Sunday, 29 December 2013

Interview with the BFI’s Sam Dunn and Rhidian Davis

Throughout this month I’ve been looking at various Christmassy horror titles, many of which were made by the BBC and have been released for the first time by the BFI as part of their Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season.

With recent releases such as the surviving episodes of the long thought lost Dead of Night, a creepy BBC anthology series, and the Ghost Stories for Christmas collection, which includes many adaptations of the work of M.R. James, the BFI has provided access to long sought after and historically significant horror rarities. These releases have been part of a staggering array of BFI film screenings and special events throughout the UK this year, all in celebration of our Gothic cinematic heritage.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Dunn, the BFI’s Head of Video Publishing, and Rhidian Davis, Season Organiser of Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. 

Head over to Diabolique to read it.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Curious Warnings and Ghostly Visions

Some artwork inspired by the writing of MR James...

Count Magnus by Paul Lowe

Count Magnus by Russ Nicholson

Frontispiece for Curious Warnings by Les Edwards

The Mezzotint by Rich Johnson

Cover illustration for Ghosts & Scholars, an MR James newsletter

The Mezzotint by Francis Mosley

Illustration for Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad by James McBryde

Another illustration for Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad by James McBryde

Illustration for Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad by Paul Lowe

Illustration for Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad by Rich Johnson 

The Ash Tree by Francis Mosley

Mr Humphries and His Inheritance by Francis Mosley

Count Magnus by Francis Mosley

Illustration by Francis Mosley

Another illustration by Francis Mosley

Illustration by Charles Keeping

Illustration by Charles Keeping

Illustration by Charles Keeping

Illustration by Charles Keeping

Illustration by Charles Keeping

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by Nick Gucker

The Ash Tree by Nick Gucker

The Uncommon Prayer Book by Paul Lowe

Lost Hearts by Paul Lowe

Cover illustration of Ghosts & Scholars newsletter depicting the spectre from Rats

A View From A Hill

A Warning to the Curious

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Tractate Middoth

Dir. Mark Gatiss

When a young librarian is tasked with locating an obscure Hebrew tome for a sinister gentleman, he has a terrifying experience in the library. Soon afterwards he becomes embroiled in a search for the last will and testament of the spiritually corrupt uncle of rival siblings…

Since the early Seventies the BBC has had a tradition of broadcasting ghost stories during the festive period, predominantly adapted from the work of medieval scholar and former Provost of Kings College, Cambridge, MR James. James wrote many of his, now classic, ghost stories to be read aloud on Christmas Eve to his friends and colleagues.
The BBC series drew to an end in the late Seventies but was revived again in the Noughties with adaptations of James's Number 13, A View from a Hill and a reinterpretation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You. This year’s instalment, another James adaptation, marks the directorial debut of writer/actor Mark Gatiss, best known for his work with The League of Gentlemen and for scripting Sherlock and various episodes of Dr Who.

Gatiss’s adaptation is extremely faithful to James’s story and, aside from a few slight sequential changes to the narrative for dramatic purpose, he sticks rigidly to the source material. While this story relies heavily on a series of, frankly, improbable coincidences, it’s still a compelling yarn and Gatiss's take is bolstered by a top-notch cast, all of whom deliver uniformly sterling performances. While it is arguably one of James’s slightest tales, Gatiss still manages to imbue the swift pace with an air of foreboding and menace in keeping with James’s traditionally quiet and suggestive approach to horror, and indeed that of previous BBC adaptations of his work. Gatiss builds tension and atmosphere slowly and assuredly, letting loose once or twice with unsettling and downright horrifying imagery; notably during the encounter in the library and a later scene in a train carriage, both of which are so chillingly realised because Gatiss treats us to brief glimpses of a hideous, gnarled form without ever resorting to cheap blatancy. Typical of MR James, the horror doesn’t always occur in the dead of night and here it also makes its insidious appearance in the most congenial of places; a beautifully sunlit library and a quiet, dew-soaked country lane.

The cobwebby spectre, one of James’s creepiest, is described thus by the author: “I tell you, he had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs. He turned round and let me see his face—which I hadn’t seen before. I tell you again, I’m not mistaken. Though, for one reason or another I didn’t take in the lower part of his face, I did see the upper part; and it was perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bone, there were cobwebs—thick. Now that closed me up, as they say, and I can’t tell you anything more.”

Later on, when the spectre finally catches up with Eldred, it takes on a “dark form [which] appeared to rise out of the shadow behind the tree-trunk and from it two arms enclosing a mass of blackness came before Eldred’s face and covered his head and neck.”

When Garrett returns to the scene of Eldred’s bizarre death, he comes across “Something dark that still lay there… but it hardly stirred. Looking closer, he saw that it was a thick black mass of cobwebs; and, as he stirred it gingerly with his stick, several large spiders ran out of it into the grass.” James was a confirmed arachnophobe and his use of spiders, and spidery imagery, throughout The Tractate Middoth is most unsettling. This is reiterated by Gatiss who suffuses the mise-en-scene with spidery imagery; from the arachnids glimpsed in a stained glass window and the final shot of a large, spindly spider scuttling across the floor, to the various close up shots and glimpses of web-weavers scurrying about the face and head of the ghoulish spectre; it’s an arachnid-infested nightmare. The briefly mentioned notion of a spider in human form also echoes certain passages of Ramsey Campbell’s short story The Guide, a flawless homage to James’s style and tone of storytelling.

This is a James story with a ‘happy ending’, a rare thing indeed, however Gatiss opts to end proceedings on an ambiguous note not originally present, and while The Tractate Middoth is a slip of a story, this adaptation marks a welcome return to the BBC’s spooky Christmastime traditions and a solid directorial debut from Gatiss.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010)

Dir. Andy de Emmony

After placing his senile wife in a care home, retired astronomer James Parkin (John Hurt) heads for the coast to revisit their ‘old haunts’, including the now out-of-season hotel they honeymooned in. By day he is stalked along the windswept beaches by a spectral figure dressed in white, and by night he is terrorised by strange sounds and someone, or something, attempting to enter his room…

In the 2000s BBC4 attempted to reignite the old Ghost Story at Christmas tradition by adapting MR James’s A View from a Hill (2005) and Number 13 (2006). This series was seemingly short lived though, as their next outing wasn’t until 2010, and an unusual reinterpretation of James’s classic chiller Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. While de Emmony’s direction captures the atmosphere and tone of James very well, this film differs significantly from other adaptations, including Jonathan Miller’s supremely unsettling 1968 take.

Neil Cross’s screenplay only incorporates certain elements of James’s original story, making this a very loose adaptation; indeed it emerges as something more akin to homage than direct adaptation and MR James is actually only credited in the film’s end titles. Whereas James’s protagonists were typically scholarly bachelors prying into ancient texts and rites, or attempting to locate and unearth arcane artefacts only to unleash spectral/demonic/otherworldly avengers, this adaptation features no such themes. The titular whistle is replaced by a ring - which highlights Parkin’s marital issues and his mourning over his wife’s descent into dementia. The only real link with the film’s title is when Parkin sings a line from the song by Scottish poet Robert Burns (Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad) to his wife as he bids her farewell.

Cross ensures his story of a man haunted by his wife’s spiral into senile dementia, leaving nothing of her former self behind, is bolstered by a strong emotional core, something conspicuously absent from the work of MR James. Parkin may be sternly rational and ‘level-headed’ but he differs from the typical Jamesian protagonist. His attempts to emotionally reconcile himself with his wife’s impending demise are not typical Jamesian traits. James’s protagonists were bookish bachelors who certainly didn’t exhibit much emotion, save for the petrifying fear they experienced when subjected to spectral visitations or hauntings brought about by their intellectual arrogance and academic prying. Parkin is typical of James’s scholarly protagonists in his insistence that we dwell within a world of reason and icy rationality. His staunch disbelief in an afterlife - ‘there are no ghosts in the machine’ - is what sets him up for a fall when he experiences strange events that can’t be explained away, and he finds himself jolted out of his now lonely existence into a world balanced precariously on the brink of some vast unknown.

The cinematography courtesy of Rob Hardy effectively conveys Parkin’s isolation through carefully composed shots and framing. It also captures the haunting beauty of the landscape within which the story unfolds; windswept beaches, ragged cliffs and various other empty or sparsely populated spaces. The faded grandeur of the hotel, with its long shadowy hallways and draughty rooms, implies that it has fallen on hard times and, much like the characters of Parkin and his wife, is a shadow of its former self. The double room Parkin accepts serves to replace the unoccupied bed in James’s story, and Miller’s earlier adaptation, and it perfectly conveys the absence of his wife. When it comes to the moments of horror, de Emmony draws inspiration from sources as diverse as The Haunting and J-Horror titles such as Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge. Unnerving moments come when Parkin awakens during a particularly stormy night to hear someone banging on his door. When the pillow he has used to plug the gap underneath the door is pulled through it into the hallway he sees a pair of hands appear and creep, spider-like, beneath the doorway. There is also some business involving a sinister looking bust of a woman’s head which glares at him from across the darkened room before he places it in the cupboard.

His isolation is enhanced by the hotel’s emptiness - not only is it off-season and manned by a skeleton crew, but after a particularly sleepless night he realises that he wasn't just the only guest, he was the only person in the building. John Hurt delivers an utterly compelling performance as the devastated Parkin, a man attempting to come to terms with his wife’s condition. Indeed, through conversations he has with the nurse in the care home and the sympathetic receptionist of the hotel, we learn he already believes his wife - more specifically, her personality and the things that made her who she was - has now gone completely and he is utterly alone.

'A body that has outlasted the existence of the personality; that is far, far more horrifying than any spook or ghoul that you could ever hope to glimpse, believe me.'

Miller’s adaptation was cunningly ambiguous, the haunting could have been the externalisation of repression and self-imposed isolation of the socially inept protagonist, and this version is just as ambiguous. The haunting could of course be supernatural, but it could also be a metaphor of sorts for Parkin’s guilt. The ending poses more questions than it answers: was Parkin’s wife merely attempting to convince him she was still trapped within her unresponsive and ailing physical body, or did her appearance at the foot of his bed in the hotel room contain more sinister intentions? Is she punishing him for leaving her in a care home? The exchange of glances between the wife and the nurse at the end implies perhaps she has been avenging herself for Parkin leaving her in the care of others. The ambiguity isn't as chilling as that of Miller’s earlier film, and indeed James’s short story, but the emotional impact it leaves in its wake is a resonant one, and the sense of tragedy and loss is where the power of Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010) lies.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

Dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

Part of the BBC’s annual series A Ghost Story for Christmas, which ran from 1971 to 1978 and featured some of the small screen’s most chilling moments, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas tells of a scholarly Reverend and his young protégé’s search for hidden treasure said to have been buried within a monastery by a disgraced abbot. Much to their detriment the duo ignore ominous warnings of an otherworldly guardian protecting the treasure…

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is a rather typical James story in that it unfurls as a cautionary tale involving the unearthing of a mysterious - reputedly fabled - buried object, only for the excavator to fall foul of the supernatural entity protecting said object. In adapting James’s short story for television, screenwriter John Bowen (Robin Redbreast, The Ice House) introduces the character of young scholar Peter Dattering (Paul Lavers), who accompanies Reverend Somerton (Michael Bryant, The Stone Tape) during his investigations, and a scene depicting Somerton debunking a cosy teatime séance and exposing the mediums as frauds. These additions essentially highlight his scepticism and coldly rational mind (he’s a typical Jamesian protagonist), which makes his later descent into paranoia much more effective. For budgetary reasons the action was relocated to England (James’s original short story took place in Germany) and Clark’s use of the striking Wells Cathedral in Somerset ensures the drama has a fittingly Gothic locale in which to unravel. Some wry humour is evident in the moments when Somerton’s greed almost gets the better of him and he checks himself by insisting to Dattering that his interest in uncovering the treasure is 'purely academic.'

The narrative unfolds as a mystery, with our intrepid sleuths donning their detective caps and attempting to solve various cryptic clues left by the disgraced abbot as to the whereabouts of his treasure. It is revealed that Abbot Thomas had been condemned as a charlatan for dabbling in alchemy. The clues he left are located in a giant stained glass window, ancient Latin texts and various furnishings of the monastery. The elements of horror really only come into play towards the climax, though a few ominous signposts are scattered throughout, such as the spooky encounter with what appears to be a murder of crows on the roof of the monastery and a piece of text which, when translated, reveals something about ‘a guardian’ at the hiding place of the treasure.

Nick Gucker's impression of what lurks behind 'the stone with seven eyes' 
The supernatural elements are introduced gradually and oh so quietly: a strange stain on a drawing, a dim shape on a photographic negative. Quite a few scenes feature robed and hooded monks loitering in the background, and these fuel the creepy atmosphere. Echoes of A Warning to the Curious, and to a lesser extent, Whistle and I’ll Come to You waft throughout Treasure’s narrative, particularly when the guardian of the buried treasure is revealed: an ill-defined, seemingly shapeless mass of slime… Its muculent nature is preempted by various shots of engorged, glistening slugs slithering over stone faces in the tunnel where the treasure is walled up and Somerton’s lone descent beneath the monastery in search of the ‘stone with seven eyes’ is a deliciously dark and tense set piece.

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is a thoroughly engrossing mystery that builds slowly to a shuddery denouement that comes complete with a final image that will chill the spine good and proper. As a side note, James’s story had no small influence on Michele Soavi and Dario Argento when they were writing The Church, which also unfolds as a story concerning the unveiling of dark supernatural secrets buried within hallowed walls.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Ash Tree

Dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

Part of the BBC’s annual series A Ghost Story for Christmas, which ran from 1971 to 1978 and featured some of the small screen’s most chilling moments, The Ash Tree was the last of several MR James adaptations directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. Written for television by David Rudkin, it tells of Sir Richard, who after inheriting the family estate from his great uncle, finds himself overcome with visions of his deceased ancestor’s role in the hanging of a local woman accused of witchcraft…

With a slim running time (just over 30 minutes) The Ash Tree is one of the shortest entries in the series, but it is also one of the densest. The amount of detail and information packed in, without compromising or diluting the impact of the source material, is admirable. Clarke manages to convey events and flashbacks by utilising an interesting narrative structure and some beautifully subtle editing.

Various scenes are linked by unbroken conversation or certain locations, particularly the moments that lead into the flashbacks. The segues into past events and the plight of Sir Richard’s uncle are initially very gradual; we see figures in silhouette entreating Sir Matthew while Sir Richard sits in his study. The way the scene is cut makes it seem like they are addressing Sir Richard. There are also notable differences in costume, hairstyle and language which clarify the timeframes the story switches between. Sir Richard also unwittingly repeats certain things his uncle said and these moments form an aural bridge into the past. In the duel role of Sir Richard and his great uncle, Edward Petherbridge (Blood on Satan’s Claw) delivers an assuredly restrained performance. The duel role and notions pertaining to inherited memories and sins of the fathers visited upon the young, seems to have had no small influence on HP Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, though Sir Richard’s ancestor is painted in a sympathetic light, and his unsavoury part in the hanging of the witch is revealed to be ‘justifiable’ given the creepy revelation at the film’s denouement.

The Ash Tree differs from other James adaptations because the supernatural elements are slightly more overt and much less ambiguous. Less a ghost story and more a depiction of a dying witch’s curse on the bloodline of one of her accusers, Clarke’s adaptation is typically faithful and his rendering of James’ tale of witchcraft, dark family secrets and monstrous creatures is drenched in atmosphere and foreboding. Clarke only strays from the material in order to open up certain subtext merely hinted at in James’s story, namely sexual repression and the desire Sir Richard’s ancestor harboured for the woman he accused of fraternising with the devil, Miss Mothersole. The witch’s spidery offspring - revealed to be dwelling in the titular tree outside the protagonist’s window - are genuinely creepy (James is said to have been terrified of spiders), though the special effects utilised to bring them to life are somewhat dated, the glimpses of their sub-human faces and the wretched sounds they make – akin to a baby crying – are immensely disturbing. Their movements are wisely relegated to the shadows. When they scuttle through Sir Richard’s window we’re treated to a most unsettling shot of them nestling into bed beside him, scurrying over his sleeping body and making sounds which suggest they're suckling...

As with many of the BBC’s other MR James adaptations, The Ash Tree contains elements of Folk horror; indeed it features a number of similarities to one of the prime examples of this fascinating sub-genre: Witchfinder General. One scene in particular – the torture and execution of the witch, with its nudity and implied violence, is very reminiscent of imagery from Michael Reeve’s grimy classic. Further accentuating the film’s folk horror aspects is the subplot involving the discovery of dead livestock and other wild life in the countryside surrounding the Sir Richard’s house – and Ash tree. This not only hints at the dark nature of the tree – and what lurks in its rustling branches – but conveys the plight of farming communities and the fears and concerns they would have had which may have made them susceptible, and desperate enough, to be taken in by a witchfinder’s folly. Their desperation and hopelessness fuels local superstitions.

An illustration by Nick Gucker hinting at the terrors that scuttle through Sir Richard's window
At the heart of events is the ominous presence of the titular tree, its branches providing shade and shadow for the nightmarish events which unfold beneath them, and its roots burrowing deep into the land and history surrounding the house. Various characters also say things like ‘I dread to think what its roots must be doing to your foundations.’ Indeed certain individuals seem to know, or certainly suspect more about the tree’s history than they let on. The Ash tree is significant in folklore throughout the British Isles - and indeed further afield – as it was associated with various religious rites. Three of the five legendary guardian trees of Ireland were Ash trees and they were believed to have mystical healing properties. To this day Ash trees are still grown beside holy wells throughout Ireland, and are said to protect the purity of fresh water springs throughout the Isle of Man. James subverts these connotations of purity and healing to conjure something much more sinister. The titular tree acts as a conduit from which Mothersole conducts her retribution from beyond the grave, and its sinister nature is hinted at throughout the running time with haunting shots of its branches in silhouette against the twilit sky.