By the time Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Ash Tree (1975) had been broadcast by the BBC as part of their on-going and annual seasonal Ghost Stories for Christmas strand, the preceding films in the series (1971’s The Stalls of Barchester and 1972’s A Warning to the Curious) had already garnered critical acclaim. There were also deserved plaudits for the films’ director, Lawrence Gordon Clark, who was complimented not only on his subtle approach to adapting MR James’s excellent source material for television, but also for bringing the aesthetics of his documentary background into each narrative, using a kind of sober realism to give the films’ half-glimpsed ghosts an extra depth and creepiness.
However, with success comes artistic freedom, and with artistic freedom comes potential risk, particularly for a director who is seen to have become a safe pair of hands, one trusted by a producer or broadcaster to make more of the same, with continued reward (think of Spielberg’s relationship with the major Hollywood studios).
Perhaps this is why Lost Hearts, the third film in the series (or the fourth if you count Jonathan Miller’s superb 1968 adaptation of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, My Lad, made for the BBC’s Omnibus programme) is something of a misfire, despite a couple of effective early chills. Maybe Gordon Clark had become too emboldened by high viewing figures and positive reviews, and was temporarily resting on his laurels; whatever the reason, Lost Hearts is far too generous with revealing its spooks, and it suffers as a result, unable to muster a sustained level of unease.
Set on a small English country estate in the 1850s, young orphan Stephen (Simon Gipps-Kent) arrives and is placed in the care of the home’s patriarchal owner, Mr Abney (Joseph O’Conor). Abney, Stephen’s distant cousin, is a mass of snowy white sideburns and joviality, eccentric but harmless. However, when the pale ghosts of two former child residents start to follow Stephen around the property, the role of Abney in their disappearance comes into question, and sinister plans appear to have been made for Stephen, too.
Whereas the earlier films in the series wisely adhere to the rule that partially hidden horrors are more effective than those shown in abundance, Lost Hearts, wearing its meagre budget on its sleeve, affords us too many lingering close-ups of the ghostly children, and these merely serve to reveal low production values.
Both the young actors’ faces are slathered in ‘spooky’ white greasepaint, and some fairly creaky proto-gore effects (the children have holes in their chests, revealing ribs and ‘lost hearts’) remind us that when the film was made, the industry was still almost a decade away from benefiting from Rick Baker’s revolutionary, game-changing prosthetic techniques, as featured in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London.
In light of the film’s lack of scares, the most interesting aspect of Lost Hearts is its references to modernity and progress, reflecting the zeitgeist at the time the story is set. Lost Hearts suggests that scientific knowledge and technical innovation is the enemy of the supernatural, so when Stephen compliments a satanic-themed tapestry hanging in Abney’s study, Abney complains that it’s “a sacred thing, made before the mechanical sciences cast their rude shadow over the world”.
The series gets back on track with the excellent The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, which once again features a typically Jamesian conceit: a formal and slightly arrogant academic disturbs an ancient artefact, incurring the wrath of a vengeful spirit.
The film offers a brilliant lead performance by the Shakespearean actor Michael Bryant (no doubt drawn to the literary origins of the script), who plays the Rev Justin Somerton, a clergyman undertaking a bit of ecclesiastical cryptanalysis in the hope of locating the buried treasure belonging to ‘not-the-good’ Abbot, the whereabouts of which are hinted at in some clues left by the former head of the cathedral. Unfortunately for Somerton, the late Abbot has also left a malevolent guardian to protect his great prize. Will these people never learn?
As always, Gordon Clark directs with great economy, and the film’s most terrifying scene, which sees Somerton finally invading a hidden tomb and claiming the stash of gold, is fabulously chilling (several years ago I was lucky enough to see a 16mm screening of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas at the National Film Theatre in London, and this moment elicited more than a few shrieks from the audience).
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
The final film of the trio is The Ash Tree, a strange and eerie tale of a witch’s curse, and the final MR James story to be adapted for the Ghost Stories series. Edward Petherbridge (a veteran of the Fortune Theatre’s wonderful West End production of The Woman in Black) plays Sir Richard, newly installed as the Squire of Castringham Hall.
Slowly weakening in both mind and energy, he becomes increasingly plagued by visions of his ancestor, Sir Matthew, whose doomed relationship with a witch has cursed the family line. Sir Richard also begins to hear the sound of crying, which appears to emanate from an ash tree that stands beside the large hall.
The Ash Tree
Without giving too much away, the film’s climax, which features a horde of grotesque, mewling spider-like creatures, is a little too unambiguous when compared with the usual subtle and gently creepy standards of the Ghost Stories series, and it only reinforces the notion that these adaptations are at their most effective when showmanship and special effects are at a minimum.
Indeed, with an absence of overbearing and relentless drama, it’s the odd and unexpected supernatural moments - often with minimal sound, or none at all – that give the Ghost Stories their uniquely frightening atmosphere. For example, the most unnerving moment in The Ash Tree doesn’t involve rubbery arachnids at all, but instead features Sir Richard looking from his bedroom window at night and seeing the spectral witch shifting around in the grounds below, staring up at him.
Changing position, he cranes for a better view, just in time to get a fleeting glimpse of her ghostly form gliding silently up to the treetops, trailed by billowing white muslin. This kind of imagery typifies the entire series; when you’re working with a beautifully off-kilter imagination like that, who needs a big budget and overly complicated visuals?
Even with the inclusion of the slightly disappointing Lost Hearts (and to be fair, that film still has some excellent highlights), this third volume of the collection is strongly recommended, and represents some of the best of the BBC’s supernatural-themed output, right up there with 1992’s ground-breaking Ghostwatch.
The extras include more of Gordon Clark’s enlightening introductions to each film, plus a detailed booklet containing a wealth of information, including essays by, among others, the genre writer Ramsey Campbell and the playwright Simon Farquhar.