Shown initially on BBC4 as a three-part miniseries, this was instantly repeated at feature length. Written by, produced and starring Mark Gatiss, with a Scots accent as arch as Peter Cushing’s Lancashire in From Beyond the Grave, it’s a homage to Amicus horror omnibuses as much as the once-upon-a-time BBC-TV tradition of mounting ghost stories, with or without period settings, for television at Christmas. There’s a sly aside about the BBC’s never-repeated Halloween effort Ghostwatch and dialogue quotes from The Haunting and like tales – almost all from the film and TV versions rather than any literary originals.
Teacher Ben (Lee Ingleby) consults a museum curator (Gatiss) about an antique door-knocker which has turned up in his garden, and the Curator recognises it as coming from the now-demolished Tudor house Geap Manor. After set-up about the original owner of Geap (Derren Brown), who failed to have issue despite consulting a necromancer, the curator spins two self-contained stories set in Georgian times and the 1920s involving the successive owners of Geap – and then Ben has contemporary ghost trouble connected with the house (this echoes The House That Dripped Blood). All three stories, ‘The Wainscoting’, ‘Something Old’ and ‘The Knocker’, take elements from M.R. James and Amicus — with overtones of And Now the Screaming Starts in ‘Something Old’ and elements from ‘The Door’ (of From Beyond the Grave) in ‘The Knocker’.
In ‘The Wainscoting’, financier Sir Joseph Bloxham (Philip Jackson) buys the house with proceeds from a South American speculation that has beggared other investors. He is tormented by scratching behind the wood panels and mysterious blotches – it turns out that the wood used came from the gallows at Tyburn and has developed a taste for the lives of the hanged. In ‘Something Old’, vapid posh youth Felix (Ian Hallard) announces his engagement to middle-class Ruthie (Jennifer Higham) at a costume party, and excites the enmity of an eyeless bride spectre (Lauren Jones) who was betrayed on her own wedding day and cursed any future brides. While ‘The Knocker’ has Ben, separated from his pregnant girlfriend (Daniela Denby-Ashe), hang up the old knocker on his new door and find it periodically a portal to the past, where necromancer Dr Unthank has wicked plans for his offspring. The two period stories allow the BBC costume department to show off and Gatiss to pastiche old manners of speech entertainingly, but are both oddly structured – with awkward shifts of point of view and dollops of backstory which hinder proper development of suspense and horror. Jackson is good as the Georgian financial finagler, all the nastier for not being completely without shame (he is as distressed by the reduction to penury of an investor’s wife as the supernatural business). The viewpoint strangely skitters away from the protagonist’s persecution to have another character (Julian Rhind-Tutt) do the sleuthing that uncovers the reason for the haunting – and, even then, evil wood paneling is more in line with the killer coffee table of the Dr Terror’s House of Horrible Amicus parody than the cursed objects of James.
The climax is at once vague and hurried, as if the story were having so much fun in taverns (where Andy Nyman bounces a wench) that the horror was left too late. To a lesser extent ‘Something Old’ also suffers from spending so much time on a gay friend (Samuel Barnett) with a crush on Felix and a spiteful ex-fiancée (a splendidly spiteful Anna Madeley) that Lady Constance (Jean Marsh) has to gabble out her backstory in an indecent wedge. This at least manages a solidly chilling climax with the eyeless ghost, even if innocence is preserved as the guilty are punished (in its costume ball setting, this story evokes the ‘Christmas Party’ of Dead of Night). ‘The Knocker’ is the best story of the lot – despite an ending that has the minor drawback of overwriting reality so that the previous stories couldn’t have happened (nasty Sir Joseph presumably lived on to enjoy his wealth unpersecuted by the paneling). The characters feel more like real people and less like elements in a pastiche, and Ingleby is interesting as a hero sidetracked by supernatural mystery from an overriding concern (unwillingness to be a father) that unfortunately dovetails with an unseen enemy’s obsessive need for an heir. Going back to the museum for more information, Ben finds the Curator has vanished – and Gatiss has clearly reserved for himself a plum bit of creepery as his face pops up throughout history as the sly Dr Unthank.
A BBC budget constraint adversely affects the production in that the house itself never really establishes itself as a presence, seen in only a few CGI-augmented exteriors. Its final appearance, re-establishing itself amid suburbia, would be more effective if we actually had a sense of its shape before-hand. Directed by Damon Thomas.