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Shades of Darkness: Seaton's Aunt (1983)
Vintage ghost story given the 'Brideshead' treatment
As aficionados of the classic ghost story know, Walter de la Mare possessed a unique talent for persuading agnostics that the supernatural is a very real entity. SEATON'S AUNT is one of his celebrated tales, receiving that rare accolade, a stand-alone edition in attractive pictorial paperwraps in the 1920s, with a suitably eerie woodcut design by Blair Hughes-Stanton. In WdlM's original, an unpopular young orphan boy becomes convinced that his aunt possesses a malignant, draining supernatural power (psychic vampirism is hinted at). The boy - Seaton - presses a courteous but reluctant friend of his (called Withers) to spend the school holidays at his aunt's home, in attempt to prove that his relative is indeed slowly killing him. They spend a spooky few days together, and although Seaton's aunt cuts an intimidating figure, Withers cannot find it in his heart to believe ill of her, remonstrating with his friend for being paranoid. Years later, Withers and Seaton meet up, with the latter pressing his still-reluctant friend to visit him and his new fiancé at Miss Seaton's home. He attends and find that the situation has worsened: Seaton is now a man obsessed, barely able to contain his vitriolic outbursts against the aunt whom he still believes is suffocating him. In the final scene, it would appear that Withers eventually comes round to Seaton's way of thinking. Miss Seaton is portrayed as a blind, bloated vampire-like figure, though this is all deeply ambiguous.
In the Granada television version, made as part of their 'Shades Of Darkness' season, the original story is pretty faithfully adhered to. One can tell that Granada was still riding high on the critical success of 'Brideshead Revisited' because the first few scenes shamelessly emulate the jaunty style of the Waugh epic, with dashing young men in loafers pootling about Oxford Street in the latest two-seater. Indeed, the actor who plays Withers could almost pass for an Anthony Andrews lookalike. However, the atmosphere soon turns more sombre when the tale starts proper, and there are a couple of very well managed scenes in which seemingly spooky things happen when the story of the boys' visit to the house as schoolchildren is shown in flashback. However, the story ends differently to the original, as well it might, bearing in mind the inconclusiveness of the original. Seaton the adult begs his friend to spend the night with him in his London lodgings after the death of his aunt, claiming she is still haunting him. Withers agrees to do so, and dosses down in the front room. However, he is disturbed in the middle of the night by the appearance of someone who appears to be Miss Seaton, but this turns out to be Seaton himself, sleepwalking and dressed in his aunt's old clothes. Withers realises that his friend has become possessed by either his delusion or the dead aunt.
This neat little drama is very competently scripted and acted. It also possesses an eerie air though the frights come more from implication than gratuity. It is like the original a subtle piece, and although the makers felt it necessary to revise the denouement, they should be applauded for at least having the courtesy and awareness to utilise an ending from another equally competent WdlM short story (in this case, 'The Quincunx').
ITV Playhouse: Casting the Runes (1979)
Possibly the lamest M R James adaptation by Lawrence Gordon Clark
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!
The Night Caller (1965)
Quirky, Disturbing, Amusing - a wonderful little British film
This is a very weird little film crammed with many familiar names e.g. Maurice Denham, Ballard Berkeley, Aubrey Morris. The first two were in the superb NIGHT OF THE DEMON and the latter in THE WICKER MAN.
The plot revolves around an alien from the planet (?) Ganymede who travels to earth in a tiny silicone ball which glows and swells in size to release him. The alien then assumes the name of Medra and takes a flat in London, keeping himself well hidden because he is, after all, very tall, possessed of insect-like claws, and a hideously deformed face. (When I say 'hideously', I also mean 'amusingly').
Medra then places adverts on a glossy Loaded / FHM style magazine called 'Bikini Girls', inviting young attractive would-be models to a private photo-shoot in a sleazy Soho sex shop, owned by the sinister and greasy Aubrey Morris. The girls are then hypnotised by him, and he takes their picture, which he sends to them in the post the next morning. Then on the following evening, he calls at their homes, and, mesmerised by the picture and his presence, they go off with him..... to who knows where!
Sheer madness of course, but it is handled well, and the scenes involving the girls - including the sets too - bear strong comparison to Michael Powell's bizarre PEEPING TOM which appeared five years earlier.
Of course, the army and the country's top scientists join forces to try and hunt down this rogue alien. The conversations about scientific theory are hilarious. One scientist looks at a very basic radar screen at a blip which is approaching another blip she tells us is earth, and then she informs her colleagues that it has suddenly slowed down from 20,000 miles per hour to exactly twenty.
Another amusing scene involves Warren 'Alf Garnett' Mitchell. The Police call to ask him and his wife about the mysterious disappearance of their daughter. They ask, have either of them heard of the magazine Bikini Girls? Mitchell instantly retrieves a copy from the cushion under the sofa, and then looks sheepishly at his wife and the Police, realising that he has owned up to being a secret reader. But perhaps this scene possesses greater resonance: perhaps the knowledge that an alien has abducted his daughter leads Mitchell into the prejudices for which Alf Garnett is famous for?
A detective leading the investigation informs his superiors that he *might* have stumbled upon a clue. He tells them all 21 girls who have disappeared replied to adverts in Bikini Girl, and that they all disappeared the day after attending photo-shoots. Ballard Berkeley gruffly tells him that it might be worth following up.
In another scene, the police are holding a brainstorming session, trying to work out who might be committing these crimes. "There's no pattern to it," one of them laments. "21 girls in three weeks. What does it all mean?"
Erm, I may only have O level maths, but doesn't that mean one girl per night, seven girls per week?
Anyway, they finally run the alien to ground after he savagely murders a female scientist who allowed herself to be used as bait (quite a disturbing PEEPING TOM style murder, that one). Although the alien has giant insect claws and has only been on Earth a short while, he can drive a human car very well. The pursue him to a disused building where he stands in front of a glowing egg aka spaceship. He removes his costume and shows them that he is fact.....wearing another silver 'David Prowse' suit underneath. But he waves an insect claw at them menacingly, and tells them to come no nearer.
"Why are you murdering our Bikini Girl models?' they ask him. (Not literally, something like that.) He then embarks upon a lofty Gort-type speech - 'space is really, really big' and that sort of stuff - before reassuring them that he hasn't killed them, he is just going to take them back to his home planet for some weird, unspecified purpose. Well, this seems good enough for the British army and scientists, so the alien gets into his burning egg and the spaceship shoots off into the sky. Instantly, the screen goes blank and the legend THE END appears. No film credits, no army reaction.
It's easily one of the funniest and strangest films I've ever seen, and I'm going to procure a DVD as soon as possible. I thoroughly recommend it to everyone who likes quirky old British films.
Lost Hearts (1973)
Disturbing & Frightening Ghost Story
When M.R. James wrote LOST HEARTS in the late 1890s he little suspected that mainstream critics would intuit a dark undercurrent to this tale of occult sacrifice, yet BBC director Lawrence Gordon Clark shrewdly picked up on this subtle theme and brought it to the forefront of his 1973 adaptation of the story. Thus we have Mr Abney, an elderly and excitable black magician, preying sinisterly upon pubescent children in a manner which unpleasantly mirrors contemporary concerns over paedophilia. Mr Abney carefully selects vulnerable orphans for adoption. Once convinced that the children's disappearance will not be missed, he horribly murders them on the eve of their thirteenth birthdays, an age which historically associated with the maturation of the child. He lures them into his study, paralyses them with a drug, and then rips out their pulsating hearts from their live bodies. These he reduces to ashes which are then mixed with fine port wine and drank. Alas in Mr Abney's quest for immortal life occult wonders he finds himself subsequently haunted by the dead children, pallid creatures possessed of sinister talonesque fingernails and rent-open chests. Happily these creatures eventually exact a violent revenge upon their murderous adoptive parent.
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 Wicker Man (1973)
Cult British film-making at it's very best
'The Wicker Man' is - like 'Withnail & I', 'Get Carter' and 'Performance' - quite rightly hailed as a cult Brit classic. The simple fact that this obscure film has attracted well over 200 reviews on the IMDb website is testament to the enduring spell it has cast upon its admirers (either that or it is a testament to the IMDb's popularity).
Christopher Lee acclaims it his finest screen performance but Edward Woodward (Sgt Howey) and Lindsey Kemp (the publican) steal the acting honours. And although Britt Ekland appears, her voice was dubbed over and a body double used for the nude scenes (much to her chagrin). Though one must honour screenwriter Anthony Shaffer ('Sleuth', 'Amadeus') and director Robin Hardy too.
It's well worth tracking down the original uncut version because it helps establish Sgt Howey's character as a somewhat odd but thoroughly devout Christian. Quite rightly he is considered something of a prude, yet one cannot fault his decency and spiritual integrity. Indeed, this gives the story its backbone of credibility. The tenacious way in which he conducts his investigation whilst the inhabitants of Lord Summerisle's Island play with him like a spider caught in a web is testament to this. As viewers we sense that Howey is anything but paranoid and therein lies the true terror (paranoia being the delusion that 'everyone is out to get you'; clearly this is no delusion).
The film possesses a discordant weird ambiance throughout and features a superbly horrific ending. The music perfectly underscores the mood, suggesting a dark Celtish folklore in which pagan rites dominate all spiritual belief. There are many brilliantly evocative images which linger on in the mind of the viewer, including the scene of the naked woman grieving on a tombstone (recalling the Mardi Gras trip scenes from 'Easy Rider'), the naked women jumping through the flames, the insect tied to a pin in a schoolgirl's desk, the inhabitants wearing animal masks, and of course, the final scene in which director Robin Hardy wonderfully juxtaposes the burning sacrificial pyre against the setting sun.
According to historians, the lost edits from this were used as filling for a Buckinghamshire road improvement scheme, when boxes of unwanted film reels were crushed up to use as ballast. Even the current extra-length version we now enjoy only exists by accident, after the UK distributors sent US cult director Roger Corman their only fuller length copy, having cut the British version for various reasons. Luckily Corman was impressed with the film and had kept the only longer-length version safe, which is why we can now enjoy an extended, but alas by no means complete, version of this brilliant, brilliant masterpiece.