Lost Hearts (1973 TV Short)
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"Lost Hearts" is a gripping story that focuses on the somewhat eccentric and sinister activities of a boys cousin as the former is an orphan who has been sent to live at his cousin's country estate.
I enjoyed this episode all the way through as each scene bears relevance to the plot.
Could this be made today? The connotations are distasteful, and when you think this was made in the '70s, and the original story was written in Lewis Carrol's time, you wonder if something is being thinly veiled.
This creates a nice Dickensian vibe, as the noble hero is welcomed into a world of slightly grotesque but affable adults whose goal is to mistreat and abuse him. The villain is played very well, but I didn't think the hero was good in close up - always blinking.
Nicely shot, with the spookiness established immediately, and the sets and costumes are perfect. The ghosts are possibly overdone, but eerie nonetheless. (I wonder if the ghouls in the Hush episode of Buffy were inspired by this.) The climax is on the nose, which is a pity, since it could have afforded to be less literal, more mysterious.
Overall - stylish little spook fest.
One thing Clarke does very well is create mood without even a hostile ghost ('The Sixth Sense (1999)' and 'The Others (2001)' would do this very well decades later). The two children, their faces pale and their fingernails talon-like, stand cross-armed outside the house, silent sentries; the boy plays an instrument called the hurdy-gurdy, and walks with an unsettling, lopsided toothy smile. Perhaps the film would have been even better had Clarke withheld the children's identity until the final act. By introducing the previous orphans – not just through dialogue, but images, as well – he humanises them, and their intentions immediately become less sinister. It would have been more effective, I think, if we didn't understand until the last moment that the ghosts were, in fact, trying to warn Stephen, not harm him.
Reading the previous reviews went some way to reliving the horror that I experienced when I saw it and I can concur that the scene where the two children walk up the staircase dragging their long fingernails against the banister has to be one of the most ghastly I can remember. By modern standards its probably rather a tame affair but the combination of horror and the children's lost innocence is what makes it such compelling viewing.
It always amazes me how Clark is never mentioned is dispatches, when best horror director lists are being compiled, for he truly had a unique vision on how supernatural films should be filmed and should be better known and admired for his rather obvious talents. Again he delves into M.R.James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and ensures the screen equivalent is just as terrifying as the written word. He uses the beautifully stunning English countryside to perfection, as the ghostly children stand transfixed amidst wind rustled trees, as stealthily creeping fog encircles them, their gaze fixed on Mr Abney's manor. The look of the children is quite eerie and unsettling, especially their twisted fingers and elongated fingernails and is added to immensely by Giovanni's rather odd hurdy-gurdy music. Abney himself on the surface seems friendly, but behind the eccentric facade and failed experiments, we just know something dark lingers and its not long before our suspicions of his predatory nature are realized. For its time, the 1890's, James's extremely dark work seems to herald future, more modern concerns and yet still seems to contain even more unspeakable ideas. Stephen's dangerous and fateful midnight meeting, is the subject of the films finale and succeeds in providing us with yet more unsettling imagery. And yet another superb entry in the series is realized.
Shown again recently on BBC4 as part of their season of ghost story films leading up to Christmas, this was easily one of the better of them. The foundation of the film is the wonderfully non-threatening Abney, a kindly uncle for the world even if he is a bit eccentric. However, the viewer will keep asking, if he is so cheerful and kind, why is Stephen seeing these two ghostly figures in trees and windows? The questions are what held my attention but the strength of the film is in using them to create an uncertain air that is quite creepy. On top of this are thrown two white faced children who predate Ringu and the like by many decades. They move so effectively and simply that it is just roundly unnerving. Wisely director Clark doesn't shroud these two characters in horror but instead makes them innocent, smiling and cheerful making them seem all the more creepy.
They are not great child actors but they work this well. Gipps-Kent is a solid lead and avoids being cute or overly confident but the film is dominated by the eccentric wonderfulness of O'Conor as Abney. His turn keeps things quite upbeat and makes the mystery and the ghosts seem just that bit more creepy. Overall then this is a great little ghost story. Modern viewers may feel a little bit like it has done better elsewhere (it has, in recent Japanese horrors) but it is worth remembering that this film came many decades before and is just as creepy now as it must have been then.
The typical "Jamesian" spectre is a solid, menacing revenant, usually skeletal, sometimes demonic, that returns from the dead to revenge themselves on those who have killed them. In LOST HEARTS, the alchemist/diabolist/sorcerer Mr. Peregrine Abney, played by the marvelous Joseph O'Conor(also credited as Joseph O'Connor), is a seemingly charming, eccentric and kindly old soul who welcomes young Stephen, his cousin, played innocently by Simon Gipps-Kent, into his palatial residence. Scarcely believing his good fortune in becoming the ward of such a well-to-do gentleman of class and learning, Stephen is nevertheless taken aback by Mr. Abney's more than guardian-like interest in his well-being by having Mrs. Bunch, played by the motherly and comforting Susan Richards, to nourish Stephen by giving him lots of good food to keep him strong and vigorous, like a lamb or calf being fattened up for the slaughterhouse. A statue of Arimanius, the lion-headed Mithraic God of the Dark who holds the keys to heaven, on Abney's desk and Mithraic Cult astrological symbols on Abney's study wall and his weird queries and remarks about "Censorinus", "Simon Magus" and the like all bode ill for little Stephen. The sinister-looking manservant Parkes is played stolidly by James Mellor.
Stephen, at the very beginning of LOST HEARTS, sees two pale-looking children, a boy and a girl, waving at him from the countryside fields as he nears Abney's residence, and as Stephen is exploring the grounds surrounding Abney's estate, he hears children laughing and the same boy and girl appearing and disappearing amid the trees of the estate, appearing at windows and around columns. Stephen asks Mrs. Bunch about this and Mrs.Bunch explains that Mr. Abney, being a very kindly soul, brought two children before Stephen came, to "care" for them--an Italian lad by the name of Giovanni Paoli, played by Christopher Davis, and a girl with "a touch of the Gypsy about her," Phoebe Stanley, played by Michelle Foster. Giovanni had a hurdy-gurdy with him and its distinctive tune is used to great effect in one nightmarish scene at night when the long-finger-nailed ghostly revenants of Giovanni and Phoebe pay Stephen a visit, pale bluish-grey faces and dark-rimmed eyes filled with longing and hunger(exactly as James described them in his story)childishly exhort Stephen to join them, not to harm him but to warn him about what Abney has in store for him, Giovanni playing his hurdy-gurdy and both of them expose their torn-open chests, bones gleaming and their hearts missing from their bodies as their ghoulish peals of childish laughter echo through the house. Mr. Abney feigns ignorance when Stephen asks him about the children, while Mrs. Bunch and Parkes assume that the two children ran away somewhere. Abney finally sees the two ghost-children as they glare and smile at him from outside the window and he makes notes in his commonplace book about not being able to prevent their psychic flotsam and jetsam from returning to bedevil him. Abney had cut their hearts out from their bodies, reduced the hearts to ashes, and drunk those ashes in a glass of fortified wine, preferably Port, in a Mithraic-inspired blood sacrifice for his own attainment of immortality. The time for Stephen's fate draws nearer and Abney requests that Stephen join him downstairs late at night on Halloween, his birthday, for "a surprise!" Stephen is leery at first but Abney is very persuasive and Stephen has his fateful rendezvous with Abney, who tries to make Stephen drink some wine which he has drugged--Stephen resists violently but Abney overpowers him and makes him drink. Stephen falls into a drugged stupor and Abney prepares to perform the sacrifice which will make him immortal--but then the two revenant-children enter the scene. They close in on Abney, who says that it's too late, they cannot stop him, that he is immortal! The children, giggling, prove him wrong as Abney is paralysed in their thrall, his drawn dagger taken by Giovanni from his numb fingers, and Giovanni and Phoebe, dagger and long fingernails extended, cut into Abney's chest, ripping HIS HEART out of his chest as he screams in fury and agony! Stephen watches helplessly as the two spirits make their exit.
Afterwards, a churchyard scene is seen as the vicar, played by Roger Milner, remarks that Abney dabbled in things better left alone. Stephen looks to the side and sees Giovanni and Phoebe smiling and waving good-bye as they go to their final rest, their brutal murders avenged.
LOST HEARTS is a masterpiece of its kind in the ghost story genre, having both frightful and playful scenes, cold grue and childish fun. It also touches on diabolical actions by perverted adults, the scenes of Abney forcing Stephen to drink the drugged wine very uncomfortably realistic in its depiction of a stronger adult forcing a young child to his will much in the same way as Gilles De Montmorency-Laval, Baron De Rais, or Gilles De Rais murdered, raped, and dismembered children in his alchemical and black magic, necromantic quest for immortality. Perverted adults taking advantage of children is present in everyday life nowadays as well, as in the Mark Foley republican party FIASCO! Everyone should watch LOST HEARTS for its moral lesson to be learned as well as for its well-crafted supernatural thrills! TEN STARS!
Lawrence Gordon Clark's adaptation of LOST HEARTS is perhaps his most powerful, partly because of this undeniably disturbing theme, partly because of his excellent direction. The opening scene which features a young boy arriving at Mr Anbey's manor house in a pony-and-trap through a haunting twilight mist perfectly evokes a lonely supernatural atmosphere. The spirits of the dead children are very frightening, and if in one or two scenes their acting appears slightly mechanical, the overall effect they create more than compensates for these minor defects. The action moves along briskly yet without appearing hurried. The central roles of Mr Abney and the young charge Stephen are played very well; Abney appears to bubble with an excitable Dickensian charm, yet under that energetic exterior a darker, predatory aspect is revealed. The ignorant working-class folk who run his ample home haven't the slightest knowledge about their master's obsessive interest in the black arts. Stephen is plausibly characterized, succeeding where many child actors may have failed. The scene in which he discovers a dead child's body in an old tin bath is truly harrowing.
Clark clearly sensed a parallel with, or indeed an undercurrent of, paedophilia in James's original tale because he teases this theme out and expands upon it in his adaptation. The camera shots of Abney gloating over the boy are sinister. So might a spider regard a trapped fly. Clark adds one new scene which does not appear in the original story: a shot of a naked twelve year old girl in the bath, one of her breasts in side profile clearly displayed. Although James may have written in a pre-Freudian era, latter day critics and film-makers were perfectly capable of teasing out these subliminal themes from Victorian and Edwardian literature. Elsewhere Jonathan Miller had started the Jamesian ball rolling with his superb interpretation of WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU, portraying a repressed Professor as an emotionally retarded loner. Michael Reeves realistically portrayed the witch trials that swept across mainland Europe as cynical exercises in sadistic manipulation and avaricious profiteering in his critically acclaimed THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL. Clarke himself paid homage to this perspective in his BBC adaptation of M.R. James's THE ASH-TREE, depicting Mrs Mothersole as a sexually alluring woman branded a witch by men who lust after her in stark contrast to James's original, where the alleged witch was portrayed as a deserving victim. Clarke depicts Mothersole - buxom, bare-breasted and chained up in a dungeon - as a sexually alluring woman who only resorts to occult vengeance after being horribly abused herself, which is a realistic volte face of James's possibly chauvinistic original. And in SCHALKEN THE PAINTER, another ghost story adaptation from the 1970s, Clarke amplifies the undercurrent of sexuality that exists in the original Le Fanu tale in a very disturbing and effective manner. After all, Le Fanu did also author CARMILLA, one of the most overtly erotic Victorian ghost stories ever written.
Clarke did not arbitrarily 'sex-up' any old BBC ghost story adaptation. There are no sexual overtones in his excellent versions of THE STALLS AT BARCHESTER, A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS nor THE SIGNALMAN. Clarke appears to have only amplified sexuality where it already existed as a theme or subconscious undercurrent. Indeed, one could even argue that James himself at some impossible-to-fathom level was aware of this concern about LOST HEARTS, hence his subsequent disregard for the tale subsequent to it's original publication in 1895.
The BBC's adaptation of LOST HEARTS is one of the best ghost stories directed by Lawrence Gordon Clarke in the mid 1970s. It is faithful to the original and features many genuinely frightening scenes. Yet ironically the central theme of predation upon children, with its sly similie of paedophilia, a theme which imbues the tale with a dark and sinister edge, may have actually proved it's undoing because the BBC appears reluctant to repeat the film in the light of various child pornography scandals. Hopefully however the film will be released on DVD, or else repeated on TV with the benefit of a contextualizing introduction, because it would be a shame for an otherwise powerful drama to languish in the Beeb's vaults. LOST HEARTS poses unique political concerns and as such appears to present something of a problem to the television scheduler. It is every bit as effective as THE WICKERMAN but the child predation issue lends it a peculiarly discomforting air as elsewhere hangs over films such as STRAW DOGS or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. However, because DVD pirates have already capitalized upon the pent-up demand for video copies of LOST HEARTS and THE ASHTREE by cobbling-together homemade versions to sell on Ebay, then the BBC would perhaps be wiser to satisfy this demand in some suitably responsible manner rather than ignore it.
The story is set at a large countryside mansion complete with creaking floor boards and long, deserted passageways - a fine setting for a ghostly tale if ever I saw one. The haunting itself takes the shape of a pair of ghost children, who appear from a distance watching the main character rather like THE WOMAN IN BLACK did sixteen years later. These children have blue, dead skin, and open chest cavities where their hearts have been removed (hence the title). Although their appearance seems to be indebted to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the ghosts still pack one heck of a punch and are entirely creepy and disturbing to watch - especially when the camera moves in close on their grinning faces.
The story is a concise and good one, with an inevitable finale looming ever closer. It turns out that Abney is an occultist who believes he has found the secret of immortality - but needs to burn the heart of a young child to achieve that end. You can easily guess the outcome of the man's actions, but it's still gripping stuff. Simon Gipps-Kent plays the young Stephen, and is one of the best child actors I've seen. His performance requires him to act terrified a lot of the time and he does this well, along with being inquisitive and strong-minded. Joseph O'Connor puts in a great portrayal of a mad old man, and comes across as more than sadly pathetic than terrifying. The ghost kids are great, and the supporting actors and actresses make good of their minor turns.
LOST HEARTS is a film that brings out the melancholy and eeriness of the old British countryside, whether it be at a flowing stream, a churchyard, or the deep woods. It captures a forgotten Victorian era which is often overdone in bigger-budgeted movies which become unrealistic and too slick-looking. Here, the setting is fine, and the music greatly adds to the atmosphere. LOST HEARTS is a creepy and forgotten little film recommended to all true horror fans who like their chills to be old-fashioned and macabre rather than gory and in-your-face.