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There’s an Appealing Gloom in These Children’s ‘Scary Stories’

BFI’s three Scary Stories films for children presented here masterfully walk the fine line between solid, unfussy drama and genuine supernatural chills.

Children's Film Foundation Collection Volume Four: Scary Stories
23 September 2013

It’s encouraging to see the BFI embracing 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 indicates 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’s something so appealingly gloomy and unsettling about low-budget British television drama made during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and these films are no exception. What each lacks in production value, it more than makes up for with creative use of locations, lean and effective camerawork, impressive period detail, and excellent direction.

The opening film is James Hill‘s 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 Man from Nowhere‘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 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 1962 novel, 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 sequence would be quite at home in a much darker horror film aimed at a more mature audience.

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. This dramatic event serves as a catalyst for some resourceful local children to organise a rescue, assisted by clues offered by the ghost of a child miner who died many years earlier.

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 is plagued by a dark secret from the era of the Black Death. With a narrative that concerns vengeful historical ghosts, Out of the Darkness is thematically reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1980 film 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 Out of the Darkness 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 in the DVD set is an illustrated booklet with essays by various cast and crew involved in the productions.

RATING 7 / 10