I recently submitted a top 10 list to Brian Solomon’s Vault of Horror blog as part of a sort of collaborative top 10 list of horror TV shows but the catch there is that we ordered these shows sorted by favorite and in the end, it’s going to be a single list and you’ll never get to see my actual submission nor did I get to extrapolate in exhausting detail why I happen to think that these shows are winners. I figured I’d throw it up here because I don’t think I’ve ever done any such thing. We used to have the TV Eye column but that covered what was happening in the world of television horror, science fiction and fantasy from week to week and didn’t actually represent what Tony Nunes or myself happened to think were actually good shows. So here it is, the official Cinema Suicide greatest horror TV shows of all time list in order of greatness!
10. Doctor Who
I’ve had this conversation with a more than few people. With the return of The Doctor several years back, Doctor Who found its way back into the hearts of nerds everywhere and it’s a beautiful thing. It has routinely found its way on to top ten science fiction lists with such regularity these days, making sure only to reference Eccleston, Tenant and Smith and eschewing the notion of the other eight doctors that it’s fairly safe to assume that Doctor Who in its present incarnation is a towering modern epic of science fiction proportions but I dare say, it’s also one of the finest horror shows ever produced. I mean that! Straight back to the William Hartnell Doctor. Doctor Who is manic and cheeky and fun and dominated with future tech and time travel and all that awesome shit but it’s also peppered with arcs and episodes absolutely steeped in terrifying shit. Right from the get go you had the horror of the Cybermen, these hollowed out shells of people stripped down and replaced with machine parts, their awful modulated voices emerging from open mouths, hardly moving to speak the words. It’s some severely creepy shit. During the Tom Baker era (my personal favorite) you had The Ark In Space, which finds The Doctor and his companions on board a satellite orbiting a dead Earth where an alien organism has infected the cryogenically frozen humans on board, turning one of them into something else with the intention of turning them all into something else. In recent times, Stephen Moffat has turned up the heat with episodes about werewolves, the “Are you my mummy?” ghost kid, The Family of Blood and god damn it, The Weeping Angels (in what is my favorite time travel related episode of anything). I maintain that Doctor Who cribbed some inspiration from Hammer’s previous scientist dealing with scary shit, Professor Quatermass.
9. American Horror Story
I would ordinarily have a really hard time putting a series on this list that as of this writing has only one complete season of TV and hasn’t even started its second (though, that’s right around the corner) but the first season of American Horror Story delivered so fully on its promise of spooks and scares that I just couldn’t leave it off the list. So effective was it that the mid-season ending left us on such a weird spot that I wasn’t sure where they could possibly take it from there but when the show resumed it went even further off the fuckin’ rails! It managed to buck TV horror conventions and in a day and age when a haunted house movie, typically an extremely restrained affair, shows you everything and leaves nothing to the deadly machinations of your own imagination, American Horror Story went there, damn it! They kept their shit in check and gave you some spooky twists and turns in the story. I knock points off for Dylan McDermott’s affair subplot dragging on a bit too long but side players, Denis O’Hare, Evan Peters and Jessica Lange had me glued to the set week after week. The forthcoming follow up season takes (most of) the same cast, winds the clock back to the 60’s and sets the show in a completely unrelated insane asylum. Who comes up with this? This is a bold, fucking insane idea and it’s pretty much what basic cable horror needs right now. And all of this came from one of the dudes who created Glee.
Fringe has had enough time on TV these days to be a fully fermented product that in spite of fairly drippy ratings, manages to stay on the air in true TV cult land. If ever there was a show that was the spiritual successor to The X-Files, Fringe is it. In its beginnings it was an extremely entertaining show even as it struggled to figure out what it was in the midst of a streak of monster of the week episodes but somewhere in between all these mad science gone horribly wrong episodes, Fringe started to tell a story about black hat scientists working underground in accordance with a secret manuscript. Of course, these were the days of Lost and every motherfucking genre show on TV had to have some extraordinarily convoluted metaplot running behind the scenes of week to week mayhem but it eventually figured itself out and gave us lots and lots of human bodies rendered to protoplasm, cleaved in half by closing pan-dimensional gates, spontaneous human combustion and whatnot and it was all kept on course by a solid cast of players who made the trains run on time. Fringe cribbed conspiracy theory and black science mythology from some of my favorite conspiracy theory sources, The Philadelphia Experiment and The Montauk Project and once it figured out what it was doing, it ran absolutely wild with great ideas for weekly horror.
7. Twin Peaks
I had a hard time with this one seeing as how Twin Peaks isn’t exactly horror but it’s deeply unsettling and seriously weird in such a way that it puts its viewership on edge. Much of David Lynch’s work is like that. It’s hard to pin down to any one genre but everything he does is so uniformly strange and deliberately engineered to make viewers uncomfortable by genuine mystery that it sort of drifts into horror territory without ever realizing it. That is, until the show’s cancellation in the second season when the show’s narrative went completely bonkers, introducing the very idea of The Black Lodge, The Man From Another Place and so on. The mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder, clearly wrapped up in the film Fire Walk With Me, kept people hanging on and made the show one of the most off-beat noirs of all time but it was the addition of the usual David Lynch surrealism that made it so incredibly strange and compelling. Twin Peaks played itself out like taking in a production of Our Town during a particularly bad acid trip. It expanded on the themes of small town life’s facade and the corruption that lives just beneath the surface, ideas Lynch had taken for a ride with Blue Velvet only this time around, thanks to the Writer’s Guild going on strike and leaving TV networks hungry for content, Lynch had an easy in and provided prime time television with something so incredibly uncommercial and spooky that its cancellation midway through the second season came as little surprise to anyone.
6. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
For the longest time, because I thought the original movie was so incredibly stupid, I held a firm grudge against the Buffy TV show which looked supremely lame from the perspective of someone who had already judged the show based not on its merits but on some bullshit uninformed opinion. Then I caught an episode called Hush and my world changed. Hush aired during the fourth season and by this point it had established itself with a firm mythology that left my head spinning. Angel and Buffy had established their tragic romance. Riley and The Initiative had been introduced. Faith had already torn through Sunnydale. Willow had a werewolf boyfriend and there was all this other stuff happening that suggested an ongoing narrative arc that is like heroin to me. Growing up on the continuing adventures of comic book super heroes left me with a craving for a show that did more than tell a single story in an hour or half hour of TV. Buffy did just that by lifting the narrative mechanism that made The X-Files so much fun by giving each season an ongoing challenge from week to week but lifting things from time to time with an monster of the week. By the time the credits rolled after Hush, I had raided my sister’s complete collection of VHS episodes taped from TV, including the pilot, and was caught up in no time by binging on four or five episodes a night. By the time the show reached its series finale I was a walking encyclopedia of all things Buffy and Angel. I actually think Angel is the better show but you couldn’t have one without the other so I’ll include Angel by implication. I still pester Stephen Moffat and Russel Davies from time to time via Twitter to inspire them to actually produce the Ripper series that was proposed but never followed up with.
5. Dark Shadows
I’ve moaned about this in the past and pointed my finger at Hollywood numerous times about its contempt for the horror genre. It hates horror. The people who produce it are viewed as Hollywood pariahs and the people who consume it are viewed as degenerates whom you probably want to keep your children away from. Unfortunately, horror makes a lot of money and few things are as perfect an example of that than Dark Shadows. Dark Shadows began life as a marginally horror-flavored soap opera on ABC in 1966 but when ratings flagged and it was at risk of being cancelled, series creator Dan Curtis introduced the vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid, and the show took off dramatically in a new direction. What was originally played down and kept to subtleties with the occasional ghost story all of a sudden involved the undead, werewolves, zombies and other horrors on a regular rotation. The dark Collins family secret of the tragic Barnabas took over the show and on a daily basis, this is a soap opera, after all, the show ran through a series of particularly ridiculous but extremely fun episodes, something in excess of 1,000. Unlike other horror TV shows and because it was an ongoing daily soap, Dark Shadows introduced the idea of the long narrative arc to genre television. Prior to Dark Shadows, this was unheard of and it helped the show sail deep into cult TV territory, constantly being rediscovered by new generations of fans and landing its own film adaptation (which I’m told is positively rancid) and dropping mad reference on Mad Men. You can also catch up with many episodes from the run on Netflix and for the truly dedicated, I’m told there’s an outrageously priced boxed set which has every episode from the run.
4. Kolchak: The Night Stalker
To most people, Darren McGavin is probably best known as the foul mouthed dad from A Christmas Story but for those of us with a yen for old school TV, we immediately recognize him as Chicago journalist, Karl Kolchak, a writer with a weird tendency to find his way into crimes involving the supernatural. It began as a super popular made for TV movie called The Night Stalker, adapted by Richard Matheson from a novel by Jeff Rice and turned out to be really popular. Popular enough to find its way to a weekly series. Week after week, Kolchak pursues all manner of beasts in expertly written episodes that were ground zero for the Monster of the Week concept. This would later translate to shows like The X-Files, Buffy and Supernatural. Kolchak wasn’t exactly scary as broadcast standards at the time wouldn’t really let it go there like the TV movies that preceded it did and the vibe is actually pretty appropriate for younger audiences but it’s a quirky show that’s a lot of fun and the very foundation for weekly horror to come. Previously, the only horror on TV came in the form of anthology serieses like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond. Dark Shadows had established the idea of the ongoing horror arc but Kolchak was the galvanizing moment for the generation that grew up with it. Unfortunately, it aired during the same tragic Friday at 10pm slot that killed Star Trek and suffered miserable ratings and was gone after a single season. Lucky for you, however, you can see them all, minus the TV movies on Netflix.
3. Tales From The Crypt
My family had an intermittent subscription to HBO but it came and went depending on how much my parents were watching it. So when we had it, I would throw in a video tape around 10pm, set it to EP mode and record as much as the tape would allow throughout the night in order to catch those weird early morning blasts of this show. This is one of those shows that everyone remembers. It was minor cultural phenomenon. It spawned Cryptkeeper toys and a surge in sales of the EC reprints of the comic and how could a horror fan not want a piece of the action? It was spawned by some of Hollywood’s most fun directors, guys like Robert Zemeckis and Richard Donner. Week after week it featured a new tale directed by the last people you’d ever expect to turn up in such a place. I mean, Michael J. Fox and Arnold Schwarzenneger not to mention actual horror directors like Tom Holland and Tobe Hooper. They also had a group of killer writers. People like Frank Darabont, Richard Matheson and Fred Dekker. They captured the essence of those awesome comics perfectly with unsavory characters meeting ironic ends and the results could be somewhere between extremely funny and exceptionally horrifying. Everyone who ever watched the show has a favorite episode, too. I’m curious to know what yours is. Mine, an episode which actually haunted me a bit, is called Television Terror, which features Morton Downey Jr. trying to stir up ratings for his ridiculous TV show by locking himself in a haunted house that turns out to be actually haunted.
2. The Twilight Zone
I am related in a distant way to Rod Serling. True story, bro. But I’m not letting my relation color my judgement. If that had happened this would be in the first place spot, but that is reserved for another show. No. I realize that this might piss off a lot of people who hold dear to the idea that this is probably the greatest horror TV of all time but you must understand. It was a tough call. See, The Twilight Zone is the template for all horror and sci-fi TV to come in its wake. Week after week. Season after season. The Twilight Zone delivered some of the most clever short format anthology horror the world had ever seen. It had competition in the form of The Outer Limits and that show also had its merits but The Twilight Zone had Rod fucking Serling at the helm, that amazing theme song and a menu of extremely memorable episodes that everyone remembers. Burgess Meredith, henpecked and desperate to just crack a book and leave the world behind, finally left with that time after the bomb only to break his very much needed glasses. William Shatner in the grip of panic as a horrible monster on the wing of his airplane disassembles the engine. “The rest of the book! To Serve Man! It’s a cookbook!” This show was absolutely pivotal and even though I’ve seen them all, I still make time to catch the marathons on Syfy even though I can just catch them whenever on Netflix.
1. The X-Files
I suspect that the key to a classic horror TV series is the theme music. Four of these shows are also on my greatest horror and sci-fi TV theme songs list. For many of my generation, TV in the 90’s was defined by either Seinfeld or Friends. If it’s an indication as to what sort of person I am, I have probably seen a combined total of four episodes of both of those shows and I can’t tell you much about them except that one show featured a terminal romance between someone named Ross and someone named Rachel, Elaine was a pretty lousy dancer and that Jerry Seinfeld played a guy named Jerry. I think. However, if you have the time and the desire, I can sit you down sometime and explain in excruciating detail every last motherfucking piece of the X-Files puzzle. Every monster of the week. Every appearance of the Cigarette Smoking Man. I can tell you where Mulder got his nickname (Spooky) from. For me and my kind, we were all singularly dedicated to The X-Files. Some of those assholes also made a habit out of Xena: Warrior Princess but you have to cut them some slack. The Internet was still a new thing back then and readily available lesbian porn wasn’t quite the abundant resource that is, say, right now. The X-Files was a perfection of timing. The post-Reagan/Bush 90’s was a time when public suspicion of the government was at an all time high. The Cold War was pretty much a thing of the past, the potential nuclear war that would kill us all was a shadow of its former threat. What the fuck do you get paranoid about? Aliens. That’s what. Aliens from space. Not Mexico. It was brilliant science fiction. Scary as fuck when it wanted to be with episodes about The Fluke Man and Eugene Tooms, The X-Files could maintain that horror vibe even when it was funny as hell in what is my all-time favorite episode, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. Like The Twilight Zone, it lured in legendary writers like Stephen King and William Gibson and had a weekly cast of outstanding guest stars like Brad Douriff, Bruce Campbell, Michael McKean, Peter Boyle and Steve Railsback. Ordinarily, the final Duchovny-less seasons would disqualify The X-Files from my top spot since I figure the number one show on this list was going to have to be flawless from start to finish but let’s face it. No show, not even the later seasons of The Twilight Zone manage to stay that fresh. Plus, the running mythology of the show, the alien contact coverup, the fate of Mulder’s sister, Scully’s cancer, The Roush company and The Syndicate. Even in its waning years, peaking with the ultimate fate of everyone’s favorite b-characters, The Lone Gunmen, The X-Files maintained a consistent pace fusing horror and science fiction in a way that was extremely versatile and entertaining to the last drop. The X-Files is a show that I dearly miss.
Friday the 13th: The Series
A product of Friday the 13th in name only, I badly wanted to put this show on the list but it missed more than it hit and early episodes were far better than later episodes. The idea was very novel, cousins inherit their uncle’s antique shop only to discover that a Faustian deal left items sold from the shop cursed. Every week had them tracking down and recovering a cursed item whats power had typically been discovered by its present owner. Mayhem ensued. It was a good show but suffered a casting change somewhere in the middle of season one and lost a bit of its footing in further episodes. I guess it runs in syndication on some of those mythical all-horror channels that seem to run only on the rarest of American cable networks. I think it was a Canadian production that went to network syndication as soon as it was released and it ran on Sunday afternoons for me locally with a syndicated (and extremely gory) War of the Worlds show right after it that featured the guy from Predator who kept telling big vagina jokes to everyone.
Forever Knight used to run late nights on some of the former UHF channels turned into Fox/UPN/WB affiliates somewhere in the 90’s before it found a wider audience in reruns on the Sci Fi channel. That is, after it had a brief run on network primetime. This was probably the first vampire TV show that I can think of that embraced the Anne Rice model of the vampire. Prior to Forever Knight, vampires were still the predatory villains of horror but Forever Knight was one of the first instances that I can think of that took that stereotype and turned the vampire into its own tragic hero with some pretty significant flaws. The show suffered from some rotten acting and cheesy writing at times but it spawned a fascinating mythology and a cult audience that was as hungry for new episodes as fans of Dark Shadows or The X-Files.