While horror anthologies were surprisingly popular in the 1970s and into the 1980s, by the Nineties, they had fallen out of favour with the cocaine cowboys and supposed hipsters who were taking over British television. So Yorkshire TV’s Chiller was something of an oddity in 1995 – a straight-faced, un-ironic series of ‘chilling’ tales. Generally dismissed at the time, it deserves reassessment, especially as it’s been issued on DVD in both the UK and USA.
The five-part series of 50-minute stories was co-produced (and sometimes directed) by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who had overseen the BBC’s famed Ghost Story for Christmas series of annual shockers based (mostly) on the works of M.R. James; but unlike those stories, this series is strictly contemporary stuff.
Series opener ‘Prophecy’ was adapted by Steven Gallagher from a story by Peter James (the ubiquitous author found in remainder shops up and down Britain) and is an Omen/Final Destination style tale where a séance leads to the deaths – or at least crippling – of all involved through a series of ‘accidents’. Sophie Ward stars as the woman at the centre of events and has a gratuitous nude scene, while Nigel Havers is her hapless boyfriend and father of a strange child who seems overly interested in bizarre deaths. It’s a solid enough start – not overly original perhaps, but well put together with some effective shocks.
Things get decidedly creepier with ‘Toby’, where couple Serena Gordon and Martin Clunes lose their unborn child as a result of a car crash. Gordon seemingly becomes pregnant again, but there is no baby inside her, although her phantom pregnancy runs all the way through to ‘birth’ – a queasily unpleasant moment. Returning home, she discovers that there is a phantom child in their house – an invisible, screaming baby that needs to be breast-fed in a genuinely unsettling moment. With whale song used as an effectively spooky soundtrack (I might have to steal that idea…) and a genuinely eerie atmosphere, this is dark stuff indeed.
‘The Mirror Man’ is the weakest entry in the series – John Simms stars as a mentally unbalanced man who becomes obsessed with a social worker (Phyllis Logan), who is herself having ‘issues’. The twist can be seen coming from the start, and there seems to be a chunk of plot missing, making this a rather forgettable instalment.
The final two episodes come from the pen of Anthony Horowitz. ‘The Man Who Didn’t Believe in Ghosts’ has Peter Egan as a writer who specialises in debunking stories of the supernatural. After suffering a stroke, his family move to a large house in Yorkshire, only to be confronted with unexplained happenings that the increasingly unpleasant author refuses to accept. But is he right? The story has pleasing twists and turns, a guest appearance from newsreader Angela Rippon and, to the amusement of Brit Horror fans, a character named Peter Walker.
The final story, ‘Number Six’, is closer to a dark police whodunit than a horror tale – though there are plenty of supernatural elements, including a whole gaggle of creepy kids. Kevin McNally is the police officer searching for the child killer who strikes every full moon in a small Yorkshire village. When it’s revealed that the school was built on former Druid sacrificial ground, you know things are only going to get worse, especially as McNally’s son is being visited by dead children. The story leaves a few loose strands but is well-paced and effectively bleak. Rising Damp star Don Warrington (also in feeble horror ‘comedy’ Bloodbath at the House of Death) appears as a psychologist who helps piece the mystery together.
Topped with a title sequence that feels like an outtake from Aphex Twin’s ‘Come to Daddy’, the Chiller series is a lot better than I expected it to be, avoiding the flat look of much British TV (all the stories are shot on film) or the smugness of later efforts like 2003 BBC series Spine Chillers or Channel 5’s Urban Gothic. If you have a taste for low key, scary stories, this will be just up your street.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA