“The end of a journey is often the hardest.”
ITV’s supernatural drama Afterlife is entirely new to me, being about ten years old and one of those shows that gets late-night reruns on ITV3 as a way of filling up space. I was actually prepared to go off to bed when the Resident Grammarian switched onto it last night, but it hooked me in pretty quickly and I ended up watching the whole hour.
The Rat Man treads the incredibly fertile and interesting ground between supernatural horror and intense psychodrama. It sees Our Heroine, a medium called Alison, investigating a spate of suicides at a high-security prison, where inmates have Seen Things and Heard Footsteps and all the usual shorthands for the uncanny that horror uses. She comes into contact with a particularly nasty inmate, a rapist called Ian, who tells her about the Rat Man, apparently the spirit of a long-dead murderer who used rats in his tortures and who haunts the lonely and the victimised, goading them into acts of terrible destruction.
What saves all this from over-egged predictability (see: medium, spirit of hanged murderer, ‘orrible violence) is its careful, close focus on the psychological aspects of haunting, its self-conscious use of the supernatural as a way of talking about the human. Lesley Sharp’s Alison is emphatically not the flamboyant, deceptive medium of tradition; she is quiet, reflective, nondescript. Sharp’s performance is muted, but extremely engaging; it feels highly real in its refusal to adhere to traditional horror tropes. Her experience could be anyone’s, despite the supernatural element – and in any case, we’re never allowed to be quite sure whether the Rat Man is entirely real or simply a product of collective hysteria. He could be both; he could be neither. His influence is subtle, and the ambivalence he lends to the narrative gives it a way of talking about victimisation and how people respond to it without sensationalising it.
I’m not saying that Afterlife is perfect: like most narratives of its type, the episode tends towards excess, towards bagginess, moments of the camp or the overdone intruding into its muted semirealism. But it is different: potent, understated, cleverly wrought (though it has to be said that Andrew Lincoln’s turn as a doctor of psychology does the episode no favours: he is far too conventional an actor to have a place here). I’ll be keeping an eye on Afterlife.