Though it has never been a critical favorite, the horror anthology has been one of the most resilient forms of genre television programming.  It’s not just in the United States, either: plenty of other countries have produced their own back catalog of one-off terror tales.  The U.K. in particular has a strong tradition of this, with horror anthologies being a regular staple of BBC programming.  Chiller is an interesting example of the U.K. horror anthology during the mid-1990’s: it presents a mixture of familiar archetypes and old-fashioned craftsmanship in a subtle, distinctly British style.

Chiller offered no wrap-arounds or host segments.  Instead, this five-episode, single-season series offer a string of stand-alone tales, all around 52 minutes, that contrast familiar horror concepts like haunted houses or split personalities against the backdrop of modern English life.  Each episode harbors a few shocks but generally avoids the shock-machine style of horror in favor of atmosphere and a subtle build-up that pushes characterizations to the fore.

The following is a quick break-down of the episodes, including brief synopses and opinions:

Prophecy: a group of college students do a séance for laughs.  A few years later, members of the group begin dying in mysterious ways – and it all has something to do with a little boy whose mother died under tragic circumstances.  The Final Destination-esque plot is more effective that it might seem, with a really effective bit of misdirection early on that results in an effective plot twist that drives the third act.  Sophie Ward offers a good performance as the member of the group trying to stop the curse and Tom Piccin is creepy in a subtle way as the little boy that the story ultimately revolves around.

Toby: this is an oft-unnerving tale of maternal horror revolving around a couple who lose their unborn baby when the mother miscarries after a car accident.  She seems to become pregnant shortly after – but even though she shows all the physical signs of pregnancy, she is not actually pregnant.  The premise is a clever variant on the ghost story but there’s more here than the expected setpieces.  Indeed, this seems to be using the structure of the ghost story as an allegory for the decay of a troubled marriage, with the two former loved ones becoming strangers to each other as the horrors set in.

Here Comes The Mirror Man: a social worker searches for a young subject of her work, not knowing he’s got an evil friend that is plotting to keep the young man cut off from anyone who wants to “help” him.  You’ll figure out what the deal is with the young man and his so-called friend the first time said friend is introduced but as with Toby, the horror aspect is really the set up for an exploration of psychological matters.  This episode is rich with detail that reveals how urban alienation can eat away at a person, regardless of the social strata one occupies.  Forget the obligatory twist ending: it’s really the low-key and convincing performances in this one that you’ll remember afterwards.

The Man Who Didn’t Believe In Ghosts: the most traditional of the stories here focuses on a professional debunker of supernatural phenomena who unwittingly moves his family into a house that appears to be haunted.  Not only do strange events occur in the house but it seems they are being “targeted” in a violent manner by said poltergeist.  The protagonist refuses to leave, thus setting the stage for a confrontation that will prove whether his beliefs are right or wrong.  Like many episodes here, this goes for a low-key feel but the narrative is a little too diffuse for its own good and has a few plot threads don’t pay off (the most notable is a scene with the wife being attacked by a non-supernatural force that is never followed up on).  There’s also a twist ending that undercuts the main thrust of the narrative.  However, the performances are solid and the story does keep you guessing until the impressive climax.

Number Six: this is the best of the five episodes.  The chilling but subtly handled premise deals with a small English town bedeviled by a string of child killings.  One young boy is haunted by visions of dead classmates who beckon him to “join” them while his divorcee father – a cop – tries to find the killer before the next murder occurs.  The atmospheric plot has some clever red herrings and an interesting subplot involving Druid traditions.  The end result almost plays like a novella brought to life, textured with little details and using a large ensemble to tell its story.  It also boasts an ending that is haunting in its own quiet but lethally effective way.

In short, Chiller is worth the time for horror fans who love the televised anthology format.  The show never goes for the hook-y premises of The Twilight Zone but its understated style and refusal to lean on cheap shock effects give it a feeling of substance that you don’t always get from this format.

DVD Notes: Synapse has recently released all the episodes of this series in one two-disc set.  The episodes are presented in their original full-frame (1.33:1) format with mono audio.  The show was shot on 16mm film and edited on video so there is a certain graininess to the visuals but the results look fine, considering the age and limitations of the materials.  There are no extras.

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