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31 Days of Halloween: A Photograph

Published Saturday, October 02, 2021 at 10:36pm

Okay, this one really doesn't fit with the theme of this project, but I think I deserve a pass because I didn't know that when I started it.

"A Photograph" is a BBC production from 1977, and was broadcast as an episode of the anthology series Play for Today, which is why I'm putting the title in quotes; it stands on its own but it's part of a larger body of work. That's not what I was alluding to in the first sentence, though. A lot of reviews of "A Photograph" call it "folk horror" or "psychological horror", and it does fit those descriptions, I guess, but I demand that my horror movies have a supernatural element. Without that, I classify them as thrillers or suspense movies. "A Photograph" does not have a supernatural element.

That's not to say that it isn't excellent, though. It was written by playwright John Bowen who wrote a couple of installments of the BBC's long-running A Ghost Story for Christmas series, and "Robin Redbreast" which is another extremely well-regarded episode of Play for Today (also folk horror, so I should probably check it out). Bowen was known for social commentary, and stories that explore the divide between the arrogant and the meek.

"A Photograph" opens on a man's corpse in a messy caravan, which is what the British call a trailer (thank you, Google). This is Michael Ottway, a smug and arrogant critic of the arts. This image is in the future, and the story flashes back to Ottway's present. Leafing through the morning post during a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast with his wife, Gillian, he discovers an envelope, addressed to him personally, no return address. Inside, a photohgraph of two women sitting in front of a caravan. The photo immediately throws his life into turmoil. Who sent it? Why? Gillian wants to know whether he knows the women, and he swears up and down that he doesn't, but this does not reassure her.

Over the ensuing days we witness the near-breakdown of Ottway's marriage. He's pompous and self-absorbed and has mastered the art of making Big, Important Speeches. In one scene he makes Gillian listen to a BBC broadcast which he has written, pontificating about the Eloi and the Morlocks from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and what contemporary societal elements they might represent. It's grandiose, empty moralizing and Gillian knows it. She's also suffering from serious depression which her husband barely acknowledges. He's having an affair, and when Gillian finally tells him that she's had one too, he is completely unaffected by it.

What does affect him—both of them, really—is the photo. Who are those girls? What's the message of the photo? Is he being blackmailed? Gillian has it blown up to examine it and tapes it to the wall, infuriating Michael. It's not clear what sets him off because he really doesn't recognize the girls, but he's intensely uncomfortable having the photo looming down over the dinner table, reminding him of his infidelity. Eventually, he decides to see if he can't simply find the caravan by visiting the small village whose postmark appears on the envelope, and it is here that he stumbles, nearly by accident, into an answer of sorts, along with the events that lead to his own death.

I couldn't decide whether to spoil this one or not, but I will say that when he finally finds the caravan, it is not inhabited by the two girls. Nor, as I mentioned before, does it conceal a malign, supernatural force The caravan's occupants are an old woman and a younger man (her son?), and it's no accident that Michael Ottway (who likely would have classed them as Morlocks) has found his way to them.

I'm not embarrassed to admit that I didn't completely understand "A Photograph" because a lot of the reviews—old and new—say the same thing. VCRs were still a novelty in 1977, so it must have been infuriating that there was no way for most viewers to watch it again. I have the luxury of streaming video, though, and "A Photograph" will repay additional viewings.

I really wouldn't call it horror, though.

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