Saturday, May 4, 2013

Masterpieces of 70s TV Horror: 'Baby' from Nigel Kneale's Beasts

More often than not, it's a losing game when the adult fan of horror-themed films and television tries to recapture childhood thrills. Images and concepts that were once deeply impressive are now mundane. Special effects or monster designs that a kid will buy into completely are an unconvincing rip-off to the grown-up who tries to rediscover their frisson. Rarely, a jewel with staying power can be found amongst the dross, rising above technical limitations or mediocre performances.

During a recent YouTube search for BBC adaptations of M. R. James stories, I stumbled across a video package someone's put together of scenes from classic 70s British TV horror.  At the end of the montage is the terrifying, culminating image of a teleplay that disturbed me profoundly when I first encountered it as an eight-year-old. For years, unaware of the name of the program or its author, this scene would sometimes come to mind like a beacon of possibility after viewing horror fare that failed to satisfy. The teleplay is called 'Baby', produced in 1976 as part of a series of Nigel Kneale stories called
Beasts.


Kneale remains one of the most revered of British screenwriters and was the author of the esteemed Quatermass quartet of science fiction-horror television programs. The film based on the Quatermass and the Pit series made by Roy Ward Baker for Hammer Films in 1967 fits the categorisation outlined above perfectly; the special effects are a bit ropey, the acting can be a bit off the mark, but there's an enduring philosophical gravity in its premise, a compelling atmosphere in the story's structure and execution. On recent reacquaintance, 'Baby' has lost very little of the power it had for me as a youngster. It's a reminder of a time when creators of terror for the small screen, often with limited budgets, relied on their faith in a good story rather than CGI effects and flashy editing (a tendency that sometimes spoils recent, more ostensibly professional television productions like American Horror Story).

Beasts was a six-part horror anthology with a double meaning in its title: each story has a particular creature as its focus, but they're also metaphorical examinations of man's bestial nature, our capacity for the inhumane. 'What Big Eyes' has an insane amateur scientist attempt to reveal the truth contained in legends about lycanthropy, but it also deals with a father's psychological cruelty towards his daughter. 'The Dummy' tracks a downtrodden actor's descent into madness and ultimate identification with the monster he plays in exploitation films. On one level, these televisual plays work fine as psychological dramas rather than strictly genre-based pieces. There are two episodes in the series that are pure horror stories - 'During Barty's Party', in which a rat invasion occurs that is all the more terrifying for being unseen, and 'Baby' which deals with pregnancy and the occult.

'Baby' is a ghost story in the M. R. James mould, but there's also some parallels with American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft's 'Dreams in the Witch House'. Interestingly, Kneale said he'd never read Lovecraft - he came up with his own distinctly British version of cosmic horror through the influences of James, H.G. Wells and the culture of myth and superstition in his native Isle of Man. A Ramsey Campbell short story of the same name was published in 1976, the same year Beasts was aired, but originally written two years earlier. Campbell's 'Baby' also centres on the theme of the witch's familiar, but it's an urban pulp shocker in the EC Comics tradition, set in his native Liverpool. Kneale's 'Baby' draws in a Jamesian fashion on the occult eeriness of the English countryside.



Campbell and James are masters of terror glimpsed from the corner of the eye and, to use a term Campbell uses for what he admires in the best of Lovecraft's work, the 'orchestration of effect' through the accumulation of oblique, suggestive detail. The 'glancing phrase of fear', to quote Campbell again, is a phenomenological approach to horror, capable of greater psychological resonance than the sensational tactics of the jump scare and gore: along with the apparitions and unearthly sensations, there are also queasy insights into the obscure workings of our own brains. The Kneale story features a young pregnant woman who, like the Mia Farrow character in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, may be suffering from a severe case of prepartum paranoia or undergoing a genuine encounter with the occult. Simple, unadorned camerawork and editing create the feel of real time pacing despite frequent transitions; this Bazinian sense of reality in John Nelson Burton's direction, combined with the ambiguous nature of the story, produces a distinctly unnerving atmosphere.

Peter Gilkes (Simon MacCorkindale) wants to contribute his veterinary skills somewhere he can be of real benefit rather than treating pampered city pets, so he and pregnant wife Jo (Jane Wymark) have moved to the country. An earthen pot containing a mummified animal is discovered during the renovation of their old cottage. Peter can't work out what the creature is and neither can his partner Dick Pummery (T.P. McKenna) or the two workers who are carrying out the renovations, Stan Biddick (Norman Jones) and Arthur Grace (Mark Dignam). It's described variously as a piglet, a cat, a lamb with claws and a monkey, but all agree it's a deviation from natural processes of conception and birth. Peter suggests some random farmyard inter-breeding was involved. It looks to him as though the thing was never actually born.

Jo's immediate maternal uneasiness is heightened when Arthur, a local with knowledge of ancient lore, posits that the creature was brought into being to harness occult energies by "someone wise in them powers." He suggests its purpose would have likely have been harmful. Even more alarmingly to Jo, he's certain it would have had to have been suckled by a human. Through Dick, the couple learns the last childless owners of the house failed to establish a dog breeding business. In fact, no animals have been born in the surrounding land for generations, an anomaly the two vets put down to persistent outbreaks of contagious abortion.

Like the haunted meadow in Clark Ashton Smith's story 'Genius Loci', the environment around the farmhouse seems to be under the influence of something inimical. Jo's cat flees from the house as soon as it's brought into it. When she tries to locate her pet in a nearby forest, Jo, in turn, flees from a shadow that comes spreading across a pond towards her. It moves in a way suggestive of a bird in flight over its prey, but without any definite form or origin; a disembodied cloak of darkness that emerges out of the surrounding landscape. It's probably the most basic optical effect, and an eerie evocation of cosmic power, as though some patch of interstellar space, some zone of entropic negation, had been tethered by magic and made to crawl along the forest floor. The shadow's accompanied by a sound like a dove's coo, but more threatening and unreal, simultaneously maternal and malevolent. Jo starts hearing this sound around the house and sees other unreal phenomena - a rocking chair moving by itself, the outline of a black cloaked figure disappearing around a corner.

Full disclosure must be made that the special effects in the climax have all the limitations of the age - the important thing is, it doesn't matter. What has been built up in terms of suspense, suggestion, an impression of inescapable doom, is so powerful that you don't perceive the effect. Your mind goes straight to what is being represented: the embodiment of alien wrongness, of unholy perversion. In 'My Roots Exhumed', a chapter in S. T. Joshi's 2001 study, Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction, Campbell has written about the impression a viewing of the cover of the November 1952 edition of Weird Tales in a newsagent's window made on him as a seven-year-old and on his subsequent career as a writer. Upon finally acquiring the edition a decade later, he realised the surreal vision he thought he had seen was largely a product of his imagination. The actual illustration was much more conventional and his subconscious had acted out of some transformative urge for the other-worldly. Seeing the climax of 'Baby' again recently made me realise that something similar had happened to me with this program. What's gratifying is that my invention was still there in a sense, superimposed on the prosaic actuality. I was able to appreciate once again how effective the teleplay was in creating a sense of horrified anticipation, jolting my youthful imagination into perceiving something more purely nightmarish than what was actually there on the screen.

The story's strength also overcomes slightly substandard acting. Simon MacCorkingdale, in particular, is overly forceful in his performance, but youthful brashness is in a way apposite for the arrogance and insensitivity of the character. At least John Cassavettes' Guy in Rosemary's Baby had the sense and the skill as an actor to pretend to be caring towards his wife. Peter Gilkes comes across as particularly self-obsessed and pig headed. He rarely expresses any real warmth towards Jo unless there's some intersection between his interests and hers. This marriage is very unstable and the young woman has already experienced one miscarriage; the strained domesticity accentuates viewer unease. Jane Wymark's acting is also a little green and nervous as the pregnant woman, but this actually helps the performance in a way - we feel the vulnerability in the character and sympathise with her growing fear and isolation. Wymark's performance may not be in Farrow's league, but there are compensating character strengths - Jo Gilkes is feistier and more liberated than Rosemary Woodhouse - and they share a similar quality of doomed, youthful beauty. Mark Dignam is good as old Arthur, his vague intimations of ancient sorcery a source of frustration for Jo who, like one of Campbell's unfortunate heroines, is left trying to sort truth from apocrypha in his rural wisdom.

All the really great authors of horror fiction that deal with the occult - James, Campbell, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen - are concerned with the perennial human questions of evil and power. Somewhere in the past, some person (or what was once a person) has sold his or her soul for access to abominable energies, the repercussions of this act reaching ineluctably into the present. Kneale, who at his best can definitely be counted in the aforementioned literary lineage, manages to compress themes that he had already dealt with on a grand scale in the Quatermass stories in a short form that is all the more potent for its simplicity. They play out in 'Baby' against an aural background of hypnotic quietude - one of the great strengths of the teleplay is the complete absence of music from opening to closing credits. There are no manipulative cues keeping us alert. There's just the oppressive silence of a rural environment, punctuated by the cawing of birds that may well be malign psychopomps.

The dreamlike Jamesian approach to the ghost story, where the supernatural and the everyday traverse with alarming inevitability, has parallels with the style of Japanese horror films, particularly Hideo Nakata's Ringu and Dark Water. The J-Horror sub-genre has in turn influenced some of the better recent works of American horror cinema. Scott Derrickson's Sinister has an element of gore, but it resides far more in suggestion than the redundant repulsiveness of torture porn. A sustained atmosphere of occult evil lingers in the viewer's mind with greater effect than blunt visceral strategy. 'Baby' is a powerful exemplar of this tradition of subtle, insinuated fear and it's one of the finest works of television horror.

Text: (C) JONATHON KROMKA 2013. All rights reserved.


2 comments:

  1. Visceral... is a good word that comes to mind when watching Beasts: Baby. Just now saw it online and wanted a bit of elucidation and so found this blog with some interesting comments but not an explanation per se of what was experienced; for that is what this film offered me, a feeling, a visceral numbing, of dread and lingering fear.

    When I finished watching I can share that I was left with an overarching "every man for himself" attitude...that sense of abandon from each player, where there is no hero to be found except the vulnerable mother-to-be.

    In every scene, starting with the crumbling cottage, then the dead nest, the lifeless farm, field, forest, no children, all older people, no garden, no flowers, no prettiness at all...just deathly stillness.

    In the end the mother-to-be faces her greatest fear/foe: a corruption of life as she knows it; she challenges the alien mother/offspring. I am left with the despair of what creation of all life grapples with: the heroine-mother figure making the greatest sacrifice of her life to bring forth new life, battling to the death her arch enemy (death) to bring about life.

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  2. I too was eight when I saw Beasts: Baby. It was on a Friday night after the New Avengers. I only got to watch it because my mum was on the telephone to someone for ages and couldn't send me or my sister to bed. That finale stuck with me for years...and you're right it doesn't look that good now, but I watched it again for the first time since 1976 a few years back with such a sense of dread. Perfect horror.

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