Okay I’ll admit it. When it comes to being spooked I’m a little old fashioned. With the onset of Autumn, I dust off a number of old books that sit my shelves throughout spring and summer and, whenever I have 5 mins to myself, will read ghost stories. Short or long, it doesn’t matter. Even better if it’s by an open fire.
There’s something about M R James, the classic ghost story writer, probably the most famous, that just conjures dread in his numerous short stories. They range from unhinged to terrifying and anything in between. As a Christmas treat in the late 1960s and 70s, the BBC produced adaptations of these tales (under the loose series title of Ghost Stories for Christmas) based in the works of MR James, broadcasting to terrified viewers each Christmas Eve. Auntie then briefly revived the tradition between 2005 and 2010. Imagine my delight at seeing that the BFI has decided to release all 12 dramas in a boxset, due for release later this month (nicely timed for Halloween).
These adaptations, which have a subtlety and style all of their own, have been a major influence on many contemporary British horror film makers and have garnered a reputation as being some of the most sought after British TV titles of all time by their legions of eager fans. They are:
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968); The Stalls of Barchester (1971); A Warning to the Curious (1972); Lost Hearts (1973);The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974); The Ash Tree (1975); The Signalman (1976); Stigma (1977); The Ice House (1978); A View from a Hill (2005); Number 13 (2006); and Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010)
I’d like to draw your attention to 3 of these productions, which stand out over all the others:
1) Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), the original and best adaptation, starring Sir Michael Horden and Directed by Jonathon Miller is a masterpiece of the spooky kind. With sparse dialogue, and some breathtaking black and white photography on the shores of East Anglia, all anchored by a wonderfully bumbling and eccentric turn by Horden, this is hands down one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen. In truth, not a lot happens, but the atmosphere of dread is so well lifted from the original story that it permeates the whole production, until the numbing last few minutes. I guarantee you that, after the numerous shots of the lead character walking on lonely beaches in winter, you’ll begin to feel his very sense of not being alone. There is something just odd about what is following him….
2) A Warning to the Curious (1972), starring Peter Vaughan is a more conventionally recounted and scripted story. Loosely following an amateur archaeologist who rather foolishly removes an ancient crown from a Saxon burial ground, that local legend says is protected by a vengeful spirit, this production has two of the most terrifying and heart-stopping moments I have seen in film. I couldn’t shake its mournful effect for days.
3) The Signalman (1976), starring Denholm Elliot is as haunting a 60 mins as you will ever see. Low key, slow moving, wonderfully acted and with an unparalled atmosphere of desperate melancholy. This story was adapted from an original short by Charles Dickens and builds to a devastating climax.
The remaining productions range in quality, but are all unique in atmosphere. Check out the bizarre and downright weird Lost Hearts (1973), and the fantastic A View from a Hill (2005) as other highlights.
The original version of O Whistle and I’ll Come to You (it was remade in 2010 with John Hurt) remains my absolute favourite. For an idea of its unsettling atmosphere, click on the following link, and watch from 0:58 to 3:13:
It’s fantastic that finally, all of these are being made available, and I would urge film fans of any genre, to get a hold of the boxset as quickly as possible (Official release date is Monday 29th October). This is a masterclass in old fashioned scares.
Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja eat your hearts out.