With the publication of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in 1843, spooky yuletide ghost stories became something of a British literary tradition. The BBC extended the tradition to TV during the seventies with the producer-director Lawrence Gordon Clark's series of adaptations of ghost stories (mainly those of the Edwardian short story writer, M.R. James), one every year, which ran every Christmas from 1971 to 1979. BBC4 recently attempted something of a revival of the form, repeating many of Clark's original' 70s programmes and adapting a few more M.R. James tales over two successive festive seasons. For Christmas 2008 though, someone came up with the marvellous idea of letting actor/writer Mark Gatiss (one-fourth of The League of Gentlemen) loose on the airwaves to fulfil his lifelong ambition of staging some of his very own Christmas-time ghost stories. The result was the fabulous "Crooked House": originally a series of three tales broadcast over three consecutive nights on BBC4 last Christmas, and now assembled here on DVD in time for Christmas 2009, as a ninety-minute 'portmanteau' feature in the style of the Amicus films for which Gatiss has an equally fond regard.
Just as those old portmanteau movies often used a framing device as the launch pad for a series of mostly unrelated tales, so Gatiss here sets the scene for some spooky period ghost stories with a framing story set in the modern day, which, itself, comes centre stage in the last half-hour to form the final and creepiest episode of all.
Ben (Lee Ingleby) is a history teacher at a Primary school in Windsor. After moving house, he finds a rusty old door-knocker on the garden lawn of his new home, and, with the odd old thing looking rather antiquated and grotesque (it is cast in the likeness of a gargoyle-like creature whose face is contorted in a gaping scream, like a figure from an Edvard Munch painting), takes it to the local museum where he meets the donnish curator (Mark Gatiss) over a cup of tea in the back storeroom. Here, Ben is informed that the knocker almost certainly once belonged to an old manor house that previously stood on the site of the modern housing estate on which it was found. Geap Manor (Geap being old English for 'crook-backed') was built in 1585 by a Sir Roger Widdowson (Derren Brown): a Tudor politician and bigwig in the court of Elizabeth I, and a man who gained an unwholesome reputation during his lifetime for consorting with witches, particularly a shadowy astrologer cum necromancer by the name of Unthank. Widdowson's influence at court was to wane with the knowledge that his wife had proved unable to provide him with an heir. The house though, says the curator, continued to pass through various hands down the ensuing centuries and, not surprisingly given its historical associations, began to acquire a reputation as: 'a place that attracts unpleasantness'. Ben is fascinated, and urges the museum curator to tell him some of the strange tales that have accrued around the Manor down the years ...
And so, along with Ben, we get to hear two atmospheric period ghost stories from Geap Manor's shadowy past, told to us in a dusty museum back-room rather than at the traditional Victorian fireside; but Gatiss certainly has a fine ear for the cadence of the language of his two chosen periods, and as a result his tales have a radically different feel to each-other, despite both the stories (as well as the third, modern-day-set payoff) playing on the classic theme of guilt manifesting itself in various types of supernatural phenomenon.
The first episode is a choice 18th Century tale of Georgian avarice that, by pure accident, has a disconcerting appropriateness bearing in mind recent events, turning as it does on the doings of bluff financier and industrialist Joseph Bloxham (Philip Jackson), a sort of Fred Goodwin or Bernie Madeoff of his day, who, as founder of The Venezuelan Company, makes a huge fortune on the stock market while his investors all end up losing their shirts after the Bubble he's created finally bursts. The wife of one of those investors, a Mrs Glanville (Beth Goddard), is determined to bring Bloxham to account for his most infamous dealings, pamphleteering in the street and outside the coffee shop where Bloxham and his friends regularly meet to gossip and smoke.
This bewigged self-made man will have none of it though: what is it to him if Mr Glanville continues to rot in the Marshalsea prison? The jackanapes should pick himself up by his breeches and try again. Bloxham is much more vexed by the slow progress of the builders he's paying to renovate the old Geap Manor -- the Tudor pile he's recently bought with some of his newly acquired fortune. Fancying some fashionable wainscoting for his new study, Bloxham had instructed the master builder, Coil (John Arthur), to find the best timbre money can buy, and is at first slightly annoyed to see that some odd staining besmirches some of the beams; but Coil assures him that it will not show up once the paint work has been applied. Although, perhaps, a few pennies might be spared to buy a cat to catch the rat that appears to have got itself lodged behind the wooden panelling -- for strange scratchings and knockings are constantly being heard at night in Bloxham's unfinished study. Meanwhile, Mrs Glanville turns up again to make a nuisance of herself at the coffee house and to inform Bloxham that her husband has committed suicide in prison. Still Bloxham claims it is none of his concern or responsibility. Yet, the odd noises continue in his study at night: loud bangs against the scarlet-painted panels, hoarse whispers in the dark. When the builders finally move out, the house closes in around Bloxham. He sits up at night in nervous vigil, the noises -- the bangings and scrapings -- praying on his mind and disturbing his calm with ever more frequency and insistence. Spying Mrs Glanville in the street, now forced with her children into destitution and homelessness, only seems to increase the influence of the unseen horrors that appear to be forcing themselves out of the very structure of his new home.
The second story is set in the Roaring Twenties -- the decade of Flappers and the Charleston and a devil-may-care party spirit among a War-weary younger generation -- and takes place on the night that Master Felix (Ian Hallard) chooses to announce his engagement to lowly fishmongers' daughter Miss Ruth (Jennifer Higham), much to the apparent horror of his ex-girl, the free-spirited yet acidic Katherine (Anna Madeely). Felix and Ruth plan to hold the reception at Geap, the family home, but the whole idea seems to fill Felix's aunt, Lady Constance (Jean Marsh), with a strange sense of diffidence. As a fancy dress party gets into full-swing at the Manor to celebrate the union, both Felix and Ruth can't help feeling that there are those who do not appreciate the joining in matrimony of two young people from such different class backgrounds. After Lady Constance's personal maid gives Ruth a piece of lace stitching that once belonged to her mistress's sister, Miss Eleanor -- the last person to plan a marriage at Geap Manor -- Ruth begins to notice a strange figure circulating among the other costumed guests; a figure she has never seen before: a veiled bride in a strangely old-fashioned Victorian wedding dress. When she tells Lady Constance of this, a horrific story from the family's dark past is revealed; a story that may well have profound implications for her own future happiness ...
Both these tales feature tremendous casts, wonderful period production design (although, as we learn in the film's commentary, all achieved on a shoestring BBC budget) and Gatiss' predictably fine writing. He clearly has a deep knowledge of the material he's seeking to emulate and a love of the period details that bring them to life on the screen. The first tale has that classic Victorian morality tale structure that defines many of Dickens' finest tales while also retaining the subtle horror of M.R. James' finest stories in the genre; the second story pits the perceived staid and corseted attitudes of the Victorian generation against the free-and-easy attitudes of the new Twenties-era hedonists, and results in a fine 'spectral apparition' tale that builds to an enthralling climax.
Best of all though is Gatiss' final tale, which follows school teacher Ben in the present day, who, now having enjoyed his afternoon of ghostly thrills from the museum curator's collection of manor-related tales, is allowed to keep the gruesome door-knocker, and duly takes it back home and places it on his own front door. Ben lives alone in an anonymous suburban house on the former site of the Manor, having split with his girlfriend, Hanna (Daniela Denby-Ashe), soon after she became pregnant with his baby, since he feels alienated and unable to commit to fatherhood. In the middle of the night, he hears a loud knocking on the front door. Answering it, he finds no-one there. When he steps outside for a moment to look for the culprit, the front door slams shut behind him, trapping him outside. Luckily, Ben keeps a spare key under one of the plant pots. But when he re-enters the house, to his absolute horror, he finds himself no-longer standing inside his own simple beige hallway, but an ominously dark Elizabethan oak-panelled corridor ... and coming towards him is a shadowy indistinct figure!
By far the scariest tale here, this final episode manages to combine elements of wry humour with a disturbing psychological side and ends up as a sort of classic Gothic tale that plays like an even more twisted version of Polanski's best Horror films, but set in the blandest, everyday location you could imagine. It works a treat. With an evil, time-travelling Tudor baron reaching into the present with occult forces, a bizarre hairy-handed 'abomination' conjured out of an Elizabethan crib via necromancy, and satanic sacrificial rites performed by masked figures in the dead of night, this story builds and builds to a deliciously bleak finale in the best tradition of a '70s Horror classic.
The region 2 DVD release from 2 Entertainment is, unexpectedly, stuffed with extra features, headed by a comprehensive forty-five minute "making of" documentary featuring interviews with all the main players from cast and crew. This is highly informative and entertaining, and together with the disc's commentary track (which is really three separate tracks in which writer and producer Mark Gatiss and director Damon Thomas are joined by one member of the cast from each of the stories -- Philip Jackson for the first tale, Jean Marsh for the second and Lee Ingleby for the last) covers the production from most angles. The commentaries are mainly rather informal and light-hearted, consisting of the participants' recollections from the shooting of each of the episodes; while the documentary covers almost everything you could wish to know about the planning, writing and shooting of the drama. Besides these excellent extras there is also a twelve minute featurette entitled "What Scares You?" which consists of Gatiss on set with a camcorder, collaring various members of cast and crew and asking them the question: "what scares you?" He gets mostly humorous replies and a few ghostly anecdotes along the way, also. The feature makes an interesting and fun little addition to the other materials.
Besides all this there are also a few minor deleted scenes, but these are really just the small sections that had to snipped from the individual episodes when they came to be assembled into a feature-length film --mainly just the episode lead-ins and the previews for the up-coming episode. There are about nine minutes of out-takes included (mostly actors 'corpsing' or stumbling over their lines); a short TV trailer, and a comprehensive photo gallery of production stills. Finally, there is at least one easter egg I was able to locate from the main menu, which features about five minutes of Gatiss' behind-the-scenes footage.
"Crooked House" was one of my favourite TV events of last year and it translates beautifully to DVD in this extras-packed tribute to the ghost stories of yesteryear. Mark Gatiss continues to prove himself one of the finest writers working in British television today and this film is some of his best work for years. It's well worth taking a look at this beautifully crafted piece of TV magic.