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"ITV Playhouse" Casting the Runes (1979)

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7 out of 7 people found the following review useful:

ITV PLAYHOUSE: CASTING THE RUNES (TV) (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1979) ***

Author: MARIO GAUCI ( from Naxxar, Malta
23 January 2010

NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957), Jacques Tourneur's near-perfect adaptation of M.R. James' classic short story "Casting The Runes", has become not just one of my favorite horror efforts but also one of my all-time Top 20 films. Consequently, I have always been interested in the two 'alternate' versions that were subsequently made of this fascinating tale (which I have read for myself and enjoyed – though I obviously prefer the cinematic counterpart above all). The British-TV rendition from 1968 seems fairly untraceable now but a later adaptation – the title under review – has luckily been released on R2 DVD via the renowned Network label and, as a result, is much easier to get hold of; even so, like the previous TV-movies inspired by James' work (most from the same director) that I watched earlier this month, I acquired it from 'other sources')! Anyway, I love it when a film I adore gets an effective reworking by a comparably gifted director – and this is certainly the case here…even if, as in similar cases from master (and personal favorite film-makers) such as Luis Bunuel, Jean Renoir and Josef von Sternberg, the plot line differs considerably one from the other! In fact, instead of the skeptical male hero (as previously played by Dana Andrews), we have a woman protagonist here (a very good, and quite lovely, Jan Francis: she would go on to play Mina in the maligned 1979 version of Dracula); instead of an elderly first victim like Maurice Denham, we have a young man of 31; given that this later version is literally half as long as Tourneur's film, there are no séances, no Mrs. Karswell (though we do get a zombie/ghostly housekeeper!), no investigation of the farming family, nor – perhaps the most missed – the children's Halloween garden party. The result is still quite chilling, and the updating works remarkably well – highlighted by a strikingly economical first murder (with the demon barely glimpsed, where in Tourneur's film it was somewhat over-exposed), the ingeniously subliminal dedication/warning mysteriously inserted at the conclusion of a documentary professing to debunk the subject of demonology (recalling a similar incident in HOUSE OF MYSTERY [1961], also viewed during this Halloween challenge) and a similarly subtle (thus overcoming potential hilarity) but creepy 'fake' giant spider attack. It is nonetheless marred by the ending, in which Francis resorts to role-playing in order to return the runic symbols to Karswell: it seems improbable that the airport authorities would let her impersonate one of their employees; Karswell's reaction is disappointingly placid, where MacGinnis was understandably alarmed; not to mention the fact that they had no qualms about sacrificing the other passengers; and, in any case, a shot of the flying demon would not have been amiss. Iain Cuthbertson makes for an imposing enough Karswell, though we don't really get to know him; consequently, he tends towards overstatement (especially in his one real confrontation with Francis at his house) – whereas MacGinnis underacted superbly (his is possibly my favorite villain in all of cinema!); from the rest of the small cast, Bernard Gallagher is especially notable as Francis' boss (whose wife had first-hand experience of Karswell's occult powers).

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10 out of 15 people found the following review useful:


Author: rjobrien_1943 from United Kingdom
2 January 2006

Best known for the BBC 'Ghost Story for Christmas' series, Lawrence Gordon Clark directed this M.R. James adaptation for Yorkshire Television. Updated to the present day, 'Casting the Runes' is an atmospheric, often eerie tale marred by some basic flaws. The main character is now a TV journalist, who incurs a magician's wrath after mocking him in a documentary. Shot on a mixture of videotape and 16mm film, 'Casting the Runes' conjures a sense of the uncanny against a mundane backdrop. While the special effects are variable - to say the least - the show transcends its limited budget. That said, the script could have been stronger. A longer running time would have helped, with more character and narrative development. As things stand, the pace seems rushed towards the end and a strong cast is underused. The weak ending is both cheap and objectionable. Leading lady Jan Francis appeared in John Badham's 'Dracula' (1979) around the same time, as the ill-fated Mina. For all its faults, 'Casting the Runes' is worth a look, though good luck finding a copy.

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5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:

Cheaply made, but still watchable James adaptation

Author: Prof-Hieronymos-Grost from Ireland
9 September 2008

The great Lawrence Gordon Clark returns to his favourite author, this time with a loose reinterpretation of "Casting the Runes" that had previously been filmed by Jacques Tourneur as Night of the Demon(1957). After a journalist writes a scathing review of a book by Julian Karswell, he soon begins to become paranoid and feels he is being followed, within a month he is dead in gruesome circumstances. Fast forward 10 years and a TV company are producing a TV series that outs charlatans, mystics, fortune tellers etc.. their latest episode concerns witchcraft and lampoons the now reclusive Karswell. Prudence Dunning (Jan Francis) is one of the producers of the program and soon she is plagued by strange events in her life, through some investigating she is able to link her plight to Karswell and the death of the journalist a decade previous. Soon she realises she has only a month to live from the time the events began, can she stop Karswell's spell coming true? I won't even try and compare this to the masterpiece of cinema that is Night of the Demon, as they bear only vague resemblances. This production suffers greatly from budgetary deficiencies that make it look like a poorman's episode of 70's Dr Who. The sfx are very very cheap, the film also switches between video tape for indoor scenes back to 16 mm film for out of doors. So does it retain any of James's menace? Well yes it does if you can forego the productions limitations, Clark has always had an eye for creating an atmosphere and he does so here, even if it is to a lesser extent than his "Ghost story at Christmas" series of films. Like Night of the Demon, this production also reveals its supernatural creature early on, why?… who knows? The performances are at times quite stilted and stagey, the silences between dialogue at time becoming excruciating, still though Iain Cuthbertson as Karswell does retain some menace, Jan Francis and Bernard Gallagher also put in decent showings. Not essential, but certainly worth a watch for devotees of either James or Clark.

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6 out of 12 people found the following review useful:

Possibly the lamest M R James adaptation by Lawrence Gordon Clark

Author: hauntedriver from United Kingdom
22 January 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This oddment from Yorkshire TV bears little resemblance to the original novel. The action has been transported to the 1970s and Karswell the demonologist does not reside in Lufford Abbey, but lives next door to a motorway. No doubt the constant passing of traffic has tipped him over the edge of sanity, because he decides to avenge himself by harrassing television news reporters who ran a negative feature on him. Instead of 'casting the runes' as James made Karswell do in the original short story, this Karswell builds a model dolls house and puts a live spider into one of the beds; when news reporter Jane Asher gets into her own bed that night, we are treated to one of the worst special effects in television history: the sight of three red vacuum cleaner nozzles jiggling out from under the covers aka spider legs. This quite lame drama is nevertheless odd, which makes it by default still watchable. The only genuinely disturbing supernatural elements which exist involve a strange one dimensional creature which is superimposed over the original film, this being a devil sent by Karswell against his enemies, mirroring that in Tourneur's NIGHT OF THE DEMON. It's still worth watching for the beautiful Joanna Dunham alone!

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