I fell asleep while watching "Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse." Twice.
Playing a little catch-up informs me that I didn't miss that much. The made-for-TV movie is a passable but too-unimpressive adaptation of Christie's novel of the same name. (I have not read it, but Internet research informs me that this is a very loose reworking of the book.) Its story (the movie's, at least) attempts to blend murder mystery and occult terror, but the mystery is too uninvolving, the terror too timid. Despite some solid performances, the movie fails to engage on any of its intended levels.
Colin Buchanan stars as Mark Easterbrook, an artist accused of murder when he's found next to a dead priest. With no Marple or Poirot to help save the day, it's up to Mark to solve the mystery on his own. (Hey, don't ask, as long as it gets the sluggish plot moving.) He and his best gal, Hermia (Hermione Norris), uncover a string of murders that are connected with a secret society promising death through willpower - merely wish someone to die, and they will. This being Christie, of course, you can bet a more logical explanation is in store to account for any seemingly supernatural doings.
While Easterbook and his co-stars help make things bearable, the plot's a bit of a mess, taking too long to get going in some spots, tripping over itself in others, rarely being as dynamic as such a story premise suggests. Screenwriter Alma Cullen seems reluctant to take anything too far; what could have been a deliciously shocking horror piece is all too restrained. Meanwhile, there's barely any mystery to the mystery, and so we merely sit back and keep one eye on the clock. Meanwhile still, the script doesn't quite know how to handle the Macbeth analogies (three weird women mirror the three witches of the play), which stumble every time they're attempted. And the film never makes proper use of its 1960s mod setting; there's no flavor to be found here, as if the period was used merely out of obligation to the book. Oh, how the era could have been used in so many clever ways, and oh, how all we get instead are the Kinks playing on the jukebox.
There is one reason to catch this one, however, and that reason's name is Andy Serkis. Years before making it big as the voice and body of Gollum and King Kong, Serkis did the character actor thing. Here, as a police sergeant working on the case, he instantly becomes the most interesting person on screen, partly because he's Andy Serkis, and hey, look at 'im when he's so young!, but mostly because here is an actor who knows how to breathe life into the most tedious material.
Koch Vision and Lance Entertainment have done nothing to clean up the image, which is as grainy, muted, and soft as you'd expect from a low budget British TV effort. This film was produced in the mid-1990s but looks at least ten years older by the muddiness of it all. Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast aspect ratio.
The Dolby stereo track is decent enough to get the job done, but little effort is made to let the sound play a role in setting the mood. (This is more likely a production decision than a DVD one, but it's still worth mentioning as a flaw.) No subtitles are offered.
Just a few useless text-only bits: an Agatha Christie biography and "career overview;" a cast and crew listing; and select filmographies for Buchanan and co-stars Jayne Ashbourne and Jean Marsh. There is also a weblink to the Lance website, for the rare few that might actually use it. (Oddly enough, their site was down when I tried to access it.)
"The Pale Horse" is for mystery buffs who, looking for some last ditch material, might find some time-passing value here. But only barely. It's a middling effort, enough to put someone to sleep, oh, let's say two separate times. Rent It - if only for Serkis.