Saturday, December 29, 2012

Meltdown 06: Yuletide Spooks (Part II)

 The Ash Tree (1975) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

The Ash Tree is the last of the BBC's M.R. James adaptations for A Ghost Story for Christmas during the initial 1970s run. The series would take some different and then eventually questionable turns with the entries that followed (see below), but The Ash Tree lines up more or less squarely with Lawrence Gordon Clark's prior James films. However, it does possess some distinguishing features: its mid-eighteenth century setting and costumes make it the most period piece-y of the lot, and its predilection towards quiet, dialogue-free sections and dreamed hallucinations render it even more abstract than the similarly moody A Warning to the Curious. Like nearly all of these adaptations, it omits the source tale's historian narrator for a narrative without framing, and this one begins its narrative about halfway through James's "The Ash Tree," in the later section concerning the fate of Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge). Such a move would forgo much of the tale's important back story (including the hanging of a witch and the mysterious death of Sir Richard's distant ancestor, Sir Matthew) if not for a rather ingenious use of flashbacks. Rather than having Sir Richard discover the history of his newly inherited property and its tangly ash tree through written records or spoken testimony, he is actually haunted by visions of the past. Mid-thought or conversation, Sir Richard will slip through time into the past, re-living previous events as Sir Matthew (both roles are played, in a most "confounded" manner, by Petherbridge). I found this discontinuity of time, place, and character a novel way of approaching the material that-- while certainly a departure from James's structural intentions of the inevitable lineage of foolhardiness-- adds further unease and uncertainty (are they merely hallucinations?) to the relaying of information.

This ancestral haunting of Sir Richard's mind can also be appreciated on another level, as it is the only tangible sign of ghostly happenings in what is otherwise James's great monster story (and we do expect ghosts given the series' title). But Clark and writer David Rudkin have some fun interpreting the the monsters as well. The tale's revelation of a nest of venomous, human head-sized spiders living in the hollow of the property's ash tree is here modified to a rather drastic though equally horrific degree: though still ostensibly spiders, the monstrous creatures that crawl in through Sir Richard's bedroom window have, in addition to eight spindly legs, the furry heads of human babies which they use to cry out into the night for their mother. The creature design, though cheap and often obscured by low light, close-ups, and quick camera movements, is about as terrifying as it sounds, and the image of them hovering (nay, suckling) on Sir Richard's sleeping corpse will not soon leave me. The film creates a sort of internal logic for these creatures (which is more than the James story provides) by changing the hanged witch's final words from the rather banal "there will be guests at the hall" to the more explicit "mine shall inherit" and placing her shriveled, leathery corpse-- upon discovery beneath the ash tree-- in a birthing position. These are some perhaps unnecessary but nonetheless intriguing alterations that leave The Ash Tree as a fine conclusion to a strong run of adaptations.

The Signalman (1976) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

For 1976's entry in the series, Clark and writer Andrew Davies turned to Dickens for fresh material for adaptation to the small screen. Choosing Dickens's nearly perfect short ghost yarn The Signalman, they make the correct decision by leaving the story's narrative relatively intact. It's a wonderful short film, with a pitch-perfect performance by Denholm Elliot in the titular role of the haunted and despairing signalman. By putting into words much of the conversations held between the Traveler (Bernard Lloyd) and the Signalman (which the story glosses over in narration), the film emphasizes the existential underpinnings of the story and the plight of the Signalman. Lines like, "so little to do with so much depending on it," "take comfort in the discharge of your duty," and "I'll stick to my duty. Nothing else to be done" all make plain his aimless lot in life. He even claims to no longer find value in learning and knowledge, for what is he to do with such information stuck down below in his shack by the railway tracks, waiting for a bell to ring so that he can put into action his mindless, mechanical responsibilities? The visual realization of the supernatural appearances is wonderfully done, and most of the changes made to the story (like the Traveler witnessing the Signalman's death) seem very minor and more for dramatic purposes. However, one change struck me as more significant: the second disaster that the ghost forewarns of (in the tale, the instantaneous death of a woman riding in a train cabin) is converted into a woman (specifically, a newlywed bride in her wedding dress) throwing herself from her cabin window to her own death. We're not informed as to why she chose to kill herself, but we can ponder. Might she have been taking action, however grim, against the solitary and isolated existence she had consigned herself to through marriage? If so, her actions are paralleled by those of the Signalman who (perhaps unwittingly, but perhaps not) is relieved of his chosen daily grind by an easily avoidable death. Though the program's move away from M.R. James's ghost stories is a perplexing decision (especially considering the large number of them left untapped), The Signalman hardly makes a solid case against it.

Stigma (1977) dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

After the creative success of The Signalman, the minds behind A Ghost Story for Christmas opted to abandon literary adaptations altogether for the next round, commissioning an original story and script from writer Clive Exton. Perhaps this decision in itself wouldn't have been enough to rise anyone's ire, but the updating of the setting to contemporary England certainly was. Watching Stigma without background information would provide the viewer with no evidence that what she was watching belonged to a nearly decade-old series. Where are the period costumes, the fog-drenched landscapes, the lantern light revealing untold horrors? If we consider The Ash Tree to be a ghost story, then Stigma fits the title nearly as well, but it fails to feel like a ghost story in the same mold. It concerns a small, quietly dysfunctional family moving into a new house in the country. When the mother, Katherine (Kate Binchy), has some laborers use heavy machinery to lift a long-standing boulder off their lawn, a powerful gust of wind and saxophones blows from underneath into her face, possessing her with some sort of ancient curse that causes copious amounts of blood to persistently well up on her skin under her breast, despite the absence of any wound. It's a chilling premise, and Katherine's frantic handling of her own bleeding is effective in its horror. And not shying away from uncertainty, the "simple" explanation for her sudden fatal ailment (the presence of a spooky knife-pierced skeleton under the boulder in their lawn) is complicated by her glum daughter's (Maxine Gordon) apparent knowledge of the arcane and (of all things) a recurring onion motif. Stigma is a great horror short (and at barely over a half hour, it is short), but a Christmas story to be enjoyed by the warmth of the fire it is not.

The Ice House (1978) dir. Derek Lister

Though unquestionably the low-point of the series thus far (and, as far as one can tell, the film that killed the initial run of the series), The Ice House retains some fascinating qualities. It's the first entry not to be directed by series mainstay Lawrence Gordon Clark, and, like the previous year's Stigma, forgoes a literary source and sets its action in the present. But while one could perhaps make a case for Stigma's inclusion in a series under the header A Ghost Story for Christmas (being that it is at some level a ghost story), the same could not be done for The Ice House, which features neither ghosts nor hauntings. In fact, the supernatural events in this entry are the most inexplicable of the lot, with some frozen corpses, incestuous (possibly alien) brother and sister proprietors, and sentient vines all mingling together during Paul's (Bernard Lloyd) stay at a posh spa for the lonely and isolated souls of England. It's an entrancing watch, but laden with enough unresolved and unexplained intrigue to leave most viewers (ahem) cold. Because the film is so willfully ambiguous, I find it difficult to unpack much of its symbolism or dialogue (so I won't). It's a peculiar (and perhaps fatal) misstep for the series, being so far removed from the concerns and aesthetics of the previous seven entries. The Ice House would have made a perfectly enjoyable (if inscrutable) entry in any other horror or science fiction anthology program, so it's a shame it wound up as the runt of this one.

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