TRUE HORROR ****
Directed by Tom Kingsley, Rob Savage, Gareth Tunley, Amanda Boyle. Starring Amy Morgan, Adam Leese, Katie Jarvis, Joss Porter, James Dryden, Michelle Ryan. UK 2018 4 x 50 min episodes.
Broadcast on Channel 4 on 19th April, 26th April, 3rd May and 31st October 2018
At Last a British TV show unembarrassed to just try and scare the viewers.
Anyone who lived through the horror televisual drought of the 1990’s will recall the dire lack of original British genre content on the small screen, a period in which the most compellingly disturbing things tended to be on THE WORD. The precious few horror shows that did creep on to the airwaves tended to be rathe good : the Albert Finney-led mini series THE GREEN MAN, the effectively eerie ITV anthology show CHILLER and, of course, Stephen Volk’s peerless, terrifying GHOSTWATCH – the latter an unsurpassed precursor to a wealth of subsequent cinematic hauntings. Now, we have an embarrassment of riches : a barrage of spooky series, including an ongoing sequence of home-made genre fodder that continues apace with Channel 4’s TRUE HORROR.
The three-episode mini-series – with the fourth set to air on Halloween – emerges from the producers of the excellent THE ENFIELD HAUNTING, which itself pre-empted the gaudier and sillier THE CONJURING 2 in adapting one of the UK’s most famous real-life ghost stories. TRUE HORROR takes on a fashionable docudrama approach, framing extended re-enactments of allegedly bonafide paranormal events around talking-head interviews with those who experienced the phenomenon, alongside journalists and experts. The series coincidentally arrives on TV soon after the release of Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s wonderful GHOST STORIES, an entirely fictionalised variation on a similar format, and has recent precedents in a host of faked “found footage” genre movies and, on the small screen, the multi-layered “realities” of AMERICAN HOROR STORY: ROANOKE.
All four episodes are effectively scary and well crafted, even if the interviewees’ recollections verge on the intrusive when they are punctuating sustained scenes of unease. Relatively unusual for British TV horror, all four rely on the tropes familiar to big-screen American supernatural movies: ostensibly, what Mark Kermode calls the “quiet-quiet-bang” approach, with perhaps a few too many false scares contrived for the sake of a cheap jolt. The prevailing mood, however, is genuinely sinister and, modern pseudo-documentary format aside, there is something pleasingly old-fashioned about the stories themselves and their ruthless dedication to being purely frightening that recalls ITV’s HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR series of the early 1980’s. (Ah sweet, traumatising nostalgia…remember that one with the guy and the horribly long fingernail?!)
Tom Kingsley’s opening episode “Hellfire Farm” is set in South Wales and has Adam Leese channelling James Brolin’s THE-AMITYVILLE-HORROR narrative arc as a troubled artist who moves into a purportedly haunted farm house with his family. He finds his sanity cracking as relatable annoyances like outrageously large electric bills and power surges evolve into dead goats and ominous hooded figures standing at the end of the bed. The plot builds to a climactic exorcism, though its most effective frights are the quietest : a nerve-wracking “under the bed” gambit and a fabulous frisson reminiscent of a stand-out bit of business in GHOSTWATCH, whereby what appears to be a figure standing behind the curtains turns out to just be a trick of the light / the eye.
Rob Savage directs “Ghost In The Wall”, which incorporates fashionable (VHS) home movie footage into the now-established format of modern day interviewees recalling frightening experiences from years earlier. Rebellious young woman Kate Jarvis failed to make peace with her prospective (and disapproving) father in law before he died and, as she builds a substantial family, finds that he appears to be fulfilling an earlier promise to live on in the walls of their house, haunting the grandchildren he never got to meet. It’s perhaps the slightest of the tales in story terms, but Savage maximises the impact of the domestic invasion via unwelcome sounds on the baby monitor, fleetingly glimpsed figures in corridors, faces emerging from walls and ominous figures lurking in the reflection of a television screen.
Gareth Tunley earned deserved plaudits for his feature THE GHOUL last year and captures a similar sense of sustained disquiet with “Terror In The Woods”, a Horsham-set occult tale unusually centered around a trio of credible teenage boys. The prank-loving lads take a trip to the allegedly haunted “Doomsday Church” – renowned for its “plague pits” - and, after a traumatic time getting lost in the woods, appear to bring something evil back home with them. Tunley generates considerable intensity from extended post-BLAIR WITCH tent-based anxiety and captures one sequence of genuine alarm featuring the three terrified boys in their bedroom. The obligatory, overly familiar scenes of paranormal investigators are hokey by comparison.
Finally, Amanda Boyle’s “The Witches’ Prison” has two old school friends reuniting in St Osyth, Essex and cohabiting at an allegedly haunted place in their hometown that, legend has it, was home to much torture and torment in the days when it served as a witches’ prison. This episode generates plenty of shivers from scenes of heroine Michelle Ryan (typically good) striving to protect her new-born from an increasingly prominent force of evil, and, like the quartet of episodes in general, doesn’t over-expose its central source of fright.
In a sub-genre of horror that tends to be dominated by increasingly formulaic (and franchise-based) American chillers like INSIDIOUS or THE CONJURING “universe”, one of the most satisfying things about the nicely crafted TRUE HORROR is that it’s a very British series going to great lengths to be truly frightening. It’s masquerading under a wimpy label like “supernatural costume drama” or “psychological thriller with the occasional spook”. It has the word “horror” in its title, and it is unashamedly dedicated to scaring seven shades of shite out of the unwary viewer. In that regard, it succeeds admirably – all the while capturing that fine balance of everyday British banality and outlandish paranormal activity. “The Witches’ Prison” sums this up very nicely in a sequence where the central talking head interviewee, reflecting on her traumatic experiences, talks calmly about how hard it was to be a single mum – doing a full day’s work on very little sleep, keeping up with the household bills, taking care of a restless crying baby…and being persistently annoyed by the malevolent, vengeful, restless ghost of a centuries old witch.
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