Guest Star

Chillers: Not Quite Patricia Highsmith

‘Imagine tales so bone-chillingly cold you’ll beg for a warm bed to hide under!’ or so promises the cover copy of Chillers (1990). The front cover amplifies host Anthony Perkins’ role, suggesting a link to the better-known episodic horror series around that time like Tales from the Crypt, The Hitchhiker, Friday the 13th: The Series or in the UK Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. You have to look on the back cover to see that the tales are all based on Patricia Highsmith short stories (the on-screen credits claim they’re based on her novels). In 2018 the smart money was placed on the potential DVD audience recognising Psycho not Pat.

A British-French co-production (and all the mismatches that implies), the series originally aired in April 1990 as, Les Cadavres Exquis de Patricia Highsmith, in France, and a month later in Britain as, Mistress of Suspense. Highsmith was involved in ‘overseeing’ dramatisations of the dozen stories (according to biographer Andrew Wilson) and she flew over to London and Cardiff to meet Perkins and others. Given her aversion to adaptations, it’s not clear how closely she supervised the process; given the final product, one guesses not much.

By then she had moved into her fortress of a house in Tegna, and traveled somewhat grudgingly. A trip to her home country had filled her with such loathing that she made notes for two short stories: ‘The Pits’ where all the undesirables of the US were put into a ‘large, disease-ridden pit,’ which then became a tourist attraction until the inevitable apocalyptic explosion released them into the general public. The second story, ‘Adventures of an Unwanted Fertilised Egg’, follows the exploits of said creature in the sewers, surviving and mutating on what finds it there to become a bullet-proof monster periodically ’emerging to wreak havoc on towns and cities’ (Wilson 440).

This is to suggest that Highsmith could write horror when she was of a mind to do so. While there are elements of horror—or at least some horrific deaths—in the stories adapted for Chillers, it’s not horror. The British title suggests suspense, which is probably closer to the mark. The French title, which plays on the surrealist game, captures Highsmith’s devilish humour and at least implies crime fiction. The problem of course that particularly in the short stories, Highsmith isn’t necessarily writing crime. It was a genre she was pigeonholed in, sometimes to her chagrin, because it fit better than most other labels, but it’s an imprecise label.

Unfortunately, the series title leaves the overall impression of her work being something it’s not. That seems to often be the case with her work, even the best-known novels. Every time someone calls Tom Ripley ‘charming,’ the ghost of Patricia Highsmith rips off an angel’s wings. Ripley is awkward, needy, resentful, but learns to make himself useful. He is fascinating in so many ways, but never charming. His interiority—like so many Highsmith protagonists—offers a fascinating insight into a mind that feels its own strangeness and inability to be like other people. Most of her stories grow in such a singular dark chamber—or two opposing ones: Bruno and Guy, Chester and Rydal, Edith and her diary. But that interiority can be difficult to transfer to a visual medium.

In recent years many have suggested that Highsmith herself may have been on the autism spectrum, which would shed some light on things like her difficulty negotiating the sensory overload of crowded rooms and the ways sound affected her. There’s a fascinating anecdote in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction* where Highsmith talks frankly about the deleterious effects of sounds she cannot control. When some rambunctious children play on the fire escape outside her apartment, she unconsciously shrinks away, until ‘amused’ to find herself ‘standing in the far corner of the room like a scared rat.’ There’s being annoyed by sounds, but this seems much more like a sensory processing disorder. Highsmith found it mystifying. ‘I do not understand people who like to make noise; consequently I fear them, and since I fear them, I hate them’ (20). Of course she turned the incident into a story, ‘The Barbarians,’ because writers do that.

The 2018 DVD collectiong Chillers changes the order of the episodes for reasons that remain unclear (if you want the original order see IMDB). The rankings there for individual episode average a 6 to 7 star score, the highest being 7.4 for ‘Something You Have to Live With.’ The Sam Fuller-directed episode, ‘The Day of Reckoning,’ ties with the pensioner’s revenge episode, ‘Old Folks at Home’, for the lowest score of 5.5. Probably the main reason for the low overall scores is the padding. Many of the episodes could have been shortened to 30 or 40 minutes and worked far better than 60. In short, they plod.

There other big issue is that what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the screen, big or little. People think Tom Ripley is charming because they’ve seen Matt Damon play him, or Alain Delon. The Ripley on the page is so much more difficult and complicated. Likewise with these short stories, many of which are punchy and precise, the opposite of the slow burn in most of her novels, where you slide into the dark water so gradually you’re drowning before you know it.

But there are things you can get away with on the page that you can’t when you have to film a story with real people and things—which is probably why ‘The Snail Watcher’ wasn’t filmed. It’s one thing to read about a man overwhelmed by thousands of snails ‘gliding over his legs like a glutinous river’, but I think on television it could only be absurdly hilarious. These stories work best when they see the humour Highsmith finds in the most grotesque situations.

The first episode on the disk, ‘The Cat Brought It In’ is among the best, once you get past Perkins thankless task as host of the series. His filmed inserts vary from mordant amusement to obvious and strained fatigue. He makes the best of the slapdash scripts. This story is a sendup of country house whodunnits Highsmith loathed, and it has Edward Fox and Michael Hordern at the centre as amateur investigators when the family cat drags in two human fingers. Their first impulse is to hide the grisly find from their housekeeper. Their desultory detecting work gradually follows clues between recitals and pints at pubs, not wanting to ‘bother’ the police on a weekend. Bill Nighy appears briefly as nearby estate owner who may have some answers but can barely be bothered to stir himself to activity.

‘Sauce for the Goose’ works largely because of the cast: Ian McShane as a sleazy lounge singer who convinces the over-imaginative Gwen Taylor to bump off her husband. Because this is Highsmith, things don’t go smoothly and it’s never a good idea to celebrate until you’re really sure about the details—and the motivations of your partner.

‘Old Folks at Home’ is an example of Highsmith adage that no good deed goes unpunished. Smug do-gooders take in a pair of elderly residents who quickly move from gratitude to entitlement. It’s a bit of a squirm. ‘The Thrill Seeker’ is much more of a piece with her usual work. The short story was originally titled ‘A Dangerous Hobby’ and rather than the encyclopedia proofreader that Jean-Pierre Bisson plays, the protagonist is a vacuum salesman (obviously less viable in 1990). He’s a con-artist not so much interested in cash as in taking down a peg women who’ve distinguished themselves in some way. He chats his way into their homes posing as a journalist, for example, and steals an item that he then catalogues. His collection provides a fetishistic delight of misogyny. His comeuppance is about the most ego-deflating fate imaginable.

‘The Day of Reckoning’ is a wow. Sam Fuller directs a chicken nightmare. No, really. It unfurls on what’s supposed to be a Midwestern chicken farm and is so clearly France from the train station to the rolling countryside that it’s completely distracting even before you notice all the dialogue is dubbed. The gruesome exposé of factory farming would work better if it weren’t so over-the-top ridiculous that you have to laugh. The wonderful Assumpta Serna is completely wasted as the tragic wife—cat lovers be warned! A child ends up dead, too, but the second cat survives. There are moments of Fuller-ness but mostly it’s just awful, including the insertion of an attempted sex scene between Serna and her husband’s nephew (Cris Campion) that has zero chemistry.

‘Puzzle’ is another tale that cannot capture Highsmith’s internal monologues so just ends up as a French guy who doesn’t want to give up either of his girlfriends. ‘Slowly, Slowly in the Wind’ has a good folk horror vibe to it. It’s a nice change of pace to see the horrible nouveau riche businessman played by the excellent James Fox instead of an American, chewing the French scenery with aplomb. However, I got distracted by the impossible layout of the chateau tower. A business man is forced into retirement to recover from a heart attack and stroke; somehow he decides to put his office at the top of the winding stairs.

‘A Curious Suicide’ also employs Brits in American roles but horror of horrors, has Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire doing Amurrican accents: saying things ‘AustraliAR’ and swallowing all their vowels. I had to turn it off on first viewing. The story itself is the kind of thing Highsmith delights in: planning a murder never works because there is always serendipity, even when it serves you, it’s unsettling. Also, the person you’re married to probably knows you better than you think. Serendipitously, the lovely Ralph Brown plays a detective inspector.

‘A Bird Poised to Fly’ treads familiar Highsmith territory of obsession and misread cues. Paul Rhys makes the character engaging enough to follow down the dark corridors (literally, at times) and manages to project a lot of the interior churning of his character. ‘The Stuff of Madness’ manages the same: no surprise with the utter brilliance of Eileen Atkins and Ian Holm, and with the sure hand of Mai Zetterling directing. Two completely daffy obsessives; Holm’s long-suffering husband is endlessly embarrassed by his wife’s love of taxidermying her dead pets (with a hint that she may prefer them in that state), but one day he spots a mannequin that reminds him with sudden pain of a lost lover. As a bonus, her taxidermist is played by the always delightful Murray Melvin. This may be my favourite of all the episodes. It captures Highsmith’s black humour and yet the actors give it a poignancy she often fails to capture.

‘Under a Dark Angel’s Eye’ likewise benefits from a stellar cast: Ian Richardson is the kindly son who has survived a brutally cruel mother (something that mirrored Highsmith’s self image) and returns with misgivings to sell the family house. Peter Vaughn plays his glad-handing best old friend married to Anna Massey. There is unexpected betrayal and revenge on a cruel parent, but also vindictive bible-burning, as she never tired of quoting from its pages.

‘Something You Have to Live With’ comes last, which is unfortunate. It’s not a bad episode, but its ending is so vague and anti-climactic. Tuesday Weld plays the wife of journalist Daniel Olbrychski. In the short story she’s a writer; here she’s an artist. This allows a visual representation of her obsession after thieves break into their isolated country dream house while her husband is away in France. Another warning to cat lovers (clearly felicide is amongst the worst crimes Highsmith can imagine); in the short story the cat Cassandra indeed conveys the danger in advance and pays the price. This motivates Weld’s character to violence herself. In the wake of the event, everyone is sympathetic: self-defence, after all. But Weld can’t let it go. Not in the usual sense of trauma, but in the need to announce to every group of people she meets, ‘You know, I killed a man.’ Highsmith manages to bring the awkward story to a kind of ending with mordant humour. It irritated her husband, ‘but it was emphatically not worth divorcing for’ and ‘at least she always made it short, and even managed to laugh in a couple of places’ (385).

This collection is probably only for Highsmith obsessives (outing myself here I guess) but as always your mileage may vary. I definitely recommend checking out the short stories: she’s a lot more playful in them than in the novels.

Under a Dark Angels Eye: The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith is out now from Virago. Chillers can sometimes be found wherever you locate out of print DVDs. If you’re of an academic bent, you might get your library to locate Patricia Highsmith on Screen (Palgrave), which isn’t exhaustive but will lead you to many new things.

*Despite its title, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is not a terribly useful handbook for that purpose; it is, however, an excellent insight into the mind of the author as she attempts to do that.

Kate Laity is an international woman of mystery, arcane artist, liable to appear wherever trouble brews with an innocent look and an insouciant air.

3 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s