... aka: Murrain by Nigel Kneale
"Murrain” was part of a seven episode series of hour-long programs called Against the Crowd made by Associated Television (or ATV). Each of these played on the commercial TV network Independent Television (or ITV) in the UK in July and August of 1975 and, to my knowledge, nowhere else (though I could be mistaken). The series has since been forgotten... all except for this one singular episode. So what exactly saved it from total obscurity? The fact that it's written by Nigel Kneale, that's what. Kneale, a respected, well-known fantasy writer in his home country, first broke through the mainstream with the extremely popular live TV series The Quatermass Experiment (1953), which led to numerous other TV shows and feature film remakes and spin-offs, as well as the equally popular George Orwell adaptation Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954), which also aired live and was supposedly the film that got Peter Cushing a contract with Hammer. After being pleased with Kneale's work on Murrain, ATV gave the writer a chance to develop his own six-episode series called Beasts the following year. Because Kneale has enough draw to sell whatever may happen to have his name attached to it, when it finally came time for a Beasts DVD box set release, Network DVD included Murrain on the set as an extra. The other six Against the Crowd TV films, which appear to be drama and not horror, are currently nowhere to be found.
Prior to viewing, I said to myself, “Who is a Murrain? What is a Murrain? Is it a town? Is it a person? Is it exclusively British slang for something?" Nope. It's none of the above. After a dictionary search, I discovered it was a noun that refers to “an infectious disease, especially babesiosis, affecting cattle or other animals” and that it's also a somewhat archaic, generic term that can mean a plague, an epidemic or a crop blight. "OK," I said, pausing for a second. "Sure... but... uh... what in the hell is “babesiosis?!” So back to the dictionary we go... Also a noun, babesiosis is “a disease of cattle and other livestock, transmitted by the bite of ticks. It affects the red blood cells and causes the passing of red or blackish urine.” Alright, now I think I'm ready for...
Veterinarian Alan Crich (David Simeon) heads to a small country village to check out some strange goings-on at a pig farm run by Mr. Beeley (Bernard Lee). Having already analyzed some of the dead hogs on an earlier trip, it appears the swine are being stricken down with some kind of mysterious virus unknown by modern science. Even stranger, all of the water in the area has dried up save for one lake and other unknown maladies have afflicted certain people living there. Alan is taken to see general store owners Mr. (David Neal) and Mrs. (Marjorie Yates) Leach, whose son is pale, has no appetite and has been confined to bed for the past month due to an incurable illness. The villagers believe there's a link between what's happening to the pigs, what's happening to the child, the sudden water shortage and a strange crippling disease another man suffers from. Unable to find a rational explanation for the (a ha!) murrain that's struck their village, they've pinned the blame on elderly Mrs. Clemson (Una Brandon-Jones); who they believe is a witch. Alan, rational and educated and not prone to superstition, shrugs off their suggestion and believes they're all “raving mental cases."
Alan decides to go visit Mrs. Clemson himself and is saddened to find a frightened, lonely, seemingly kind old woman living in filth and poverty. The people in town are too scared to get anywhere near her ramshackle home, refuse to talk to her, serve her or sell her food, have tapped her well dry so she'll have no water and, worse, have gone one step further trying to drive her out of town by cutting her beloved cat into two pieces and flinging it over her wall. Feeling a pitiable and likely mentally ill old woman is being wrongfully persecuted, Alan befriends her and decides to help her by bringing her food and arranging for county welfare to come check up on her... but the villagers get even more riled up and the mysterious incidents continue.
This is a modest and somewhat familiar little mystery/drama that was shot on video, but the acting is good, it utilizes a great-looking country village full of crumbling old stone building and walkways and it's thoughtfully-written to be a parable about man's inclination to seek out a scapegoat whenever the unexplainable rears its ugly head. It opts for a somewhat ambiguous ending, which is just as well in this case.