Nothing says Christmas like a ghost story, especially one read aloud in a darkened room in a sinister voice. And so it’s only right that as Mark Gatiss seeks to bring back the traditional festive fright for another year, he does with a ghost story about telling ghost stories.
Gatiss is no stranger to the time-honoured ritual, having previously been The Man in Black for Radio 4, continuing the station’s long-running Appointment with Fear that has rendezvoused with Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James and more all the way back to the 1950s. It was Gatiss’ idea to finish off his Radio 4 run with a self-aware story about the man reading the stories, and while that never happened, he brings that post-modern paranormal flourish to life on screen with The Dead Room – named after the acoustic void where recordings take place in the studio.
Stepping behind the camera, he ushers an equally fitting voice into the storytelling chair: Simon Callow. Callow, a man of unctuous, booming, velvety vocals, has the kind of voice that can give you the willies, and he’s visibly (and audibly) enjoying himself in the role of Aubrey Judd, a veteran of the airwaves who has been reciting spooky narratives into a microphone for most of his career. We join him at the tale end of that life, as he’s something of a fish out of water – waters that now include streaming, podcasts, virtual reality and more. Seeing him grapple with the idea of a horror story set inside a video game alone is great fun, as he balances his passion for creepy incantations with disdain and skepticism about modern technology – and amateurish prose.
Much of the runtime consists of his interactions with producer Tara, played with a fantastic balance of knowledge, tolerance and sympathy by Anjli Mohindra. They have a wonderful dynamic, him patronising and her patient, while the studio’s convincing day-to-day rhythm is grounded by a quietly scene-stealing performance by genre veteran Susan Penhaligon as foley artist Joan.
But the comic banter between the cast slowly gives way to something darker, as Aubrey finds himself remembering a former acquaintance. It’s a shift that’s almost imperceptible at first, as Gatiss’ camera moves closer and closer in on his leading man, isolating him from the reality around him.
Speaking at The Dead Room’s premiere at London’s BFI, Gatiss argued that the scariest things are just within living history, old enough to be foreign country but recent enough to still speak the same language. He makes a persuasive case with this 30-minute chiller, which manages the near-impossible task of turning 1970s disco into something genuinely haunting, helped by a deceptively complex turn from Joshua Oakes-Rogers as a figure from the past.
The result is a short but scary piece that weaves spine-tingling tension in the very act of weaving spine-tingling terror – a patiently gripping exercise in genre storytelling that withholds its scary truth for as long as possible. Turn the lights off, turn the volume up and settle in for an old-fashioned winter treat.
The Dead Room airs on BBC Four at 10pm on 24th December. It will be available on BBC iPlayer live and after broadcast.