Murrain 1976

The title means a plague, and the writer is Nigel Kneale; diseases, particularly amongst farm-animals are a recurring theme in his work, and this one-off entry in a compendium of plays by British dramatists is an ideal introduction to Kneale’s work. It’s a story about witchcraft that adheres to no genre conventions; the exploration is deliberately un-sensational, thoughtful and intellectually rigorous. David Simeon plays Alan Crich, a vet called on by a farmer (Bernard Lee) to investigate a blight on his animals. Crich discovers that the locals in a nearby village also suffer from an ailment, and that the superstitious villagers blame an old woman who lives alone. Scoffing at their ideas of witchcraft, Crich investigates, but what he finds challenges his own world-view.  Kneale’s work here is considerably better than his script for Hammer’s 1966 film The Witches, and John Cooper’s direction makes good use of atmospheric outdoor sets. Murrain sees Kneale releasing himself from the science-fiction angle and focusing on an examination of fear and tradition in a primitive English village. It’s well acted, deadly serious and a minor gem of bleak 1970’s horror.

Beasts: The Dummy 1976

After The Quatermass trilogy chilled UK audiences on television and worldwide via three Hammer films, Nigel Kneale had quite a master of horror reputation. He didn’t consider himself to be a genre writer, and this entry in his Beasts tv series isn’t supernaturally inclined or science fiction-based, although genre elements are present. The Dummy is a study in a mental breakdown, that of an actor, Clyde Boys (Bernard Horsfall) who is returning to the role of the dummy for an eight film. Wearing the elaborate suit has taken a physical toll, and the film- production around him is threatened by his reliance on alcohol to get him through the day. Producer Bunny (Clive Swift) is on hand to try and steer the production away from the rocks, with Clyde’s wife, her lover, a nosy journalist and all manner of intrusions complicating the set. Kneale certainly knew what kind of shenanigans go on during a film’s production, and the way that Bunny attempts to befriend Clyde while subtly trying to remove him from the film rings true. The Dummy doesn’t deliver much in terms of scares, but it’s an interesting little grace-note from a writer who had plenty of experience of unhappy cinematic collaborations.

Beasts: Special Offer 1976

Another worthwhile entry in Nigel Kneale’s ITV series from 1976, Special Offer is a very odd tale of telekinesis that seems to reflect on a similar subject matter to Stephen King’s Carrie, but instead of the specific humiliations of a prom and pig’s blood, the ordinary everyday humiliation of working on the checkout of a British supermarket creates a similar result. Pauline Quirke plays Noreen Beale, a naïve and inexperienced girl who starts work on the tills in a store operated by Mr Grimley (Geoffrey Bateman). She’s got a secret love for him that’s unrequited, and soon items are breaking, shelves are clearing themselves and Noreen believes a strange creature is responsible. Kneale isn’t afraid of being silly, but he’s also averse to cliché, and Special Offer never quite settles on a tone, making the climax all the more nightmarish. There’s a keen eye for the unfair male dominance of the working environment, and also the kind of satire of capitalism that marks Kneale’s work, even in his abortive screenplay for Halloween III; Season of the Witch.

Beasts: Buddyboy 1976

Nigel Kneale’s interest in science-fiction topics is mixed with genuine social critique and a pessimistic view of human nature; this entry in his Beasts tv show from 1976 doesn’t quite fuse these elements together, but it’s a wild ride all the same. A young Martin Sham, all curly hair and mouth, is a small-time entrepreneur and gangster who hopes to turn a high-street dolphinarium (posters identify it as being called Finnyland) into a sex club and cinema; presumably Kneale saw this as a sign of the times, but it’s hard to take seriously the notion that in 1976 Britain’s high street dolphinariums were falling into nefarious hands. The previous owner (Wolfe Morris) is haunted by the ghostly presence of a dolphin (Buddyboy) which he abused, and Lucy (Pamela Moisewitsch) seems to have an affinity with the dead creature. The punch-line is bleak and non-visual, but Buddyboy is a real curio because of the decent acting from Shaw, and the surreal sense of dislocation. While it sounds ridiculous, Buddyboy is not the kind of story that you’ll ever forget.

Beasts: What Big Eyes

Nigel Kneale reworks some of his original Quatermass body horror for this truly bizarre take on the werewolf legend, updated to 1976 Britain. Michael Kitchen is the keen RSPCA officer, complete withy uniform, who is on the track of imports of wolves; he traces them to an anonymous-looking pet-shop, but one glance at the owner, the perennially lupine Patrick McGee, suggests that the creatures have been used for experimentation, and McGee is the result. What Big Eyes has a typically wordy Kneale script, which includes an eye opening discussion of the story of Red Riding Hood, and a fascinating description of how the werewolf myth might be derived from reality. What Big Eyes has a slight, but telling pay-off, and it’s a slow-burn story that make up for in originality what it lacks in scares. If nothing else, it shows off Kneale’s gift for reworking classic horror tropes into everyday British life.

Beasts: Baby 1976

Also from the pen of Quatermass scribe Nigel Kneale, the Beasts series on ITV horror drama from the mid 1970’s is rarely seen; not all the episodes have dated well, and the single location, acres of dialogue formula that was due to budget restrictions works against episodes like After Barty’s Party. Baby is probably the best of the bunch, and has a haunting charm that’s well worth seeking out. Jo (Jane Wymark) and her vet husband Peter (Simon MacCorkindale) move into a country house, but during renovations, find an urn buried in the wall, with a mummified creature inside. Neither Peter not his colleague Dick (T.P.Mckenna) can work out what the creature is, but Jo, who is pregnant, doesn’t want it in the house. He wishes are not carried out, and the signs point to witchcraft. Baby goes the extra mile in terms of disturbing details (professional discussions of abortions in cows are juxtaposed with Jo’s body dysmorphia) and the pre-credits sequence sets up the idea of some kind of natural sickness. Baby is something of a legendary status amongst young people who saw it back in 1976, but it still has a lasting impact seen today. Like most of Kneale’s work, it’s due a proper dust-off for streaming.

The Stone Tapes 1972 *****

stonetape-mainNigel Kneale’s status as one of the great thinkers of the sci-fi and horror genre is largely based on his Quatermass quadrilogy, but there’s a number of other notable entries in his canon. 1972’s The Stone Tapes is a typically thoughtful supernatural drama, which dodges most of the potential clichés and comes up with some original stuff. Directed by horror specialist Peter Sasdy, The Stone Tapes is the story of a scientist Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) who has an eye on creating a recording format to replace tape. He and his ex Jill (Jane Asher) get involved in the renovation of a country house which dates back to Saxon times. The hidden room was used as a US army storeroom in WWII, and is rumoured to harbour a ghost. With neither jump scares or dream sequences to pad out the action, the focus is on Kneale’s brand of artful pseudo-science, which is always persuasive. The idea of ancient stone as a recording format which captures the energy of past events and plays them on a loop to those sensitive enough to pick the message up is a novel one, and there’s a great sequence where Jill starts to believe that their computer in Chicago has been possessed by malevolent spirits. Lo-fi production, but big ideas have made The Stone Tapes a deserved cult classic.