Posted: 03/17/2010

 

Armchair Thriller: Set 2

(1978-81)

by Jef Burnham



Now available on DVD from Acorn Media.


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This set, featuring three British mystery serials from ITV’s 1978-80 mystery series, Armchair Thriller, comprises some of the most fulfilling and intriguing psychological thrillers you are likely to encounter on television. The three serials, running six episodes each include “The Chelsea Murders,” “The Circe Complex,” and “Quiet as a Nun,” the last of which also aired on PBS’s Mystery! between 1982-83. Also featured in this set is an alternate version of “The Chelsea Murders,” which was edited down from its original 145 minutes into a more manageable feature length of 103 minutes to be aired as a television movie in 1981.

The pacing of the mysteries in this collection is impeccable, each languidly yet compellingly twisting its way through the narrative like a snake before striking hard in the sixth episode. Each production looks fantastic, especially when looking at the 16mm footage of the exterior scenes. The studio interior scenes of the era were shot on videotape instead of film, as it is here, and it doesn’t look nearly as cinematic as the 16mm, but the videotape is used quite well so that the difference is minimal. And each of the serials features its own unique score, “The Chelsea Murders” boasting my favorite soundtrack of the three with a distinctly 70s tone.

Now, let’s touch on each of the three stories:

“The Chelsea Murders” is about a series of seemingly unrelated murders in the Bohemian London borough of Chelsea (obviously). Though the mystery may appear to be a straightforward whodunit, the case is complicated by the constant crossing of paths of a group of would-be filmmakers, the police and a nosy reporter. “The Chelsea Murders” is a solid mystery with a very creepy horror-movie-masked-killer-type villain who unfortunately, unless my memory is mistaken in this, never appears in the 16mm footage. As for the feature-length version, it’s passable but it loses a lot of its luster in the edit. The six episodes commissioned never actually aired on Armchair Thriller, making this TV movie the only way it was seen; but there are frankly too many characters with their own storylines for you to keep track of in the beginning of this truncated version unless you’ve watched the full six episodes first.

“The Circe Complex” was by far my favorite of the three. Its plot is simple, with a man going to prison after hiding a load of stolen jewels and his wife trying to break him out in order to find out the jewels’ whereabouts, but after the serial’s clever final moments, you’ll be looking back over the events of the past six episodes with a very different perspective. For this intellectual twist on the mystery alone I could recommend this serial if not the entire set. I was really impressed by “The Circe Complex.”

Now, I can see “Quiet as a Nun” appealing to some mystery fans’ tastes, but I am definitely not one of those people. Set in a convent and following a former student’s attempts to unearth the truth about the death of her mentor, Sister Miriam, I simply found the dynamic of the characters, the majority of whom were nuns, to be disappointingly flat in comparison with the other two serials in the set. Still, this is an important serial from Armchair Thriller, as its protagonist, Jamima Shore, played by Maria Aitken (A Fish Called Wanda), would be featured in her own spin-off series.

Finally, it is important to note that there are no subtitles on this set and, of lesser importance, absolutely no special features of any kind. And even though the set is down one serial from the first set in order to include the feature-length version of “The Chelsea Murders,” I still have to mark this collection as a “must-see” for mystery lovers.

Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.



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