Ghost Stories: The Signalman, Stigma and The Ice House
UK DVD: 17 Sep 2012
It was bound to happen eventually. British television viewers, having enjoyed the BBC’s consistently excellent Ghost Stories for Christmas on an annual basis since the late ‘60s, had to endure seeing the series finally splutter to an inglorious end in 1978 with The Ice House, a real howler and the antithesis of the generally fabulous and chilling films that preceded it. On this evidence, it’s no surprise that Ghost Stories for Christmas fizzled out.
Once again released by the BFI, these final three shorts represent both the best and the worst of the series. Following 1975’s The Ash Tree, and for the first time since the programme’s inception, producer Rosemary Hill and director Lawrence Gordon Clark decided that the literature of MR James had been exhausted for texts that could be plausibly adapted, so they looked elsewhere for suitable material.
Their search led them to the work of another terrific writer, Charles Dickens. The opening film on this DVD, 1976’s The Signalman, is one of the best in the entire collection, and demonstrates that not only was Dickens a writer of extraordinary talent, but that Clark (who directed all but one of the Ghost Stories for Christmas films) is a filmmaker with impeccable taste, perfectly able to convey the eerie and odd ambience of each story.
Telling a tale of ghostly premonition, the finest aspect of the film, other than Dickens’ story, is a great central performance by Denholm Elliot (Elliott was already an established film star, but took a reduced fee because he liked the script so much). Never before has the actor’s heavy-lidded and tense, jittery style been better utilised.
A signalman (Elliott) living in an isolated signalman’s cottage is joined for company by a traveller (the formidable Welsh actor Bernard Lloyd), who is staying at a country inn nearby. Over the course of the film’s 40 minute running time, the traveller coaxes out of the signalman the source of his obvious fear and distress, which it transpires is a cloaked ghost that appears each time a railway accident is about to occur.
Applying reason and logic to the situation, the traveller manages to calm the signalman with soothing words like “overactive imagination”, but as we find out, the terrifying apparition the signalman sees is all too real, and danger is imminent.
Everything in The Signalman works. The dramatic location – a lonely stretch of railway line leading into a tunnel that is cut into a sheer rock face – is exactly as it was described in Dickens’ frightening story, and the photography by David Whitson is beautifully evocative, featuring as it does all manner of shadows, fog and backlit steam billowing from the trains that thunder through the cutting.
The Signalman was followed by 1977’s Stigma, a rare dud from Clark, and the film that began a trend that blighted the final two productions of the ‘70s: both are set in the present day. Ironically, and with that in mind, Stigma’s original script, written by Clive Exton, harks back to the past and desperately strives to ape the constituent elements of James’ greatest work.
Stigma concerns the fortunes of a professional couple and their teenage daughter, who move into an English country cottage located in the middle of an ancient stone circle. Wishing to develop the land, the couple hire a group of construction workers to make some changes, but the crew inadvertently disturb a menhir, causing the family to experience some unsettling supernatural activity.
If you think all this sounds familiar, you’d be correct. As the BBC team had no more suitable James stories to adapt (Dickens, too), you can sympathise with Clark’s desire to retain the successful status quo and commission a story in the vein of James, but transposing a typically Jamesian story to a contemporary location doesn’t really work. Perhaps it’s primarily a stylistic consideration; gone is the damp 19th Century English countryside, chilled by winter and diffused by mist; gone too is the mannered speech that brought the period literature of Dickens and James to life (much of the dialogue in The Signalman was lifted verbatim from the original text).
Still, despite this, a below par Clark film will often have some merit – and Stigma does, here and there – but it’s still a let-down when compared to earlier episodes.
The Ice House is definitely where Ghost Stories for Christmas falls apart. This film was the first since ‘71 not to have been directed by Clark, and his atmospheric style is badly missed. The Ice House is a try-hard and largely incomprehensible mishmash about a pair of evil siblings who run an expensive rural health spa and use friendly coercion to cryogenically freeze their guests. Not only is the film confusing and far too ambiguous, but it’s not at all frightening either. Having a complete lack of ghosts probably doesn’t help, and you can’t really blame people watching an episode of Ghost Stories for Christmas for having expectations of the supernatural now, can you?
It’s surprising that the script for The Ice House was written by John Bowen, who also supplied the adaptation for an earlier and infinitely superior episode The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. Perhaps working with the constraints of adapting MR James’ beautifully written story was enough to ensure Bowen’s excesses were kept in check, because left to his own devices and given free rein to pen an original, he created this meandering mess.
The Ice House (1978)
I’m not suggesting that ghost stories shouldn’t be cerebral (Henry James’ masterful The Turn of the Screw is a fabulous example of a highly intelligent ghost story, and a benchmark for conveying subtle ambiguity), but at their very core ghost stories must exude a chilliness in order to be deemed successful. Clark even acknowledges in one of his film introductions that regardless of any directorial artistry or clever subtext, a basic lack of scares means one thing: failure (“a ghost story that doesn’t scare people is the same as a comedian that doesn’t make people laugh”, he says).
Other than confusion, The Ice House doesn’t exude anything chilly at all, and resembles a dated episode of The Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, with added pretension (or perhaps an episode of The Professionals, had it been directed by a David Lynch on an off-day). Thematically, it has more in common with the execrable Invasion of the Blood Farmers than it has with the spooky brilliance of a James or Dickens ghost story.
Overall, it’s a sad, ignoble end to a great series. Despite the BBC resurrecting Ghost Stories for Christmas briefly in the mid-‘00s for three reasonably effective episodes, the golden period of the show was definitely the early to mid-70s, so treat 1976 and The Signalman as a cut-off point and you’ll be just fine.
For The Signalman alone, this DVD would have got a very high rating indeed, but the lame and even lamer ducks included with it bring the overall quality of the DVD down. Extras on the disk include Clark’s introductions to his episodes, and an accompanying booklet containing information about each film.
The Signalman (1976)