This is a 1970s BBC TV series of stand-alone horror tales. Due to budgetary restrictions, the show tends to focus on tension and suspense rather than grand guignol gore. Each tale is bookended by a narrator recounting it to an audience of Victorian Gentlemen.
This episode introduces us to the setup of the framing story. Basically a group of Victorian English gentlemen, the Club of the Damned, meet up and listen to a story told by a guest. The tale must be of supernatural suspense, and must entertain the members to their satisfaction. Those who tell stories that pass the test are invited to become members of the Club. Those who fail, however, are sentenced to death.
The first episode’s tale is told by Robert Hardy (All Creatures Great And Small), a once-famous theatre actor whose career has declined. Obsessed with the idea that he was once victimised in Venice, he leaves his wife in England and travels to Italy. There he encounters a couple of familiar faces. One of them is Sinead Cusack , a young actress who once attempted to seduce him. He believed her to be dead, but she has not aged a day.
This is a reasonably good opening story for the series. It certainly sets the tone. One thing seems to stand out. In modern horror, isolation is key to the scenario – hence the modern cliché of The Cabin in the Woods . In the Victorian era, the story would feature a young woman taken to live in a big haunted house. But these stories tend to feature male protagonists rather than Scream Queens or Final Girls. Their isolation is not gained on travel to the European continent, where they can be in a crowded city and yet completely alone. The resulting isolation is an urban instead of a rural one, which is quite different to the current tropes. Ironically only something like The Grudge (2004) , a Japan-set American adaption of a J-Horror, can match the feel.
The storyteller this time is an aged man who tells us a tale of his younger years. The main story is set thirty years earlier, when he was a bachelor of 35, which means he is now a sixty-five year old who has aged badly. It takes place eighteen years after the Great Fire of 1842, which puts the tale in 1860 and the framing story in 1890.
The storyteller (Jeremy Brett - Sherlock Holmes) tells of his stay in Hamburg, Germany. He was lodged with a rich family that his father wanted the family firm to do business with. Evidently the Germans wanted to pair the thirty-something bachelor with a widowed woman of similar age. The real shocker is that a much younger woman ( Lesley-Ann Down ) was also visibly interested in him.
This is a character study of the Brett character. The actor himself, best known for one of the finest portrayals of Holmes, delivers an impressive performance as a stuttering wallflower who resists the temptations set in front of him. The character is beset by visions of a doppelganger, a morally vacuous double of himself who urges him to embrace life. Naturally, the Choose Life storyline – combined with a complete lack of morality – means it will all end badly. Have we learned nothing from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ?
The climax is somewhat subdued, given the circumstances. Since the special effects are limited to lighting and camera tricks, this falls far short of successfully achieving the great inferno the storyline requires. As a result this is something of a damp squib. The frame story’s conclusion hinges on the idea that only the possessed man himself can see his doppelganger, which makes it slightly more confusing. Is Brett’s character insane, or actually possessed by a doppelganger that only he can see.
A young girl is raised by upper-class English parents who have little time for her. Her mother is an invalid in a Victorian-era wheelchair. Eventually the mother passes away, and the old nanny gives the young girl a creepy doll.
After the mother’s death, the father re-marries. However, he prefers the company of other men, especially when he has his bushy-mustachio’d best friend stay over. The stepmother spends time alone with the governess, a woman who has no interest in the male gender.
The real supernatural element in the story is the creepy doll. It is supposed to be possessed by the dead mother’s spirit, but the device is so sparingly used in the plot that a viewer might miss it altogether. Naturally, the impressive climax lacks build-up and thus falls somewhat flat.
Gordon Jackson (The Professionals) is a writer who recounts a tale of his younger days. He was writing a biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley, so he followed the poet’s route across Europe to the villa at Geneva where Mary wrote Frankenstein . One night, he checked himself, his wife and daughter into a sinister guest-house.
The daughter appears to be possessed by the spirit of Mary Shelley - or perhaps by the same spirit that possessed Mary. This is where it all gets confused. Was Mary possessed when she write her story, or was she merely inspired by the macabre marionette show?
This is a tale bookended by a young narrator recounting it to an audience of Victorian Gentlemen. He tells them about the time he and his best friend did the Grand Tour of Europe, shuttling about in a horse and carriage. His friend became obsessed with a lady they met at an inn. She invites them back to her castle, hundreds of miles away.
The journey north ramps the tension up, as the travellers get further from civilisation (and the sights get more sinister). It is reminiscent of the works of MR James , especially Whisper and I’ll Come To You .
It is nice to see Vampirism depicted differently. The vamps have milky white eyeballs, instead of the all-black ones that nowadays mark out everyone from the Alien Oil victims in X-Files to the title character in Grimm .