It's an episode of Hammer House of Horror, starring Peter Cushing! These are magical words.
Happily it's also pretty good, not to mention original. It's not supernatural and it's not a pastiche of any of the usual horror sub-genres, but instead its own twisted thing. Brian Cox (yes, him) is an ex-safebreaker who's just got out of prison, Elaine Donnelly is the pretty wife who'd been waiting for him and Peter Cushing is the elderly gentleman who'd been visiting Cox in jail and giving him money for no apparent reason. Cox visits him to offer his thanks, whereupon Cushing makes yet another generous gesture. If Cox will look after Cushing's pet shop and babysit the animals for a few days while he's away, Cushing will pay him lots of money and write him a reference that he can show to potential employers.
The catch is that Cushing's shop has a cellar full of wild animals, most of whom would kill you as soon as look at you, which he's using for electroshock experiments. He's also trained them to be afraid to do anything he doesn't want them to do, even if he leaves their cage doors open.
Clearly this isn't going to end well. In fact it's so obviously brimming with wrongness that to my surprise, I found the episode creepy. I wouldn't go so far as to call it frightening, but you'd have to be insane to go within a thousand miles of Cushing and his freaky set-up, even if the man himself is his usual charming self. It's not overt. He seems like a nice guy and his techniques seem to work. It's just that... no. I wouldn't volunteer to let Christopher Lee hang swords above my head, either. It's uncomfortable seeing Cox just setting foot in the place, but of course that's a golden offer for an ex-con and he can't afford to turn it down. His reservations about Cushing don't enter into the matter. "Because he's a nutcase."
The cast is rather extraordinary, though, given that this is TV. Obviously I worship at the temple of Peter Cushing, but Brian Cox is just as noteworthy a name. These days he's an Emmy Award-winning actor and an international movie star, with a career dating back to 1965. He was cinema's first Hannibal Lecter and he played Stryker in X-Men 2. He's good. He strikes the right balance with his protagonist, making you believe that he's sincere in wanting to go straight and yet also not immune to temptation. He keeps you on his side even after some highly dubious decisions, e.g. not running a mile from Peter Cushing. He's the right physical type, but he keeps his potential thuggishness on a short leash. I liked him. Meanwhile his wife, Elaine Donnelly, clearly isn't a star like the other two, but she's a perfectly respectable TV-level actor with a decent CV that by now covers more than forty years.
Cushing's not quite his usual self, by the way. He's less gentlemanly as usual. Compared with his usual beautiful manners, there's something slightly base about him this time. He thus ends up being disturbing in a new way, which isn't entirely pleasant to watch. (I mean that in a good way.) He's also wearing tinted glasses that make him look like a Nazi war criminal. I was making bad jokes to myself about Cushing at one point, only for the episode to anticipate me and really go there.
I should probably be reviewing this series en bloc rather than episode by episode, but what the hell. I'm enjoying them. This one's excellent, albeit in an unflashy TV way that's not bothering to make its characters too likeable. They're okay, though. They get away with that one. There's also animal violence, which is something that's always going to jolt an audience. No, the episode's only real problem is the finale and an implausibly convenient "hoist on his own petard", but even that they partially redeem a few minutes later by mining it for another level of sadistic irony. It's better than the first episode of this series I watched and even that one I thought was pretty good.
Peter Cushing only did one episode of Hammer House of Horror and this is it. Enjoy.
Review: Finn Clark
Images: Marcus Brooks