173min excl. bonus (length)
20 November 2023 (released)
19 November 2023
Broadcasting BBC’s cherished ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ episodes over the Yuletide season has, over the decades, become a tradition…and a nice one as well, I may add! What could be nicer than getting cosy in your own four walls, wrapped up in a blanket, a warming glass of port in your hand while enjoying some ghostly chills? All those who fondly remember the original GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS series from the 1970s can rejoice thanks to BFI Film: the label has just released their Volume 2 Limited Edition box set, containing 3 Blu-ray discs featuring classic adaptations of M. R. James stories, plus two adaptations from 2005 and 2007. Furthermore, we are treated to two stories penned by contemporary writers, as well as the haunting Charles Dickens adaptation ‘The Signalman’ from 1976.
Disc 1 kicks off in good old-fashioned mode with THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS from 1974, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark (loosely adapted from a story by M. R. James). Whilst James’ original story is set in Germany, here the action takes place in the Somerset of 1859, where the rational thinking Reverend Justin Somerton (Michael Bryant), an academic who specialises in medieval history, exposes two fraudulent mediums with the help of his young aristocratic protégé, Lord Peter Datterling (Paul Lavers). The fake mediums in questions are Mr. and Mrs. Tyson (Frank Mills and Sheila Dunn) who try to convince the good Reverend Somerton that they will be able to communicate with the recently deceased husband of Peter’s mother, but Somerton sees right through them. While this opening sequence might be somewhat amusing, things soon get a lot eerier… namely when Somerton and Lord Peter conduct some research into the history of an old local monastery. According to legend, a cache of gold is said to have been hidden by a certain Abbot Thomas, a disgraced 16th century churchman and alchemist rumoured to have been in league with the Devil. Trying to decipher clues which might lead them to the treasure, the two men visit the monastery’s church and indeed, there they discover some hidden messages in one of the stained-glass windows. In his quest to find the treasure, Somerton sets off on his own and soon comes to regret it… As is usually case with M. R. James stories.
The second story is the unsettling M. R. James story THE ASH TREE from 1975 (Dir: L. G. Clark) and it takes us to early 18th century Suffolk (although the film was shot in Cornwall). For this adaptation, Edward Petherbridge takes on a dual role, namely that of youngish aristocrat Sir Richard, as well as the part of his 17th century uncle Sir Matthew, a zealot who, together with the other Puritan-clad men of his village, took great pride in exposing poor, unfortunate women, especially those who dabbled in herbal remedies, as witches… such as Anne Mothersole (Barbara Ewing). Back in the present, Sir Richard is delighted to have inherited his large family estate in Castringham Hall from his two deceased and childless uncles, including the aforementioned Sir Matthew. Adamant not to step into his uncles’ footsteps, Sir Richard looks forward to one day raising a family with his fiancée, Lady Augusta (Lalla Ward). Soon though, Sir Richard experiences disturbing visions and suffers sleepless nights thanks to some mysterious infantile noises seemingly coming from an ash tree outside his bedroom window. This no doubt has the creepiest conclusion of all M. R. James stories – arachnophobes, beware!
Disc 2 offers the terrific (and terrifying) adaptation of Charles Dickens’ THE SIGNALMAN from 1976, also directed by L. G. Clark. Somewhere in rural England at the beginning of the 19th century, a man (Bernard Lloyd), only referred to as the Traveller, is standing on the slope of a hill, observing a signalman (Denholm Elliott) below by the train track in a railway cutting. Despite the Traveller waving and greeting the signalman in a friendly manner (shielding his face from the sun with one arm), the solitary figure below seems almost afraid of the stranger, for no apparent reason. It’s only after the Traveller climbs down the slope and reassures him that he means no harm that the signalman invites him into his signal box hut for a cup of tea. A polite conversation ensues, during which the signalman seems to be distracted by an odd, high-pitched vibration of his signal bell, alas, only he seems to hear it. Startled, the Traveller suggests that while an accident in the tunnel might be an awful thing, he’s sure nothing bad could possibly happen, seeing how the signalman seems to spend his life in the signal box hut. Aware of the humdrum nature of his job, the signalman remarks that he deserves his boring job on account of having wasted any chances of academic opportunities when he was young. The Traveller leaves and accepts the signalman’s invitation to come visit him the next day, however, he must promise not to call him from the slope again, and certainly not with the words "Helloa. Below There, Look Out, Look Out!" When the Traveller returns the following day, he can’t help noticing that the signalman appears nervous again due to another high-pitched vibration of the signal bell and once again, only he seems to hear it. Eventually, the signalman reveals the reason for his increasing nervousness: some time ago, a spectre-like figure stood at the entrance of the tunnel, covering his face with his dark cloak and waving with one hand while shouting "Below There, Look Out, Look Out!" The spectre appeared twice and every time, a train disaster occurred inside the tunnel. Now that the signalman seems to hear strange vibrations from his signal bell again, could it be a sign of some terrible foreboding? Both Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd are terrific in their interaction, with the actual spectre sequence the most horrifying part of the film!
STIGMA (1977) was the last ghost film adaptation which L. G. Clark directed, though the story itself was penned by Clive Exton and is set in modern times (the 1970s). Here, the plot revolves around a family who have moved into a quaint cottage in the countryside. The family is composed of mother Katharine (Kate Binchy), father Peter (Peter Bowles) and their teenage daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon). The new home happens to be situated near an ancient megalithic stone circle and as it so happens, one of the large and very heavy stones is in the garden. Katharine and Peter arrange for two workmen (Christopher Blake and John Judd) to lift the stone with special equipment, initially without any success. When they finally manage to lift the stone slightly, an invisible ancient curse is unleashed and a short while after, Katherine begins to bleed from different parts of her body although no wounds are visible. When the stone is moved completely, the two workmen discover a female skeleton with several knives inside the bones. They conclude (and what would they know?) that it must be the remains of a woman who, back in pagan times, was put to death by ritual execution - using knives thrust into parts of her body which seem to coincide with the areas from which Katherine is bleeding. The conclusion is both shocking and unexpected, although a bit more background info regarding the skeleton wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Disc 3 features THE ICE HOUSE from 1978, directed by Derek Lister and adapted from a story by John Bowen. To put it upfront, it’s not particularly eerie and the story, set in modern times, offers no real explanation while the overall slow pace doesn’t exactly help matters. After separating from his wife, middle-aged Paul (John Stride) takes a room in a residential health spa in the country, which is run by two young siblings, Jessica (Elizabeth Romilly) and Clovis (Geoffrey Burridge). Not only is the siblings’ behaviour strange but the entire atmosphere in the spa seems odd. What effect do the strange flowers growing near the old ice house in the estate have? Is there more than just ice in the ice house and why do the siblings keep an ice house in the first place, seeing how the residential spa has several fridges and freezers? And why are the sudden holes in the window in Ben’s room shaped like the strange flowers? It sounds intriguing though unfortunately, nothing really adds up to anything much in the end. A wasted opportunity!
Thankfully, two excellent M. R. James adaptations are thrown in on Disc 3 – god knows why they are ‘hidden’ among the bonus material. First up is A VIEW FROM A HILL from 2005 (Dir: Luke Watson) in which historian Dr. Fanshawe (Mark Letheren) has been commissioned to travel to the rural home of Squire Richards (Pip Torrens) in order to catalogue and value the Squire’s archaeological collection which his host plans on selling. En route to the Squire’s country home, Fanshawe’s bag falls off his bicycle, resulting in his binoculars getting broken. Upon arrival, the Squire lends him a pair of his binoculars. Attempting to entertain his guest, Squire Richards invites Fanshawe for a walk through the countryside when something strange occurs: whenever Fanshawe looks through his borrowed binoculars, he can see things that his host cannot. That same evening, Fanshawe explores the area by himself and walks to a spot called Gallows Hill when he hears strange noises nearby the spot where the old gallows once stood. Unnerved by the possibility that he might be watched by someone or something, Fanshaw returns back to his guest room when Patten (David Burke), the Squires butler and general dogsbody, reveals a sinister story to Fanshawe about a local clockmaker called Baxter whose hobbies involved digging up the bones of the hanged man and bewitching his pair of binoculars… Could it be that these are the same ones which Fanshawe borrowed? You bet! This is really nerve-racking and the tension builds up by the minute!
On a par is NUMBER 13 from 2006 (Dir: Pier Wilkie), which stars Greg Wise as Professor Anderson, a no-nonsense academic who takes a room in an old hotel somewhere in a tiny English cathedral town to carry out his latest assignment, namely authenticating papers dating back to the days of the Reformation. After wondering at first as to why there is a Room 12 and a Room 14 but no Room 13, stuffy Anderson gets the fright of his life when not only Room 13 suddenly reappears… and with a sinister ghost as well… Father-and-son actors David Burke (who had previously featured as the butler in ‘A View from a Hill’) and Tom Burke star as landlord Gunton and as hotel guest Edward Jenkins (a bit of a cad who likes his booze). The film is incredibly atmospheric, with all the actors on top form.
As another added bonus, Christopher Lee reads NUMBER 13 in a ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ special from 2000 - and what a stellar job he does!
The restored Blu-ray version look crisp and fabulous and the Limited Edition release also comes with illustrated booklet and more Special Features (audio commentaries, intros, plus the 17min video essay ‘Spectres, Spirits and Haunted Treasure – Adopting M. R. James’.