'Do you believe in ghosts?'
Revisiting Mark Gatiss’
Mark Anthony Ayling revisits 2008 horror anthology Crooked House and the ordinary, and extraordinary, fears contained within...
The enduring popularity of the British horror anthology on screen can be traced back to Ealing Studios’ masterpiece, Dead of Night (various, 1945).
An entirely anomalous effort from the studio, Dead of Night helped bridge the gap between Ealing’s wartime dramatic output and its subsequent run of wry comedy classics in the late ’40s and early 1950s.
It also set the bar extremely high for the British horror compendium, which would hit its cinematic peak with Amicus Productions’ run of kitschy horror portmanteaus in the ’60s and ’70s,
Prior to the release of his own take on the format, Crooked House (2008), Mark Gatiss, despite having spent a large chunk of the 90’s writing Dr Who novels, cult spin-off show, P.R.O.B.E. and contributing to the Big Finish range of Dr Who audio adventures, was best known for being one of the four writing and performing minds responsible for delivering offbeat favourite The League of Gentlemen into the world.
Following the show’s success, Gatiss would continue to work constantly, writing and performing in a variety of British TV shows. Most famously, he would contribute to the rebooted Dr Who, in 2005. He would also pen a trilogy of novels in the run-up to 2008, chronicling the adventures of Edwardian bon vivant Lucifer Box (apparently Charles Dickens’ pet name for his foul-tempered daughter Kate), the last of which, Black Butterfly, was published the same year as the broadcast of festive anthology series Crooked House.
Having already contributed to the delivery of a festive anthology via 2000s entirely unconventional Amicus parody The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special, Gatiss’s return to the formula would eschew the black comedy trappings of the Christmas Special in favour of a more atmospheric aesthetic, reminiscent of the BBC’s celebrated A Ghost Story for Christmas series, which ran from 1971 to 1978, and often featured a dread-filled adaptation of a signature M.R. James yarn.
Traditionally, horror anthologies were presented as a series of creepy stories framed by a single wraparound narrative that would often reach a resolution in the final story in the sequence.
In Crooked House, the framing narrative would be a contemporary one. The show commences in the present day, with a conversation between Lee Ingleby’s youthful history teacher Ben – discussing the recent discovery of an ugly door-knocker in the back garden of his new suburban domicile – and a tea swilling, erudite Scottish museum curator, played by writer/producer Mark Gatiss.
Curious about the knocker’s history Ben listens attentively as the curator relates the ghastly history of Geap Manor, long since demolished though previously occupying land near to Ben’s home, one presumes.
When the curator offers to tell Ben a story about the manor’s wicked past, the young teacher is all ears. And, so begins ‘The Wainscotting’, a bump-in-the-night haunted house tale set in the 18th-century, that recounts the unfortunate tragedy of morally bankrupt businessman Joseph Bloxham, and his encounters with the uncanny.
Having recently purchased Geap Manor with a view to modernisation, Bloxham is unaware of the estate’s grizzly reputation. On learning of it, he quickly dismisses the rumours as a load of old rot. However, as the creepy noises escalate, accompanied by the sort of inexplicable perceptual abnormalities that most folk would run a mile from, Bloxham’s scepticism starts to fray. Is Bloxham having a breakdown as a result of a guilty conscience, or is he plagued by damned spirits trapped in the wainscoting, crafted using the reclaimed wood from a Tyburn gibbet?
The Wainscotting’s less than ambiguous ending, which makes a mockery of the preceding thirty minutes of psychological uncertainty, is disappointing. That said, as spooky morality plays go it is an effective opener. It is also, with its dusty wigs and period-savvy dialogue, historically on point. It may not be the scariest TV episode ever, relying on minimalist sound design and limited visual effects to deliver its shocks, but the topicality of its subject, however, matter more than makes up for it. Philip Jackson delivers a finely calibrated performance as unrepentant capitalist Joseph Bloxham, whose abdication of responsibility for the ruination of a slew of business colleagues would likely have struck a chord in the year of the global financial crisis.
Contrastingly Crooked House’s sophomore section, ‘Something Old’ is a slightly more flamboyant effort set in the late 1920s. This story recounts a night in the lives of Felix De Momery (Ian Hallard) and his bride to be Ruth Sykes (Jennifer Higham). During an ostentatious costume party at Geap Manor, which the De Momery’s have come into possession of, Felix announces his betrothal to Ruth. His grandmother is less than impressed by the announcement, and neither is the vengeful spirit of an angry bride, who subsequently shadows Ruth as she stumbles around the manor in an increasingly unstable state of jealously paranoid terror.
As with ‘The Wainscotting’, ‘Something Old’ makes impeccable use of period detail on a limited budget to freshen the narrative up. Lasering in on the burgeoning youth culture of the era and its distrust of the traditional values of previous generations following The Great War, the segment does a fine line in roaring twenties décor and characterisation.
Whilst maybe not the strongest entry, Something Old’s strange brew of jump scares, family secrets, sinister spectres and ‘ripping’ jazz age liberality has a lot to recommend it. Jean Marsh as an ageing matriarch haunted by the sins of the past is a bonus. As is Anna Madeley as archetypical flapper Katherine, a predatory bright young thing whose bitchy asides and Evelyn Waugh-styled hedonism proves the perfect counterpoint to Ruth Syke’s haunted, neurotic insecurity.
In the final story, titled simply ‘The Knocker’, Crooked House comes full circle. When Ben tries to relinquish possession of the knocker, the curator turns his offer down due to its apparent worthlessness. Subsequently, Ben, having learned nothing from his dialogue with Gatiss’s increasingly suspect storyteller, attaches the knocker to his front door. After being woken at an ungodly hour by a doom-laden rapping sound, he finds he is able to access, on re-entering his own home, a time tunnel through which he is transported into Geap Manor’s shadowy Tudor past.
Understandably perturbed by what he witnesses when he investigates the manor, Ben seeks an explanation from the curator only to have the rug pulled from under him with surprising aplomb.
Inspired by a Maori death mask Gatiss purchased whilst in Paris, ‘The Knocker’, which juxtaposes the prosaic modernity of Ben’s pending new-dad anxiety with the dread fireside terrors of an occult baby-making ritual, is Crooked House’s piece de resistance.
The story is packed with disturbing incidents, creative structural choices, smart photography and humorous dialogue. The climax, a neatly orchestrated slow reveal which builds the tension and binds Crooked House’s narrative triumvirate into a satisfying whole, works beautifully. Derren Brown’s cameo is a touch gimmicky. Still, it’s hard to call fault with a story as sharp as this one.
Crooked House aired in three half-hour instalments between the 22nd and 24th December 2008 as part of the BBC’s Christmas schedule. It received generally positive reviews, not to mention decent ratings given its outlier status on BBC4. The BBC then released Crooked House in feature-length format, thereby allowing viewers to appreciate the story in a single sitting.
Unfortunately, in the intervening years following the show’s release and Gatiss’s continued success with the likes of 2010s Sherlock Holmes, horror documentaries A History of Horror (2010) and Horror Europa (2012), his ongoing adventures in the Whoniverse and the revitalised A Ghost Story for Christmas, Crooked House has faded from view.
Still, for fans of classic ghost stories with a modern twist, Amicus anthologies, and Gatiss’ own unique brand of knowingly jarring genre subversion, Crooked House’s assemblage of ordinary and extraordinary fears, modern and traditional storytelling techniques, and campy chills, has plenty to recommend it.