Tales of the Unexpected

July 1st, 2007 DVD Reviews, Empire, Film

Forget the endless, tired procession of slasher-era remakes, J horror, exploitation double bills and all the other fanboy-cool horror of today. The creators of Tales of the Unexpected understood what horror was all about; the slow, subtle onset of dread.

There’s not a drop of blood spilled or a sex scene with doomed teens anywhere. Like Dahl himself, relaxing in his chair in front of his fireplace introducing every episode, it’s all very civilised and proper. Even the title is in on the joke; it could have been Tales on the Cusp of Terrifying.

But keep an open mind, it’s not the sort of terror you’re used to. None of the 12 episodes in the set are about a serial killer or chainsaw massacre. They’re about a grown man who recognises the prefect who made his life hell at school, a cat who likes the sound of the piano, a couple with an ill baby, a woman with a pathological fear of being late.

And from the pseudo-carnival theme onward you’ll feel an icy finger of barely-perceived dread inch its way up your spine. It never grabs you around the throat, it never bursts forth from the screen in bloodshed or visceral terror, it just stays there to give you a single shudder.

Made on the cheap in the late 70s by Anglia Television, a regional division of Brit network ITV, Tales hasn’t aged well, but with the Goya-inspired title sequence imagery, Fawlty Towers and Goodies-era design aesthetic and the cheeky-eyed spirit of Dahl overseeing all it’s the filmed equivalent of a cheap paperback of horror stories you read as a kid that still gives you nightmares occasionally.

What makes each episode so effective (and some are stronger than others) is that despite cheap sets, dodgy costuming, occasionally shoddy acting and the dramatic constraints of the format, the story is king, the entire reason for the show’s being.

The authors who contributed the short stories that became scripts were plainly and simply storytellers. Stories weren’t about issues in those days, they were about setting up a scenario you’d never seen before (paying attention, Hollywood?) and keeping you mercilessly hooked by your need to know What Happens Next.

A sad absence of extras is understandable considering the time the show was created but surely there are Dahl scholars around who could have contributed.

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