That was pretty good. Admittedly it's about Satanists and so is silly, but they manage to keep the unintentional comedy under control and in any case that adds a bit of fun to what's sometimes a rather drab series.
The story involves an antiques dealer, Ray Lonnen, who finds a scrying glass that might have once belonged to the Elizabethan astronomer and mathematician Dr John Dee. Of course Dee was also an occultist and so his scrying glass is wanted by a self-proclaimed "Choronzon Society". Their leader, John Carson, has hypnotic powers and does bad things to chickens when he can't get hold of a girl. (Note to self: rephrase that to sound less dodgy.)
The pre-credits sequence is like a showcase of all the bad ways this story could have gone, but ended up being quite disturbing. We begin with a satanic ritual. John Carson and his followers are conducting a ceremony that involves a young girl in a revealing dress. (You wouldn't want to do anything too athletic in it, e.g. turning around quickly.) For a minute or two I thought we were about to wallow in camp, but as it happens today's ritual is about to go wrong in a way that will peeve Carson and slightly disgust the audience.
The main story is trying to be down-to-earth, which means we have a practical hero (Lonnen) who may or may not have realised what he's bitten off. The series's usual realism also means that we get a pleasantly detailed look at the world of antiques dealers. Most of the main characters are involved in it and we see them making silly bids at auctions, haggling afterwards about what they've bought and dropping in on each other's offices. We see their shops and Lonnen's rather lovely house. All this is nice. It grounds the story and makes it feel real, which is useful given the basic loopiness of the subject matter. (I'm sorry, I know I'm going on about it, but really. Vampires, yes. Werewolves, no problem. Black-cowled chanting loonies who are basically one rung down from trainspotters... no, I don't get it.)
What's interesting about this rabble though is their historical accuracy. The scriptwriter's not just doing generic cultists, but instead something much more specific. The occult gibberish in here is authentic. John Dee indeed did conduct magic rituals with Edward Kelley back in the 16th century, while his system of Enochian magic really did include a demon called Choronzon. Aleister Crowley then in turn made Choronzon part of his mystical system of Thelema, claiming in 1909 to have summoned him. There are even pop culture references to the dude, albeit mostly from heavy metal musicians.
This adds texture to the episode, giving the occultists weight. It's also a good fit with the antiques dealers, since history is their business and so they'd be excited in a completely different way by artefacts that belonged to John Dee.
It's also worth mentioning that John Carson has hypnotic powers. I liked the scene where he uses these on Lonnen, in which they play it in an unusual way.
This episode has strong Doctor Who links, starting with the scriptwriter, David Fisher. Incidentally his first Doctor Who story, The Stones of Blood, also involved occultists, while of course his script editor on both series was Anthony Read. As for the cast, Lonnen was in Frontier in Space, while Carson was Director Ambril in Snakedance. Best of all though is Paul Darrow, even at this point still playing his most famous role, Avon in Blake's 7. (Doctor Who fan knee-jerk: Doctor Who and the Silurians, Timelash.) If I were the casting director for a story of devil worshippers, I'd be thinking of Darrow too. I'm not trying to claim that he's the best actor here or anything, but it's still entertaining to watch him doing his trademark "psychopathic creep" act in a role so well-suited for it.
At the same time though, there's quite a horror pedigree here. Don Sharp had worked for Hammer before, e.g. The Kiss of the Vampire
. Carson was a horror veteran, while we also have Barbara Ewing (Torture Garden, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
). Finally there's Rosalyn Landor, whose screen career began at the age of seven in The Devil Rides Out
. She's beautiful, but in a slightly eerie way.
The episode has a few wrinkles. The biggest is that Carson already has a scrying glass! Why does he need another? Is he simply a collector? (That would fit in with the presence of antiques dealers, actually.) Alternatively a better rationalisation might be to say that John Dee's original one might be of better quality... whoah, hang on, wait. I'm wrong. I've just remembered a shot of a scrying glass with a hole knocked in it, but it also can't have had much impact either on me or the plot since I'm pretty sure Carson was still using his original scrying glass long after Darrow had made himself look foolish and desperate chasing after Lonnen's.
Other matters include the twist ending, which is telegraphed so well in advance that the real surprise would have been for the episode to do anything else. However I quite like that. It's horror. Anticipation is half the fun. I also liked the foreshadowing involved in Barbara Ewing's devotion to horoscopes, which is at once nice characterisation and a point of similarity with John Dee.
The Hammer House of Horror Nudity Rule manages not to be broken, by the way. I was nervous once or twice, with those stripper sacrifice dresses and then later when Rosalyn Landor gets undressed. Fortunately though they show restraint. (I've been thinking about this and I've thought of a possible causal factor, in that the production team might have deliberately added nudity into weaker episodes to try to keep hold of the audience.)
Overall, I liked it. It's not brilliant, but it's entertaining enough and strikes a nice balance between camp satanists (e.g. inverted crosses) and the series's usual realism. Besides, there's nothing camp about Carson when he's hypnotising Lonnen. That scene was good. The performances are fine, albeit with a couple of momentary glitches from actors of whom I'd expect better, so I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that that's the director and/or the shooting schedule. There's also a bit of day-for-night shooting, but we can live with that. If even I could enjoy this episode, despite my prejudices against its subject matter, it must be good.