Friday, 9 December 2016

Supernatural (1977)


Directors: Simon Langton, Alan Cooke, Peter Sasdy and Claude Whatham
Screenplay: Sue Lake and Robert Muller
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #4

A club of occult minded older gentlemen will allow new members into their fold if only they can tell a story of horror that'll scare the members. If they succeed, that person joins the club; if they don't or the validity of the story is suspect, they are killed. So beings the eight episode horror anthology Supernatural, in which tales of vampires to werewolves are spun to the viewer in the tradition common to BBC television, set bound interiors with natural, on-location exterior sequences, and emphasis on psychological drama and dialogue, following various forms of revenge, haunting or macabre goings-on.

The stories vary in quality, starting off slowly with Ghosts of Venice, about an older retired actor (Robert Hardy) who goes back to Paris under pretences likely due to ghosts or his own fragile mind. Things pick considerably however with the sole two parter early in the series, an elaborate tale of a countess (Billie Whitelaw) getting four lovers who scorned her when she was a commoner to stay her at her late husband's woodland manor, something feral in the woods picking them off one-by-one. The series is an okay programme, respectably watchable, but when it's at its most interesting is when, even if they're a side character, women are primarily at the centre of the episode's story or their motivators. Women getting revenge on those who've wronged them, women who've severed their "morals" whether for good or bad, the two parter in particular taking the idea of a woman getting her justified justice over others to its most blackest, in terms of its ripe melodrama, an even riper performance by Ian Hendry, as a former revolutionary turned government lapdog and arms dealer, and a bleak hearted revenge story of a woman scored tasting, if only a little, of Angela Carter's later novel The Bloody Chamber (1979) even if it doesn't have the sensual intensity in look to the match the book's prose. That the result is both stage bound and yet very elegantly put together in visual look, creation an odd contradiction throughout the series for its artistic aspirations, adds to this mood.


The others are of worthy mention are Viktoria and Night of the Marionettes. The later of an older father travelling Europe with his wife and grown up daughter to research the journey Mary Shelley took to reach her novel Frankenstein (1818), becoming the mother of modern horror literature, weaved into a story still deliciously grotesque for a BBC TV production about life sized marionettes. It leads to the one overtly artistic moment of the whole series when we see a puppet show with creepy costuming mixed with a ting of Asian orientalism and German Expressionist decor. It also has Pauline Moran as the adult daughter stealing the episode with her most heightened moments, with her almost pointed teeth and wild stare.

Viktoria is amongst the eight episodes as personal favourite, a wheelchair bound Romanian countess bumped off by her English husband, but able to get revenge when her old gypsy nanny created a doll with her soul within it and gives it to her surviving daughter. This episode also shows that, at its best, the most interesting episodes could also be feature length stories by themselves as much as they work in their near hour long forms, turning into a constantly shifting concoction of events and plot twists which keep you on your toes. Secrets about the husband, the psychodrama of the second wife (Catherine Schell), who is entirely innocence and well meaning but finds herself in the midst of the emotion vacuum of the family she's married into, the dominance of the very homely governess who looks after the daughter, and of course the daughter's relationship with the doll which naturally turns to more gruesome events.


That's not to say the other four episodes aren't rewarding - one is a strange take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by way of the myth of doppelgangers in which an Englishman does all her can to ruin a German family who were willing to embrace him into their fold as a son-in-law - but Supernatural is a mix of that which is merely okay and that which is actually memorable. When it succeeds it does well as much as it fluffs good ideas with weak execution. As a result its one of the weakest of the British genre television programmes I've seen from this era but that's not without at least giving the best moments of it their fair due.


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