There's an Appealing Gloom, an Irresistible Unsettling to be Had in These 'Scary Stories'

The Man from Nowhere (1976)

Despite being aimed at younger viewers, the unnerving atmosphere of each film in this engaging and spooky British collection offers plenty of chills for adult genre fans, too.

Out of the Darkness

Director: John Krish, James Hill, Andrew Bogle
Cast: Sarah Hollis-Andrews, Garry Halliday, Andrew Keir, Michael Carter
Distributor: BFI
UK Release date: 2013-09-23

It’s encouraging to see the BFI continuing to embrace the rich cultural tradition of Gothicism that has been a staple of Britain’s film and television heritage for decades.

Building upon the success of 2012’s DVD re-releases of the BBC’s essential Ghost Stories series, the Institute has again drawn from its vast archive to present a fourth volume of Scary Stories, which represents an excellent companion to all its previous supernatural-themed output. This collection’s fabulous cover art alone is indicative of the care and attention paid by the BFI to releasing archive material, with each film the recipient of a brand new High Definition transfer.

Aimed primarily at younger viewers and made by the long-inactive production arm of The Children’s Film Foundation, the three films presented here masterfully walk the fine line between solid, unfussy drama and genuine supernatural chills.

There has always been something so appealingly gloomy and unsettling about low budget British television drama made during and the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and these films are no exception. What each lacks in production value it more than makes up for with a creative use of locations, lean and effective camerawork, impressive period detail and excellent direction.

The opening film is The Man from Nowhere, a Victorian period piece shot in 1976 and filled with certain expected and requisite Gothic elements: an isolated country mansion plagued by inclement weather, a mysterious and portentous stranger, and a strict patriarchal figure – in this case, an uncle with whom the female lead is sent to stay.

As soon as the film’s plaintive harpsichord soundtrack begins, one realises that this kind of grim Children’s Film Foundation production bears no relation to contemporary and more glossy children’s genre entertainment. Instead, it typifies the kind of mournful and rather melancholic material that organisations like the BBC have always produced with such accomplishment; there's certainly nothing overtly "childish" about much of the material in these films either, even though the films' central characters are mostly children.

The Man from Nowhere's titular character, for example, clad in a black suit and stovepipe hat, is a truly sinister figure in the mould of Mr. Dark from Ray Bradbury's exquisite Something Wicked This Way Comes, and his appearances in several early scenes provide some very effective jolts, whilst also setting the atmosphere and tone for the overall collection. One particularly creepy moment that recalls Little Red Riding Hood features him shadowing a lone youngster through a forest; the tension in such a sequences would be quite at home in a much darker horror film aimed at a more mature audience.

Haunters of the Deep (1984)

The second film, from 1984, is Andrew Bogle's coastal-set Haunters of the Deep, and it's the most political film of the trio, too. A subtle, ghostly tale about how reverberations of past events can affect the present, the film touches upon regional unemployment (a huge social issue as Cornish tin mining declined rapidly during the Thatcher years), and also upon the influence of the corporate world on rural communities, with the film centrally featuring an American mining company, Aminco, which has big plans to restart excavation in an infamous mine.

However, a mine collapse occurs, trapping several investigating miners underground, and this dramatic event serves as a catalyst for some resourceful local children to organise a rescue, assisted by clues offered by the ghost of child miner who died many years earlier.

Out of the Darkness (1985)

The final film is Out of the Darkness from 1985, a story of ghostly intrigue set in a small Derbyshire village, in which a family are plagued by a dark secret from the era of the Black Death. With a narrative that concerns vengeful historical ghosts, the film is thematically reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Fog in places.

Out of the Darkness is directed by the pioneering British documentary filmmaker John Krish (he also made the terrific The Elephant Will Never Forget in 1953), and his pedigree is certainly evident here. Krish successfully imbues his film with a foreboding aura of realism, and he is aided greatly by some unsettling sound design, excellent countryside location work and the diffused, flat light of Derbyshire’s rural skies, the latter representative of the kind of gloomy English aesthetic so beloved of anhedonia-suffering directors such as Woody Allen.

It's cohesive, and the scenes featuring remote stone cottages and the surrounding hillsides give Krish’s story a timeless visual quality, like a conduit to medieval England, unencumbered by notions of modernism, urbanism and, crucially, safety. The only major flaw in Out of the Darkness is the cheap-sounding and indifferent '80s synth score, which is incongruous with the ancient countryside setting.

Although Scary Stories is aimed primarily at children, those old enough to remember the terrifying ‘70s public information film Apaches -- a short drama that toured schools and showed the myriad fatal dangers to be found on a working farm -- will be only too aware that filmmakers of the period pulled no punches when tackling difficult and frightening material, even when it was made for, and about, children. This excellent BFI collection continues that tradition most effectively.

The only extra is an illustrated booklet with essays by various cast and crew involved in the productions.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.