DVD Review: The Secret Of Crickley Hall

The Secret of Crickley Hall
DVD | Instant Video
Directed by Joe Ahearne
Written by Joe Ahearne, James Herbert
Starring Olivia Cooke, Pixie Davies, Iain De Caestecker, Fern Deacon, Suranne Jones, Maisie Williams, Tom Ellis, Douglas Henshall, Sarah Smart
BBC Home Entertainment
Release Date: October 8, 2013

I remember looking through a friend’s DVDs one time and without prompting, he began defending his collection. The shelves filled with dollar bin titles that few beyond the cast, their families, or genre die hards had even heard of. He stopped short of apologizing for the quality of his collection saying he was always on the lookout for a “diamond in the rough,” a movie he could discover on his own beyond the chatter of consensus to proudly wear as a badge of honor when he struck gold. This of course means that for every discovery there were countless other piles of nameless titles that are never again going to be watched. The Secret of Crickley Hall belongs in his collection.

In present day London, an overly tired mother Eve Caleigh (Suranne Jones) reluctantly stops at a playground on the way home from daycare with her son Cam, with whom she has a special relationship (they can communicate without speaking to one another). After closing her eyes for a moment while he plays she wakes up to an empty playground. The frantic search by parents and police are equally unyielding. Cam is nowhere to be found and she can no longer hear him. Nearly a year later, thinking the change in scenery will be good for his wife and daughters Loren (Maisie Williams) and Cally (Pixie Davies), and to distract Eve from the upcoming anniversary of Cam’s disappearance, Gabe (Tom Ellis) suggests the family relocates to northern England for a few months where he has landed a temporary job contract. So they set off, having rented out the overly large Crickley Hall as their home while they are away from London.

Once they arrive at Crickley Hall, located of course in Devil’s Cleave because, of course, the story is told in two parallels. The main story taking place in the present while the other is set in 1943 when the house was a functional orphanage for evacuated children during WWII run by head master Augustus Cribben (Douglas Henshall) and his sister Magda (Sarah Smart). Cribben’s increasingly strict authoritative style scares the children into acting out of turn. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks revealing the history of Crickley Hall and attempts to tie in the missing child from the present.

This perspective had potential. There really isn’t much going on in the present other than a mother moping around clinging to hope that her son is still alive. None of the characters have any emotional weight to them. The only interesting part of the story is Cribben. Which is precisely the problem. The smaller of the two stories doesn’t have the strength to carry the whole thing. The story of The Secret of Crickley Hall instead attempts to rely on its device, shifting back and forth between past and present stories that happened at the same place. It makes the whole thing barely interesting enough to want to see how it ties together. In a story driven by unanswered questions, by the time there is resolution you have long since stopped caring.

The key to any good ghost story is the atmosphere. Even a weak story that feels creepy can be forgiven to a point. The Secret of Crickley Hall misses both by not creating the right emotional environment for the story to exist within. That, and not having a story strong enough to warrant the effort to begin with.

Directed and adapted by Joe Ahearne (Dr. Who), the three-part mini-series is based on the 2006 novel from best-selling British author James Herbert. Without much effort it could have been trimmed to two. The first episode takes too long to get interesting while the middle and strongest episode moves quickly and kept interest at the minimum level for further participation. This way you are at least partially invested by the time wheels fell off in the clunky finale. It’s lazy to simply say a book was better than its adaptation but this story feels like it was better served in a literary form. The cuts back and forth between the two stories are done at such seemingly random times it actually gives away what I assume is the biggest twist long before it is revealed on-screen.

This may all sound like nitpicking, but if I were nitpicking I would ask questions like, “Why did a family of four rent out a huge orphanage as a vacation home to escape the memory of their missing son? How is it possible not to know anything about the history of the place ahead of time? How is a ghost story supposed to be scary when it’s told mostly during the day?” But I’m not. So I wont.

The Secret of Crickley Hall just lacked that thing – that universally unsettling thing – opting instead to be a cliché-riddled mess, parading out every overused trope they can throw at it. That said, I recognize clichés exist for a reason. When used correctly they can be very effective. The Secret of Crickley Hall has almost everything you have ever wanted in a ghost story. Unfortunately this is not a compliment. From over-disciplined orphans to rain storms to the old man lurking around that surely knows more than he’s letting on, you have seen all of this before and done better.

For a haunted house story it’s frighteningly low on scares and other than exactly one moment in the final episode that was genuinely creepy, there wasn’t anything that lifts this ghost story beyond a cautionary tale you might use around a campfire to a group of boy scouts to get them to do their chores.

Speaking of cautionary tales, don’t let The Secret of Crickley Hall trick you in to wanting to watch just because you recognize some of the names of those involved. Its fate is already predetermined to rest among the many nameless attempts to strike gold. I’ll have my friend clear a spot on his shelf.

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