Night of the Marionettes, Supernatural 1977 (E7)

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Night of the Marionettes is arguably the strongest entry in the Supernatural series, writes RICHARD MARKWORTH

Night of the Marionettes, Supernatural 1977 (E7)

TITLE: Night of the Marionettes
DIRECTOR: Alan Cooke
FIRST BROADCAST:
30 July 1977 BBC1

Review of Night of the Marionettes

In Night of the Marionettes, author Howard Lawrence (Gordon Jackson), recounts a tale of terror he claims can “never be published” to the assembled members of the Club of the Damned.

Accompanied by wife Elspeth (Kathleen Byron) and daughter Mary (Pauline Moran), Lawrence is traveling in Switzerland, following in the footsteps of poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the subjects of a planned biography.

Lawrence is feeling emotionally frazzled following a visit to the famous Villa Diodati. It was here Byron and Shelley along with Dr John Polidori and Shelley’s young future wife, Mary Godwin, had stayed in the summer of 1816. As any fan of Gothic horror will be aware, the villa was the scene of the celebrated ghost story session which inspired Polidori’s The Vampyre and, more significantly, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

An extensive study of the villa has exhausted Lawrence, leading Elspeth to suggest a recuperative pause in their travels before proceeding to Italy. The family find a remote Alpine inn, The Ritterhoff, in which to stay. The secluded establishment, isolated from the surrounding villages of the snowy region, appears to offer the tranquillity Lawrence seeks.

However, it is clear from the start the Inn is a somewhat strange establishment. The Maître d, Herr Hubert (Vladek Sheybal), is a pale, gaunt figure possessed of a distinctly otherworldly air who also appears to be a touch heavy with his makeup application. As the family head to their rooms, Lawrence points out there are no crucifixes on display in the building.

Night of the Marionettes, Supernatural 1977 (E7) 1

The Lawrence’s learn from elderly, Shakespeare quoting patron Otto (Sydney Bromley), the Hubert family are famed locally for their marionette shows. People travel from miles around to witness the entertainments, but no one ever stays overnight at the Inn.

Discovering English books in his room, Lawrence begins to believe Byron and Shelley themselves had previously stayed at the Inn prior to taking residence at the Villa Diodati. 

Things take a turn for the weirder as the Lawrences are disturbed by unnerving nocturnal noises including banging and sinister laughter. Lawrence and Mary investigate whilst the terrified Elspeth soothes her nerves with the aid of her bedside hipflask.

As Lawrence grows obsessed with Mary Shelley and questions what events had possessed her to write Frankenstein, his daughter seems to be developing some kind of spiritual link to the deceased author. An increasingly distressed Elspeth is desperate to leave the Inn, but Mary and Lawrence are keen to stay on.

When the evening of the marionette stage show arrives the Lawrence family take their seats with the rest of the audience. What follows is a bizarre display featuring life-sized puppets who enact a gruesome drama onstage. The play involves a menacing magician figure raising a Frankenstein-like monster from its state of slumber. The monster goes on to molest, then murder, a princess mannequin before being slain by the magician in the final scene.

Following the presentation, Elspeth slips further into alcoholic dependence while Mary pens her diary with renewed vigour. Lawrence meanwhile is both elated and horrified at the certainty he has stumbled across the true inspiration for Mary Shelley’s novel. 

Further unexplained sounds echoing about the Inn during the night once again stir the curiosity of Lawrence and Mary and they identify a locked upstairs room as the origin point of the noise. A glimpse through the door reveals the existence of a glowing “workshop of filthy creation”. It appears the Hubert family are not creating simple string-operated dummies but rather fashioning their performers from re-animated corpses.

Lawrence confronts Herr Hubert but, as Elspeth’s condition worsens and Mary’s diary entries begin to replicate the text of Frankenstein, will the family be able to avoid the ghastly fate of those unfortunate guests who have already taken their parts in the ghoulish stage productions of the Ritterhoff?

Night of the Marionettes is a deliciously creepy episode. Director Alan Cooke’s clever use of light and shadow masterfully transforms the Inn into a disturbing, claustrophobic environment and the haunting photography leans unsettlingly into the realms of German Expressionism.

An uncomfortable atmosphere exists throughout the piece, generated by various disconcerting elements ranging from the grotesque appearance of the oversized puppets to a queasily implied incestuous attraction between Lawrence and Mary. The build-up of tension as the Inn’s secrets are gradually revealed is handled effectively and it is easy to find oneself empathising with Lawrence as he grows compelled to discover the truth behind the Hubert family’s activities despite his fearful suspicions as to what he may find.

The cast are fully convincing, particularly the understated Jackson and the perfectly eerie Sheybal. In fact, the latter’s role of Herr Hubert was so well received by horror fans he was presented with an award for his performance by The Dracula Society in 1977.

Arguably the strongest episode in the anthology, Night of the Marionettes, will haunt the consciousness and may just have you double-checking TripAdvisor before booking that skiing holiday in the Swiss Alps.

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Read our Supernatural 1977 Episode Guide with reviews of all the episodes!

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