When a friendless old widow dies in the seaside town of Crythin, a young solicitor is sent by his firm to settle the estate. The lawyer finds the townspeople reluctant to talk about or go ... See full summary »
Man of leisure Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge) receives notification that his Uncle has died, bequeathing him his stately country manor and all its lands. On his return to England he ... See full summary »
Lawrence Gordon Clark
After placing his ailing wife Alice in a care home elderly academic James Parkin goes to stay at a wintry out-of-season hotel which they used to visit together. Walking on a deserted beach ... See full summary »
In order to authenticate some historical papers in a cathedral town, Oxbridge academic Anderson stays at a local hotel in room 12, initially disregarding the lack of a number 13 as ... See full summary »
On his deathbed vicar Rant makes a secret confession to his niece Mary Simpson. Some twenty years later young librarian William Garrett is asked by elderly John Eldred to locate a book ... See full summary »
"Who that touches me with his hand, if a bloody hand he bear, I counsel him beware"
'The Stalls of Barchester (1971)' was the first entry in BBC's wonderful "Ghost Story for Christmas" series, but unfortunately it fails to attain the dizzying heights of creepiness reached by 'A Warning to the Curious (1972)' and 'The Signalman (1976).' The short film was adapted from a tale by author M.R. James who provided many of the "Ghost Stories for Christmas" and was directed by Lawrence Gordon Clarke, who likewise helmed most of BBC's ghost-story adaptations. The story concerns Archdeacon Haynes (Robert Hardy), who inherits his title following the "accidental" death of his 92-year-old predecessor, whose demise Haynes had awaited rather impatiently. Though it's never explicitly spoken, we all know what evil the Archdeacon has orchestrated, and so punishment is gradual yet inevitable. The recording of the story that I watched (taped, I estimate, around 1999) had an interesting introduction from Christopher Lee, who briefly describes meeting M.R. James in 1935 at Eton College.
If I had to name one reason why 'The Stalls of Barchester' isn't quite as scary as its successors, it would be the storytelling structure. Though telling the story through Dr. Black's (Clive Swift) library research was likely staying faithful to James' original story (I haven't read it myself, but he constructed many of his ghost-stories as third-person tellings), it also disrupted the rhythm of the narrative at regular intervals, and removed the immediacy of Archdeacon Haynes' otherworldly experiences. Hardy, in the main role, was oddly distant and unidentifiable as a character, and so we don't particularly hang onto his every breath as we might otherwise have done. For what it's worth, I associated mostly closely with Dr. Black, and it's unfortunate that his part in the tale was merely that of a curious and belated observer. The first half of the film, merely a set-up completely devoid of the supernatural, was something of a chore to sit through, though the eventual pay-off provided adequate compensation in the form of creepy night-time happenings.
Perusing my previous review of 'A Warning to the Curious,' I was interested to recall that Clive Swift there reprised his role as Dr. Black, playing the holiday companion to Peter Vaughan's haunted treasure-hunter. The success of that M.R. James adaptation underlines my earlier point: by placing our narrator in the midst of the paranormal, and placing his own life on the line, there is a more immediate sense of threat that translates directly towards the viewer's insecurities. 'The Stalls of Barchester,' by its very structure, encourages detachment from its doomed subject, and Hardy's aloof portrayal only broadened this emotional gulf. Nevertheless, this Ghost Story for Christmas has enough creepy moments to warrant interest from fans of the series: a disembodied hand, gaunt and knotted, reaches for Haynes' shoulder; an unseen voice whisperingly requests permission to enter the bedroom; a shadow, swathed in darkness, retreats from the scene of a murder, a chilling hybrid of human and feline features. Sinners beware, for there are those who will always be able to recognise that blood on your hands.
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