Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Reviewing other odd anthology series


An anthology of TV anthologies that were either relatively short-lived or I just couldn't stick with all the way through. Also features misc.


Contents:

Ripping Yarns (1976-79)
Beasts (1976)
Hammer House of Horror (1980)
The Storyteller (1987-88)
Hotel Room (1993)
Chiller (1995)
Perversions of Science (1997)
Masters of Horror (season 1, 2005-06)
Masters of Science Fiction (2007)
Crooked House (2008)
Misc. odd TV (1958-96)



Ripping Yarns



Tomkinson's Schooldays (1x01) ****


The Monty Python team had been moving increasingly away from sketches towards full-length character dramas with some of the later episodes of Flying Circus and their graduation to the big screen, and Ripping Yarns is generally viewed as Palin and Jones' answer to Cleese's Fawlty Towers, though I didn't make the connection this time as there's really no similarity.

This anthology of nostalgic tales given a slightly sinister and occasionally silly comedy twist are a lot of fun, and this first episode especially has more in the way of daft laughs than those that came later. That might be one of the reasons it's still my favourite, with highlights being Tomkinson getting penalised for building a full-scale boat in woodwork class rather than a model and the BDSM loving headmaster getting misbehaving students to cane him.

I read once that Palin supposedly wanted Python to move into more family-friendly territory in its later years, but this is still kept risque and adult (for the 70s) with mild lechery, death and drug references. Though compared to The Meaning of Life, it's rosy.
"I was seventeen miles from Graybridge before I was caught by the school leopard" - Tomkinson

The Testing of Eric Olthwaite (1x02) ****


More lovely location shooting sets a bleak tone again in this tale of a deathly dull Northern lad turning his life around through crime, which unexpectedly transforms from a parody of grim Yorkshire town life into a police chase on the moors half way through.

There are no morals to be found here, but all the same it manages to be a sympathetic story thanks to Palin's irresistible charm even when he spends most of the time discussing precipitation, shovels and black puddings that are blacker than usual (even the white bits). While I miss the more surreal humour that Palin and Jones were leaving behind (with the possible exception of the tiny accountant), they are great at writing characters too. Eric even gets a ballad.
"It were hard to accept I were boring. Especially with my interest in rainfall" - Eric Olthwaite

Escape from Stalag Luft 112B (1x03) ***


The setting in a POW camp during World War I is the bleakest one yet, but that's not the only reason there are fewer laughs in this yarn. I enjoyed Palin's compulsive but rubbish escapee getting thwarted at every turn, but not so much the other distractions going on about prisoners' rights and overworked guards.

It's alright, this series already gave us the definitive boarding school comedy. Blackadder would take care of the war before long.
"He had attempted over 560 escapes, 200 of them before he left England" - Narrator

Murder at Moorstones Manor (1x04) ****


This classically styled murder "mystery" initially seems to be nothing of the sort, as the suspicious, gun-toting suspect couldn't be more obvious. But by the time the bloodbath conclusion arrives, it's become a bit more complicated.

There's a lot of grisly humour here as the majority of a well-to-do family is slain, to the fairly indifferent responses of their nearest and dearest. Palin plays two of the brothers who are each funny and twisted in their own ways, and there's also a lot of fun to be had with their eccentric father, before he becomes one of the first casualties, and the lecherous family doctor.

I liked it more than the last one, but for the first time the premise did feel a tad like a Monty Python sketch that's gone on for too long, even by Python standards.
"Oh no! That'll be your father being murdered" - Lady Chiddingfold

Across the Andes by Frog (1x05) ***


Passionate explorer Captain Walter Snetterton may be the most level-headed character Palin's played so far in the series, even in spite of his bizarre fixation on the mountaineering abilities of frogs.

Like the previous episode, this does have the feel of a Python sketch extended to episode proportions - 'Scott of the Sahara' comes to mind - but there are enough entertaining distractions to keep it from feeling padded, such as a slightly disturbing sub-plot about all the officers abandoning the army to live with their teenage brides and a rather condescending attitude towards the superstitious natives, though I suppose that's true to the type of adventures they're lampooning.

If I was excessively snidey I could point out that the Peruvian Andes don't look much different to the Yorkshire Moors of a few episodes previously. That would be to fail to appreciate one of the best looking comedy series of all time.
"Fascinating thing, the frog mind" - Captain Walter Snetterton

The Curse of the Claw (1x06) ****


The first series goes out on a gothic note with a macabre tale that gets more than a little needlessly convoluted by the end, but is otherwise played in the straight style we've come to rely on.

That doesn't mean it's lacking in silliness though, with one of the most consistently funny scripts and great characters - especially Palin's show-stealing secondary character, the narrator's plague-ridden Uncle Jack, who's inordinately proud of his various disease symptoms.

Since it is the final episode of the year, they make the most of whatever was left of the budget by blowing up a boat, demolishing a house and even letting Palin play against himself properly with a split screen. 'Tomkinson's Schooldays' is still probably my favourite, but this is the rippingest yarn since.
"They exerted an iron discipline upon their children. They had my sister imprisoned for putting too much butter on her scone, and my younger brother David was killed for walking on the flower beds" - Kevin Orr

Whinfrey's Last Case (2x01) ***


Those no-good, underhanded Germans are trying to start World War I a year earlier than scheduled, and the British brass won't have it - the catering isn't ready yet, for a start. They call in their top man, but Gerald Whinfrey is tired of fixing their problems and just wants to go on holiday, where events have a way of catching up with him.

There's more lovely location shooting on the Cornish coast, but otherwise there's an unfortunate feeling of decline from the first series, maybe because Palin and Jones have run the gamut of ludicrous character types now so they're starting to repeat themselves. The only scene that really stood out for me was the ingenious way they managed to fit in more secret exits than I would have thought possible into a single bedroom.
"I was jolly fed up with being a hero. Having to save the country two or three times a week meant I could get nothing done at all" - Gerald Whinfrey

Golden Gordon (2x02) ***


Football-based episodes always have their work cut out to win me over, but this one succeeds thanks to Palin's reliable charm, some cathartic, proto-Young Ones house trashing and an ending that's actually quite sweet.

It's also nice to be back in comforting Hovis Yorkshire - in the snow this time - and I can't deny really enjoying the little touches for fans, like the random John Cleese cameo and reappearance of series one's Eric Olthwaite.
"Eight bloody one!" - Gordon Ottershaw

Roger of the Raj (2x03) ***


The series ends on a pretty weird note, with an extended satire on various social attitudes from the top and bottom of pre-war society that shoves Palin's comparatively normal character to the background and doesn't even make any real use of its India setting.

If you have a particular fondness for satire you'll probably love it, but I guess I was yearning for a final memorable Palin creation rather than a load of insane exaggerations surrounding him. More Ripping Yarns would have been welcome if they'd materialised, but the series' best efforts did seem to be behind it by this point. Post Life of Brian, so did most things Python-related in general, sadly (though Gilliam was just getting started).
"The ungrateful little bastard" - Lady Bartelsham

Beasts



Special Offer ***


Having pioneered British television science fiction for the BBC in the late '50s, Nigel "Quatermass" Kneale migrated to ITV and made significantly less of a splash with this six-part anthology I'd never heard about even when I was actively seeking out more of his stuff. I'd rather have been spared Kinvig.

I think the gimmick is that every story is about a different titular 'Beast,' but even by episode one this remit is broadened to include imaginary mascots symbolising the raging telekinetic powers of a hormonal teenager (a young Pauline Quirk, obscure trivia fans).

It's Carrie in a corner shop with the authentically depressing feel of a soap, except I don't remember scenes of cereal and washing powder exploding on Coronation St.
"Naughty Billy!" - Noreen Beale

During Barty's Party **


These really are cheap, aren't they? With just two actors and a voice-over in a three-walled house, it'd make a better play. It's not like there are any complex special effects, with the promise of super-sized, super-intelligent rats not amounting to more than sinister scratches, scuttling and squeaking.

The tension was built very nicely, but I was craving a gratuitous pay-off. Though considering the track record of '70s TV when it came to giant rodent reveals, Nigel made the safe choice.
"That's how they succeed as a species, if you can call it success. Running around another species' sewers and drains, eating garbage" - Roger Truscott

Buddyboy **


The budget stretches to several sets this week, but doesn't stretch to a live dolphin, so we get a ghost one instead. Throw in some irrelevant sleazy seventies asides, which simultaneously criticise trashy sexploitation while having two actresses whop them out, and it's easy to see why this doesn't enjoy the same attention as Quatermass and the Pit.
"I hated the bastard" - Hubbard

Baby ****


Now this feels like a Nigel Kneale story. Could this mysterious, mummified embryo that someone long ago sealed in a jar and bricked up in the walls have anything to do with the plague of miscarriages affecting the local cattle? And where does that leave our pregnant protagonist who's just bought a lovely cottage in the area? And where has that cat run off to?

This is the sort of episode I've been waiting for all along, with ambiguous paranormality, pretty location filming, even some inadvisable, inevitably shoddy, but still enjoyable creature effects at the end. Last week's dolphin haunting is a distant memory.
"It must be a lamb, but... a lamb with claws?" - Peter Gilkes

What Big Eyes ***


Inspector Currie investigates suspicious trading of exotic animals, which leads him to an eccentic amateur scientist who believes he's on the verge of cracking the secret of lycanthropy. His reasoning that there's no smoke without fire certainly has me convinced, and he puts an interesting spin on Red Riding Hood that I hadn't encountered before.

But is he right, or just a worrying but harmless nutter, dissecting wolves and injecting himself with their spinal fluid for no reason? Whatever turns out to be the case, there's no way you're changing the channel until this thing is through.

There's real wildlife on set this week, presumably taunted off-screen to get those aggressive reactions. But don't worry, the script is pro animal rights, so it all balances out I expect.
"It's the body, not the brain, that remembers" - Leo Raymount

The Dummy ****


The brief series goes out on a strong note with an exploration of man's beastly nature that manages not to be patronising or tacky, even with that costume.

When a monster performer's personal life falls apart, his "good friend" and producer messes with his psychology to get the picture made, leading to the fictional creature going on a deadly rampage. As a bonus, Nigel Kneale gets to criticise his B-movie lessers.
"I can feel it... I can feel it... taking over!" - "Bunny" Nettleton

Hammer House of Horror



Witching Time ****


Received opinion is that late-period (pre-revival) Hammer was gratuitous, titillating schlock, desperately trying to compete with the American market by abandoning its trademark atmospheric castles in favour of contemporary sleaze that looked so much more dated just a few years later.

Downsizing to TV, this first episode of the weekly anthology does nothing to dispute that - it can't wait 30 seconds to flash some tits - but it's still bloody good, especially considering it's 1980s TV. What the hell's going on?

Hammer horror had already been widely parodied as a genre by this point, and this TV rebirth is determined to prove it isn't stuck in the past with a self-aware, self-parodying opening that's practically Tales from the Crypt. When a horror soundtrack composer becomes tormented by a time-travelling witch that only he can see, they can only play the ambiguity card for so long, but for a while there's a very real possibility he's just spent too much time immersed in horror anthologies. That stuff's bad for you.
"You must get rid of that strumpet whore, she must be destroyed" - Lucinda Jessop

The Thirteenth Reunion **


The nosedive in quality occurs right on cue, after the first episode's promise of a new generation of horror. This plot feels like a relic from the old Hammer and Amicus anthology films, and the comfort zone isn't excused by ironic quips about Dracula. No one even gets their kit off... if you're the sort of person who watches for that sort of thing.

A useless reporter investigates a controversial weight loss clinic operated by a funeral parlour, whose clients keep tragically dying on the same stretch of road. Nothing suspicious there. Fortunately for the unsubtle villains, the journalist isn't the smartest cookie.
"I'm a creature of habit, my dear, and you might find some of my habits a little... eccentric" - Sir Humphrey Chesterton

Rude Awakening ***


There's titillation from the onset again. If I was even more cynical (if that's possible), I'd suggest an inverse relationship between the decent stories and the ones that are covering their flaws with smut, but I've enjoyed both of the slightly smutty episodes so far, so make of that what you will.

It's not like it's a clever story, and it shouldn't take anyone more than two goes around to realise this is going to keep being an onion-layered dream of sinister buildings and slutty secretary outfits until the promised awakening. It's like that Twilight Zone with the electric chair, only with a sexy phone booth instead. Just sit back and enjoy the bastard's well-earned torment.
"I can't help you, Mr. Shenley. You see, I'm dead. Aren't you?" - Lady Strudwick

Growing Pains ***


Great, just demonise foster children and animal testing, why don't you? Young James may be exceedingly creepy with his preference for toy bunnies, but he's just a distraction before justice can be exacted on the real "villain" of the piece. It's a bit out of proportion, if you ask me.

I felt nervous every time an animal was on screen. Even the toys aren't safe.
"They all seem nice, friendly children" - Laurie Morton

The House that Bled to Death ***


Your basic repulsive haunted house tale, fulfilling the series' mild nudity and dead pets quota along the way.

A twist ending isn't enough to elevate this above base shock appeal, and with such memorable visuals it doesn't need to be. It's morbidly captivating seeing how far they're going to push the child actress, and although it's a different actress by the end, I still like to think she's taking her own revenge vicariously.
"The really nice thing about people who've just moved in is that they don't have time to put the curtains up" - George

Charlie Boy **


A posh sod inherits an African fetish doll and sets it on villains who've wound him up, in another episode that would be more at home in an early '70s anthology film rather than this postmodern postscript.

Was it really necessary to make the only story prominently featuring a black actress about voodoo?
"He's just a lump of wood! Sorry pet, but that's just what you are" - Sarah

The Silent Scream *****


I wasn't expecting Peter Cushing to show up, that was a very pleasant surprise. Even better, it's a properly good episode too.

Cushing plays a pet shop owner who keeps the uncaged wild beasts in the back. He strikes up an acquaintance with an ex-con (Brian Cox (not that one) (unless you were thinking of that one) who's particularly averse to imprisonment. The road ahead may be inevitable, but there are shocking twists and turns along the way. There's nothing supernatural in this one, and it's all the more suspenseful for it.
"Now my collection is complete!" - Martin Blueck

Children of the Full Moon **


There are no surprises in this one, from the EC Comics opening of a car breaking down in the middle of nowhere to the heavy-handed lupine symbolism when they find a misleading safe haven.

Even the gratuitous gore and nudity you can usually rely on is disappointingly absent. And when we finally get to see the werewolf right at the end, it's just a particularly hairy face.
"You know what it's like around these parts" - Mrs Ardoy

Carpathian Eagle **


I don't mean to be a perv, but since they have set a precedent, you'd think this Countess Dracula remake would be the episode that would benefit the most from blood-splattered breasts. Why so coy all of a sudden?

The contemporary setting feels like a hindrance this time, with a police detective rather than a Van Helsing tracking down an immortal blood countess who preys on the rich and immoral, or any young Pierce Brosnans that happen to be passing by. Throw in a gothic castle, it won't kill you.
"She takes them back to the tower, but before the night is over, each one of them dies, his heart ripped out. It was not until her death that they discovered all the bodies, there were 107 of them. Would you like more tea?" - Mrs. Henska

Guardian of the Abyss **


Despite the occult trappings of sacrifice, summoning, scrying and mind control, this one mainly involves people running about and negotiating antique prices. It's hardly The Devil Rides Out, and the creature effects are borderline Doctor Who.
"Perhaps there is evil in me" - Allison

Visitor from the Grave ***


Another episode that saves itself from certain mediocrity with an amusing twist ending, this time you actually have a chance of figuring it out in advance. At least, I certainly hoped that's what was happening when the same British actor returned in Indian-face for a second role, otherwise mediocrity would be the least of its sins.

If you don't smell something fishy when one of the lead characters has a history of mental illness and the other of shady financial deals, you need to get out less and watch more TV.
"I will be revenged" - Penny

The Two Faces Of Evil ****


The disorienting direction matches the inexplicable goings-on and confusing behaviour of this one. It's not just that I can't predict where it's going - it's the only episode in the series that I don't understand at all, so that's worthy of appreciation.

It starts out with the straightforward message that you shouldn't pick up sinister hitchhikers, but by the end, things are world-warpingly less clear-cut and I don't have any advice for you.
"I'm such a silly billy" - Janet

The Mark of Satan ***


They didn't go out on a classic, but I appreciate that it's one of the more cerebral ones... if less expertly done than other paranoia/conspiracy/insanity tales. That's partly down to some of the laughable performances and more ridiculous story elements, but I was still intrigued to see where it was all going, and if some of the terrible things that were threatened would come to pass.

With its obsessive numerology and head-drilling bookending, it's actually reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky's π, except that didn't feature a ravenous cannibal cult devouring a priest. And if this originated the 666 hair, The X-Files totally ripped it off.
"Leave my soul alone!" - Edwyn

The Storyteller



The Soldier and Death (1x01) ****


I have extremely fond memories of this short-lived series from childhood, even if those memories suggest I only saw the episode where John Hurt's storyteller takes the central role in the action and gets turned into a flea. Still, I was aware that was a break from his normal narrative duties, so I must have seen others - I'm looking forward to some nostalgiasms in the days ahead. This opening episode didn't set off any bells.

This series looks absolutely brilliant. The foggy sets and awkward marionettes aren't fooling anyone, but create a compelling fantasy world. I also remembered correctly just how dark these stories are - this one, which we're told is based on an early Russian folk tale, concerns death and devils and ends with a considered debate over the necessity of the release offered by death. Pretty heavy stuff for a show with a talking dog.

This certainly isn't a show restricted to younger audiences, just as these folk stories in their original oral and written forms can be enjoyed by adults as moral tales or just a way to step back in time and indulge in an idealised, romantic past. One where everyone seems to be poor and starving, but is at least easily cheered up by music.

Bob Peck stars as a wandering soldier who kindly offers biscuits to the strangers he meets, who reward him for his charity several times over with magical abilities. When resting in a town he learns that devils infest the nearby palace every night, so he sets about getting rid of them with his magic sack (didn't I mention that?) and claiming their wealth for his own. Then he obtains the means to see Death by the bedside of the dying, after which... a lot happens in these 25 minutes. The Russian folk tradition obviously wasn't restricted by Hollywood's three-act structure.

Along with the BBC's Chronicles of Narnia adaptation, this was one of the highlights of mystical Sunday evening family viewing when I grew up. I hope they still make sinister stuff like this now, kids deserve to be creeped the heck out.
"He was hungry as heck" - The Storyteller

Fearnot (1x02) ****


There are plenty of opportunities for creative critter costumes in this tale of a plucky lad who's determined to learn what fear is, from the towering 'Wyrdle' (sp? Google isn't helping me there) to a marine menace and an ogre whose body is divided in two. It makes me wish the Jim Henson company had been involved in more TV shows, besides the bleeding obvious. Thank the gods for Farscape.

The Storyteller's narrative, adapted from a German folk tale, overflows with sinister similes. This show is a fine tribute to the oral storytelling tradition, and might have prepared me for the celebration and perverting of folklore by the likes of Neil Gaiman and others (but mainly him) as I grew up.

This episode is also notable for featuring a pre-Fast Show Mark Williams, around the time he cropped up occasionally as Petersen on Red Dwarf. He only has a couple of lines, but I still don't think he'd be taken seriously for these kind of non-ridiculous roles a few years down the line.
"Only fools seek shelter there, for this is a troubled land and bad holds court" - The Storyteller

The Luck Child (1x03) ***


I wasn't as immersed in the fantasy world this time, which could be an indication that I become jaded by the sublime depressingly early or just that this episode wasn't as inspiring as the others. The protagonist, a seventh son of a seventh son, gets by on dumb luck and the help of others, so doesn't do anything to earn the substantial rewards he's given. I prefer Iron Maiden's take on it.

It recaptures some of the magic when the sets get dingier and we head to the cave of the Griffin, where a Charon-esque ferryman rows ill-fated heroes to their inevitable deaths on the shore, but this is spoiled when the Griffin itself shows up. The creature costume isn't too bad, though its ungainly size does make it look more like something that would crop up on Sesame Street than previous creatures did (if that show had a later time slot anyway), but things get worse when it opens its beak and demands in a ridiculous shrill voice that its human slave scratch its neck and refer to its as a bird rather than a monster. One of my criteria for a good episode is that it should at least have the potential to give kids nightmares, I don't want my man-eating beasties to be goofy.

The most horrific part happens near the beginning, when the tyrannical king threatens to throw the baby off the cliff and then actually does it. The lucky child survives, of course, but that was a pretty bold scene to get past the censors.
"That's a terrible story!" - Dog

A Story Short (1x04) ****


This is the only episode in which John Hurt's Storyteller features in his own narrative, and is the episode I remember most vividly from my childhood. Or, as it turns out watching back over 20 years later, remembered specific scenes from but got the dialogue ever-so-slightly wrong. So "he only lost a finger and an ear, I lost everything" turns out to be "he only lost a few bits, I lost everything." You know how it is with these unreliable brains. I remember being completely repulsed and horrified by that scene, I guess that's advice for budding filmmakers who want to leave a lasting impression on children - traumatise them.

Also unusual for a child-oriented show (though I'm becoming ever more sceptical of its orientation), the Storyteller is presented as a scheming low-life. He enters the castle as a cunning beggar, tricking the foolish cook and being presented before the king for execution courtesy of boiling alive, a punishment that's postponed as long as the Storyteller can tell the king a new story every night for a year.

On the final day the creative well runs dry and the Storyteller risks everything he has in a high stakes dice game that sees him lose his wealth, his wife and even his body. I was no stranger to fairy tales as a kid, but seeing John Hurt transformed into a screaming rabbit and then disappear into a flea was horrifying. A nostalgic classic!
"This morning a man blessed, by lunch a flea. This does not bode well for the evening" - The Storyteller

Hans My Hedgehog (1x05) ***


It turns out the Storyteller makes cameos in a few more of his stories than I remembered, though here he's relegated to a background character. It at least helps to lend credibility to these stories when we see that he was actually there to witness some of the events. Not that he's necessarily telling us the whole truth, or any of it. Not that he's actually real.

In today's story, a couple who are struggling to conceive finally get a spiny bundle of joy as the woman gives birth to a sort of hedgehog baby thing. As he grows up, Hans learns that he is mocked and despised by all except his adoring mother and chooses to leave the town to live on his wits, which apparently involves building a massive castle in the middle of a forest (maybe he found it).

I have sympathy for Hans up to this point, until a bargain struck with a lost king who chances upon his castle culminates in the king's daughter being obliged to marry this self-professed beast against her will. I can't really hold this princess-trafficking against the show, it's the fault of the original folk tale, but couldn't the puppet dog have made some sort of "get you, sexist" wisecrack?

But the misogynist hedgehog is held in the highest esteem through all this regardless, and his disobedient wife is shown to be the fickle and untrustworthy bint that all women obviously are. Makes you wonder why we bother with them. Not my favourite episode.
"It's the saying you wouldn't care what you got what gets you jiggered" - The Storyteller

The Three Ravens (1x06) ***


These are starting to get pretty repetitive now - again, the fault lies with the limited subject matter of the German folk tradition, but maybe the show makers could have done something to shake things up. Then again, there will doubtless be many people tuning in who demand that their fairy stories feature kings, princesses, wicked witch stepmothers, magic forests and lycanthropy, and each of these stories has been a new one on me - they're not just running through the well-known canon of Andersen, Perrault and the Grimms.

The calibre of acting skyrockets in this one, with Jonathan Pryce (Brazil and doubtless some more serious roles) and Miranda Richardson (Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder II and other roles that will never top that) starring as a widower king and power-hungry witch who works her magic on the bereaved man.

As the king finally starts to twig that all isn't right with his new wife, he sends his children to live in a secret place in the forest (repetitive), which the witch eventually finds her way to and turns three of the children into the titular ravens. That means there's another transformation scene to traumatise my four-year-old self.

The onus to save them then falls on their sister the princess, who's put through hell by the witch as all of her babies are taken from her, her reputation is destroyed and she's prepped to be burnt at the stake before the happy ending happens. Her bold and resolute silence over a period of more than three years makes up for that rubbish princess in the last episode who couldn't even keep her mouth shut for 24 hours.
"I hate that witch!" - Dog

Sapsorrow (1x07) **


I had a couple of worn VHS tapes of traditional fairy tales as a kid that I'd cycle through ad nauseam, and there were always a couple of stories I wasn't very interested in because they seemed a bit girly. I'm sad to say I haven't matured at all in the time since, as I had the same reaction to this one, apparently based on an early German folk tale like most of these episodes but with similarities to the Cinderella story.

Again, it features a princess whose only objective in this world is to secure a good man. Not even a good one, she'll take a bastard who demeans and kicks scullery maids as long as he's got that all-important title and royal blood. This princess evidently has the magical ability to fit into any poorly designed piece of jewellery or clothing you want her to, which proves disastrous when she fits her mother's wedding ring and becomes the only eligible bride in the town to marry her own father.

The king isn't chuffed with the need to stick to this archaic law either, or at least that's what he claims in public. He is the king, he could change it. He's just a dirty old man. French and Saunders make notable guest appearances as the ugly sisters, and their chemistry's the best thing about it even if the script doesn't give them much to work with. The Jim Henson Creature Shop doesn't even save things with a nice monster or two.
"Let me show you fate through the round of this ring" - The Storyteller

The Heartless Giant (1x08) ****


After the feminine episode last time, this is most definitely a boy one, as a prince rides on a wolf to kill a giant. It's one of the better episodes too, with tension, ambiguous morals and some great work from the versatile Creature Shop, which creates convincing animals in distress, the massive giant and his oversized kitchenware.

This young prince is one of the better human characters the series has offered too, making the mistake of being too trusting as he's tricked into letting the wicked giant free from its prison and setting off to make amends through non-violence. I don't know if there's precedent for the mythology of giants being kind creatures until they lose their hearts, of if they just made that up, but these all feel like time-honoured classic tales regardless.
"He who pries is prone to die" - The Heartless Giant

The True Bride (1x09) ***


It's a shame the series ended so soon (they made a few more with a different Storyteller that I never saw), as it could have been something really special. I like how the Storyteller's dog interjects occasionally with his feelings and responses, just like a child would. It also would have been fun to see more rising stars of the early 90s getting obscure credits in their early IMDb filmographies.

This final instalment stars Jane Horrocks as an orphan-turned-princess (I know her best from an episode of Red Dwarf she did, but she's done of lot of other things) and features a pre-Sharpe Sean Bean later on as her enchanted lover who's spirited away by a she-troll, amusingly defined as a 'trollop,' in a welcome switcheroo of the damsel in distress role.

Horrocks' character starts out as the obedient slave to a repulsive, contradictory troll, who's fond of setting her impossible tasks along the lines of draining a lake with a spoon full of holes and delights even more in punishing her when she fails. The girl receives divine assistance from an Aslan-like lion that culminates in the troll falling to his death inside a castle, but then there's his family to contend with.

The story also finally addresses the high-born bias of previous ones by allowing proletarian scum like an orphan girl and a gardener to rise to positions of power. Take that, incestuously cultivated royal bloodlines!
"Trolls come at the bottom of the list of people you want as friends" - The Storyteller

Theseus and the Minotaur (2x01) ****


We've got a new Storyteller in the form of a deceptively young-looking Michael Gambon, just a few years before he looked really haggard in Sleepy Hollow. What happened there? If this casting change troubles your inner continuity clock, just think of him as another Storyteller who just also happens to have a talking dog that looks and sounds the same as the other one. Or maybe the dog passed to this guy when John Hurt's Storyteller died? Whatever the case, there's no time to waste on other stories when this one's already in full swing.

It's a nice touch to literally throw our narrator (plus puppet dog) into the action as they wander the Minotaur's cave and we get to enjoy this classic tale. I think a book of Greek myths should be a mainstay in any house (the stories in your Bible don't come close), and I'm happy to see as many versions of these classic tales as they're willing to make.

There's a different tone to this mini-series, which might be partly down to the Mediterranean setting and the contrast between the Ancient Greek heroic epics and German/Russian folk tales we've had previously. But the acting also feels more austere and consciously dramatic, like they're performing on a stage. There's less comedy and goofiness too, as the Creature Shop limits itself to just making the Minotaur, which doesn't really have the distinctive Henson look and goes more for realism. These aren't necessarily bad things though, and if they finally throw in a singing puppet sequence before the series wraps up, it still wouldn't seem too out of place.
"When he caught his own reflection, he had the monster's face" - The Storyteller

Perseus and the Gorgon (2x02) ***


These are all the definition of classic stories, but their execution is very pedestrian. This is no Clash of the Titans, with the running time (and budget?) meaning several beasties and events are mentioned in passing or ignored altogether, and what we do get in the form of the Gorgons, the Grey Sisters and Atlas don't look anywhere near as creative as I'd come to expect from the previous series.

I don't need to get into the story itself. If you don't know it, you've had a deprived life. This isn't one of the stand-out adaptations.
"Stories are true. There are monsters at the end of the world, there are looks that can kill" - The Storyteller

Orpheus and Eurydice (2x03) ****


A compelling performance from Art Malik as Orpheus (has he been in anything?) rises above the otherwise unremarkable adaptation of this time-honoured tale, which also has Jane from Coupling in it (Gina Bellman), who I can take seriously as the wood nymph Eurydice because she barely opens her mouth.

It's one of the great romantic tragedies with a healthy portion of the underworld thrown in, though compared to the depiction of Hell and its inhabitants in the first episode of The Storyteller, Hades' kingdom is merely bleak. This whole series has a really monochrome look to it, maybe they were trying to distance it from the normal Henson style but I could have done with a bit more daftness.
"Nothing is stronger than death" - Hades

Daedalus and Icarus (2x04) ***


A final jolly outing for all the family, enjoy watching two boys plummet to their deaths and an old man snap a puppet vulture's neck. I think the kids already stopped watching when they saw how grey and bland this miniseries was compared to its more enjoyable predecessor.

I don't have much against this adaptation, it just brings nothing new to the well-known story to make it worthwhile. It all looks quite nice, but I preferred the ramshackle look of the original series, and John Hurt will always be the true Storyteller. They didn't even stick a big nose and ears on Gambon.
"Nature makes such clever things" - Daedalus

Hotel Room



Tricks **


A lesser known David Lynch project from roughly the era of Twin Peaks (more specifically, following its downfall and cancellation), this three-part miniseries for HBO can also be taken as a film in three loosely connected acts, that loose connection being the claustrophobic setting of Room 603 and the recurring subsidiary characters of the Bellboy and the Maid, regardless of the changing time period.

Lynch directed this first installment (and the third), and it's immediately obvious from the awkward pauses in dialogue as characters stand statically in doorways that this is a Lynch project or some sort of attentive parody. The story starts with an uncomfortable-seeming man (Harry Dean Stanton) paying for the services of a prostitute but getting interrupted by an undesired visit from an old acquaintance before he can get down to business.

The script (notably not written by Lynch) is dominated by melancholy story telling with flashes of the violent and sexual. I'd say it goes nowhere, except there's a conclusive ending that's cryptic for the sake of it. Maybe these guys are two sides of the same character or maybe someone gave David Lynch too much freedom, either way it's not a very strong beginning for this trilogy.

I'm also not totally on board with the concept itself. We see the hotel room playing host to various violent and emotional scenes at different points throughout history and we're told it was a powerful place even before the hotel was built around it. If that's the case, just how much action was that square space six stories up in thin air getting before the advent of high rises?
"Sometimes in passing through they found themselves brushing up against the secret names of truth" - Narrator

Getting Rid of Robert *


Angelo Badalamenti's jazzy score is quite nice in this one. Sorry, that's the best I can do. This was awful. Set in Room 603 as always, but in the then-contemporary 1992 this time, it doesn't even have the excuse of being for David Lynch completists as he was only involved in this one in executive producer capacity, and might well have taken the day off.

It's a more crowded affair than the ones than that bookend the series, beginning with a trio of urbane women dispensing sub-Sex and the City observations (if that's possible) about how fickle men are, before one of those terrible men arrives and is assaulted but not even killed. At least give us some kills.

This series was (foolishly) commissioned by HBO, which means a licence to cuss (including the C bomb) and technically a license for tits and gore if Tales from the Crypt taught me anything, but they don't make full use of this license. I'm not normally so base, but I'm clutching at anything that would give these 27 minutes some sort of value, even to pre-internet masturbators with cable.
"I can never decide whether it's very discreet or just very snarky the way you pretend you haven't brought me to this room about a million times. Either way, I won't be back" - Sasha

Blackout ***


The most notable entry in this brief mini-series (if it was intended to be a mini-series all along and didn't just fail spectacularly from the onset), this is twice the length of its predecessors and sees the return of David Lynch directing, a foreboding atmosphere and fine acting.

The performances from Crispin Glover (Back to the Future and apparently other things) and Alicia Watt (the creepy child Alia in Lynch's Dune and Donna's nerdy sister in Twin Peaks, now all grown up) are what really make it. There's no avoiding that really, as this is as minimal as TV gets, basically a candle-lit two-hander set during the 1936 New York blackout as a timid husband patiently endures his wife's delirious and unhinged ramblings and we gradually piece together the tragedy that's shaken them.

Lynch directed and co-created but he didn't write any of these, so it's not as indulgent or off the wall as his pet projects (no spectral horses materialise in the room at any point). It's more comparable to his more reigned-in, mainstream efforts like The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet. If I saw this on the stage I might be blown away, but as a 50-minute TV episode it doesn't maintain interest all the way through. Still, hats off to HBO for taking a risk on such an insane and clearly doomed project, it got better at the end.
"A fish by any other name is still a fish" - Diane

Chiller



Prophecy ****


I finally tracked down this brief but memorable horror anthology series, which I remember being effectively chilling in 1995 when I was nine, though I only saw a couple of episodes. This sinister opener wasn't one of them, but it's a promising start - crafted in the classic British horror tradition and treated to splendid production values, but let down slightly by being crammed into 50 minutes before we move on to the next one.

A drunken Ouija board experiment in a supposedly haunted cellar provides cryptic prophecies to a group of pals, who start to meet their prophesied fates one-by-one five years later. Most of these take place off-screen, with the running time only allowing for the more explosive and exciting deaths featuring the characters they've bothered to give more than one line to or even to name.

The Ouija instigator Francesca (Sophie Ward) gradually pieces together what's going on when she enters a whirlwind romance with a wealthy marquis (Nigel Havers - they weren't stingy with guest stars) and learns that his creepy son has kept a scrapbook of sudden, violent deaths since his own mother passed away. The plot gets more convoluted as it transpires these characters met before and that the spirit they contacted with the Ouija board (IT'S A TOY! I CAN SEE YOU MOVING THE GLASS!) is one of the family's evil ancestors, but the overhanging doom and acceptable level of cheese make it an entertaining tale. It even features Iron Maiden on the soundtrack, so I can't be too critical.
"He was a Satanist, a sadist and a paedophile, and those were his good points" - Oliver Halkin

Toby ***


This feels like it would have seemed less cheesy in the 90s, but it's still a decent slice of British horror in the suspense tradition. It's particularly notable for featuring Martin 'Men Behaving Badly' Clunes in a straight role, which is a novelty at least, but the real star is Serena Gordon as his tragic wife who loses her baby in a car accident and subsequently believes she's haunted by the little tyke.

Is her ghost baby trying to get her attention or have her traumatic experiences eroded her sanity? I enjoyed focusing on the latter possibility for most of it, though obviously this is a spooky show and by the end they won't leave much doubt in your mind. After a slow build-up with some cringe-worthy characters - the crazy cat lady next door and an old man who reckons he can talk to the dead - the second half gets genuinely unsettling as the miscarried Toby acts out to get his mother's attention and turns his anger on the new baby in her womb.

As for how it ends, British drama has a reputation for being depressing that's well-earned.
"I have his ghost inside me..." - Louise Knight

Here Comes the Mirror Man **


Like Martin Clunes last time, the young John Simm is the most superficially interesting thing about this episode, without much deeper content to get excited by. Simm plays a convincing waster who chooses to squat in a derelict cathedral to the dismay of his social worker, a woman who's too kind and devoted to be allowed to live, and who he subsequently shoves under a truck.

You see, Gary is haunted by apparitions of Michael, a man no-one else can see or hear and who claims to be a demon. He spurs Gary on to do various villainous deeds until he makes the mistake of running away with his replacement social worker rather than doing her in. He was doing alright until he got a heart - there's a lesson for you.

The location work is stunning, from the dilapidated cathedral to the tranquil cliffside cabin, but I can't say as much for the characters, yanked from pick-n-mix bags of office employees and boring cops. I can safely say this series hasn't been as good as I remembered, but at least the remaining ones will have the nostalgia factor going for them.
"None of this is me" - Gary Kingston

The Man Who Didn't Believe in Ghosts ***


'The Woman at the Window from Chiller' ranked pretty high on my list of childhood terrors, alongside the girl trapped in the painting in The Witches and the spyglass scenes from Knightmare (I couldn't bear the tension and had to hide in the hall until my younger brother told me it was safe). It's also the reason I even remember this series from almost 20 years ago at all - alright, there was also the brainwashed kids chanting "number six, Johnny," but that's coming up next.

YouTube may have ruined nostalgia forever, but after binging on 80s cartoon intros there can still be satisfying buried treasures to dig up over time, and this pivotal piece of personal TV history was one of them. I surprisingly remembered a lot about it - more than I can remember TV episodes from a few years ago - and while I wasn't as scared at 28 as I was when I was nine, watching this before going to bed and running past windows not daring to look in case that masked woman was looking at me with her dead eyes, the haunted house setting still gives it a great atmosphere.

My nostalgia's overtaken the details again. It's a solid TV film, up to the series' usual high production standards and adequate characterisation, and I was pleased to see it was written by the prolific Anthony 'Crime Traveller' Horowitz, who turns out to be a bigger part of my 90s prime time TV memories than I expected. He wrote the next one too.
"This house is getting to you, isn't it?" - Sophie Cramer

Number Six *****


Closing this short series on the highest note, the legendary (at least in my household, somehow) 'Number Six' feels even more like a miniseries condensed into one episode than the others did. And unlike 'Prophecy,' it actually has decent characters I wouldn't have minded seeing more of.

Set in an idyllically drab, post-industrial Yorkshire town (or is it Lancashire? I'm from up thereabouts, so I should be able to tell the difference), this combines a few small elements of supernatural horror - specifically the chanting kids and Johnny's foreboding visions - with a police investigation into ritualistic serial murders of children.

Most of the characters have their crucial part to play in piecing the mystery together, from Johnny's disgruntled father leading the task force to the teacher with a penchant for Druidic folklore and a child psychologist gleaning insights from the victims' drawings. The procedural approach would probably seem patronising to anyone involved in these fields in real life, or just to someone who's watched more police shows than I have, but I thought it was smart.

The naturalistic acting is as good as it's ever been in the series, right down to little Johnny's heartbreaking voice and looks generally. Now I wish they'd made this series instead.
"Number six, Johnny" - Creepy kids

Perversions of Science



Dream of Doom ****


I didn't have the highest hopes for this short-lived spin-off of Tales from the Crypt. The fact that it was a short-lived spin-off certainly didn't help. But based on this first perversion at least, the slight change to the format works to the show's credit.

The substitute for the Crypt Keeper is the worst thing about it - a crude 1990s CGI cyborg that looks like it came from a desperately adult version of the contemporary children's show Reboot. It's also annoying just how much they rely on titillation in its most basic form to lure in viewers, from the robot's metallic mammaries to plenty of boobage from the female stars at various intervals. Alright, sometimes it's not that annoying.

The story is a disorienting endurance challenge through a literature professor's sleeping mind as he fails to wake up and confronts repeating realities that all claim to be genuine. It doesn't have the true ethereal quality of something like Waking Life (nor the pretension, plus that doesn't have boobs), but it's true enough to the subject matter as the Prof is suitably convinced by each dream iteration, his memories even changing to accommodate the switching characters and life situations.

It's pretty funny too, though in a kooky sci-fi way that casual viewers might not be into. That's who the boobs are for. True to the form of its parent series, the final twist comes out of nowhere and just feels more pointless than shocking. I'm looking forward to the rest.
"I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination" - John Keats

Anatomy Lesson *


The series started fairly promisingly, but it's already fallen below the low standards set by late period Tales from the Crypt. This is a ridiculous waste of time.

Young Billy takes an unhealthy interest in murder and dissection from an early age, when he secretly observes his father conducting a professional autopsy in their family home, as you do. Then we inexplicably skip forward to Billy's quasi-rebellious teens, where we see the killer instinct has never gone away, even though he's thwarted at every opportunity by a mysterious bearded man.

I was hoping this wouldn't turn out to be Billy's future self, trying to turn him away from the dark side, but it's actually much, much dumber.
"He'd rather CUT right to the HEART of the matter" - Chrome

Boxed In ***


This space age episode opens with a tired parody of Captain Kirk's opening monologue in Star Trek, and the credits soon reveal that William Shatner himself has a part (albeit a small one), along with his daughter Melanie Shatner. We then discover he even directed the thing!

So it all gets very uncomfortable when the sole female actress playing the nymphomaniacal sex droid is directed to move her booty and pop her top off at every opportunity. It's a relief when another, plainer woman eventually shows up to play the pilot's forcibly chaste wife. This is indeed Ms Shatner - you can exhale now.

It's another fairly stupid story, but it's funny, and unlike the CGI-po-faced robot alien in the last episode it doesn't try in any way to be serious, as the main character spends half the show connected by the groin to a half-dismantled, insanely jealous sex bot. Yes, there are some heavy handed messages about fidelity in this one.
"Don't you hate it when a man goes off HALF-COCKED?" - Chrome

The Exile ***


Jeffrey 'Weyoun'/'Brunt'/'Shran'/'Other Star Trek Roles' Combs and David 'He Was in Trek a Lot Too' Warner are perfect casting for this series, even if Warner looks slightly embarrassed as usual to be on the small screen in a niche show. The unmistakable Ron Perlman also features, pre-Hellboy when he was best known as 'That Guy With the Face Who's In Stuff.'

I dwelt on the actors so I could avoid talking about the plot, which is poor as usual. There are no signs that I'm going to lament the brevity of this series when it's over. We're in a dingy, low-budget future where murder is almost inconceivable and justice is severe - I saw the 'We're On a Space Ship!' reveal coming as soon as merciful "exile" was mentioned, but my reasoning was very different from the actual outcome. The mistake I made was using reason, you see.

You will not believe the ending this is all building to. It made me laugh out loud, so that saves this instalment from complete mediocrity. That's one laboured twist I'm not going to forget in a hurry!
"You're a mistake of nature we can correct" - Jailer

Given the Heir **


Another bad episode saved from the bin only by a laughable twist ending that at least makes more sense than 'He's Hitler' last time. Though I'll admit they had me fooled - my brain just didn't go there, even though I once wrote my own sub-Twilight Zone tale using the same premise. I used to see the twists coming for miles in Tales from the Crypt, because they weren't quite as insane (except maybe that girl with two faces). Maybe I'll warm to this weird spin-off before the end after all.

I don't have much else to say about this episode, which is tedious for the most part, except that the writers' and set decorators' prophetic vision of the sci-fi future year of 2006 is more embarrassing than it should be when the episode was made in 1996. Did we even use such clunky controls back then?
"Nothing gets me more excited than a great hand" - Chrome

Planely Possible ***


It's no 'Dimension Jump,' but as an introduction to the now overdone Many Worlds Interpretation of reality it gets its clunky message across well enough, milking the premise for laughs and frights as a widower volunteers to be the guinea pig in a previously untested reality-hopping machine to reunite with his dead wife.

What could possibly go wrong? As long as he obeys the strict instruction not to interfere with these alternate realities. Does knocking out your abusive doppelganger and then burning him alive count? It does? I guess he's screwed then.

The pedant in me (accounting for the bulk of my body mass) still questions why these parallel realities are so budget-consciously similar to the regular world with just a few radical changes for comic effect or plot purposes, when there should conceivably be infinite realities branching off to infinite tangents every picosecond. They do show some realities that are more outlandish than others, including an America devastated by World War III and a reality where the resurrected wife is an unpleasant plant/spider thing.

It's just a fun ride until he eventually bites it, though after some of the elaborate twist endings of previous episodes I was slightly disappointed that the writers brought the story to one of its multiple logical conclusions here. Keep your logic and plotting out of my show!
"No woman is worth killing yourself over and over and over" - Chrome

Panic ***


Another pretty decent episode that subverts the established structure of being pretty boring until the killer twist ending by revealing before the half-way point that bickering Bob and John are bona fide Martians under those silly Halloween spaceman suits.

Taking obvious inspiration from Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre's infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast that terrorised its gullible 1930s audience, here the real Martians believe their superiors have launched the planned invasion ahead of schedule, and set about giving them a helping claw. No sooner have they discovered the truth about this fiction that they're captured by a paranoid hillbilly couple that apparently didn't stay tuned for this revelation and believe they really are Martian invaders. Which of course they are.

Like your average Tales from the Crypt episode it's funny and well-acted (featuring a pre-My Name is Earl Jason Lee), but this series' license to be more outlandishly stupid sees it fall apart at the end. I've also given up hoping for anything quotable in the lame intro and outro segments from Chrome, the supposedly sexy cyborg who I'm glad I don't have to endure in too many more episodes.
"Okay, we're fucked" - Bob

Snap Ending **


I'm not sure if they were deliberately targeting the sci-fi audience with cameos from a couple of familiar faces from the Star Trek universe, or if these actors were just happy to take what they could get. It's fun to see Wil Wheaton swearing and going whacko towards the end, but through the rest of it he channels late period, mopey Wesley Crusher and you're just waiting for him to die. They don't even give us the satisfaction of showing it on screen, the spoilsports (they didn't show it when he showed up in Crypt either). Jennifer Hetrick's in it too, who nerds may know as Vash from that episode of The Next Generation where Picard was in his Y-fronts.

Outside of the obligatory twist, this episode is distinctly lacking in comedy, which is always a let-down, especially as I couldn't care less about the accelerating jeopardy as a spaceship's crew deals with an impending self-destruct and space AIDS. This was directed by Sean Astin of later Lord of the Rings quasi-fame, who gives himself a cameo as an exploding astronaut, so there's that too. Once again, the technology of the future looks clunky and retro even for the 90s.
"Talk about cracking up. Some people make one mistake and everyone goes all to pieces" - Chrome

Ultimate Weapon *


This one's only notable for starring Heather Langenkamp from (some of) the Nightmare on Elm Street films, and is otherwise completely forgettable. The level of absurdity over-compensates for the last episode being too serious in tone, but it ends up in sub-Carry On sexual shenanigans.

A couple of aliens screw around with a woman's life and concoct a needlessly complex plan to impregnate her by posing as the object of her affections before reverting to her husband anyway. They were jabbing her in various orifices with probes before, why not just continue down that route? Did they develop morals all of a sudden?

Meanwhile, one of them masquerades as the woman and heads out on the town with her pals in a scene that either didn't feature or that I was distracted during, as I didn't realise there were supposed to be two of her, I put the weird jump-cuts down to bad editing.

The direction is deliberately and irritatingly jaunty too, the camera zipping all over the place to accentuate the dull domestic situation. This is a contender for the worst episode - there was a previous episode I rated one star, but I've forgotten everything about it now. If it somehow was worse than this, I understand why my brain doesn't want me me remember.
"Send in the Propagator" - Some alien or other

The People's Choice ***


We've reached the end of the series already - a little disappointing compared to the seven seasons Tales from the Crypt got, but at least it got past the pilot stage, unlike Two-Fisted Tales.

I'll go easy on this final instalment, which isn't much better than the usual mediocre entries but at least stays true to the format by ending in a pointless revelation that doesn't really impact on the story at all. I preferred it when I just thought it was about disgruntled maid robots having covert night time fights, like Robot Wars with grannies.

They make some heavy-handed points about consumer culture, oneupmanship and suburbia too, but the best bit's when the little kid swears.
"Mommy, I just heard daddy swear. He said 'shit.' Why can't I say shit? Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit..." - Jenna Sorensen

Masters of Horror



Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (1x01) ****


In my experience of horror and sci-fi anthology shows - far from comprehensive, but still probably a great deal more than the average sane human - the sci-fi ones can be more conceptually interesting, but it's horror where the passion and cinematography lies. The genres often overlap (I'll get round to The Twilight Zone one of these days), but as much as I enjoyed the brief run of Masters of Science Fiction, I had the feeling this longer-running predecessor would be superior, even if it doesn't have an eminent physicist or decomposing puppet introducing every tale like I've come to expect. I've been spoiled.

The draw of these mini movies is that they're often based on classic tales from the canon, or their modern would-be equivalents, and are helmed by experienced horror directors who I haven't heard of, but then I can probably name more alien species from Farscape than you. We all have our niche interests. Don Coscarelli apparently directed Phantasm and Beastmaster, among other titles I associate with intriguing video cases in Blockbuster in the mid-nineties, and if those films are anything like this, there'll be minimal dialogue and a major focus on characters running for their lives through dark woods.

The atmosphere is fantastic, which is a good thing as you won't be watching for the intricacies of the plot. The main action follows a woman whose car crashes on a remote mountain road and who's chased by a ghoulish man/monster (we never find out) to his cabin of gruesome torture instruments surrounded by corpse trees. We occasionally cut back to earlier periods in her life and observe the beginning and end of her relationship with a survivalist nutjob, which leads to the mandatory (and necessarily stupid) twist ending.

It's not a classic of the genre, but it hits all the right notes of tension and creepiness while having enough decency not to venture into Saw territory of gore for the sake of it. I'm confident that's all to come in the stories ahead.
"Hell of a night" - Ellen

H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House (1x02) ***


I've read a lorra Lovecraft but this might be the first adaptation of his work I've watched, unless that episode of The Real Ghostbusters counts. Director Stuart Gordon clearly has a passion for the brilliant, slightly racist nightmareweaver, with a few other supposedly mediocre Lovecraft films under his belt that I won't make a point of seeking out as I want to keep those mental images.

The original tale is simplified for brevity and budget, but we still get to see Brown Jenkin the man-faced rat and the shapeshifting hag herself. If you've never seen a nude witch before, this is your chance to count the nipples. Apart from the added love interest and skimmed dimension wandering, this is a pretty faithful adaptation and doesn't shy away from gore, with slashed wrists, infanticide and plenty of rat mauling.

But at the end of the day it's still a shaky sci-fi/fantasy/horror with disposable characters played by B-movie actors. That's just one of my disappointments with this show in general compared to Tales from the Crypt, but I'm holding out hope for genre alumni to show their faces in the days ahead. Bruce Campbell even showed up in bloody Timecop for god's sake, that'd do.
"She has come. Your soul is in peril" - Masurewicz

Dance of the Dead (1x03) ****


There we go! Robert 'Freddy' Englund puts in a charismatic performance in this totally bleak Richard Matheson story adapted by his son, directed by Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist's Tobe Hooper and bizarrely scored by the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, who provides gloomy keyboard ambience between the soundtrack of early 2000s industrial metal each time we return to the hellish nightclub where everything ends.

This is the best so far and once again follows a very different tone, set in a diseased and decaying near-future in the aftermath of chemical warfare, which has created a new class divide between the lucky ones eking out a meagre living and holding on to their morals (sometimes) and homeless, drug dependent and utterly nihilistic teens.

However lofty the creators' intentions to showcase the cream of horror talent in this series, this one feels like it's targeted very specifically at 17-year-olds, which isn't a criticism as the kids always need something with an edge to balance out the likes of Twilight. To this end, there's plenty of casual violence and drug use, frequent nudity for spectacle and a suitably horrific concept that lends this mini movie its title. Not a bad Halloween rental.
"Pain transforms the sensitives into cynics" - Peggy

Jenifer (1x04) ***


Into B-movie territory again with a modern siren story adapted from a comic by Steven Weber, who also stars and makes sure to give himself plenty of breast-gobbling sex scenes, and directed by Dario Argento, whose reputation goes before him but isn't enough to make this feel like a film more than a TV episode as the better ones manage.

The eponymous siren has the appearance of a deformed, mute, troubled, innocent and completely helpless women, and after a cop rescues her from execution he finds himself rapidly succumbing to her unspoken wiles. Letting her stay with his family doesn't work out when she devours the cat and gets started on the neighbourhood children, and the cop's life starts to spiral uncontrollably downwards as he feels compelled to protect her at all costs.

They go crazy with the gore and boobs, so casual viewers should be satisfied. Call me picky, but I was hoping for something more from the Masters - though there are some laughs coupled with sympathetic pain as the temptress takes oral sex to its logical conclusion. The lullaby and hard rock soundtrack is pretty dumb too.
"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck with a meat cleaver" - Chief Charlie

Chocolate (1x05) ****


Series creator Mick Garris auteurs this one, adapting and directing his own short story and thereby electing to place himself among the Masters. For ego-deflating reasons alone I expected this to be a bad one, but it's one of the more interesting of the run, taking a very different approach to what's come before... although, to recap, so far we've had a killer in the woods, an interdimensional witch, dystopian corpse reanimation and a sexy siren, so it's not like they're stuck in a groove with serial killers every week.

This story sees a man begin to experience flashes of another person's life from her point of view. Sometimes he only hears what she's hearing, other times he unintentionally observes her going about her business, which usually involves some form of sexual activity because they have to compensate for the comparative lack of blood this week.

It's successfully disconcerting when his life is interrupted in this way, making great use of POV shots like a more perverse Peep Show (actually, it's probably less perverse). It feels like an original conceit (but I haven't seen much of The Twilight Zone), and can be funny as well as thought-provoking. The scene where he feels what it's like to be penetrated covers all the bases.
"Me and the left hand are going steady now" - Jamie

Homecoming (1x06) **


A scathing satire of the Bush Jr. administration's warmongering with sympathetic zombies, there's comparatively little actual horror in this outside of the marauding patriots and some shootings. It's all a bit silly really, easily the least impressive so far.

The cast make these Republican campaigners suitably loathsome, but the only one that really stands out is Robert "The Only Good One in Voyager" Picardo in a wisecracking bit part. I'd watch him play anything.

The zombies don't do customary zombie things like eat brains, being more concerned with ballot boxes. Their presence isn't the result of a viral outbreak or Voodoo, but because someone made a wish. It feels like this episode is in the wrong series.
"We are definitely not giving up to a bunch of crippled, stinkin', maggot-infested, brain-dead zombie dissidents" - Jane Cleaver

Deer Woman (1x07) ****


Back on top form with a short film by John Landis that cheekily references his earlier An American Werewolf in London while dealing with a different type of human-animal hybrid. Again, the clue's in the descriptive title.

This felt a lot like an X-File, from our down-and-out detective consigned to crackpot cases to the forest scenery and infatuation with Native American mythology. If it wasn't for the autopsies being carried out by a woman called Dana, I'd be prepared to put it down to coincidence. Like the best X-Files, there's a healthy injection of humour amidst the corpse desecration, and enough confrontational banter between the bit-part cops to make me long for a full series.

Still, it does benefit from the non-network format with liberal profanity, references to genital mutilation and compulsory breast shots for the unreasonably beautiful Cinthia Moura. If they pull out more corkers like this and less like the previous episode, I'll be very happy.
"Someone gets sliced 'n' diced in a struggle with a deer in a hotel room and your response is 'hmm?'" - Jacob Reed

Cigarette Burns (1x08) ****


This was undoubtedly the most horrific episode so far. Credit is due to writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan as well as the insensitive direction of John "Halloween" Carpenter, doubtless encouraged by the subject matter of an insane filmmaker whose meisterwerk left death and damnation in its wake.

Like stories about writers, films about films run the risk of being onanistic and narrow in their appeal, but the morbid mystery here is compelling. I've had nightmares about the infernal power of weird, 'lost' films, and although the end result (what little we see of it) can't possibly live up to the hype, I enjoyed the journey.

The gore is pretty extreme too, the most gruesome moment being a meaningless decapitation with some suicides and self-mutilation thrown in. The unambiguous supernatural elements of angels and flesh-eating ghosties put me off a bit, and the recurring cigarette burn effect just looks naff, but this short ode to the dark side of filmmaking achieves with it set out to do: creep us the hell out.
"We trust filmmakers. We sit in the dark, daring them to affect us, secure in the knowledge that they won't go too far" - A. K. Myers

Fair Haired Child (1x09) ***


A less inspired tale this time, of kidnapped children and a tormented couple's pact with a demon to resurrect their drowned son. There are some nice, eerie sets, and the Fair Haired Child itself is kind of creepy (though completely ruined if you've seen the DVD art), but the daft dream/fantasy sequences and the overly happy ending dilute things.

The Masters this time are the contemporary William Malone (director) and Matt Greenberg (writer), who've worked on some fairly notable projects that are sadly too recent for me to have any idea about. The femme fatale is played adeptly by Lindsay Pulsipher, later of True Blood, which I believe is another show young people like to watch.

They can't all be up my street.
GET OUT BEFORE IT WAKES UP - Foreboding message

Sick Girl (1x10) ***


A bit of a daft one again, but the prosthetic bug people and David Cronenberg-esque gore of the finale are ultimately worth the awkward humour and lesbian titillation.

It's the classic story of bug-obsessed girl meets pixie-crazed girl and girls get impregnated by escaped insect specimen.
"Babes or bugs - you can't have both" - Max

Pick Me Up (1x11) ****


This is the best one for a while, abandoning supernatural shenanigans for relentless, hopeless inevitability. The setting reminds of the first episode, as the hunters and prey are isolated on a lonely stretch of highway with only one seedy motel to share between them, but the story is very different.

The two-fold message couldn't be clearer: don't pitch up hitchers and don't accept rides, though if you do follow those instructions the murderous truck driver may just come back and finish you off regardless.

It takes a few expendable character deaths for it to become clear that we're witnessing a turf war between two killers with contrasting philosophies, and their showdown is more gripping than fantasy tales about bug women and ghost kids. Though we may need those lighter installments to keep from getting too morbidly depressed.
"Your genuinely dangerous individuals, they almost never look crazy. They don't have any weird tattoos, they don't have any weird stitches on their face, no funny-shaped heads, they are not predictable" - Walker

Haeckel's Tale (1x12) ***


A historical horror for a refreshing change, this relies entirely on the Hammer Horror gothic atmosphere for the most part until we hit the undead gangbang and people start getting torn open. It's based on a Clive Barker story, and that starts to make sense when the bonking arrives, which they don't shy away from.

Even outside of the titillation, I like the haunting atmosphere of this tale of necromancers and a young Frankenstein, and it looks the part with foggy mausoleums and eerie forests.
"There are nights when it is good not to sleep next to a place where the dead are laid" - Walter Wolfram

Imprint (1x13) *****


Well, that's one way to end a season. Jesus.

I haven't seen much Japanese horror, but the country's reputation for going above and beyond in the name of entertainment is well protected with this fucking disturbing offering from Takashi Miike. Its reputation was assured when the TV network deemed it unsuitable for broadcast, even in the comparatively liberal 2000s. That decision may have been entirely justified - this isn't something you'll forget in a hurry.

After setting the scene of historical backwater Japan with stunning cinematography, this tale of an American seeking his lost love takes a turn for the horrific that keeps pushing to darker and darker extremes. From a relentlessly cruel torture scene that doesn't balk at close-ups and goes on and on and on to depict domestic violence, incest, child abuse and primitive abortions (oh yeah, the network's gonna love those scenes), all the way to the more outlandish revelation by which time your sanity's been so eroded, you'll just accept what you're seeing.

It is sick and cruel for the sake of it, and while I'm no gore junkie, the uncompromising commitment to extremity did impress me. The series went on after this, but I think it's safest to bail out here. The inevitable disappointment that would come with the return to pedestrian tales about haunted houses and CGI bugs is a greater horror than I'm prepared to face.
"I can stand any kind of cruelty, but what I can't take is kindness" - The Woman

Masters of Science Fiction



A Clean Escape ***


My appetite wasn't satiated for stand-alone science fiction tales that don't burden me with well-rounded characters I have to pretend to care about for twelve seasons, so here's another, even briefer anthology series.

Masters of Science Fiction is the Perversions of Science to the longer-running Masters of Horror's Tales from the Crypt (have I got the hang of this grammar thing?), because I am definitely not up to crowbarring open another substantial crypt of terror tales any time soon. Besides, it just wouldn't be the same without a cackling puppet introducing things. R.I.P. - oh hang, he was dead already.

This far more serious series (this'll take some getting used to) is narrated by the synthesised voice of Professor Stephen Hawking, at least that's what they tell us. I had a speak and spell program on my old Amiga that would have done the job just as competently. Beyond this celebrity cameo, the appeal of these 45-minute sci-fi spectacles (with obligatory twists) is that they're adaptations of the Masters, this time a 1985 story by John Kessel who I'm told is great.

That the story is interesting is a given, gradually filling in the details of a post-apocalyptic future (whoops, spoiled it) through the convenience of the man responsible for the predicament having amnesia and being forced to remember what he did over and over. As it's mostly a two-hander, it relies on the interplay between the performers, who are up to the task.

It has the cute feeling of a low budget independent sci-fi film, with its cramped sets and fleeting glimpses of pointless technologies to remind us of its future setting (no one opens drawers with handles any more), but so far nothing has stood out to make this series more worth watching than the many other anthologies out there with identical premises stretching back to the likes of Tales of Tomorrow and Orson Welles' Mercury Theater. If this series has one major failing, it's a lack of ambition.
"When the fate of so many rests in the hands of so few, can the failure to be accountable ever be forgiven?" - Narrator

The Awakening ***


A much more optimistic and Hollywoodier tale than the first episode, the alien stand-off itself has shades of Independence Day and V, but rather than our salvation coming about through a violent uprising, humans - especially those in charge of the United States - must come to trust each other and overcome their prejudices.

It's a bit sappy and the "science" aspect is absolutely terrible, but this episode's saved to an extent by the great casting. I recognise most of these guys from various sci-fi projects of the 2000s, but most notable are William B. Davis (The X-Files' Cancer Man) as the ineffectual president and Terry O'Quinn yet again (Lost, Millennium, The X-Files occasionally) as a retired major who has to open his mind.

These stalwarts don't get the material they deserve, but it's great to see those two on screen together when they briefly share scenes. Without their presence adding some gravitas and cult appeal, I imagine this would all look a bit silly.
"The impulse toward violence may be hard wired into our genes, but so is a dream that one day we might rise above it" - Narrator

Jerry Was a Man ***


The tone radically changes again in this desperately quirky adaptation of a story from the true master Robert A. Heinlein, though not one of his better works. The original Jerry was a genetically engineered chimp, which would have stretched this series' CGI budget considerably and possibly been a bit too on-the-nose in its clear parallel of civil rights for... whatever exactly Jerry and the other 'Joes' are. Replicants, plasto-biological workers, take your pick.

It's a neat little story, but the execution is weird. It feels more like something from Perversions of Science than from a series that set itself up to be an antidote to the dumbing down of TV SF. Unfortunately, the goofy touches like giving everyone daft hair aren't actually funny, and only make the situation - and especially the characters - less believable and plain annoying.

Malcolm McDowell is the biggest name here (he doesn't turn down anything, he was even in Lexx) playing a world-weary Frankenstein reduced to creating gimmicky animal mash-ups for rich brats. I can't tell if the rest of the cast is acting badly on purpose, as a comment on the future society's degeneration, or if they just didn't know what to do with this. Heinlein is a master, but the story of putting a synthetic life form on trial to determine its rights was done better in Star Trek's 'The Measure of a Man.'
"What makes us human may one day be defined not by the gifts we possess, but by the virtues we lack" - Narrator

The Discarded ****


Harlan Ellison co-wrote this script based on his own 50-year-old short story, which is satisfying. It's directed by another Trek alumnus, Jonathan 'Riker' Frakes, who might have had a hand in the light jazz soundtrack underscoring this bleak tale of a ship crewed by diseased exiles looking for a home and getting turned away by every potential one.

The episode also benefits from a couple of formidable players in the form of John Hurt, who has two heads, and Brian Dennehy, who has a really, really big hand. MastersFX has received on-screen credits for its prosthetic effects in every episode, but this is where all their creative energy was spent, and it really helps lift this above the bland mediocrity of the earlier episodes. It's practically Farscape.

The discarded are finally offered an olive branch by a representative of Earth's allied governments, who promises they will be settled if they provide vital blood to help combat a new strain of their illness. What follows is an occasionally violent, sometimes hopeful and ultimately depressing resolution that teaches viewers it's best not to trust anyone and just kill yourself to save all that tedious waiting.
"As we seek to improve and refine ourselves, to elevate humankind to its consummate form, what will become of those who are less than perfect?" - Narrator

Little Brother ***


After Heinlein and Ellison comes a modern, lesser-known writer in the form of Walter Mosley, whose dystopian tale of subterranean slave labour and predetermined justice can't help being derivative thanks to the burden of 100 years of the genre behind it.

The first act is exciting as we tag along for a worker/prisoner's escape into the "freedom" slum where he's all too soon captured, and after that it's a long exploration of this society's specific computer-controlled, brain-harvesting system of crime and punishment.

The set design owes a lot to Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, and the characters are as undeveloped and plastic as can be expected from the anthology format, but it has some good, heavy-handed messages in the best sci-fi tradition to earn its place.
"As machines become increasingly capable, will there come a time when we value their judgement above our own?" - Narrator

Watchbird ****


The final cautionary tale in this short run feels the most relevant of the lot to the modern world, dealing with the dangers of deploying drones designed for the battlefield into everyday life.

The Lord of the Rings' Sean Astin plays the pacifist engineer who designs the drones to minimise loss of life and sees his creation perverted by Homeland Security, his boss' greed and his own desire for revenge on the world that's taken away the people closest to him. I didn't hear much about drones back in 2007 when this made, and it certainly feels (slightly) ahead of its time. I hope there's at least one sci-fi fan in Congress taking notes.

There's a smart twist I didn't expect, which is unusual for these generally formulaic stories, though the ending is a bit sudden and disappointing. I also could have done without the Watchbirds shooting colourful laser blasts to spoil the realism, but it's still the best entry in this short-lived series.
"In a world that grows increasingly dangerous, what will we sacrifice in the name of security?" - Narrator

Crooked House



The Wainscoting ***


Here's a nice bit of classical creepiness from Mark Gatiss I didn't come across the first time around, as he provides a linking narration between three tangentially connected horror vignettes in what can't be anything other than a loving homage to the old anthology films from Amicus and the like. It also reminds of his atmospheric introductions in the Man in Black radio series, and this first historical installment in particular smacks as a straight version of the sort of thing he'd do with the League of Gentlemen before twisting it to sordid extremes. His passion for the British horror tradition is infectious.

This would have worked better as a single film than three 30-minute parts, but unless you're restricted to watching it on a repeat broadcast, you can do what you like with them. In this first part we witness the sad though not entirely undeserved downfall of an arrogant resident of the cursed Geap Manor during the late 18th century, and a modest BBC Four budget is stretched for all it's worth to show us cosy candlelit inns and plenty of tricorner hats and wigs.

There's a great supporting cast of familiar faces from BBC comedy and drama, the dialogue is convincing enough in its archaic verbosity to fool me, and the subtle horror is genuinely creepy... until it's all spoiled with some lame CGI. That one scene undoes some of the good work, but I'm confident the best is yet to come.
"Geap Manor has always drawn evil to it like a sponge draws water" - Noakes

Something Old ***


The saggy middle of the story and really the least essential to the overall plot, though if you've ever seen one of those old horror anthologies that weave a flimsy thread through completely arbitrary incidents, it's par for the course.

Set in the same troubled house (that's the flimsy thread), in the topping 20s this time, a bunch of spoilt sods who didn't get shot in the war get sozzled and merry in celebration of a young man's engagement. I found this one a disappointment after its predecessor, the apparition of the bride being the most memorable image to take away, though not exactly an original one.
"Never another bride" - Eleanor

The Knocker ****


True to form, the grand finale sees the formerly personality-free audience conduit injected with a backstory and troubles of his own as he takes centre stage. Fitting the old door knocker from the destroyed manor to his residential home, he starts to get woken up late at night by knocking and experiencing other eerie phenomena.

There's plenty packed into Mark Gatiss' super-tight script, from unnecessary call-backs to conversations we already remember and realised the significance of to intimations of time travel, and I think it's a great modern taken on the classic formula. We even get to see Derren Brown in a rare acting role with a silly nose.

Gatiss has a reliable track record across multiple genres and I'm always interested to see what crawls out of the shadows of his mind, so more like this will always be welcome.
"That dreadful woman on the telly gets hysterical over bits of bloody dust in the air" - The Curator is not a fan of Yvette Fielding


Misc. odd TV


Tales of Frankenstein ****


This transatlantic co-production between Hammer Studios and Screen Gems, just as the former was making it big in the horror world, is not a precursor to Hammer House of Horror. Apparently produced with minimal input from the London side of things, this feels much more like Universal horrors of the 30s, partly because they reuse some of that footage in the opening, but also the fact that it's in black and white.

This was supposed to be an anthology series, but wasn't picked up. Since this opening episode is your basic re-telling of the Frankenstein story, I have no idea what the other episodes would have looked like, still produced under the 'Frankenstein' banner which the introduction tries to persuade us is a synonym for 'horror.'

As a 27-minute remake of Frankenstein for 50s TV, this episode can't be faulted at all, and looks just like a film (albeit one of an earlier decade). All the gothic hallmarks are there, from the castle silhouetted by lightning to a foggy graveyard and laboratory of bubbling test tubes, and while Anton Diffring's Baron Frankenstein lacks Peter Cushing's sinister edge, it's still a good performance. The monster itself is basically a chubbier take on the Karloff one.
"From the beginning of time, many men have sought the unknown, delving into dark regions where lie those truths which are destined to destroy" - Narrator

The Solarnauts **


I've seen this referred to as the British Star Trek that never was, but really it has a lot more in common with Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation series and generic action series from around this time. A couple of blokes futuristically named Power and Tempo are sent on missions around the solar system to save it from whatever threat shows up, especially from the likes of the villainous Logic (pictured). Even if this had made it to series and I'd seen it in repeats in the 90s, I doubt this golden man in an obvious bald cap would have made it into the roster of terrifying childhood nemeses alongside Jemadah from Watt on Earth and Lord Fear from Knightmare.

With frantic drums, frenetic trumpets and occasional ejaculations of a female choir singer, the music is easily the best thing about this show, which isn't really saying much. I mean, what else can I commend? The shiny effects that look like children's toys? The incredible sexism even for 1967? (They certainly didn't see the feminist movement making any headway in the centuries to come).

It's not entirely fair to judge a possible series on the merits of a 25-minute pilot alone, but that's what they're for after all, and considering this episode runs out of ideas and culminates in an overlong chasing and kung fu sequence, I don't think the lack of a full series was a terrible loss to Britain's sci-fi legacy.
"There's a lot to be said for the old days" - Tri-S

The Committee ***


A film I would never have watched without the Pink Floyd connection, I'm glad I did. Written by Max Steur and Peter Sykes, this cryptic one-hour film stars Paul Jones - best known to most as the singer from Manfred Mann, but to me he'll always be Uncle Jack - as a disillusioned, world-weary young man who hitches a lift with a man so unbearably tedious he cuts his head off. It's alright though, he sews it back on and the man drives off again, somewhat slightly dazed.

Some time later, our nameless protagonist is called to a mysterious committee gathered at a luxury country manor, and when the formerly decapitated driver shows up, he starts to worry. The final 10 minutes are a conversation between Jones' character and the committee director (played by Robert Lloyd who I've never seen in anything else but lucks uncannily familiar, it might just be a likeness to Zachary Quinto), discussing the fakery of authority and the importance of awareness. It's like a better version of the final episode of The Prisoner.

There are touches of surreal and very dark humour here and there, which made me warm to it even more, but I can't really regard it as a classic. Pink Floyd's music feels like a more conscious effort to provide a soundtrack than their later efforts, initially appearing in short interludes between scenes before the final wandering piece, which progresses from pulsing oddness through ambient minimalism to an upbeat finale. I can really picture the band watching the rough cut of the film in the studio and playing along, something they definitely didn't do when matching Dark Side of the Moon to The Wizard of Oz, shut up.

While the film's interesting in its own right, and the Floyd cuts are fascinating for fans as they're among the rarest recordings, the whole thing is stolen by an impromptu appearance by the flaming head of Arthur Brown half way through, which even made it to the DVD art and my screencap as the most important thing in the film. It would tend to.
"If you hold an opinion, it's because I let you hold that opinion" - Director of the Committee

The Body ***


Long before The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking and those later Pink Floyd releases that can essentially be considered Roger Waters solo albums backed by his increasingly frustrated band mates, Music from The Body was an interesting, slightly unsettling and often downright stupid soundtrack composed by Waters and Ron Gershin for Roy Battersby's 1970 artucational documentary.

The limitations of technology at the time mean that what might have been cutting edge close-ups of cells and the depiction of heat waves coming off love-making couples now look very dated, making this wholly a product of its time. It's been released on DVD and everything, but I'd say the soundtrack is more noteworthy than the film itself, which isn't a completely successful fusion of stuffy anatomical analysis with bits of poetry from Vanessa Redgrave and other weird sections, like Roger Waters explaining how much food the average human consumes in their lifetime. Of course, there's titillation masquerading as education too.

The music is even more free-form than the filmmaking, with some songs being straight-up Waters acoustic plucking pieces like the opener 'Sea Shell and Stone' and a final collaboration with Gilmour, Mason and Wright for the more rousing 'Give Birth to a Smile.' Many other songs are played using the human body as an instrument, from burping and farting to slapping and a baby's laughter, which gets full points for quirkiness but isn't the sort of album you'd really want to listen to on your commute to work, unless you're preparing to go postal or something.
"Ice cream sandwich, why not? Probably very tasty" - Roger Waters

The Stone Tape *****


This is one of the best pieces of television I've ever seen. Written by Nigel "Quatermass" Kneale, this spooky Christmas special from 1972 is sufficient proof that your parents are correct when they say modern horror isn't as good as it used to be. As well as revising the concept of the ghost story, Kneale invents a lot of compelling pseudo-science in an effort to explain how ghosts work, and I know from personal experience of hanging out with non-sceptical paranormal "investigators" that stone tape theory is today set in stone, as much as the practice of misusing temperature sensors and dictaphones with intentionally poor quality microphones to detect signs of quasi-life.

I love everything about this 90-minute TV film, from the BBC's reliable acting talent to the juxtaposition of a mouldering stone chamber filled with then-state-of-the-art scientific equipment. The pacing never lets up, the tension reaches an unbearable level several times and there are genuine frights.

My favourite aspect of all is how level-headed these rationalists are in accepting the proof of their eyes and ears and justifying the apparition as a legitimate phenomenon worthy of study, which leads them down a very interesting and ultimately tragic path. A little casual racism abounds, but women's place in society has clearly changed since the Quatermass serials of the 50s as the lead character Jill is the most sympathetic of the bunch.

If you're looking for a decent ghost story that approaches things from a different angle, this is certainly worthy of your time. It would make a nice double bill with Ghostwatch.
"What I want for Christmas is please go away" - Martin Tasker

Trilogy of Terror ****


The pilot for a 70s horror anthology that never was, this would have been a show to watch if the quality of these first three tales is anything to go by. It depends whether Richard Matheson churned out enough obscure short stories to base an entire series around, since the legendary author was responsible for the trilogy here.

The other constant is Karen Black, who's more than just a scream queen as she gets to play seductive, downtrodden and criminally insane as the star of every story. She even goes solo in the final outing, until she's upstaged by a screeching, homicidal doll.

The Zuni fetish doll in question must certainly have helped this potentially forgotten TV movie earn its acclaimed place in the horror canon, and it's certainly memorable. It's slightly ridiculous at first, as a grown woman and a tiny doll tumble around the apartment knocking things over like a bloodier Tom and Jerry, but then it just goes on and on and refuses to die and the humour is replaced by deep dread.

The other two stories are less memorable but still decent, in that middling Tales from the Crypt way, and are about as steamy as you could expect for 70s network TV. They're not especially terrifying, and you can see the endings coming a mile away, but the journey is entertaining and you don't have to wait long before getting your inevitable fix of violent death.
"Her sweet little face never fooled me for an instant. I knew the darkness behind it, I knew the fermenting ugliness in her soul..." - Millicent

Out of the Trees **


Despite being a fan of Douglas Adams and Monty Python (Graham Chapman co-writes and stars), I'd never heard of this brief collaboration from 1975, which follows a similar stream-of-conscious and overly self-aware sketch style as Flying Circus and the other shows those guys were involved in previously, but without the charm. Actually, it's no worse than some of the later Python episodes, though it shares the same annoying tendency for things to be stretched far too far.

There's apparently a plot tying all of this together, as an ex-voice over performer meets an ex-link performer on a train and they talk about language, but the structure is extremely loose. The train segments are interspersed with scenes of firemen, business meetings and the most memorable, a documentary about Genghis Khan (familiar Python fodder), who violently intrudes on the other sketches in his own particular idiom.

It's always nice to find new stuff from Adams and Chapman, but there's a reason this isn't better known. It's not terribly good.
- "Rape me! Rape me!"
- "No, you're just like all the others, you'd only laugh" - Wench and Genghis Khan

Artemis 81 ****


We may be living in a "golden age" of TV, but I still find it more satisfying to seek out unusual nuggets from the supposed shitty era. Why was this three-hour Onagnostic experiment ever allowed to go out on prime-time BBC1 slap-bang in the middle of the 1981 Christmas period? And will we ever see the like of those days again?

It's not for everyone, that's putting it lightly. But the casual viewer with less patience for slow-burning technopagan sci-fi only has themselves to blame if they stick it out past the opening scene, in which Sting pleads with his rock-encased mother goddess not to heed the words of his evil, whispering counterpart with the white contact lenses. It takes about an hour for anything resembling a plot to come together, by which time anyone who isn't committed has long since abandoned ship, screaming obscenities about the TV license as they go.

As much as I do prefer pretentious style over substance a lot of the time, there is something to be said for coherence when you're making TV drama, which is why this isn't up there in the esteemed canon with Quatermass and the decent Doctor Who serials. But sometimes, just sometimes, nothing hits the spot like a self-indulgent concept album by a prog band full of itself and fresh from an occult binge.
"What horror is this you've made me do? What horror let loose on these and on the Earth?" - Albrecht von Drachenfels

Ghost on the Water ***


You could always rely on the BBC to capture the mood of a classic ghost story. A few things keep this fondly remembered New Year '83 haunter from being a classic in its own right: the fact that the mystery doesn't amount to much, the stilted acting of the child leads (Judith Allchurch would never act again; Ian Stevens' only other appearance was in 1992's Bikini Summer II), and the children's unrealistic banter with teachers and vicars harks back to deceptively innocent times.

On the other hand, the gloomy location filming around the Black Country and the repetitive violin score keep things perfectly atmospheric for all of its 50 minutes, and the child audience stands to learn some valuable lessons in scepticism from the junior Mulder and Scully. Before the supernatural wins out, as it always must.

It's also just adorable that the most shocking moment is when the kids accidentally damage an old parish document. I shared their mortification.
"I like local history, but I don't like getting wet" - David

The Crystal Cube **


Another failed pilot dredged from the archives, The Crystal Cube (1983) was presumably intended to be a full series in the same pseudo-Tomorrow's World parody vein, and the BBC possibly made the right decision by not commissioning a complete run. It just doesn't really work. This will mostly be a curio for Fry and/or Laurie fans as the duo's first 'solo' work after they made their names in Alfresco, and their regular co-appearers Emma Thomson and Robbie Coltrane also appear.

What first seems like it's going to be a mish-mash of sci-fi themed sketches soon settles on the main trope. The second series of Look Around You would do the same thing much better 20 years later, I guess this was just too contemporary for them to pick up on all the ridiculous aspects of the format worth making fun of.

There are plenty of jokes, but few that really hit the mark. Anyone watching this could be forgiven for thinking it was being played straight until you hear the audience laughter and Laurie's character being introduced as member of the Bastard Institute, California. The opening sequence, a similarly convincing parody of old British sci-fi in the early Doctor Who/Blakes 7 mould, is better for being briefer. All the Aldous Huxley stuff would have worked better condensed into a five-minute sketch on A Bit of Fry and Laurie, but they're learning the craft.
"Sperm are a great deal smaller than we've implied here, and rather resent being handled" - Dr Adrian Cowlacey

Threads ****


It's not like I wasn't warned. But Jesus Christ. If this isn't the bleakest piece of (fictional) TV I've ever seen, I must have placed protective mental blocks over the other contenders.

A mix of documentary and naturalistic drama, Threads paints a grimly realistic portrait about the likely outcome of nuclear bombs dropping on the United Kingdom - with an unclear degree of artistic licence. There's no music, the actors all look like normal people and they presumably chose Sheffield as the setting to strike the right depressing tone from the onset.

By following the lives of a select set of characters, we are shown and informed of the steps that would/might have been taken if nuclear war had hit the British Isles in the mid-1980s. As the blasts don't occur until almost half-way through, you're given cruelly generous time to get to know these characters and to care about their edifying deaths from various means as we chronicle the next few years and decades of post-atomic life. It isn't pretty.

If Barry Hines' aim was to scare the shit out of his audience about the grim and certain fates that awaited them if events out of their control came to pass, he succeeded spectacularly. I suppose it's moderately educational, but it's more a clinical chronicle of devastation than an instructional video. There's no hope in sight, other than the fact that I'm watching this 30 years later and it didn't happen.

Apart from in those places that it did.
"In these early stages, the symptoms of radiation sickness and the symptoms of panic are identical" - Narrator

When the Wind Blows ****


This intimate story of an elderly couple dealing with nuclear fallout is a tad more depressing than Raymond Briggs' more famous adaptation, even when the Snowman melted at the end. The only reason it didn't leave me devastated is that there was little humanity left in me after watching the peerless horror of Threads.

I was mainly drawn to this by the soundtrack, which features a couple of (comparatively) rare numbers by David Bowie and Roger Waters, but then I was instantly won over by the lovely traditional animation. Admittedly not so traditional in its blend of model props and backgrounds with the drawings, nor in its occasional trippy flights of fancy, but it's always refreshing to go back to the days before CGI nuked the art.

This two-hander might be a black comedy masterpiece, as the patriotic but ill-informed Jim tries his best to comply with contradictory and nonsensical pamphlet guidelines when constructing a shelter and gathering supplies. The old dears' rose-tinted view of the good old days when you could get your head around war is some necessary light balance for the creeping inevitability of their deaths. You're allowed to not watch the last 20 minutes if you don't want to.
"It was nice in the war, really. The shelters, the blackouts, cups of tea" - Hilda Bloggs

The Weekenders: The Meat Festival ***


Growing up, I considered Reeves and Mortimer the funniest people on the planet. There were comedy shows I preferred for various reasons - the mad concepts of Red Dwarf, the cutting jibes of Blackadder, the creepiness of the League of Gentlemen and the deconstructive smugness of Lee and Herring - but Vic and Bob were the only ones capable of making me lose it so much that I actually let a little bit of wee out at the embarrassingly late age of about 17.

So it was a treat to discover this old gem, a pilot produced for Channel 4 in the wake of Big Night Out that might have gone to series if Vic and Bob had agreed to some disagreeable demands. It's the duo's first foray into sitcom - territory they would revisit for the interesting-but-flawed Catterick more than a decade later and House of Fools after another 10 years, by which time they weren't really doing it for me any more.

Fortunately, this captures Reeves and Mortimer at the height of their creative insanity, and true to form there's a hell of lot that doesn't work and is just daft for the sake of it, but well worth it for the times it really kills. There's surprisingly little cookware-based violence, but still plenty of explosions and other needless destruction, conversational cul-de-sacs and a commendable amount of effort with all the props and sets.

The plot concerns Vic (going by real name Jim) and Bob heading to a local meat 'festival' and being hunted down by Geordie aliens who need the speciality meat they've purchased. The plot isn't important. The twisted mundanity of quiet suburban life is something they always do well, and it's always far enough on the side of zany to avoid coming out looking like an art film. Featuring appearances from the Fast Show guys before they were famous and music from Napalm Death, it's well worth 23 minutes of your time, though I'm not sure I could have stomached a full series.
"You're nice people. You look a bit daft, like" - Bob

Cluub Zarathustra ***


I don't know if there's a convenient umbrella term for My Kind of Comedy - some thread running through the 'alternative' side of the mid-90s to 2000s that generally involved the same set of faces popping up time and again - but considering the personalities involved and the reverence given to the Cluub Zarathustra phenomenon, I expected to love this more than I did.

The cocky pilot to a TV series based on the esoteric stage show that I was foolishly born too late to have the chance to see, I imagine it captures the spirit of the original rather well. A young, squeaky-voiced Simon Munnery stares down the audience and delivers self-aggrandising pronouncements as The League Against Tedium, anchoring events like Chris Morris in The Day Today, while Kevin Eldon and Roger Mann make elaborate stage entrances and appear in filmed segments. The highlights are Eldon as proud poet Paul Hamilton and Mann weaving a blood-curdling yarn in his excellent voice (he did a few of these on Lee and Herring's radio show too).

It's the other, weirder sketches that left me most bamboozled, and even by the time co-creator Stewart Lee got his own BBC stand-up series more than a decade later, the sketches still felt out of place and forced (to the point that they were abandoned in later years). If this had gone to series and I'd been exposed to it at that influential time, the story would likely be different. It did eventually get a series, years later as the slightly different Attention Scum, but the BBC succeeded in hiding it from us.

I feel disrespectful for not joining in with the adoration. I feel stupid. Or maybe I just paid too much attention to the League's demotivational words. I am nothing.
"Do I intrigue you?" - Roger Mann

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