Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Child's Voice, A (1978)

Directed by:
Kieran Hickey

Talking over cartoon stills of a tower, wavelengths and a married couple cheerfully listening to a radio while cozying up next to a warm fire, sinister-sounding, deep-voiced narrator Valentine Dyall starts things out for us on a suitably gloomy note. "In those days, radio was a power and a light in the land. People in their homes at night gathered by the radio and heard the crackling, stilted reports of a world they had only read about and now imagined more intensely," he says. "Radio fixes the person, but frees the imagination... and the people most affected by it were those who lived and listened alone." Set in the heyday of radio as the world's primary source of at-home entertainment in the evenings (most likely sometime in the late 30s or early 40s), this sadly forgotten 28-minute short is centered around Ainsley Rupert Macreadie (T.P. McKenna), "one of broadcasting's best known voices."  An imaginative, influential and somewhat narcissistic loner, Ainsley has been nicknamed "the disturbing gentleman of the wires" by the press because of how he uses his soothing, cultured voice to recite chilling and macabre horror stories of the supernatural that he himself has written for his popular late night radio program. Art will soon start imitating life for poor Ainsley... or is it all in his head?

After concluding his latest story, Ainsley sits down for my his favorite snack; a glass of sherry and a biscuit, with his producer (R.D. Smith) and a young production assistant (Stephen Brennan) and relays what next week's planned story will be about. The story, called "A Child's Voice," involves Orsino the Magician and the young boy he employs as his stage assistant. Though the boy is helpful and good at what he does, a foreboding premonition causes him to refuse to participate in a disappearing trick involving a "magic cabinet," where whoever the magician makes "disappear" can simply just exit out a hatch in the bottom. During a stage performance, Orsino forces the boy into the cabinet, the door becomes jammed and by the time a blacksmith is able to open it, the poor young assistant has asphyxiated and died. Afterward, Orsino is haunted by a child's voice in the middle of the night asking to be let out of the cabinet and it slowly drives him mad.

After broadcasting his first portion of the story, Ainsley has a creepy feeling someone is watching him on his late night stroll back home. He's later awoken from his sleep later that night by a phone call. On the other end of the line is a little boy, who doesn't seem too happy with the radio host's latest story. "I would prefer you to go no further with it," says the child, "It troubles me a great deal." Ainsley suspects the voice on the other line isn't actually a little boy, but an adult impersonating one playing a prank. His second segment of the story in the studio is beset with problems as Ainsley cannot get out a single line without stuttering, shaking and being overwhelmed by the feeling that he's being smothered. However, one of his co-workers insists it all came out as smooth as silk and no one has phoned in to complain. In an attempt to prevent was had happened the night before, Ainsley takes his telephone off the hook before bed... but a child can still loudly be heard singing through the receiver, forcing the frightened radio host to hang up and then answer the next incoming call...

This deceptively simple set-up opens up many different possibilities. The child's voice haunting our protagonist may be a disgruntled viewer, or a ghost who tuned into his broadcast, or perhaps the vengeful character Ainsley himself created somehow miraculously materializing in the real world. Or it may even be that living a loner's existence outside of work and telling ghost stories for a living are finally taking their toll on Ainsley's mental state. By the end we, just like those back in the day listening to radio dramas, have to use our own imaginations to fill in the blanks. There's plenty of interesting subtext going on here under the surface, especially how the two earliest methods used for impersonal communication simultaneously manage to enlighten and isolate us. At work, Ainsley is the voice, the storyteller and in control of what goes out, what is heard by others and ultimately even how his words affect others. Out in the real world, things aren't quite as controlled as they are in his tidy recording booth as Ainsley's telephone is the response he can't ignore from anyone with an opinion about what he's putting out into the world. The many close-up shots of telephones and microphones throughout are hardly coincidental.

Produced in Ireland and shot on 16mm for peanuts, this is a very-well-done short and very much in tune with those great BBC "Ghost Stories for Christmas" and other similar TV specials from the 70s. I've really grown to love these things over the years and especially love what they stand for: no glossy, needless distractions or self-indulgent pretensions, just solid performances from a small cast, good multi-layered storytelling and simple but effectively-elicited chills with a little food for thought thrown in there as well. To date, this is the only script credit from renowned film critic, biographer and writer David Thomson. It not only played on BBC TV, but also was selected for screening at both the London Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival; taking home top prize at the latter in their short fiction category, There's no official VHS or DVD release for this one that I know of, but it's well worth watching if you can find it.


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