Thursday, December 27, 2012

Meltdown 06: Yuletide Spooks (Part I)

Contrary to what you'd probably imagine, I've never been much of a fan of horror literature. Because the appeal of horror is (for me) rooted so deeply in sound and vision, I'd been less than impressed with the textual approximations of those senses found in the works of the odd author or two that I'd sampled over the years. But throughout the past year and a half I've been perusing a wider variety of supernatural literature, in the hope of warming to the genre, and have acquainted myself with more than a few masters: Algernon Blackwood, Robert Aickman, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen, Sheridan Le Fanu, H.P. Lovecraft, L.T.C. Rolt, and Robert W. Chambers. I discovered that each of these authors skillfully and subtly creates dread through detail and deliberate pacing. Their thrills are not visceral but bone-chilling. They are practitioners of the slow-burn horror: as readers, we're the frogs stuck in their slowly boiling pots, failing to realize the danger we're in until it's too late.

Perhaps foremost among these writers is M.R. James (1862-1936), who wrote only around thirty tales of the supernatural in his career (all of them ghost stories, of a sort) but who perfected the art of the creeping terror like no one before him. In his introduction to his own Collected Ghost Stories, James recounts that the majority of these tales were written to be read at the fireside on cold December nights, so it shouldn't seem inappropriate that, in 1971, the BBC began an annual tradition of filming adaptations of James's tales for a program they called A Ghost Story for Christmas. The following movie marathon will cover all of the BBC's adaptations of James's work, plus one by Dickens and two stories original to the series. These titles have recently been collected and restored by the BFI for a home video release, which of course comes highly recommended.

The Stalls of Barchester (1971) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

After plotting the demise of his predecessor and stroking a grotesque cursed statute on his stall, the new Archdeacon at Barchester Cathedral is plagued by the nightly apparitions of a large cat waiting in the dark outside his bedroom and a menacing whisper that urges him to "take care" and wishes him a happy new year. The inaugural entry in A Ghost Story for Christmas, The Stalls of Barchester refrains from deviating from its source material. It is a nearly exact adaptation, and a more than admirable one at that. James's frame narrative is retained with the film featuring his narrator discovering the grim story of Dr. Haynes (Robert Hardy) in a gloriously musty old library that would set any of the antiquarians that populate these tales tittering. Some playful work in adapting the story for the screen, like a humorous montage spanning a decade as Haynes waits and prays for the persistently living current Archdeacon to croak, help makes the tale as enjoyable to watch as to read. Though a well paced and imagined adaptation on the whole, the visualizations of James's subtle ghostly manifestations vary in effectiveness: for every inspired moment-- like Dr. Haynes's climactic tumble down the staircase by way of some horrific help-- there's one a bit hokier undercutting the atmosphere (a furry monster hand grabbing Haynes's shoulder, though well intentioned, feels too much like it came from the costume shop's clearance basement). Regardless, The Stalls of Barchester is a fine start to the series and definite proof that James's decidedly bookish and literary tales can-- with some wise tinkering-- make a successful transition to the screen.

A Warning to the Curious (1972) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

The Stalls of Barchester was followed up a year later by A Warning to the Curious, a less precise and (perhaps because of this) in many ways even more effective adaptation than its predecessor. A Warning to the Curious is one of James's most structurally complex narratives, featuring at one point four (!) whole levels of framed mediation, as the narrator recounts the narration of a narrator recounting the narration of a third narrator telling of what a fourth narrator told him about the English Seaside town's belief in the folkloric buried crowns of Anglia, protecting Suffolk for centuries from foreign invasion. Clark's adaptation jettisons the multiple narrators, alters the central character's motivation (from unfortunate scholarly curiosity to personal greed), collapses several characters into others (bringing over Dr. Black (Clive Swift), the library scrounger from The Stalls of Barchester, in place of a few of them), and streamlines the narrative into a chronological account (while throwing in a prologue that is perhaps too revealing of the ghostly crown protector's living temperament). Continuing the theme of pagan superstitions proving all too real and baffling uncritical adherence to the Christian faith, this tale concerns Paxton (Peter Vaughn) a cosmopolitan Londoner hit hard by the Depression who has traveled to the seaside town of Seaburg in search of the mythical third buried crown, presumably so that he can hawk it for some easy cash. Paxton meets some resistance from the locals when he brings the crown up in conversation, and after he discovers and nabs it for himself he is then pursued by the ghastly shade of its tireless protector, William Ager, who has been dead a few years but won't seem to cease carrying out his duty.

The film's murky seaside landscapes, filmed primarily in gorgeous long shots and often punctuated with the indistinct, out of focus figure of Ager lurking in the background, are entrancing and lend a sense of hostility to the atmosphere, as if the land itself is rearing up in supernatural fury at Paxton's desecration of it. It's a quiet film, and a bit overlong (it's the longest adaptation of any of them, clocking in at over fifty minutes), but it's also undeniably frightening: the reveal by flashlight of Ager's sickly white ghost  from behind, crouched in Paxton's hotel room, as he slowly turns his head toward the camera was enough to produce an audible gulp in this viewer's throat.

Lost Hearts (1973) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

A twelve-year-old orphan boy, Stephen (Simon Gipps-Kent) is invited to live in the mansion of his reclusive elderly cousin, Mr. Abney (Joseph O'Conor), whom he has never before met. Upon arriving, he is greeted warmly by Mr. Abney, who seems overly concerned with Stephen's health, and it's not long before the friendly facade of his welcome gives way to tales of missing children, visions of ghostly figures crowding in windows, and vestiges of something scratching at Stephen's bedroom door in the night to be let in. Lost Hearts is derived from one of James's weakest stories, and though it makes a clever decision by bringing the latent fairytale elements of the original story to the surface it still can't escape the tale's ordinariness. It's conventional, storybookish, predictable. The revelation of Stephen's cousin's alchemical madness and murder is no shock, and the hauntings leading up to it (at least in the story) are hardly memorable. James's story  struggles with this conventionality: he attempts to incorporate his requisite antiquarian narrator into this otherwise straightforward third person yarn, and the mixture reads awkwardly, with the plot being sidelined for one of the narrator's misplaced tangents every now and again, which only makes the reader wonder how it was he came across this tale and chose to believe it. Clark's adaptation drops the narrator's frame and, consequently, the story becomes all the more conventional. 

However, Clark's Lost Hearts, to a degree not seen in the previous adaptations, explores the psychological and sexual implications of its characters' motivations. Its conclusions aren't very complex, but the emphasis on the pedophilic intent of Mr. Abney (brushed over in the story) adds a smidgen of lurid interest to the narrative. Mr. Abney salivates over Stephen's warm hands and strong pulse, is overly concerned that the boy is exactly twelve years old, and can't wait to feed and plump him up. (That last bit will correctly bring to mind "Hansel and Gretel," but in this case the Hansel and Gretel proxies have already been gobbled up by the witch and have come back as ghosts to warn off his next victim). Mr. Abney's inclinations become even more overt when he invites Stephen to a midnight rendezvous, which fails to transpire in the source story. When he arrives in Mr. Abney's study, Stephen is forced to drink some drugged wine, after which Mr. Abney tears open his shirt, caresses his hairless chest and hovers a big old ceremonial blade over the boy's heart. The phallic symbolism of the blade is, well, apparent, and soon after we're given a lovely play of silhouettes as the ghosts remove the blade (or his piercing masculine power) from his hands and turn it on his own heart. 

The last bit of interest, and one that sets Lost Hearts far apart from any of the other adaptations covered in this post, is the willingness with which it clearly displays its ghostly entities. When the camera isn't zooming in on their faces cramped against circular windows (as if they were in a Mario Bava film), the ghost children are shown in full traipsing down hallways playing a hurdy gurdy and wiggling their finely pointed fingers in the air. They're less frightening than they are magical, but that is hardly inappropriate for a fairytale.

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

Though an even looser adaptation of its source material than A Warning to the Curious, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas benefits similarly from its decision to forge a path separate from its literary antecedent. In truth, it's the best film of the initial four, presenting an engaging mystery, an unnerving supernatural presence, and a well-developed central character. Rev. Somerton (Michael Bryant) and his young pupil Lord Peter (Paul Lavers) are entranced by the historical puzzle they uncover in library records of Abbot Thomas, a man who claimed to have been an alchemist who converted base metals into gold and then hid his loot and clues to its location somewhere around the local church grounds. James's story finds Somerton pursuing the mystery on his own and recounting its horrific outcome to a rector, the story's narrator. Clark and writer John Bowen's adaptation drops this structure in favor of a linear narrative and gives him a partner in Lord Peter, who in many ways seems a younger version of Somerton himself. 

In making Somerton the central character, the adaptation also chooses to explore his psyche as the rationality of his non-supernatural world crumbles when faced with undeniable and unexplainable phenomena. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas adds a charming opening scene in which Somerton, at Lord Peter's behest, debunks a phony pair of mediums staging seances for Peter's mother's benefit. Somerton clearly has no tolerance for the "supernatural," but his ceaseless pursuance of Abbot Thomas's treasure hints at his sense of doubt. Does he wish to uncover the truth behind this arcane myth that no one knows much about to prove its non-supernatural origins to the world or to himself? In either case, what is clear is his inability to cope with the supernatural when it is presented to him as fact. At one moment, in conversation with Peter after having discovered the abbot's treasure, Somerton dismisses its value, claiming that it is all worthless metals though the bag that Peter noses through is clearly full of gold. Faced with the existence of the non-rational (in both the existence of the gold and the gooey guardian that protects it), Somerton crumples, emotionally and psychologically, and ends up wheelchair bound, with his ambiguous fate at the film's conclusion (again an invention of the adaptation) making plain that he'll never be able to to escape the unearthly forces that have invaded his worldview. 

Of further interest in this adaptation are the delightful clue-finding and cipher-breaking sequences (reminiscent of Poe's "The Gold-Bug") and the visualization of the treasure's ghostly protector, here rendered as a Blob-like entity that attempts to ooze under Somerton's door every night until the abbot's treasure is returned to its designated hiding place. Series director Lawrence Gordon Clark's style and visual flourish has in many ways varied with each entry, and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas finds him at his best, somewhere along the border of the empirical world and that of nightmares.

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