If you fall asleep reading, the book drops from your fingers and falls gently on your quilt. If you lose consciousness in the middle of a television program, the angered beast will take command of your dreams.

Thanks to the VCR, you can enjoy thousands of scary movies at home, but the small screen is best suited to made-for-TV horror. With their lower budgets, television programs generally don't rely on special effects, instead making the most of monsters in the shadows and everyday objects that have suddenly gone bad (various Twilight Zone episodes feature automobiles, slot machines, and talking dolls on the attack). And television series with continuing characters are able to convey a sense of never-ending terror. When a theatrical film is set up so that a sequel is possible, it usually seems like a cheat ("Gee, Jason isn't dead after all!"). But TV characters such as Scully and Mulder on The X-Files, Kolchak on The Night Stalker, and the various Star Trek crews are Sisyphus-like figures caught in a tragic cycle: no sooner do they solve one mystery than another monster comes rolling down the hill at them.

Television is more horrible than ever, with fresh series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, two Star Trek spinoffs, Tales from the Crypt, and a new version of The Outer Limits. Plus, the Sci-Fi Channel specializes in unearthing supernatural series of the past, such as Night Gallery. What accounts for this alarming trend? Perhaps people are freaked out by the coming millennium. A simpler answer is that the viewing audience has been hacked to pieces by new cable channels and broadcast networks, which are still proliferating as fast as tribbles. The smaller players in the TV industry can afford to target viewers with an appetite for gore.

Another boon to horror-TV fans is the rapidly growing list of titles available on video. Because sci-fi and horror are apparently best-selling genres, they take up most of the shelf space in the TV section at a typical video store. It's easy to find all the episodes of Star Trek, The Prisoner, and Twin Peaks, plus dozens of installments of Dr. Who and the often quite bloody Tales from the Crypt. In addition, a good chunk of The X-Files oeuvre has just been released in boxed sets.

There are several episode guides to The X-Files and Star Trek available in just about any bookstore, so I won't single out those series here. But listed below are a few other options for setting a mood on Halloween, whether you prefer your thrills straight or with a sense of humor.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65; 359 episodes). This long-running series emphasized mordant humor over blood-spattering, but there's plenty of scary behavior here. The most easily found video features a trio of stories including Hitchcock's most famous episode: "Lamb to the Slaughter," in which Barbara Bel Geddes kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb (don't worry, that's only the beginning). More chilling episodes include "The Man from the South," about a wager involving someone's fingers, and "The Glass Eye," with a neat twist on a favorite horror topic -- a ventriloquist's dummy.

The Twilight Zone (1959-64; 156 episodes) is still the classiest sci-fi series to air on television. And it suits its audience perfectly: just like a channel surfer who hits upon a baffling TV program, the typical Twilight Zone protagonist suddenly finds himself in a totally unfathomable situation. ("Hey, wait a minute. Isn't that me over there, about to get hit by that bus?") Watch enough of these stories alone and you'll develop an untreatable case of agoraphobia. Most video stores carry a batch of the most memorable half-hour episodes, packaged into pairs. William Shatner gives the performance of his career in "Terror at 20,000 Feet," the quintessential "But you've got to believe me, I'm not crazy!" story about a monster on the wing of an airplane. In "The Invaders," Agnes Moorhead is a simple farm woman attacked by rodent-sized aliens; and in "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," the menace turns out to be a mob of frightened neighbors.

The Outer Limits (1963-65; 49 episodes) leans more heavily on visitors from other planets than does The Twilight Zone. The series also has more camp value, partly because of its hour length. (The longer it takes to get to the scary stuff, the greater the risk of ponderous dialogue and ludicrous scientific explanations.) Nearly all the episodes can be found in video stores. One of the most entertaining is "The Zanti Misfits," about an antlike race of aliens who want to use Earth as a penal colony.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1971-75). Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, has credited this series as a prime inspiration. But Kolchak star Darren McGavin hasn't returned the favor, calling the '90s hit "humorless." The setup is similar. In every episode, newspaper reporter Karl Kolchak discovers a supernatural explanation for a string of deaths, but the evidence slips through his fingers at the end. One difference is that Kolchak doesn't cotton to conspiracy theories. The seersucker-suited, undoubtedly hard-drinking journalist just takes the vampires, werewolves, and zombies as he finds them; he would never hang out with the weirdos obsessing over crop circles or Roswell, New Mexico.

The Kolchak series consists of two 90-minute TV-movies and 20 hour-long episodes (the hour episodes are currently rerun on the Sci-Fi Channel). The pilot, about vampires in Las Vegas, was one of the highest-rated original films in television history and is relatively easy to find on video. Also widely available is a two-episode tape containing "The Ripper" and "The Vampire." A bit harder to find is what many fans consider the best story, "Horror in the Heights," about an evil spirit who can take the form of anyone's most trusted friend. When a victim comes close enough, the spirit drops the disguise and has a nice, crunchy snack. This is a classic example of low-budget horror, as even a sweet old lady could be a stand-in for this unimaginable beast.

Lost in Space (1965-68; 83 episodes). This series featured one of the most idiotic premises in television history: the US government sends Mom, Dad, their three kids, and a guy who looks like he stepped out of a porno flick, to "colonize" another planet (incest, anyone?). Most of the episodes are on video. For a campy Halloween, pick up one of the color episodes, produced when CBS was trying to keep viewers from fleeing to Batman; they feature such "monsters" as intergalactic hippies. The black-and-white premiere episode, however, is actually creepy. Just before the Robinsons are about to be blasted into space, evil Dr. Smith sneaks aboard and sabotages the ship -- but can't escape before takeoff. The absence of people around the launch site is another highly illogical aspect of this cheaply made show, and yet I got goose bumps from the thought of being trapped aboard a rocket with no one to hear me scream.

Sherlock Holmes (1984-94; 43 episodes). Few detective series qualify for the horror genre (unless you count the "I thought he was dead!" guest stars on Murder She Wrote), but the Victorian setting and hints of the supernatural in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories make for an exception. The most successful TV version of this character was the British series starring Jeremy Brett, which ran on PBS's Mystery! a few years after premiering overseas. All of these episodes, most of them an hour long, have been released on video, including "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Last Vampyre."

Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer living in New York.

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