Extinguish the candles, bolt fast the door, and turn up the volume over the howl of a chill November wind, for there’s a spectral form appearing from the depthless black of your television screen. It’s BBC One’s three-part adaptation of James Herbert’s spooky tale, The Secret of Crickley Hall.
A finely balanced dual-time narrative forms a single story playing out across the decades. It can be distracting to flick between timezones but here it’s a seamless ectoplasmic flow. In 1943, new teacher Nancy (promising newcomer Olivia Cooke) arrives to work at Crickley Hall orphanage, and finds it is run with a cruel and abusive hand by Augustus Cribben and his sister.
In the present, Eve (Suranne Jones), her husband Gabe (Tom Ellis) and their two daughters move to the empty Crickley Hall to help ease the pain of their son Cam’s disappearance a year ago. Because what better way to help you cope with the loss of a child than by moving into a spooky old former orphanage?
Crickley Hall is haunted by every cliché in the horror genre – whispers, footsteps, creaking doors, mysterious puddles – and surrounded by a cast of Hammer Horror village locals who all intimate something sinister with a knowing eye and a terse ‘I shouldn’t say anymore…’. You half expect Percy Judd, the codger of portent played by veteran David Warner, to raise a quivering finger and shout ‘Stay off the moor, ye mischievous wee ‘uns!’
For The Secret of Crickley Hall is a classic ghost train ride of a horror story: a composition of familiar thrills and chills, but there are still moments when an old spooky trope will rattle out of the dark and make you jump. You can often tell when the shocks will come but they’re still executed with the sharpness of a cane rapped across the knuckles.
That’s thanks to some incredibly good sound design, which soaks even the most mundane events in an atmosphere of terror. Occasionally the tremulous violins verge on the uncomfortable, but there are also long periods of overwhelming silence – an aural absence that is filled with apprehension as you wait for the clatter of toys to break out of the silence and make you grip a cushion.
Douglas Henshall, shedding his Primeval skin as Augustus Cribben, is a presence as malevolent in human form as in spiritual. It’s a chilling performance, built upon the caution we’re already indicated to treat him with, and Henshall as man and ghost, drips menace in much the same way as he drips accursed water across the flagstones.
It’s usually the case that the reveal of the ghost takes the terror out of a ghost story, but the generous appearance of Mr Cribben in the final few minutes turns the screws to greater levels of tension. This isn’t a ghost afraid to let himself be seen or felt and there’s something very chilling about that level of boldness.
We look forward to see where it’ll take us in Episodes 2 and 3. Though we might do so from behind the safety of a big cushion…
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 18 November 2012 on BBC One.
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