"Supernatural" was created by the dramatist (and protégé of Sidney Newman) Robert Muller. After starting out as a writer on ABC’s “Armchair Theatre” and moving on to the BBC’s Sci-Fi anthology series “Out of the Unknown”, he progressed to subject matter with a markedly more Gothic bent, adapting several Robert Louis Stevenson stories and providing a version of “Frankenstein” for ABC’s “Mystery and Imagination” before delving even more fully into matters uncanny and outré with the series under review – once again, made for the BBC. Broadcast on BBC1 in a late night slot over eight weeks, during the mid-summer months of 1977, the entire series was constructed around a scenario that also provides each individual tale with its connective framing device, similar to the sort found in the traditional anthology-based horrors regularly concocted by Amicus Studios just a few years before, and during the sixties, for films such as “Tales from the Crypt” and “From Beyond the Grave”. Each episode sees a new supplicant ushered into the musty, candle-lit drawing rooms of a nineteenth century Gentlemen’s Club known as The Club of the Damned, where the visitor-guest is then required to present a ghostly tale of Gothic mystery and occult terror before a gathering of saturnine, whiskery jawed Victorian grandees wearing formal evening dress as they recline in rows of comfortable armchairs, supping port and smoking cigars while each narrator is introduced by the Club’s donnish chairman (Anthony Nash). The sophisticated scholarly atmosphere of Edwardian upper class exclusiveness encouraged by such a set-up to some extent mimics, or at least suggest, the similar social conditions under which the Cambridge antiquarian M.R. James would famously tell his annual ghost stories as a special Christmas treat to his informal circle of colleagues and students, who would meet regularly as The ChitChat Society, in the rooms of King’s College during the latter years of the nineteenth century. But there is a more sinister implication to the existence of this particular gathering: in some episodes a pentagram etched into a parquetted floor is clearly visible in the main drawing room, leading to the impression that these elderly gents have a more involved esoteric concern.
The stories themselves -- all but one written by series creator Robert Muller -- certainly reference the baroque literary traditions and subject matter of writers of period supernatural fiction such as Edgar Allen Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu, and mimic in their dialogue the embroidered style often found therein. But this particular fictional assembly is also revealed to be engaged in some especial macabre business all of its own, for they require each guest to recount tales of personal encounters with the uncanny in return for a place among their own exclusive ranks, while actually failing to provide an account that is judged sufficiently spin-chilling, or is considered truthful enough to freeze the blood of this twilight gathering, must result in the death of the teller …
The first tale has Robert Hardy appear before the club gentlemen to relate an autobiographical episode. In the story as recounted, he is pictured resplendent in opera cape as the demonstrative and tormented retired Shakespearean theatrical Adrian Gall. His tale is one of a haunted obsession from beyond the grave, entitled “Ghost of Venice”. Leaving his confused and frustrated actress wife Charlotte (Isabel Dean) at home in their country cottage back in rural England, Gall travels to Venice – the site of the final performance in the couple’s acclaimed touring production of Macbeth ten years before -- on a strange mission of justice, after being reminded in recurring nightmares back home of a supposed theft of a purse from his dressing room, which, he believes, occurred during that last performance a decade ago. Recalling this theft is traumatic enough to have him wake in a blind fury each and every time he is reminded of it in his nightmares. The trouble is no-one else can remember any such incident ever occurring: neither Charlotte (whose on-stage injury during that performance prompted the couple’s premature retirement from the profession) nor the prefect of police (Lee Montague), who was on duty that night. The prefect is subjected to tirades of abuse from Adrian when he meets up with him again after ten years, when the retired actor arrives in a murky, nocturnal Venice, choosing a shadowy riverside café frequented by high-class Victorian prostitutes and their upper-class clients in which to plead with him to re-open a case that was apparently never reported in the first place. Soon madness, sexual torment and murder come to occupy the hallucinatory world Adrian finds himself becoming entwined in after he meets again the young actress Leonora (Sinead Cusack), who caught his eye all those years ago, and who now seems to pursue him through a dreamlike city of ‘haunted squares, dingy alleys and moonstruck bridges’.
All eight of these episodes were shot, as per standard practice for all recorded drama at the time, on 1 inch videotape; and this one demands the tall order of having moonlit Venice recreated in-studio on a standard BBC drama budget. Despite these visual restrictions and the inevitable wordiness of a completely studio-bound staging (in which we’re often simply told about the ‘renaissance arches, dark vaults and subterranean passages’ that constitute the Venetian location rather than shown them) director Claude Whatham and designer Allan Anson do manage to suggest a dank gothic atmosphere of Poe-like necrophilic obsession, with images reflected in rippling waters and dimly-lit, grey-painted sets that suggest neglected sepulchral corners of the sinking city that soon become baroque venues for Gall’s dark obsessions. The traumas haunting Gall are never made properly explicit in a tale that bears all the hallmarks of amorphous Freudian allegory, but Hardy is given free licence here to invest his performance with as much theatrical excess as he is able to muster for a character who confesses himself to be ‘a man accustomed to admiration and love,’ and whose hidden fear of ageing and dramatic sense of deprivation and loss seem to drive him into the embraces of a madness encapsulated by the labyrinthine, near-empty Venetian streets full of ghostly harlequin revellers enacting their eerie masque processions through echoing courtyards by moonlight, and by suggestions of sexual intrigue (now very much beyond his own abilities if the hushed, tentative confessions of his wife Charlotte to her best friend Regina [Elizabeth Seal] concerning the couple’s relationship are anything to go by) occurring in abandoned ancient courtyards . Venice, here, is very much a spectral character in of itself: a hushed city of shadow-filled corners and hidden recesses given over to a life of dreams. The ghostly Leonora, meanwhile, played by the then thirty-nine year-old Sinead Cusack, is the prototypical Poe heroine: a spectral source of obsession through her possession of a graceful beauty, but with a malevolent undercurrent that leads the vain and tormented Gall towards his inevitable undoing.
Muller’s second tale is split over two episodes, and although it rather over-stretches the basic revenge-by-werewolf idea that underpins the story (which is fully established by the end of the first instalment and then repeats itself with little variation in the second), the expanded run time does allow the top tier ensemble cast to bring a greater level of characterisation to each of their roles than would normally have been possible in one of the classic Hammer Films Productions the story is so clearly modelled on. By 1977, the Gothic formula from which British horror had established a worldwide reputation in the late-fifties and sixties, had largely exhausted its appeal with audiences and had begun to seem unthreateningly quaint in comparison to the revolution now taking place in the genre with the advent of the much more visceral fare coming out of the states, with movies such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Exorcist”. When “Countess Ilona” introduces its gothic, Mittel-European, fairy tale landscape of misty twilight woodland, situated at the foot of an ancient medieval castle location, it does so in full knowledge that it’s harking back to and pastiching a tradition that was already considered very much yesterday’s news by that time. But it does so lovingly, and with surprising fidelity, given the kind of TV budget that would have been on offer for such an enterprise. The exteriors, which look like they might well have been shot in and around Hammer’s traditional Black Park stamping ground, look exquisite on 16 mm film, and although the sets for the dingy medieval gothic interior of Castle Tyrrh are experienced only under the glare of videotape, using traditional multi-camera methods, the sumptuous art direction, set design and period costuming lends the production an air of splendour the format often struggled to convey elsewhere, but which marks most of this series out for quality.
The narrator (whose identity is kept back until the very end of the second instalment, although it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when it is eventually revealed) provides a typically Hammeresque backstory and lays the groundwork for the Agatha Christie-like scenario to come, in which the widowed Countess Ilona (Billie Whitelaw), separately and without any of them being aware of her plan, invites four of her previous lovers to a special reunion at her remote castle home on the tenth anniversary of the death of her husband, Count Tyrrh, who died in a hunting accident after being attacked by wolves on the day Ilona gave birth to their son, Bela (Stefan Gates). Or did he? Ilona’s upbringing is revealed to have been a humble one, and appears on its surface to be a rags-to-riches tale of childhood poverty and female guile working its way up the social scale in young adulthood through exploiting male patronage: Ilona is identified as having once been a poor peasant girl from Budapest, who started out as a café entertainer but became courtesan to a succession of clients until ending up the wife of Count Tyrrh, whose death leaves her with an angelic son, her dead husband’s riches, and a small retinue of loyal castle staff made up of Andras (Charles Keating) and Magda (Amanda Boxer) the servants, and her son’s wizened nanny Sylva (Molly Veness), who together have become a family in splendid isolation, living on the remotest forested edge of Hapsburg Europe.
However, this apparent tale of worldly success in a man’s world, in fact masks a litany of nineteenth century patriarchal abuses; for each of Ilona’s guests -- despite being conceitedly disposed to thinking of themselves as her one-time beloved paramours -- turn out to have used and abused her during their respective relationships in a variety of ways until the last of them callously disposed of her by handing her on to Count Tyrrh, knowing him full well to be a ruthless sadist with ‘a hideous reputation for evilness’. It transpires that, having been liberated from an enslaving yoke by her husband’s unexpected death ten years previously, the Countess now seeks to commemorate the anniversary by obtaining redress for past wrongs done to her. And she has a most novel way of exacting that revenge on these bastions of male privilege, as each one falls prey in succession to a monstrous, wolf-like predator that seems able to gain entry to the castle at will.
Although filled to brimming with traditional gothic tropes, from casement shutters banging in the wind and eerie organ tones issuing from secret rooms in the night, to a werewolf-based variant on the plot of “And Then There Were None”, neither “Countess Ilona” nor its follow-up episode “The Werewolf Reunion” ever give us even a glimpse of the werewolf predator in question, knowing perhaps that the budget would not have allowed any BBC issue monster makeup to look convincing enough under the unforgiving video glare. Instead, this becomes a quaint over-talky character piece in which the arrogant examples of manhood being lined up to receive their comeuppance, sport personalities symbolic of the various means by which patriarchy wields power: Zoltan Vinzenz (Ian Hendry) is a loud, bullish arms-dealer -- a former rebel now turned Prussian militarist for personal gain; Dr Felix Kraus (Charles Kay) is a self-described erotomain who has given up his medical practice after inheriting a fortune from his parents, in order to devote himself to the pleasures of seduction; he wastes no time in claiming Countess Ilona’s serving maid Magda as his next conquest almost as soon as he arrives. Meanwhile, Hugo Hoffman (John Fraser), a vain musician with a primping manner and sybaritic tastes, makes up the last of the initial trio who spend the first night at the castle. When one of them doesn’t survive into the morning he is replaced the next day by the unwitting Baron Josef von Haller (Edward Hardwicke), a pompous politician who turns out to have once used Ilona as a tool to remove a political rival from power by involving him in a sexual scandal, with Ilona as the bate. Together the four represent the various devices – money, love, class and power – used by men to dominate women. Through the dark powers of Lycanthropy, the Countess will now have her revenge.
The next tale, “Mr Nightingale”, is a bizarre Poe/Stevenson mash-up with a bravura performance of warped peculiarity from Jeremy Brett at its core. Brett’s titular character first appears under heavy make-up as an elderly septuagenarian, bald of pate and with bushy grey eyebrows, peering over half-moon spectacles from his armchair whilst cheerfully admitting -- between sundry splutters and howls -- before the club’s assembled patrons, to being quite irredeemably mad! The story of how he came to be this way takes us back thirty years to when Nightingale was a forty-year-old bachelor businessman with well-tended bouffant blond hair, sent by his father’s coaching firm on a trip to the port of Hamburg, where he is to lodge with the pleasant family of coach-maker Herr Steekebeck (Bruce Purchase) in their canal house beside the harbour on the River Elbe. The trip is taken in expectation of commissioning a fleet of new coaches for the family business back home … as well as to, perhaps, be paired up in a match with one of Steekebeck’s two daughters: the middle-aged Elyse (Susan Maudsley), whose been left widowed since losing her previous husband in the great fire of Hamburg of 1842, eighteen years previously. The unworldly Nightingale soon finds himself the centre of fawning attention in the eccentric Steekebeck household, whose members entertain each-other by telling ghost stories round the hearth in the evenings. The clan is comprised of a Dickensian menagerie of oddball ‘characters’: Frau Steekebeck (Mary Law) and Herr Steekeback each have their respective surviving parents in tow: father (Donald Eccles) is an affable duffer, permanently attached to his clay pipe, and mother (Sylvia Coleridge), a stone deaf old dear in a bonnet, forever clutching a large, ungainly ear-trumpet. Between them they form a sort of make-do couple from each having been individually widowed earlier in life. Also adding to bachelor Nightingale’s generally nervous disposition is the mocking presence of the Steekebeck’s beautiful younger daughter Felizitas (Lesley-Anne Down), who, out of boredom, delights in unnerving the gauche house guest with suggestive glances and furtive innuendo over the family dinner table.
The budget here isn’t up to a sophisticated reproduction of Hamburg in the 1860s, but the fact that this is a story told by a profoundly unreliable narrator whose sanity is supposed to be questioned by the viewer, means that the replacement of real locations in favour of the use of black-and-white period photographs and ink sketches for backdrops lends an suitably Caligari-esque air of Expressionism to some increasingly overwrought events, an effect which director Alan Cooke emphasises with silent movie- style’ iris’ scene transitions and tipsy Dutch angles. Nightingale is a typical Poe-like protagonist, his incipient madness infecting every aspect of the telling of his tale, not only its baroque style; this outlandish approach allows Brett the luxury of delivering a deliberately ‘big’ performance in which nervy introverted repression gets turned into outright cackling hysteria. Soon enough, he’s gibbering about being attacked by ‘black seagulls’ as a bawdy, louche doppelganger replacement emerges from his room one night after appearing from behind the curtains that surround his bed, like a magician’s assistant. This imposter, perceived only by Nightingale himself, proceeds to wreak a Mr Hyde-like havoc on the petit bourgeois sensibilities of his charming hosts, with bizarre, ruthless behaviour and disrespectful manners. The unrepressed Nightingale double questions Frau Steekebeck’s suitability as a hostess, accuses a bemused Herr Steekebeck of fraudulent business practices, impregnates the dowdy love match Elyse while the rest of the family attends church, and eventually kindles in Felizitas a weird suicidal death wish mania. Paul Lewis adds suitably histrionic music to an effectively manic melodrama in which nothing can be taken at face-value considering the unbalanced nature of the narrator responsible for this weird tale. What it’s all meant to be about is very much left for the viewer to decide; this is an unusually abstract approach to the Gothic subject matter whose true meaning remains submerged by a welter of expressionistic acting and artificial staging effects, but it’s an undeniably memorable and a very nicely mounted production.
“Lady Sybil” offers another commentary on the divided self, set this time within the confines of a vast Victorian country house (Oakley Court, doing sterling duty for the umpteenth time in exterior shots of yet another British Gothic production) inhabited by aging matriarch Lady Sybil Manners (Cathleen Nesbit) and her two dissolute gown-up sons: general practitioner Geoffrey Manners (Denholm Elliot) and brother Edward (playwright and actor John Osborne), a failed composer who spends his days gambling at cards or groping the serving-maid Arabella (Cheryl Murray), who’s just one of a retinue of dissatisfied house staff living below stairs. Lady Sybil is convinced a prowler (flamboyantly dubbed the Phantom of Blackgables) is stalking the premises at night and attempting to gain entry to her rooms with the aim of murdering her. There’s a police investigation by the doughty Sergeant Cosley (Roger Sloman), which gives this episode its ‘Old Dark House’ mystery flavour. However, Geoffrey is dismissive of his mother’s accusations -- which he puts down to hallucination caused by guilt over the death of her husband in mysterious circumstances, who drowned in a stream on the edge of the grounds.
Lady Sybil does indeed secretly believe the intruder to be her long-dead husband, returned from his watery grave to seek revenge. But prudish Geoffrey is an avid consumer of the latest theories about the unconscious mind and, after using hypnotism to treat his errant brother’s addiction problems, forms the conclusion that Edward might well unconsciously be colluding in their mother’s delusions, especially after an anonymous note (written in ‘an insane illiterate scrawl’) arrives at the house accusing one of them of being the lurking Phantom. Once again, guilt and repression are the primary themes in what turns out to be a talky haunted house take on the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde spit persona formula. Elliot is brilliantly cast, here, as the repressed/obsessed doctor who takes it upon himself to investigate; and Osborne is his worthy partner as the philandering, upper-class waster of a brother, forever under the thumb of his priggish wife (Norma West), who would rather seek a divorce than life in the Manners house alongside the family’s dominating matriarch. There’s nothing particularly surprising about the outcome of all this; indeed the so-called plot twist is telegraphed well in advance by the constant symbolic reference to a pet chameleon owned by Geoffrey, but the recipe succeeds well enough through another fantastic performance given by the appropriate cast member when his alternate identity is revealed at the climax of the episode (in a scene which is set to a woozy music hall knees up) and he is transformed into a babbling, goggle-eyed madman of ambiguous gender, who sports Mr Hyde’s cane, top hat and opera cape, while his cheeks are macabrely daubed in heavy rouge!
“Viktoria” is the only episode of the series not written by series deviser Robert Muller, with Sue Lake (her handful of credits include the 1970s BBC drama/soaps “Angels” and “Triangle”) taking over the script-writing reins instead, to make a pretty good job of emulating the florid Gothic pastiche style, with all its subtextual symbolism, that Muller sets up elsewhere as the anthology’s defining trait. Most of his stories take well-recognised tropes from the best classics of nineteenth century Gothic fiction, and mix them up in the act of creating new and suggestive allusions, while oftentimes providing commentary on the original sources, too. Lake’s effort is no exception, but stands out due to hosting some of the most macabrely memorable ‘living doll’ make-up ever devised for the screen. In this episode, directed by Hammer veteran Peter Sasdy (“Taste the Blood of Dracula”, “Countess Dracula”), the introductory Club of the Damned framing section finds the organisation’s Chairman Sir Charles (Esmond Knight) being compelled to act as narrator of the story for the benefit of this week’s prospective entrant, after the mysterious figure arrives wearing full formal tuxedo and cape, but with their top hat perched a-top a shapeless bag that covers the whole of their head and face, a la the Elephant Man!
Starting the account in Budapest in the year 1873, we’re given yet another broken family portrait of Victorian bourgeois manners: British consul Paul Strickland (Lewis Fiander, best remembered for playing the male lead in the cult Spanish item “Who Could Kill a Child?”) lives with his invalid wife Elizabeth (Mia Nadasi) and the couple’s strange, possibly disturbed daughter Viktoria (Genevieve West), who is supposedly being schooled by a working Governess called Miss Graham (Judy Cornwell), though she in fact spends most of her time lounging in her room while the girl is looked after instead by Elizabeth’s own former nanny, affectionately referred to by the pet name ‘Kati’ (Susan Richards) -- an aged grandmotherly ‘appendage of the household, absentmindedly retained from Elizabeth’s own childhood. It’s not long before the serene middle-class Victorian ambiance implied by production and costume design that suggests a tranquil mid-century household scene from the period’s mainstream art, is disrupted by revelations of unique family disquiet: Viktoria is prone to odd behaviour, such as burying her dolls in miniature graves because she sees them as dead things; and her mother Elizabeth suffers hallucinations and bouts of hysteria as she trundles about the house in her squeaky wooden wheelchair. When Paul instigates her death by deliberately withholding her heart medication during an argument, he also inherits her legacy – which includes the inevitable rambling Gothic mansion back in Blighty – and the stage is set for a weird, atmospheric tale full of suppressed Bronte-esque passions and escalating Jamesian nervous hysteria, battened down by a weight of lace and crinoline woes.
The initial template for the tale seems to be a loose amalgam of “Rebecca”, “Jane Eyre”, “What Maisie Knew” and “The Turn of the Screw” but Lake’s screenplay puts a modern spin on the material in anticipation of the early work of Sarah Waters in her bestselling novels “Affinity” and “Fingersmith”: little Viktoria inherits a doll that’s been infused with the soul of her dead mother by means of a Black Magic performed by the murdered woman’s former nanny, Kati. Now living in England, Paul Strickland marries a young woman called Theresa (Catherine Schell) and retains Miss Graham as the child’s Governess; but events have been set in motion that will lead to a most peculiar form of vengeance from beyond the grave being enacted. With a shadowy wainscoted manor house as the story’s fitting setting, by far the most effective scenes, here, involve the doll coming to life in the mother’s old wooden wheelchair, especially as the doll make-up is eerily effective and the thing looks pretty darn creepy even when it’s not moving. The story is made all the more bizarre and is especially effective due to the inclusion of some sly commentary on the hypocrisies of conventional Victorian sexual mores, with Miss Graham’s implied lesbianism and Paul Strickland’s use of his marriage merely as a means by which he provides himself with a cloak of respectability while he maintains a secret homosexual liaison with his best friend Edward (Norman Eshley), being put under the spotlight by Viktoria’s insistent questioning of her elders while under the spooky influence of her dead mother’s hideous doll. This is a particularly insidious entry in the series, well served by the sort of authentic period detail that the BBC always excelled in.
“The Night of the Marionettes” sees Gordon Jackson (“The Professionals”) deliver a measured, believable performance as Howard Lawrence, biographer of Percy Bysshe Shelley, in an episode that stretches credibility to breaking point in its pursuit of the macabre. Set in Geneva in the year 1882, the story has Lawrence, accompanied by his wife Elsbeth (Kathleen Byron) and daughter Mary (Pauline Moran) – following in the footsteps of Shelley, Lord Byron and Percy’s wife Mary in replicating the Alpine sojourn on which Mary Shelley first conceived of her novel “Frankenstein” when staying with Byron at the Villa Diodati in the Swiss alps. Whilst returning from their expedition, the Lawrence trio stop off at a strange guest house run by the oddball Hubert family, in which they are the only guests. Presided over by the peculiarly gaunt, lacquered mien of Herr Hubert (Vladek Sheybal), the alpine stop-over is also the site of a grotesque family-run puppet theatre in the attic, in which life-sized marionette figures re-enact a borderline obscene precursor of the Frankenstein myth that’s apparently been handed down successive generations of the Hubert family, and in which a kabuki-like robed puppet magician can be witnessed bringing to life a hulking cadaver, who then rapes and murders a ‘white princess’ in front of gaudily painted, expressionistic stage flats. Tainted by the uncanny atmosphere at the lodge, Ellsbeth falls ill and is confined to her chalet bed; but Howard and his daughter both stumble on the same intimation that Mary Shelley must have also stayed at the Hubert guesthouse fifty years before; that she must have seen the bizarre marionette performance and been influenced by it in her writing of “Frankenstein”. However, their investigations soon lead to even more horrifying revelations …
Once again, behind the well mimicked Gothic imagery contained in production design that is assuredly heavily influenced by an unholy alliance of German Expressionism, 1930s Universal horror classics and Hammer Productions, there also lies an underlying hint of incestuous love forming a subtext to the episode’s portrait of the relationship between Howard and his daughter: twisted family dynamics and the repression of feelings that must remain unspoken are the primary themes in all of these horror tales. The father and daughter, here, are brought ever-more intimately together while Mary acquires the character and personal obsessions of Howard’s biographical subject’s famous love object, as though she were becoming possessed by the spirit of Mary Shelley herself; and the frightening stage performance, featuring life-sized marionettes that seem unnaturally animated, appears to be a mannered automated enactment of Howard’s own darkest fears and desires. When the couple discover an alchemist’s lab on the upper floors of the Hubert guesthouse, and that a shambling figure, like the one playing the marionette monster on the stage, also roams the interiors without any need of a puppeteer’s strings, it is as though their joint realisation that the Huberts might be using real corpses for their puppet plays, mysteriously re-animated by the use of foul-smelling gases, is also the ultimate manifestation of Howard’s fear of being forced to live out in front of audiences those desires that have remained buried in his unconscious until recently awoken by the couple’s communion with Percy and Mary Shelley. Informing the subject matter visually, besides the more obvious “Frankenstein” references, one can glean hints of “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (and its 1950s remake “House of Wax”) and the similar Italian-French, Hammer-esque classic “Mill of the Stone Women”.
The final episode in the series is perhaps the best in terms of its look of opulence and its dreamlike sepulchral atmosphere, the more so for playing host to much more location footage shot on film than any of the other stories. “Dorabella” pays homage to Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmella” in its tale of an alluring female vampire, preying on unsuspecting male gentlemen who’re lured by her hypnotic power over them in an early nineteenth century, northern European setting. In it, two handsome bucks with Byronesque locks-a-flowing -- Walter van Lamont (Jeremy Clyde) and his friend Philip Hambleton (David Robb), are touring the north of Europe on a quest to revisit Lamont’s lost childhood haunts, the orphaned young man having been originally born to wealthy aristocratic landowners in the area but shipped off to England in boyhood, after the death of both parents in a fire, to live with wealthy relations. When they too died and he became old enough to inherit the vast wealth bequeathed him by his late parents, he undertook the present cross country journey by coach with his friend, in order to unearth his ancestral past -- staying in’ low’ traveling lodges along a route of twisting back-roads that take them, via a series of romantic, windswept European landscapes, through ever-more remote villages.
The episode is distinguished by its fantastic production design, exquisite costumes and a very cinematic shooting style from director Simon Langdon, all elements that allow the production to form itself into a compendium of classic vampire imagery, using Le Fanu’s suggestive story as the guiding template by which the web of entrapment is spun around the foolish male heroes. For after the two protagonists first meet the angelic, white-clad Dorabella (Ania Marson) while supping in a remote inn that’s the very picture of such a venue as it would have been portrayed in a vintage Hammer Film, the tale virtually turns into a guided tour of the history of vampires as portrayed on film, whether it be in the flickering, dancing shadows on walls recalling the austere purity of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s seminal 1932 film “Vampyr”, or Dorabella’s spectral coach and horses finding its own way to the destination she has proscribed for the two travellers as if by magic (recalling a variation on the classic coach scene from “Dracula” devised for Hammer’s “Dracula Prince of Darkness”) after the vehicle is loaned to them at the inn as transport for when they choose to continue their travels after Dorabella’s sudden disappearance the morning after their meeting. Worried by the ease with which Dorabella appears to have charmed his friend Walter with bewitching magic tricks that have the appearance of sorcery, and made suspicious by the death of the poet who had been accompanying this bewitching presence on her journey (he’s found lifeless and drained of his blood, with a multitude of flies settling on the corpse providing an extra grisly touch), Philip starts to suspect that she has now set her sights on Walter, and plans to make him her next victim.
In a dreamlike haze, the two friends continue their journey in Dorabella’s coach, transporting a mysterious trunk entrusted to them by her but which they are forbidden to open, and stopping at a series of gloomy, deserted inns in remote regions, at which she will suddenly materialise out of nowhere, usually leaving a dead, drained body or two in her wake. Some of the series’ most overtly horrific imagery materialises when the journey finally reaches its termination at a suitably Gothic location: a vast, cathedral-like medieval castle with stone columns shaped into misshapen gargoyle’s faces, which is where Dorabella’s saturnine corpse-like father (John Justin) reveals himself as head of a household of elderly, dead-eyed servants in black, and the true object of the quest Walter and Philip have been drawn into is finally revealed in gruesome, hair-raising fashion.
With their flamboyantly adorned sets, uncanny, often subtle storylines and a preponderance of weird imagery that veers more towards the overtly horrific as the series goes on, these seven tales of terror do have their flat, talky moments, but have by and large worn extremely well, and will be willingly lapped up by those who were previously well disposed towards the BFI’s M.R. James box set collection and the recently released “Dead of Night” anthology. The two discs feature four episodes a-piece and the set comes with a booklet of writings by Julian Upton and Tise Vahimagi, as well as episode synopses and cast and crew credits for each story. This is another welcome excursion into vintage BBC horror with a perverse supernatural twist. It is perhaps at times overwritten but this is a series which is also, nonetheless, often beautifully crafted and lovingly executed.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!