The structure of this series — four 30 minute episodes — makes it tempting to say that this is really a film split up into parts, but that’s not really the case. In fact, it’s the splitting that partly gives it charm, and partly to mash it together would only work to expose its flaws. There was a time when you can effortlessly spot clear aesthetic differences between TV shows and movies. Often these were the results of budgetary concerns, sometimes of creative decisions, but the fact is, the clunkiness of older, cheap television can sometimes be made better through small increments.
The Nightmare Man is based on the book by Child of Vodyanoi by David Wiltshire and, without giving away too much in the realm of spoilers, I will say it is a smart choice for a low budget television adaptation, since it doesn’t rely on any visuals that are too fantastical, and in many ways, making it flashy would destroy its charm. The story is simple — the insular residents of a remote island off Scotland being terrorized by a mad killer that exhibits a fantastic fury and strength in the victims. They are literally torn apart.
The players include a baffled island policeman (Maurice Roëves), an over eager dentist, a mysterious military man on holiday (Jonathan Newth), and a local amateur cartographer (Celia Imrie) — the latter character being a woman. There are character touches that made the show irresistible to me, like the penchant of the police to do some jolly jesting even in the face of gruesome crimes or the authority figure of the dentist being the first to jump in with suggestions of aliens and the like, only to be looked at like a crackpot by everyone else.
Best is Fiona Patterson (Imrie) presented as an equal investigator to any of the men and, more importantly, master of her own destiny. The dentist, Michael Gaffikin (Warwick), wants to marry her and tries to convince her of the logic. She explains she has her own criteria for such an arrangement, and being defined by a relationship with a man is not a high priority. She’s also got talent and know-how that is of direct use in the investigation, bringing in cartography and photography to her mix of tools.
Since this is adapted by Robert Holmes and Douglas Camfield, that should give you an idea of the tone. Their work on Doctor Who during that era — Holmes wrote countless scripts for the show for a number of Doctors over quite a long period of time, Camfield directed — mirrors what you see here. It takes itself seriously, but is not without humor. It surprises with its characterization when you expect something more wooden. It makes good use of limited resources, particularly in atmosphere. It takes a pulp idea to screen without making it cheesy. If I were to name an American equivalent, the closest I can come up with is The Night Stalker, but even then, I think The Nightmare Man might achieve more than even that show in suspense.