Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories — each one adhering to an overall theme — from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.
People can only toil away, over-caffeinate, fake it ‘till they make it, and stiffen that upper lip for so long before something has to change. And once family, careers, and social obligations start to feel overwhelming, all these frayed folks bereft of sleep and enthusiasm might just want to consider taking a break. Of course, not everyone can afford or carve out time for a proper sojourn, but even a few days of pure relaxation in a new setting is better than nothing.
Bearing in mind, no getaway is trouble-proof; travelers will undoubtedly endure brief irritations like missed flights, disappointing accommodations, and illness. Yet the characters in the following stories have bigger concerns than car sickness or a cramped hotel room. In lieu of leisure, they experience terror during their much-needed respites.
From ominous bets to AR gone awry, these episodes show the dark side of vacations.
Ghost Story / Circle of Fear (1972-1973)
The Summer House
William Castle’s short-lived anthology Ghost Story eventually became Circle of Fear and dropped its host, Sebastian Cabot. The show boasts a fistful of chilling episodes even though it never achieved the same overall success as its contemporaries or predecessors. Stories like “The Summer House” demonstrate the series’ proclivity for writing partial victories.
The original Morticia Addams herself Carolyn Jones plays Martha Alcott, an unhappy woman whose marriage is in trouble. She travels ahead of her husband Andrew (Steve Forrest) to their vacation home to get things ready. Their close friends, couple Walter (Robert Mandan) and Ruth (Darlene Conley), arrive in town at the same time and inquire about Andrew’s glaring absence. Despite evidence pointing to the contrary, Martha acts unworried and continues getting everything sorted before Andrew turns up. That is, if he actually is coming.
More than dust is unsettled once Martha steps foot on the property. Her imagination plays tricks on her and exploits her growing paranoia. The uncovered and ominous well in the basement is also a constant source of dread for both her and the audience; viewers cannot help but think the well has something to do with Andrew’s whereabouts. Towards the end, it would seem everyone’s assumptions are wrong once the husband shows up. Be that as it may, he and Martha are not on good terms seeing as Andrew immediately demands a divorce upon his arrival.
The episode is met with criticism over its nonlinear sequencing; it is apparent everything going on here is told out of order. Taking things even further, Martha may actually be caught in a trap of her own making. What is presumed to be a kind of malevolence emanating from the house itself is possibly a product of Martha’s visceral nervous breakdown.
Regardless of how someone might decipher the story, Jones expertly captures Martha’s emotional instability and humanizes her in spite of her actions. The failure to give an explanation may perturb some watchers, but there being no concrete conclusion only adds to the episode’s uncanniness.
Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988)
The Man from the South
The very first episode of Tales of the Unexpected is a certifiable white knuckler. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the movie Four Rooms will recognize this popular Roald Dahl story. Of all the many adaptations, the 1979 interpretation stays rather close to the source material.
This yarn begins with navy cadet Tommy (Michael Ontkean) meeting a gentleman named Carlos (José Ferrer) while on shore leave in Jamaica. The stranger wagers Tommy cannot light his supposedly reliable lighter ten times in a row and offers his Jaguar if the sailor wins. However, if Tommy loses the bet, he has to give up his left hand’s little finger. Tommy’s date Cathy (Pamela Stephenson) and a spectator named Rawlsden (Cyril Luckham) both object, but Tommy is adamant he can win.
Carlos requests certain supplies be brought to his room, including a chopping knife, a hammer, and some nails; the precise way he restrains Tommy’s hand indicates this is not Carlos’ first time placing this sort of bet. With every strike of Tommy’s lighter, the suspense becomes almost unbearable. Relief is finally found when the game is interrupted by a mysterious woman.
Fans of Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might not be aware of how macabre the late author really was. Within the span of two minutes, “The Man from the South” goes from tense to nail-biting as he exposes the perils of absolute arrogance. Viewers anticipating a grisly denouement may be disappointed, but the ultimate revelation is chilling, nonetheless.
Hammer House of Horror (1980)
The Two Faces of Evil
A family of three on holiday is caught off guard when the rain starts pouring on a desolate country road. After nearly running over an anonymous man in a yellow raincoat, the father Martin (Gary Raymond) offers the stranger a ride. His kindness is all for naught, though, because the hitcher attacks him and causes a terrible car accident. After waking up in a nearby hospital, the wife and mother Janet (Anna Calder-Marshall) is told her husband is injured and the drifter is dead. No matter what everyone tells her, Janet believes there has been a mixup; the man they claim is her husband is really the menacing stranger.
Memory can be fickle and this episode plays on that fact. The story toys with not only Janet’s confidence but also the audience’s when presenting the dilemma at hand; Martin is either dead and his attacker has presumed his identity, or the accident has completely warped Janet’s perception. The supporting cast only adds to the confusion by undermining Janet at every turn. The medical staff is either openly hostile towards her, or they cast doubt whenever she seems certain of something.
While Martin is applauded for protecting his family, Janet is criticized for doing the same. The police and hospital, who are all quick to dismiss Janet, are apathetic to her trauma. Janet forfeits her own suspicions again and again just so everyone else is comfortable. All the while, the matriarch is stoic much to her own detriment. Had the roles been reversed and it was Martin making the complaints, perhaps then the authorities would be more accommodating.
“The Two Faces of Evil” is crawling with Italianate influences. The cryptic antagonist, the overall aesthetic, the saturated lighting, and a convoluted plot teeming with red herrings — everything is reminiscent of classic giallo movies. A curious doppelgänger theory is also thrown in for good measure. A good few Hammer House of Horror episodes remain embedded in the audience’s memories long after watching, and this one is among them because of its nosedive into absurdity and indefiniteness.
Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
Three’s a Crowd
A relationship cannot survive if there is no trust. This truth is aggressively underlined in “Three’s a Crowd,” a disturbing story with a grisly climax. Tales from the Crypt has never shied away from grim outcomes, but this episode crosses a line.
As part of their wedding anniversary, Richard (Gavan O’Herlihy) and Della (Ruth de Sosa) go away with a rich friend of theirs, Alan (Paul Lieber). The husband is not too pleased with the arrangements; Alan is paying for everything. To make things worse, Richard suspects his wife and friend are having an affair right under his nose. Their constant whispering on top of the fact they used to date only fuels Richard’s mistrust. In time, those misgivings compel Richard to do something unspeakable.
The episode’s basis can be found in issue 11 of EC’s Shock SuspenStories. Although the small-screen adaptation retains the essence of the comic, the writers augment the innate meanness. The husband’s disposal methods are exceptionally brutal in the TV version, and the original ending’s humorous punchline is removed altogether in favor of a more consistent tone.
While the windup is unsurprising to anyone familiar with Crypt’s gruesome modus operandi, the execution is noteworthy. O’Herlihy should be applauded for his unrestrained and convincing performance in what is easily one of the darkest episodes in the show’s entire run.
Black Mirror (2011-)
An American named Cooper (Wyatt Russell) goes on a sudden vacation abroad because of problems at home. His mother repeatedly calls, but he ignores her every time. With no funds left to buy a ticket home from London, Cooper playtests a top-secret video game at a remote location. Soon, a grave slip-up puts Cooper’s life at risk and blurs the line between reality and fiction.
“Playtest” capitalizes on a relatable need to escape real-life pain and worries. It begins with Cooper leaving home after his father passes away and dodging his mother’s calls because he is simply not ready to deal with the grief. Watching his father’s Alzheimer progress took a toll on Cooper, not to mention forced him to acknowledge his own senescence. This trip was his way of making memories before he succumbs to age and ailments.
Augmented reality is escapism in its most extreme form. For those like Cooper, artifice is preferable when actuality is uncomfortable. The threat of ghosts and monsters is manageable enough, but as viewers come to see, it only takes one glitch to make everything too real. “Playtest” is no exception to Black Mirror’s habit of haranguing audiences with tech panic; Dan Trachtenberg and Charlie Booker moralize about the dangers of AR and VR by torturing one of the most affable characters to ever grace the series.
While the story is unquestionably another marked-off tick box on a laundry list of technological anxieties, the cast never concedes. Above all, Russell is outstanding as the brokenhearted soul with no lack of pathos. The role fits him like a glove, and in return, he delivers great work in an episode hindered by a few bugs in its build.