Tuesday, March 25, 2008

League of Gentlemen, Christmas Special – review (TV series)

Directed by: Steve Bendelack

First Aired: Season 2, 2000

Contains spoilers

I must admit, at the outset of this review, that I never really watched the League of Gentlemen as a series (though since this that situation has been remedied). A comedy show, pitch black comedy at that, the League of Gentlemen were Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who all wrote and performed many of the roles in the show and Jeremy Dyson who wrote but only performed in cameo. The show was set in the fictional town of Royston Vasey – a name taken from the actual real name of comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown.

The Christmas special took the comedy and made it almost second place to horror, becoming a truly creepy piece. It was set up in the form of a portmanteau film, in the grand tradition of Amicus films. The second section is a vampire episode.

The portmanteau itself sees the Reverend Bernice (Shearsmith), vicar of the Chapel of Hope, in a foul mood as it is Christmas – haunted by memories of her own traumatic childhood Christmas. Into her church come three visitors, each with a tale to tell – much to her disgust.

The second visitor is one Mathew Parker (played older by Andrew Melville), now a derelict, he is seeking absolution and wishes to tell the tale of the horror he has seen in his life. Horror he encountered in 1975 as a young man on an exchange visit to the German town of Duisburg.

Mathew (Shearsmith) was a choirboy and he travelled to Duisburg to sing at the church in the Christmas service. He was to stay with the choir master, Herr Lipp (Pemberton) and his wife (Gatiss). From the first moment we realise that there is something odd about Herr Lipp. This comes in one of the larger comedic sections of the whole show, with accent based jokes that are either full of homosexual innuendo or jokes about farting (a mispronunciation of father by the German host).

Mathew is to stay at the Lipp’s house. There is a lovely, subtle, referential moment as Herr Lipp shows Mathew to his room. His pointing hand casts a shadow on the wall that is reminiscent of the shadow cast on the stairs in Nosferatu. Using Nosferatu, the classic film of German expressionism, in a section about vampires set in Germany was, of course, ideal. This was not, as we shall see, the only reference to Nosferatu.

The room Mathew is shown to is, well just plain old creepy. It is a child’s room, but the Lipps have no children. It was decorated as such because Frau Lipp always wanted children of her own. When Herr Lipp leaves the room we see perhaps that the innuendo from earlier was not accidental. He unplugs a hole and watches Mathew undress in a rather disturbingly shot voyeuristic scene.

Mathew wakes in the night to hear Herr Lipp speaking. The window is open, the rocking horse rocking and he has a key in his hand. He uses it to open a wardrobe and his own corpse falls from it. On the ceiling is Herr Lipp transformed into a vampire. He awakens to a start with Frau Lipp leaning over him, she has brought breakfast.

At choir practice the choirboys notice what looks like a hickey on Mathew’s neck and start laughing. Later, whilst the choirmaster entertains the other choirboys, Mathew notices two punctures in his neck. He sees Herr Lipp drinking tomato juice, spilling it down his chin – it looks like blood. When he confronts Frau Lipp with his suspicions she seems to confirm them though she denies a knowledge of English.

Mathew makes a cross of a cotton bud and his toothbrush and eats garlic tablets when he goes to bed but Herr Lipp comes into the room. Herr Lipp is making a sexual pass at him and Mathew is speaking to him as a vampire. They are clearly at cross purposes. But when he awakens, Mathew has been bitten again. He smashes furniture to make a stake, grabs a hammer and a mirror and heads to the church. He holds the mirror up and Herr Lipp notices that the choir stall appears empty – the choir are all vampires.

It was not a great twist to discover that the head vampire was Frau Lipp – but the piece was not reliant on a twist but on the tremendous atmosphere it built, whilst underscoring it with a blend of twisted seaside postcard humour and black comedy. She turned the choir to make her own children and her look was again reminiscent of Nosferatu. We should note, however, that any sunlight lore seemed, very much, to have been ignored.

This was a tremendous special. Of course I am looking at the vampire section specifically but the curse on the lineage of the village vet (and I know enough about the series to know he always killed the animals he treated) gave an insight into a recurring character and the first story, a tale of line dancing and voodoo was simply wonderfully warped.

What we need in Christmas specials is less schmaltz and more twisted horror. This delivered in spades. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

No comments: