One of the most difficult genres to tackle in film and television is horror. However, this detail is compounded when presented in an animated fashion, whether by film or series. In America, the horror animation subgenre has never been overtly a loud call to audiences for its effectiveness or appeal, whereas the horror market in live-action presentation has been flourishing in many aspects. After the release of NBC’s newest horror/thriller-themed series Hannibal, personal reflection brought many older works in television back into the forefront of thought.
Releases in animated horror are primarily dominated by genre films created by studio directors such as Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie) and Gil Kenan (Monster House). There have been a handful of independent creators that have really added something new and fresh to the game in American animation that usually is only achieved by going international in the search for animated scares (mostly into Japanese Anime). Though the US has indie directors like Frank Sudol (who created the extremely well-done and hilarious Rott City) and studio creators such as Chris Butler & Sam Fell (who were behind the film Paranorman, which should have won the Oscar) are out adding new installments into the horror catalogue, animation in America is still receiving its general stigmatism.
In mainstream America, animation is created primarily for a child audience and the styles and subject matter always appeal (or even pander) to that crowd. So to defy such a generalization, one has to look hard in American horror animation to find something more than a Halloween special from Scooby Doo or Alvin and the Chipmunks.
There were two prominent series devoted to horror in a way that was less focused on the comic appeal to ensure the child audience remained involved and kept them coming back, and more on the fact that they were just downright unnerving. The first (which still catered more to a younger audience) was Courage the Cowardly Dog, which was based off an Academy Award-nominated short film of the same subject by John Dilworth. This series was creepy and unsettling, but in ways that are employed by modern cartoon series such as The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. But, inadvertently this series falls into the category of Aaahh!!! Real Monsters as primarily a kid’s show. However, Alan B. McElroy released the series that broke the mold in animated horror for an adult audience in 1997 on HBO; and that series was Spawn.
Based off the comic series of the same name by Todd McFarlane, this series encompasses three seasons, each comprised of six episodes. This was a strictly adult-themed and directed series, playing up the violence, gore, scares, sex and profanity that would make Ralph Bakshi and Gerald Potterton proud.
Set in New York City, the series (of course) follows around Spawn, a newly created Hellspawn, returning to Earth to fulfill his deal that he struck with Satan (who in this series is referred to as Malebolgia), in which he refused to complete and haunts the back alleyways of Rat City, as the homeless’ dark protector, though constantly claiming only wanting space and quiet.
Though diverting from the comic series in many aspects, the animated show was still gripping, very well animated, the writing was sharp and unrelenting and the voice talent chosen couldn’t have been better. The title character was voiced by Keith David, who not only is a fantastic character actor in live-action films (such as Platoon, The Thing and Pitch Black), but also known as a very strong voice talent from his work on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Gargoyles and Kaena: The Prophecy. His voice cuts deep into the unsettling nature of Spawn and his many personal demons (pun intended), and his conviction to the seriousness of the material makes the performance all the better.
Though David is obviously the real driving force behind the voice talent, the two other actors who really stand out, as great additions to the cast and to the feel of the series are Michael Nicolosi and Richard Dysart. Now, Dysart’s primary claim to fame was his acclaimed Emmy-winning performance as Leland McKenzie on L.A. Law, he takes of the reigns of Cogliostro in Spawn.
Now, in the comic series, the character of Cogliostro is later revealed to be Cain, the world’s first murderer from the Bible who had been turned into one of the very first Hellspawn, and thus his intentions on helping Spawn are primarily obsessed to toppling Malebolgia and reigning over Hell. In the animated series however, Cogliostro was the Black Knight that had turned from Hell and its army in order to regain his honor and humanity, and struggles to help all Hellspawn shake off the shackles of Malebolgia in order to break the possibilities of Armageddon and its associated prophecies.
Because this character has so many layers to it, it requited a voice actor who was able to express such emotion and subtext by the power of their voice, rather than just explaining everything. And Richard Dysart was a great choice. His voice contains a power that demands respect, at the same time adds a hint of sadness to the context of the horrors committed by the character.
However, the best voice actor next to Keith David in the series is Michael Nicolosi, who was cast as Clown (in the comics known as the Violator). Now, this is where personal research comes up a little dry. Nicolosi is an actor whose previous credits of note are The Babe (the biopic about Babe Ruth, starring John Goodman) and a small role in Tony Cinciripini’s Hell’s Kitchen. Though his career to this point has been spotty, due to the information available, his performance in Spawn is something that deserves to be listed alongside Mark Hamill’s Joker from Batman and the Fire Lord from Avatar: The Last Airbender (yes, Hamill did voice both characters). The unnerving delight that the character has in the carnage and pain not only Spawn inflicts upon others, but also that of humans on other humans sends chills up and down the spine.
The series sports a strong story (that ends up being cut far too short), which jigsawed together with every other element to create a profoundly intoxicating series of horror and antihero antics. The series’ developer Alan B. McElroy would go on to write horrible schlockly films such as the 2010 live-action Tekken, the adaptation of Left Behind (which is a hokey and overly-annoying book series initially), Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (which can go down as one of the worst action films of all time) and the David Hasselhoff-helmed feature Layover (which was McElroy’s only directorial foray). Though McElroy is primarily known for creating the Wrong Turn film series (which is decent at best), his firm understanding of horror, pacing and character development in Spawn leads one to believe that he has more talent hidden away than his other works let on.
The episodial directors chosen for this series were also fantastic decisions. Most notable of course being Chuck Patton (Deadspace: Downfall), Frank Paur (Gargoyles), Eric Radomski (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm) and Jennifer Yuh (Kung Fu Panda 2). The amount of talent present in the series was evident in every frame and in every line of dialogue. In an additional treat to the series, additional writing was supplied by John Leekley, who had previously been the creator of Kindred: The Embraced (which is based off one of the best horror video game series of all time, Vampire: The Masquerade, which in turn was based off the table-top RPG, World of Darkness).
Though personally, more seasons to actually propel the story would have been fantastic, the ending of the series was appropriate, given that the comic series is still ongoing, with many characters and scenarios diverting heavily from where the animated series was headed.
Todd McFarlane has been attempting on a revitalization of the series in animated form, with Keith David reprising his title role, as well as rumors of Mark Hamill being brought in (hoping that the role he is given is that of the Violator/Clown), though this project has survived in developmental hell (again, pun intended) for many years, with no actual production dates set for the future. Though audiences may not be given a brand new animated incarnation of Spawn (which remains a personal favorite comic series, next to Sandman, Swamp Thing and Hellblazer), the original still stands as a testament to where the boundaries of animation really lie, and the possibilities of inspired material stretches out to the horizon.