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Monday, 23 November 2015



ITV's supernatural 3-parter, MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT is now available on a head-spinning disc at a scratch-scratch of a great price (ok, quick Midwinter reference for the true fans of Merrily Watkins - Exorcist Mum out there, but enough already!).

This was adapted from the Phil Rickman novel by screenwriter and fellow author of dark realistic fantasy - Stephen Volk. Mr Volk, as everyone who likes ITV shows like MIDWINTER (or HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR - which this series owes something of a debt to) will know, gave the world the BBC's classic Halloween spine-arouser GHOSTWATCH as well as ITV's medium rare spook show AFTERLIFE (a series also not too far removed from the MIDWINTER spirit). Volk also worked on controversial film screenplays for such legendary film directors as British bad boy Ken Russell (GOTHIC/ 1986) and American bad man William Friedkin (THE GUARDIAN/ 1990).


That's the nervous chatter over with. The more important question now being - was MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT actually scary?

It was scary and unsettling in the places it was meant to be. I don't think the show was supposed to be an all-out gut-shocker - there was a fair amount of subtlety and deliberate uncertainty in whether the supernatural elements were imaginary, or real. The dabbling in the occult though, was real. When the jump scares came - and there were quite a few - they were used effectively, especially those involving a creepy old guy dying off in a hospital bed and then (even worse) appearing (after death) in places where you'd least expect him to (like - anywhere, as he's supposed to be dead) but especially in mirrors or even just . . 

behind you!

Although, as any true horror fan knows, mirrors and 'behind you' are exactly where you'd expect any restless spirit to appear in the dead of night. (Or even in your TV screen, should you wish to go down the whole POLTERGEIST franchise route - a route that takes you straight through the telly and up into the scary portal to another dimension in the bedroom, then sharp left into the spirit world only to be unceremoniously plopped out of the living-room ceiling lubed-up in ectoplasm.)


The white static of a TV screen after midnight (as all kids growing up in the 70s will verify) was seriously horrific if you fell asleep and woke up to a speckled black and white dotted vision of hell hissing back at you in your fluorescent pink socks after the John Wayne movie you had told everyone you were staying up late to watch had ended (but that had really been a late night screening of PASSION FLOWER HOTEL on the other side!).

But I still genuinely get unnerved when possessed mirrors appear in horror films or on TV thanks to watching HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR's 'Guardian of the Abyss' as a boy, and never forgetting it *EVER* (yeah, 2013's OCULUS, that was only about scary mirrors, also freaked me out - but it also had Karen Gillan in as the lead and I was watching her even more than her own evil reflection was!).



The 'possession' of Merrily Watkins in MIDWINTER, was unnerving and sinister stuff when it unexpectedly blossomed out of the ether right in front of us, and cleverly could be attributed to an infection on her hand needing treatment (that kept dripping septic blood every episode like a timer on a ticking vein-bomb getting ready to split all the way to an expulsive artery) or just a sinister old man's spirit come back to possess her body. And soul. But mainly body. It was the old man who had scratched her in the first place and caused the wound, so either way he was still her tormentor - whether in death or just antibiotics.

The series was quite violent at times - victims were crucified or even threatened with a machete beheading at a church service (the most unexpectedly brutal sequence in concept). The luckiest just had their throats slit. Controversial scenes also included shades of child exploitation and neglect and - eventually - corruption within the clergy (that whether satanic or more of a commentary on real life news stories featuring abuse of power by spiritual 'leaders', seemed to be doing its best to provoke a certain audience demographic).

But the scariest thing about MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT, is the realisation that sometimes we just don't know whether we are scaring ourselves to death, or being scared by someone - or something - else. The fear of losing control . . Also, there's no doubt here that real life can sometimes fill you with more dread than anything that goes bump - or even scratch-scratch - in the middle of the night.


I would have preferred MIDWINTER to have been shown as a feature length movie, but ITV is currently stretching out much of its popular drama to drag out its longevity, including - most recently - the last few adventures of crime drama LEWIS (a series murdered in its own bed by a newly-adopted episodic format; trademark ponderous storylines getting way too bewildering after week-long gaps).

When a much-loved TV series goes up in value and estimation (as it did with ITV's POIROT, for instance) then big feature length productions always work best. Sometimes, going back to episodic format kills off a show, slowly. Not just LEWIS - ITV crime series WIRE IN THE BLOOD also lost its edge and bowed out a bit pathetically (in its final season) thanks to measly two-part investigations instead of the more familiar, and braver, feature length.
There are exceptions to this rule. The recent TV serialisation of THE ENFIELD POLTERGEIST (another ITV show - these guys are clearly good to their ghosts!) kept momentum over three episodes, and was superb - either because there was enough material in that house of horror to be able to fill up those three episodes effortlessly with, or because it was so damn scary that you genuinely needed to catch your breath for another week.


Still - MIDWINTER does have its own share of spine-tingling 'cliffhangers' that we would have lost without the episodic format. It also meant that Part 3 (the absolute crowning glory and standalone episode of this series in terms of much darker matters than simple possession - more the invasive and creeping threat to sanity and family) is framed perfectly and excels as both darkly thoughtful and unnervingly raw supernatural storytelling.
MIDWINTER starts off with a pre-credits sequence of a terrified man being chased through the woods as a member of the clergy reads a prayer - bright blood drips from his nose onto the pages below (and - more revoltingly - into his scraggly beard!). The running man falls to his knees, surrounded by black-hooded figures - at which point I half expected 70s telly-era BLACK BEAUTY (where ghostly hooded figures in the local woods were a weekly staple) to go cantering past or even the credits of 80s satanic sci-fi spin-off K9 and Company. And don't get me started on the gothic English woodland TV delights of DOCTOR WHO's 'Pyramids of Mars' or HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR's 'Children of the Full Moon'. Or the ultimate in woodland telly fetish - JORDSKOTT. Yes, I'm a sucker for woodland terror of every kind!








The colours and cinematography in MIDWINTER's woods at the start (and in many future location scenes) are deliberately washed-out and deathly pale - a creative decision I assume made to reflect the wintry title of the story itself, but instead, had a tendency to make some of those scenes feel a little bit lifeless: bloodless. (More on my reappraisal of this creative decision later!)

The opening credits are brilliantly creepy, with spooky wisps of ectoplasmic, root-like lettering (not that far removed from the even rootier titles of Swedish TV horror series JORDSKOTT or those of THE ENFIELD POLTERGEIST, which thrilled). Many film production companies exist only to supply evocative and distinctive opening credit sequences for TV shows that need to make some serious impact (MIDWINTER's titles come courtesy of Momoco Film Titles, directed by Nic Benns).  
Newly-launched serials can be made or broken by how good their opening credits are. Some returning TV shows, such as AMERICAN HORROR STORY or TRUE DETECTIVE, have fans waiting with baited breath just to see what the new opening credits will be like. In the case of the first series of TRUE DETECTIVE, we're talking dark, dank, Deep South perfection thanks to the scrapbook style gothic imagery on show and the perfect accompanying track from Albuquerque band THE HANDSOME FAMILY (whose sound is as rumbling, potentially threatening and anxious as the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE's storylines proved to be).

Recent TV sci-fi hit ZOO featured 70s style opening credits not far removed from Ron Ely's TARZAN and a theme tune by HALLOWEEN horror maestro John Carpenter. Long gone are the days when it was alright to get Dennis Waterman to sing the theme tune, write the theme tune and play on the theme tune!


MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT really takes its stride when we get introduced to the star of the show. And it's a standout performance too from Anna Maxwell Martin as flighty, moody Merrily Watkins. Merrily's a quietly unassuming mum and local vicar rather begrudgingly enrolled (apparently even more so in the source novel where her appointment is something of a political gesture) into a training scheme for 'deliverance ministers' (but not 'deliverance' of the going down a river with a crossbow with Burt Reynolds kind - think more Father Merrin in The Exorcist).

This trainee demon-fighting team is led by a grumpy old sod called Huw Owen (David Threlfall) the kind of man who you expect has come armed with a hip flask mix of whisky and holy water in his coat pocket and a battered old crucifix in his bag, in case things get serious. Huw tries to persuade the rag-tag group of new recruits to ignore any false poltergeist phenomena (like creaky old pipes, Michael Parkinson-hosted live ghost shows or Most Haunted crew shunting chairs across the kitchen with the heels of their feet - just joking guys; I believe in you!) and zone in on the real thing.

Merrily Watkins has enough problems of her own to worry about without dealing with poltergeists. First, there's her young daughter Jane (Sally Messham) falling in with the wrong crowd (of two - a crazy teenage girl and a weirdo older woman) as well as her own parish to look after (and seriously - who is going to bless those babies if she spends all her time fighting demons?).


Then Merrily's first demonic ritual case comes along, just to help make sure that all the bad things in her life get a whole lot worse - just in time for Christmas! The police try to get Merrily to help them out, but she's wary of getting involved - the sight of a crucified man found deep in the woods both offends and mocks her own belief system to the core (and is also pretty damn freaky, right?). Merrily wants out. Nobody can persuade her otherwise.
The next step of Merrily's quick descent into the wilderness, involves a creepy old man with long fingernails in a hospital bed who keeps saying dirty old man type things to young nurses (I realise this is all starting to sound a little bit like that Hammer House of Horror episode with the man in a car crash who comes back from the dead with extra long fingernails, mixed with Carry On Nurse, but stay with me!). The old man ramps up the nastiness when he meets Merrily and, although on the verge of death, he has one last dying wish - to possess a pretty young vicar at the end of his bed.

Not dead . . yet!

The 'creepy old man with long fingernails' is called Denzil Joy (a show-stealing turn from Oengus MacNamara - who is quite terrifying) and he finally expires just as Merrily says a prayer for him (hey - everyone's a critic these days!). Denzil's last act of defiance, in return - is to scratch Merrily's hand ('Scritch-scratch' he says, chillingly - as a last gasp). It's a wound that bleeds heavier throughout the remaining episodes of the series (along with numerous visions of the spirit of the dead man now following Merrily around).

Merrily tries her best to ignore all the murder, beheaded birds and demonic vibes gathering quickly around her and turns her attention to a more important battle - stopping daughter Jane being unofficially adopted by new best friend Rowenna (played by Leila Mimmack - outstandingly feisty and borderline deviant as the wayward blue-tinted, peroxide-haired teen with a dark secret) and spiritualist, satanic, pagan, demonic (and whatever else vicar mums suspect new friends of their daughter to be) psychic café owner Angela Purefoy (played with malicious perfection by Siobhan Finneran) who also has the most Hammer Horror-like name this side of Borehamwood.


Both Rowenna and Angela have taken a sudden mutual unhealthy interest in the pretty (check) young (check) daughter of a mentally unstable, possibly alcoholic local vicar (check) who spends all her spare time fighting demons instead of asking her daughter how her day has been or allowing her to put up pictures of her deceased dad on the wall (check).

Rowenna's stressed-out social worker is young Lol Robinson (played to pursed-lip perfection by Doc Brown, brother of novelist Zadie Smith and soon to be seen in LIFE ON THE ROAD - the big screen version of Ricky Gervais's hit BBC sitcom THE OFFICE) - a man clearly resigned to a life of agitation, sleepless nights and bitter red tape, and who grabs increasing sympathy as the tormented girl he has to look after gets more explicitly predatory and sexual in his company. Uh-oh . .


There is a point, after Lol loses his job, where he is still able to travel with a fragile Rowenna in a police car - to comfort her following an especially traumatic satanic incident. I'm fairly sure this isn't quite how it would happen in real life (even accounting for what we know is his innocence and good intent - wouldn't there still be questions asked before he went back to his old job?).

Anyway, I'm not even sure this man is entirely as pure as we expect - is there a moment where Lol considers responding to the young femme fatale's possibly fatal advances, or is that just a tease of the camera and a misplaced flicker in his eyes? I like to think that Lol's actions are always entirely honourable (and I say this mainly to cover my own back, as the character seems to have a huge following out there, with plenty of equal fury or support as to whether the TV version of Lol is like the one seen in the books - or not!). One obvious difference of TV Lol to book Lol, apparently, is that the character is now black. Other differences may be available. Like that he no longer plays the guitar (check!).

Merrily takes comfort from her family troubles by confiding in a kindly, young, attractive (you can see where this one's going) bishop - Mick Hunter (Nicholas Pinnock oozing equal doses of trust and big risk). The relationship between Merrily and Mick is fabulously realistic and a scene in which the two almost get together in a way that the local congregation would go into seizures over, is unnerving and deeply (strangely enough - perhaps due to the forbidden vibe) erotically charged.


Merrily's life is all over the place by Episode 3. Abandoned by her daughter and unable to reach out, or hardly even talk to her anymore (as the girl is now taking permanent shelter with Angela Purefoy in the same house where Rowenna is cared for and where mind-bending drugs are served up for breakfast) Merrily's life is spinning into a deep depression and overwhelming panic that something terrible is about to happen. And yes it does - this ain't the Vicar of Dibley you know!

Traumatic scenes where Merrily, all twitches and sobs, tries to stop Jane leaving home by almost scraping at the car window that her daughter hides behind and later desperately hoping (but never succeeding) in persuading Angela to let her daughter come back, are heart-breaking - full of the fear of loss and the depths of sadness. Not only has Merrily now lost a husband (to an affair, and to his death in a car accident) but also her own daughter and sanity (and all the while that wound on her hand bleeds heavier and those dark tormenting visions of the evil Denzil stalking her, get worse).


In a final climatic showdown, at the end of Episode 3, Merrily acts unselfishly, with bravery and with a final shot at saving a young life - holding together faith, family and freedom while battling uncertainty, depression and temptation (as well as conquering the more traditional demons out there - albeit the kind that don't so much move random kitchen chairs as hold a machete to your neck).

This is a final conflict almost religious in intent and symbolism, but it's more than that - it's also a meditation on loss, depression, and of being powerless and uncertain. Screenwriter Stephen Volk has often spoken carefully about his own inner demons and battles with depression, and it's a well-known fact that after working with notoriously difficult director William Friedkin in Hollywood, with endless script revisions and obsessive demands (on the still surprisingly fun pagan horror THE GUARDIAN) the writer suffered a breakdown on his return back home. I can't help but think that the final episode, especially, of MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT is Volk's own inner exorcism of sorts, as well.

Those final moments, set in a packed cathedral where a brutal bid for demonic victory takes place, dabble in horror, sadness, fear and spiritual rebellion in the context of what is real or not (and suddenly there actually is a symbolic visual emptiness as the congregation vanish - as if nothing else matters when there's something that needs to be done; before all hell literally breaks loose). We slip inside a world in the show's magnificent finale that's separate to the one we know and live in - where there is nothing else to see, except good against evil. It's either a life to save or a sacrifice to be made. And that's it.

The empty cathedral is both eerie and distressing at first - but soon becomes empowering. In terms of TV drama, there is something very different being reached for here that rises above the usual formulaic scenarios of the supernatural or otherwise. And while this adaptation has at times felt a little padded over three episodes, there's properly dark meat on the bone being picked away at as Merrily Watkins slowly regains her faith in life and her career as a deliverance minister gets going through a suitably delirious baptism of satanic fire and brimstone.


Both endlessly twitchy and scatty (but quite sexy with it!) the character of Merrily Watkins deserves longevity and many more adventures on our TV screens. Director Richard Clark allows the supernatural trauma to come with added playful, poltergeist-like restless meandering that captures perfectly the sense of human and supernatural dread necessary to bring the story to life. And Volk's script dances across the days of the dead with playful, energetic ease and dark satanic skill.

As I reach the end of this review, I think back to the criticism I made earlier of the scenic cinematography occasionally being as drained of life as the neck of a vampire's last victim. Winter can be the most colourful and vibrant of any of the seasons when indulged properly and a more powerful tint could have nicely contrasted with the dark and gloomy vibe that this series embraces.

But is this contrasting blandness maybe deliberate? The lack of colour is only noticeable in the establishing shots of the countryside setting where it has a watercolour wash that doesn't seem to quite work. But the indoor scenes are much feistier struck - in deep, dark, classical oil painting-like colours, and the blood runs a suitably vibrant bright red.


I look at some of the instances where this contrast is most evident (especially when safely inside in the warm and looking out through misty windows at the chilly landscape that's all pervasive and bleak). The contrast suggests isolation and is subtly made. But if you look closely enough, there are actually many scenes that almost subliminally focus past the main characters and look beyond them - constantly heading outside, into the approaching chill of winter; almost like an approaching heart of brightness and a word of warning to the wise not to be fooled by the calm of a wintry landscape.


I wasn't too sure about the title of 'MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT'- it's good for the book, but in TV terms, does it hook in the casual viewer to what is essentially a horror/ demonic possession drama? I would have liked to have seen this series titled something more enticing and edgier, like  DEMONS OF MERRILY or (yes - come on!) the one I came up with at the start of this review: MERRILY WATKINS - EXORCIST MUM!

Actually, MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT as a title does grow on you, and there have been TV adaptations of famous novels featuring much-loved characters that have stuck to the original book titles - notably those of crime writer P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh investigations. 'MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT' though, to me, sounds more like some kind of lavish BBC costume drama or Dickens adaptation - a wonderfully festive kind of title had it been shown at Christmas, as perhaps (genius idea #654) it should have been.


Although advance DVD covers do now state 'Midwinter of the Spirit: Season One' on the front cover, it has been confirmed that this show will not be returning to our TV screens. It's a great shame; the series has an enticingly firm footing to go much further and there are source novels from Phil Rickman that by all accounts would have explored even darker territory than MIDWINTER had the chance to do (as it was also having to introduce all the characters to those who knew nothing about the original novels - something that you never noticed was happening or felt clumsy, as it can in less experienced hands).


In the very first episode of MIDWINTER, there's a terrific, delicious little scene that perhaps best sums this series up and demonstrates its quirkiness. Merrily gets called out on location to the woods where the crucifixion has taken place. The two police detectives waiting there for her ask their newly-appointed religious advisor for advice on what the ritual killing could mean, but Merrily just walks away in some distress. She is quickly called back and we think she will give in and our heroine will now join the investigation - but this is just a viewer bluff. She doesn't. Merrily actually does walk away - all this distressing crime stuff isn't for her. It's a perfect slap in the face to expectation and this anti-heroine status continues throughout the next three episodes.

There have been loads of great frights throughout this terrific new supernatural series from ITV (who also get kudos for giving the genre another outing) and the odd spot of violent bloodletting, demonic possession and rubbery facial goo on the telly is always a welcome gift, as the nights draw in.

Midwinter of the Spirit is perhaps best seen, not just as horror, but also as a (supernaturally-tinted) meditation on loss and forgiveness - the sense of losing a loved one to someone else (a better person than you are) and not knowing how to get that loved one back; trying, and failing, even though you know for sure that this 'thing' you have together, should be forever. Merrily loses nearly everything: from her husband (who she will never get back) to her daughter; from her faith to her sanity. This script for a vicar's tear that Merrily now reads her life out loud from, is about to break all the protective floodgates and force through the changes. It will be, for Merrily herself, a kind of inner resurrection.
TV drama stuffed with wild ectoplasm and free spirit is in short supply. This one crackles with so much angry 30-something angst (from Merrily herself) that it spins itself round as defiantly as that young girl's head once did in William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST (a film that did for movie adolescence in 1976 what MIDWINTER here does for the trauma of approaching middle-age).


It's clear that, despite what many film-makers (or even the Enfield Poltergeist himself) would have you believe - demons don't only target vulnerable teenage or prepubescent girls. They target reasonably sensible, fully grown women too - like Merrily Watkins. And then I remembered, thanks to one of the most disturbing images in the whole of MIDWINTER (from its dark finale set in a satanic cathedral, where acne is the least of a young girl's problems as her best friend tries to behead her with a machete in front of the entire congregation) that in MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT - wayward teenagers are still the traditional victims of the demonic and possessed. It's
the time a girl needs her mum the most - especially if her mum's a trainee exorcist called Merrily Watkins.



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