There is something inherent in the visual look of 16mm film that makes it very appropriate as the gauge used to shoot early ‘70s TV ghost stories like The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious. Although 16mm film lacks the sharpness, clarity and immediacy of 35mm theatrical film, it nevertheless conveys a kind of un-glossy realism, perhaps because it was the standard format for news gathering prior to the advent of videotape.
It also possesses a certain gloomy translucency, like a faded photograph on a seaside postcard. 16mm is the aesthetic language of old public information films, of footage from decades ago – past memories, archived. It’s the reason that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was so unusually disturbing, and it’s the opposite of bright and clear HD—which is a great compliment.
This strange, almost historical quality is perfect for the chilling, nightmarish period stories of MR James, the scholarly writer once again providing the source material for both of these wonderful BBC adaptations, the second pair of short films released by the BFI as part of the Ghost Stories collection.
The Stalls of Barchester tells the story of Dr Haynes (a heavily mutton-chopped Robert Hardy), a clergyman itching to take over from Archdeacon Pulteney, the elderly incumbent of Barchester Cathedral in rural England. There is a problem, though: Haynes is an ambitious young fellow, and Pulteney isn’t outgoing quite quickly enough for his liking. Tiring of the nonagenarian’s longevity, Haynes decides to engineer a nasty stairway accident in order to instigate the aged man’s swift passage to the other side. Soon afterwards, the spectre of a black cat appears, bringing with it into Dr. Haynes’s living quarters all manner of disembodied voices and laughter, inexplicable nocturnal thumping and movement, and a hooded figure that shadows him during his daily business.
The second film, A Warning to the Curious, treads similar ground to James’s Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, and whilst it’s perhaps the lesser of the two coastal-set tales, it’s still excellent.
A nervy Peter Vaughan plays the Londoner Mr. Paxton, a middle-aged bank clerk and amateur archaeologist recently made redundant. In order to take his mind off his unemployment, he arrives for a few days break in the Norfolk village of Seaburg. Aware of the local legend of a buried religious crown, Paxton intends to unearth it and show the academic establishment his archaeological prowess. However, he doesn’t bank on rumours regarding the ghost of a dead young man, William Ager, guarding the area where crown has been buried (“I’ve seen an old tramp in the trees from time-to-time”, says one unwitting villager to Paxton, “although he never comes this way”.)
Even before the excavation, Paxton begins to see a hulking, cloaked silhouette in the distance, staring in his direction. When he indeed finds the crown and attempts to flee back to London with it, the spectral guardian intervenes and chases him through the undulating woods. Paxton escapes, but he slowly becomes aware that his ghostly companion is now always present (in several tremendously creepy moments, it appears that others can see the ghost near him, but he can’t), so he enlists the help of a local academic Dr Black (Clive Swift), in order to decipher the strange goings-on, and to find a solution.
In common with the previous Ghost Stories DVD release (containing both TV adaptations of Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad), both the characters and environments here are typical of James: Haynes and Paxton are practical men of formality, reason and logic, thrust into terrifying circumstances beyond their control. Both men also commit a sacrilegious act, upsetting the sanctity of religion and incurring the wrath of the unexplainable; Haynes via his diabolical act towards the Archdeacon, and Paxton by disturbing an ancient religious artefact with supernatural powers bestowed upon it.
The films’ director Lawrence Gordon Clark has done a terrific job adapting and directing these texts. A former BBC documentarian, Clarke gives each film a simple, haunting atmosphere. Not only is this exemplified by the aforementioned visual qualities of 16mm film, but also by the locations themselves, whether the dim and airy cloisters of the cathedral, or the huge, open expanses of the Norfolk coast. Special mention must also go to the talented cinematographer John McGlashan, who lights both films very naturalistically, and composes his shots with precision and plenty of room in the frame (often for ‘things’ for inhabit).
The library music selected by Gordon Clarke for A Warning to the Curious is excellent, too: the plaintive flute early on suggests both Paxton’s solitude and loneliness, and the desolate environment he finds himself in. Later on, when the ghost starts to actively pursue the terrified archaeologist, the director uses the hideous, discordant screeches of a string quartet, sounds that recall the most unsettling work of the avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki.
Whilst Gordon Clark directs with an appealing unfussiness and a clear grasp of what makes James so unnerving, he also imbues each with brilliant touches of black humour. I love the delicious shot juxtaposition in The Stalls of Barchester, during the sequence in which Archdeacon Pulteney tumbles down the stairs to his death. This scene ends on a close-up of the dead man’s glassy stare and his big, shiny, bald pate; Gordon Clark then cuts directly to the next scene – at a breakfast table – which opens with a tight shot of a teaspoon smashing the smooth, curved shell of a boiled egg.
Despite a vein of dark humour to leaven the terror, the primary narrative focus is on the eerie scenes in both films, all of which lead to fantastically unpleasant endings. The sequence in A Warning to the Curious during which a terrified Paxton and Dr. Black undertake a midnight expedition deep in the woods, in an effort to return the crown to the earth and placate the ghostly guardian, is a zinger.
The scene begins with a long shot of the pair approaching, the light from their torches initially taking on the appearance of a pair of demonic eyes slowly materialising in the mist. Paxton begins to dig frantically, while Dr Black keeps watch. The crown is replaced in its grave, and the men prepare to leave. As they do, Dr Black uses his torch to have a final cursory scan of the vast, dark woods enveloping them. He sees nothing in the torch’s beam, but to our horror, we do: the cloaked, ghostly figure is lurking there, watching, standing perfectly still behind a distant tree, its milky white face almost luminous in the darkness.
Classically Jamesian, it’s all fabulously done, and truly the stuff of nightmares.
Typically for the BFI, the extras are abundant and high quality. They include a glossy 30-page booklet containing information about M.R. James, both films and Gordon Clark. Also included are performance readings of both stories by Sir Christopher Lee - an actor whose deep, treacly baritone suits the mood of spooky Victorian storytelling perfectly. There are also interesting introductions to each film by the director.