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RETROSPECTIVE: URBAN SUSPENSE – A LOOK AT “THE FRIGHTENERS” (1972-1973) ANTHOLOGY TV SERIES

Monday, January 7, 2019 | Retrospective

It’s not often I stumble over an anthology TV series that I’ve never heard of. I haven’t seen everything, of course, but it is one of my favorite forms and while I am painfully aware of some titles from the past that will likely never resurface again (TALES OF UNEASE) or which await a complete reissue (‘WAY OUT, THE EVIL TOUCH, QUINN MARTIN’S TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED), I know the field fairly well. But a couple of years ago, some kind soul posted two episodes of THE FRIGHTENERS to Youtube, and it has been on my “to see” radar ever since – and now I’ve been able to watch the whole thing (13 episodes, broadcast from 1972-1973, produced by London Weekend Television and now made available by Network).

Lasting only a season, a few things need to be understood right out of the gate about THE FRIGHTENERS. One is that, despite the lazy IMDB synopsis blurb (“a horror anthology series, with each episode featuring a different eerie tale”) this, in fact, is NOT a horror anthology series at all, at least in the form we’d expect such a thing to take. THE FRIGHTENERS, to put it plainly, is a psychological suspense anthology show – something like the more “crime-minded” episodes from the first season of THRILLER (U.S. 1960-62) crossed with ROALD DAHL’S TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED (1979-1988) and THRILLER (U.K. 1973-1976). When horrific events do rear their heads, they are almost always cast in the modern, urban milieu of 1970s Britain. That use of “eerie” is also misleading – the stories may be brutal, intense and unnerving, but they are decidedly NOT shooting for any kind of supernatural atmosphere.

 

“…brutal, intense and unnerving…TV at its blackest!”

Having said all that, the show itself is quite good with at least three stand-out episodes and a number of solid ones, and the occasional use of a image and sound collage technique (especially in “The Disappearing Man” and “The Manipulators”) makes it feel bracingly modern at times. Revenge is often a motivating factor, whether for past transgressions (as in “Firing Squad” – where Government operatives waylay an old associate who betrayed them, “Old Comrades” which has a retired Major suffering a surprise visit by two men who he had unfairly court-martialed, or “Bed And Breakfast” in which an elderly rural couple are terrorized by a strange duo – this latter episode has an almost absurdist/black comic climax) or just for perceived slights tainted by mental imbalance (the excellent “The Classroom,” the ugly, homophobic bullying of “The Treat”). Homicidal mental illness crops up in a few episodes, usually triggered by some past tragedy: “You Remind Me Of Someone” has a truck driver held hostage by a madman, while in “Night Of The Stag” it’s an unsuccessful romantic break-up, and “Glad To Be Of Help,” features a local MP who must contend with a constituent driven around the brink by an accidental death. There’s even room for the occasional, evocative crime scenario (“The Minder” finds a paranoid mob boss sprung from hospital – but can he trust the men who have sprung him?), an ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS-styled droll murder story (“Miss Mouse”, where a man impulsively kills his wife and finds himself blackmailed by his babysitter) and a straight-up, melancholy piece about children, divorce and suicide (“Have A Nice Time At The Zoo, Darling”). This latter, while quite good, barely even qualifies as “suspense” after we realize that the man “stalking” the young girl is her estranged father.

Bryan Marshall in “The Manipulators”

Three episodes stand out in particular. In the aforementioned “The Classroom” an aging school teacher (Patience Collier) is retiring and while closing up her room for the last time a middle-aged man (Clive Swift) appears and locks her in, claiming to be a former student that she psychologically tortured. This is, without a doubt, one of the best-acted and darkest episodes of an anthology TV show I have ever seen. We’re talking pitch-black psychology, with excellent writing (it could be performed as a stage play) and a depressing ending (not recommended for those prone to melancholy)! In “The Disappearing Man,” Harry (Victor Maddern) is a tired, overwrought laborer convinced he’s slowly being blotted-out from life by his sneering wife, uncaring boss and monolithic institutions that barely register his existence. A great piece on modern anomie with a shocking, still-relevant ending. Finally, in “The Manipulators,” two police officers of Special Group D are involved in the surveillance of a young college couple, but all is not as it seems and then becomes even less so. This story (which has resonance with some short fiction, like Richard Matheson’s “The Distributor” and Ramsey Campbell’s “A Street Was Chosen”, as well as some essays by William S. Burroughs) is intensely dark – as psychological as the previous stories but less personal – and turns on a shocking act that would still be problematic to present on current, mainstream television. Again, excellent and, again, not for the faint of heart. I absolutely loved it as an example of TV at its blackest!

Released by Network on Region 2 DVD in 2017 (note, a few episodes exist in b&w only).

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.