The BFI continues its Gothic season, with three new collections from the BBC archives. There is nothing better as the Christmas season approaches than to settle down with a good tale of terror and these volumes, including the 1970’s series’ Dead of Night and Supernatural, and the Classic Ghost Stories and Spine Chillers from the 1980’s, make ideal entertainment for the long winter nights. Featuring such stalwarts of British drama as Clive Swift, Billie Whitelaw and Denholm Elliott, and directed by filmmakers like Peter Sasdy (who was responsible for Hammer’s Countess Dracula (1971)), these stories are infused with a sense of timelessness, making them as uneasy to view now as they were when first aired over thirty years ago. Period chillers played out against an obvious studio backdrop, with pre-filmed outdoor segments inserted for atmosphere, may seem passé to today’s audiences, used to even the humblest television shows having the production values of a Hollywood epic. However the sense of a local amateur dramatic society production which permeates the various stories, simply adds to their charm, in many cases heightening the disquiet they instil within those watching.
Originally consisting of eight episodes, Dead of Night was broadcast during November and December 1972. The three stories included here, ‘The Exorcism’, ‘Return Flight’ and ‘A Woman Sobbing’ are all that remain, but watching them it is understandable why they are so fondly remembered. ‘A Woman Sobbing’, starring Anna Massey – in a singularly disturbing portrayal of a housewife pushed to the edge of sanity by a ghost which haunts her home and that no one but her can hear – highlights the magic of these short films which placed age old fears in contemporary settings to startling effect.
Taking a more measured approach, was the series Supernatural. Eschewing the obvious temptation to use elaborate effects or gory visuals, stories such as ‘The Werewolf Reunion’ involving lycanthropy in a remote area of Eastern Europe, succeed by inference and suggestion. Cleverly introduced by the common thread of a Victorian gentlemen’s group called The Club of the Dead, whose members meet to relate horrifying tales and ghostly experiences, the dramatisations which ensue allow such distinguished thespians as Ian Hendry and Leslie-Anne Down to actually act – an opportunity not always available to the cast members of television productions.
Finally the Classic Ghost Stories and Spine Chillers consisted of several well known, as well as some more obscure tales, from the pen of the master of Victorian menace M. R. James. The manner in which they were brought alive, told by Robert Powell and Michael Bryant, who simply sat by a fireside or in a dimly lit room and relayed the stories in much the same way as James did to his friends and students at Cambridge, was as disturbingly effective as any straightforward dramatic reenactment. As a result they perfectly compliment the BFI’s growing library of Gothic classics, to which these new BBC releases make a welcome addition.