The Flypaper: And why after all these years it’s still the most chilling piece of TV.
Outside of diehard fans, few might know that author Roald Dahl hosted a British anthology’s series entitled: Tales of the Unexpected. The series which ran from 1979 to 1988 (and a whooping 112 episodes), is firmly ingrained in British audience members of a certain age. Series 3 (or Season 3 in the US) saw a seemingly harmless episode entitled The Flypaper which aired on August 9th 1980. Now, a lot has been made of the infamous British event Ghostwatch which aired on Halloween of 1992. Though Ghostwatch is a masterpiece in its own right, I would argue that this single episode of Tales of the Unexpected did more to traumatize youth than maybe anything else at the time or indeed, since. Before diving into this episode, I think a little context is in order. Author Roald Dahl was born September 13th 1916 in Whales is primary known for his books aimed at kids such as The Witches, James and the Giant Peach and, perhaps the most famous of his output, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The thing is, Dahl wrote kids books but he never talked down to them and often presented mature and frankly darker subject matter. For example, it’s not at all uncommon for death to be presented in his works. It’s why I feel that Hollywood has had such a difficult time at adapting his books. He often would push content that studios might not want to. Though the author was not a fan, I think 1990’s The Witches is the closet book to screen adaptation to capture both the dark and the whimsy.
The Flypaper involves the death of a 12-year-old girl whose body is dragged out of the marshes. This leaves the young Silva (Lorna Yabsley) feeling afraid with a killer on the loose. When a friendly man talks to her on the bus, she suspects something is odd in this chilling episode. I tend to loath hyperbolic film criticism that deems everything (especially in the horror genre) as the greatest or the scariest, as I feel like that is a very high bar that doesn’t allow for nuance in the discord. Having said that, I think I can safely say that this (along with another infamous episode, The Landlady) as possibly one of the more haunting bits of television. In true Dahl fashion, Flypaper does not spare children from danger the way most authors do. In fact, you can say that this episode with its themes of innocence lost and the danger lurking under the surface of seemingly idyllic childhood could easily live in the same spiritual street as the 1986 King novel It. Let’s be honest, Flypaper isn’t what modern audiences might consider outright scary. It’s a very lean twenty-ish minutes and is what you might call a slow-burn. In fact, I would say it only really ramps up in the last ten minutes. But damned if those last minutes are unnerving, bleak and dread filled. Prior, director Graham Evans brilliantly uses the isolated fog drenched British countryside to its upmost beauty and eeriness.
If I’m being honest, The Landlady another infamous child scarring episode from this series, is probably scarier in the tradition sense. However, Flypaper tackles subject matter that is incredibly frank and scary in a more realistic way. The legacy of the episode has been felt decades later in other films and series. Notably, the acting trope behind the smash hit series Inside No. 9 are big fans of Tales of the Unexpected as well as this specific episode. In fact, Flypaper actor Stephane Cole got to be in an episode of No.9 entitled Dead Line which aired in October of 2018. Currently you can watch The Flypaper and The Landlady on YouTube and is worth checking out, especially going into the spooky-season.
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Big film nerd and TCM Obsessed. Author of The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema from Schiffer Publishing. Resume includes: AMC’s The Bite, Scream Magazine etc. Love all kinds of movies and television and have interviewed a wide range of actors, writers, producers and directors. I currently am a regular co-host on the podcast The Humanoids from the Deep Dive and have a second book in the works from Bear Manor.