ITV PLAYHOUSE - CASTING THE RUNES (1979)
Dou (Maurice Denham), once a student of Rembrandt, sells his niece to a Sepulchral for a casket of gold in SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER.
THE first incarnation of the BBC's A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS strand ended with pretentious episode THE ICE HOUSE in 1978. The two programmes here attempt to carry on the tradition, the first often confused as an official entry, and the second directed by the series' talisman on ITV. Actually screened as part of OMNIBUS, Leslie Megahey's SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER is a fictional exploration of real life seventeenth-century Dutch artist Godfried Schalcken. Adapted from Sheridan Le Fanu, Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) is a student of Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham) and admirer of Dou's niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy); Schalcken is as lifeless as the canvas he devotes himself to, and loses Rose's hand to deathly stranger Vanderhausen (John Justin).
If the story has a message at all, it is that females can become detached objects and property; when Rou's niece is bound to the cadaverous Vanderhausen, it serves as a metaphor on the cruelty of woman as breeding stock. The slow narrative and detached composition has flatteringly been likened to Kubrick, but the programme stands more as a companion piece to another OMNIBUS adaptation, Jonathan Miller's WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU. Whereas Miller takes M.R. James and reflects supernatural image as mental breakdown, Megahey sees Le Fanu's tale as an artist's shattering loss of hope.
CASTING THE RUNES was released on Network DVD in 2007. This disc also included ITV Schools' rare adaptation of Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance, and the documentary A PLEASANT TERROR: THE LIFE AND GHOSTS OF M.R. JAMES.
In M. R. James' Casting the Runes - first published in 1911's More Ghost Stories - Edward Dunning is a researcher for the British Museum, who has recently appraised The Truth of Alchemy by occultist Mr Karswell. He begins seeing the name John Harrington wherever he goes, and learns that this individual had also reviewed Karswell's work, but died in a freak accident. Following the celebrated 1957 film version NIGHT OF THE DEMON directed by Jacques Tourneur, the story was adapted twice on British independent television: in 1968 as a third season MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION, and again as an eleventh season PLAYHOUSE.
Directed by A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS regular Lawrence Gordon Clark, CASTING THE RUNES was another attempt at a contemporary updating. Shot on videotape and 16mm film, the central protagonist is a woman, Prudence Dunning (Jan Francis), the producer of an investigative television programme that is critical of the practises of Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson). With a limited running time, this take suffers from scenes which have previously been so effective in other adaptations - there is no séances, and no Halloween garden party - and what remains creates an imposing but underdeveloped demonologist; Karswell is reduced to building a model dolls house and putting a live spider in one of the beds to satisfy this particular brand of curse.