by Kristin Battestella
These short series, documentaries, and films hailing from across the pond were made recently, but carry a whiff of history and period piece air nonetheless. While some are quality, bizarre, or cheesy and some are frightfully bad and confusing – these bonus British flavors are at the moment all on Hulu Plus and Amazon Video for stateside anglophiles. Yippee!
The Secret of Crickley Hall – Eerie reverse negative titles and ominous music set the cold, isolated mood for this three hour 2006 miniseries based upon the titular novel, and past screams immediately disturb present dreams – contrasting previous trauma with contemporary family mornings, and sassy daughter Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones). Despite great locales and a lovely manor house mixing updated designs, old décor, creaking stairs, hiding nooks, and divine woodwork, we know moving to a spooky home won't overcome the playground abductions, guilt, and hysteria – even the family dog knows what's afoot. Fortunately, the modern setting is not intrusive, allowing for jump scares in the attic, basement warnings, and potential family psychic connections amid Blitz orphanage harshness, period fashions, stiff upper lip severe, and handyman David Warner (Titanic) linking the two eras. This parallel storytelling may be irksome to some, however the scenes are well matched and balanced evenly. Neither feels as if one time is intruding upon the other, and both plots are needed to tell the tale. The editing is also shrewdly concurrent, almost as if past and present coexist – eliminating the need for a research montage or catch all flashback now that we see the history in real time. Mass drownings, gravestones all with the same year, food is a reward not a right in this school, and the viewer not only believes these times are standing still enough to merge but we want the current residents to reveal all. Is mom Suranne Jones (Coronation Street) willing to risk her children at hand to find those lost? Does she hear what she wants to believe? Marital disagreements and ghostly interactions escalate as past papers are discovered, but the tone remains self aware with wise youths, reluctant mediums, and a parsonage looking the other way. While not super scary, the suspense and good drama let the audience speculate on past nasty and root for righteous schoolteacher Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel). Of course, as usual, the scientific man is unconvinced despite encounters and the wife with loss is a seemingly erroneous believer. Rival psychics help or hinder the past darkness and shadows – sometimes visually mirroring a near black and white patina. Suggestive water, phantom canings, surprising deaths, and evil old ladies bring everything together. Though some people and plot points are obvious, witnessing this past still very much in the present has far more impact, and some frightful retribution makes from a fine finish.
The Toy Box – Animated legends and Norfolk fairytales open this 2005 slasher with happy kids games and magical storytelling – until a pet ends up in the blender...yeah. Colorful interiors, a quirky house, and should be quaint locales set the scene for holiday family gatherings, but creepy artwork is being sent in the mail – er post – and unnecessary, shaky cam zooms interfere with the bizarre parents, crazy granny, too close siblings, and taut tension at the table. Choppy editing keeps restarting the story with little explanation on who is who, and numerous scenes fade out without really ending or serving any purpose. This film reeks of an incomplete fly by night production disguised as weird trying to be avante garde – enough with the ritual echos, unexplained nonsensical, and juvenile cartoons. Though shrewd, affordable, and in keeping with the child fantasy aspects; the animated recountings of local myths also feel like the cheapest way to show rather than tell. This animation and the disjointed childhood flashbacks delay the story at hand when websites, books, and intriguing characters telling tales about the fire is information enough. Along with distorted dreams and just the right amount of gore, mysterious amulets, candlelight dinners, smoky mirror reflections, snow, and meat hooks build mood over the eighty minutes. Yes, too many confusing things are happening and much of this will be too out there or just plain dumb for some audiences. It's tough to forgive the low budget mistakes and struggling production shortchange dominating over all the good potential, violence, and horrors, too. Fortunately, there are enough frights in the final act for viewers to hang in there for the twisted enjoyment of seeing folks get what they deserve.
Bedlam – Spooky visuals, text message warnings, and phantom GPS directions are just the beginning for this 2011 six episode debut brimming with old fashioned writing on the mirror and ghosts in the machine – all at the titular asylum cum luxury apartments, of course. The credits are creepy, however the in your face music and trying to be saucy indicates the soap opera oriented roommate make outs, emo meets yuppie players, and bad twentysomething chic styles. The who and why fors aren't immediately established – institution history, adoptions, and three hundred year old family secrets wait thanks to easy ghost of the week clichés. The adulterous Bitch, Black Best Friend, and Bi-curious labels also stereotypically define the characters by their relationships rather than the individuals they are, and Chiseled Cheekbone Psychic White Guy Theo James (Divergent) feels been there done that. His ghostly vision jolts are pretty humorous yet his hotness flusters all, and everyone must behave stupidly for the horrors to happen – like pulling on the locked doorknob to escape when the top half of the door is a window. If our star can see one's death by touch then why do we need person of the week coincidences? Some special effects are for the viewer's sake as well, erroneously calling attention to the medium instead of building atmospheric immersion when other minimal ghost visuals and distorted camerawork are enough. Dreams, dark car parks, eerie red lighting, and ghoulish green ghosts certainly make it difficult for Hugo Speer (The Full Monty) to keep his family building business in the black. Phenomena on the security cameras, vehicular horrors, creepy construction, research history, and period flashes are much more interesting than any hip drama, too. A crazy conspiracy lady, who knows what revelations, spiritual interventions for good or ill, and colonial bad karma are all much better shady alongside little girl ghosts, dangerous turrets, and dead bodies. It's tough to watch these forty plus minute episodes individually and a fast marathon is better, however the latter half is more focused on the spooky rather than sexy with hidden room horrors, tarot cards, and evidence burned leading to a multi level finale topper.
Bedlam Series 2 – Although you kind of have to see what happens next, I wasn't going to continue this Second six episode season thanks to too many meh characters in Year One. Although the total cast revamp makes this seem like an entirely different show, unfortunately, the reset only makes things worse with more making out yuppie flatmates and the replacement of one scheming a-hole manager for another ruining the refreshingly diverse casting. Let's test prospective clients by fact checking them on trips to Thailand because we all hop, skip, jump, and vacay when we can't pay the rent, yeah! New EMT who sees the dead Lacey Turner (EastEnders) is in search of answers from last season, however her constant screaming and crying gets old very fast. Hugo Speer has good paranormal encounters but still looks the other way at deadly history – and rebounds by fetishing with his daughter's Asian BFF. Ominous construction, creepy pictures, and blurred imagery add to the phantom toys, and recurring ghosts, but the hip bar, pool, and gym don't make us care about the weekly resident drama. A dead bride covered with blood surely wants more than calling off a modern wedding – too many easy solutions or dismissals give no spiritual restitution. Heck, the series Wikipedia page has more detail than what's onscreen, and candelabras or abandoned chapels don't hide the padded run time. Despite dun dun dun familial twists – which brings out pathetic racist reactions from the all these jerks – and abortion bombshells, ten minutes of a possessed Autistic boy chanting in Latin is more interesting than all the ham-fisted here, which I barely finished watching.
You Make the Call...
Great British Ghosts – This 2011 documentary series isn't herky jerky, boo, what's that, paranormal investigators in your face – which audiences so, so tired of that faux reality trend will prefer. Unfortunately, I can't tell if this presentation is meant to be taken as serious or comical, and I am leaning more towards thinking these Brits are taking the piss, as they say, with viewers. The infrequent male narrator comes and goes willy nilly, but he says me, we, and I while the woman hosting the series goes to the places and does the actions he describes. Such an error wouldn't matter if the creepy was getting while the creepy's good, however, the paranormal stories themselves are poorly presented almost as an afterthought. Our omnipresent man and female guide go to an establishment and chat with someone marginally credible who awkwardly shares how one time they felt something. Maybe they didn't see anything, but they knew it was there! Once, another employee/guest/relative thought they heard something, got scared, won't come back, and Bob's your uncle this place is haunted. Rather than sharing specific histories of grizzly events that would lead to such eponymous activity, the entire show is all just a lot of hearsay. Again, some audiences may enjoy this kind of casual, hand-held, and rural experience rather than a windblown talking head historian, but the meandering segments feel overlong anyway at only twenty-two minutes. Honestly, I didn't finish all twenty episodes and just wanted to put it on mute. While some accents will be tougher than others are, it wasn't the all over the place dictation that was so bothersome – I just wanted to look at all the pretty places in peace. The superb locales, medieval architecture, and historic scenery we don't have stateside are the only things really working here. Had this presentation been styled as America's Castles with spooky voiceovers anchoring a video tour of ye olde haunted, well then, yes please!