A woman arrives on this remote Scottish island by boat - but she will never leave. Two of the inhabitants are the chemist Fiona Paterson (Celia Imrie) who is the girlfriend of the English dentist Michael Gaffikin (James Warwick), a fairly new arrival to the place, although he's doing his best to blend in. He stops by Fiona's shop, where she also sells self-drawn maps, to see if she's happy to go to dinner with him tonight, and she is, but once he leaves for golf a Colonel (Jonathan Newth) drops in for a map, claiming to be a holidaymaker. Does he have anything to do with the dead body Michael finds on the course?
The Nightmare Man had a decent pedigree, having been brought to the television screen by two Doctor Who veterans, director Douglas Camfield and writer Robert Holmes, here adapting David Wiltshire's novel. Holmes in particular was regarded as one of the finest scribes ever to pen scripts for the famous series, and he carried over that renown to make a four parter here that gripped the nation on Friday nights. The BBC viewers' feedback programme Points of View was especially excited by the prospect of each next episode, and it gave many of the audience the chills, both young and old, in spite of not being especially explicit in its violence, showing that atmosphere could be just as effective as shock moments.
Watching it now the serial may seem on the anaemic side, as it took as its template not only the science fiction horror style of mid to late seventies Doctor Who, but also the then-popular slasher movie craze in cinemas, here translated to the BBC audience. That meant the killer stalked his victims through the foggy landscape and we were offered a point of view camera shot, complete with blood red filter, as he crept up on the hapless casualties, a cliché even then but an effective one. There was a small amount of blood, but bearing in mind this was broadcast before the nine o'clock watershed they couldn't go overboard with dismembered bodies, so much of the carnage was related through dialogue and the odd glimpse of gore.
Although this was actuallly filmed in Cornwall, there were a few Scottish stalwarts in the cast to add authenticity to where this was intended to be taking place. Most notably there were the two police officers investigating, Inspector Inskip (Maurice Roëves) and his second in command, Sergeant Carch (James Cosmo), making a fine double act as they treated the assignment with a mixture of concern, bafflement and even good humour. The Colonel hung around in the background till the final episode (there were four), but anyone with a familiarity with this type of thing would recognise that there was more to him than he was letting on - he certainly wasn't there for a holiday.
The suspense built nicely, with each instalment leading up to a climax where the killer had struck again. But what was he? Gaffikin is not short of possible explanations, from a genetic experiment gone wrong to your actual alien monster, but he's not quite right on either count. The sequences where the marauding went on were actualy implemented fairly sparingly, but such parts as the attack on the coastguard station not only reminded you of such Doctor Who tales as The Horror of Fang Rock, but real life mysteries like the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse crew on Flannan Isle. The sense of creating an archetypal creature shocker was to the series' benefit, and it undoubtedly was a success for 1981 viewers, but now modern audiences may find it unnecessarily talky, markedly in that last episode where we have to get the whole, involved explanation after three previous half hours of tension-making. However, if you were attuned to vintage TV of this variety, it was a professionally crafted, lightly enjoyable effort.