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5.0 out of 5 stars
WHISTLING TOWARD THE GRAVEYARD (a U.S. review), 13 April 2014
As an American, I inevitably failed to see the "Ghost Stories for Christmas" adaptations when first televised, since they were never exported to the U.S. I was impressed, however, when a fellow horror enthusiast in the States sent me some bootlegs nearly a decade ago. For years I'd fallen into a funk over the state of horror films in America, which had plummeted from their apex in the 1930s and 40s into a quicksand of gore and special effects.
Not that tawdriness had ever been far from the genre - one has only to recall the cheap gimmicks of William Castle in the 1950s with films like "The Tingler" and "13 Ghosts" (and Castle wasn't the worst of them). Still, I couldn't help but reflect on what it was about directors from my native country that made them so immune to quality in this field. Certainly the profit motive had something to do with it, but to lay all the blame on big business and bloated studios was too facile an answer.
Before getting to these "Ghost Stories", then, allow me a moment's reflection. Because the more I considered this question, it occurred to me that virtually all the best "American" horror directors were not really "American" at all. In reality, they were British, European, or Russian expatriates (James Whale; Jacques Tourneur; Val Lewton) or were foreign cinematographers who probably had significant impact on the finished products (e.g., Karl Freund and Karl Struss). Tod Browning was to some extent an exception; however, Browning's true specialty was material horror based on physical deformities (e.g., the films he made with Lon Chaney, Sr., or the 1932 "Freaks"), and when he entered supernatural territory in "Dracula," the result was pedestrian in cinematic terms, whatever its box office success.
It was Universal Studios, of course, that first brought horror films to America (at least with any consistency, or conscious awareness of the genre as an exploitable commodity), and these films invariably channeled elements of German Expressionism, on one hand, or the British "Old Dark House" tradition on the other. Strangely, films on spectral themes were never very prominent, despite the fact that the stories of M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood (a Canadian) were already popular here and often anthologized. Only a few such films had captured the mass market prior to 1968 - that is, prior to the Ghost Stories for Christmas series - "The Cat and the Canary" (1927), "The Uninvited" (1944), "The Innocents" (1961), and "The Haunting" (1963). And even in later decades, after "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" kicked off the most recent "horror boom" in Hollywood, films on ghostly themes constituted only a small minority of the total.
I'd wager that Americans simply lack one of the key ingredients needed for superior work in this genre, and that is a culture which not only has a centuries-old tradition of supernatural folklore, but also a milieu which values art above commerce. In other words, the profit motive unquestionably plays a part, but America does not have a cultural history conducive to the production of quality work in the field. There's good reason, after all, why Edgar Allan Poe placed so many French and Italian epigraphs over his short story titles, and couched so many tales in European venues - he may have protested that horror was "of the soul", but he knew where the real stuff came from.
So what is it that makes the "Ghost Stories for Christmas" so superior? I believe it's precisely the fact that they evoke not only the world of M.R. James specifically (however we might feel about the poetic license taken by Lawrence Gordon Clark and others), but because they carry the eerie atmosphere of Old England that James, the antiquarian, was most preoccupied with. We get the same feeling, of course, in "Schalken the Painter," Leslie Megahey's masterful 1979 dramatization of J.S. LeFanu's eponymous story. There, too, the clamoring shadows of pagan lore lurk deep in the background, only to emerge with frightening abruptness when we turn our heads away.
I won't spend time analyzing these films in detail; there are too many of them, and it would take too much time relating plot minutiae and other matters that reviewers have already covered. But I would like to mention just a few things that struck me as powerful and that seem to me to convey something new to the genre.
These elements are most apparent in several of my favorite dramas - "Whistle and I'll Come to You" (especially, though not exclusively, the 1968 version), "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," "The Ash Tree," "Number 13," and "A Warning to the Curious." All were literate, subtle, beautifully acted, and quietly terrifying. There really is nothing like them in the United States, perhaps the closest cousins being some of the Karloff-hosted "Thriller" dramas (particularly "Pigeons from Hell") and a 1960 pilot film called "Dark Intruder" starring Leslie Nielsen. Jacques Tourneur had, of course, directed the famous "Night of the Demon," based on James's "Casting the Runes," though here again producers displayed their gaucherie by inserting a studio monster into the works rather than leaving things to the imagination. By contrast, these BBC miniatures give us something novel, and that is a sense of gradual encroachment, something not quite seen but naggingly menacing, ancient yet persisting, creeping from the external world to the inner psyche - entities that cling, sting, and cannot be shaken off.
This encroachment, of course, was most palpable in "Whistle and I'll Come to You," on the first disc of this set. In the 1968 version, the scene where Parkins is chased across the sand dunes by a barely-seen presence is one of the most powerful moments in film history, and the use of sound is every bit as effective as the role of suggestion. But other dramas use the same devices, and almost as well - the sequence, for example, in "A Warning to the Curious," when we see a hotel door close by itself and then have "the boots" explain that no one's rooming there -- it's just a utility closet. And the scene in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" where we catch a brief glimpse of a darkly hooded figure passing by us - so quickly, in fact, that the proverbial blink will miss it.
Or take the scene in "The Ash Tree," where eerie arachnids are half-seen crawling across a bedspread or scampering across tree limbs like acrobats in a circus. A cheap director would have shown them with all hairs bared, but Clark had the subtlety to hide most of them -- the rest was left to us.
I could go on, but there's really no point. Again, though, I'd stress that only the British and Eurasians seem capable of this kind of work. If I were to cite Continental examples, I'd mention several adaptations of the brilliant Polish writer, Stefan Grabinski (see "Dom Sary" and "Slepy Tor," directed by Zygmunt Lech and Ryszard Ber, respectively), or the superb adaptation of LeFanu's "Carmilla" by Janusz Kondratiuk. Admittedly, such products aren't legion, but they at least show what's possible when a great director puts his mind to it.
In short, I would unreservedly recommend this "Ghost Stories" box set, not only to horror fans, but (and please pardon me while I duck) clueless American directors who can't seem to put down the chainsaw.