Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sixties Sorcery

THE SORCERERS (1967)
CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968)

"You enjoyed it, didn't you?" In an allegory for the thrills of cinema itself, THE SORCERERS tells of an old couple who invent a machine to live vicariously through a young man.

MICHAEL Reeves was a true cineaste and perhaps the greatest lost talent of the British film industry. Although he only directed three pictures, the Sutton-born Reeves increasingly became frustrated about the difficulty of getting projects off the ground. Suffering from depression and insomnia, on the 11th of February 1969 he died at the age of twenty-five from an alcohol and barbiturate overdose which many - including lifelong friend Ian Ogilvy - believe to have been purely accidental (indeed, the coroner's report stated that the level of barbiturate dosage was too marginal to suggest any dark intention). There is nothing critics like more than to mythologise an untimely artistic death (Brian Jones would follow five months later), but there is no mistaking that Reeves was a precocious talent. This is a man who travelled to Hollywood at the age of sixteen, sought out the address of his favourite director - Don Siegel - and subsequently gained employment. But after the critical and commercial success of WITCHFINDER GENERAL in 1968, Reeves seemingly lost his way. Starting to drink heavily, the boy wonder was also taking uppers and downers, and those close offered a variety of reasons: the development hells, the strain of his on-set clashes with Vincent Price, a failed romance, and an underlying nihilism.

There is much to enjoy in Reeves' second feature under consideration here, which followed the British/Italian REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST shot in 1966. THE SORCERERS is a trippy slasher movie made as the 1960s neared its dizzying end. Retired and discredited hypnotist Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) and wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) are an elderly couple who, through hypnosis, can "live" through young people and feel their emotions. Marcus picks up a bored youth - Mike Roscoe (Ogilvy) - at a Wimpy bar, who partakes in a ground-breaking experiment at the Monserrat household. When the pensioners choose to 'tune in' their fun begins mundane enough - Estelle instructs Roscoe to steal a fur coat - but soon she becomes hooked on the strength of her manipulative powers, forcing the hipster into carrying out a series of increasingly gruesome acts (such as a scissor murder of Audrey (Susan George)). As Marcus becomes mentally and physically overpowered by his wife, the husband manages to break the spell by causing Mike to die in a fireball of a car crash; the film ends on the image of the Monserrat's charred remains miles away at their home.

"... as though Boris Karloff's going to pop up at any moment." Barbara Steele's only home-grown horror - and Boris Karloff's last - CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR also wastes the talents of a bored Christopher Lee, who wears his own tweed jacket throughout.

By 1967 exploitation guru Tony Tenser had left Compton-Tekli and formed Tony Tenser Films, which would soon be renamed Tigon. THE SORCERERS was a co-production with the American company Curtwel - run by the husband-and-wife team of Patrick Curtis and Raquel Welch - and it is an effectively edited and lively lensed film which confronts cinema's inherent voyeurism. It also deftly contrasts gyrating youth culture with the dreary existence and tired home décor of the older generation; quieter sequences are governed by the sound of a ticking clock, as if to signify the both the passing joy of youth and the beginning of the end. Reeves makes the most of a derisory budget (£11,000 of the total £50,000 went to Karloff), though Monserrat's laboratory set is achingly threadbare. Karloff - sporting a pinstripe suit and goatee - gives a strong performance in his twilight years, still managing to sustain a erudite presence but also very much under the shadow of past glories. But it is Lacey who is the star, her demented wide-eyed enjoyment of Roscoe's building mania made even more disturbing by the fact that it is portrayed through violence rather than sexual yearning.

If Karloff was fading here, Tigon nearly finished the star off totally during Vernon Sewell's CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, where Boris contracted pneumonia during night scenes filmed in freezing rain. Based uncredited on H.P. Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House, Robert Manning (Mark Eden) goes in search of his brother, who was last known to have visited Craxted Lodge, Greymarsh. Manning is invited to stay by Eve (Virginia Wetherell) - the niece of Lodge owner Morley (Christopher Lee) - but is haunted by nightmares. When wheelchair-bound Professor Marshe (Karloff) informs Manning about a cult based around Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), and Robert discovers that he is descended from Lavinia's chief accuser, Craxted Lodge is burned to the ground, and Morley - exposed as the head of the followers - is consumed in flames. Starting with a written extract about hallucinatory drugs, the film descends into an unintentionally hilarious attic ritual, where Lavinia is aided by a man wearing an antlers head cap and leather underpants, and a woman with nipple-patches and horsewhip. The camp continues at a swinging party at the Lodge, which includes an exotic dancer pouring champagne over her breasts, but this is where the fun ends. Eden and Wetherell are functional at best, and the climactic notion that Morley and Lavinia are the same person - which would have made sense under the shooting title THE REINCARNATION - is left unexplored.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bloodsucking Freaks

INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED (1970)

In a non-speaking role, Imogen Hassall is bewitching as the leader of a perversion-driven vampire cult.

DIRECTLY after THE BLACK TORMENT in 1964, director Robert Hartford-Davis and cinematographer Peter Newbrook quit Compton and formed Titan. After making the musical GONKS GO BEAT, Michael Bentine's THE SANDWICH MAN and Norman Wisdom vehicle PRESS FOR TIME, the studio turned out their lasting legacy in 1968 with the seedy CORRUPTION. A brutal picture which sees Peter Cushing as a surgeon killing in order to restore his young fiancée's facial tissue, Cushing departed to make another low point in his filmography with Tigon's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR. Titan, however, went on to nearly complete their greatest folly, a take on Simon Raven's novel Doctors Wear Scarlet - INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED.

If you ever wanted to see Patrick Macnee and Imogen Hassall ride donkeys in a British vampire picture, then INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED is the film for you. Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) - an Oxford don and the Foreign Secretary's son - falls into the clutches of Chriseis (Hassall) while researching ancient Minoan rites in Greece. Chriseis heads a non-supernatural bloodsucking cult of socialites who murder innocents as a form of sexual perversion. In an attempt to avoid a scandal, a search party flies to the island of Mikonos in a desperate search for Richard, which contains Major Derek Longbow (Macnee), British Foreign Office assistant Tony Seymore (Alexander Davion), friend Bob Kirby (Johnny Sekka), and Fountain's somnambulant fiancée Penelope (Madeleine Hinde). After apparently halting the cult's influence over Richard, the don returns to his sheltered life, but we discover that the marks left by Chriseis still resonate.

Also known as BLOODSUCKERS and FREEDOM SEEKER, INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED is based on Simon Raven's 1960 novel Doctors Wear Scarlet. Raven - a Luciferian provocateur who was also a journalist and television writer - rejected faith and possessed a deep contempt for the English unwillingness to offend.

According to David Pirie's The Vampire Cinema, INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED was a long-gestating project of Terence Fisher, who was never able to interest Hammer in its subversive content. With the rights acquired by Titan and Hartford-Davis at the helm, it was the beginning of a painful production and editing process. While shooting in Cyprus funds were exhausted, leaving the picture unfinished. With a compressed narrative and lame narration introduced to cover the cracks, the director disowned the picture and prints only exist under a directorial psydonym (Michael Burrowes) or with no director credit at all. The ending was also shot against Hartford-Davis' wishes, where Kirby and Seymore go to Fountain's coffin to administer a stake through his heart. This climax vilifies the rest of the film, which had explained vampirism as a psychological distortion, rather than reverting to cliché. Also jarring is an extraordinary six-minute sequence of a hallucinogenic orgy, which was either cut or excised completely for overseas prints.

Mower’s character is revealed as impotent - and possibly bisexual - making vampirism his only means of satisfaction. Richard's liberating climactic outburst at a Oxford dinner not only frees him from the stifling academic system championed by provost Dr Walter Goodrich (Peter Cushing) - Penelope's father - but also plays as a rousing counter-culture statement of the times ("the thieves who come to take our souls ... smooth deceivers in scarlet gowns.") As Tim Lucas points out in his Video Watchdog review, INCENSE would play well with Fisher's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, where Mower plays another privileged upper class individual who falls under the power of persuasion. As well as Cushing - who is used far too fleetingly - Edward Woodward appears as an anthropologist who tries to explain vampirism where the drinking of blood serves as surrogate orgasm.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Fordyke Saga

THE BLACK TORMENT (1964)

A panting Edina Ronay makes for a memorable opening to THE BLACK TORMENT. The Anglo-Hungarian daughter of food critic Egon and mother of actress/writer Shebah, Edina was noteworthy for her fleeting turns in A STUDY IN TERROR and PREHISTORIC WOMEN. In the mid-70's she retired from the screen to take up fashion design, specialising in knitwear.

TAKING its cue from Hammer's costumed gothics, Compton's THE BLACK TORMENT is an underappreciated gem that also draws upon the aura of Mario Bava and the eloquent staging of Roger Corman's Poe pictures. Set in the spring of 1780, the film opens with a young woman fleeing across a nocturnal wood, as a murderous assailant gives chase. After being attacked and left to die, she utters the name ... Sir Richard! Days later, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returns to his Devon estate with second wife Elizabeth (Heather Sears). Although he has been away in London for three months, villagers claim to have seen the aristocrat riding through the woods, chased by the spirit of his first wife Anne, who supposedly committed suicide four years previously. With Sir Richard increasingly being manipulated into an alleged ancestral madness - including finding his crippled father hanging - he turns to magistrate Colonel Wentworth (Raymond Huntley) to help him solve the mystery. The final revelation is less a surprise more a sign-posted but illogical confirmation: this particular backward "evil twin" brother can not only rape and pillage, but place detailed orders to a Tiverton saddle maker.


The posters for THE BLACK TORMENT went into hyperbolic overdrive: "terror creeps from the fringe of fear to the pit of panic"; "the screen shudders with raw and violent savage suspense!"; "...by the screaming terror of a woman's fear" et al. Underneath this barrage you actually get a richly rendered production filled with solid performances (though Turner often subscribes to Elizabeth's line "Oh Richard, you're overwrought") and meticulous supporting players such as Peter Arne (whose trademark swarthy villain is a role identical to his appearance in THE HELLFIRE CLUB) and Patrick Troughton (who appears as a stable groom). A colour long associated with sensations of infinity and imagination, cinematographer Peter Newbrook smothers the film in languorous blue, and as Jonathan Rigby argues in English Gothic, perhaps a more apt title would have been THE BLUE TORMENT. Known for his moving camera and zooms, director Robert Hartford-Davis was indulging in his lush sets and costumes - including the obligatory low-cut frocks - until an on-set visit from the studio's wheeler-dealer partners Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser. Compton had already committed to a number of projects so budgets were tighter than ever, and after running three days behind schedule, allegedly Tenser ripped out ten pages from the shooting script in front of the director and proclaimed "there you are, you're back on schedule."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

House of Video Nasty Horror

The Suppression of House of Hammer in America
Video Nasty (2014)

Uncredited cover art for Warren's House of Horror #1 (April 1978), an "ashcan" produced to quash Top Seller's intention of House of Hammer reaching US shores.

AT the beginning of 1978, the US publishing empire of Jim Warren - responsible for Famous Monsters of Filmland and the b&w comic magazines Creepy and Eerie - announced a new quarterly venture House of Horror to be made available through their in-house mail order service Captain Company. Yet the truth was that the publisher rushed this magazine - which was always intended as a one-shot - into print for copyright reasons, securing the name and halting Top Seller's plan to release their respected House of Hammer in America under the same title. Warren was infamous for his volatile working practices, but any publisher who had the audacity to challenge his domain particularly created embitterment. Both mags were reprints: hardly a House of Horror at all, Warren's effort revisited paste-ups from Famous Monsters such as the special effects of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and the robots of STAR WARS; Top Seller's collation included John Bolton's CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF comic adaptation, a George A. Romero interview, and Brian Lewis' VAMPIRE CIRCUS cover which originally graced House of Hammer #17.

When Warren immediately filed for copyright infringement against the British invaders, the US courts upheld his claim, so Top Seller's American adventure lasted two issues: (Hammer's) House of Horror #1 and the next issue of the regular title, #19, which received limited distribution in the States. Because of this outcome, Top Sellers were forced to change the name of their homegrown version to (Hammer's) Halls of Horror with #20. This was a stunt the American publisher also pulled over the fabled birth of Eerie in 1965. Warren printed around 400 copies of House of Horror, but only 200 editions of Eerie #1 existed. This illustration of the publisher's ego started with the demise of a one issue Eerie (Tales) in the late 1950's, by Hastings. Warren discovered that another publisher who used the same distributor was bringing out an imitation of Creepy called Eerie, thereby inventory material from Creepy was used to cobble together his version of the title, which was on the newsstands outside his distributor's building the following morning. The most ridiculous aspect was that Warren had his facts wrong: the company who challenged him was Eerie Publications, and the magazine in question was actually called Weird.

Each with a cover by Graham Humphreys, Video Nasty is a breezy Reaper comic book that nevertheless deals with weighty agendas.

In his website, Top Sellers supremo Dez Skinn remains tactful towards Warren, championing his business sense. Warren initially heard the news of the British assault in Comic Media News, where Skinn proudly announced 200,000 copies of his House of Horror were set to conquer America. By the most unlikely of coincidences, that same issue also featured an interview with Warren, so the editor sent him a complimentary copy. The first Top Sellers knew of the situation was when their office received a letter from Warren’s lawyers, stating that shipping copies for US distribution would be infringing the copyright of their client’s “well established” House of Horror magazine on which a “considerable amount” had been spent on its launch. The hard fact is that, against this messy backdrop, American readers were deprived of a quality publication, instead left with the pictorial and pun-filled standard of Famous Monsters.

Former comic store owner turned independent writer, Mario Covone's six-issue Video Nasty is set in 1983 Kettering, and uses both the video panic in Britain, and the political climate of the era, as its provocative foundation. Along with Greek artist Vasilis Logios, Covone has produced a love letter to the genre, inspired by the documentary VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE and Lucio Fulci's THE BLACK CAT. Characters are archetypes without being bland, as the police, neo-Nazis and a film director turned media scapegoat are sucked into a pit of depraved murders. Mario's crisp dialogue creates a flowing yarn which exists in a fictionalised but recognisable tableau - the relocation from Manchester to Northampton of "God's Cop" Chief Constable James Anderton for example, as he instructs officer David Gorley to look at video nasty's for case research (by the end of the second issue, Gorley has acquired ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST from his friendly local video rental store). What inevitably hurts the book is the frighteningly sketchy interior art of Logios; proportions vary wildly from panel to panel, and what is even more surprising are the standard of Graham Humphreys' covers; while #5 and #6 have a grandiose power, the first four covers lack a central focus.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

"Blood of My Ancestors!"

Doctor Who Weekly - Black Legacy (1980)

When Black Legacy appeared in June 1980, Alan Moore's story predated his 2000 A.D. debut by a month, representing his first published comics work - amateur or professional -  solely as a writer. To illustrate the tale's "legacy," Russell T. Davies name checks the Deathsmiths of Goth in a Time War piece published in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual.

LIKE most TV characters that find themselves on the printed page, the Cybermen enjoy poetic license in comics. John Canning's surreal Patrick Troughton strips for TV Comic had DOCTOR WHO's second greatest foe use skis (Eskimo Joe, #903-906, 1969) and earlier they were even destroyed by flower scent (Flower Power, #832-836, 1967). Steve Moore introduced the philosophical Kroton in Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman (Doctor Who Weekly #5-7, 1979), a man from Mondas who is sent to quell a human revolt, but wonders if an understanding of "abstract concepts of freedom and individuality" is the better path to take. Even Grant Morrison wrote a debatable account of Cyber origins in The World Shapers (Doctor Who Magazine #127-129, 1987). Using a muddled reference dating to the 1968 serial THE INVASION, Morrison explains that the rubbery inhabitants of "Planet 14" the Voord - seen in the 1964 THE KEYS OF MARINUS - have used an alien Worldshaper machine to evolve into Proto-Cybermen.

One of four back-up strip collaborations between writer Alan Moore and illustrator David Lloyd for Doctor Who Weekly, Black Legacy is introduced and tailed by the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) as if recounting the story. Published in issues #35-38, Cyberleader
Maxel leads a mission to Goth ("a haunted planet shunned by all"), the former home world of legendary armourers the Deathsmiths. In search of a weapon that wiped out an entire civilisation overnight, the cyborgs explore the war museum, but are watched by the Apocalypse Device, a synthetic creature carrying every conceivable disease and virus. Having annihilated his creators, the being wipes out the Cybermen by telepathic nightmares and a lethal rust-like virus. Finally, Maxel confronts the Apocalypse Device who wants to use the Cyberleader's craft to escape the planet and destroy the galaxy; when Maxel auto-destructs the ship, the creature's dastardly plan is seemingly thwarted ... until a Sontaran vehicle lands. The last line – "It will not wait forever, that is the problem with ultimate weapons" – is almost certainly Moore's attempt at implicating the nuclear arms race.

Altered Vista's created a VCD version of the story in 2006, which was applauded by Moore. As the writer states on the Altered Vista website, "This is clearly a work that is born out of nothing save for a simple love of the material. It has not opted to change elements of the story, give it a less bleak ending or introduce a love interest and cute pet dog for the chief Cyberman protagonist. You have simply adapted the story as faithfully as you were able, without feeling the need to 'improve' it".

Taking a cue from the exploits of Kroton, Black Legacy portrays the Cybermen as un-characteristically human in their thinking, speech and posture, and illustrates Moore learning his craft with little interest in the source material (the strangely declamatory Cybermen spout "blood of my ancestors!" twice). These strips acted as ideal learning curves for the Northampton magus, creating characters and worlds in concise timeframes (usually a tale of two pages crossing four issues); consequently, as well as building the story, each two instalment had to work if read in isolation, but also recap and end on a cliff-hanger. The flaws of the strip, however, are not limited to aspects of Who lore. It’s actually a near re-run of Steve Moore’s The Final Quest from Doctor Who Weekly #8, where a Sontaran is tricked into self-destruction by exposure to a lethal plague. The Apocalypse Device broadcasting telepathic nightmares, paralysing enemies with fear, are two factors Cybermen ought to be immune to.

Moore followed Black Legacy with the Autons story Business as Usual, and three linked tales set in the distant past of Gallifrey: Star Death (with artist John Stokes), 4-D War and Black Sun Rising. While DOCTOR WHO had been on television for seventeen years, the history of the Time Lords had barely been touched on. With a relatively blank canvas, Moore created a space opera hung around a time paradox – the Time Lords are under attack from the Order of the Black Sun, a mysterious organisation from the future who are retaliating for some offence the Time Lords are yet to commit. The series hadn't explored the nuances of time travel since the 1972 Jon Pertwee adventure DAY OF THE DALEKS, so it was refreshing to see an illustrative work play with similar non-linear ideas. In conclusion, Moore’s strips for Doctor Who Weekly come to a sum of 28 pages over little more than a single year, and even though he was working to a restrictive brief and writing for a very young audience, the reader can already see a distinct progression from simple templates to the type of cosmic-bending work Moore would later make his own.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Perfectly dry"

CROOKED HOUSE (2008)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH (2013)
M.R. JAMES: GHOST WRITER (2013)


CROOKED HOUSE stands as a fine companion to the BBC's celebrated GHOST STORY strand of the 1970's.
 
AIRED over three consecutive evenings on BBC4 in the lead-up to Christmas 2008, CROOKED HOUSE - written and produced by Mark Gatiss - merges the gravitas of M.R. James with the playfulness of the Amicus portmanteau. The three stories concern Geap Manor - a house with "an interesting reputation" - enveloped by a framing story which sees a museum curator (Gatiss) share his research of the Tudor mansion with history teacher Ben (Lee Ingleby), who has brought in an old door-knocker found in his garden. The first tale, THE WAINSCOTING, sees Joseph Bloxham (Philip Jackson) renovating Geap in 1786 after capitalising on an investment which ruined a fellow speculator. As the building work comes to an end Bloxham hears noises behind the interior wooden panels, which have been sourced from gallows. The second story, SOMETHING OLD, is set amongst a lavish 1920's costume ball at the Manor, where Felix (Ian Hallard) announces his engagement to underling Ruth (Jennifer Hignam). However, this happy event is linked to a tragic wedding day and a ghostly bride. And in the modern day final part, THE KNOCKER, Ben discovers that his property is set in the grounds of the demolished Manor, which sees sinister figures from the past pray upon his new born child.

Director Damon Thomas works wonders with a limited budget, and the cast includes a number of individuals in roles they are relishing, such as Andy Nyman (THE WAINSCOTING), Jean Marsh (SOMETHIND OLD) and even illusionist Derren Brown (THE KNOCKER). Geap is portrayed as a constant threat whatever its condition (the house "drew evil to it like a sponge draws in water") and situations are infused with wry humour (the builders ever-expanding schedule, Ruth's family background "in fish.") While the first two tales are entertainingly creepy, the show saves the scariest till last, containing not only a masterful twist but a swath of 1970's-tinted nastiness. It is, however, the abomination - played by 7'3" John Lebar - conjured out of an Elizabethan crib, that will leave you scurrying for safety.

The elemental menace of THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH is stylishly photographed by Steve Lawes.

Gatiss penned - and made his directorial debut - with THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH, a faithful adaptation of James' story first published in the 1911 collection More Ghost Stories. Young librarian Garnett (Sacha Dhawan) has a vision of a skull-like entity while searching for an old tome for John Eldred (John Castle). Garnett takes some leave in the country where he meets Mrs Simpson (Louise Jameson) and her daughter Anne (Charlie Clemmow), who tell him of a missing will that would make them heir to a sizeable inheritance. Unfortunately the document has been written in an obscure book, linking the librarian to late priest Dr Rant (David Ryall): "twisted, he was, twisted, while others had a soul, he had a corkscrew; don't trust him in life or death." On the written page the first appearance of "the figure" is an upper face which is "perfectly dry" with deep-sunk eyes covered in cobwebs; the prosthetics on screen are very much in accord with this suitably crusty visage, and the climax - the second "monster of the week" moment - is effectively carried out in broad daylight.

THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH on BBC2 Christmas Day 2013 was followed by Gatiss' M.R. JAMES: GHOST WRITER. What is most striking about this documentary is how secondary in his life the ghost stories James wrote were; they were almost a hobby, a pursuit after his astonishing achievements as a medieval scholar. Gatiss paints a picture of a sexually repressed man who also viewed his tales as a social device, particularly for readings at King's College's Chitchat Society (where James enjoyed sessions of "ragging," essentially floor-bound genital-grabbing). It is a compelling piece, where we follow James' journey from happy childhood - fascinated with the historical and the supernatural - to his studies, his infatuation with James McBryde, and increasing disillusionment with The Great War.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Mine shall inherit"

A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE ASH TREE (1975)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE SIGNALMAN (1976)

Jolting nudity in THE ASH TREE, an extraordinary tale reminiscent of WITCHFINDER GENERAL.

THESE BBC ghost stories - both directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark - hit the ground running with their ambience of dying curses, bleak moorlands and impending doom. THE ASH TREE - from M.R. James' 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary - tells of eighteenth-century nobleman Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge), who inherits a stately home dominated by an old Ash tree. The seat has been cursed since the day his ancestor Sir Matthew (played in flashback by Petherbridge) condemned Mistress Mothersole (Barbara Ewing) to death for witchcraft. More a tale of resurrection and an exploration in the aching loss of fertility, writer David Rudkin energises James' prose by discarding the original set of narrators in favour of a singular descent into madness, and also emphasises sexual awareness with Fell's free-spirited muse Lady Augusta (Lalla Ward). The species of Ash has inspired numerous cultural myths: in British folklore it is said that ill children could be cured by passing through the cleft of the tree; here it is a vessel that acts on the sorceress' battle cry ("Mine shall inherit"), as its branches unleash grotesque spider-babies into Sir Richard's bedroom.

Based on a Charles Dickens' short story first published in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round, THE SIGNALMAN was greatly infused with the writer's own involvement with the Staplehurst rail crash of June 1865. The most critically acclaimed of all the BBC ghost stories, Andrew Davies' script creates a strong sense of foreboding, where the phantom is a time displacement which portends the death of a signal operator (Denholm Elliott). Very much the embodiment of the Victorian innocent, the signalman tells his story to a traveller (Bernard Lloyd) who initially scoffs at the premonitions. If James' ghosts aim to infiltrate and scar, Dickens' spectre is one that personifies overwhelming fate; the systems and technology that man creates also can suffocate and lead to unfathomable dread to come (such as the railways leading to Auschwitz, for example).

The fleeting appearance of THE SIGNALMAN's open-mouthed phantom mimics the railway tunnel and forewarns the terror to come.

If the signal operater is a tortured soul, the mystery of the traveller adds more spice to the story. Taking a cue from Dickens' original text, Davies' line "I've been confined but now I am free" leads the viewer to surmise if the character is referring to his working background, a spell in prison, or even he has escaped a stifling marriage; as David Kerekes states in Creeping Flesh Volume 1, "maybe there is something in the latter, given that Charles Dickens wrote The Signal-Man following his own escape from a bad train wreck ... in the company of his mistress." The television adaptation is at times so ambiguous and in limbo it adds to its surreal vacuum; even the inn where the traveller is staying is shrouded in fog, and no other guests are present. Lloyd's role may well be "the straight man," but by the end his face takes on the attitude of the phantom, perhaps signifying that the traveller himself is a visitation and harbinger of death.