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An atmospheric ghost story for the long nights, but very disappointing picture quality
on 20 January 2015
Given a single screening on UK TV on New Year's Eve 1987 and promptly interred in the vaults without ever being repeated, Danny Huston made his directorial debut with a rather decent 54-minute adaptation of Leon Garfield's Mister Corbett's Ghost. Mark Farmer's apprentice is the constant victim of Paul Scofield's cold-hearted apothecary's pettiness, never more so than on New Year's Eve when his demands that an endless succession of petty tasks be "willingly done" with heart and soul keep him from his family. They also drive him to strike a deal with John Huston's very different kind of apothecary, who also wants to be sure those who seek his services do so with all their heart and soul as he trades deaths for a quarter - he always deals in quarters - of the customer's earnings for the rest of his life. But with Mr. Corbett suddenly dead, it looks increasingly likely that everyone will assume Farmer did it, especially when he's unable to hide the body as even the grotesque parade of murdering footpads disposing of their night`s catch turn against him. But Huston's next offer only makes matters even worse...
Garfield's atmospheric and oft-adapted for TV children's novels set in the 18th century are well worth reading with their strong sense of place, character (particularly those of low repute) and colourful Dickensian dialogue, and while it's not the most visually ambitious effort, Huston's film manages to capture a lot of that distinctive flavour and deliver a pleasingly cosy but somewhat morally ambiguous ghost story. It's the sort of thing that once used to be a fixture in the Christmas television schedules, albeit with a more impressive cast than most with Paul Scofield in the title role and, in his last screen role and clearly having a ball as the collector of souls, a scene-stealing John Huston.
Unfortunately, despite being shot on 35mm film, the UK DVD has been mastered from what looks like an old video source, and there's a lack of detail which is particularly noticeable with so much of the film taking place outdoors at night. It's not as bad as a Public Domain copy of an old movie, but its poor quality is thrown into sharper relief by the newly shot 15 minute featurette with Huston, producer Barry Navidi and Huston's mother Zoe Sallis (who was instrumental in persuading John Paul Getty to finance the film when some of the original backers fell out, selling the combination of father and son collaborating as movie history repeating itself after John and Walter Huston worked together).