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This BFI boxset is £37 on amazon.
Back in the 1970s, when the BBC was still good, they did annual 'ghost stories for Christmas', mostly adaptations of MR James stories, which provided good, old-fashioned scares for the festive season. The BFI released a few of these on DVD about ten years ago, but they were overpriced and you only got one episode per DVD.
Now, though, they've released the lot - 12 episodes in total over five disks. This is a most welcome development. And while you can buy each of the disks separately, a better deal is to buy the complete collection.
Generally speaking these are very well made - most of them were directed by the same person, Lawrence Gordon Clark, so they maintain a remarkably consistent tone. They're very nicely done, and most the kind of thing the BBC did extremely well - literary adaptations, but with the odd scary moment. While none of them have anything too horrid in them, they're good for a few - often genuinely scary - frights, and they certainly aren't afraid to give us nasty endings.
As a general rule, the picture quality on these isn't brilliant. They're filmed on grainy old BBC film stock, which isn't a problem for me, but for people used to glossier stuff it might be a distraction. Unfortunately, though, although these are not in terrible condition, there is quite a lot of visible damage to some of the films here, especially the 60s version of Whistle and I'll Come To You - this is annoying as the earlier BFI release of this particular film looked better. No matter. It's nice to have them all in print, anyway. A couple of decent booklets with the set explain a bit about the history of the series.
**Disk 1: Whistle and I'll Come To You**
This disk contains the most famous of the films, and its modern remake.
Probably the most celebrated of the films, this wasn't part of the Christmas series - it was shown as part of an arts programme, Omnibus. It's an adaptation of the MR James story by clever-pants director Jonathan Miller, who had previously made a lovely but slightly pretentious version of Alice in Wonderland for the BBC. Here, he recasts the story as a meditation on the effects of the solitary, academic life on the male psyche, leaving it ambiguous as to whether the ghostly nastiness really happens, or whether it all takes place in the mind of Professor Parkin, the hero.
In classic MR James fashion, Parkin heads to Norfolk for a holiday, finds an old whistle poking out of a grave, blows it, thereby summoning a supernatural guardian that pursues him with unstoppable, single-minded malice. Except it might all be in his head.
This really is tremendously good. The wind-battered locations are memorable, and it's very nicely photographed for TV. The scary bits are properly scary, especially the really creepy dream Parkin has, which make exceptionally good use of sound. Some of the visual effects leave a little to be desired, but they still have an uncanny little frisson.
The best thing about it, though, is Michael Hordern as Parkin. He is magnificent, always muttering to himself, horribly awkward around other people, repeating phrases he overhears, and generally acting like a man who has spent too much time by himself. He's also smugly rationalistic - when asked if he believes in ghosts, he pedantically dissects the question and doesn't even bother to answer. Characters like that are always heading for a fall in horror films.
Whistle and I'll Come To You is easily the best of the films in the set. Partly it's Hordern, partly it's the black and white film stock, which gives it a more timeless feel than the 1970s films, and mainly because it is, for the relevant few moments, by far the scariest. It questions the nature of the story without losing the good, honest scares, and is one of my favourite things the BBC made in the 1960s.
The idea of the BBC doing more of these ghost stories for Christmas has always been appealing, and there really doesn't seem to be any reason why they shouldn't - they're not expensive or controversial. Unfortunately, when they try, they've just not the same. This was quite a prestigious BBC2 event, with a top notch cast. Bizarrely, though, instead of trying to adapt James's story, they effectively remade the earlier version, but tried to modern it up. The Miller version strays from the story, but in intelligent ways that comment on it, and on its author. This seems to change the story just for the sake of it, perhaps worried that uncool things like character development or fidelity to the original are for squares, daddio. This is the 21st Century Beeb, after all.
Anyway, this time Parkin is an astronomer whose wife has just been committed to a care home (she appears to suffer from Alzheimers). He visits one of their old haunts, a hotel in Norfolk; discovers an ancient ring; and gets accosted by some or other force in his hotel room. As before, it might all be in his head.
The earlier version managed to avoid being pretentious simply by having Hordern give such a fantastic semi-comic impersonation of academic unworldliness. This doesn't pull off the same trick, and feels too clever by half. It's clearly included scenes to evoke the older version rather than for any concrete reason (such as Parkin asking for his suitcases to be attended to, or a scene where he talks about ghosts). It seems wilfully perverse to have more female speaking parts than male in an MR James adaptation (James hardly ever put women in his stories, probably because he didn't know any in real life); good actresses like Lesley Sharp and Sophie Thompson are rather wasted in dull roles.
It's not even terribly scary, although it does have one or two good moments. The figure on the beach is authentically Jamesian, and effective. The banging door is less authentic, but still scary at first. The use of sound is nice throughout. But turning James's story into a meditation on loneliness and loss seems a bit of a betrayal of the source, and this is disappointing overall.
The extras on this disk are more or less the same as on the BFI's older release of the 1968 version - there's nothing about the new version. There's a very, very short interview with Jonathan Miller, and horror writer Ramsey Campbell does a decent introduction let down by his lack of charisma and stilted reading style. He also reads out one of his own stories, which isn't bad, but again suffers from his delivery.
**Disks 2 and 3: The 1970s MR James adaptations**
This is where the Ghost Stories for Christmas series really begins. The first two are 45/50 minutes, while the later ones are generally about half an hour each. All these episodes have a short (ten-minute) introduction from the director. These are pretty interesting, and just the right length.
***The Stalls of Barchester (1971)***
The first is one of the best. Clive Swift plays a man cataloguing a cathedral's library, and he stumbles across the diary of a former Archdeacon (Robert Hardy). Following the suspicious death of the previous, elderly Archdeacon, the newly installed younger man becomes the victim of a creepy haunting.
This is beautifully atmospheric, and features visual motifs that crop up in several of the stories, including church architecture, gargoyles and libraries. The story is beefed up just enough to fill the timeslot without adding anything silly to the original. Robert Hardy is surprisingly good - he was terribly prone to overacting, but here restrains himself and gives a very effective performance as a man trying desperately to ignore the scary stuff happening around his ears.
The haunting is mostly conveyed by sinister noises - whisperings and cat mewls - which are usually effective. There are also a couple of very good visual scares. The main problem with this is that it prolongs things for five minutes after the story has ended to explain a few details that don't need explaining.
***A Warning to the Curious (1972***
Another classic, this has a treasure hunter in Norfolk dig up an ancient crown and - wouldn't you know it - unleash a vengeful phantom that chases him around in a scarily implacable way. The phantom is really very basic - it's just a bloke in a long black coat and a hat - but somehow it's immensely frightening. The relentlessness of it is impressive, and one scene in a dark bedroom really is excellent. James's ghosts are scary precisely because they're so physical, and this one really emphasises that. You sure as hell wouldn't want him catching up with you.
Clive Swift returns from the first one, but the star here is Peter Vaughn as the lower middle-class archaeologist. The supporting cast are all splendid, and it holds its mood very effectively, using the forbidding Norfolk landscape very well indeed.
The DVD with these two films also includes as an extra Christopher Lee reading both of the stories in character as MR James. These were filmed for BBC Scotland in the 2000. As you might imagine, Lee is well suited to this kind of thing, but they'd have been a lot better with the rather tepid visuals (which include people pretending to be scared by the stories and lots of flickering candles). These are best approached by just closing your eyes and treating them as talking books.
***Lost Hearts (1973***
This is a great story, in which a 19th century orphan, Stephen, is adopted by his dodgy cousin. The cousin, it seems, has previously adopted two other orphans, both of whom vanished under mysterious circumstances. Stephen soon starts to see their ghosts.
It's a fab story to read, but the execution of the scary sequences in the TV version is flawed. We get to see the ghosts for too long, and their silly long fingernails and supposedly spooky walk just make them seem mundane. This is a real pity, because there are a couple of very effective moments when they just appear out of nowhere. Very atmospheric, and typically well made, this would have scared me witless when I was a kid, but now feels like it wastes its opportunities.
One thing it does have in its favour, though, is an amazing performance by Joseph O'Conor as Mr Abney, the sinister cousin. His lascivious delight in Stephen's presence is profoundly sinister, seeming more like paedophile lust than anything more magical. Whether this was intentional, it makes his performance, which might otherwise be a bit too comical, seem a lot creepier than you'd expect.
***The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)***
In this one a priest and student search for treasure hidden in a cathedral by a medieval warlock. This has what is probably the single best scare of any of these episodes, which although not quite as in the original story, is a brilliantly effective little moment.
It takes its sweet time getting there, though! First of all we see the main character, Justin, disrupting a séance, an event which doesn't help the plot at all, and merely sets the guy up as the kind of proto-Dawkinsian sceptic who is heading for a nasty shock when he finds out ghosts are real. This is followed by a sequence that seems to last forever in which Justin and his young assistant have to decipher a code they find in a stained glass window. It's as exciting as watching someone do a cryptic crossword. But when it finally gets to the scares, it really delivers, and it also has a fantastic ending. Michael Byrne is great as the rationalist treasure hunter who bites off more than he can chew.
***The Ash Tree (1975)***
This is a tad disappointing, as I love the story it's based on. Sir Richard (18th century nobleman) inherits a mansion, but his ancestor, Sir Matthew, died there under very mysterious circumstances after being cursed by a witch. A large ash tree seems to hold all the answers.
This is scripted by David Rudkin, a playwright who was responsible for the horrific play Afore Night Come and the legendary, maddening-but-interesting TV play Penda's Fen. He turns James's story into a tale of sexual neurosis leading to abuse of power, as Sir Matthew's persecution of the witch seems motivated entirely by his guilt at lusting after her. The haunting scenes, as Sir Richard experiences snippets of Sir Matthew's downfall, are well done, with past and present becoming confused.
Unfortunately, the episode has to show its hand by revealing the monster to us. The ash tree is the source of creepy noises. But it's also home to some monsters, and while they're wisely kept in the shadows as much as possible, we see more than enough of them to break the mood. The creatures as described by MR James are memorably horrible; unfortunately the BBC's special effects department wasn't up to the challenge of recreating them, which is a pity.
Edward Petherbridge is good as Sir Richard and Sit Matthew, and Lalla Ward, later Romana in Doctor Who, plays his fiancée. Surprisingly, there are naked boobs in this one (not Lalla Ward's, sadly); these films always felt a bit too genteel for that kind of thing. MR James certainly wouldn't have understood the need for boobs; this film is a bit saucy for him (he was a lifelong bachelor; he may not even have known what women looked like naked). It's a thoughtful adaptation, though, expanding on the original in clever ways, and if not for the special effects at the end, would be much better.
**Disk 4: The non-James ones**
The last three ghost stories abandoned MR James. While the first was an adaptation of a classic ghostly tale, the last two were original stories. Again, these have introductions by the director, apart from the last one, which was made by someone else.
***The Signalman (1976)***
This is adapted by Andrew Davies from a story by Charles Dickens. The story is rather disappointing, but this film is excellent. A traveller befriends a paranoid, lonely signalman who works on a bit of train line that seems unusually prone to fatal accidents. He is bothered by a spectre that seems to warn him of impending disaster - but only when it is too late for him to do anything about it.
There are a couple of fantastic scare moments, but this succeeds more because it sustains a mood of indefinable wrongness throughout. It builds a sense of dread superbly. Denholm Elliot is fantastic as the signalman, although Bernard Lloyd as the traveller is a little too plummy of voice. He sounds like Simon Callow. It's a good, early example of a haunting affecting state-of-the-art technology - telegraph wires and railway signalling equipment - and the story was written by Dickens after he himself had been nearly killed in a train crash.
This one was repeated sometime in the early 90s - I saw it then, aged maybe 17, and it scared the hell out of me. It holds up very well, and might be the best of the episodes, apart from the original Whistle And I'll Come To You.
This is the most gruesome of all of the Ghost Stories, but has the weird problem of not having any ghosts in it.
At a country cottage, the owner has a large stone removed from the garden. The presence of nearby obelisks suggests that you probably don't want to be messing with old rocks in a place like this, but no one tries to stop him. His wife is buffeted by mysterious wind when the stone is lifted, and later in the evening she starts to bleed from her chest.
This is a fairly effective horror story, as the stigmata that afflicts the wife is a nasty enough to work. It would have made a good episode in a horror anthology series. But it really doesn't feel like it belongs in the Ghost Stories series. The modern-day setting is jarring after the other episodes, as is the use of the Rolling Stones' Mother's Little Helper in one scene. It's also very bloody, and features a lengthy scene of female nudity (albeit not in the salacious way The Ash tree did).
If it works, it mainly does so because Kate Binchy, as the afflicted woman, manages to infuse her performance with genuine fear and desperation. But it flies by at half an hour, and we don't have time to get to know the characters well enough to have much invested in their fate. It earns brownie points for not taking the obvious route - the couple's teenage daughter would usually be expected to be the focus of any supernatural revenge, but she's left alone. And it's well directed, as ever. But it doesn't feel like it belongs in the same series as the earlier stories.
***The Ice House (1978)***
The same can be said of The Ice House, the last of the 1970s episodes. This one is a pretentious story of very slightly sinister goings on at an exclusive health spa. It's run by a creepily friendly brother and sister who might be manifestations of flowers on a weird vine, and might also be lovers. The story doesn't spell out what's going on, which makes it difficult to care. A bit of ambiguity can work wonders, but only if the story is compelling enough to carry it off.
The dialogue for the brother and sister is too arch and twee, and it tries a little too hard to be clever. All this would be OK if it was actually scary, but unfortunately it isn't. The best of the older episodes are delightfully creepy and can make you jump, while still having the guts to be properly nasty. The Ice House is a bit sinister, but only if you're not too demanding. It isn't a worthy end to the series.
**Disk 5: The modern ones**
Two more MR James adaptations were made for BBC4 in 2005 and 2006, a doomed attempt to revive the series. They're not particularly good, and I wonder why it was thought worth releasing them.
***The View From The Hill (2005)***
This one has a young archaeologist getting hold of some haunted binoculars that let him see things from the past - an old church, mostly. But the spirits of the dead aren't too happy with him, for some reason, and he's soon out of his depth.
It isn't terribly scary, although it has one good moment (which is ruined by annoying modern editing). At least the characters are reasonably engaging, and the low budget isn't so obvious as in the next one. It's not the most obviously filmic story to pick, but there's something quite menacing about the idea - James was good at finding ways to make everyday objects scary. You feel that with a few tweaks, and with the feeling that the people making it really cared about their material, this could have been substantially better than it is.
***Number 13 (2006)***
This is a big disappointment, as the original story is one of my favourites. This film relocates it from Denmark to East Anglia, and unfortunately messes it up by having it take place in a hotel with corridors that are completely the wrong shape for the haunting to work. The hotel has no room 13 by day, but when night falls a number 13 mysteriously appears. The unseen occupant of the ghostly room makes scary noises, and is probably the ghost of a Civil War-era sorcerer.
The problem is, that the hauntings are thoroughly drab. It's just a parade of generic spooky stuff - knockings, a child's laugh, a shadow on a wall. James gave us genuinely uncanny images in the story, especially the crazily dancing shadow on the wall. That kind of inventiveness just isn't present. The film tries to make the story more Jamesian by having the protagonist bring it on himself through his investigations, but makes it far less faithful by having dull apparitions. The final manifestation owes more to Ghostwatch than anything in James, and is disappointingly bathetic. It has good performances, especially from Greg Wise in the lead, but is otherwise not really worthwhile.
The only extra is Christopher Lee again, reading Number 13. The set doesn't include the fourth story Lee recorded for the series, The Ash Tree, which is a shame. That might have added a little value to this final MR James disk, which I can't see selling too well by itself.
Having watched all these, I certainly feel like I've been through the ghostly wringer. Five of the films - Whistle, Barchester, Warning, Abbot Thomas and The Signalman - are excellent; three others - Lost Hearts, The Ash Tree and Stigma - are interesting but flawed, and only one - The Ice House - is really disappointing. The 21st century episodes are weak, and needn't have been included really. But this is well worth getting hold of at the price, and provides good, spooky fun for when the nights draw in.