Directors: Don Taylor (The Exorcism); Rodney Bennett (Return Flight); Paul Ciappessoni (The Woman Sobbing)
Screenplay: Don Taylor (The Exorcism); Robert Holmes (Return Flight); John Bowen (The Woman Sobbing)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #1
[Note: Following on from writing mini-reviews of horror films that don't fit the abstract categories of the site, it felt like sacrilege to ignore horror television. With this in mind it was worth devoting a spin-off just for horror television; it'll be more sporadic in quantity, especially from how long television can be, but it'll offer a special one-off once in a while.]
Not to be confused with the 1945 Ealing Studios anthology horror film of the same name - which is for another day's blog post - Dead of Night is a BBC horror anthology series that barely survived into the current day. The less than inspiring take on archiving televised productions that was sadly common at one point with British television has led to potentially important archival materials being lost, from early episodes of Dr. Who to most of Dead of Night, only three of this series' episodes said to still exist out of seven. We can all be grateful for having the surviving episodes because by themselves they are exceptional creepy chillers.
Out of the trio The Exorcism, heavily advertised on the British Film Institute DVD cover and rescreened on television, is the high point of the three stories. Set at Christmas, a couple Rachel (Anna Cropper) and Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) invite another, Dan (Clive Swift) and Margaret (Sylvia Kay), over for dinner at their new country home only for a building series of eerie and disturbing events to take place. I have a tendency to slag off British horror cinema from this period for being overrated and low quality, but British horror television is growing into a great capsule of creativity for myself which puts the theatrical releases mostly to shame. Even though I have a preference for visually distinct works, the stage set production here is helped by the quality of the acting and how strong the script is (and how strong they are for all three episodes). Particularly with viewing these three episodes I've pinpointed a major problem with certain horror films, including the British ones I've hated, in how one of the best virtues of The Exorcism like the rest of Dead of Night is how it's more of a character drama that has supernatural content directly connecting to it, emphasising the pre-existing drama alongside the chills in the mixture.
The Exorcism is actually a politically minded short work, based on the director-writer's own political leanings, an incredibly socialist viewpoint which takes a dark view of how people distance themselves from others' poverty especially on festive holidays, its placement at Christmas having a macabre and brutal critique at its century where the truth of the haunting taking place involves the old effect of a person being mistreated and downtrodden as others spent time in lavish celebration. Alongside an incredibly sinister nature of the haunting, where the two couples become trapped in the house in its own dimension, the tone also is a fitting part of British horror which would lead to the hauntology moment, how the reverberations of the past still haunt the living and can be tapped into if a certain thing is triggered. Fitting The Stone Tape (1972), a great work penned by Nigel Kneale that encapsulates this idea further, was meant to be an episode of Dead of Night before it was spun-off as a feature length TV film by itself.
In comparison to the impact The Exorcism will have on viewers especially by its bleak ending, Return Flight is mellower and the weakest of the trio. It's still a strong episode in its own right however. About an older passenger jet pilot Captain Rolph (Peter Barkworth) who wonders whether he may have encountered a ghostly pilot of a World War II Lancaster bomber during a flight, the most interesting and rewarding aspect of the episode in the modern day is how it tackles the effect of WWII on people the age of the protagonist and Britain in general at that time. Dealing with the two World Wars in popular culture is far more pertinent when the creators grew up in the aftermath of it, for example Pink Floyd's The Wall (both the album and the film) from the perspective of Roger Waters as a child born in 1943, and it's clear with its tale of a man old enough to have served in the war but unable to, living in the shadows of others who died during the Battle of Britain period of the war, that the drama in Return Flight has greater bite as older male characters reflect on their lives with a real sense that the emotions of the war are being shown by the writer. That the character drama in this episode hinges on far more ambivalence than the other two, blurring whether it's actually supernatural events taking place or stress confusing the protagonist's reality, really helps Return Flight stand out even if sandwiched between two gems.
Out of the three, A Woman Sobbing manages to be the bleakest of the trio, and even if television now is more explicit in sexual content and tackling adult issues like failing marriages, this episode is still sobering in how much it tackles for an early seventies television programme, actually more adult and willing to take on taboos than a lot of the Hammer horror films at the time could ever dare to.About a wife Jane (Anna Massey) slowly disintegrating from the stress of midlife crisis, a loveless marriage with her husband, and hauntings in their new home including a woman crying at night that only she can hear, the show is very surprising in how blunt it is in its themes of illness, adultery and sexuality. The wife openly admits to hating her children at one point and the discussions on sex are on the nose, particularly going as far as have two dream sequences, one of the wife fantasising about a crude speaking plumber that briefly appears, the other for the husband involving actual nudity with a naked Dutch au-pair straight out of a British sexploitation film of that time. Because a lot of this television at this point had a stripped down, economic cinematography and style, the scripts and acting had to take centre stage, the quality of it here particularly distinct with Massey in the lead, her character a woman sympathetic in her plight but becoming more and more broken down close to insanity by its ending. None of the three episodes take easy ways out with their finales but A Woman Sobbing does have an ending that is just piped as the best by The Exorcist out of the trio.
Altogether the three episodes are rediscovered treasures that were thankfully rediscovered. The obvious tragedy is that the other five episodes have been lost (as of current knowledge) permanently. There's a sense from the strength of this trio to suggest that this series had a few gems amongst its seven episodes that will sadly never be seen again, leaving mere speculation of what the others were like, alongside archival materials the anecdotes of the series' creators and the opinions of people who hopefully first saw this series when it was first screened left to learn about the show from. The three here certainly emphasise that, even if I commit blasphemies by claiming the British horror cinema disappointed in this era in terms of quality, the television from that era however is becoming a tantalising era of material I'll gladly search more out of.