'The Secret of Crickley Hall' Is Strong in Atmospherics, Not So Much in Narrative

Based on the thriller by James Herbert, The Secret of Crickley Hall falls short on chills and fails to leave a strong impression -- until its final act.

The Secret of Crickley Hal

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Tom Ellis, Suranne Jones, Olivia Cooke, David Warner
Network: BBC One, BBC America
US release date: 2013-10-08

Everyone knows that good orphanages don't exist in the movies. The Secret of Crickley Hall, a new miniseries from BBC, is no exception. When the Caleigh family moves into the titular home, it seems like it will be the perfect place to forget the disappearance of their youngest member, Cam (Elliot Kerley). But Gabe (Tom Ellis) and his wife Eve (Suranne Jones) quickly discover that there's something sinister lurking in the shadows of Crickley Hall.

There's nothing new about this story; creepy, ghost-like children have appeared time and again in British literature and on film. For some reason, filmmakers think that their audience will be all the more creeped out if the ones doing the haunting are young and innocent. However, that's a miscalculation where The Secret of Crickley Hall is concerned. It's immediate from the time that the Caleigh family arrives at their new home that it's the adult spirits who are really scary. Still, we see a lot more of the kids.

True, there's something extra scary about seeing a ghost-like child etched in the pane of a second-story window or running up a long staircase. Unfortunately, we see serious logical flaws in these apparitions as the story advances; the plotline just doesn't agree. It's a problem of narrative weakness that runs throughout the series and undermines its ability to leave a strong impression on the viewer. Where we should find terror we often find confusion and crossed storylines.

But back to the beginning: Eve and son Cam are in a quiet suburban park in the London area at the top of the series' first episode. Mother and son play for a bit, but mom is too tired to keep going and sits down on a bench to take a breather. Eve dozes off for just a few minutes, snapping awake to find that Cam doesn't seem to be anywhere near the park. The police come, the parents cry, and then a year passes off screen.

When we rejoin Gabe and Eve Caleigh, they're headed out of London to spend time in a country home with daughters Loren (Maisie Williams) and Cally (Pixie Davies). The idea is that getting out of London will snap Eve out of her funk and encourage her to let go of Cam. As viewers, we know that this probably isn't going to happen. After all, this is a story about young ghosts. It's only right that Cam, whom we see for just a few minutes, should drive the action.

Soon after arriving at Crickley Hall, the family is greeted by Percy Judd (David Warner), the hall's former groundskeeper. He warns the parents that the hall is no place to bring children, but they brush him off. While Warner gives a great performance throughout the series, moments like this tend to be ham-handed. There's just too much melodrama for us to focus on what really happened to these spooky orphans.

Unperturbed by Percy, the Caleigh family heads to the local church to take in the sites. There they meet Reverend Andrew (Nick Sidi), who assures them that anything Percy has told them is utterly false. Eve doesn't quite seem to believe the reverend, becoming even more suspicious when she finds dozens of headstones marked with the year 1943.

When she asks the reverend about the grave markers, he replies simply that there was a flashflood that year that killed dozens. He doesn't say that the flood killed all the orphans, but it's implied. It's not until Eve talks with Percy about it later that she discovers that the bodies of two of the orphans were never found. By the third episode, we're sorry that we know this. It's ruined all the suspense.

The series' three episodes feature plenty of scenes with weird little ghosts and scary forces that have the power to hurt living humans from beyond the grave. The most interesting portions of the show, though, aren't these haunting scene. They're scenes set in Crickley Hall in its heyday as an orphanage. In these scenes we meet menacing August Cribben (Douglas Henshall), the former headmaster of the orphanage.

Frankly, the series would be better off if there wasn't any aspect of the story taking place in the present day. The Caleigh family's struggles in the house don't add any meaningful dimensions to the story. Instead, the viewer is forced to realize that Cam disappeared because his mother was a little bit negligent. Set again the story's other heroine, orphanage teacher Nancy (Olivia Cooke), Eve becomes a lot less lovable.

There are the standard features you'd expect from a ghost story here. Lili Peel (Susan Lynch), a medium who has worked in Crickley Hall before, comes to help. She's quickly disqualified by Gordon Pyke (Donald Sumpter), a parapscyhologist whose real identity will be immediately apparent to most viewers. The last episode of the series is its strongest, but not because of this present day cast. Throughout The Secret of Crickley Hall, it's only the past that shines.

The DVD release of The Secret of Crickley Hall offers no special features. It's a bit disappointing, especially since the flood in the novel is based on real-life events in England in the '50s. A bit of historical context would have gone a long way towards making this series more meaningful.

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