Friday, March 9, 2018

Review: 'Unburied' at Vault Festival, 8th March 2018

Unburied reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Even if it were wrong about everything else, Hermetic Arts' Unburied would be dead on in praising 1970s British horror television. I was sceptical about these shows for the longest 0time, associating the era with terrible production values, stagey acting and campy rubber monster costumes. It's all well and good respecting the cultural significance of say, Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, but actually watching it? No chance.

That all changed the first time I saw Nigel Kneale's classic The Stone Tape, which scared the crap out of me. It's a traditional ghost story with a contemporary sheen, showing scientists exploring paranormal phenomenon with modern technology, only to awaken something dark and dormant within ancient stones. 

Unburied is cut from the same cloth,  and similarly interprets the supernatural through technology. Only this time it's not stones psychically recording the past, but a 'living folk story' echoing through history and haunting those who tell it.

The core of the show is 'Unburied', an unbroadcast horror TV show from 1978, whose production and subsequent disappearance is shrouded in mystery. Folk horror enthusiast Carrie Marx has been researching Unburied for the last year and this show is the summation of her work - we're the audience for the recording of a podcast to be uploaded in April. So  boiled back to its bones, the show is essentially a fancy Powerpoint presentation.

But boy howdy what a Powerpoint presentation. Unburied straddles the line between fiction and truth with the grace and precision of a tightrope walker, simultaneously telling a completely believable story about the history of television production and internet research while also subtly spinning a genuinely spooky ghost story.

Much of the show's success is down to Carrie Marx's great delivery. Her enthusiasm about the subject matter is infectious and she drags us into her narrative of discovery with consummate ease. She's also a fantastic performer, slipping between the podcast recording and a series of audience asides skilfully, as well as making the more overtly scary final moments of the show properly spine-chilling.

I don't want to spoil exactly what happens, but the writing understands one of the golden rules of horror: less is more. It's not until quite a way in that the show reveals its hand, and you suddenly recontextualise what we've been told about, say, the minutia of obscure Victorian authors. Even better, Marx trusts in the audience's intelligence to put the jigsaw together, resulting in moments where you realise something before she does

It's also unusually thoughtful, dwelling on the Brexit/Trump impulses to "destroy the present and bring back an imagined past". This is a show about delving into the past, presented with more than a twinge of nostalgia for what seem to be more innocent times. The show repeatedly underlines that navel-gazing through rose-coloured glasses is deeply unhealthy: a truth that soon supernaturally manifests itself.

This show is a textbook example of how true horror isn't a product of big budgets and complex pyrotechnics. For example, I saw the West End production of The Exorcist recently. That show also has its roots in 70s horror, yet ended up being more campy than scary. Unburied knocks The Exorcist into a cocked hat - achieving more with a couple of Powerpoint slides and a talented performer than that show does with an Ian McKellen voiceover and the latest in digital projection-mapping.

Unburied is a modest marvel, and I'm incredibly glad I got the opportunity to check it out. I'll be there opening night for whatever Hermetic Arts does next.

Unburied is at Vault Festival until 11 March. Tickets here.

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