By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
Back in the early eighties between a slew of Salem’s Lot, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Howling and The Thing, there was a drama on BBC that took the country by storm, The Nightmare Man. It came out of nowhere, adapted from a book called “Child of Vodyanoi” by Doctor Who supremo Robert Holmes who was responsible for some of the greatest Who stories of all time and direct by Douglas Camfield who also directed some of the most memorable Who stories including Terror of the Zygons.
Set on a remote Scottish island, an all star cast featured in a really disturbing sci if show. And it included the line made famous by Taggert, “There’s been a murder!” in that fantastic accent only the Scots can do.
It had all the elements of classic scare fests with the isolated island, wild open moors favoured by American Werewolf in London, fog sealing off the island, frightened dogs, animal attacks and murders where the victims were torn apart by some unseen force which leaves behind a radioactive trace. And oh yes, someone saw a flying saucer crashing and that’s when they find bite marks that don’t belong to a human. Every possibility is explored from alien monsters, satanic cults, serial killers, genetic experiments on humans and animals before the monster is revealed. The alien theory is reinforced when a mysterious blood stained craft is found on the beach.
Of course the viewer knew there was a monster on the loose with the creature’s point of view method where we hear a horrible gurgling creature stalking the moors with a blood red viewpoint which was genuinely frightening and even when I watched it recently after so many years, it was still quite freaky.
Everything came together with the direction, the writing, the performances and the terrified islanders realizing there is some sort of unknown sea monster on the loose. The dialogue has lovely touches that root it in reality with talk of Kojak, mending fishing nets and digging potatoes, a quick nip of whisky to beat off the cold and a map costs only 50 pence. Those were the days.
The cast includes Maurice Roeves (Doctor Who, STNG and Judge Dread), James Cosmo (Braveheart), James Warwick (Babylon 5 and Doctor Who) and Celia Imrie (showing she’s a serious actress as well as the matriarch in Acorn Antiques). There isn’t one bad performance in the show and they all help enforce the reality of it all. Even the Bill’s Reggie and Freddie Boswell from Bread pop up as ill fated coast guards.
Camfield is an expert at building tension and in the Nightmare Man he achieves it in abundance. Every monster attack is unnerving including the sheep attacks. One avid bird watcher is ripped apart in his tent on the moors while his camera takes pictures and the attack on the coast guard station shows just how effective and terrifying you can make a scene on a limited budget. The click of the Geiger counter is now a portent of doom and the only way the locals have to know something nasty is lurking in the dark. Such is the tension, you’re waiting for the monster to attack every time someone ventures outside into the fog which never lets up. Everything here is meant to terrify the viewers especially the scene where they manage to develop the bird watcher’s camera and listen to the recording of his death. We see a humanoid figure with what seems to be things growing out of its head, reinforcing the notion that this is not human, especially since the amount of radiation it generates would leave a human six feet under. The most chilling of all is the inhuman noise it makes when murdering; it is laughing as it rips its victims to bits.
As the police discover the attacks are occurring in a straight line across the island they take to the moors to try and track it but come across the mysterious Colonel Howard who has arrived for a holiday on the island, or has he?
When the reveal of the monster is finally done, it’s even more terrifying when the viewer learns the truth. They have had a dozen terrifying images running though their heads for weeks and none could have imagined what is really killing people.
There is so even a nod to the Thing when the creature runs burning into the night and the theme music is reminiscent of Salem’s Lot. Between them Douglas and Robert created a really frightening piece of television drama that has rarely been surpassed. Given their background, you almost expect the Doctor to come running in at any moment. This is a great example of how to create a tense drama on a budget; everything is so simple and evocative. Note when the search party go looking for the killer on the moors, the fog is so dense you’re on the edge of your seat screaming at them to go home.
Watched again thirty years later, the Nightmare Man has lost none of its scare factor. I got my copy off eBay which comes with a making-off booklet which shows the care and depths the team went to to make this classic. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.