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.

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Traces of uneasiness impinge"

A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS (1974)

Of all the celebrated BBC ghost stories, THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER remains closest to its source material.

IT is argued that Christmas supernatural fiction can be traced to the Victorian era, a time when magic lanterns and stage magicians milked the population's craving for thrills and sensation - in contrast to the stereotypical staid prudes. With technology making printing cheaper and more accessible than ever before - not to mention fascination with spiritualism and Egyptology - Charles Dickens became the architect of things snowbound and spectral. But telling scary stories while huddling around a festive fire can be traced back in several layers: Joesph Glanvill's 1681 treatise on witchcraft Sadducismus Truimphatus had harsh words for those who dismissed the existence of unearthly powers as "meer Winter Tales, or Old Wives fables," and William Shakespeare even titled his 1623 tale of magic and transformation The Winter's Tale. Looking back to the previous century, we find Christopher Marlowe using the same notion in his 1589 play The Jew of Malta: "now I remember those old women's words, "who in my wealth would tell me winter's tales, and speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.""

Although THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER started the BBC ghost story strand proper, a template was in place with Jonathan Miller's 1968 OMNIBUS take on M.R. James' 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'. Not so much a supernatural tale than an exploration of a deteriorating academic mind, this was a loose adaptation which plays like a satire on James himself. By doing so, the production dispenses with "James' original dialogue [which was] ludicrously stilted" - to quote Miller - and consequently paints a different picture to director Lawrence Gordon Clark's take on these stories. With Clark, even in weaker moments, there is always an underlying conviction to the heritage of 'The Father of the English Ghost Story'. Yet the Jamesian ghost is hardly a spirit at all, rather demonic beings determined for retribution; as Denis Meikle states in his article 'Now is the Season to be Chilly' (The Dark Side #157, Jan/Feb 2014), James' ghosts "...were the harbingers of threat - to his faith, his beliefs, his whole way of life."

Michael Bryant in THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS rivals Denholm Elliott in the 1976 GHOST STORY entry THE SIGNALMAN as the strand's outstanding performance.

THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER - based on James' 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral' from his 1911 collection More Ghost Stories - was also penned by Clark, and is the most ecclesiastical of all the BBC stories. Dr Black (Clive Swift) - whilst cataloguing the Barchester Cathedral library in 1932 - is shown a diary detailing the events leading up to the death of former Archdeacon Dr Haynes (Robert Hardy). The diary implies that Haynes caused the demise of his aged predecessor Pulteney (Harold Bennett) and was haunted by carvings (of the Devil, Death and a cat) made by artisan John Austin ("they say he was blessed with second sight.") Filmed entirely on location at Norwich Cathedral, the programme adheres to James' phrase "movement without sound" with its half-seen terrors and foreboding back story. Hardy gives a staunch performance as a guilt-ridden man in increasing isolation, but scratches inflicted by a spectral hand mean this is in no way an abstract haunting...

THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS - based on James' story of the same name from his first 1904 collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary - is a slow-burning cryptography tale; shifting its Germanic origin to Wells Cathedral, Reverend Somerton (Michael Bryant)'s arrogance cannot overshadow a thirst for treasure - which literally meets a sticky end. Somerton is the archetypal James anti-hero: a character punished for his curiosity and disrespect towards the unearthly. James' most intricate story, John Bowen's script opens it up considerably by including a young foil (Peter, played by Paul Lavers) and sly nods to the English fascination with comfort food (slab cake and grilled chops). James' experience of the rise of spiritualism in the 1890's also sees a sardonic adage, as Somerton debunks fake mediums through the power of pure intellect. Overall this is an underrated episode, but the climactic slime has all the effectiveness of X THE UNKNOWN.