SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED: THE OPEN WINDOW (ITV/ 1984) // "It makes almost no sense whatsoever and that's after watching it twice in the same night . . " But it's still a fabulous 25 minute slice of brooding rural TV gothic!

 Plot spoilers below for The Open Window & The Moles 

This episode of TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED from 1984 completely foxes me. It makes almost no sense whatsoever and that's after watching it twice in the same night. (I'm that kind of a guy - sometimes I repeat myself thrice!) It may tell you something about the reputation of this episode among cast and crew to know that although the actors are all listed in the credits, there is no mention whatsoever of the characters they all play. You can run people, but you can't hide forever . .

It's based on a story by H.H Munro/ Saki but that doesn't help much (although at some point in my life I probably would have read this one, as I once read all Saki's stories - religiously). The plot (I think) has a young woman (Jane) and a random man she's just met (Gregory) tour around Jane's family estate - across the lush Connecticut countryside and all the way to a hunting lodge where the young woman's mother (Marjorie) tells her daughter to dress for dinner as 'the ceremony' will soon begin. Oh and mum doesn't seem to mind that Jane has picked up some random man in the woods on her way home and who will be joining them for dinner (or some bloodthirsty Aztec-reviving sacrifice for all we know).  

Jane and Gregory chat about not liking the countryside (Jane doesn't - she hates it) or loving it (our man Gregory does). They also chat - a bit randomly - about how Gregory knows so much about what continental schoolgirls are wearing these days: 'white knee high socks and tie shoes' apparently. He's done some teaching (English poetry in Switzerland we find out later - uh-huh!) so he should know. Jane clicks: "Ahh, a teacher - so that's how you know what schoolgirls wear!"

Nothing gets past this girl . . !

Apparently Jane is also 'a schoolgirl' (she says) but sure doesn't look like one, except maybe to Gregory who ought to know better than to go walking with this young girl he's just met in the woods before heading back to her mum's place for dinner.

This is getting increasingly creepy. And then the slightly less, but still quite creepy 'family ceremony' begins . . This annual weird tradition has Jane's stepdad and his teenage son (dad accidentally shot the boy dead on a hunting trip three years ago, then did the same to himself) appear as 'ghosts' (or as themselves pretending to be ghosts - who knows with this lot!) at the hunting lodge window where they whisper about wanting to be let in: "crack the ice - we're home" (this is all way before young Lina Leandersson asked to be let in as child vampire Eli, in 2008's LET THE RIGHT ONE IN).

Jane's stepdad used the old building as a hunting lodge - and only ever as a hunting lodge, Jane states with a mysterious twinkle in her eye (a far darker plotline threatens to start up here and tear us away to other creepier reasons for the house's existence than just its use as a secretive place for a trigger-happy perpetrator of prolicide to hang out, but it's a tease that doesn't go any further).

The episode builds to its suitably doomy conclusion: this is the time of year the dead father and son climb in through the open window and get to come back for dinner. They walk cheerfully around the house as normal and without so much as a hint of open gunshot wound on their ruddy skin (this is pre-watershed telly remember). Even stupid Gregory asks what the hell is going on with this family and why they are all so bloody weird. Hey - not so stupid Gregory after all!

Jane completely changes character over the half hour episode; from a girl clearly afraid of the whole ceremony thing and of Gregory being involved in it all, to one that's gone all spooky-eyed and probably clearly in on the whole damn shebang and enjoying it too (in her own weird way) by the end. Presumably this is deliberate and indicates a girl lost in her own reality (or fantasies).

Gregory, in the closing minutes, does a runner - he's already said that he's clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong kind of people, shortly after hinting (to the girl's mother) of being something of a drifter who doesn't seem to have a home as such but still likes walking in woods and meeting schoolgirls like Jane. He doesn't even know much about the last few years of his life - he's even more weird than this lot are!

This plotline about Gregory's mysterious past (and missing years) also doesn't really go anywhere - just like the one left dangling about the family butler who has been with the family for decades, but spies out of the window at young Jane as she goes walking and (by the end of the episode) is reduced to serving drinks and shutting up, just like all butlers are. But he's creepily played throughout by the superb Richard Marr who died the same year this episode was broadcast.

The story really changes dark country paths in the finale a bit too clumsily. The unexpected twist in the tail is that Gregory was out walking with (yet another!) young girl some time back when some wild dogs attacked them both. This girl he had fallen in love with died, but what all this has to do with the main storyline (about a trigger-happy dead stepdad and his equally dead son coming back from the grave in time for dinner) - I've no idea.
(Note: Read to the end for when I do find out - sorry Saki!)

Gregory is clearly still traumatised by the idea of wild pooch, so when he sees the ghostly hunters come back home with one of those things with a waggy tail by their side - he legs it. In his absence, there's some great gory imagery conjured up in the closing minutes as Jane tells her family how Gregory's girl was torn to shreds in a spooky mood piece to camera. Jane is bathed in a ghostly green light as we fade to the end credits. You can't help but think 'Huh?' as the end credits roll, but it's a warmly satisfying 'Huh?' all the same!

It's a grower this episode. At its dark heart best, it's pure grisly, glorious, teasing and distressing horror: dead son, dead lover, dead stepdad, spooked schoolgirl, weird mother, peeping tom old butler, creepy hunting lodge in the forest, flesh-ripping wild dogs - check, check, check, check, check!

The plot, though, perhaps even if you remember the Saki original, doesn't make a lot of sense . . . But it may not be supposed to: the horror, or not, is in the mind of the beholder. Horror sometimes needs to make you work and wonder.

I started wondering . .

- Maybe there hasn't been a ceremony at all for the dead stepdad and his slaughtered son, but a ceremony to bring Jane herself back to life on this first day of the hunting season. Could she be Gregory's lost dead girlfriend; the two trapped in time having only just met (are we remembering her existence in flashback?).  

- Maybe Jane's stepdad deliberately set his dogs loose to kill his stepdaughter as she walked in the forest one day with Gregory - as punishment for eloping without his permission - and then killed both his son and himself in a fit of further rage? Maybe Jane is now back as a ghost and returns out of the forest the same day every year as her stepdad and stepbrother come home and sit down to dinner, quietly watched over by the mother and the butler and former boyfriend - all of whom don't want to upset the girl (or the two hunters) by telling them they are now dead?  See! I've gone all Saki on myself now . .

Fans of the show often seem to mock this episode as being full of phoned-in performances and far too stuffed with nonsensical plotting. And they have a point (I could have turned that way myself!) But the countryside shots are full of delicious sunrise and a rich, pollen-blasted haze that looks lovely and there's an air of heavy weirdness and fatality that unsettles.

I've started to quite adore this oddball episode after just a night of a few sittings to make sense of it all. Maybe the bizarre and choppy, almost surreal plotting and scattershot editing is the cause: is this what creates such a defined sense of dreamlike otherworldliness?

If it's a deliberate malcontent and calculated randomness being sought here, then it's really kind of genius. And it sure beats the sting in the tail of that 1982 episode that I watched (the same night) called 'The Moles' (S5/Ep6). It's the one where Fulton Mackay, Harry H. Corbett, Bill Owen and Joe Gladwin (Wally from Last of the Summer Wine) dig under a bank only to find that the bank is shut as the staff are on strike that day and there's no money in the safe: shock horror - or maybe not!

Still, that totally-to-die-for British comedy stalwart of a cast in 'The Moles' more than makes up for the plot's weariness and the episode is enthusiastically directed with some great claustrophobic tunnel and creepy antique shop settings. It's also stacked with some brilliantly chuckly moments - Fulton's 'mock' heart attack and Corbett's fall-over reaction when the tried and tested dead man suddenly revives truly tickles the cockles. Only in Tales of the Unexpected can a mistaken heart attack victim be so darkly funny.

'The Open Window' is Episode 15 in Season 7 of Tales of the Unexpected (it all ended at Season 9 and always was a series that could either soar like an eagle of impending death into a sky full of cheating wives, shock, sleaze and murder or dive down deep into the pits of utter boredom and arch pointlessness).

The cast do a better job in this episode than some of the more demanding fans of the show may credit them for: Valerie Mahaffey as Jane is quite mesmerising, and suitably (if hurriedly) pretty in a skimpy powder pink silk blouse - her steely, wary eyes always on fire (a character as gauchely eye-catching as a hunting lodge's faded picture of a Spanish flamenco dancer poorly hung on a cork tile wall). Richard Dow as Gregory comes across as either distinctly dumb and loveable or thick and malicious. He never acted again after this (and after just a few lonely credits) but later worked as a dolly grip on the likes of Star Trek IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986). The fragrant - as a freshly plucked pink rose from a neighbour's garden - Dina Merrill adds a touch of class.

Director Christopher Lukas, who is pretty static in his shots thanks to the restrictions of TV, gets most excited when going outside, but interiors are still shot with a striking gothic composition as characters pose in front of the dead spoils of hunting trophies on the wall - bathed in  richly coloured hues; framed against old oak panels and open windows in varying degrees of jittery close-up.

The more you consider this episode, the more you realise it's actually something of a gothic masterpiece, despite having a plot that never really chills the bone or makes a whole lot of sense. But director Lukas never got behind the camera again - this was only his second, and final, go.

Saki, however, still lives . .

NOTE: In Saki's original story, the man being shown around the estate is a hypochondriac staying with his sister and fooled by the young niece of a neighbour he meets in the woods into thinking that one day a group of hunters from the girl's family, including her father, were lost and thought dead. The man believes the story and when the hunters really do return, he panics and runs thinking they are ghosts. In fact, the hunters had only headed out to hunt that same morning. To cover the reason why the terrified man has run away, the girl makes up a story that he had once had a bad experience in the woods with a pack of wild dogs (instead of being spooked by her own tall tales!).

A lot of detail has been changed and hurried for the half hour TV adaptation, creating too much ambiguity on screen (easier to cope with and consider on a printed page). Elements of the story (such as the tearing of a girl's flesh to shreds) have been added to make the scenario even nastier than the original. But watching the TV version a few times also brings some clarity and you start to consider what is real and what is a lie of some kind. It's complex and clever source material. But if you have read the original short story, the TV adaptation will make more sense. I think Tales of the Unexpected, and story adapter David Trainer does do the gothic-tinted original's uncertainty and cruel playfulness some justice and updates the material with some authentic rising horror.


This actually reminds me of a story I was told by my next door neighbour when I lived in East London. Every day he would look out his window at the dog walkers heading towards an opening in the forest clearing. One day, June 3rd 2008, he looked outside and saw a woman with wild, curly hair and a small terrier dog get dragged into the shrubbery - right by that entrance to the forest. He told the local newspaper that the sound had been like that when you step on the tail of a cat by mistake.
The dog was found wandering the forest a few days later, but there was no trace of his owner - the dog didn't have a collar and nobody came forward as knowing who the owner could be. A few weeks later, my friend told me that he had been drinking a mug of tea at the window again, watching the dog walkers step inside the forest when he heard a bird scratching on the window ledge, just below him and out of sight.
As he was on the second floor flat of the house, he leaned out of the window carefully and looked down below him. There - clinging to the window ledge with her hair all wild and across her face and looking and smelling "like pink candy floss" was an older woman gripping to the ledge with the bony fingers of one hand.
One finger was missing and when she looked up at my friend, he said it was as if her eyelids were still closed but the skin had been stretched so much that it had become almost see-through, like a stretched yellow balloon instead of skin, right over her swivelling eyeballs. Her other hand was clutching something that swayed in the wind and rattled against the first floor window below. It was a dog lead. And every year, my friend now knows that, if he looks out the window on the 3rd of June between 3 and 4pm, he will see the same lady clinging to the ledge and whispering the words: "Have you seen my little doggy . .?"


1 comment:

  1. I just watched the episdoe and didn't have a clue what was going on - glad I'm not the only one !
    Shame it makes no sense whatsoever, because I agree with you it's almost a gothic masterpiece.
    Nice piece, thanks.