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:
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."
"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.
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