When putting this list together I made an executive decision to include a few limited series from the UK and Denmark alongside some full-fledged mini-series, as they only had limited runs and essentially told complete stories. If you're a fan of horror and television, these are all concise, entertaining, and accessible works that should be in your Halloween TV rotation.
Salem's Lot (1979)
After the box office and critical success of Brian De Palma's adaptation of Carrie for United Artists in 1976, Warner Bros. acquired the rights to Stephen King's second novel, 'Salem's Lot (1975). However, after a number of attempts by a number of screenwriters, the 400-page novel proved to be too difficult to translate effectively. Because of this, Warner Bros. Television took over and opted to go the television mini-series route.
Carrie's producer, Paul Monash also produced here, Lawrence D. Cohen scripted, and Tobe Hooper was hired to direct thanks on the strength of his work with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Budgeted at $4 million, filming lasted from July until August, and over the nights of November 17-24, American homes were invaded with one of the creepiest (and creatively successful) adaptations of King's work yet.
It also stands as one of the biggest missed opportunities in Television by not continuing on with a fantastic concept as an ongoing series. Granted, in '79 the weekly production quality might not have been up to snuff, but I vividly remember watching Salem's Lot as a child and desperately wanting to watch the weekly vampire hunting adventures of Ben Mears (David Soul) and Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin).
But that aside, Hooper did an amazing job getting the nightmarish vampire lord, Barlow (Reggie Nalder) – modeled on the classic look from Nosferatu (1922) – approved and onto the screen. The only thing that gave more people nightmares than that look was probably little Danny Glick (Brad Savage) scratching on Mark's second-story bedroom window. Although Geoffrey Lewis as the newly undead Mike Ryerson calmly rocking in that rocking chair, staring with those yellow eyes was freaking disturbing.
To this day, Salem's Lot is one of my favorite Stephen King adaptations, but only that original three hour miniseries. It was recut into a feature-length version that is virtually unwatchable. Buyer beware!
The Kingdom (1994/1997)
This eight-episode Danish miniseries was created by Lars von Trier and co-directed by von Trier and Morten Arnfred. It is set in the neurosurgical ward of the country's most technologically advanced hospital and follows a variety of characters, staff, and patients as they experience a range of bizarre, and sometimes very amusing, phenomena.
I don't want to go into too much detail, as some of the plots veer into the extremely demented very quickly, and there are many moments throughout where you will find your mind thoroughly boggled. And if you have trouble keeping up, each episode includes scenes of two dishwashers (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers) with Down syndrome working in the cellar and discussing the events in the hospital.
The first season of this series ran for four episodes, and by the close of that final episode there were so many questions still left open that it was practically inevitable that a second season would be broadcast. And when, three years later, the cast was reassembled for another four episodes, von Trier just upped the ante, and the insanity was even more bizarre and unresolved.
Unfortunately, a third and final series, while written by von Trier, was never produced due the deaths of many of the cast members. Those scripts were sent to the producers of the American adaptation (by Stephen King, no less) but whether they were used or not isn't clear. What was crystal clear was that the American adaptation missed the mark.
Both seasons are available on DVD (they're pricy, but available) so if you have a hankering for Danish weirdness – and I mean WEIRDNESS – The Kingdom will definitely satisfy.
Satisfy might be the wrong word, as it will leave you wanting more.
Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004)
Growing out of their low-budget comedy horror stage shows, Garth Marenghi's Fright Knight and Garth Marenghi's Netherhead, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace continues writer/creator Matthew Holness' parody of Stephen King, expanding the spoof to '80s UK Horror Television as well. Co-writer Richard Ayoade reprises his role from the stage shows as Dean Learner, Garth Marenghi's publisher.
Darkplace is presented by Marenghi as a lost classic television series from the '80s that was never aired. Each episode is intercut with members of the "original" cast discussing their time on the show. Holness' Marenghi played Dr. Rick Dagless, the gun-toting maverick doctor at Darkplace Hostpial and Ayoade's Learner played hospital administrator Thornton Reed. In addition, Matt Berry plays Todd Rivers, who played the improbably handsome Dr. Lucien Sanchez and Alice Lowe is Madeleine Wool playing psychic blonde Dr. Liz Asher.
Facing supernatural threats ranging from a rape-happy giant eyeball to contaminated water that turns the staff into ape people to an alien mist that turns those exposed into cosmic broccoli, Marenghi, Rivers, Wool, and Learner act their way – badly – through cheap sets and a total lack of self-awareness.
Unfortunately, due to poor viewing figures during its initial run in 2004, a second series was never commissioned, although Channel 4's re-broadcast and DVD release of the series in 2006 led to a cult following. The show was aired
in the US in 2006 on the Sci-Fi Channel and then on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim the year after.
Fans of this show should also enjoy the spin-off, Man to Man with Dean Learner, a late-night talk show spoof with Ayoade reprising his role of Dean Learner and Holness playing a variety of guests discussing their lives and future projects. It's less bizarre than Darkplace, but still very much worth your time.
Dead Set (2008)
Writer/Creator Charlie Brooker had already established himself in the UK as a prominent social media satirist with work on The Eleven O'Clock Show, Brass Eye, the sitcom Nathan Barley, and Charlie Booker's Screenwipe, when he was tasked with creating a Halloween mini-series for E4. The end result was the five-part zombie thriller set in the Big Brother house called Dead Set, and it was amazing.
The series was produced by Zeppotron, part of the production and distribution companies that produce the actual Big Brother, so there was almost seamless cooperation with former housemates as well as the host, Davina McCall, and the eviction of the housemate Pippa (Kathleen McDermott) during the premiere was filmed during a real Friday night eviction during Series 9.
And then the zombie apocalypse takes place in as much gory glory as you would find in the best feature films.
But being in the Big Brother House, none of the contestants know anything is going on until it's too late. By the time they figure it out, almost everyone in the country is dead (or undead) except for them, Production Assistant Kelly (Jaime Winstone) and super dick Producer Patrick (Andy Nyman).
Thanks to some excellent performances, a brutal, unforgiving script, and documentary-style film making, Dead Set grabs you and doesn't let up until it reaches its tragically nihilistic conclusion. Brooker's vision here is bleak and at times harsh, but is perfectly suited for a tale like this.
And if you ask me, this is easily one of the best zombie films of the 2000s. And if pushed, I might even say it's one of the best ever.
When League of Gentlemen alums Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton decided to put together a new horror-comedy, they opted to create a bizarre mystery where a group of seemingly unrelated strangers each received a mysterious note stating "I know what you did" and then watch as their lives unraveled. But in a funny way.
When it came time to find a title, Shearsmith and Pemberton decided to go with a clever self-referential name. It seems that in Japan, The League of Gentlemen had been retitled Psychoville and if you've ever seen League of Gentlemen, you can see why.
Shearsmith and Pemberton play a variety of roles, but the heart of the show is the mother/son relationship of Maureen and David Sowerbutts. Maureen mistakenly believes that serial killer obsessed David has become a serial killer himself (when actually he's been performing in a dinner-theater murder mystery), and thanks to some personal guilty issues, she takes it upon herself to help him murder whomever sent the note. The creepy oedipal relationship combined with their willingness to creatively kill those they think are threatening them is both funny and horrific.
But it also provides the single best episode of television I've seen in a decade: Season One, Episode Four – a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, shot in one continuous shot as David and Maureen deal with a police inspector and a dead body in their apartment. It's a work of genius, not just because of its use of the classic party song "Superman" but because of all the work that went into orchestrating the entire episode as one take.
Another fan-favorite character is Shearsmith's depressed and angry one-handed party clown, Mr. Jelly. If you have an aversion to clowns, Mr. Jelly should do nothing to put that fear to rest.
The seven-episode first season ended with a very dramatic revelation and 2010 saw a Halloween Special (set at the same time as that climactic scene) that should be on everyone's Halloween Special schedule. The second series took a very strange twist, veering over into science fiction/horror and introducing more twisted back-stories, disturbing Nazi experiments, and gruesome ends to a number of recurring characters.
If you have a night or two (or three), I can't recommend each of these series highly enough. And the best part is you don't have to worry about missing anything. They're all complete in and of themselves.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.