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Index to TV SHOWS commented on here:



Quatermass (1979)
The Kingdom

Shades of Darkness (1983/1986)

Shades of Darkness (TV Series, UK, 1983/1986)

Shades of Darkness is the title of an anthology series of nine famous ghost stories filmed for television by Granada TV in the 1980s. Seven were aired in 1983, and two more appeared in 1986. Six of them are currently available on DVD. The episodes are:

  • The Lady's Maid's Bell (27/05/1983)*
  • The Intercessor (03/06/1983)*
  • Feet Foremost (10/06/1983)
  • Afterward (17/06/1983)*
  • The Maze (24/06/1983)*
  • Seaton's Aunt (01/07/1983)
  • Bewitched (08/07/1983)*
  • The Demon Lover (21/06/1986)*
  • Agatha Christie's The Last Seance (27/09/1986)

Those marked with an asterick are included on the DVD released by Koch Entertainment in 2005.

The Lady's Maid's Bell (from the story by Edith Wharton, dir. John Glenister)

Protagonist Miss Hartley (Joanna David) comes to labyrinthine Brympton Hall to take up her new position as lady's maid to the stiff and melancholy Mrs Brympton (Norma West). Once settled in, she soon becomes aware that old irresolute emotions linger on in the house and that the previous, now-deceased lady's maid, Emma Saxon, has a presence that resides in more than memory. But what does the phantom want?

This period ghost story contains all the undoubted virtues of its genteel subgenre: excellent and very "British" dialogue, effective character acting, a compelling dramatisation of the mores of 19th century aristocratic culture, an undercurrent of repressed emotion, and spooky atmospherics. It is a prime example of the "cosy" school of ghost tale. While it is not overly scary -- the ghost is accepted with a bit too much sangfroid for that -- it does have a sort of lingering otherworldiness that is evoked as much by the setting and the old-fashioned storyline as by the effective use of shadow and light. What it lacks is a strong sense of resolution and purpose within the narrative, leaving the viewer with a feeling that the drama remains, overall, rather indistinct, despite its ambiance of tragedy and emotional repression. It simply doesn't approach the intense power of that pinnacle of the British subgenre: The Woman in Black (1989). Failing to reach that exalted height certainly doesn't make it worthless, but its impact is too ill-defined to leave the viewer with any real sense of satisfaction.

The Intercessor (from the story by May Sinclair, dir. Peter Smith)

May Sinclair (1863-1946), the author of the story on which this installment of the Granada TV series Shades of Darkness was based, is credited with originating the literary use of the term "stream of consciousness". Her interest in psychoanalytic thought gave her supernatural tales a strong emphasis on the inner workings of the human mind. "The Intercessor", which has a Freudian quality to its themes, appears in her collection Uncanny Tales (1923) and remains one of her most effective stories, gaining strength from the powerful sense of guilt and emotional maladjustment that it conveys. Here the ghost is not so much a metaphor of embittered revenge as an image of the past seeking reconciliation and acceptance. It is to be pitied and comforted, not feared.

As both fiction and telemovie, The Intercessor focuses on Garvin, an author who has come to the wilds of Yorkshire seeking peace and quiet in which to write. He finds lodgings in an isolated cottage, but the reclusive surliness displayed by owners Mr and Mrs Falshaw (David Hargreaves and Maggie Ford) soon proves to hold its own inevitable secrets and Garvin is drawn into the unexpected role of mediator between the living and the dead. Silence and repression must give way to acceptance in order for anyone to find redemption, and Garvin has been chosen as the one who will make it possible.

A deeply affecting take on the classic "old school" ghost story, The Intercessor is often creepy, yet there is little horror. Part of the point is that only those who do not fear it can see and interact with the ghost of the drowned child that weeps in the night and wanders the grounds -- an image of the emotions that have been long repressed by the Falshaws. Fear is a form of rejection and this ghost needs to be embraced. The figure of the ghost child -- pale and sad -- appearing out of shadows or beside the water trough where she drowned is both uncanny and melancholy. Interesting, too, that her movement -- awkward and uncertain -- prefigures the jerky, spasmodic style that ghosts have tended to adopt in recent films to symbolise the unnatural antagonism that has called them back from death. Yet here it is not a sign of threat, but of loneliness and of need.

In its gentle way, The Intercessor is one of the better episodes of the Shades of Darkness series.

Afterward (from the story by Edith Wharton, dir. Simon Langton)

"Oh, Dorsetshire's full of ghosts, you know."

"Yes, yes; but that won't do. I don't want to have to drive ten miles to see somebody else's ghost. I want one of my own on the premises. Is there a ghost at Lyng?"

His rejoinder had made Alida laugh again, and it was then that she flung back tantalizingly: "Oh, there is one, of course, but you'll never know it."

"Never know it?" Boyne pulled her up. "But what in the world constitutes a ghost except the fact of its being known for one?"

"I can't say. But that's the story."

"That there's a ghost, but that nobody knows it's a ghost?"

"Well -- not till afterward, at any rate."

"Till afterward?"

"Not till long, long afterward."

Focused around this intriguing premise, Edith Wharton's "Afterward" is one of the late 19th/early 20th-Century American writer's best and most anthologised stories. It is beautifully conceived and carefully structured, and the Shades of Darkness TV-movie version retains these qualities, adding good, unobtrusive photography to both focus and deflect our attention, as well as excellent performances from Kate Harper as Mary Boyne and Michael Shannon as her troubled husband.

An American couple comes to Lyng in Dorsetshire -- an archetypal crumbling British manor house -- to escape the husband's business dealings and the disorderly mundanity of their lives in the US. Unfortunately, Lyng has some surprises in store, for though there is indeed a ghost, the haunting is not what we might expect from an old, crumbling manor house. Like many of Wharton's stories, this one offers interesting insights into Victorian social manners, in particular, here, the husband-wife relationship and the role of business in that sphere of influence. It is Mary Boyne who provides a focus for our emotions, with Mr Boyne's actions determining the plot itself.

Though the ending will probably not come as surprise -- given the fact that this is presented as a ghost story so there presumably has to be one somewhere in the proceedings -- Afterward manages to carry viewer interest through to the end, skillfully playing with genre expectations, and leaves a lingering chill that is inextricably bound to the word "afterward" and the theme of personal responsibility. There may be no gut-wrenching sledgehammer blow of abjection dealt by the narrative, but this "old-fashioned" ghost story offers something that is just as effective if considerably rarer these days: a retrospective dread that perfectly justifies the story's title.

The Maze (from the story by C.H.B. Kitchin, dir. Peter Hammond)

Hedgerow mazes -- archetypal Old-World items of garden landscaping -- provide an atmospheric and evocative setting for tales of mysterious goings-on, finding their horror-movie apotheosis in Kubrick's The Shining (1980). Their shadowy obscurities suggest hidden secrets and ominous threat -- a perfect image of mental confusion and the potential for disorienting reality shifts (see Guillermo del Toro's El Laberinto del Fauno -- Pan's Labyrinth). Metaphorical minotaurs clearly lurk at their centre.

The titular maze of this episode of the British TV series Shades of Darkness is neither grand nor overly threatening, but it hides a supernatural secret nevertheless. We never seen the ghost that haunts the maze for ourselves but its presence is central to the story. Catherine Frode (Francesca Annis) has returned to her old family home with husband Arthur (James Bolam) and daughter Daisy, uneasy but content to do her best to ignore painful memories of a past tragedy. But Daisy insists on frequenting the overgrown maze that was the site of this tragedy, and now reports that she has been talking to a strange (though unthreatening) man there. Catherine quickly comes to believe that the stranger is no stranger at all and finds her grim memories morphing into recollection of happier times. Her emotionally unsatisfying life finds some kind of release through them.

Peter Hammond, a veteran TV director of such shows as Jeremy Brett's brilliant Sherlock Holmes series, invests The Maze's visual field with unsettling and evocative detail, such as tangled bushes, odd garden ornaments, the colour red amidst the greys and dull greens, the peacocks that frequent the garden and utter their unnervingly human cries at appropriate moments. We often see the characters through window frames or in mirrors, which has the effect of distancing them and implying an interactive, evaluative point-of-view. These, and other carefully thought out details, give the TV film a strong but subtle atmosphere, and provide depth to what is essentially an introspective drama of emotional longing. Here horror-genre expectations become irrelevant. The Maze is "horror" only in its gentlest sense, a veneer of the uncanny encapsulating the protagonist's emotional displacement. There are no "scares" here; just a tale of supernaturally driven healing.

But it works brilliantly.

August 2007

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This section is designed as a place where I can add quick comment, short reviews, random thoughts and observations on films and TV related stuff ... on an ongoing basis. You'll probably note a certain lack of objective restraint at times. Sorry.

The Kingdom (TV Series, Denmark, 1994) -- dir. Lars von Trier, with co-director Morten Arnfred; aka Riget

Comparing this unique, expectation-bending mini-series to any other movie experience seems a little pointless, though the many who see shades of Lynch's Twin Peaks in its surreal and edgy approach come closest to the mark. At any rate director Lars von Trier himself has admitted to that influence.

A cross-genre ghost story set in a hi-tech Danish hospital, The Kingdom centres around the mystery of a phantom child who weeps miserably in an elevator shaft and appears with her ominous little bell whenever medically induced distress is afoot. But that's only part of it. The rest concerns a group of eccentric doctors and other medical staff in the neurosurgery section of the hospital as they go about their business. In the course of its four hour-or-so-long episodes, The Kingdom presents the viewer with not only the afore-mentioned ghost child, but a glowing-eyed demon dog, haunted ambulances, medical malpractice, abundant satire involving hospital administration, a spiritualist patient who keeps getting herself admitted so that she can conduct séances and hunt down the ghost child, a severed head, zombies, spiritual insemination and much more besides. Toward the end of the final episode the many interconnecting sub-plots weave together into a black comedy apocalypse that has to be seen to be appreciated. Of course, it doesn't end there. The unresolved elements were taken up again by von Trier in 1997 in The Kingdom II, though a promised third season is now unlikely to eventuate due to the subsequent deaths of two major actors.

Is The Kingdom a horror story? Sure, if your definition of horror is wide enough. Certainly it has many chilling moments, but it's the character-driven weirdness that propels the viewer along -- as well as the sheer cheeky exuberance of von Triers' imagination and the clever melding of drama and comedy that is integral to its character. The show is deliberately filmed in a rough, grainy, muted manner -- much of it appearing almost sepia in colour -- and this gloss-less pseudo-realism, too, adds to its effectiveness.

Note: The Kingdom exists in three different versions: the original 4-episode structure, where each episode ends with von Trier in a dinner suit delivering a tongue-in-cheek epilogue, Hitchcock-style; a 5-episode structure of roughly the same length made for US distibution; and a US theatrical version where the whole thing was edited together and shortened slightly.

14 October 2006

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Quatermass (TV Series, UK, 1979) -- dir. Piers Haggard

To dismiss this Nigel Kneale-scripted four-part TV series as "dated" makes about as much sense as dismissing Hamlet because it is written in archaic English and isn't set in the modern world.

Playing out against a background of urban decay and the collapse of civilisation, Quatermass is intelligent, well-written science fiction, the sort of thing one expects from Kneale. Apart from anything else, it is the swansong of his scientific-rationalist character Professor Bernard Quatermass, here depicted by John Mills as a disillusioned and inward-focused old man, whose past glories seem irrelevant in the face of near-universal social disaffection. This is humanity on its last legs -- and now even the "hope of the future", the young, have become the mindless advocates of either self-interested violence or a pseudo-mystical philosophy that must inevitably result in their own annihilation. Knowledge is worthless and the scientists that were its champions are little more than eccentric outcasts or the pawns of political opportunism. The film has an air of resignation about it, as though Kneale has been watching the vigorous future become the empty present for too long and can only see the continued and escalating abandonment of Quatermass' rationalism as it reaches new and more astounding heights (or depths) as a retreat from everything he has valued in his writings. Is this relevant to 2006? In a new Millennium that has already witnessed a resurgence in crackpot religious fundamentalism, political hypocrisy of unprecedented sophistication and rationalised warmongering, how can it be otherwise? Sure, the Planet People of Quatermass are based on post-hippy culture, but what they represent is still as relevant as ever. The self-destructive pursuit of hedonistic indifference or fundamentalist fantasies is as much a symptom of social breakdown as the sort of New-Age acquiescence that causes the Planet People to gather expecting transcendent transportation to a new world of happiness. That they are harvested for their energies and turned into piles of grey ash is Kneale's ultimate comment on the future. Or it might be except for the sacrificial intervention of Quatermass himself...

The series is slow-moving in parts, and the SFX are cheap -- but I found the whole thing highly effective. It relies not on slick production values (which it mostly struggles to achieve), but the intelligence of the script and the non-mainstream edginess of its concepts. Images such as the decaying streets of London, the hippyish Planet People following ley lines en masse toward their own destruction, scenes of alien harvest as a pillar of light from the sky engulfs the crowds gathered in ancient stone circles, and the grey ash of its aftermath linger in the mind long after the show is finished.

The series was edited down into a feature-length movie under the title The Quatermass Conclusion, but now that the full thing is available on DVD it is that which you should seek out. Its more leisurely pace and expansive tone serve Kneale's theme much better than the compacted film version.

5 May 2006

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