I watched the new BFI Flipside release of The Appointment (1981).
We start in the corner of a field in southern England (we’re not far from the M3, according to some road signs we see later on).
A voiceover reads from an unreleased Police file about the case of a missing schoolgirl, Sandy Freemark. She was last seen by friends after orchestral practice at school, going home through the shortcut in the Cromley Woods. No traces of her were found and so there are theories she was kidnapped.
However we get to see what happened: she heard voices and noises around her, which seemed to include jeering from other girls at school, Some dogs seemed to be tracking her nearby. But then in an astonishing effect, she is physically pulled into the undergrowth by an invisible lasso and seems to be entirely consumed by a mysterious presence.
We are told that iron railings were put up to prevent any other kids using the route, and three years later we see another girl putting some sort of memorial down and speaking aloud to an invisible friend. We presume this is a memorial to the lost girl.
FUN FACTS: the Police report stated that Sandy Freemark was last seen on “Tuesday May 14th”. In 1981 May 14th was a Thursday, however because 1980 was a leap year we have to go back to 1974 for the last year that it fell on a Tuesday. But that can’t be when this happened, as the car Ian Fowler drives is a W-reg Ford Granada (first available in 1980), and Dianna Fowler is reading a new hardback copy of The Middle Ground by Margaret Drabble (published 1980). So the original disappearance would be 1985, and the rest of the film in 1988, when the Fowlers are now quaintly behind the times; Ian can mysteriously buy copies of The Guardian with the old 70s layout, and the news is full of vague reports of strikes somewhere.
The Fowlers are well-off but not enormously rich. Talented daughter Joanne goes to a local school but has hopes of a professional musical career. Daddy Ian, played by Edward Woodward, is in the oil business but not a high-level executive; he seems to be some sort of engineering consultant in a small partnership. Because his partner has a family matter to deal with, Ian has to take on the job of travelling to an official appointment about some accident, far away. This means he will not be able to get back home in time to attend the recital that Joanne is performing at. She is distraught and can’t reconcile herself to selfish old daddy. Mummy thinks he needs to try to understand what a turbulent time adolescence is.
Everyone settles down to a night’s sleep, and then things go very strange. There seem to be dark forces circling the house, which manifest as a group of dogs. Ian has a nightmare in which his car journey ends in a crash after some dogs jump on the windscreen apparently out of nowhere. It seems the car in the garage (given to him by the repair shop) is being interfered with in some way, and so is Ian’s own car back at the repair shop. Doors open and close, the dogs prowl the hallways and we always seem to be on the brink of encountering them but instead Ian goes back to bed, and it’s Dianne’s turn to dream of his broken body trapped in a wrecked car, struggling to release his seat belt. Meanwhile in Joanne’s room, the pictures on her dressing table seem to change and rearrange.
There are two kinds of music competing in the soundtrack: the conventional orchestral sound that Joanne is learning, and also a doomier dronier electronic goth scaretrack surging into quiet places around it.
The next day our doomed man sets out on his last journey (the title is obviously an allusion to the “appointment in Samarra”). As he treks the English highways, a lorry with the company name HUNTER DRILLING and a logo of 3 hunting dogs appears to be on the same route. He stops to call back home using a call box but of course he can’t get all the 10p coins in to keep the conversation with Dianne going long enough. The malice of inanimate objects grows to a crescendo as he has the inevitable crash, whilst his wife realises she is living in a nest of the uncanny, and even the garage mechanic has a nasty upset. It seems there is some sort of paranormal correspondence between the 2 cars that Ian has been driving.
I think this film is great because it leaves so much unexplained but with the suggestion that there is a full backstory simply kept out of view and not info-dumped by an heroic Explainer. One tantalising possibility is that we see everything we need to understand this world in the quick panorama of Joanne’s bedroom: the E.Nesbit novels, the drawings of knights and beasts, and a photograph of happy schoolgirls: was she a rival or ex-friend of Sandy Freemark? Did she somehow summon a creature that could steal Sandy’s talent from her (actually it is never stated if Sandy was particularly good at music). We do have the clue that she likes dogs, as she has the porcelain model of one of them, so perhaps that form is only assumed in private materialisations for her. Another possibility is that Ian and his partner are really to blame for the distant accident that requires him to attend his appointment, and this is a judgement he deserves already.
Also on the new edition is the short film “The Lake”, from the same writer/director. This was already available on the earlier BFI Flipside for Short Sharp Shocks Vol.1.
In addition to all its other good qualities, this film is the first time I haven’t found Edward Woodward really annoying, and been quite happy when things go wrong for his character. Truly extraordinary. And remember: CLUNK CLICK ON EVERY TRIP.