Hammer House of Horror: "The Thirteenth Reunion"

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2019-10-20 21:41

Written by: Jeremy Burnham
Directed by: Peter Sasdy
Starring: Julia Foster, Dinah Sheridan, and Richard Pearson

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"I think I can promise you a very special meal..."

For the second entry in its House of Horrors series, Hammer turns to the familiar corners of cult horror. This isn’t much of a spoiler: no, you’ll notice that something conspiratorial is definitely afoot from the opening scene, where a couple of undertakers carry on a cryptic conversation over a crisp new corpse. They’re our kooky entry point into an increasingly bizarre yarn involving a small-time journalist Ruth (Julia Foster) investigating a popular new fitness club boasting some unusual methods. While some participants (notably the women) are ruthlessly shamed in public, others are oddly encouraged to simply do their best—it’s okay if they’re not exactly shedding the weight, it would seem.

One of the latter is Ben (Warren Clarke), a well-meaning guy who’s trying but not completely succeeding at the regiment. Ruth becomes charmed by his efforts, going so far as to entertain the notion of a steady relationship following an impromptu dinner. The romance is tragically cut short, however, when Ben dies in a mysterious car accident. Viewers know that the two sinister undertakers—plus some possible supernatural forces—are involved; Ruth, too is suspicious of foul play, and begins to look further into the fitness club, which no longer just seems to be a hotbed for misogyny and fat-shaming.

Most of the appeal of "The Thirteenth Reunion" rests in its playful script, which remains perpetually coy as it zigs and zags through its mystery. Wending from point A all the way to point Z proves to be a rather breathless and increasingly ludicrous affair, as Ruth encounters an absurd cabal of fitness gurus, undertakers, doctors, and secret society members in an effort to arrive at an unlikely truth. The script puts many possibilities in play—including a supernatural slant that’s pure misdirection—but still manages to pull a rabbit out of its hat for its ultimate revelation.

Along the way, The Thirteenth reunion manages to string the audience along with grisly violence, moonlit skulking, and the weirdo undertaker duo that gives the episode its off-kilter energy. Foster remains steadfast throughout as Ruth, the dogged journalist who refuses to wilt in the face of an obvious conspiracy—at least until it becomes too much to stomach, even for her. Watching Foster slowly freak out as the episode teases out its ending is a delight, if not a bit dastardly and mean-spirited, I must admit.

But that’s what you want from this sort of thing, right? If anything, "The Thirteenth Reunion" might not go far enough in this respect: like the first episode, it stops short of delivering a truly memorable exclamation point. In this case, it literally leaves an obvious, killer gag on the table, one that would end the episode on the perfectly diabolical note it deserves. Hammer’s feature film endings were often notoriously abrupt, but it was rare that they left you wanting: in its heyday, the studio knew damn well how to deliver a money shot, and here’s hoping it remembered to so at some point during this show’s brief run.

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