Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Patricia Highsmith's Chillers

You could say that the current Netflix series Ripley goes retro since it uses black and white. Of course that use reflects the era Ripley is set in, but for a different kind of retro connected to Patricia Highsmith, there is an old TV series called Chillers, which I hadn't thought about in a while until I saw Ripley’s trailers and began thinking about all the Highsmith adaptations there have been over the years. I wrote a long piece once about many of these adapations, starting with 1951's Strangers on a Train and running through the 2009 adaption of The Cry of the Owl (I wrote the piece before Carol, The Two Faces of January, and the new Deep Water came out), for the now inactive Hardboiled Wonderland blog, and if you're interested, that's a piece you can still find here, Picture Books: Patricia HighsmithI mention Chillers in the piece, but I thought now would be as good a time as any to bring up the series again because among Highsmith adaptations, it seems to be one less known. 

Chillers aired from 1990 to 1992. There were twelve episodes in total, and each one is based on a Patricia Highsmith short story. It's a TV series that has the look of its time, but with its solid production values, stellar casting, and drolly cruel storylines, it's quite entertaining. A British-French co-production, the series is in the mode of the series Tales of the Unexpected, the show that featured many adaptations of Roald Dahl stories and that Dahl often introduced himself. For Chillers, Anthony Perkins serves as host, giving the audience a sardonic and slightly sinister verbal preview of the tale to come. And the quality of the stories themselves clearly helped draw the excellent actors involved, with people such as Ian McShane, Edward Fox, James Fox, Tuesday Weld, Nicole Williamson, Ian Holm, Marisa Berenson, and Ian Richardson in leading roles. I won't go over every episode here, but if you want to check the series out by watching one, I would start with the one called Day of Reckoning. It's adapted from a story of the same name from the collection The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murders, and what makes this episode of the twelve noteworthy is its director – Sam Fuller.

Fuller’s emotive, tabloid style would seem ill-suited to Patricia Highsmith’s frostiness.  But maybe the reason he decided to accept this assignment is because of how weird the plot is.  It has to do with a young man visiting his aunt and uncle’s chicken farm, an automated abomination of a place where new technologies torture the chickens but make them astonishingly productive egg layers.  The uncle, played by Phillipe Leotard, is ecstatic about what the new methods make possible, but his wife, Assumpta Serna, has reservations.  Manipulating artificial days and nights for the cooped up chickens, never letting them feel natural dirt, the uncle doesn’t seem to know or care that all the mistreatment has made the birds insane.  In the building where they’re kept, they cluck incessantly, at a volume loud enough to make talking impossible.  The uncle loves his newfound profits (traditional chicken rearing left him struggling financially), but the aunt and the visiting nephew feel uncomfortable with the business despite its success.  Also in the mix is the married couple’s pre-teen daughter, a sweet girl who loves her kitten, and it’s a misfortune that happens to her that prompts the story’s final wicked and wickedly funny actions.

As I say, I think it was the strangeness that drew Fuller.  The source material allows him to play, like in the baroque shots he does showing the farm reflected off a chicken’s eye.  There is a dream sequence in the episode that does not occur in the story, its wildness unadulterated Fuller, especially its musical section and the chicken talking to the nephew with the voice of the aunt.  But for the most part, Fuller and his co-writer Christa Lang are faithful to the short story, transposing to the screen the ideas in it.  Human greed, exploitation of animals, science run amuck, and the danger that Nature may turn on man – all these are in the story and episode both.  Fuller brings a cockeyed energy to the project, but he also exercises discipline to foreground what Highsmith stresses.  Although it’s a mere 50 minute episode, and an eccentric episode at that, Day of Reckoning is an example of a work that melds two unlike sensibilities.  It’s also a hell of a lot of nutty fun.

I'd say start with Day of Reckoning, and if you like it, go from there to other episodes of Chillers. They're all easy to find, streaming in places like Amazon Prime and Tubi.

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