Just released by the British Film Institute we’ve got a double DVD of the BBC TV series from 1977 called ‘Supernatural’. This has absolutely nothing to do with the more recent American TV series of the same name so if you are ordering the discs from anywhere but the BFI, make sure you get the right package. On the discs are all eight episodes of the series. No more were made, which is a pity because just as it was getting good and interesting, it was cut off in its prime. Having never been repeated on TV, the BFI is releasing the series as part of their Gothic: ‘The Dark Heart Of Film’ celebration.
In creating the series, Robert Muller, who devised and wrote most of the material, wanted to go back to drama similar to that of the Gothic material from the 1920s and 1930s which had a general absence of blood and violence as portrayed in the more modern thriller but encapsulated good acting, fear, romance and menace. It was a step away from the conventional horror movie of 1977 and probably a light year away from what is available today. If you go for this, don’t expect bloody gore, you just won’t see it. Compared to what is on offer today, it may come across as boring but the acting is a long way ahead of contemporary stuff.
What are the episodes all about? Well, in many respects, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg with good and bad parts. The first DVD of four episodes, while okay, is outshone by the second DVD which has four stunning episodes. Most of the filming was done in the studio with outside work kept to a minimum, except perhaps for the last episode, ‘Dorabella’. Running through the entire series we have an introduction and ending featuring the Club Of The Dammed. This is a Victorian upper-class gentleman’s club, a stereotype of what we imagine it to be, with old guys in comfortable armchairs smoking cigars drinking brandy. They invite people to give them talks which have to be spine-chilling and horrific and, if they don’t think the tales are up to scratch, the person that delivers them gets killed. Just who would volunteer? Only people with exceptional stories or possibly only people who are stark raving mad!
The first episode, ‘Ghosts Of Venice’, features Robert Hardy, a veteran of many fine performances including the TV series ‘All Creatures Great And Small’ and Sinead Cusack from Ireland who has been in many films, most recently ‘Wrath Of The Titans’. Hardy plays an old actor who believes something has been stolen from him but he doesn’t know quite what. It’s got to do with an event in the past but when he meets the ghost of a former lover, things begin to crystallise and make sense.
Episodes two and three, ‘Countess Iliona’ and ‘The Werewolf Reunion’, really run together and frankly, despite the acting being good, should have been condensed into one episode. Basically, it involves the Countess inviting four former lovers, all from Hungary, to a remote Gothic castle for a mysterious reunion. The four men are all of different character and nature and as the events progress, what you imagine will happen does actually happen. It’s good but suspense is not really evident and the horror is muted.
Episode four, ‘Mr. Nightingale’, features Jeremy Brett and many will know him from TV’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Visiting a family in Hamburg, he plays an eccentric man with a split personality. As time passes, his personality becomes even more polarised, a Jekyll and Hyde character, which inexorably leads to tragedy and ruination. This is possibly the most disappointing of all the episodes.
Things get better with episode five, ‘Lady Sybil’, with the well-known actor Denholm Elliott and also playwright/actor John Osborne famous for, amongst other things, the 1956 play ‘Look Back In Anger’. We’ve also got Catherine Nesbit as Lady Sybil. A domineering aged mother is plagued by a stalker in her Victorian mansion. One of the sons is a respected doctor and the other a playboy musician. Excellent acting is accompanied by increasing tension as we get to the end to find who is actually doing the stalking.
The episodes get progressively better. Episode six, entitled ‘Viktoria’, is set in Hungary. Starring Catherine Schell and Judy Cornwell, it centres on a family where the woman is disabled in a wheelchair following a riding accident. She has a daughter but is married to an uncaring man who wishes her dead. The situation is complicated with a domineering housekeeper and an old lady steeped in folklore. When the lady dies, her spirit is transported into a doll which becomes attached to the daughter. Strange things then begin to happen after the man remarries and settles into a house in England
‘Night Of The Marionettes’, as episode seven, transports us to Switzerland and Gordon Jackson playing a researcher into Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Along with his wife and daughter, they find refuge in a secluded hotel where the owner seems to be rather peculiar. A spitting image of a vampire, Vladek Sheybal steals the show. Many will remember him from ‘UFO’ as the psychologist and also the chess player/KGB planner in ‘From Russia With Love’. Every year the hotel puts on a marionette show but the life-size figures seem to be real humans. They begin to worry that this will be their own fate.
It’s no surprise to discover that Dorabella is a vampire. In the last episode of the same name, which has quite a lot of outside scenes, she captivates a couple of men, Jeremy Clyde and John Justin. Incidentally, Jeremy Clyde is the leading actor in another BFI presentation now released called ‘Schalken The Painter’. With increasing dread and horror, she takes them across country through many villages until they reach the vampire’s castle. Probably the best of the episodes, it stands as a classic which must be watched!
The original TV format typical of the 70s is retained so you’ll get a black band down either side of your widescreen television. This is no deterrent. The package comes with a very interesting and comprehensive booklet containing an essay, episode notes, biographies and a list of the cast and credits. All in all, it’s a very good package. Okay, a couple of episodes are maybe not up to scratch as regards sustained interest but most of them are really good and some are excellent. Throughout all the episodes, the acting is absolutely first-class making this a package that can definitely be recommended.
(region 2 DVD: British Film Institute. 2 DVDs 400 minutes 8 * 50 minute episodes . ISBN: 5035673009949. Price: £24.99 (UK))
cast: assorted by includes Billie Whitelaw, Jeremy Brett, Robert Hardy, Gordon Jackson, Sinead Cusack, Denholm Elliott and Ian Hendry
check out website: http://filmstore.bfi.org.uk/acatalog/info_27235.html