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Blu-ray Review: The Owl Service – “A must for folk horror fans”

The Owl Service was originally broadcast on British television on Sunday evenings from 1969 to 1970. The adaptation of Alan Garner’s award-winning novel has become much-sought-after following being featured in Kier-la Janisse’s incredible documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, and arrives on Blu-ray for the first time on the 17th of October.

Teenager Alison (Gillian Hills) joins her new stepfather, Clive (Edwin Richfield), and stepbrother, Roger (Francis Wallis), for a honeymoon slash holiday following Clive’s marriage to her mother Margaret. The house and family are cared for by the angry maid, Nancy (Dorothy Edwards), odd caretaker, Huw (Raymond Llewellyn), and Nancy’s son, Gwyn (Michael Holden).

Alison discovers an odd set of plates decorated with an owl-like pattern and begins to lose herself and her mental bearings through the process of ritualistically copying out the pattern and hiding away the plates from Nancy – who we soon discover has previous with the owl service and her own very good reasons for keeping them out of Alison’s clutches. An old folktale about doomed lovers seems to be repeating itself through time and the plates are the key.

Seeing what makes The Owl Service so special and so highly regarded does not take long. For a show supposedly for children, it is very subversive, very creepy and very, very good. Uncredited director Peter Plum fills The Owl Service with slight strangenesses – skewed angles, discombobulating framing and just-that-bit-too-low shots – that all add up to a rising, constant feeling of unease that many modern shows would be jealous of as the house slowly gives up its secrets.

There are an awful lot of exploding hormones and simmering teenage sexual tension that may have flown over younger heads upon initial broadcast, but feels thrillingly transgressive viewed from the 2020s. Alison and Huw’s bubbling tryst and Roger’s, what we would call incel-like, behaviour upon realising his feelings for his stepsister are not reciprocated in him, but for the lower class “yob” Welsh boy instead are handled really well and the young cast are all excellent and naturalistic.

Gillian Hills’ performance as Alison is worthy of special note and she does the majority of the dramatic heavy lifting with aplomb, from her initial fear of the strange scratching noises in the attic above her bedroom, to her descent into trance-y fractured behaviour as the supernatural power and her romantic awakening, she always feels absolutely genuine and never over-the-top.

The Owl Service is an extremely satisfying show for fans of the folk horror subgenre and the story is brilliantly and elegantly paced out. Each episode is elegantly laced with secrets and lore that it is difficult not to just binge the entire thing in a single sitting.

Audio and video:
Being originally shot on film means The Owl Service still looks great. The series is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio and there were no visible video encoding errors. Grain is retained and the colours look good and true. The mono audio is obviously a bit limiting but there were no ticks, clicks or dropouts and the sync is spot on throughout.

All eight episodes are subtitled (HOH captions) and annoyingly there are quite a lot of misheard subtitles in every episode. There are also issues with style not being consistent across every episode.

Special Features:

  • Archive interviews with Alan Garner from 1968 and 1980
  • Commentaries on selected episodes by writer/broadcaster Tim Worthington
  • Image gallery
  • Limited edition booklet written by Stephen McKay, Chris Lynch and Kim Newman (not supplied)

The verdict:
A wonderfully presented chilling children’s television classic that is a must for folk horror fans.

The Owl Service is released on Blu-ray in the UK on the 17th of October.

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