Shades Of Darkness was produced by Granada and distributed by ITV between May of 1983 and June of 1986. These shows were shown in the United States and in Canada under the PBS Mystery! banner. The focus on the series was the macabre and the supernatural and many of them were based on ghost stories from well-known authors like Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Bowen.
Seeing as the material was made for television a few years ago, it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that the content is fairly tame in terms of what is shown on screen – don't expect any screaming phantoms to run around the halls of the old English homes where many of these stories take place. Instead, the series is one that relies more on the 'slow burn' technique. Each episode clocks in at forty-five to fifty-minutes in length and usually the first three quarters are spent setting things up for the finale. The pacing is quite slow and the emphasis is on the dramatic more than it is on the horrific. That being said, this is creepy material. It's not horrifying, but there are moments in here that just might get under your skin, even if it's only a little bit.
This two-disc set from Koch compiles six episodes and spreads them across two discs as follows:
The Lady's Maid's Bell - Joanna David plays Ms. Hartley a new Lady's Maid working for Mr. and Mrs. Brympton in their creepy old house out in the English countryside. Things seem to be okay at first until Joanna starts seeing a sour looking older woman in a maid's uniform wandering the home. It turns out that this woman is actually the ghost of a woman named Emma who was Mrs. Brympton's made before Joanna came along. It would also seem that Emma is trying to tell Joanna something about Mrs. Brympton, something that the temperamental Mr. Brympton might not be too happy to find out should the news of his wife's behavior get back to him.
Afterward - A man named Edward and his wife buy a creepy old Victorian era mansion out in the English countryside, partially because they're told that a ghost haunts the building – the catch being that you won't realize that you've seen the ghost until after it's happened. It turns out that the story is true, there is definitely a ghost in the area and they definitely don't realize they've seen him until after the fact, when it's already too late. Maybe Edward should have been a little more careful with some of his shady business dealings.
The Maze - Catherine (Francesca Annis) is a middle-aged woman who returns home to the small town where she was raised and the old house that she grew up in after many years away in the big city. She brings with her Daisy, her young daughter, who fast develops a strange obsession with the maze that has been made out of the massive hedges out in the large garden that adorns the family property. Catherine, on the other hand, is quite fearful of those hedges, she never liked them as a child and likes them even less as an adult. Catherine's fears become even more intense when she finds that Daisy has gone into the maze with a strange man that she doesn't recognize. Fearing for her daughter's life, Catherine has to overcome her fear of what hides in the maze and rescue Daisy before something happens to her.
Bewitched - Saul Rutledge (Alfred Lynch) used to be quite a portly man but over the last few weeks he has started looking very sickly and losing quite a bit of weight. His wife (Eileen Atkins) figures that this might have something to do with the ghost of a girl who died in the village years back – in fact, she's quite certain that her husband is having an affair with the ghost. She goes to the local clergy for assistance, but he and the other's in the village aren't completely sure that witchcraft is not involved in this scenario somehow.
The Intercessor - Garvin (John Duttine) is a studios young man with a taste for history. What he wants, more than anything, is a nice quiet home out in the English countryside where he can devote all his time to his studies and his writing without the constant interruption that city life requires. He's also bound and determined to find a place where there aren't any kids around – he's not big on kids, he finds them irritating and it is extremely hard for him to work in their presence. When he finally finds the ideal home, it looks like Garvin is all set until one night he wakes up to the sound of a crying child. What makes this even more unusual is that Garvin is certain there aren't any kids around the house, let alone in the house itself.
The Demon Lover - Set in England during the dawn of World War One, this episode tells the story of a young man who enlists to fight for God and country. Robert has to leave his girlfriend of some time, and while she's understandably shock up over these events, she does promise him that they will be together again, no matter what. When he ships off to war, she finds that her promise will be taken very seriously indeed. Look for a cameo from a young Hugh Grant in a supporting part that pops up in the last third of the story.
The shows hold up well even twenty-years after they fact. Those looking for fast scares or gore will surely be put off by the very slow pace and the complete lack of visual horrors but anyone with an appreciation for atmosphere and mood should be able to enjoy the six stories that this set tells. They're not classics of the genre but each one is effective enough to make it worth a look. Adding to this are the classy locations used for the films and the interesting cast members that show up throughout.
There are actually two more episodes of the Shades Of Darkness series that ran on Mystery that haven't been included on this set. Feet Foremost (which starred Jeremy Kemp) and Seaton's Aunt (with Emma Jacobs) are both conspicuously absent for some reason.
The 1.33.1 fullframe transfers present the six episodes in their original aspect ratios. As far as the quality of the picture goes, they're perfectly watchable but far from flawless. Color reproduction is a little on the cold side and there is some mild to moderate grain present throughout. Black levels don't look bad and there aren't any problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement but some unfortunate trailing is present here (possibly a PAL to NTSC conversion issue?) that does mar some of the fine detail.
Each of the six episodes hits DVD in a completely satisfactory Dolby Digital Mono sound mix. Dialogue is clean and clear and there are no problems at all with the levels or with distortion. Some mild hiss is present but aside from that, things sound fine. Unremarkable, sure, but fine never the less.
Aside from previews for a few other Koch DVD releases of older British television shows and a weblink, this set is barebones. Each of the two discs does have a menu screen that allows you to pick one of the three episodes, but that's it. An essay or history of the series would have been a nice touch, but we don't even get that.
Though the content will appeal more to mystery buffs than to those looking for true horror, Shades Of Darkness does offer up some compelling and creepy tales that are well directed, well acted, and just slightly unnerving enough to work. Koch hasn't exactly set a new standard with their presentation and the fact that two episodes are missing is lamentable but everything is at least watchable here making this is solid rental for the curious.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.