Remember how they say that, if you’re doing horror films right, it’s about what you don’t see, and not what you see? Well the logical extension of that is horror as radio plays. Which is exactly what Hammer, the arch-dukes of horror, have given us, with Hammer Chillers Series 1, six half hour horror stories.
1. The Box by Stephen Gallagher
The Box is an underwater-helicopter-escape simulation: a metal box plunged below water. It’s meant to be a routine exercise, but sometimes, down in the dark, it’s where the ghosts comes to find you.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the series, but The Box gives you a nice jolt right out of the gates. Suspense building, and a nicely creepy premise (I’m terrified of underwater, so The Box in its normal setting is scary enough.) The sound design is spectacular (even better with headphones). The suspense inches forwards pretty effectively, but in the end the secret of the Box isn’t that exciting; that’s the episode’s only problem really, that in the end the conclusion wasn’t particularly scary.
2. The Fixation by Mark Morris
Ian Hibbert is determined to Clean Up Darwell. The thing is, the shadowy residents of Darwell are none too happy about that, and there’s something much darker lurking at the rotton heart of the community than he could ever have anticipated.
Okay, I did not see this coming: this story left me trembling in the dark, listening to it at 1am (which, I’ll admit, was probably a mistake.) A triumph of suspense, and even when we see the ending coming its the inevitability that adds to it the whole thing. The acting is absolutely fantastic, characterising the fuddy-duddy determination of the CUD crew wonderfully, and the strongest element of the whole story is how our sympathies with Ian begin to change as the story goes on. The villains are actually horrifying, probably because it so literally applies the demonisation of hoody culture to its extremity. And, crucially, it is genuinely, actually, scary. Listen to this story.
(It also reminds me of the film Heartless, which is a great film too.)
3. Spanish Ladies by Paul Magrs
Phil lives with his Mummy, who makes her little Spanish ladies out of toilet rolls and knitting. And then she discovers that her precious son is stepping out with her middle-aged best friend, Renee…
There’s no-one quite like Paul Magrs to take cosy northernisms and twist them on their head. He can take something like bingo and mix it all up with gothic, with magic realism, with fantasy, and in Spanish Ladies it’s horror. Sort of picture what would happen if the Bates Motel was really a bedsit on Bolton, and you’re halfway there. It works too, with the claustrophobic small-town horizons combining with the actual bloody violence to great effect. The sound design does a sterling job in the conclusion (and is particularly alarming when listened to alone, on headphones, in an empty shop at night.)
4. Sticks and Stones by Robin Ince
Neil Stanley is a family man with a secret: he is an internet troll, spending his evenings sending increasingly hate-filled messages to a TV talent show contestant. And down the rabbit-hole we go…
Robin Ince is probably one of the most well-known names of the writers, which is a shame, because as far as I’m concerned, this story is a bit of a lame duck. The parallels between the historical story of the witch, and the modern story are thumpingly obvious, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a plot other than an OTT descent into deliberately disgusting territory. Like the films Hostel and their ilk: horror interpreted as a series of shocking vignettes. They are reasonably creepy, but actually the most chilling part of Sticks and Stones is the believability of the (sublimely ridiculous, yet still awful) hate letters.
5. The Devil In The Darkness by Christopher Fowler
Mia finds herself stuck in a lift, in the dilapidated St Petersberg library, with the mysterious Andrei. As the days go by, the distant scratch of ghosts, murdered horribly in the bowels of the library, draw closer.
I’ve seen quite a few trapped-in-a-lift horrors (it’s quite a scary concept, at its core, really) but this is one of the strongest. The hints at the pasts of Mia and Andrei are as absorbing as the building suspense of the ghosts, murmuring in the dark outside the lift, and if anything was proof that not seeing was scarier than seeing the sound of the phantom’s attacks were enough to make me jump out of my skin–and this time I wasn’t foolish, and listened in a sunlit room at midday. And my god, it’s got a great twist!
6. Don’t Go There by Steven Volk
John and Laura’s son is hospitalised in a coma after a Greek holiday. Convinced it’s no accident, John investigates the 18-30 club scene his son fell prey to. And discovers the mysterious Stheno…
The stakes were high: I love Steven Volk. He created Ghostwatch and the amazing, amazing Afterlife. So I expected this to be damn good. Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s decent, but obvious. The ending is obvious from four minutes in, and unfortunately that doesn’t work to the advantage of this story. Volk’s TV background is in evidence with strong, flowing dialogue that almost never paused, but instead of conjuring atmosphere, he just conjures a fervent desire to thump the main character, John. Unfortunately, a second misfire.
Overall though, a terrific series. Every time I write a review I feel the need to slap the back of my hand for being uncharitable: even where I’m suggesting pretty negative views of the stories, they’re reasonably solid, if unspectacular (in the cases of 4 and 6). But where the series flies, it really, really flies, and I can’t wait for a second series. Fingers crossed, doors locked and covers and pulled up over my head…