The BBC horror anthology serial is more interesting than the poor production values and theatrical performances make it seem.
Created and mostly written by Robert Muller, Supernatural was broadcast just the once, over the summer of 1977 on BBC1. Idiotically scheduled to clash with BBC2’s Horror Double Bill film season and roundly dismissed by both viewers and critics, it vanished from sight after its eight-week run – while a tie-in paperback was issued, the series wasn’t renewed and has never been repeated. Apart from iffy bootleg releases and the occasional festival screening, the series has sat gathering dust for the last 36 years prior to this DVD release. We should, I suppose, be grateful that the BBC had abandoned its wiping of archive material by this point, or the series would surely have been lost forever.
It’s easy to see why the show had – prior to a BFI DVD release a few years ago – slipped into obscurity. Shot on typical 1970s style on videotape, it has a flat, somewhat garish look complete with ghosting when characters move too quickly and suffers from the strange theatrical leanings of British TV (especially on the BBC, where single dramas were always ‘plays’ rather than films and every programme was ‘by’ the writer rather than the director). This results in somewhat stagey presentations and some frankly terrible acting performances from people who don’t seem to have been told that they don’t have to project to the back on television. The result often feels like watching a filmed (or videoed) stage play with a few exterior inserts.
And yet despite these severe technical limitations, Supernatural has an uncanny knack of getting under your skin. Perhaps because it looks so unlike anything we are used to seeing now, or because of the theatricality of it lending an unreal edge to proceedings, the series is for the most part decidedly creepy. Never terrifying or shocking, but definitely unsettling. And it does have a consistency of feel with its period stories that consciously avoid going for cheap thrills (sometimes to the point of abandoning thrills entirely, it must be said) and weird atmosphere that pervades throughout.
The series has a linking theme – each week, a prospective member of the exclusive Club of the Damned will tell the members a true tale of terror. If successful, he will be given lifetime membership of the Club; if he fails, he will die. It’s certainly one way of weeding out the timewasters. Our narrator for each story will then be the auditioner, and each week there will be a ‘chilling’ twist as the identity – or secret – of the narrator is revealed. The success of this device is somewhat variable.
The series gets off to a weak start with Ghost of Venice, with a scenery-munching Robert Hardy as an actor returning to the scene of a past tragedy to encounter the ghostly Leonora (Sinead Cusack). This is ponderous, plodding stuff that is probably the most woodenly theatrical of all the stories, Hardy gives a frankly appalling performance that has more ham than the deli counter at Sainsbury’s. With a story that goes nowhere slowly, this is a rather off-putting start to the series and it’s unsurprising that TV viewers began to look elsewhere for Saturday night entertainment.
Ratings were possibly not helped by the fact that the next two episodes make up a two-part story, though at no point in episode one is this made clear, presumably frustrating viewers who sat through the first part expecting an ending. Placing a two-parter so early in an eight-part series is possibly not the best scheduling.
However, Countess Ilona and The Werewolf Reunion are, viewed outside the context of 1977 TV scheduling, several steps up from the first episode. The extended length allows the story to develop, and while it remains crushingly slow and overly subtle by modern standards, there is much to admire here, with a slowly creeping atmosphere and a nicely ambiguous central performance by Billie Whitelaw and some decidedly weird moments that more than compensate for the lack of action (and lack of werewolf).
Mr Nightingale sees a return to overly theatrical hamming courtesy of Jeremy Brett, though at least his character is supposed to become overtly, ostentatiously villainous in the story. There are also some dodgy video effects, an appearance from Lesley-Anne Down as a pyro/nymphomaniac and a story that is at once overly complex and uninvolving. Along with Ghost of Venice, this is the weakest point of the series.
Things improve considerably from this point on. Lady Sybil stars Denholm Elliott and John Osborne as brothers living with their elderly, frail and seemingly paranoid mother (Cathleen Nesbitt), who is convinced that there is a stalker – possibly her deceased husband – out to get her. All clues point to the nervous and twitchy Osbourne as the real culprit, but seasoned genre fans will know better than to fall for that. The cast here stay on the right side of hysterical acting and there’s a real sense of mystery and horror at play.
The next two stories both tell very different tales based on creepy mannequins. Viktoria is a classic Victorian melodrama about a feckless (and closeted gay) man who allows his first wife to die of a heart condition and then remarries into an equally loveless marriage, all the time ignoring his daughter who is fixated with a lifesize doll called Rosa. The episode is full of edgy performances from the likes of Lewis Fiander and Catherine Schell, with only Genevieve West as the titular character seeming too wooden and unbelievable. The gay subtext is interesting and the show will certainly cause nightmares for anyone with a doll phobia (or who is unfortunate to have any dolls in their bedroom).
Night of the Marionettes is the series highlight for me. Gordon Jackson plays a writer researching a biography of Byron and Shelly who takes his family to a small Swiss hotel where the owners (including Dracula lookalike Vladek Sheybal) put on strange puppet shows using what seem to be reanimated corpses. As both a nightmarish tale of terror and an interesting slant on the Frankenstein story – the implication being that this is where Mary Shelly got the inspiration for her novel from – it’s highly effective and has a far less stagebound and garish look than earlier episodes; ironic, given that much of the action takes place on a stage.
The final episode, Dorabella, is a tale of vampirism and doomed, obsessive love, with the titular character (Ania Marson) bewitching nihilistic travellers Jeremy Clyde and David Robb, who are forced to travel from inn to inn, only seeing her at night, until they reach her ancestral home where new blood is needed to perpetuate the race. The extended exterior scenes ensure that this has less ugly video set-ups than most episodes and the sense of bleakness and doomed inevitability gives the story a genuine gothic edge. Marson is impressively ambiguous and the two leads convince as the damned pair. There’s also an appearance by John Justin as Dorabella’s father that will give many viewers the willies.
So very much a series of two halves, Supernatural unfortunately places its weakest stories upfront, a fact that probably contributed to the lack of success. In all honesty, you could probably skip the first disc of this collection without really missing out on too much – though Countess Ilona/The Werewolf Reunion is worth seeing. But the final four episodes range from the very good to the excellent and seem to have learned from the mistakes of earlier productions. Certainly, these are terror tales that will linger in your mind long after they are over, which is always an impressive sign.
Viewers under forty might find it all a bit slow and cheap-looking, if I’m honest, though I would suggest persevering and allowing both the visual limitations, the production style and the pacing to become familiar. Anyone who caught it the first time around (and when I say images will linger, I mean it – they stayed with me since I saw this as a child) will be glad of the opportunity to finally reassess it and might be pleasantly surprised that there is so much here that is good.