Great Britain

From Scream Queens to Spaced's zombie battle: our favourite TV spine-chillers

Scream Queens

Amazon Prime Video (£)
A decade after the director Wes Craven sent up his own slasher subgenre with Scream (1996), Ryan Murphy made this exquisitely accessorised entrance to the postmodern horror party. Scream Queens blended the aesthetics of Murphy’s previous hits, American Horror Story and Glee, then slathered on layers of horror homage, cartoonish violence and campy dialogue to create a tart, but moreish confection.

Like many of the 80s films it references, Scream Queens concerns a serial killer who ploughs through nubile college students. Now, 20 years on from his first rampage, the Red Devil is again stalking the halls of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority house – but who is the murderer behind the mascot mask?

The show delivered at least one stylised slaughter per episode, and yet none of its cast, from the original Halloween queen Jamie Lee Curtis to the celebrity cameo Ariana Grande – could be considered expendable. Emma Roberts killed as merciless mean girl Chanel #1 (“Good evening, idiot hookers”) and Niecy Nash slayed as Denise, the slapstick-prone security guard. The show was cancelled when its second season proved an unwatchable bloody mess, but even this is true to type – scream queens aren’t exactly known for their longevity. Ellen E Jones

Unsolved Mysteries

Netflix
I am not fussed about Halloween staples such as ghouls, monsters, or things that don’t jump out at someone for a bit … but then, suddenly, they do. I am much more likely to get the screaming willies at the thought of a French guy shooting his whole family in the night, or a nice middle-aged Michigan woman going to church on a cold evening, then turning up dead in a river weeks later.

Unsolved Mysteries, Netflix’s hit true-crime series that returned earlier this month with a second batch of cases, embraces spooky uncertainty. There is always something still out there: a chief suspect who was identified but not charged, a mystery perpetrator who left no evidence, or a victim who was never found. The show likes to do a slow Ken Morse zoom into a still photo of a person smiling happily in simpler times, before informing you that nobody knows where they went, leaving open the possibility that they are behind you. Or maybe you will be next, since Unsolved Mysteries mostly plies its creepy trade in ordinary suburbia, where everything was fine and boring until the unspeakable happened. Did you lock the front door? If not, season three might include an episode that starts with someone innocently watching their television … Jack Seale

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

All4
In the 1980s, Garth Marenghi – prolific horror writer and self-appointed “dreamweaver” – created and starred in an utterly bizarre and eye-wateringly bad drama set in a Romford hospital conveniently located over the gates of hell. “Too dangerous” to air, Darkplace didn’t see the light of day for two decades, when a televisual drought forced Channel 4 to finally screen the series.

Or at least that is the elaborate conceit of Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade’s 2004 cult comedy, an intentionally terrible supernatural-medical drama that combines corny machismo, cod-profundity and ridiculously shonky special effects. Yet Darkplace does not simply resemble the unholy alliance of Diagnosis Murder, The Twilight Zone and Acorn Antiques. The show also parodies the talking heads tradition, with Holness’s Marenghi, publisher Dean Learner (Ayoade) and co-star Todd Rivers (Matt Berry in his first TV role) commentating on the action throughout – action that involves levitating cutlery, exploding men and, in one episode, the truly disturbing events that occur when a man’s experimental gamma-ray treatment is contaminated by the eyeball of a sex offender.

That Holness went on to carve out a career writing and directing straightforwardly scary films comes as little surprise: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace isn’t just an uproariously funny spoof – it’s also a gratifyingly grotesque and creepy piece of television in its own right. Rachel Aroesti

Spaced

All4/Netflix
You rarely get shotguns in UK sitcoms, but the third episode of cult comedy Spaced kicks off with jittery slacker Tim (Simon Pegg) creeping around his flat with a pump-action. The colour palette is desaturated, the soundtrack is an ominous synth throb and the whole thing screams “1980s John Carpenter movie”, even before the first groaning zombie appears.

Fantasy spoofs had been part of Spaced’s pop culture-saturated arsenal from the outset, yet director Edgar Wright makes this a mostly fromage-free homage, creating a genuinely unsettling manifestation of Tim’s sleep-deprived video game nightmares. After that grabby opening – a nifty proof-of-concept for Shaun of the Dead – the rest of this endlessly rewatchable episode settles back into something like normalcy while never quite losing a David Lynchian edge. Scrawny painter Brian (Mark Heap) has a raw and unnerving meltdown in the mirror. Slapdash freelancer Daisy (Jessica Hynes) endures a car-crash interview at a go-getting women’s mag. Tim listlessly naps.

This gauntlet of psychological horrors makes all the initial Resident Evil stuff fade into the background, especially when the gang troop out to witness the bellicose performance art of Vulva (David Walliams). But that’s the thing about zombies. They always come back. Graeme Virtue

The Third Day

Now TV; 12-hour special available on Facebook
Halloween aside, The Third Day is a spooky enough watch at the best of times. Jude Law, the grieving father of a murdered son, finds himself on an island, slowly being dragged into the bizarre rituals of a hellish Wicker Man-style folk-horror cult. Then, three episodes later, his wife comes looking for him and is horrified by what she discovers. It is a series full of creeping dread. There is a vast well of aggression simmering under the surface – you know it will explode but you don’t know when – which is unbearably tense.

If you happen to have up to 12 hours spare this week, the thing to do is to set aside as much of your Halloween as possible and watch The Third Day: Autumn. This was the centrepiece of the series; a live special filmed in one unbroken shot, designed to slot into the middle of the series. It would be foolish to call the whole thing action-packed, especially since the camera doesn’t even arrive on the island for about an hour. However, the queasiness is cumulative. Give yourself over to the whole thing, watch as Law gets physically brutalised again and again, and you will end up as scared and disoriented as he is. Stuart Heritage

Courage the Cowardly Dog

Amazon Prime Video (£)
It might seem a rogue choice, but trust me: the Cartoon Network series Courage the Cowardly Dog is ideal Halloween viewing. Created by John R Dilworth and released in 1999, it stars a timid pink dog named Courage who fights to protect his elderly owners, Muriel and Eustace, from spooky monsters.

It was one of my favourite cartoons growing up – probably because of just how uncomfortable it made me feel. Sure, it is packaged as a children’s animated show, but with Dalí-esque visuals and terrifying animation styles (who remembers the episode with the pharaoh ghost of King Ramses?), it experimented with styles and techniques that other shows of that era never dreamed of. It is also reportedly based on the true story of a couple in New Mexico who disappeared following strange occurrences in their home, leaving only their dog behind (eat your heart out, Paranormal Activity).

Fans of the show reckon that everything looks so hideous and immense because it was written from the dog’s perspective. Despite this, even when he is terrified, Courage still saves his owners no matter what. He is a cowardly dog, but he is pretty faithful. Rhi Storer

Misfits

All4
Originally billed as “Skins with superpowers”, from its first episode, in which a terrifying electrical storm grants five young offenders special abilities, Misfits established itself as the show Skins only wished it was.

For one thing, the main cast were actually cool and, as with all good teen shows, it featured the kind of sex scenes that made watching it with your parents impossible. However, what really set Misfits apart was the bone-chilling violence. The show was filmed on the same Thamesmead estate as A Clockwork Orange and the body count is fittingly absurd (113 on-screen-deaths in 37 episodes) for what is ostensibly a teen comedy-drama.

Indeed, where Skins set out to be a gritty, British take on American teen dramas such as The OC and 90210, Misfits’ debt is to Danny Boyle films such as Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, where light banter and life-and-death stakes blur seamlessly.

That it is best remembered as a comedy is testament to the strength of the writing and Robert Sheehan’s ability to keep protagonist Nathan just about the right side of puerile. Howard Overman’s (Merlin, Atlantis) failure to deliver another success in its wake only reflects the fact that Misfits, a show that expertly blends kitchen-sink realism, science fiction and supernatural horror, should never have worked in the first place. Alex Mistlin

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