At the moment, I can’t think of a more welcome BFI release than this: the first disc of several featuring the tremendous BBC adaptations of classic English ghost stories, written by some of the finest masters of the genre. Both films on this particular DVD—one from 1968 and one from 2010—are based upon perhaps the best and most frightening story written by the Cambridge scholar M.R. James: 1904’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.
The original television version is Whistle and I’ll Come to You, a fantastic black and white 42-minute short directed with exquisite subtlety by the cultural polymath Sir Jonathan Miller. The film is set in the ‘20s, and was produced in 1968 for the excellent BBC documentary arts strand, Omnibus. Adding a work of fiction to a well-established and highly-regarded non-fiction series was a brave move at the time, but it worked brilliantly, giving the production an added sense of realism and artistic integrity. The film was a success in its slot, and so it originated the subsequent BBC series of annual Ghost Stories for Christmas films, which will each be receiving a BFI DVD release during the coming weeks.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You features a narrative theme common to much of James’ work: a rational, scientifically-minded person—often an academic just like James himself—is thrust into a supernatural situation he or she is ill-equipped to comprehend or intellectually process; as the paranormal events intensify, so the ordered, tangible reality of the protagonist begins to crumble. For many of James’ characters, their core belief systems are challenged, often resulting in a case of “abandon sanity, all ye who enter here”.
In this instance, the poor fellow about to gaze into the abyss is the eccentric Professor Parkins (a wonderfully bumbling Sir Michael Hordern), whose habit of talking to himself is by turns amusing and unsettling. Parkins is an introverted loner and university lecturer who has travelled to England’s bleak and barren Suffolk coast for an off-season walking holiday.
Rational of mind and sceptical of the occult, he happens upon a small bone whistle jutting from the earth in an ancient clifftop graveyard, and chooses, unwisely, to blow it. This innocent act he will come to rue, as it awakens a malevolent spirit that begins to haunt him. Whether the ghost is real or not, or merely borne of Parkins’ erratic psyche, is left hanging by Miller as a tantalisingly ambiguous proposition.
The film’s main apparition is terrifying in its paucity. It makes its first proper appearance to Parkins during a dream (although he has earlier been afforded a chilling and portentous glimpse of an ominous silhouette at dusk, during a walk along the coast); positioned behind him on a huge, desolate stretch of beach, the strange figure is introduced without much fanfare, with Miller wisely keeping it at some distance. The ghost has no human form, but rather resembles a tattered sail, flapping from a stick-like armature. The effect is superbly creepy, and one feels a genuine sense of dread and fear watching this odd apparition glide across the flat sand towards the startled academic.
Parkins flees in terror, seemingly slowed by the stodgy marshmallow feet that often hinder speedy progress in the world of dreams. The sequence is shorn of diegetic sound too, using only a strange rasping throb, hideous shrieks, and the grotesque, distorted and animalistic moans of Parkins in his sleep. It’s all strikingly effective, helped a great deal by Dick Bush’s damp, diffused cinematography.
This haunting dream sequence is the antithesis of the contemporary horror genre, and sets up the terror of the finalé perfectly. You’ll find no elaborate and familiar Hollywood stylistics here to warm the chills: no attractive young stars, no pop promo editing, no cacophonous soundtrack or music, no glistening viscera or abundant CGI. No, Whistle and I’ll Come to You is everything a great cinematic ghost story should be: sparse, frightening, wonderfully understated, beautifully lit, and possessing a central character that is isolated both emotionally and geographically.
In the end, Whistle and I’ll Come to You is essentially a fish-out-of-water tale. Parkins is a highly intelligent antiquarian possessing both a great deal of knowledge, and the rational mind of a city-dwelling academic. Despite being extraordinarily bright, however, his intellectual ability counts for nothing when confronted with the supernatural horrors of Suffolk’s windswept and ghostly landscape, its haunted rooms and shadows.
Parkins needs a logical explanation of the events in order to retain his sanity, yet one is never forthcoming. The learned mind the professor has cultivated during a lifetime spent in the library and lecture hall has no currency or relevance here, in this alien place, and that is as frightening as the ghost itself. Ultimately, Miller offers no answers, nor a neat resolution. The rug has been pulled from under Parkins, disorder reigns, and his life will never be the same again; it’s a chilling and disturbing coda.
Conversely, the companion 2010 version included on the disc is nowhere near as effective as the 1968 original, although there are still a few startling moments here and there.
Now set in the present day, we are once again introduced to an academic man, this time called Parkin rather than Parkins. Parkin is played with craggy dignity by the excellent John Hurt, although his performance is undermined by some important alterations that writer Neil Cross has made to the original character and story—to the detriment of the film overall. Whilst some revision is fine, these major amendments detract from the character’s substance and motivation, and Parkin fails to serve the story as effectively as in the previous versions.
The defining characteristics of the earlier Parkins are his contempt for superstition, and his wilfully logical approach to life; these personal attributes are key to ensuring his confusion and distress are more keenly felt when the spectre arrives and his normality is disrupted, his beliefs challenged.
These character traits have been largely jettisoned in the 2010 film, which begins as Parkin is moving his wife – who is in the throes of advanced dementia – into a care home (this subplot has great significance later on). Parkin is a retired astrophysicist rather than a historian and antiquarian professor this time around, and the idea that he stoically leads a life of reason and logic is not apparent. In fact, any resemblance to the odd batchelor as played by Hordern has disappeared altogether. Hurt’s Parkin may indeed be a rational man of science, but he is certainly not a stubborn and arrogant sceptic of Hordern’s proportions; when the haunting of Parkin begins, we certainly don’t get the same palpable sense of a man’s perception of reality deconstructing before our very eyes, as we do in Miller’s version.
Parkin is shown as an unhappy and emotionally fragile man, left alone to lament on the transient nature of love, life and the human body. Devastated by his wife’s condition, he travels to a solitary coastal hotel that the couple used to frequent, in order to reminisce about their life together. The script’s only indication that Parkin has no belief in the supernatural occurs when he states to the hotel receptionist that “men are matter, and matter rots”. Compare this brief line to the fabulously eccentric and lengthy conversation that Hordern’s Parkins has when he holds court at the breakfast table of the guesthouse, philosophising with a lone fellow diner around notions of death and likelihood that ghosts can’t exist—only to find out in the most disturbing circumstances later on that they apparently can.
Other revisions in the newer version are rather baffling. This time, Parkin finds a gold ring rather than whistle; whilst this allows screenwriter Cross to shoehorn in a different buried artefact - one that is conveniently symbolic of marriage, and therefore Parkin’s impending loss—finding a ring rather than a whistle renders the film’s title somewhat nonsensical.
Perhaps worst of all is the inevitable influence contemporary Japanese horror films such as Ringu have clearly had on the production, particularly during the film’s most unsettling climactic scene. J-Horror films are generally excellent, but their literal and often outlandish scares – think Sadako and that terrifying television scene—are not really compatible with the subtle and suggestive style of a traditional English ghost story.
The very last moments of the film are frustratingly ambiguous too; I’m all for making the viewer work if certain narrative strands are left open to interpretation, but the climax makes little sense, and it also seems to remove the notion of any external supernatural force, suggesting that the spectral goings-on have a far more domestic origin. If the ghost in Miller’s original resides only in Parkins’ overactive mind, this is never explicitly implied, which is a good thing; rather, the notion remains that it probably has an otherworldly origin - which is a far more frightening prospect.
There are also certain stylistic flaws in the recent version; director Andy de Emmony seems a little too enamoured with long, slow tracking shots, and the film also suffers from a common malady found in most modern horror films: too much music. Every creepy moment is punctuated with low, discordant bass notes, faint, ethereal strings, and slow breathy exhalations dripping with reverb. In contrast to the wonderful silence of Miller’s original, this aural distraction represents a form of subtle overkill, disallowing viewers the space to digest the frightening events onscreen, unfettered by foreboding music. It’s better for the chills to develop and creep up on us slowly and silently, rather than being telegraphed by music each step of the way.
On the merit of the original alone, this DVD would have received the highest rating. The 2010 version has some effective moments, but overall it’s a misfire and dilutes the package somewhat, which is a shame; I really wish the BFI had partnered Miller’s film with another of the very strong episodes from the ‘70s. That said, this DVD release is still very highly recommended indeed, solely because Miller’s adaptation is without doubt one of the creepiest and most unsettling ghost stories ever committed to film.
Extras on the disc include a short discussion about the first version with Miller and the renowned cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling, the original James story read in its entirety by the dramatist Neil Brand, and both an introduction to the 1968 film by the horror author Ramsay Campbell, and an additional reading of his own James-inspired short story, The Guide.