Chiller – A Mixed Bag of Horrors

Portmanteau horror films are a popular but troubled format. Typically comprising five short stories of varying quality linked together by a tenuous framing story, the weaker links often undermine the effect of the better ones to leave a lingering feeling of disappointment, although there are some standout examples – Dead of Night (1945) and From Beyond the Grave (1974) are two personal favourites (and there are a few promising films from more recent years awaiting my attention).

Chiller (1995) is a supernatural horror anthology series with a seemingly impeccable pedigree which suffers from similar problems. Featuring a respectable stable of British actors and produced by the creator of the BBC’s legendary run of Christmas ghost stories in the 1970s, the series is made up of five 50-minute stand-alone stories with no real thematic link. Although the stories benefit from being allowed more room to breathe by themselves, the first two stories were such crushing disappointments that I almost gave up on the others. Thankfully the quality picked up significantly thereafter and carried through to the end.

Episode 1: Prophecy

Five years after Francesca (Sophie Ward) and her friends conduct a drunken séance in the spooky basement of her family’s cafe, they begin either dying off or suffering serious accidents in line with the cryptic prophecies they each received. Meanwhile, a chance encounter with widower Oliver (Nigel Havers) and his teenage son Edward (Tom Piccin) leads Francesca to move into their country home, only to learn that Edward orchestrated their meeting and has been experiencing visions of her friends’ accidents as they occur.

This episode was adapted by Stephen Gallagher from a 1992 novel by crime writer Peter James. Judging from the blurb of the book, the teleplay has been significantly simplified in order to cram the story into the allotted time. While narrowing the focus to Francesca’s perspective makes sense given the time constraints, the story is crippled by the vanishingly small amount of screen time allocated to her friends, making it difficult to really care about any of them. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark, so effective in conjuring an eerie atmosphere for his M.R. James adaptations of the 1970s, struggles to do anything interesting with the material and is surprisingly clumsy in handling the supernatural sequences.

Sophie Ward (Young Sherlock Holmes) makes a good showing in carrying the weight of the narrative on her shoulders, but fails to convince in the scenes where her character is at her most distressed. Nigel Havers (so entertaining in 1991’s post-cold-war spy-comedy-drama Sleepers) is fine but unexceptional in an undemanding role. Tony Haygarth (Renfield in John Badham’s Dracula) is good as a friendly priest, but the performance which really stood out for me was Kate Isitt (five years before her role as Sally in Coupling) as one of Francesca’s friends. She used her minimal screen time effectively to invest her character with an inner life which made her the one character whose death I regretted.

Episode 2: Toby

After Louise (Serena Gordon) loses her unborn baby in a car accident, she and her husband Ray (Martin Clunes) move to a new house in the country to make a fresh start. Louise falls pregnant again sooner than should be possible and, although the ultrasound shows no signs of any child, carries her phantom pregnancy to term around the same time Toby would have been born. Louise begins to detect signs of Toby’s presence and Ray sends her away for psychiatric observation. After her return they decide to try for another baby, but Toby does not react well.

Written by Scottish playwright Glenn Chandler (creator of Taggart) and directed by Bob Mahoney (Heartbeat), this is a promising concept which fell flat due to uninspired direction. The story is solid and Chandler writes believable characters, with the unfortunate consequence that I spent a lot of time being irritated by Ray, an overbearing husband who consistently makes bad choices in handling his wife’s distress. He arranged for the burial of their unborn child before Louise regained consciousness but refuses to tell her the location and any time she tries to discuss her feelings about her loss he shuts the conversation down: “I thought we decided we weren’t going to keep talking about that.” It probably doesn’t help that Martin Clunes (Men Behaving Badly) is an actor who just rubs me the wrong way. Serena Gordon (seen the same year as James Bond’s driving instructor in GoldenEye), on the other hand, is fantastic in the lead role and remains believable across the full gamut of emotions she’s required to display. Also notable is Alan David (the undertaker in Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead), who brings warmth and mild eccentricity to his role as a sympathetic doctor out of his depth.

I feel bad for having such a negative opinion of this episode, since Serena Gordon deserves a great deal of credit for her performance, but something about the episode just left me flat. I don’t know whether it was residual disappointment at the first episode, irritation at Clunes and his character, the lack of anything distinctive in the way it was filmed, or some combination of these and other factors, but at the end of this episode I was seriously questioning what had happened to the creative instincts of the show’s producer.

Episode 3: Here Comes the Mirror Man

Gary (John Simm) is a homeless man with a history of mental illness who lives in the abandoned church where he used to be employed as a curator. When his social worker Wendy (Anna Keaveney) indicates that she plans to help him find new accommodation, the proddings of Gary’s imaginary friend/demon-on-his-shoulder Michael (Paul Reynolds) cause him to push her under a passing truck. Government cutbacks mean that Wendy’s caseload is split among her co-workers and Gary’s casefile (lacking any photographic identification) is assigned to the overworked Anna (Phyllis Logan). Gary takes a liking to Anna when she turns up the church and hopes to put his past behind him, but Michael has other plans.

Filmed in 1994 as the pilot episode for Chiller, it’s difficult to believe that this is the work of the same people who made Episode 1. Horror author Stephen Gallagher (and writer of Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate, one of my favourites) has adapted his own 1987 BBC Radio 4 play The Kingston File under its original title, compressing the 90 minute story to 50 minutes without compromising the final piece in any way. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark is back on firmer ground, being much more comfortable with the effective use of a crumbling church or an abandoned house in an empty country landscape than with the urban environment of the first episode (although he makes noticeably better use of the city locations here as well). He also takes great care about the use of Michael, keeping him in shadow and frequently depicting him as a lurking presence leaning in towards Gary over his shoulder.

John Simm (Life on Mars, Doctor Who) is on top form as a disturbed man pushed into doing terrible things, earning the viewer’s sympathy and ably delivering the line: “If it wasn’t for the murders, and all the psychiatric problems, and me breaking into your house and bringing you here, and everything, do you think you could’ve taken to me at all?” Paul Reynolds (budding Arthur-Daley-wannabe Colin in Press Gang) conveys an air of menace I never would have expected, although considering he played opposite Christopher Eccleston in Let Him Have It (1991) (a film I’ve long intended to watch) I clearly shouldn’t judge him by a single role in children’s television. Anna Keaveney (Shirley Valentine) brims with practical compassion in a brief role and Phyllis Logan (Secrets & Lies) provides just the right amount of contrast as a woman who has the same level of passion for her job but is struggling to keep her head above water.

Episode 4: The Man Who Didn’t Believe in Ghosts

Suffering a stroke immediately after completing a ghost de-bunking presentation on television, professional sceptic Richard (Peter Egan) moves into a large country house with his wife Sophie (Mel Martin) and son Matthew (Tobias Saunders). Before concluding the sale they meet Peter (Miles Anderson), the previous owner, and learn that the house is believed to be haunted by the ghost of his wife Rosemary (Helen Caldwell). Although Richard is openly sceptical of the idea, as the incidents begin to pile up – maggots in the roast turkey, a narrow miss when a chandelier falls into a bath, the disappearance of their dog – it becomes clear that something (supernatural or not) is definitely not right.

This is the first of two episodes written by Anthony Horowitz, who wrote for the Jason Connery era of Robin of Sherwood (1986) before creating the Alex Rider series of young adult novels. More recently he had the distinction of being hired by the Doyle and Fleming estates to write new novels starring Sherlock Holmes and James Bond respectively. The story is tightly written and well constructed, with incidental details assuming greater relevance later on, although some of the events require the viewer to come up with their own explanation, and one event in particular at the end of Act 2 never receives the follow-up it warrants. The direction by Bob Mahoney is far more effective here than in Episode 2, especially in the opening sequence depicting Rosemary’s death. Here he pulls out all the stops, with crashing thunderstorms and a frantic flight up the stairs before a terrified stumble on the rainswept roof leads to a crashing descent through the roof of the conservatory.

Peter Egan (The Dark Side of the Sun) brings out his character’s smug self-satisfaction and descent into sullen alcoholism but retains just enough humanity to avoid throwing away all of the audience’s sympathies. Mel Martin (brilliant as Fiona in Game, Set and Match) is very likeable and effectively straddles the line of a woman doing her best who has given up her career to be present for her recovering husband but beginning to wonder if her marriage is salvageable. Miles Anderson (House of Cards – the original BBC version) also does a decent job portraying a friendly man with just a hint that there’s something off about him.

Episode 5: Number Six

A serial child murderer is on the loose in Yorkshire, having claimed five victims over two years. Each of the victims was abducted from their school and killed beneath an oak tree under the full moon. Jack (Kevin McNally) is still looking for leads, hoping that child psychiatrist John (Don Warrington) can provide derive some insight from pictures drawn by the previous victim’s schoolfriends. Jack’s ex-wife Susan (Lorraine Ashbourne) is worried about their son Oliver’s bad dreams, while Jack’s current girlfriend, schoolteacher Emma (Maggie O’Neill), is concerned by the discovery on school premises of a book about druidic child sacrifice, which resonates uncomfortably with the Celtic chants emanating from a school playground containing more children than actually attend the school.

Anthony Horowitz provides another solidly constructed script which effectively orchestrates an extended series of minor coincidences to delay key plot revelations and manoeuvre characters to where whoever is orchestrating events needs them to be. He makes the interesting choice to include a classroom scene in which the children are taught the Biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, a staggeringly inappropriate story to tell in the circumstances, but I can believe it as an example of an enforced religious curriculum which is resistant to change. Director Rob Walker (responsible for the bizarre miniseries Dead Head) shows a familiarity with the slasher genre in his framing of knives but also adds the required sense of menace to the scenes of sinister children.

Kevin McNally (Life on Mars) is likeable enough to engage viewer sympathies and make his relationship with Emma believable, while allowing the character flaws that scuppered his character’s marriage to poke through. Lorraine Ashbourne (Fever Pitch) has an appropriately weary edge, while Maggie O’Neill (Shameless) displays good child management skills, both in the classroom and her ability to immediately shut down her romantic partner’s flights of idiocy. And Don Warrington (To Play the King) adds his usual element of class.

Overall

It’s difficult to provide an overall assessment of this series based on first impressions. After my extreme negative impression of the first two episodes, it’s possible that I overreacted to the succeeding episodes in sheer relief at the shift in quality level. A quick scan of the internet for reviews of this series reveals wildly differing impressions – everybody seems to like or dislike the episodes in different combinations and the first review I came across rated the episode I hated as the best of the bunch. The DVD collection from Network is pretty cheap, which is what led me to take the risk, so if you’re a fan of any of the creators or actors involved it might be worth a punt. But if there’s one thing one which the reviews I’ve read have in common, it’s that none of us believe Chiller to be one of the classic must-see horror TV shows. If you only buy one Lawrence Gordon Clark collection, buy Ghost Stories for Christmas instead – it’s more expensive, but it’s so much better.

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