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DVD Review: Armchair Thriller – Set 2

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The scariest thing about Armchair Thriller – Set 2 is knowing that there’s an Armchair Thriller – Set 1. On the back of the box from this four-disk set, the blurb reads, “These classic British thrillers will put you on the very edge of your seat.” I know I was on the edge of my seat, tempted to jump up and turn the television off as quickly as possible. The program was originally shown in 1978 and 1980, and had (reportedly) a large following. Not large enough for a third season, I’m afraid.

There are three stories presented on these four disks, and each story is serialized. The first story, "The Chelsea Murders," is presented on disk one in six installments (145 minutes), and on disk two as a 1981 television movie (103 minutes). One evening, ever-indulgent husband Chip and I began to watch the first disk; after a few minutes I turned it off, not wanting to subject him to it. It’s one thing for a reviewer to sit through the most awful stuff, but it’s inhumane to force one’s family members to suffer through it, too. Part of the problem with Armchair Thriller is that the outdoor scenes were filmed; the indoor scenes were taped. The taped scenes are cheesy; they look like rehearsals but are the bulk of the shows. "The Chelsea Murders" seemed the most interesting to me, since it’s about a serial killer, and I am a sucker for serial killer movies. (Even bad ones. Especially bad ones.)

Not having the wherewithal to again attempt to view disk one, I watched the “feature length” version of "The Chelsea Murders" on disk two. The first thing that struck me is the same thing that hit me previously, the quality of the acting. As in awful. "The Chelsea Murders" revolves around a group of “filmmakers” working in Chelsea to produce a silent movie. The introduction to this group of misfits is our first “treat.” The movie they are making seems totally ridiculous until the movie you’re actually watching unfolds around it. You begin to appreciate the different degrees of ridiculous.

One of the characters, Frank, is a flamboyant, heroin-addicted, homosexual designer (David Gant in an over-the-top performance). Another is Police Superintendent Warton who observes, “In my experience innocent people don’t have alibis.” In discussing (and dismissing) two of the victims he notes that one was a barmaid/nude model and infers she had it coming, and another was an 82-year-old woman who had lived quite long enough. Dave King as Warton is the one redeeming performance in the film; we look forward to his moments on screen. One doesn’t so much wonder who the killer is as pray who the next victim will be. While the killings may have a literary connection, the real shock is when the humorless superintendent opens his top desk drawer and pulls out The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. "The Chelsea Murders" benefits by being edited down from the serialized episodes; although somewhat sleep-inducing, it is laughably bad, therefore elevated to tolerable.

In order to prove I really am a glutton, I viewed disk three immediately following disk two. Disk three is "The Circe Complex," based on a novel by Desmond Cory. There are six episodes, totaling 149 minutes. The story hinges on the search for stolen jewels. I thought this would be the least interesting story, since the back of the disk case features a photograph of a man who appears to have a facial bandage and an onion bag over his head. As it begins, middle-aged Tom Foreman is leaving the house, kisses his wife goodbye, then kills a police officer. We know from the liner notes that between these two actions, Tom has stolen “jewelry worth a fortune.”

Eighteen months later, perfectly ordinary wife Val is having an affair with prison psychiatrist Ollie who has been trying to divine the location of the jewels. To this end, they enlist the unwitting aid of a newly paroled prisoner named “Cat.” Val convinces Cat that she wants to hire him to help get her husband out of jail. Ollie, with her knowledge, bugs Val’s flat and eavesdrops on her seduction of Cat. Meanwhile, prison food is okay but the gravy has Tom in tears. Cat succeeds in springing Tom (much to our surprise), only to be set up by Val and Ollie. Before long, Val is sleeping with Detective Bannister, the policeman investigating crimes associated with her husband Tom’s great escape. Ollie is reduced to talking to himself on the street and during his private patients’ therapy sessions; his downward spiral is one of the highlights in this sometimes dull tale.

"The Circe Complex" is not a bad story, although it is heavily punctuated with silliness (not to be confused with humor). There are not many surprises here, but it does end with an unexpected twist. Surprisingly, many of the performances in "The Circe Complex" are quite good, particularly Trevor Martin as Tom.

Disk four has an interesting story, "Quiet as a Nun," which is based on an Antonia Fraser novel, and spread over six episodes. The story is not served well by serialization; it could have been nicely told in 70 minutes but drags on for 140. The fashions are dated, but that’s not such a problem if you can think of it as a period piece. The real problem is that it totally lacks suspense or thrills. Each of the first five episodes ends with a cliff-hanger so ludicrous you may laugh out loud. I did. Again we have a combination of film and videotape, and the taped segments lack eerie atmosphere. Just using film would have improved this entry tremendously. However, we would still guess who the villain is in the first episode.

Two things stand out in "Quiet as a Nun": a maniacal mini-driving nun and a beautiful child who turns out to be a very young Patsy Kensit. Oh, if the nun’s Mini looks familiar, Ollie was driving it around disk three. "Quiet as a Nun" was presented on the PBS Mystery! series in the early 1980s; surely it must have been edited down a bit. This was actually the first disk I watched all the way through, and Chip bravely joined me. For what it’s worth, he slept through only a few minutes of the first episode.

There are no frightening moments in Armchair Thriller – Set 2, no gasps, no sudden starts; viewers can expect to watch without having their pulse rate increase. The stories are serviceable but overlong, mildly entertaining without being satisfying. There are no bonus features included in the Armchair Thriller – Set 2 boxed set.

Bottom Line: Would I buy Armchair Thriller – Set 2? No. And I’m not looking for Set 1 either.

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