You know what I’ve been missing this month? Terrifying British television!
I have two ideal examples to share with you this evening. I just finished watching them on Youtube and, even though I’d seen them before, I’m now thoroughly spooked. No one can do ghost stories like the Brits.
“Baby” is an episode from the television series “Beasts” which consisted of 6 separate stories (or “television plays”) written by Nigel Kneale. Kneale is the genius behind the often disturbing “Quatermass Experiment” stories, THE STONE TAPE (a movie that inspired a new theory of hauntings for paranormal investigators), and the original idea for HALLOWEEN III (he wrote the first draft of the script but had his name removed from it when it was revised by the producers). He is well known for creating threatening atmospheres that climax in terrifying, ambiguous endings. He is also well regarded for inserting poignant social commentary. In the case of “Baby”, the source of supernatural horror is the malformed corpse of a creature found behind the wall of a cottage, but the nerves are truly shredded by the selfish, sexist men (portrayed fairly realistically) who surround the pregnant protagonist and constantly thwart any decision she might possibly make for herself. If you can make it to the ending without screaming in fright or frustration you’ll be struck dumb by one of the most strangely filmed and effective make-up effects I’ve ever come across. You know what you are seeing and it is terrifying but, at the same time, you have no idea what you are looking at. I’ve rarely seen a “reveal” done so well in a story that is primarily based on the power of suggestion. For quite some time the fad has been for quick, furtive little edited bits of image when a horror movie is attempting to “show but not show” something. The last scene of “Baby” proves how ridiculously lazy that approach actually is…
“The Signalman” was originally a short story by Charles Dickens who is generally an author that should only be filmed by John Waters. There isn’t a shred of camp in this production however. It’s all class (in a good way). It starts off with a typical ghost story set-up and then builds the tension incrementally, steadily, with fine acting and evocative, chilling images I will never forget: the faceless horror, the tunnel leaking smoke, the red light, the woman in white lying limp in the grass. Even though “The Signalman” is only a half hour long, I consider it in the same league as THE CHANGELING (1980) and THE HAUNTING (1963) when it comes to ghost stories on film.
I’ve also included a link to a short snippet from the British television production of “Lost Hearts” (1973). Unfortunately the full show isn’t on the internet, but this clip is a powerful example of what you’re missing. I really can’t believe how lucky the British were to grow up with this sort of thing on their boob tube. There is a lifetime of nightmares I missed out on by having been born in the wrong country…
Beasts: Baby (1976)
The Signalman (1976)
Clip from “Lost Hearts” (1973)