There’s very little background info on this 1995 supernatural series produced by Britain’s ITV, but not unlike Channel 4’s Ultraviolet [M] (1998), there’s a sense the handful of produced episodes (5 for Chiller, 6 for Ultraviolet) were an attempt to build a long-running franchise.
Neither series went beyond its initial run, and while one can successfully argue Chiller was an attempt to capitalize on the momentum of The X-Files (1993-2002) – strange, inexplicable happenings with the occasional twist finale – its roots lie in Britain’s extensive broadcast history of anthological shows linked by a narrator or a common thematic thread. (The main title design of a distorted figure and giant maw, however, is particularly evocative of X-File’s title sequence.)
What’s unique about Chiller are the high production values – the top talent gives full gravitas to their archetypal roles – and use of real locations (of which several should be familiar to British horror fans, such the estate and dining hall from Twins of Evil [M], and the country estate in Norman Warren’s Prey.) The series’ makers seemed intent on capturing pockets of Britain in all of its rainy, damp, grey-clad glory, and the approach adds a slight docu-drama tone to its five tales of impending doom, a ghost child, a devil on the shoulder, and a druidic cult.
Chiller’s most unique aspect is the way stories are wholly unrelated, making the episodes feel like compact feature films. Several scripts could in fact be reinterpreted as whole movies, although there are times when the directors had to add some visual padding to meet an episode’s 50+ min. running time.
As with most anthology series (or anthological feature films), there are strong and weak stories, and none really comes close to delivering a full dose of ornately erected weirdness, as depicted by the teasing cover art. What the stories lack in taut plotting is compensated by a really unique mood design. Directors Lawrence Gordon Clark and Bob Mahoney emphasize close-ups to maintain a claustrophobic tenor, while series cinematographer Alan Pyrah crafted some stunning fluid movements; the camerawork and composition are elegant and very affecting, and the editing (especially in the first episode) is brilliantly tight and stylish.. Colin Towns’ main theme and score for the first episode are appropriately sparse and moody, and the mono mix is filled with evocative sound effects.
The first story, “Prophecy,” echoes the countdown to accidental deaths in Final Destination after a group of young adults play a dangerous Ouija board game, whereas in “Toby” the focus is on a phantom pregnancy that yields a cantankerous phantom child. “Here Comes the Mirror Man” is a rather muddled attempt to integrate the melodrama of a social worker with an evolving plotline of a paranoid schizophrenic compelled to kill for his demonic associate, and in “The Man Who Didn’t Believe in Ghosts” a supernatural debunker may be the victim of a real ghost or a carefully structured prank. The last tale, “Number Six,” is perhaps the most complex for its large cast of characters and attempt to blend together druidic mythology with John Wyndham’s Village of the Damned, and although the ending is a bit too befuddling, it’s filled with genuinely creepy atmosphere from a cast of unwelcoming kiddies.
During the late 80s and early 90s a number of TV series were able to offset post-production costs by shooting on film (both on 35mm and 16mm) and editing the footage on video after transferring the negative directly to tape. Although it gave producers added flexibility by tweaking the colours to a hyper-real, chroma-saturated palette and integrating then-primordial digital video effects, it also meant there were no 35mm broadcast masters. With the ‘negative’ essentially residing on an older video format (which ranged from digital to U-matic SP), it makes any upgrade to DVD challenging because of flaws native to lower res formats, especially when dealing with pre-existing generation loss.
The most graphic issues reside in video grain and dot-crawl, and Synapse managed to find the right balance, cleaning up the worst artifacts but staying true to the show’s visual design. The video grain in each episode does lend a docu-feel to the material, but the final episode is the grainiest of the lot, and it’s most pungent in wide shots of the country village, where fine details are fuzzy. Perhaps the directors and cinematographers were aware of these limits, hence their decision to emphasize facial details and use dimly lit locations which would remain crisp and balanced on TV screens.
It’s a shame Chiller was never given a second shot, because the stories are more ambitious than the usual half-hour fodder, but its availability on DVD should be a treat to fans of 80s Brit horror, as well its excellent cast that includes Martin Clunes (Doc Martin), Sophie Ward (Young Sherlock Holmes), Kate Isitt (Coupling), Serena Gordon (Aristocrats), Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey), John Simm (Mad Dogs), Paul Reynolds (Let Him Have It), Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean), and Maggie O’Neill (EastEnders).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan