Tuesday, October 01, 2013

31 DAYS OF FRIGHT: CHILLER - The Complete Television Series

Exploitation Retrospect lost a friend and ally when Tom Crites – known to most readers simply as Crites – passed away in late August. I never had the pleasure to meet Tom in person but he was a funny, talented writer with whom I shared a love of trash cinema, zines and food and he'd been writing for ER (and sister publication The Hungover Gourmet) since 2005. I'll be sharing some of his final contributions throughout the month as well as in our upcoming print edition and you can always read his work here at the blog, on the ER site or at his long-running Paniscus Revue website.

CHILLER - THE COMPLETE TELEVISION SERIES (Directed by Bob Mahoney, Lawrence Gordon Clark and Rob Walker)

All five episodes of the 1995 Yorkshire Television miniseries on two discs, CHILLER is a set of supernatural tales from the UK.

A VW party bus of reckless youngsters lets themselves into the Luigi Café after hours to explore the cellar's connection to the spirit world. We know they're doomed from the start because they're drinking Michelob in London, and the spirit summoned with an upended wineglass on a tabletop seems to confirm this: Non omnis moriar it spells out, before providing an ominous divination for each of the six participants...

The viewers aren't gifted with the specifics of the second sight, but years later Luigi's worker Frannie (Sophie Ward) begins to have some unsettling experiences. She witnesses a car accident at work, her friends begin dying off, and she has a random encounter with some dolt with whom she becomes quite enamored. This chap, Oliver Halkin (Nigel Havers), owns an estate adorned with the same quote from Horace ("I shall not altogether die") that arose during the séance, and emphasis is placed on one of Ollie's distant relatives, "The Second Marquis" Francis Halkin, being a distinctly de Sadean character. And Oliver's son Edward (Tom Piccin) is a morbid little chap who since witnessing the death of his mother has become increasingly preoccupied with death, even seeming somewhat precognizant.

It turns out that Frannie and the Halkin clan are more intimately related than their chance meeting might have indicated, and as horrible mishaps continue to occur another hasty Ouija session indicates that it may be time for the church to get involved. Which, of course, is when things get really creepy...

A very random single-person car accident takes the life of artist Louise Knight's unborn child, Toby. To recuperate, Louise (Serena Gordon) and her husband Ray (Martin Clunes) take a big new home outside the city proper, and it's not long before Louise is declared pregnant again. But despite the swollen belly and the little kicking, the ultrasound reveals nothing. "If I'm not pregnant...then what is it I can feel moving inside of me?"

Despite all of that, Louise continues to grow rapidly in size. A specialist is consulted and refers to a condition known as pseudocyesis, or phantom pregnancy, the origins of which she says are "slightly sexual." And a hysterical pregnancy it truly appears to be, as going into labor Louise is rushed to the hospital, but as the doctor declares after all of the screaming and pushing, "There's nothing but blood... Nothing but blood."

Coming home Louise can hear the cries of a child, and the crib the couple has bought rocks on its own in a ghostly way. Louise even begins taking the phantom infant to her breast. Her hallucinations and strange behavior continue, and when Ray catches her 'feeding' the ghost child he becomes firmly convinced that she's just fuckin' bonkers. After some drama with the assistance of a "crisis team" and the burning of the haunted baby gear, the couple decides it would just be best if they started over from scratch and got knocked up again properly.

This child does show up normally on the ultrasound and special care is taken, but strange feelings and sounds continue to plague Louise. The crazy old cat lady's cats from next door become a menace, Louise shows up at the hospital with cuts and bruises on her stomach that she claims are not self-inflicted, and it really does look like she's really lost it. Or has she?

A majestically eerie old cathedral slated for renovation is visited by Social Services worker Wendy, come to check up on homeless Gary (John Simm) who she helped obtain a caretaker position there. Gary is a decidedly sketchy sort, and when Wendy is unceremoniously shoved under a passing lorry one night, slightly younger Anna Spalinsky (Phyllis Logan) inherits a share of Wendy's case backlog - including Gary.

Gary, having done the previous shoving, further establishes his personality when, after a conference with his shadowy friend Michael (Paul Reynolds), he bashes a young couple who've come way out of their way for a snuggle and seals them, alive, into one of the church crypts.

Anna follows up with Gary a couple of times, despite his pretending not to know who Gary is and despite Anna's being essentially suspended after the death of a child in one of her case households. At one point she presses the issue of Gary's "delusion," Michael, stating emphatically that he is a dangerous demon of Gary's mind. Gary only encourages her to drop by again soon, and when she leaves he returns to his wall papered with Anna's newspaper photos.

Anna's stress level increases, and Gary's consciousness continues to be dominated by Michael. When the young couple from the crypt manages to escape the girl leads police, including Anna's ex- Johnny (Mark Arden), back to the church. Johnny is disturbed to find Anna's picture plastered all over the squat, and rightly so: Gary has already followed Anna's cat in through a window and is even now kidnapping her at scissor-point.

As police sort through the decaying corpses discovered at the church Gary takes Anna out to a dilapidated seaside farmhouse for a bit of boo-hooing before the cops, tipped off by some real estate agent material amongst Gary's belongings, show up and there's a cliff top takedown. But Michael may have already found another friend...

A hysterical woman makes her way to an estate rooftop on a rainy night and, somehow, manages to wrap her legs in cable and topple over a ledge, falling through the skylights below.

"Ghosts are a state of mind," smarmy Dr. Richard Cramer (Peter Egan) is saying on some television talk show as he demonstrates a hokey "spirit box" illusion - right before he suffers some sort of attack and collapses onstage.

Diagnosed as having experienced a stroke, the Doctor, his wife Sophie (Mel Martin), and their son Matthew (Tobias Saunders) relocate to Windwhistle Hall, a massive country estate outside London. Where, the estate agent tells them, "There's always been a ghost here - a friendly one, I'm sure." Former owner and occasional handyman Peter Walker (Miles Anderson) even offers the information that he sometimes feels that his dead wife is still somewhere in the house, in spirit...

Spirited happenings start soon enough, as Dr. Cramer's manuscript disappears from his ancient computer and a chandelier just misses Sophie as it crashes down into her bath. And when Dr. Cramer makes the mistake of toasting the 'ghost' at a fancy housewarming dinner maggots begin to boil out of the baked turkey.

The good Doctor takes to drinking again, Matthew's having nightmares, and Sophie believes the house is haunted and wants to leave. But seeing as how the eminent Dr. Richard Cramer is a well-known professional debunker of the paranormal, he can't bloody well run away from his own haunted house now, can he?

When Matthew's dog Snowy disappears and Richard goes out to look for him and file a missing report, Sophie manages to get herself locked inside the home's walk-in cooler. As Richard is hearing from the constable that Rosemary Walker died right there in the house he's now living in ("Fell off the roof in a thunderstorm. Went straight through into the conservatory. That's where I found her. Hanging there.") Peter somehow manages to find Sophie before she expires. And somehow his massaging life back into her cold body, upstairs, in the bedroom, turns into something else as he goes all code blue on her.

After Richard finds Snowy's body in the fountain pool he begins looking more closely into the "House of Horror" tales in the library's news archives, and one night as he argues with his wife downstairs Matthew falls through the bannister above while listening to them fight, fracturing his little skull.

When Matthew is well enough to leave the hospital he's well enough to leave the house, and Sophie takes the boy back to the city. Richard remains, and sets about investigating the house. And finds... the vengeful masked woman that Matthew has been dreaming about. Or is it?

Five dark figures pursue someone through mist-shrouded woodlands, and young Johnny Taylor (Patrick McGuire) wakes up screaming for his mother. Johnny's been seeing the figures at St. Anthony's School as well, a squad of little Children of the Damned Catholic school creeps who tell him that it's his turn to play the game. But Johnny doesn't want to - and when he shuts his eyes on them and opens them again, they're gone.

Police meanwhile are boosting their local presence in anticipation of the full moon; like the mommies at St. Anthony's they're worried about another child going missing. There have been five so far, each found murdered under an oak tree on the night of the full moon.

Johnny's ma, Susan (Lorraine Ashbourne), is the ex-wife of Inspector Jack Taylor (Kevin McNally), who is now dating Johnny's teacher, Emma (Maggie O'Neill). Emma found Johnny peeking into the desk of his dead friend Simon, in which there's been something of an altar established with wooden images of stars and Celtic designs, candies, and five oak leaves nailed to the underside of the lid. Emma starts to talk about Druid sacrifice; even the children's eeny-meeny-miney-mo game is beginning to sound like a ritual prelude to her. And when Johnny is the last in the circle, "Number six, Johnny, number six..."

And as the confluence of events builds with the rising of the moon, Johnny manages to be left to leave school with the very person police have just managed to identify through the use of enigmatic children's artwork. Jack and Emma race to a spot in the woods where the killer may be taking Johnny...

It's all got a very 'British TV' feel to it; not exactly more subtle, as the blood, partial nudity and car accidents demonstrate, but not quite as jumpy, fancy or desperately far-out as American episodes on the supernatural can be. That the characters aren't as young and glossy as their Yank counterparts adds a touch more realism to the series as well. (And the fact that there's a welcome lack of CGI demons or teenage vampires helps too.) Scenes like the one of a woman holding an infant in front of a smoking ashtray and a pregnant lady with a great big glass of wine also place this in a different dimension. Despite the TV movie feel to this budget-wise, with the episodes' small casts of actors that may be entirely unfamiliar to American audiences, at least they didn't skimp on locations - some of the sites and sets are really rather impressive.  I'm not familiar enough with UK programs to put this in context with other offerings within the past 20 years, but there's very much a low-key, slightly spooky ambiance to CHILLER which makes it a good prospect for marathon rainy day viewing. – Crites


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