It wasn't the first to be broadcast, but it's the first episode on my Hammer House of Horror boxed set. This was a 1980 TV series of thirteen 50-minute episodes, followed up by a similar series, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, in 1984. The latter was unfortunately a co-production with US TV and so had to cut back on the sex and violence, so naturally I started with the earlier one.
It's still basically TV, of course. Don't expect a video nasty. However it looks impressive enough to compare favourably with a lot of Hammer's regular movies, both in terms of story quality and how it looks on the screen. It doesn't look like TV. The director, Tom Clegg, is coming up with interesting camera angles and making it look dynamic, despite the fact that it's a haunted house story. It's some actors in a house. You could imagine it being done in the 1950s, although I don't know how happy they'd have been about the horror elements back then and of course being far more actor-dependent would have yielded a completely different atmosphere.
Here though they're making it cinematic, with lots of location shooting and a bit of silhouetted toplessness. It's also nastier than you'd expect, with a deep interest in a pair of 18-inch long knives and a notorious birthday party scene. That wasn't what I'd been expecting, but it's certainly memorable.
The story is... rather good, considering. On the upside, it's an excellent example of the haunted house genre. I admire how they're juggling all the traditional elements: paranormal phenomena, occasional gore and a simple focus on the cast. The weird and nasty stuff is strong, but not overused. It's easy to drown your story in that kind of thing and kill it, as happened with that The Sarah Jane Adventures story I watched recently. On the contrary, this episode's secret weapon is patience. We know bad things will happen and the episode's teasing us by making us wait for them. This is great. Importantly also the characters' reactions are often the most important things in the story, which means we're not just watching an empty exercise in oogie-boogie but instead a story about people. Personally I thought it was an excellent example of how to tackle this rather awkward genre.
However it's still a haunted house story. These tend to be inherently static. Our heroes move into a house of horror, then stay there. Idiots. It's not impossible to find interesting angles on this, but this episode isn't really doing that and instead is simply doing the basics very well. I like the execution, but I'm not wild about those basics. It's just not a very interesting story.
Then there's the finale. There's a twist ending, as is apparently normal for this series, which I don't think was a great idea because this twist didn't make a lot of sense to me. Had that been the plan? Really? Then there's the inevitable final scene and... okay, yeah, we got it. Those last five minutes aren't bad as such, but I think they lose their way a bit.
The cast are mostly of interest to me through their roles in Doctor Who. My favourite is Milton Johns, whom I know from The Invasion of Time but didn't realise until I looked it up just now was also in The Android Invasion and The Enemy of the World. He's a slightly reptilian estate agent, who seems like a decent chap in his own way and yet you wouldn't ask him to babysit your children. He's not creepy. That would be putting it too strongly. He's just... Milton Johns. Other actors include Camilla from State of Decay, Borg from The Robots of Death, Miss Winters from Robot and, best of all, poor Ernie Clements from Pyramids of Mars playing a character who's again called Clements. Well, probably. There's a continuity goof. A newspaper says he's Albert Clements, but dialogue elsewhere calls him Johnson. Anyway, Rachel Davies (the wife) isn't a great actress and the little girl playing the daughter has a couple of odd facial expressions, but I liked Milton Johns, Patricia Maynard and the actor playing the husband, Nicholas Ball.
One nice thing about the episode, by the way, is how sympathetic everyone is. They have their breaking points, but even so everyone's nice to each other and doing their best to think of other people and make the situation work. That's how you'd want to be behaving too. It helped a lot that I liked everyone and was approving of their decisions and supporting them.
The music's not always subtle, but I didn't have a problem with it. You could have put it in Doctor Who. Overall, what we have here is pretty good. The story's not that interesting and the finale's a misstep, I think, but if you can get past those admittedly fundamental issues it's a strong piece of work. (I just wrote "television" there and then deleted it again, because that's not how it feels.) It's nasty. It's got "ewww" and it got me wondering how far they'd be prepared to go. The cat? The little girl? The story's being driven by the characters rather than the weird stuff, with the latter making only occasional appearances but being hammered hard when it does. It's a bit heavy-handed with the knives (or "swords" as they get called), but at least that means there's no chance of you forgetting about them.
In summary: better than I'd expected. I'm not wild about this particular episode, but I have a reason for that and I think the series as a whole is going to be good.