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Gothic Comedy Treat
on 13 October 2011
The Halloween Special was a much anticipated viewing event for Psychoville fans when it was broadcast on BBC2 in October 2010, a perfect piece of `appointment television' for Halloween night.
The Gothic, so important to Psychoville's distinctive flavour across both series, is the narrative driving force here.
The abandoned, dilapidated former Ravenhill Psychiatric Hospital, full of foreboding shadows & empty, echoing rooms in the middle of the night, is the perfect gothic set up. The Special's main protagonists are Drew, a fragile, damaged young man and Phil Walker, a TV locations manager for a `Most Haunted' style TV show, who is doing a recce of Ravenhill. Drew grew up opposite the hospital and had the misfortune to encounter Nurse Ketchington, the flinty, sadist Governess of Ravenhill, when he broke into the place as a Halloween dare when he was a boy. Haunted by the events he saw and heard that night, he assumes the role of Phil's (& our) guide around Ravenhill.
This is the brilliantly atmospheric backdrop around which the portmanteau storytelling takes place. Mr Jelly, Joy & George Aston, Oscar Lomax & the Sowerbutts feature in four Halloween tales which blend urban myth, original spins on horror clichés and lovingly referenced classic and modern horror films, all shot through with the emotional resonances that Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton always bring to their characters.
A recurring theme running through the stories is established in the opening scenes by Nurse Ketchington, as she holds forth on the true traditions and meaning of Halloween - that the wearing of masks at Halloween is to ward off evil spirits and the thin dividing line between the living and the dead is at its closest on All Hallow's Eve. This thematic thread of masks, mirrors, reflections, disguises and the past haunting the present is cleverly interwoven throughout the Special and appears in subtle, telling ways to create chillingly memorable moments.
These moments engender a sense of dread, a feeling of being unsettled or a creeping uncomfortable tension. That they occur in a seemingly natural, unforced way as part of the storytelling is testimony to the brilliance of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. They're in complete command of the material, they know their horror intimately and know exactly what they're doing down to the most minute detail.
The Halloween Special is also brilliantly directed (by Matt Lipsey) and beautifully shot. Its visually arresting from the opening moment with Ravenhill Hospital seen at night, lit only by a full moon and a flash of lightening. Startling images abound & the memory of them has stayed with me - Mr Jelly's ghostly child tormentors in `Haunted Air' Halloween masks; Julian Bleach flowing slowly across a hospital room; a grisly, gory Jack-o-lantern; the masked inmates of Ravenhill; a human alarm system powered by electric shocks to the head.
It is also laugh out loud funny with hilariously cherishable lines & visual jokes, from the blackly comic to the purely silly. The Sowerbutts in particular shine in the hitchhiking scenes at the roadside & in the car.
The Halloween Special deserves to be as celebrated as The League of Gentlemen's Christmas Special as an outstanding creative piece of work inspired by a seasonal celebration. It shows the heights of creativity that television can achieve when imagination, unique talent and a dedicated production team are at the helm.
The dvd itself is good value with a nice selection of extras on it too including Phil Walker's location tour & Mr Jelly's Halloween. Created and shot by Reece and Steve in documentary interview style, Mr Jelly's simmering anger is both funny and unsettling close up on camera, whilst Phil Walker's chat about tv production work is a hilarious comment on the state of much of today's television.
The Psychoville Halloween Special is a fantastic stand alone creation, but also answers questions left by the S1 cliffhanger as well as priming fans for S2. It is thoughtful, clever and brilliant. The quality of it is such that rewatching it time and again is an enriching experience, for there are always things that await discovery that were missed on a first viewing, such is the scope of creativity & attention to detail on show.
Its very sad there is to be no more Psychoville, but it will always be remembered and cherished by fans as a brilliant work of unique storytelling and unforgettable characters.