Mr. Horatio Knibbles – Britain’s Forgotten Monster

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As a British man raised in the eighties, my childhood consisted of a seemingly endless parade of hauntological horrors which imprinted on my subconscious like a baby chick who thinks a shoe is its mum. As attested by the popularity of Scarfolk, the ill-lit dramas, sinister kids shows, and Public Information Films that made much of our formative viewing really left their psychological mark. There’s a great pantheon of unintentionally-scary figures from this period, from Noseybonk and Rainbow‘s first Bungle, to the Boy from Space, to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, each rendered in washed-out 4:3-ratio memories. No wonder Britain’s fucked; we’ve all got PTSD from the shit they were piping into our homes.

What’s the American equivalent? The Peanut Butter Solution and people being afraid of television idents? You lot have got no idea. But there’s a forgotten spectre lurking in our collective brains, whose very name may trigger screeching flashbacks; the titular star of 1971’s Children’s Film Foundation release, Mr. Horatio Knibbles. A story about a little girl’s imaginary friend, who’s a giant rabbit, I know you’re thinking you’ve seen sinister bunnies before, in Donnie Darko or Sexy Beast, or riddled with myxomatosis in Watership Down, but trust me, Knibbles is something else entirely. I first saw the 55-minute film as a child, when it regularly popped up on the Easter and Christmas TV schedules. It was one of those things that you liked because it had the giddy thrill of fear, where you were both ready to bolt for the door, and yet wanting to keep watching, to push on; to test yourself; things like Worzel Gummidge or the Child Catcher scenes in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; or these days, my own reflection.

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In stark contrast to the bleak settings of hauntology’s classics, we open on a beautiful English countryside, as a little girl, Mary, whizzes down a country lane on a chopper bike, while a boy who looks like Boris Johnson plays cricket in a huge, well-kept garden. Far removed from the working class grot of pylons on a nappy-strewn heath, this is the post-war idyll, all cream teas and being polite to nanny, under a lilting soundtrack of flutes. Even the family’s name, Bunting, evokes village fetes and three cheers for the headmaster. This all serves to make the monster at the centre all the more unsettling and unwelcome, like a great big rippling fart at a christening.

There’s a timeless quality, slightly reminiscent of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where council vans and buzzing mopeds share road space with shire-horses and 19th century wicker bathchairs, and though clearly set in the 1970s, there are elements more at home in 1910. A sense of timelessness, of having fallen into an uncertain space, was always the most disconcerting thing about the weird television of youth, when half-terms were filled with strange European imports made 20 years before, with their mismatched dubbing, and equally dreary film stock and fashions. Though as I’ve come to realise, almost anything becomes sinister when watched on an abysmal quality rip from an old VHS, unwittingly preserved off the telly decades before, like the last surviving brass rubbing of Satan’s headstone.

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Quickly, Knibbles sets up its war of the genders, with young Mary just a “stupid girl” amid the sound and fury of her brother and his rough friends, and not allowed to join their games. Her only respite is Nancy, the delicate girl next door, who’s perpetually screaming in terror or being called away by an overbearing mother to take her medicine. It’s little wonder lonely Mary wants a rabbit for her coming birthday. On the mention of the word ‘rabbit’, the bushes behind her rustle, and a strange groaning noise comes from within. This is merely the first instance of a scene that would work just as well in this children’s film as in a grotty 60’s exploitation flick about a maniac slashing up nurses. Anyway, she skips inside, with the garden gate opening and closing on its own behind her, where she’s told by mummy to take a tray of drinks out for the lads.

Once alone, poor Mary puts her head in her hands, as a big bunch of flowers gets placed on the table, with an unseen voice bidding her good afternoon. The attached note invites her to meet “a rather unusual personality,” by closing her eyes and counting to five. I know it sounds sinister, but it’s signed ‘a friend’ and not ‘The Invisible Pedo’, so it’s probably fine. She makes the count, allowing her — and us — to see him for the first time. Listen, I know everyone pretends like things are worse then they are for hits, in a landscape where reactions to everything get cranked up to 11, so clickbait headlines can shout about someone who’s just realised Picard and Professor X are the same actor and just can’t deal!! in an effort to go viral, but I need to you understand, when describing the horror of Mr. Horatio Knibbles, if anything I’m underplaying it. Look.

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As you can see, the mystery flower-giver is revealed to be the most horrifying thing ever captured on film. A giant rabbit with human proportions, he’s done up in a blue suit and red waistcoat adorned with gold pocket-watch chains, with a top hat that’s got an exit hole for his ears. The mask is a grotesque full-head fur-piece, tight fitting and with whiskers and giant eyelashes, but with limited articulation that leaves his buck-toothed mouth to yammer up and down in rough time to the plummy dialogue. Following that trope of countryside animals being posh, he’s got the voice of a middle-aged man; of a Tory MP; and no matter his delightful hi-jinx with Mary, there’s a sense that if a black family moved in next door, he’d have strong opinions about it.

Knibbles tells Mary he’s been watching her for a while, which is how he knew to pick her favourite flowers. “My favourite flower,” he says, doubled over in hysterics, “is the cauliflower!” When Mary’s mum returns, it’s established only Mary can see him, though the things he picks up are seen ‘floating’ through the air, presumably causing mummy to wonder if an unspoken history of family schizophrenia is starting to kick in, as her daughter talks to an imaginary friend, while a glass of squash drinks itself. These rules are very inconsistent, and though adults will see, for example, a plate of sandwiches floating through the air, they don’t see his clothes, like you would the invisible man’s bandages. But at least he’s not running round with his rabbit-dick flapping. Incidentally, like Al from Quantum Leap, Knibbles can be seen by dogs.

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So what are we dealing with here? Is he Mary’s Tyler Durden; a manifestation of her loneliness, allowing her to act out all the things deemed unbefitting of a mere girl? Knibbles’ cheeky behaviour does mostly consist of booting doubting family members up the arse. Or, as hinted by his admission he’s been watching her for a long time, is this some ancient trickster God; a Pan of the nearby woods? Or is he simply the imaginary friend he’s accused of being throughout the film? It’s not uncommon for young children who’re lacking in willing playmates to conjuror one up. As an only child myself, I had a couple of imaginary friends. There was Great Uncle Bulgaria from The Wombles, and at night time, the Skeleton with Neil-Hair; a talking skeleton that lived behind my bed, who had long, straight hair like Neil from The Young Ones, and would clamber out from the headboard to talk to/scare me after the light went out.

But like those clickbait headlines, the easiest and lamest cliché when discussing old kids shows is the suggestion that, beneath the innocence, lurks a now-obviously sleazy subtext. “The Magic Roundabout were all on drugs!! Mr. Benn was a nonce! Little Ted off Playschool got that name cos of his micropenis!” While I really hate that sixth form common room shit, and though I’m sure the makers had nothing in mind but the earnestly telling of a charming little tale, there’s no way around how strongly Mr. Horatio Knibbles plays like a PSA on the dangers of child predators.

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Mary and Knibbles become fast friends, as he helps her ‘bowl’ her brother out at cricket, by invisibly walking the ball down to the stumps, before it’s time for him to go home. He invites her to write him any time, at his pleasingly League of Gentlemen address of Rhododendron Mansion, The Woods, Local. Posted through the hollow tree, with nuts as payment for the squirrels who act as postmen, she invites him round to play again. This time, she demands he show himself to Nancy, which he agrees, but only if they do it in the greenhouse. I was worried a Scum-like scenario was in the offing, but he just wanted to scoff all the veg. As soon as she sees him, Nancy’s reaction is to scream like she’s being murdered and run for her life.

Let’s look at this from the parents’ point of view. Their little girl’s been given a bunch of flowers by a mysterious stranger, and the dad’s so worried, he’s promising not to tell anyone if she’ll only fess up to where they really came from. And now there’s screaming, while they find mummy’s diamond ring is missing, implying that Knibbles has been using his invisibility to rifle through their jewellery, and most likely, underwear drawers. I know this is an innocent tale, but my God, the dark places you could take it with minimal change. I was half expecting the rabbit to dive across the room and switch off a radio midway through a newsflash about an escaped child murderer from the local asylum, who hopped the wall and slaughtered the owner of a nearby fancy dress shop. Or for Mary, innocently twirling her heels into the rug, to announce “I swear it, daddy, it was Mr. Horatio Knibbles what burned my brother in his bed!

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Nancy’s mother, furious a giant rabbit has “given my Nancy hysterics” blames it on too much imagination. “Syrup of figs,” she says, “that’s the only cure!” A cure for constipation, usually, so when she says imagination, does she mean… poo? I’m regular as clockwork, but could any eggbound readers let me know if they hallucinated giant posh rabbits before finally squeezing out a log? Sent to bed and grounded for lying/stealing, Mary announces to her teddy that she’s done with grown-ups, and come first light, “we’ll run away and live with Mr. Knibbles!” Filling the bed with a fake dummy like they did in Alcatraz, she makes her escape, merrily skipping through fields, until being snatched out of frame by a furious farmer, in a legitimate jump scare. Shown in bulging-eyed close-up, in a modern remake, he’d definitely be played by Steve Pemberton, but here, is the ace Freddie Jones from The Elephant Man. Ludicrously angry, he sends her on her way, effectively threatening to blow her head off with a shotgun for trespassing.

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At Rhododendron Mansion, Mary’s greeted by Knibbles in his PJs, who informs her she can’t move in, as “it’s a bachelor establishment, you see.” Makes sense that, as a rabbit, Horatio Knibbles fucks. But he will at least entertain her for the day, taking her off for a riverside breakfast of raw turnips on a picnic blanket, and a kipper he reels in himself. However, the farmer, livid at catching Mary poaching, stalks towards her with his gun like Tony Martin. The tension of “is a child gonna get shot in this kids film?” deflates with invisible slapstick hijinx, with the farmer dizzily turning round in circles as Knibbles taps him on the shoulder; the best way to deal with an armed maniac who’s legally entitled to shoot you. Knibbles disarms him, turning the gun on the farmer, which he sees floating at his face, before a truly bonkers second of screentime where he pistol-whips the farmer in the gut, causing him to sit on the bonfire as the gun goes off, blowing Knibbles’ hat clean off his head, and the farmer to run off with his arse on fire.

There’s a scene where Knibbles reveals himself to a friendly policeman, before magicking up a boat, and heading downriver to raid the nest of Mags the Pie; a magpie who’s the real culprit behind the stolen jewellery. Meanwhile, Mary’s finally discovered to be missing, as her parents take to the woods, but give up the search almost immediately. Mary returns soon enough, but when she reveals the stolen loot, sticking to the story that a bird did it, her parents are so enraged, they refuse to even speak to her. “You worry us to death and then come back with another pack of fibs!” Then they see Maggie the Magpie eyeing up a broach from the windowsill and suddenly realise it was true, rushing Mary with hugs.

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However, they’re still unsettled by Knibbles, the stranger who lives in the woods, buys their daughter flowers, and lures her from her bed for days at a time. We finally get to Chekhov’s Birthday Party, where it’s all floating plates of raw parsnips and Nancy’s mum getting hoofed up the arse, plus Tom lobbing a spoonful of chocolate blancmange at Knibbles; a sight which will give many unfortunate flashbacks to Two Girls, One Cup.

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There’s a Chinese Whisper down the line of kids of “Mary’s got an invisible rabbit,” as everyone watches poor, crazy Mary having a conversation with an empty chair. Christ, was that who Clint Eastwood was talking to at the RNC? Of particular note in this scene is the most incredibly weird line reading from a child actor. The fuck is in that trifle?

All puffed up from gorging himself, Knibbles takes a nap in the Bunting’s water butt, which was alluded to earlier as in need of replacing. Of course the water butt removal men show up (one of them Roy Barraclough), and Knibbles gets loaded onto the back of a truck and taken away. He rocks himself free, kicking his feet out of the bottom, as onlookers watch a floating barrel run about, and returns to the party. Daddy refuses to crack it open, until Knibbles promises to show himself if he’s freed, finally revealing his horrifying visage to the assembled crowd — arse-first, mind, as he backs out of the barrel. He shakes Daddy’s hand, before giving Mary her present, which is an actual, normal rabbit, and then announces he’s going on a trip to Australia for a while, where presumably he went onto rebrand himself as Mr. Cruel. In one last act of depravity, lest anyone in that garden get another wink of sleep ever again, he exits with a threat of “I’ll be back soooon!” Shitting hell, I hope not.

One of the most frightening totems of my childhood, the scarifying power of Mr. Horatio Knibbles hasn’t dulled over time. The toothy nature of Mary reminds me so much of the girls at the centre of the Enfield Poltergeist, especially with invisible objects flying around, and I was waiting for Mummy to catch Mary ‘doing’ Knibbles’ voice, and floating across the bed inside his arms. Aside from the sinister behaviour of this unseen friend beguiling a lonely child from her home, it’s just such a horrible costume. If you woke in the night to see someone dressed like that at the end of your bed, you’d never recover, and anyone digging its moth-eaten remains out of storage today could make an incredible horror with it. Even an edit that swapped out the playful score for discordant synth would instantly up the certificate from U to an 18.

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I don’t know where the rights are these days, but I’ve big plans for him in my eventual British hauntology cinematic universe, featuring reboots of Noseybonk, Scary First Bungle, and the rabbit himself. No way is my generation the only one that’s having to suffer through our cream tea Pennywise. On second thoughts, after what the furries did to Tony the Tiger’s Twitter account, it’s probably best to keep Horatio Knibbles where he belongs; locked away in our nightmares.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on February 17, 2019.

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