Chillers: The Complete Series

Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment

Feb 08, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Famed novelist Patricia Highsmith spent a career over five decades writing dozens of short stories and books, mostly hallmarked by intense psychological intrigue and suspenseful atmospheres. From her impressive repertoire has come numerous stage and film adaptations, the most famous of which are Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 rendition of Strangers on a Train, and Todd Haynes’ 2015 drama Carol (adapted from The Price of Salt). While Highsmith is renowned for her explorations of sexuality, personal identity, and social morality, many of her smaller scatterings of stories are on a sliding scale of narrative quality. That in it of itself is not a bad thing per say, but when someone takes it upon themselves to adapt a weaker collection of Highsmith’s leaner works into a sizable low-budget anthology series, it may be a step too far.

Not to be confused with the five-part 1995 British supernatural anthology series Chiller, this hodgepodge collection of Highsmith shorts is a 1990 French production hosted by Psycho star Anthony Perkins. Structured as if it were a low-rent version of The Twilight Zone set against mundane neighborhoods in England and France, the series walks us through twelve isolated stories of ordinary people behaving badly, with Perkins moralizing at each episode’s commencement and conclusion. Released originally in France, with a United Kingdom run in 1992 under the (horrible) alternative title Mistress of Darkness, the series was a one-season wonder, and pittered off into obscurity relatively quickly.

Though the series does occasionally boast some highly recognizable names in British acting (Ian McShane, Ian Holm), as well as many highly eclectic professionals from around the world (Jean-Pierre Bisson, Mai Zetterling), the series is an absolute mess. From the janky VHS-esque cinematography, relentlessly clanging synth score, and atrocious dubbing, it is a true difficulty seeing the stories for what they are worth over the technical pitfalls littering each episode. While there are plenty of moments to enjoy throughout the series, it truly depends on what the audience is searching for, as the title Chillers does not at all describe accurately the experience of this anthology.

The series was released on DVD by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment in 2005, with a volumized variation issued in the same year by Platinum Disc. There wouldn’t be another home release of the series until Mill Creek Entertainment released their two-disc DVD collection in 2018. There are no supplemental features on any of these releases.

The first episode “The Cat Brought It In” focuses on a posh English family enjoying a weekend in their country house when their cat brings a pair of human fingers into the sitting room. The family then sets about discovering the owner of the fingers, eventually peeling back the thin veneer of their neighborhood’s respectability. This one is honestly the closest to a standard whodunit that we’re given in the whole series, and besides having Bill Nighy in its cast, there isn’t much to say about this meandering trickle of British niceties (besides the occasional hilarity brought on by poor sound design). It’s just okay.

“Sauce for the Goose” follows the whims of a stifled, ice cream-chomping housewife falling for a smooth-talking lounge singer, and all of the baggage that can bring. However, it doesn’t stop there, as there’s quite a bit of money involved, and desires are running wild. This episode has a pair of genuinely spectacular leads (McShane, Gwen Taylor), with some classic murder-mystery goodness adding to the overall flavor. While each moment that is meant to enact tension plays far more hokey than it probably was intended, it is enjoyable nevertheless. Also, its plot snakes along in a way that makes this the closest episode here to being considered an actual “chiller” - and for those who understand, forgive me for the bad pun.

“Old Folks at Home” has no business being in this series. A well-meaning duo taking in an elderly couple from the local retirement home proves to be a living “nightmare”, on account of the seniors’ constantly insufferable behavior. There is little to keep any interest in this piece, relying solely on the toxic whimsey of the elderly pair as plot mobility and conflict - aside from a house fire, nothing happens. Though this was most likely unintentional, all that this episode manages to prove is that humans are irritating and eventually unbearable, no matter how idealistic you may think yourself to be. This episode probably also possesses the worst (and most grating) dubbing of the whole series.

“The Thrill Seeker” is a weird one, but it still has an interesting edge to it that I hope that this story is eventually readapted into something else. A somewhat reclusive veteran who part-times as an encyclopedia proofreader manages to escape his mundane life and crushing loneliness by creating identities and inserting himself into the lives of randomized women. This ends up playing a bit like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and while it’s not all that tense, or really at all shocking (where it tries to be), the ride is succinct and presents an interesting moral argument as the narrative progresses. Besides his odd dubbing, Bisson is quite good as the protagonist.

“The Day of Reckoning” feels like a public service announcement from PETA channeling William Castle’s Strait-Jacket. While a young man is visiting his aunt, uncle, and cousin on their farm, he succumbs to abstruse nightmares of the horrors of automated chicken farming - why this specifically happens is anyone’s guess. The dream sequence is scored by a rendition of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” sung by a chorus of humanoid-voiced chickens, there exists a plethora of close-ups of a chicken’s highly reflective eye (though what the chicken sees is ultimately meaningless), and an incessantly repetitious synth score collectively sloshes together at every interval - resultedly, we are all pretty damn confused. You come to this one for the off-the-wall zaniness of its premise, and the side-splittingly awful re-dubbing of famed French actor Philippe Léotard.

“Puzzle” is yet another episode that has no business being in this collection. A young advertising executive with a pension for womanizing is offered a promotion if he marries one of his two current girlfriends - it plays out like a sapless romantic comedy from the mid-80s without anything that made some of those border-line misogynistic romps at all worth their salt. The characters are boring, the plot loiters on long stretches of nothing happening for no apparent reason, and it ends on a swirl of genre cliches, each one more trite than the last. It’s a giant waste of time, and there exists fairly little that is marginally redeeming.

“Slowly, Slowly in the Wind” kicks off the second disc, and does not bode well for the remainder of the series. After a wealthy British businessman purchased a stately ancestral home from a neighboring French family with the intention of completely renovating it, his daughter falls in love with the son of his nemesis. While he remains highly greedy of his family and property (which are not mutually exclusive in his eyes) he starts to slowly go insane. This one has got the fixings for an interesting suspense, bulked up by the great Jean-Pierre Cassel and former Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, but it loses everything in its terribly stuttered pacing. There’s a lot of gazing out of windows and grumbling over petty things before we get anything representing a “chilled” atmosphere.

“A Curious Suicide” manages a surprising twist on its narrative style (even while the actual twists in the narrative itself are all fairly predictable), and lets us into the mind of a murderer from moment one. An American doctor is visiting England with his spendcrazy wife, when she recommends on him reconnecting with an old college friend nearby. However, this friend had stolen the love of his life from him years ago. This felt almost like a Masterpiece Theatre snippet with a little blunt force trauma, and it is overall passable. The lead Nicol Williamson (who enjoyed a lengthy and stunning career) delivers a performance that holds the whole episode together, matched by some great chemistry with the incomparable Jane Lapotaire.

“A Bird Poised to Fly” is by far the best episode of the lot, even if it is partially spoiled by its mediocre ending. A young, clingy architect has a one night stand with an old friend-turned-lover, and when she stops responding to his letters or calls, he loses his grip on reality until he becomes a danger to himself and surroundings. We spend the whole time with the protagonist (Paul Rhys) as his mind unhinges, and he manages to enfuse legitimate flashes of classic psychological drama into the narrative - and has decent dubbing, imagine that! While it isn’t the strongest work to deal with this subject matter (see Betty Blue and Streamer for good examples), it still managed to actually be a thriller.

“The Stuff of Madness” returns again to the world of unrequited love and brewing obsessions, painted against the backdrop of taxidermy (insert Psycho reference here). After a lawyer, nearing his retirement, has become fed up with his wife’s years of unnerving taxidermy of their deceased pets, he begins to fetishize a boutique mannequin that reminds him of a former lover. Holm plays against Eileen Atkins, both giving impressive performances, buttressed by eerily good production design to accentuate the oddness of the premise. Even if the direction is a bit muddled and stiff, with theater-like blocking from the cast and crew, the episode manages to remain interesting without needing to do all that much. It (again) has a lackluster ending, but one that makes far more sense than most of the others in this collection.

“Under a Dark Angel’s Eye” centers on a surly antiques dealer returning to his home in England to settle the sale of his childhood home, where he had endured the tyranny of his overbearing mother. While he avoids the nursing home where his mother is kept, he visits an overly nice couple from his past who have many skeletons hiding in their closet. This is the episode that has the most sense of genuine mystery and suspense, and is thusly thoroughly entertaining to watch. The eclectic Ian Richardson leads a cast including Peter Vaughan and Anna Massey and they all interact quite believably with one another - though Philip Babot chews the scenery enough for the whole cast, he is the only one really doing so. All in all, a decent little story.

The final episode is “Something You Have to Live With” where a married couple finally achieve their dream of buying a house together. After they move in, the house is robbed, and the wife is forced to kill one of her would-be robbers. This action soon spirals out of control, but in the most blase attitude possible. I honestly have no idea what we’re supposed to take away from this one, besides how “okay” our lead (played by Tuesday Weld) is with the death brought on by her self-defense, and how much she wants to talk about it with other people. They try to shoehorn in a message about how we value the things and people in our lives, but it hardly manages to fit in with the narrative. It may not be a waste of time, but it certainly doesn’t feel like time well spent.

Though this collection of Highsmith shorts was released in paperback the same year with the same title, the Chillers series is a uneven myriad of tones, styles, and messages that do not really blend together as an anthology. Though it is definitely worth checking out for its camp and obscurity, as well as Perkins’ corney host segments, here is very little that bridges each short together besides that everything was shot on video (then a relative novelty), and was scored by terrible wheezing late-80s synth. The music is almost emblematic of the decaying genre at the time, so I guess it was more of a death rattle. Chillers exists, though it collectively could have been far better than what we were ultimately given.

(https://www.millcreekent.com/chillers-the-complete-series-digital.html)




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