“In April 1990, six fevered imaginations from the world of fear gathered for drinks at the Horror Café,” intones the voiceover for Brit TV curio Horror Café, immediately after an opening title sequence that suggests an episode of Masterchef for cannibals. What follows is even better: a fascinating look into the minds of some of the most influential names in horror at the time. It might be a round-table talkfest that ultimately doesn’t achieve its aim – devising the “ultimate horror movie for the end of the millennium” – but with guests this interesting, who cares? Let’s look at what’s on the menu in the Horror Café.
Aired on the UK’s BBC2 as a special edition of its Late Show (a pioneering art and popular culture series), Horror Café is a discussion filmed in a studio decked out like Dracula’s dining room. A waiter circles during the show, serving the food and red wine. The event is chaired by Clive Barker, a star for his horror and fantasy writing, including the Books of Blood and Weaveworld. He moved into filmmaking with 1987’s Hellraiser, a success that spawned a long-lived franchise which will soon be rebooted on Hulu. Dressed in black (like all the participants except for writer Ramsay Campbell, who obviously didn’t get the memo), Barker looks every bit the horror personality and is a skilled host. He needs to be, as there are some big personalities in attendance.
The other star names at the table are directors John Carpenter and Roger Corman. In 1990, Carpenter was most famous for his influential slasher, Halloween, as well as a string of classics that included The Thing (a cult hit that was being reappraised after a disappointing original release). Corman was a legend of independent cinema, a director of over 50 low budget films and the producer of many more, although he was best known for his horror adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories – notably House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum.
Corman, Carpenter, and Barker represent three phases of horror filmmaking – from the drive-in shockers of the ’60s, to the prototypical slashers of the ’70s, and the even more explicit scares of Hellraiser in the ’80s. There’s a good-natured dialogue between the three as the show progresses, with jokes aimed at Corman about the need for their planned film to make money. Corman’s clearly more than happy to own his reputation as a peddler of schlock horror, but he’s also a smart interpreter of what grabs an audience on a deep psychological level. There’s an ongoing discussion of whether seen or unseen monsters are scarier (particularly in reference to Carpenter’s The Thing), which leads to the show’s best anecdotes.
Corman reveals that to get the financing for House of Usher over the line with an executive who was concerned there was no monster in the film, he told them “the house is the monster.” He even wrote that line into the script, to the confusion of star Vincent Price – until Corman quietly told him, “Vincent, that’s the line that enabled us to make this film!” Meanwhile, Carpenter maintains that tapping people’s fear of uncertainty is the scariest thing in a horror movie, although it makes a mainstream audience uncomfortable. He cites a response to a test screening of The Thing, where survivors Macready (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) are left in the snow, each unsure whether the other is an alien. One teenage viewer asked him what had really happened at the end. Carpenter responded that there was no definitive answer, and they had to use their imagination. “Oh, I hate that!” was the response.
While Carpenter and Corman are the most famous guests at the table, it would be unfair to overlook the other participants in Horror Café. Lisa Tuttle is an influential fantasy and horror writer of books such as Nest of Nightmares and Gabriel who brings a humorous edge to proceedings. She pokes fun at some of the more lurid ideas that come out of the eventual round-table planning of the horror film. Ramsay Campbell is another horror novelist in attendance, who “embodies a uniquely British horror tradition that descends from Stoker, Stevenson, and Shelley,” to use the words of the show’s introduction. The quietest member of the group, Campbell’s background was nevertheless full-on horror, with a back catalog of titles such as The Parasite and The Hungry Moon. Rounding out the guest list is Peter Atkins, who had written the screenplay for Hellbound: Hellraiser II at the time of filming. He would go on to be a long-term collaborator on Barker’s franchise as well as writing the Wishmaster series.
So, what we have is a dinner party of six eminently experienced purveyors of horror. After some time discussing Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, they decide to reject it as a possible starting point for the horror film for the millennium. “I’m not scared yet,” Carpenter complains about their initial proposals. He posits the concept of right-wing and left-wing horror themes, namely those stories that point to outside terrors threatening a group as opposed to ones that suggest horrors of an internal nature. One of the most interesting ideas from this pre-discussion is the concept that the horror film could involve a future census, set in a totalitarian America where citizens are visited annually and judged for their misdeeds. The idea soon gets sidelined, but with the benefit of hindsight it prefigures The Purge, one of the most successful horror franchises of the 21st Century.
Things get down to business with the decision to go twice round the table, with each participant adding to the story in turn. Carpenter kicks things off with one of the show’s best moments as he describes the opening of the film – the tale of a face-slicing murderer and a woman who feels a strange sense of connection – in mesmerizing detail. He’s able to bring the details to life with the chilling precision of a great storyteller (in a room of great storytellers). The best detail here is Barker’s reaction as Carpenter speaks. He’s clearly as gripped and admiring as any ordinary horror fan would be.
Inevitably, things go off the rails a little as six competing voices try to build a story in turn. The story of a face-slicing maniac develops into one about a messianic face-slicing cult… and then New York gets transformed into hell by quantum physics. It all sounds a little too like Carpenter’s own Prince of Darkness (although he isn’t responsible for adding those elements). Ramsay Campbell is charmingly perplexed by the science stuff. Lisa Tuttle refuses to have the female protagonist buy into all the doomsday prophesies being thrown at her. It’s a wonderfully ramshackle go round the table that Carpenter brings to a close by reasserting one of the earlier themes of discussion – that everyone has their own private terror and great horror movies are an expression of a singular vision. „Each element of the story… had a power and a uniqueness and a point of view that we couldn’t get together,“ he states, speaking up for the value of the individual.
Horror Café might not have produced the ultimate horror movie for the millennium, but the journey is more rewarding than the destination. The show is evidence (for anyone in doubt) that people who make good horror stories are intelligent students of human nature. Barker and company clearly love nothing more than the prospect of giving their audiences a good scare. They might be discussing face-removals and the end of the world, but it’s a good-natured debate among creatives who respect one another and their differing takes on scary movies. Spending 90 minutes in the Horror Café is to learn a bit more about the craft and these makers. Fans of the genre should hunt it down. The final word is perhaps best left with Barker, describing what scares him most: „My sense of what’s scary is related to things I see around me… And what I see around me are people who want to suppress the imagination.“