Summer’s over and it’s time to securely lock up the windows and draw the curtains, as the temperature gets colder and the light fades earlier. To ring in this darker time of year is the start of three-part supernatural mystery series Midwinter Of The Spirit, adapting Phil Rickman’s series of Merrily Watkins Mysteries to the screen. Setting us up for some scares, last night’s opener introduced ‘Deliverance Minister’ Merrily Watkins (Anna Maxwell-Martin) and the evil forces she’ll be battling against, as well as enough recognisable occult tropes to promise a compelling addition to the spooky drama genre.
Opening with shots of an elderly priest praying over a dying man in hospital intercut with a gang hunting someone in the woods, there was a flash of barbed wire, a scream, and we were into a moody title sequence filled with images of smoke, candles being blown out, and shadows crawling over furniture. We’re firmly in The Exorcist slash Midsomer Murders territory here (plus some Wicker Man thrown in for good measure) with a crucifixion-themed murder scene to go with all the talk of demonic possession, and some rather sinister village locals. It’s a mix that works, keeping the more potentially-hammy elements of deliverance tempered with the everyday – at first, Watkins sees the work in practical terms with a sense of detachment, a new job to get on with. Her instructor (David Threlfall) describes the exorcism of spirits in terms of ‘social work’ with the community, rather than an all-out war with the Devil.
And that’s a great strength of the show so far, as we’re led towards its supernatural components with a grounding in the mundane, leading to some effective scares. The opening plot – recently bereaved single mother and women-of-God investigates the crucifixion of a local Satanist – has cosily recognisable genre beats; a crazy old Priest who probably won’t survive to the end of the episode, a moody teenage daughter hanging out with the wrong (possibly hell-bound) crowd, and the infection of a wound the protagonist is ignoring on her hand.
Recognisable, but not cliché – our lead has been brought in to the parish to replace Canon Dobbs as he loses his mind, daughter Jane is struggling with the death of her father, and, well, Watkins is pretty much too busy with all the local Satanists to go get some antibiotics from the village surgery. Midwinter Of The Spirit’s central battle with the demonic isn’t outlandish with creepy coloured contact lenses, cross masturbation, or green vomit projectiles (well, yet), but more practical, with a hidden basement for community devil worship (avec décor by the Se7en killer), and a nasty scratch from a Satanist-with-long-nails that needs more than a hastily applied plaster. It’s not unbelievable – it’s every weekend, in fact, if you live in the Kent or Sussex area.
And that ‘insular small town locals’ horror trope, probably used most potently in The Wicker Man, (and as a good joke in Hot Fuzz, and as a bad joke in the previous paragraph), also serves the series’ supernatural beats well, with religious vernacular that could become laughably overdramatic (“defilement”, “Imprints”, “Visitors” and “Volatiles”) balanced out with country colloquialisms like “lass”, “nobhead”, and fag breaks. And scratchy Satanist Denzil Joy (Oengus MacNamara), looking like a mash up of Bob from Twin Peaks/a standard, uncombed village creep, also walks this line, between horror archetype and a more commonplace (but no less scary) evil. A nurse providing him with palliative care deems him “a destroyer”, but of lives; an abuser. And, now that he’s hanging around Watkins in mirrors and dreams after his death, he can only get more dangerous…
Episode one, having established its big bad and an interesting protagonist, promises a gripping three-parter, with just enough jump scares to stop things from getting cosy. So, settle in with a cup of tea to watch things unfold over the next few weeks, but do expect to be jolted into spilling it.
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