Peter BirrelEmrys JamesGeorgina HaleConrad Phillips
Hammer House of Horror 13: The Mark of Satan
Medium: TV
Year: 1980
Director: Don Leaver
Writer: Don Shaw
Keywords: horror, Hammer, Christian
Country: UK
Series: << Hammer House of Horror
Actor: Peter McEnery, Georgina Hale, Emrys James, Anthony Brown, Conrad Phillips, Peter Birrel, James Duggan, Andy Bradford, James Curran, Peter Cartwright, Anne Dyson, Crispin Gillbard
Format: 51 minutes
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 21 March 2011
Alienating, even compared with other episodes of Hammer House of Horror. This is not a cuddly series, but on this occasion we have a hostile paranoid nutcase for a protagonist and a menace so weird that you'd have to be mentally ill even to have thought of it in the first place.
We begin with a man having brain surgery. He's awake because he's only under local anaesthetic, which is freaky but only in the usual "surgery is icky" way. The surgeons have cut off the top of his head and are about to stick knives in there when he says something bizarre and soon afterwards the opening credits are rolling. This series has had some memorable pre-credits sequences.
Our protagonist (Peter McEnery) works in a hospital. This offers opportunities to gross out the audience and of course the story gleefully goes there, despite the fact that we don't see nearly as much as in an average episode of Casualty. It's just... ew. It lets you use your imagination. There's a jolly physician (Emrys James) with a morbid sense of fun whom we watch manhandling a corpse in a rather distasteful way before his assistant starts up the drill with a rotating saw on the end. James is wildly theatrical, by the way. He has some fruity turns of phrase and a manner like a 19th century actor-manager.
Anyway, McEnery clearly isn't comfortable during James's autopsy scene, but this seems natural since we aren't either. However we're being expected to see something sinister in the number nine (eh?), every so often the camera will look at a weathervane and in time we learn that McEnery believes in a sinister conspiracy on a par with putting tin foil in your hat.
This is freaky. McEnery isn't even trying to be likeable, by the way. He's twitchy, intense, clearly delusional and himself as scary as anything in this series. We're following the adventures of a monster, albeit one who's managing to function in society (just about) and even hold down a job. To put it mildly, this is uncomfortable to watch. That's fair enough. This is a horror series. Naturally genre conventions demand that his paranoia turns out to have a basis in fact and "THEY REALLY ARE OUT TO GET US!!!", but even after seeing it with our own eyes we're never quite sure whether we've just witnessed objective reality or McEnery's deranged reinterpretations of reality. One thing I admire about this episode is the way that, for once, they actually nail that "is he or isn't he?" ambiguity. The horror genre keeps aiming for that and missing, but here for once they've hit the bullseye. McEnery might be right in his absurd ideas, which in itself is mind-bending. However he might just as easily might be psychotic and a danger to everyone around him. There's no way of knowing. (Well, admittedly the latter's clearly true however you read it, but the former might be true as well.)
No, I tell a lie. Georgina Hale's acting choices clearly point towards a particular one of those two choices, but that's slim evidence on which to believe the impossible. McEnery's beliefs incorporate modern medicine, the Bible, numerology and weathervanes. I'm still unclear on the weathervanes.
The cast is fine. Their other credits include Harry Potter and I, Claudius. The most memorable of course is Emrys James, who went just as far over the top as Aukon in State of Decay. Doing my usual Doctor Who round-up yields him, plus Peter Birrel (Frontier in Space), Georgina Hale (The Happiness Patrol) and James Duggan (The Myth Makers, uncredited). However the fashion police might be wanting a word with some of them, since this is clearly a 1980 that's timeslipped back to the 1970s, judging by one character's Barbara Windsor hairdo and another's bouffant hair and porn star moustache.
You couldn't call this episode fun. Much of it is a bit uncomfortable, actually. However it gets more entertaining when the episode's going along with McEnry's notions and showing us the evil conspiracy at work, although we don't have a clue whether this contains objective truth. This is not a series for those who like to enjoy horror in a Friday the 13th fashion, but instead it's managing to be intriguing and disturbing. It hadn't really occurred to me that a Hammer horror TV series could be this effective. In addition this episode also has a good ending that makes sense and doesn't feel like a plot contrivance, which isn't something you can say for all of them. Deserves respect.
"All disease is caused by evil."