UK TV review: Inside No. 9: The Devil of Christmas (2016 Christmas special)
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Ivan Radford | On 28, Dec 2016
Nothing says Christmas 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 seasonal special, 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. Paintings are hung in the wrong place. Actors miss their mark and block the camera. Dialogue is riper than a melon left out in the sun for days.
The result is amusing as well as unsettling – compare it to Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and there’s just enough sincerity here to stop things descending into out-and-out comedy. 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.
How fitting, then, that the show’s concept is a meta-device in more ways than one: the episode is directed by Graeme Harper, a director whose career has spanned TV modern and old. He’s one of the best directors of new Doctor Who, but also a long-standing veteran of the classic years, capable of delivering new shocks (The Waters of Mars) and old favourites (The Caves of Androzani), as well as pastiches that blend the two (Agatha Christie-inspired outing The Unicorn and the Wasp). (“Pertwee had his favourites,” remarks Jacobi’s Fulcher at one point, referring to a Worzel Gummidge gig he missed out on. “I knew that from Who.”)
Harper’s helming never misses the chance to be deliberately terrible, zooming in for over-the-top expressions and making everyone line up in a row in the frame so things can be filmed in one shot. He’s every bit the rubbish filmmaker that Jacobi’s voice-over deserves, but still manages some subtle tracking shots and handheld moments that give the accelerating tension a contemporary boost. The production, too, is as authentic as it gets, with Harper shooting on old analogue cameras on a single sound-stage, with the aspect ratio, editing and mixing all adding to the period vibe.
The cast leap into this window on the past with the enthusiasm of Acorn Antiques, from Shearsmith’s knowingly put-on Austrian accent to Jessica Raine’s constantly wide-eyed worrier, staring off camera at unseen threats. Even George Bedford’s Toby is wonderfully naff, delivering a monologue with the kind of forced drama school delivery that completes the ensemble. (“Not the best actor in the world,” observes Jacobi’s Fulcher.)
Pemberton, meanwhile, is in his element, boasting a dressing gown and a moustache that Ron Burgundy would be proud of. He roars his dialogue rather than speaks it, racing through climactic exchanges with the urgency of an actor trying to get away and shoot another job. It’s that added layer that proves crucial to the episode’s success, nudging us from one level of the narrative to another until, briefly, things seem so real they’re genuinely disturbing. All the while, things are underpinned by the awkward regret of a director who made the wrong choices in his career. The same can’t be said of Harper, Shearsmith or Pemberton. Anchorman meets Acorn Antiques with a demonic, child-stealing goat? Inside No. 9 is all any horror fan could want for Christmas.
Inside No.9 is available on BBC iPlayer until September 2020. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription, and on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I buy or rent Inside No.9 online in the UK?