MY FAVOURITE SPOOKY TV
Posted July 4, 2016on:
I felt like a bit of fun, and got the idea for this after reading James Forster’s Horror Television Madness, a compendium of his favourite TV horror shows, so I thought I’d list some of my own. Some of these have already appeared on my film blog. Younger readers might complain it’s a bit too dominated by the 1970s and 80s, but I guess that was my era. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some old fart who believes nothing good is being produced these days – because that’s blatantly not true – but I suppose I’ve simply got harder to scare as I’ve got older! Anyway, for nostalgia buffs, I hope you enjoy this little trip down Memory Lane. Listed in chronological order.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE: IT’S A GOOD LIFE (1961)
Based on a short story by Jerome Bixby, this horribly unsettling episode concerns a little brat called Anthony, who is able to read people’s thoughts, and is possessed of supernatural powers. Ruling the adults by fear, he has managed to isolate them from the rest of the world, and the entire neighbourhood bows to his every whim. If anyone rebels against the loathsome little toad, he banishes them into the cornfield, from which they never return. I once heard a radio adaptation of this story, which if anything was even more frightening, as you had to visualise the horror. The scene where Anthony turns one of the neighbours into a jack-in-the-box sounds silly, but is in fact very disturbing.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE: NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET (1963)
Mention The Twilight Zone to anyone, and chances are this is the episode they remember the most. A super-dishy William Shatner (as one person commented on YouTube, you either get the phenomenon of William Shatner, or you don’t) is on a plane journey when he sees a weird, freaky creature through the window tearing pieces off the wing. It could have all been very silly, but in true Twilight Zone style it pulls it off with aplomb. I still think of it when I take plane journeys.
THE WAR GAME (1965)
A couple of decades before Threads, The War Game was the BBC’s attempt to warn the public about what could happen in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain. The end result was considered so frightening – the Beeb were worried it would ignite a spate of suicides – that it was banned for 20 years. Even though we know now that a real attack would be far more horrifying than is shown here, The War Game still packs an emotional punch. And the comparison to the sound of the bomb hitting as “like a giant door being slammed in Hell” haunted me for years. I watched it again a couple of years ago during a trip to Crail Nuclear Bunker in Scotland, and I was still in tears by the end.
WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU (1968)
Jonathan Miller’s masterly adaptation of M R James’s ghost story, starring the superb Michael Hordern as Professor Parkin, a fussy bachelor taking a walking holiday at an out-of-season East Anglian hotel. After removing an old relic from an abandoned graveyard, he finds himself being haunted by a strange spectre rustling about his bedroom. This is very understated horror, you won’t get any extravagant CGI thrills here, but it oozes Atmosphere. Is the Professor really being haunted by some disgruntled ghost, or is he having a nervous breakdown brought on by loneliness? You decide.
The directing debut of a certain Steven Spielberg, and based on a short story by Richard Matheson. Dennis Weaver (love him to bits) plays David Mann, a mild-mannered travelling salesman. Whilst out on the road, Mann finds himself becoming terrorised by a steaming old rust-bucket of a truck. Part of the horror is down to the fact that we never find out who the driver of this vehicle is. We never see him, apart from an arm waving out of the window, and his feet at one point. This notches up the supernatural aspects of the story no end. Is the driver the Devil? David Mann has to bury his natural timidity to fight in this duel to the death. I can’t praise Weaver enough. He has to virtually carry the entire film on his own, and he does it brilliantly.
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS: THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971)
Everyone has their favourite episode of these classy adaptations of M R James’s ghost stories. The Stalls of Barchester never seems to rank up there with the favoured ones, but it’s mine. Robert Hardy plays an ambitious priest, who is frustrated that his boss seems intent on living forever. He plots his demise, and then finds himself being driven mad by a series of strange events, which happen as the dark nights of the year close in. Hardy, who often has a bit of a reputation for hamming it up all over the place, is nicely understated here.
FRANKENSTEIN – THE TRUE STORY (1973)
Colourful all-star retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It’s been a firm favourite of mine since the moment I first saw it. It’s elegant, with great attention of period detail, but doesn’t take too many liberties with the story. A host of familiar faces are on hand – David McCallum, Tom Baker, Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, James Mason, Yootha Joyce – to guide us through the gothic tale. The ending, set in the ice-bound wastes of the Arctic, is gloriously scary stuff.
THRILLER: SOMEONE AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS (1973)
Thriller was an ITV series, created by Brian Clemens, which ran for a couple of years, and featured one-hour films, which ranged from straightforward crime thrillers, to ones with a more supernatural bent. Someone At The Top Of The Stairs is one of the oddest ones they ever did. It concerns two female students who take digs in a decaying old house in London. (The grim 70s decor is frightening enough on it’s own). Something clearly isn’t right about this cut-price accommodation though. The other tenants never seem to leave the house, and there is a strange old man living on the top floor, who is never seen. This one had me utterly baffled the first time I saw it, and remains a firm favourite. Thriller has it’s detractors these days, who complain about the ubiquitous use of American stars (that was the norm back then), and some of the more dafter stories, but I love it.
MRS AMWORTH (1975)
A 30-minute TV play which I never knew existed, until I found it by accident on YouTube recently. It’s an adaptation of E F Benson’s short story about a woman who arrives in a small English village, and proceeds to wreck havoc amongst the inhabitants. It turns out that she is a vampire. The glamorous Glynis Johns, who I’m more used to in light-hearted comic roles, is great as the lady concerned.
THE SIGNALMAN (1976)
Where spookiness is concerned, it doesn’t get much better than this. Denholm Elliott is the eponymous signalman, working at a lonely outpost, who is haunted by a strange figure on the tracks, and the inexplicable ringing of the bell in his signal box. For a Christmas ghost story, this one can’t be bettered.
NIGEL KNEALE’S BEASTS: DURING BARTY’S PARTY & BABY (1976)
Beasts was a one-off series of odd tales, scripted by the legendary Nigel Kneale. It was a bit of a mixed bag, in all honesty, with some silly episodes (particularly the one about the killer dolphin), but 2 episodes stand out. Baby terrified me when I first saw it, and watching it again a couple of years ago, I still found it impressive. A young couple move into a remote cottage. During renovation work they uncover an old jar hidden in the walls. Inside is the mummified corpse of some strange creature. From then on the pregnant wife is plagued by a series of eerie events. This is still freaky stuff. During Barty’s Party is a truly odd tale about a middle-class couple, living in the countryside, who hear that a horde of giant rats are on the rampage! I often wonder how much this was inspired by James Herbert’s first book The Rats which was a huge bestseller around this time. All the horror is off-screen. We never even see the pesky rats. We only hear the determined little critters chewing through the floorboards. It’s a very odd piece indeed, but executed superbly.
ALTERNATIVE 3 (1977)
This was originally meant to be an April Fool joke, but due to a technicians’ strike, it didn’t get aired until a few months later. A factual show Science Report claims it has unearthed Top Secret information that Planet Earth is on it’s way out, due to extreme climatic changes, and that the world’s top brass are secretly moving the elite to Mars. It’s done brilliantly, with everything played completely straight. I remember everyone talking about it at school the next day, and ITV having to announce that the whole thing had been a hoax, as people were panicking. The themes it presents resonate even more now than they did back then, with fears of Climate Change, and secrecy amongst the Establishment. This film has probably fuelled no end of conspiracy theories in it’s time.
COUNT DRACULA (1977)
One of the finest adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel that I have ever seen. Louis Jourdan is the legendary Count, and he does a admirably understated turn at it. This BBC adaptation is an elegant piece. The early scenes, showing Harker’s journey up into the Carpathian mountains, are wonderfully eerie.
TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED: THE LANDLADY (1979)
Like all TV series Tales Of The Unexpected, introduced by Roald Dahl sitting by a crackling fire, could be a bit of mixed-bag, with some episodes better than others. I remember the very first one, The Man From The South, was a super-tense episode about a man who bets an American that he can’t make his cigarette lighter flick into life 10 times on the trot. If he fails, he will forfeit his finger. Then there was William And Mary which starred Elaine Stritch as a downtrodden wife, who has a very peculiar revenge on her domineering husband. The Landlady was the one I found the eeriest. In it a young man arrives in Bath. He finds cheap lodgings at a strange, dark little house, run by a genteel woman with a vaguely menacing air about her. It seems she never has many guests, and the few that she does have never leave. She also has a hobby …
HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR: THE 13TH REUNION (1980)
Everyone has their favourite episode of Hammer House Of Horror, and I was torn between choosing this one and Rude Awakening, which starred Denholm Elliott as an estate-agent, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who finds himself visiting a house run by an eccentric old lady who seems to belong to the Edwardian era. But The 13th Reunion has the slight edge, simply because the story is so damn good. Julia Foster plays an investigative journalist, who goes undercover at a slimming club based at a country house. It’s run by a bullying Sergeant Major type, who uses what we would now call “fat-shaming” on the guests. That’s not the horror though, the health farm is a cover for something much more sinister indeed.
WEST COUNTRY TALES (1982)
Why why why has this series never been released on DVD? A series of short little films, all based on I suppose what you would call West Country Urban Legends. They were wonderfully spooky, helped enormously by some creepy Tubular Bells-style music. I remember one episode, set in a church, which had the dead congregation rising naked from the pews to haunt the vicar. In one a lonely old lady is haunted by some young people in her house whom only she can see. Another had Anita Harris – of all people – as a lady serial-killer! Sometimes I’ve occasionally managed to find some of these episodes Online, but they are ridiculously scarce now.
This was a huge TV event at the time, and it still ranks as one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen. Like it’s predecessor The War Game, and it’s American counterpart, The Day After, it was made to show realistically what the effects of a nuclear strike would be. Even now, I find it hard not to get emotional during the scenes when the bomb goes off.
HAMMER HOUSE OF MYSTERY & SUSPENSE: CHILD’S PLAY (1984)
This series was a follow-up to the previous Hammer House of Horror, but didn’t prove to be as successful. The one episode which stuck in my mind was this one, which concerns an American couple who wake up one morning to find their entire house surrounded by a wall. I found it very spooky the first time I saw it, although some viewers might recognise the plot from an old Twilight Zone episode. I watched it again recently Online, and I still found it quite impressive.
JULIET BRAVO: HALLOWEEN (1984)
Juliet Bravo was a British cop drama about a female police inspector running a small Yorkshire police station. The supernatural wasn’t exactly it’s usual remit, but at Halloween 1984 they decided to branch into the weird for a change. This could so easily have been silly, and tried the patience of it’s usual viewers, but (from what I remember) they pulled it off, and produced a very tense and spooky episode.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)
This masterly adaptation of Susan Hill’s bestselling novel aired on Christmas Eve 1989, and – for legal reasons which I simply don’t understand – has never been shown since. Arthur Kidd is a young solicitor in the 1920s, who is dispatched to a remote seaside village, to sort out the affairs of the newly-deceased Mrs Drablow. Her house seems to be much feared by the locals, and when Arthur is prowling round the garden, he finds himself being menaced by a spectral woman in black. This is old-school creepy, and there is one scene which made me jump out of skin when I first saw it.
Based loosely on the Enfield Poltergeist haunting, Ghostwatch was a BBC TV play, which aired at Halloween 1992, and caused no end of fuss. It even tragically resulted in one man’s suicide, and as such has never been aired on television since. In essence, it precedes Most Haunted, with a TV crew investigating an allegedly haunted house in the London suburbs, and with dear old Michael Parkinson manning the hub back in the studio. Unfortunately everything gets out-of-control, in a way which never happened to Yvette and Co! The story is excellent, and there are some stand-out spooky moments. The moment where the camera pans around the bedroom, and we briefly catch a glimpse of the ghost standing next to the curtains, was incredible the first time we saw it.
WITHOUT WARNING (1994)
American TV film, done in real-time docu-drama style, about an asteroid attack on Planet Earth. Apparently this had much the same effect Stateside as our own Ghostwatch did here, and as such has never been shown there since. It’s a low-key, understated film, carried by some tense scenes from the TV newsroom. The ending is very powerful.
NUMBER 13 & A VIEW FROM THE HILL (2006)
I had reservations when I heard that the BBC were going to resurrect the old Ghost Stories For Christmas a few years back. I had images of ham-fisted acting, and far too much CGI ruining any chance of some genuine Atmosphere. I needn’t have been worried. These are superb little films. In Number 13 a man checks into a rural hotel, and finds himself plagued by a noisy neighbour in the next room, No.13 … only there isn’t a No.13. In A View From The Hill a young historian is summoned to the house of an eccentric lonely squire to catalogue his archaeology collection. Some superb photography of the English woods in late autumn help to make this a little treasure of a film.