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Chimera

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Release Date: 
1991
Studio: 
Revelation Films
Genre: 
SF/Horror
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Lawrence Gordon Clark
Cast: 
John Lynch
Chrstine Kavanagh
Kenneth Cranham
David Calder
Douglas Mann
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
5

If it had been intended simply as a parable on the hubris of science and the dangers of the 'new genetics', Stephen Gallagher's 1991 ITV mini-series "Chimera" would've failed pretty miserably. We see why mid-way through episode three, when the Everyman protagonist and the research scientist who's been helping him investigate a dead fertility clinician's recent work, discover a secret project to create genetic chimp-human chimeras, with the aim of keeping them as slave-donors in order to provide a ready supply of organs and limbs for transplant patents. The hero is shocked, but the research scientist -- who has thus far seemed quite sympathetic -- is elated, enthusing that as far as cutting edge research goes 'this is as sexy as it gets!' Not knowing that the clinician who's been working on this project is already dead, she excitedly asks 'can you get me his number?' 

In reality though, if we think about it, the believability of this whole scenario would have to depend on it being generally acceptable to most people that other intelligent self-aware beings with the ability to develop speech and communication -- in all respects, other 'human' beings --  but who just happened to look a bit odd and more ape-like than we're used to, should be kept in cages as slaves with no rights of their own, and for it to be acceptable for them to be murdered at will on the whim of their 'masters'.

There's no reason why such an unusual social scenario couldn't come about of course (indeed, the potential for it did: in Germany during the thirties); it's just that Britain in 1991 wasn't like that as far as I can remember, and it isn't even like it now, despite the rapid growth in the biosciences since then. So the idea that there would be status and kudos, let alone unimaginable wealth to be had from such a project, seems rather far-fetched to say the least. If "Chimera" really were a 'warning', it would already have come too late if society had already slid so far morally that its scientists couldn't even realise that there just might be a contentious issue here!

That's not to say though that Gallagher's screenplay (adapted from his own novel of the same name) doesn't raise some troubling, unsettling issues. In fact, as an exemplary piece of horror fantasy, that's exactly what it does do. Like all the best horror fiction, it digs deep into uncomfortable areas of the human psyche with a scalpel so slim and sharp that you barely even notice just how deep it penetrates. The whole concept of the Uncanny as developed by Freud (where the familiar and what seems foreign become inextricably mixed up) is hugely relevant here: our notion of humanity's special-ness, our separateness from all other species on earth, was already challenged long ago by Darwin's discoveries. But at least until the genetic basis of evolution was uncovered, we could put the whole idea out of mind and carry on largely as normal: thankfully, there are no inconvenient human ancestors still around for us to have to consider the sliding scale between what is 'human' and non-human, and where the boundary would have to be drawn if pockets of those ancestors were actually still among us. One of the reasons why Gallagher's scenario in "Chimera" seems to strike a cord is that, given how we've treated other races of human beings over the course of our history, what chance would these ancestors have had of being treated with any respect at all? Thank goodness for them then that they're all extinct! And for us as well.

But the troubling thoughts don't stop there. Anyone indulging in a quick web search on the subject of chimeras might come across a 2003 story about a sheep chimera that was created with cells that are 15% human, the idea being exactly the one mooted in "Chimera": that it's organs might be used in human transplantations. Of course the sheep isn't in any way a 'man-sheep' monstrosity; but if anyone thinks keeping sheep as slaves for the purposes of organ transplantation is still wrong, they might like to remember that we already do something similar -- it's just that we keep them as slaves and cut them up and eat them after we remove the organs rather than transplant them. But that's all right though, isn't it?  And recent developments in cloning technology now make it possible to fuse human DNA with cow eggs to produce human stem cells. Ironically, this research was only conducted in the first place because of religiously derived squeamishness about creating human embryos for that exact same purpose, even though a ball of cells is no more a  person than a brick.

The Uncanny permeates all these issues, but "Chimera" is a wonderfully evocative horror thriller which just happens to have all this controversial background bubbling away nicely beneath the surface. Gallagher's screenplay, adapted into four episodic hours of prime-time telly, is itself a sort of thriller writer's chimera: each episode emphasising a different aspect of genre writing and forging quite a unique beast of its own from the various bits and pieces. Episode one is planned out as a steadily building, atmospheric mystery story about a nurse, Tracy Pickford (Emer Gillespie) who escapes a moribund relationship with a small-time  film writer Peter Carson (John Lynch) in London, by giving up her NHS job and taking a position at a remote fertility clinic run by a doctor Jenner (David Calder) in the Yorkshire Dales, where she discovers something very strange and top secret involving most of the other staff is going on inside an animal laboratory facility on-site. Elements of the slasher flick pertain to the unexpectedly bloody conclusion of this episode when a knife-wielding someone-or-something escapes from the lab and runs amok, killing almost the entire cast of the episode and lending the overall story a similar structure to Hitchcock's "Psycho" by introducing one sympathetic protagonist to start the story, but then switching emphasis to concentrate on John Lynch's ex-boyfriend Carson from episode two. 

Episode two mimics the police procedural form so accurately one could almost be watching an episode of "Wycliffe" or "Frost"; indeed, a Frost-like inspector is on the case, along with his best man, Sgt Crichton (Peter Armitage - who seems to be playing a Yorkshire Don Johnson here, complete with shades, linen jacket and colourful shirt), both investigating a mass killing and explosion at the Jenner clinic; while ex-boyfriend Peter Carson (only a minor figure in the first episode) has re-trod Tracy Pickford's route to the Yorkshire clinic after she leaves a strange message on his answer-phone. Something unusual is going on though: a home office official, Hennessey (Kenneth Cranham) suddenly appears, calls off the routine police investigation and organises a military-like search of the Dales, complete with flame thrower-toting military personnel. Crichton is assigned to keep a close unofficial eye on what exactly Hennessey is up to while his men scour the countryside; Carson teams up with Alison Wells (Christine Kavanagh): the only surviving member of the research team involved in whatever was going on inside the lab -- although it soon becomes clear that she can't be trusted. Meanwhile, the unstable husband of one of the patients at the clinic, Forester (Gary Mavers), is out for nothing less than the blood of the murderer.

With the official cover-up now in play, Carson heads back to London for episode three: this plays like a  murky, John Le Carre espionage thriller -- Carson's attempted investigation of the research Dr. Jenner was conducting now constantly being scrutinized by the all-seeing surveillance forces of Hennessey. Carson employs an investigative journalist pal from a magazine he contributes film articles to, who uncovers contacts associated with Jenner and his former boss, Dr. Liawski (Sebastian Shaw). As the true extent of the cover-up becomes apparent, Hennessey brings the full might of the law to bear on the unwitting Carson, who is forced on the run, heading back to the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales for a confrontation with the sad, misshapen results of Jenner's experiments in the touching "Frankenstein"-like concluding episode.

The combined talents of Stephen Gallagher (these days a head writer and show creator for American network TV) and director Lawrence Gordon Clark (most famous for his series of MR James ghost story adaptations for the BBC in the 1970s) enables these familiar genre formats and their conventions (mystery, police procedural, espionage thriller, horror tale) to be taken and crafted into something far more affecting than the sum of their individual parts. It's the suggestive little details, which Gallagher is so good at teasing out of the writing and Gordon Clark superb at realising on the screen, that permeate through the material and lend it its distinct air of the Uncanny: the brightly coloured children's toys glimpsed inside one of the straw-lined animal cages that are kept in the empty laboratory; the bagged up bodies from the massacre, laid out in rows in a primary school gym (children's bright paintings and drawings surrounding them); a grainy VHS of doctor Jenner holding up a human-looking baby with a strangely chimp-like face,  the video vacantly watched by the residents of the rest home in which Dr Liawski now resides: these images only hint at the main theme of the story, which only really becomes apparent when we finally see the chimp-human chimera in all its bizarre, malformed glory. We see nothing but glimpses of it for most of the first few episodes, whetting our appetite for a ferocious, knife-wielding killer; but when the murderer is finally revealed we're confronted with, essentially ... a mewling, maladjusted child: a strange, lumbering, oversized creature that finds refuge among the two farmer's children whose parents he's formally murdered and stashed in the out barn. Named 'Chad' by the lab assistant who fed him alongside the other chimpanzees kept at the Jenner clinic, this frenzied killer turns out to want nothing more than to find the childhood it has always previously been denied.

Whether pathetically clutching a child's rag doll to its chest, having a hissy fit when it loses a game of Snap at the kitchen table, or perusing a Rupert Bear book in the squalid, now-unkempt farmhouse where it's been hiding out with the two parentless kids, Chad's distorted man-ape mockery of childhood is made all the more incongruous by the slow build-up to his eventual unveiling onscreen, the film-makers opting for a realistic approach to the material despite Chad's grotesque, almost absurdly cartoonish appearance. Gallagher's writing hints at the  absurd: smuggling in amusing little in-jokes but treating them in a straight-faced fashion. In particular, one scene in episode two, where Hennessey interviews the other super-intelligent chimpanzees in the lab (who have been taught sign language, much to the amazement of the signing expert he's brought in -- played by Paul O’ Grady) is clearly written with tongue placed firmly in cheek, despite the grimness of the surrounding material which deals with the aftermath of the massacre. “She’s lying!”, Hennessey claims while considering one of the caged animals’ testimony. “Tell her she gets no more chocolate until we get an answer!”; reflecting later, he muses “They’re all covering up for someone!”

There are nods to horror classics dotted throughout the four episodes: one can trace references to such diverse films as “The Brood” or “Predator” for instance, and the influence of Dario Argento’s “Phenomena” (intelligent apes, a malformed killer child) seems particularly pronounced. A shot of nurse Pickford exiting the flaming clinic at the end of episode one even looks like a direct steal from the climactic frames of “Suspiria”.

The designers of the chimp-human creature known as Chad have evidently drawn influence and inspiration from a host of familiar horror monsters, dressing the unfortunate creature in a pair of  “Chucky”-style denim dungarees and a Freddy Kruger-like stripy red top! Clearly, his keeper at the clinic was tempting fate all along!

The prosthetic  make-up created by the Image Animation Workshop looks surprisingly sophisticated for a 1991 TV production; I for one preferred it to a CGI effect, which is almost certainly how the creature would be realised in a modern-day treatment. The actor’s bulky ape body suit makes him twice the size of the two children he befriends, but the contrast only emphasises the essential surreal-ness under-pining the idea in a way that is ultimately beneficial to the overall uncanny tone which is at the root of the series’ success. Special mention has to go to actor Douglas Mann who plays Chad from beneath complex layers of make-up, masks and animatronics effects which control the creature’s expressions. He gives the ape creature a convincing lolloping, simian-like gait (brought about with the help of ape behavioural expert Peter Elliot) and brings real emotion to the big reveal scenes where we really feel for the monster’s confusion and perplexed hatred for his persecutors. The performance fully gets across the idea that this is a creature with the strength of ten men but the emotional maturity of a one-year-old child whose been given a carving knife to play with.

This 2-disc DVD edition presents all four episodes (three on disc one and the final episode on disc four accompanied by all the extras) and they look pretty good. There’s a tidy selection of extras as well, headed by about half-an-hours’ worth of behind-the-scenes video footage from Stephen Gallagher’s own archives, which comes with an explanatory commentary by the writer. It includes footage from a presentation given by Image, the animatronics workshop who had previously worked on Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” and “Nightbreed”, and footage of Lawrence Gordon Clark filming a stunt scene from episode one. Gallagher has a lot of interesting information to impart here, as he does in a fairly lengthy interview also included on the disc, where he talks about the process of writing for TV as opposed to novel writing and about how he would handle the material if he were re-writing it now. Gallagher is fairly honest about some of the weaknesses in the script, particularly the motivations of the lead character played by John Lynch. There is an animated photo gallery which includes lots of publicity stills for the show, and if you put the disc inside your computer you get the full ITV press kit (which emphasis the science ’playing god’ motif for all it’s worth) as well as interviews with Gallagher, actor Douglas Mann and ape expert Peter Elliot, and most of the main cast members as well. Finally, you get the full script for Stephen Gallagher’s BBC radio adaptation of the story.

“Chimera” is a compelling modern horror drama -- something we still don't see enough of on TV. This DVD release from Revelation Films does it proud and is a must-have for any genre fan.

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