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Christmas Ghosts

Sunday December 24, 2006 in m.r. james | ghost stories

‘It is Number 13, you see,’ said the latter.
‘Yes; there is your door, and there is mine,’ said Jensen.
‘My room has three windows in the daytime,’ said Anderson with difficulty, suppressing a nervous laugh.
‘By George, so has mine!’ said the lawyer, turning and looking at Anderson. His back was now to the door. In that moment the door opened, and an arm came out and clawed at his shoulder. It was clad in ragged, yellowish linen, and the bare skin, where it could be seen, had long grey hair upon it.
Anderson was just in time to pull Jensen out of its reach with a cry of disgust and fright, when the door shut again, and a low laugh was heard.

M.R.James, Number 13.

During the 1970s, the BBC treated viewers to an annual M.R.James adaptation in its Ghost Stories for Christmas series. Thanks to the Internet Movie Database I’ve found it surprisingly easy to catalogue the entire series as well as other James adaptations, although I must confess a lot of the following is culled from memory:

Night of the Demon (1957)

Based on Casting the Runes, this is a cracking British film directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Mystery and Imagination (1966)

Four stories were filmed for this long forgotten TV series: Casting the Runes, Number 13 (as Room 13), Lost Hearts and The Tractate Middoth.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)

Filmed for the BBC’s Omnibus, Michael Hordern stars and Jonathan Miller directs. An eccentric old professor finds an ancient whistle on an isolated beach and gets more than he bargained for. Rarely repeated, probably due to the fact that it was shot in black and white, this is a very creepy and odd little film.

The Ghost Stories for Christmas series:

  • The Stalls of Barchester (1971)
  • A Warning to the Curious (1972)
  • Lost Hearts (1973)
  • The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)
  • The Ash Tree (1975)

The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious are most familiar to me, possibly because they were the most often repeated, and watching all of the films when they were shown again last year I found A Warning to the Curious by far the best. Watch out for the satisfyingly scary ending.

Although made more than thirty years ago, the films have stood the test of time. The BBC appear to have splashed out a little on the budgets, with a lot of location shooting. The series is also interesting for featuring a host of recognisable British actors, including Peter Vaughan, Robert Hardy, Michael Bryant and Clive Swift.

The series moved away from James with Charles Dickens’ The Signalman in 1976 and a new story the following year, Stigma. Lawrence Gordon Clark, who had directed all of these films, offered his final James story in 1979 with a contemporary version of Casting the Runes.

La Chiesa (1989)

This obscure Italian film by Michele Soavi is an adaptation of The Treasure of Abbott Thomas.

Christopher Lee’s Ghost Stories for Christmas (2000)

Christopher Lee took an undeserved credit here as he was actually playing M.R. James, recreating the Christmas Eves where he would read his stories aloud to his students at Cambridge. The Stalls of Barchester, The Ash Tree, Number 13 and A Warning to the Curious were featured.

BBC Four to the rescue

Last Christmas, the BBC revived their James adaptations with a classy film of A View From a Hill. This year they screened a new version of Number 13 starring Greg Wise.

In Number 13, the guest in hotel room fourteen notices that he is adjacent to room twelve. What’s particularly disturbing for him is that room thirteen mysteriously appears between the two rooms only at night-time, squeezing the roomspace so that only two windows face the bed instead of three. Other ghostly goings on begin to occur surrounding the rather unusual inhabitant of the new room which are played out only in muffled noise and shadow.

I’m still digesting the new adaptation of Number 13 after just watching it, but I found Wise excellent in the title role, and although some liberties have been taken with the text, this is still pleasingly good and very much in the spirit of James. And the BBC do justice to that terrifying arm…

It’s a little unfair to say ‘Christopher Lee took an undeserved credit’ for various reasons.

First, he was personally embarrassed by the appellation; it clearly wasn’t applied by him, after all! Second, the extended title you mention only appeared in the Radio Times (for obvious purposes of getting in more viewers) – the actual on-screen title is plain GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS.

Incidentally, if LA CHIESA is an adaptation of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, surely RING (whether the Japanese or US version) is a loose adaptation of Casting the Runes?

jonathan rigby    Saturday December 12, 2009   

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