Nothing says winter like a spooky horror story, and who better to inject chills directly into your spine than Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton?
The pair are kings of creepy, a status that has been reinforced in recent years, over two seasons of their superb anthology series, Inside No. 9. A collection of short tales, which range from funny to frightening, their impeccably crafted vignettes prey on your nervous system with ruthless precision. Before then, of course, they found fans with The League of Gentlemen, an eery show that sat somewhere between sitcoms and sketch shows. A grotesque parade of colourful characters, poster-paint gore and old-school prosthetics, it was everything horror fans loved about the 70s and 80s, preserved in a remote, rural village. That essence of scares past is distilled even further in Inside No. 9’s Season 3, which opens with a festive tale, The Devil of Christmas.
The scene is Austria, 1977. We join Julian (Pemberton), his wife, Kathy (Jessica Raine), and their son, Toby (George Bedford), as they arrive at a ski cabin for the holidays. Within minutes, eccentric local Klaus (Shearsmith) has emerged to tell them about the legend of Krampus, the demon who takes naughty young children at Christmas. Then, just as you begin to count down to Toby’s inevitable supernatural snatching, the whole thing stops. And rewinds. And Inside No. 9 starts having fun.
The premise is at once elegantly simple and fiendishly complex: what we’re watching is a recording of an old 1970s horror (The Devil of Christmas), with director Dennis Fulcher (voiced by Derek Jacobi) adding his own commentary over the top, skipping back to nitpick details or pausing to reveal behind-the-scenes goofs. Immediately, the suspense sets in, as we try to work out what’s real and what’s fake. And it keeps on building, as the intentionally dire moments continue to stack up. The combination wouldn’t work, unless the 1970s set was so convincing: it takes a lot to do something badly while still being believable. While Shearsmith and Pemberton’s script gets that balance just right, it’s something that needs to be true of every single department.
Their casting, for example, is fiendishly precise, with Jason Watkins (as at home in Nativity! as in Line of Duty) and Philip Glenister bringing slippery insults and gruff awkwardness to The Bill, which taps brilliantly in the awkwardness of going to a restaurant with friends. As we see a quartet arguing over who has to pay for a meal, the camera whips between them, their polite disagreement descending into increasingly bitter, scathing remarks.
If that seems like one of the most upbeat episodes to date, playing for laughs more than scares, it’s easy to overlook how skilfully the show distils the hidden nastiness of everyday life into a precise half-hour. Empty Orchestra pulls off the same trick in a similarly claustrophobic environment: a karaoke booth, where an office party (led by a cracking Tamzin Outhwaite) gives way to politics, private affairs and potential redundancies.
Perhaps more than any other, this is a season that showcases some fantastic female roles, from Spooks veteran Keeley Hawes as the suffering wife of a man obsessed with a number nine shoe he finds in the street to Utopia’s Alexandra Roach as a pupil solving cryptic crossword puzzles set by a professor – both signs of how creative the show is becoming with its numerical references, not to mention its twists.
But while both see the show orchestrating a familiar slide into creepiness, it’s the concluding chapter, Private View, that proves the most nerve-jangling, as a private preview of an art exhibition connects a group of strangers like an Agatha Christie novel – but with more disembodied plastic limbs. Just when you think Shearsmith and Pemberton have lightened up, Episode 6 plunges us back into a more morbid sense of humour and a bloody streak of violence (reinforced by typically brilliant wig and make-up work). The Devil of Christmas may be one of its most enjoyable episodes yet, but Season 3’s versatile tone and ever-varied cast is a reminder that this anthology can be chilling all year round.
Inside No.9 Season 1 to 3 is available on BBC iPlayer until 15th January 2018. Season 1 and 2 are available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Inside No.9 on pay-per-view VOD?