Is it even possible to do a successful modern day ghost story these days? I fear not. It seems that it’s all been done before, and every new film or TV attempt just rehashes the same old familiar tropes. Even when is does so extremely well.
And the BBC’s pre-Christmas ghost story The Secret of Crickley Hall based on a novel by British horror writer James Herbert is certainly well done. It’s immaculately shot and has a properly spooky effect on the viewers, while also allowing the characters the proper time and space to develop. That’s thanks to this three-hour mini-series being granted enough running time to breath, rather than be crunched into a time slot barely half as long as we’ve seen too often with promising TV mini-series in 2012.
Top marks then to Joe Aherne, who wrote and directed this three part story. I think he’s done genuinely the very best anyone can possibly do today with this sort of old fashioned haunted hause psychological tale. At the same time, the ghostly aspects are nothing new and are the same sort of thing we’ve seen on many occasions (the recent feature film version of The Woman in Black shared much of this production’s basic feel, for example, while the split time narrative evokes Marchlands.) It’s quaint but not scary, although you can always get a fair number of startled jumps from the audience by having a crash cut to something happening out of thin air even if that approach is hardly original.
But what is different – and effective – about this tale is the way it blends in some genuinely unsettling ‘real life’ horror into the supernatural, starting with every parents’ worst nightmare. Young Cam Caleigh disappears from a playground after his mother closes her eyes for just a few seconds, and Suranne Jones is terrific as Eve and compellingly watchable; there’s a believable chemistry between her and Tom Ellis playing her husband Gabe. The fate of Cam (dead or alive?) is the main spectre hanging over the story, but of course that’s just the start of it.
The back story of the titular haunted house with the ominously deep well in the celler dates from 1943 when the clearly disturbed master (Douglas Henshall) and his facilitating sister (a subtly unhinged Sarah Smart) are psychologically and physically abusing the group of wartime evacuee children in their care, to the horror of young teacher Nancy (Olivia Cooke). One of the children is developing into a fascist, while the others are too frightened to speak up in case they share the beatings inflicted on Jewish refugee Stefan. It’s that terrible stifling atmosphere of pervading fear that truly chokes and terrifies, because it’s so real and believable – precisely because we know it really happens in households, even to this day.
All the cast is on top form and it’s wonderful to see the ever-brilliant David Warner on screen again. Interestingly, talented rising star Iain De Caestecker (The Fades, Young James Herriot and now selected for Joss Whedon’s spin-off SHIELD TV series in the US) has been selected to play the younger version of Warner’s character.
Some real quality, then; and if old-fashioned ghost tales are your sort of thing, I think there’s plenty to keep you entertained and gripped here. But don’t expect anything particularly scary or original in the full-blooded horror department, at least not on the evidence of episode one. It may have sharper fangs waiting for us in the remainder of its run, of course, but if the first hour accurately laid out its wares then it seems more aimed at unsettling and discomforting its audience rather than knocking them off the edge of their seats.
The Secret of Crickley Hall airs on BBC1 on Sundays at 9pm and will be released on DVD on December 3 2012.