The Ghostly Advent Calendar: 7th December – Dead of Night

7Will you be having friends over this Christmas Eve? It’s a lovely opportunity to show off your gorgeous home, to perhaps try a new recipe from the latest Nigel Slater, and impress with your hosting skills. Just don’t suggest an exorcism.

In 1972, the BBC broadcast an anthology series of horror stories under the banner ‘Dead of Night’. Only a few episodes of the series remain – one of which, ‘The Exorcism’, is perfect viewing for a cold Christmas night.

The writer and director, Don Taylor, described The Exorcism as a ‘socialist ghost story’ – the four characters are, initially at least, far more concerned with the material than the spiritual. When we watch it now, we travel back in time to 1972, when Britain’s social divisions were reaching boiling point and large areas of working class communities were being gentrified by the middle classes. That unrest and usurpation are at the heart of ‘The Exorcism’, because what happens when the lovely little cottage you’ve bought for a song is still inhabited by someone who doesn’t want to leave?

Edmund and Rachel have renovated their new home, bought for ‘at least fifty quid, but not much more’, and stuffed it full of mod cons (from fitted kitchens and central heating to a not-so-mod but deeply creepy clavichord). Keen to show it off to their friends Dan and Margaret, they invite them round for Christmas Eve dinner. However, the wine turns to blood and one bite of the turkey sends them all into paroxysms of agony. If only they’d followed Robert Carrier’s recipe

dead of night exorcismImage courtesy of the BFI

After that, things get even weirder. It’s a hallucination, says the rational Dan, as complete darkness falls outside, photos of the cottage alter to something more sinister and the walls start to crumble. But it’s not a hallucination – Rachel can feel something in the room with them and it wants its house back.

The social commentary behind ‘The Exorcism’ is less of a metaphor, more of a megaphone. Don Taylor ‘s critique of the gentrification of working class homes, of the materialism of the middle classes, is played out in capital letters. It’s not subtle, but it is effective – as this article points out, the fact that the actors play it absolutely straight just adds to the tension (we are so used to layers of irony in everything these days, from cereal commercials to serial killer movies). An excellent analysis of the visual language of The Exorcism can be found here, with some intriguing ideas about how the shiny new mod cons turn into objects of entrapment.

Three surviving episodes of ‘Dead of Night’ can be downloaded from iTunes – ‘The Exorcism’, ‘Return Flight’ and ‘A Woman Sobbing’. They make a great alternative to the M.R. James adaptations (which I plan to blog about shortly) and are guaranteed to chill your blood. Watch this review of the BFI re-release of ‘Dead of Night’ to get you in the mood for maleficence…


Categories: Opinions, Television

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