Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ghost Stories Not for Christmas


The woman who bled to death: STIGMA moves the BBC Ghost Story strand uncomfortably into the modern era.

FOR the 1977 BBC GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS, director Lawrence Gordon Clark wanted to adapt M.R. James' Count Magnus, but instead made STIGMA on a freelance basis. Scripted by Clive Exton, it concerns a family who remove an ancient standing stone from their back garden. As the menhir is lifted a curse is unleashed, causing mother Katherine (Kate Binchy) to bleed uncontrollably. This body horror trapping made STIGMA a controversial departure, with its shift to a modern setting and loss of period detail lacking the resonance previously created by the series; it also results in a more mechanical tale, away from the myth and tension created by, say, time shifts between researchers and protagonists in more polished entries such as THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER and THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS.

STIGMA can too easily be labelled as a meditation on the male fear of menstruation, but nothing can disguise the fact that it is pretty nasty story; the first image the viewer sees is an out-of-focus red dot which morphs into the family's red Citroen 2CV, predicting the blood to come. Katherine's nude scene is unsettling rather than salacious, as she frantically tries to stop the endless flow, but there is a more unnerving sequence when husband Peter (Peter Bowles) is awakened to find a strange communion between an onion and a knife, hinting at the vegetable's role in pagan folklore as a symbol of protection and purification. The tale ends openly, as Katherine dies on route to hospital, and it is hinted that daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) may be converting to the black arts.

Geoffrey Burridge comforts John Stride in THE ICE HOUSE.

If STIGMA is a straightforward horror story, it is difficult to describe THE ICE HOUSE other than a hazy, pretentious muddle. Directed by Derek Lister and written by John Bowen, it brought the original GHOST STORY strand to an oblique close before its short-lived revival in 2005, 2006 and 2013. The most experimental yet maligned of all the episodes, Paul (John Stride) has recently parted from his wife and moved to a residential health spa located in a country house. The disappearance of a masseur and the behaviour of the brother and sister who run operations (Clovis and Jessica, played by Geoffrey Burridge and Elizabeth Romilly) seem to be governed by a strange vine growing in an ice house. While the older residents go about their stately business, Paul is the centre of attention for the siblings; why is never made clear, perhaps he is just the latest in a line of guests for which they draw vitality (Jessica enjoys "having people"). Clovis and Jessica's connection to the overpowering scent of the vine is also open to interpretation; in fact the duo remind of pod-people with their otherworldy directness.