Saturday 5 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #9: Scream Satan Scream! (2001)

Sometimes it's the act of taking the mickey out of a genre that gives you an idea of what it is. Parody picks up on prominent characteristics and tropes. It paints them on the screen in broad strokes, so you know that you're seeing a piss-take, and it gives you obvious tools to get the joke.

Which brings us to Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible.

Steve Coogan's one enduring work of genius is of course Alan Partridge, a legendarily talentless TV and radio presenter whose downwards career trajectory he's been chronicling in successive series for over 20 years. But while he's tried to do other things, he's met with nowhere near as much success. Case in point: 2001's Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible, which was cancelled after one six-episode season.

This is the only piece of extended critical writing you will ever read about Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible.
The last recorded burning of a witch in this country was one Molly McTiernan who was torched at Walmsley Manor House in Suffolk. Last Thursday.
In each episode, the grotesquely horrible Dr. Terrible (Coogan, under a metric tonne of prosthetic makeup), sits in an armchair and introduces a terrifying tale of terrible terror; at the end, he appears again, uttering his catchphrase "That was truly diabolical," and closes the show with some sinister bon mot.

The joke is of course that each story is an exact comic remake of a late 60s/early 70s British horror movie, as made by Amicus/Tigon/Hammer, condensed into 25 minutes. Each episode closely parodies one or two of these arguably classic movies, and each stars Coogan again. The first episode, "And Now the Fearing..." retreads The Vault of Horror and Dr. Terror's House of Horror. "Frenzy of Tongs" is any Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movie. "Voodoo Feet of Death" is The Hands of Orlac, only with a ballroom dancer's feet being replaced rather than a pianist's hands. Anyone who's seen The Vampire Lovers or Lust for a Vampire will get "Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust" instantly. And the final episode, "Scream Satan Scream!" which I'm going to concentrate on here, does Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan's Claw. Also The Cry of the Banshee, but I haven't watched that one yet.
I will enter Devil's Hole.
Tobias Slater (Witch Locator), goes around 17th century England, burning innocent women as witches and having his way with maidens, along with his villainous sidekick Tigon – get it? – who is played by Warwick Davies, who does himself no favours in a part that depends on little people being inherently funny just because they are. He gets cursed by an actual witch.
You have been found guilty of kissing a goat in the hours of darkness, yodelling with frogs and using vegetables in an ungodly manner.
A pitchfork wielding mob does its thing, the plot stops dead for a discussion about the lunacy of the ducking stool, and wildly obvious double entendres abound.
Slater: Oh Lord, I beseech thee to look kindly upon your most humble servant, Captain Tobias Slater (Witch Locator), as I dunk women in ponds. Forever and ever. Amen.
Charlotte: Oh, Mr Norden, you know me, you know I'm no witch.
Norden: There's a test.
Slater: We've got this ducking stool.
Norden: Aye. See, if you float...
Slater: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. If you drown... No, hang on. If you float... you're a witch.
Norden: And then we burn you.
Slater: Yes. But if you drown, you're not a witch!
Charlotte: But if I drown, I'll die.
Slater: It's a small price to pay.
Norden: And we've got this ducking stool.
Charlotte: But I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't! It doesn't make any sense.
Slater: Yes... But we've got this ducking stool.
He shrugs and smiles, apologetically.
Slater: Inundate her!
Norden: Aye! Inundate her!
The crowd cheers. An awkward pause follows, as nothing happens.
Slater: Put her in the water!
Yes, but we've got this ducking stool.
OK, look, that's about the closest to funny the actual script gets. The problem is the nature of the joke, which isn't encoded in the lines, and is significantly more complex than it first looks, hidden under layers of Carry On-style knob gags.
Slater: I will enter Devil's Hole. And I shall not withdraw, no matter how messy it may become. Let us ejaculate no further. There is much... nobbing to be done.
Mr. Norden: ...nobbing?
Slater: which I mean... work. 
The thing is, Coogan and his capable and experienced troupe are deliberately pitching the episode – and the series as a whole – so that they're not making a comedy version of a bad movie. They're making a comedy about bad actors who have made a bad movie. Everyone, Coogan first among them, is playing someone who's been given terrible lines and knows the lines are terrible, but is doing the best they can, which isn't a whole lot.
Are you capable of unnnatural acts?
In a way, this is what Coogan is best at. Alan Partridge is the classic example of comedy made out of the awkwardness at the heart of TV. Coogan's spoof chat show, Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge, worked because you knew that the host was an awful, talentless person in the process of making a bad TV show and more or less forcing the people around him to become complicit in the bad TV he was perpetrating, and it was hilarious and painful.

Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible worked on a similar level, or tried to, but failed for the simple reason that you had to have seen the horror movies it was riffing off to get that specific point, and you had to recognise that they were bad and you had to care about them enough to understand how lovingly the episodes used the source material.
Wench: Please, sir! I'm not a witch! I'm a wench!
Slater: I shall be the judge of that! ...And the jury. ...And the executioner. ...And... Er, no, that's it.
Tigon... the potatoes!
I mean, look, the John Stearne character is called Tigon. You actually have to care about Witchfinder General beyond simply having seen it to have even a chance of finding that funny.

Or there's a bit in "Scream Satan Scream!" where the Skull of Satan appears, and it has oogly googly eyeballs. Like so.
Oogly googly (2001).
Now here's the bit at the start of The Blood on Satan's Claw where the ploughman finds the Skull of Satan.
Oogly googly (1970).
See? That isn't an accident. Now bear in mind that in 2001 you couldn't get The Blood on Satan's Claw on video. You have to have been a genuine horror buff to have picked up on that joke on broadcast.

But if you're not a horror buff, what's left?

Let's assume we are, and talk about that loving and complex relationship with the source material.

Aside from the cheapness (which, let's face it, is part of the enterprise, cheap horror being very cheap to parody),  "Scream Satan Scream!" of course derives a great deal of mileage from the problematic sexuality of Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan's Claw.
How goes the nobbing?
Yes, Tobias Slater (Witch Locator) has a queue of buxom wenches leading up to the room in his lodgings, but that's just holding up as a joke what's implied in Witchfinder General. Although "Scream Satan Scream!" is studio bound, it's still set in villages and pagan forests, and ends in a stone circle. Tobias Slater (Witch Locator) displays ostentatious fake piety just like Vincent Price's Matthew Hopkins. The witches do witchy things. The musical score tries to pitch itself as being "peasant" music, that is, a kind of bastardised folk.

Cheapness, witches, folk, the countryside, stone circles, check. "Scream Satan Scream!" is, in short, a solid parody of two of the three folk horror classics before anyone even knew what folk horror was.

But that's exactly its problem. If you don't know that Tobias Slater (Witch Locator)'s queue of virgins is a joke on the sexism in Witchfinder General, you're just going to see a sexist joke.1 If you don't recognise Satan's skull's oogly googly eyes from The Blood on Satan's Claw, you're just going to see a crap looking skull with oogly googly eyes. If you don't know why the little guy is called Tigon, he's just Warwick Davis doing what he usually does in British TV shows.
Slater! Thou art cursed! Cursed! Cursed! Cursed!
And if you don't get the basic conceit that this is a show about untalented actors forced to make bad movies in the way that the Alan Partridge series are so often about untalented people forced to make bad TV, then all that's left are the double entendres. And if you make a comedy show that depends upon you having seen a particular set of obscure horror movies to get the joke properly, you're aiming to get cancelled after one season.2 Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible requires the viewer to do quite a bit of work to be found funny... and not only should comedy never need that, but the work kills the funny... dead.

That was truly diabolical. 

1Jokes about sexism can also be sexist jokes at the same time. I remember reading an interview with Sarah Silverman, whose schtick for a long time was that she played the sort of person who told racist jokes, and you were supposed to laugh at her for being unaware of her racism, except she talked about how she was continually horrified because she kept getting fanmail from actual racists telling her how great her racist jokes were. This sort of thing is really hard to do without getting yourself in real trouble.

The point being, a joke about a rapey horror movie is not absolved from being a rapey joke. (back)

2Mind you, if you watch "Scream Satan Scream!" right after having watched Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan's Claw back to back, as I did, you have your best chance of enjoying it, even if it's not exactly the funniest thing ever made. Because I did quite enjoy it! It just didn't, you know, make me laugh all that much. "And Now the Fearing" and "Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust" are much better though.

Interesting fact: I only remembered the existence of Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible at all because when I watched The Blood on Satan's Claw, I noticed a bloke lumping around in the back of the big Satanic ritual scene who looks exactly like Dr. Terrible.
You know the one I'm talking about.
And then I thought, wait a minute, didn't Dr. Terrible do a Witchfinder General episode? I literally hadn't thought about it since it was broadcast. Spooky. (back)