Color, 1986, 70m.
Starring Robert Powell
BFI (DVD) (UK R0 PAL)
Perhaps the most durable name among English ghost story adaptations ranging from radio to television is M.R. James, a master of so-called "suggestive horror" who inspired the best-loved entries in the annual A Ghost Story for Christmas series for the BBC. As the BFI's home video releases of that series demonstrated, James could also be relied upon for simple TV readings in addition to dramatizations, with Christopher Lee's takes on several of his stories gracing the DVDs as extras. However, Lee was hardly the first to take a crack at them on the small screen, as proven by Classic Ghost Stories.
Originally broadcast in December of 1986 and very difficult to see ever since, the program features five James tales, two of them adapted previously for the Christmas series. Each runs just under fifteen minutes and is told by the wonderful Robert Powell, whose past roster ranges from Amicus horror (Asylum) to biblical miniseries (Jesus of Nazareth) with a detour into Ken Russell territory in between (Mahler, Tommy). Here he sits in his university study, recalling the Cambridge setting where James himself originated his tales by telling them around Christmastime, with a handful of props kicking off each story (which Powell tells very well and seemingly from memory). In "The Mezzotint," the title object (a modest engraving of a manor house) displays a black tint in the corner resembling a figure. However, over time this black figure seems to crawl to the house, which intrigues the new owner, a man named Williams. Using the clue of a torn label on the back of the drawing, he decides to uncover what turns out to be a monstrous secret. In "The Ash-Tree," one of the previous BBC titles, a witch condemned to death inflicts a multi-generational horror upon the ash tree at the hall of her accuser, Sir Matthew. The latest heir arrives to move into the house, only to find something chilling invading his room at night.
In "Wailing Well," some scouts go out for an excursion one afternoon but are told to avoid a well circled off with a red line on their map. Of course, they can't resist the urge to check out the title location, which is haunted by "three women and one man" who aren't your typical spooks. Featuring one of James's grisliest endings, this one would probably prove difficult to adapt in a more cinematic method but makes for one heck of a storytelling experience. Next is the legendary "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," which had earlier served as one of the most famous BBC adaptations. Powell's reading is excellent with his voice suiting the doubting professor protagonist nicely. Finally we have "The Rose Garden," in which a married couple, the Anstruthers, decide to make a rose garden out of an unpromising patch of their land. However, the previous owner stops by for a visit and warns that the spot had a very adverse effect on her brother when they were much younger, including an eerie dream that seems destined to repeat itself.
In addition to Powell's readings (with regional accents where appropriate), the stories are enhanced by music scores and occasional dramatized cutaways, most effectively in "The Ash-Tree" which briefly shows its beasties in a particularly skin-crawling moment. The image quality is on par with BBC '80s productions; the golden and brown hues look rich enough, and detail is strong if not overwhelmingly crisp. Each episode features optional English subtitles, and in a nice bonus, also included are a trio of tales from 1980's Spine Chillers. It's a similar concept with actor Michael Bryant (from The Treasure of Abbot Thomas) telling "The Mezzotint," "A School Story," and "The Diary of Mr. Poynter" in a similar setting, complete with animated opening titles but no embellishments besides the narrator in the room. These are much shorter at ten minutes each but are worth watching as well, especially for the different, tighter take on "The Mezzotint." Liner notes by Lisa Kerrigan are also included with a history of James's storytelling through the years, with additional Spine Chillers notes by Sonia Mullett.
Reviewed on October 13, 2013.