How To Tell A Good Scary Story

Did you ever go to sleepovers as a child? Or did you ever go camping away from your parents? If so, then you’ll likely recall that, along with your pyjamas, your toothbrush and an extra pair of undies, the key thing you needed to bring with you was a stonkin’ good scary story. There was always one kid who was the best storyteller, the one who’d seen horror movies they were way too young to watch, the one who had the cousin’s girlfriend’s sister’s friend who was almost killed by a poltergeist. If you were a weird kid like me, that storyteller was probably you. I swear to you, I once nearly made a girl piss herself. That’s not an exaggeration.

The fun doesn’t have to end there. Get your friends over for a horror movie or organise a camping trip, relive those golden days and wow them with the best scary story they’ve ever heard, one which will chill them even now.

Here’s how to do it.

Firstly, the set-up.

The standard is lights off, torches on, which is obviously a classic combination. Holding the torch up under your chin to give yourself that Tales from the Crypt lewk is a must if you go for this option. However, a lot can be achieved by having all the lights off except for a lamp (or two). Throw something over the lamp – a thin t-shirt will do – to make it dimmer and, voila, you’ve got ambient mood lighting.

If you choose to tell your scary story on a camping trip, huddling together with torches around a roaring campfire (although health and safety comes first!) is the way to go.

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Next, the story.

One of the most important things that really sell a scary story is a believable background. You need to open your story well. It’s up to you whether you leave it enigmatic and open-ended – say, by starting your story with something along the lines of “I heard this a few years ago…”/”I read on the internet that…” and going from there, never quite disclosing your source. I’m quite fond of the “vague familial connection” trick (you might have noticed I used it in my introduction) in which the person who experienced the paranormal encounter or freaky incident is linked to you, the storyteller, by mutual friends or relatives: “Apparently, the freakiest thing happened to my older sister’s best friend’s cousin…”

Once you’ve laid out where your story originated, it’s time to find some inspiration. It may be that someone you know has had a scary experience, or you may have even had one yourself. If so, feel free to dress that up and present it. If you’re not lucky enough to have a plethora of personal paranormal adventures at your disposal, never fear! You could retell an urban legend but apply it to an abandoned house or creepy park near where you live, or you could even borrow a generic horror movie plot and use that. No-one will mind if you repurpose an existing legend like the babysitter and the man upstairs, Bloody Mary, the vanishing hitchhiker or Slender ManNobody needs to know as long as you can convincingly embellish it and make it your own.

The very first scary story I ever told was a fairly bog-standard ghost story. The basic plotline was that a girl was babysitting her neighbours’ children. She cooked their tea, watched television with them for an hour or two and then put them to bed. She went back downstairs to relax until the parents came home, but kept hearing noises like footsteps running up and down the stairs and across the upstairs landing. She checked, thinking the children had woken up and were misbehaving, but she found the children were sound asleep in their beds.

I can’t really remember how it ended – I think the gist of it was that the house had been an orphanage or some bullshit, which obviously would never fly as a plot twist in a real horror story – but the plotline rarely matters on occasions such as these. My story was not particularly complicated, but it didn’t need to be to unsettle the room full of prepubescent girls. Instead, it was my performance of it that was of greatest importance. We were sitting in the dark and I deliberately positioned myself next to the wooden coffee table and punctuated the footsteps part of the story by tapping quickly on the table. What can I say, even as a little girl I had a flair for the dramatic.

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Finally, go for the jugular.

If it fits into your story, leave your ending as ambiguous as possible. Leave your audience wondering what the monster really was or whether the protagonist got out alive.

Even better, a skilled storyteller will draw their audience into the story. Let them know that no-one is safe and they could be next. As I said, I can’t remember the ending of my ghost story, but I vividly recall the mother of the girl who was hosting the sleepover opening the living-room door to check on us, just as I mentioned that the orphans still haunted the house which used to be their home. That was just sheer good fortune, but it did the trick. Everyone was in bits.

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Drop your own ideas and your favourite experiences of telling or hearing scary stories in the comments section below! Thanks for reading.

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What Is “Ravenous” (1999) Actually About?

Warning: spoilers for the film Ravenous. You don’t need to have seen Ravenous to read this review, but I’d recommend it and I think you should watch it anyway (I’m biased, but whatever).

I suppose you could consider this a spiritual successor to an article I wrote last year entitled “Why Viy (1967) Is Criminally Underrated”. Viy doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, nor does Ravenous. This is just about the only quality they share, which is why this blog post is only tangentially related to that one. After all, one is the very first Soviet horror film ever made, based on Eastern Europe’s rich oral traditions and folklore; the other is about, well, cannibalism. Neither that article nor this one are, in actual fact, reviews. Instead, they’re both think-pieces of a kind. I just fancied having a chat about Ravenous.

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You might not expect interesting philosophical analysis from a late 90s horror film, but, with this particular film, that’s what you get. Call me deluded – I’m sniffing Jinkx Monsoon’s perfume, clearly – but I remain absolutely convinced that Ravenous is an incredibly clever film disguised as a stupid slasher flick.

On paper, it sounds ridiculous. During the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is shipped off to serve at an outpost in California called Fort Spencer and, whilst there, he meets a motley crew of characters. They encounter Mr Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who tells them the strange tale of how his party became stranded in the Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism. It transpires that Colqhoun is the real danger, having killed and eaten his fellow travellers, and he does the same to most of the soldiers by luring them out to his former hunting ground. In the world of Ravenous, eating human flesh or drinking human blood causes you to become a Wendigo (a real creature from Algonquian myth, if you’re wondering) and imbues the cannibal with renewed strength. This sets the scene for the central moral dilemma of the film: is it alright to eat people if it saves you from dying? (Again, if you’re wondering, the answer is a resounding “NO”.)

Of course, this is only the “central moral dilemma”, to quote myself, on the surface. Cannibalism being wrong is a blindingly obvious moral to have at the centre of your film and I wouldn’t blame you if that was the main thing you took away from it, but, if one takes the time to pick away the bland Hollywood veneer, there’s a frankly astonishing amount going on. So let’s start with the cannibalism – what does it actually mean?

The way I see it, cannibalism in Ravenous is a vehicle, of sorts, for two main ideas. The first has to do with colonialism; to put it simply, both cannibalism and colonialism are about consumption. One is personal and one is political, but at their core they are both about stripping the resources out of another entity, be it a person or an entire population. In the latter third of the film, Colqhoun makes a little speech to Boyd in an attempt to persuade him to give in to his cannibalistic desires. It’s a fascinating monologue to dissect. He sees the westward journeys of “thousands of gold-hungry Americans” into California as a prime opportunity to satisfy his appetite. While discussing his not-so-secret cannibal plans, Colqhoun mentions “manifest destiny” – a philosophy, popular in the 19th century, which dictated that Americans had a duty to conquer and expand territory. The film’s events take place in 1847, a pivotal moment in American history: the following year would see the loss of Mexican territory and the absorption of Texas into the US. Although Colqhoun never sees his scheme realised, American expansion in the late 1840s was a significant concern for the nations of Latin America and especially for the people already living on American soil before the white settlers got there. If I wanted to be really blunt, the insatiable appetite which characterises the Wendigo – punishment for transgressing social norms – is the most visceral, exaggerated depiction possible of the white man’s greed.

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The second theme that the film’s cannibalism helps to convey is homosexuality, specifically repressed homosexuality. This repression is obviously period-typical (no gay pride in 1840s California, unfortunately) but it lends such an interesting dimension to the film. Nobody is ever described as homosexual and no overt homosexual acts occur, yet the unresolved sexual tension is simmering away throughout. During the “manifest destiny” monologue, Colqhoun attempts to persuade Boyd to “just give in”. There’s plenty of talk about “acquiescence” and, truth be told, it all comes off as rather seductive. If you look at this scene in context, there are quite plainly layers to it – at this point in the film, these two men have had multiple conversations about the “certain virility” which comes with the consumption of human flesh, and Colqhoun has licked Boyd’s blood off his fingers and had what I can only describe as a literal orgasm. Robert Carlyle has openly acknowledged the homoeroticism.* Floating round YouTube, there are some great bits of commentary from him and, at 9:52 in this video, he even says: “Go on, kiss him!” when Boyd is gazing down at Colqhoun in the final scene. He talked about it in more depth in this interview from 4:48 onwards and put it absolutely perfectly: “[Colqhoun] doesn’t just want to eat Guy Pearce, he’s going to have Guy Pearce at the same time.” Taboo as it may be, cannibalism is perhaps the most intimate act we can imagine, so it’s no surprise that a film with a single female character (incidentally the only main character to escape unscathed – you go, Martha!) and otherwise populated by men trying to eat each other is more than a little homoerotic.

This could probably be an article in and of itself, but isn’t it weird that all the greatest fiction involving cannibals is wildly homoerotic? Watch NBC’s Hannibal (2013 – 2015) for an obvious example or even Red Dragon (2002), which is still homoerotic AF. Regardless of what the straight boys say, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham have got a lot going on in every single adaptation.

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But back to Ravenous. Spirituality and religion crop up enough in this film that the issue warrants mentioning. Although it isn’t explored to its fullest potential, there’s a scene early on in the film which delves into cultural relativity, especially where religion and mythology are concerned. The soldiers prepare to go and assist Colqhoun’s party, who are stranded in the mountains, but before they leave, George (Joseph Running Fox) shows Boyd and Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) a painting of the Wendigo and describes the myth – how the Wendigo steals the strength of others by eating them. Hart remarks that “people don’t still do that”, to which George replies: “The white man eats the body of Christ every Sunday.” Not only is that a pretty chilling line, there’s something damning about it. It’s a brief but smart comment on our perceptions of primitivism and “savagery”; what we consider to be macabre is relative and subjective.

One of the soldiers, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), is described by commanding officer Colonel Hart as being Fort Spencer’s “personal emissary from the Lord”. Although God is invoked at various points throughout the movie and we see crucifixes up on the walls, Toffler is the only character who is explicitly shown to be religious. And, boy, is it hammered home how pious he is. The first thing we see Toffler do on screen is erect a large wooden cross on the roof of a building. Later, he is called upon to say grace at dinner and pray for Colqhoun’s recovery after the soldiers find him near-comatose in the snow. Toffler is really only a minor character, but he plays a crucial role in the portrayal of spirituality here. It wasn’t until I watched the film again that I realised quite how insidious and deceptive Colqhoun manages to be before the big reveal. During the montage of the soldiers making their way through the mountains to rescue Colqhoun’s party, there’s a short scene between Toffler and Colqhoun. Toffler is working on a hymn one night and is struggling to find a rhyme for “servant”. Colqhoun is shown to be listening and he supplies a word, “fervent”. It’s heartbreaking to watch the second time around, seeing how pleased Toffler is and knowing what happens to him. Within the first half of the film, Toffler is murdered (in fact, pretty efficiently eviscerated) by Colqhoun.

Religion’s tangible presence in the plot and in the visuals dies with Toffler, but morality is a near-constant topic of discussion. Colqhoun calls it “the last bastion of the coward” – it becomes clear very quickly that he sees Boyd’s resistance to cannibalism as a mark of inferiority. That’s an interesting little twist which isn’t particularly common. If I’m being honest, I can’t think of another cannibal-themed film in which the cannibal perceives those who don’t partake to be “less than” and is actively encouraging others to join in rather than hunting them down. We could take the Hannibal Lecter franchise, for example. Hannibal deceives people into consuming human flesh, but there’s never a sense in any of his incarnations that he’s trying to indoctrinate them; it just amuses him to trick people. It’s a rare thing that the horror in a cannibal film comes not from the cannibal attempting to kill and eat the protagonist, but from the cannibal attempting to make the protagonist a cannibal too. It’s a very specific kind of horror, a kind which deals with threats to moral integrity moreso than physical safety.

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The last thing I want to discuss is not the film’s plot or its message but its tone. There are some glaring discrepancies between the marketing and the finished product. The trailer seems like it was intended for a different film, conveying the film’s violence but not its wit and philosophy. What’s being sold is something in the style of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe The Hills Have Eyes, when Ravenous is instead a far more intellectual piece. It reminds me a lot of The Grey (2012), another film woefully misrepresented by its marketing. What we were told to expect was an action-packed movie full of manly men doing manly things and Liam Neeson punching a wolf , yet The Grey is a quiet, thoughtful film about bereavement, masculinity and the natural order.

Ravenous was a bit of a car crash behind the scenes, from what I’ve read, changing directors mid-shoot** (twice, actually) and suffering due to some wacky budgeting and scheduling. Antonia Bird, the final director hired and ultimately the one who would see the project through to the end, stated that several elements were introduced to the film without her consent during post-production, such as the quotes which appear on screen at the start of the film. In a 1999 interview for The Independent, Bird said: “There’s this disease of thinking your audience is stupid – and they’re not.” I agree with her regarding the quotes; they cheapen the message as a whole and it’s probably the only part of the film I have any real problem with. Bird was interested in recutting the film and I think that was a good shout too. The film would have benefited from a re-edit, although I don’t think that should happen now. No-one should touch it except for Antonia Bird and she sadly passed away in 2013. She also made the comment that Americans didn’t “get” the film, struggling to parse its odd blend of horror and humour. I like that it veers back and forth between high camp, gallows humour and balls-to-the-wall gore. It does a bit of everything and I really enjoy that.

Thank you if you’ve stuck with me for the duration of this article. You can probably tell how passionate I am about this film from the fact that I’ve written over 2,000 words about it. I’ve been working on this since 28th January of this year, gradually editing it. In the interim, I’ve watched Ravenous multiple times and, after each viewing, I’ve come back to this article and added or changed something. That’s the magic of this film. I could watch it a thousand times and always feel that I was watching something innovative and, in my opinion, beautiful.

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*It brings me so much joy that Robert Carlyle is 100% on board the “Ravenous is homoerotica with cannibalism” train. He gets it.

**They were going to hire the guy who directed such masterpieces as Home Alone 3, Big Momma’s House and Scooby-Doo. No, really, they were. I’m not kidding. The actors went on strike and Robert Carlyle gave Antonia Bird a call, thank Goddess.

I have no doubt that I’ll write more about Ravenous in the future, because there’s so much to unpack. But this will do as a starting point.

 

World of Weird: “My Monster Boyfriend”

Lindsay Ellis – formerly known as Nostalgia Chick if you were into Channel Awesome a few years ago – has posted a new video essay on YouTube. I’m a big fan of her video essays, but this one was particularly interesting to me and also relevant to this blog so I thought I’d share it. My Monster Boyfriend delves into animal/monstrous bridegrooms, a feature of folklore around the world, and how they’ve been portrayed in fiction. She charts the development of this motif from 18th-century literary versions of Beauty and the Beast (and earlier variants of this story) all the way up to Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water.

The Curse: Womanhood and Horror

Spoiler warning: this article contains spoilers for the films Carrie (1976), Ginger Snaps (2000), The Company of Wolves (1984) and briefly for Teeth (2007).

In many horror films, there are underlying themes of the exoticisation (and often, demonisation) of puberty, sex and womanhood. Slasher films are particularly guilty of this. Especially in early examples of slasher films, the “final girl” survives to the end of the movie and defeats the killer. Usually, she survives because she is a virgin and the other female characters – normally sexually active women – are punished by the narrative for their promiscuity.

It’s true that women are often the victims in horror films that treat puberty as a cause for alarm, as a step into a world of violence and fear. However, there’s certainly no shortage of women who commit violence within the genre and, equally often, such violence is presented as a coming-of-age ritual for the female protagonist. Either as a victim or as a perpetrator, her experiences with fear and with conflict are integral to her “growing up.”

Bearing all these questionable implications and complex history in mind, it’s a small miracle that any “feminist” horror films exist at all.

Motifs which crop up a lot are menarche and menstruation. The most recognisable example is in Carrie (1976), as the film opens with the protagonist Carrie White experiencing her first period in the school gym showers.  Her fanatically religious mother had never taught her about menstruation, so she initially believes she is bleeding to death and has to be consoled by her teacher. This is a pivotal moment for shy 16-year-old Carrie, who is already bullied by her classmates, and from then on, she begins to wield incredible telekinetic powers. Although the origin of Carrie’s power is never directly explained in the film, her emotions appear to be what drives her telekinesis, becoming a strength rather than a weakness. As with Carrie, it’s easy to see why menstruation makes its way into so many female-centric horror films. Menstruation is cyclical, linking it to curses and prophecies within horror – you know the one, “Every 20 years, the great god Cthulhu demands a virgin sacrifice.” Furthermore, menstruation is the only entirely natural process by which blood is excreted from the body. Despite being an absolutely normal and non-threatening experience, it lends itself to narratives that treat menstrual bleeding as equivalent to violent injury like stabbing or mutilation. The point of the horror genre is to unsettle and unnerve us. Body horror is fairly common in female-centred horror films, with notable examples including the black comedy horror Teeth (2007) which deals with the myth of vagina dentata (toothed vagina). What better way to scare us than to convince us (at least for roughly 90 minutes) that our own bodies might turn against us?

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Carrie (1976, dir. Brian De Palma)

It is for this reason that menstruation makes a frequent appearance in films that explore lycanthropy (werewolfism!), which in most myths is dependent on the lunar cycle. A good example is the film Ginger Snaps (2000). In the film, Ginger Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old girl, starts her period. On the same day that she receives “the curse”, as she refers to it, she is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Her younger sister Brigitte must find a way to cure her before Ginger is completely transformed into a monstrous creature. There’s very much a conflict between the girls’ mother’s romanticised idea of menarche, the school nurse’s calm explanations and Ginger’s own experiences. Her transformation is marked by exaggerated indications of puberty – we see her struggling to shave off thick hair, her period seems to go on for weeks and her sexual awakening results in a near-death experience for her boyfriend, who contracts lycanthropy like an STD and has a period of his own. Of course, the film is hyperbolic, but when you go through menarche as a teenager, these new and often painful experiences can feel very much like a nightmare.

At its heart, Ginger Snaps is a film about sisterhood. It explores the complex bonds between young women, related by blood or not, by candidly depicting internalised misogyny. The Fitzgerald sisters frequently denounce their arch-enemy Trina Sinclair as a “slut” and she responds in kind, but all the teenage girls in the film are a united front when it comes to boys and their tenuous, uncertain interactions with them. In fact, Trina’s death scene and her conversation with Brigitte prior to her death is particularly fascinating. In reference to seeing Brigitte hanging out with Trina’s ex-boyfriend, Sam (who helps Brigitte find the cure), Trina says to her: “If you’re so f*cking smart, you won’t give him the satisfaction. Somebody, just once, shouldn’t give that f*cker the satisfaction!” That doesn’t strike me as something a nemesis would say. To me, that sounds like Trina trying – if haphazardly – to protect Brigitte from Sam and from earning a reputation like hers. The girls show awareness of the sexual double standard earlier in the film. Lamenting her bad experience with her boyfriend, Ginger remarks to Brigitte: “A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease or the virgin next door.”

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Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett)

Along those same lines, menarche is undoubtedly linked with the onset of fertility and sex. It’s fairly archaic symbolism and bears less relevance in the modern era, as obviously not all women want to or are able to have children. However, I still find it interesting. Take the film  The Company of Wolves (1984), for example, based on the short story of the same name from the 1979 anthology The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. All the stories in the anthology deal with womanhood in some way – whether it’s through menarche, marriage or sex. The film is no different. While it is admittedly not an easy film to understand, due to heavy use of surrealism, ambiguous symbolism and a blurred boundary between the real world and the “dream” world, it is essentially a coming-of-age story. It’s a beautiful film, but it does take a few repeat viewings to take in everything. There’s so much symbolism in every frame and it can be a bit perplexing initially.

The Company of Wolves also features werewolves, although they are portrayed differently to the lycanthropes of Ginger Snaps. Here, although the film makes it clear that anyone can become a wolf, the werewolves serve primarily as stand-ins for men. This stems from the morals of early fairy tales, which Carter extrapolates in The Bloody Chamber. The original tale Red Riding Hood, which inspired several stories in the anthology and also the film, can be interpreted as a treatise on virginity. The wolf is a predator, out to steal away Red Riding Hood’s innocence and “devour” her, but she must be vigilant and stick to the path. The Red Riding Hood character – named Rosaleen in the film – is caught between two perspectives: that of her grandmother, who tells her stories of the wickedness of men, and that of her mother. Rosaleen’s mother responds to the grandmother’s influence on Rosaleen with this: “If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women.” At the end of the short story and the film, Rosaleen chooses to stay with the wolf who has tricked her and eaten her grandmother, who represents the old traditions as well as Rosaleen’s childhood. Leaving behind her parents, the village and the expectations that they had for her life, she transforms into a wolf herself and they flee into the forest together. The Company of Wolves is a much less cynical film than Ginger Snaps; it’s whimsical in many ways. When Rosaleen escapes the stifling morality of her village, there’s a note of hope, in contrast to the bloody culmination of Ginger’s struggle.

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The Company of Wolves
(1984, dir. Neil Jordan)

Perhaps the choice that Rosaleen makes at the end of The Company of Wolves – the choices that all the women in these films make – holds the secret to making a horror film that treats women’s experiences sensitively while still being, well, horrifying. Strip the protagonist of her autonomy, prevent her from being the focus of her own narrative, and you’re guaranteed to make a film with sexist subtext, if not an overt misogynist message. This is the case in many of those slasher movies I mentioned (it’s no secret that it’s a genre for which I don’t particularly care). Giving agency and a voice to women in horror doesn’t reduce the terror, but it does stop the film from contributing to real life attitudes and stigma.

Author’s note: I’m aware that this article doesn’t cover the full extent of how women are portrayed in horror, but I’d need to write something the length of a PhD thesis in order to analyse it properly! I’ve chosen to keep it (relatively) concise by focusing mostly on the representation in horror films of women’s physicality and of women’s social experiences during puberty.  This particular post is already almost 1500 words and I’m wary of letting it meander.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E6 – “Tempting Fate”

Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed the hare in the room in every episode of Inside No. 9. The hare had never been the focus of the story… until Tempting Fate.

Tempting Fate is, undoubtedly, my favourite episode of Series 4, with Once Removed and To Have and To Hold close runners-up. It dealt with a lot of themes and techniques in fiction and film which I find really interesting. The “magical object which grants wishes” is a very old trope, but the episode felt anything but generic and obvious. We’ve grown accustomed to the inevitable twist at the end of each episode; however, Tempting Fate manages to pull off twist after twist after twist, one after another, and it’s absolutely sublime to watch. This was one of those episodes, along with the likes of To Have and To Hold, that genuinely made me gasp. Again, I’d like to apologise to my flatmates for shouting “OH NO!” at the final scene.

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There were lots of fun inter-textual references: Shearsmith’s character Nick has a PhD in ethnology and folklore – cue “useless degree” jokes – and there was a particularly great name-drop of The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs (which I’ve actually studied, ha). The website American Literature* describes the story thus: “The Monkey’s Paw is a classic “three wishes” story that doubles as a horror story and a cautionary tale; reminding us that unintended consequences often accompany the best intentions.” The same could be said of this episode. It draws on many literary and cultural influences, including folk horror  – a genre of which Shearsmith and Pemberton are fond, and I am too. The supernatural is often present in Inside No. 9, but it’s made very apparent to us that curses and magic are front and centre in this narrative, as Nick states fairly early on: “Hares are associated with witchcraft and trickery in almost every culture in the world.” If you’ve seen the 2015 horror film The Witch, you’ll remember the eerie hare in the woods and this episode made me think of that (as though I need an excuse to think about The Witch).

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Out of all the episodes broadcast so far, it stood out to me. It truly shows off what our favourite screenwriting duo can do; it’s the epitome of “less is more”. I hesitate to say any piece of art – and I do consider horror, whether on the big screen or small, to be an artistic form – is perfect, but this was pretty damn close.

This was a fantastic conclusion to Series 4 and this series in general has been a worthy successor to the previous set, which was when I started watching (I started with The Devil of Christmas, watched Series 3 and then went back to catch up). Inside No. 9 has secured its place as the best thing on television.

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So as we wave off this series, I must also bid farewell to thee, dear reader. You’re welcome to stick around if you like my other stuff, but rest assured that, when the time comes, I’ll review Series 5 with just as much love and enthusiasm.

No more episodes, unfortunately, but fear not! The BBC have commissioned another series, so Series 5 will be broadcast (potentially next year).


*Note on The Monkey’s Paw:
I’m not sure why it has an entry on americanliterature.com, because it was published in England in 1902…

 

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E5 – “And The Winner Is…”

Right off the bat, And The Winner Is… is probably my least favourite episode this series. It had a lot of the components I would ordinarily enjoy, but I’ll try to explain to you why this one didn’t work for me. I suppose it’s largely because I guessed the twist considerably early on in the episode, which I don’t think has ever happened before. I’m not someone who particularly takes pleasure in figuring out the plot twist before it happens, because I genuinely like being surprised. That’s not to say it was bad, not at all; Inside No. 9 never is. But I could see the wheels turning throughout and therefore I picked up what was happening well before the big reveal. Maybe it was just a bit less subtle than usual.

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To Have and To Hold was always going to be a hard act to follow – the twist was upsetting and brutal, and it culminated in an even more unsettling resolution. And The Winner Is… is a much “quieter” episode. The humour comes from the recognisable, familiar archetypes in the room and the searing satire of the film industry. It’s still good fun and it’s full of fantastic actors (I was especially pumped to see Noel Clarke – Mickey from Doctor Who if you’re my age – and Zoë Wanamaker), but it’s a very different kind of episode. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed had it fallen in the middle of the series – say, just after Zanzibar and Bernie Clifton‘s Dressing Room – and preceded Once Removed and To Have and To Hold.

Finally: another episode, another wig. How would I describe Reece’s wig in And The Winner Is…? Suspicious, in a word. Again, I didn’t dislike it, but it was a… choice.

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It’s the last episode next week! I’m really excited to see what it will be, but I’m gutted that this series is nearly over. Reece published a distressing tweet that had us all panicking that this might be the end for good, so I’m hopeful that Series 5 will be with us at some point.

Episode 6, Tempting Fate, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 6th February, BBC2.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E4 – “To Have and To Hold”

Sorry this is so late! Spoilers are in yellow parentheses like [this]

And here we have the darkest episode of Series 4, at least so far.

I was really thrown by this one, I won’t lie to you. Once Removed was dark – lots of murder, lots of splatter – but it was in a fairly campy, semi-lighthearted way. I laughed a lot at it. I laughed at some of the dialogue at the start of To Have and To Hold as well, but, as the episode wore on, I started to get more and more uncomfortable. I felt guilty for having laughed at the awkwardness of the early scenes; I suppose that’s the mark of good television. A good episode should make you feel one way or another for the characters.

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This was fucking horrifying. It was, as always, brilliantly written and performed, but I think this might have scared me more than The Harrowing (Episode 6 of Series 1). The Harrowing is scary in a more straightforward way. It has the big spooky house, the creepy unseen entity upstairs and the brave protagonist who ultimately just can’t get away. To Have and To Hold is unsettling in a very insidious, mundane way. I can’t explain why without spoiling it, but it doesn’t possess any of the attributes I listed in The Harrowing.

I think what frightened me most was the plausibility of the plot. Of course it’s exaggerated – that’s the magic of television – but what happens in this episode has more or less happened in the real world, on multiple occasions. [This was obviously not intentional, but it was an interesting coincidence that this episode was broadcast not long after the Turpin children were rescued (their parents were convicted of multiple counts of torture and false imprisonment yesterday).] I don’t know if “suburban horror” is a real genre; however, it’s the term I’d apply to this episode.

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This review series might as well just focus on Reece Shearsmith’s wigs, because I can think of little else at the moment, in all honesty. He had another bizarre pileous arrangement going on in this episode. I wasn’t quite as taken with it as I was with the one from Once Removed, but, still, I approved.

Episode 5, And The Winner Is…, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 30th January, BBC2.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E3 – “Once Removed”

Warning: this review doesn’t contain any major plot points, but I do talk a little bit about the storytelling style and narrative techniques. If you want to watch it totally cold with no prior knowledge, I’d suggest coming back to this review once you’ve seen the episode.

Well, so far in Series 4, Steve Pemberton has ended up on Reece Shearsmith’s lap twice… so there’s that. Just wanted to open with that. I’m not complaining.

We’re halfway through the series! I’m trying not to feel sad about the inevitable end to Series 4; there’s still three more episodes to go, after all. There’s not much to feel sad about, really, because we’ve been blessed with three fantastic episodes already.

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We’ve had such interesting narrative techniques this series – Zanzibar with its iambic pentameter, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room with its pathos-filled slow burner of a story, and now Once Removed with its storytelling in reverse. The episode starts with the story’s end and concludes with its beginning (“reverse chronology” is the correct term for this). I love some quirky chronology – I’ve submitted an essay this week dealing partially with unconventional temporality in a poem by Jorge Luis Borges – so I was hyped when I clocked what was happening. Inside No. 9 never fails to surprise me and this episode was no exception.

Seeing Emilia Fox in Inside No. 9 was a thrilling moment, I won’t lie. I’ve loved her since she played Morgause in BBC’s Merlin and she was wonderful in this (as always). My only complaint would be that she isn’t in it enough, but that’s not really a concrete thing you could fix (it would just have made me personally happy).

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Reece’s wig in this episode was a choice, but not one I entirely disapproved of. It entertained me. I liked it. Miss Thing worked that lacefront and I wasn’t even that mad about it.

This was my favourite episode of this series (so far). It had all the elements that first drew me to Inside No. 9 – it was hysterically funny, genuinely shocking and it had a good bit of blood splattering around, which I’m always here for. Don’t skimp on the blood, ever. I had tons of fun watching it, to the point that I sort of felt bad for my flatmates and neighbours because I was laughing so hard.

 

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Episode 4, To Have and To Hold, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 23rd January, BBC2.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E2 – “Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room”

Brief note: I’m tagging my Inside No. 9 reviews under “horror” because some of the previous episodes have strong horror elements. I don’t really have a “hilarious, heartbreaking, sometimes horrifying comedy anthology” tag, so, unfortunately, episodes like this one which aren’t horror-related are going under the tag just to keep the reviews together.

The single spoiler (or semi-spoiler) in this review is in yellow parentheses like [this]. Highlight it with your cursor to read it.

Wow. So this was… upsetting.

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I remember watching 12 Days of Christine (the second episode of the second series) for the first time and just being blown away by how profoundly tragic and well-written it was. I feel similarly about Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. The episodes with stronger horror influences give me chills of a different kind; the twist can be pretty brutal. But episodes like this one have a different sort of twist. It’s a bit slower, a bit gentler. It gives you chance to really appreciate the pathos of the piece.

It’s more of an “Ohhhh. Oh, that’s sad.” rather than an “OH SHIT WHAT THE FUCK” (I’m looking at you, The Harrowing/Seance Time/The Devil of Christmas).

The plot, very briefly put to avoid spoilers, is that Len Shelby and Tommy Drake, a comedy double-act, have reunited after 30 years for one last gig. Len (Steve Pemberton) is eager to revive their act, but Tommy (Reece Shearsmith) has moved on. And so has the rest of the world: there’s a particularly brilliant scene with “the interview sketch”, culminating in a bit of commentary on political correctness. There’s so much going on in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room – commentary on stardom [(Len’s alcoholism is revealed to be what ultimately drove them apart)], lots of fun nostalgia for a bygone era of comedy and a desperately bittersweet ending.

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My mom and I laughed throughout the episode. My mom cried at the end. (I didn’t quite get that far, but I’m heartless so please don’t gauge anything by my emotions, really.) I think that’s the mark of a good piece of television; it makes you feel something without being gratuitous or taking the easy route.

This review is a bit shorter than the first, mostly because I wanted to establish in that review why I’ve specifically chosen to write about this series. I also simply have less to say about this one. I started watching Inside No. 9 because I love dark humour, so the episodes that appeal to me the most are the ones with something grotesque, something nasty. That doesn’t mean I don’t deeply enjoy episodes like Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. It was sweet, funny and beautifully crafted. A strong episode overall.

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Episode 3, Once Removed, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 16th January, BBC2.

 

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E1 – “Zanzibar”

I know, I know – I promised to stop writing so many reviews, but I just couldn’t resist sharing a few thoughts about Inside No. 9. So here’s what we’ll do. I’ll review this series and nothing else. I promise. No other film, TV show nor book shall be reviewed in this place until further notice.

Zanzibar takes place along a corridor on Floor 9 of the Hotel Zanzibar. The story plays out like a Shakespearean farce, a comedy of errors. As a big ol’ Shakespeare nerd, I was VERY happy indeed. This episode was written entirely in iambic pentameter and, to be honest, I might start a petition for more TV to be written that way. It was immensely cool to have that on my screen and, whatever you thought of the plot, the actual writing was a great technical achievement in and of itself. Both Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (Pemberton being the guy in the t-shirt at the front and Shearsmith being the dude in the suit behind him, below) are fantastic writers. (Yes, they’re often in the episodes too. They write and sing da feem toon, leave ’em alone.) It sounds silly for me, a lowly blogger, to say that, but Inside No. 9 just pushes all the buttons for what interests me. Quasi-horror anthology? On it. Ghosts? Bang on the money. Witch trials? They’ve done an episode on that. An episode with dialogue solely in iambic pentameter? They’re reading my goddamn mind.

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This was the first episode of Inside No. 9 that I watched with my parents. It’s always been something I watched on my own (except for the time I traumatised my brother with The Riddle of the Sphinx, the third episode of Series 3). Inside No. 9 is a strange beast to try and explain to people, mostly because it’s a comedy that isn’t overly concerned with being conventionally funny. When I laugh at it, it’s normally more of a hysterical exclamation of “Oh my god, did that really just happen?!” As is always the case with Inside No. 9, I had no clue what to expect and I wasn’t sure my parents would enjoy it.

Zanzibar happened to be one of the lighter episodes, perhaps even the lightest out of all of them. Just to clarify: “light” in this context does not mean “cheerful and innocent”. It’s still as darkly humorous as ever; often, it’s simply dark. I appreciated that it was a touch more lighthearted – not least because an episode in the vein of The Harrowing (my personal favourite episode, Episode 6 of the first series) would have been a very hard sell to my mother, who hates horror films. If you also want to get your squeamish friend or relative into Inside No. 9, Zanzibar would be an excellent place to start.

 

Overall, I really enjoyed the first episode. It probably won’t ever rank among my favourite episodes (although not classing every episode as your favourite is sort of the point of having favourites) but it was definitely up to their usual standards.

Episode 2, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 9th January, BBC2.