THE SIGNALMAN
Color, 1976, 39m.
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
Starring Denholm Elliott, Bernard Lloyd

STIGMA
Color, 1977, 32m.
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
Starring Kate Binchy, Peter Bowles, Maxine Gordon

THE ICE HOUSE
Color, 1978, 34m.
Directed by Derek Lister
Starring John Stride, David Beames, Elizabeth Romilly, Geoffrey Burridge
BFI (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)


The SignalmanBy the mid-1970s, the annual UK TV ritual of "A Ghost Story for Christmas" was bound to change. Previous years had seen adaptations of classic ghost story writer M.R. James, ranging from "The Stalls of Barchester" to "The Ash Tree." The 1976 entry was originally planned as James' "Count Magnus," but budgetary costs sent them searching for a new short story tThe Signalmano adapt. The choice was made to tackle Charles Dickens' classic tale "The Signalman," a short and chilling two-character piece that could easily be filmed in the English countryside with a minimum of actors. Fortunately the result turned out to be on the best in the series (in fact, it's a favorite of many), thanks in no small part to its sterling performance by Denholm Elliott and an underrated but effective one by TV actor Bernard Lloyd. It also didn't hurt that this was one of the earlier writing credits for Andrew Davies, who went on to write the terrific (and maddeningly still unavailable) BBC thriller Mother Love and the definitive version of Pride and Prejudice. (He also wrote the two Bridget Jones movies, but everyone has to pay the rent.)

Inexplicably drawn during a country walk to a remote railway tunnel, a traveler (Lloyd) accidentally frightens the local signalman (Elliott) who mistakes him for... something else. They spend the following hours into darkness and another visit talking about the loneliness of living so far from modern civilization, with the signalman living a life of long stretches of boredom (studying mathematics with nothing better to do) but tasked with the great responsibility of ensuring the safe passage of trains, particularly through the long tunnel. However, the signalman has experienced persistent visions of a shadowy man calling out and holding his arm over his face. Twice before his visions have been followed by terrible accidents, such as a terrified bride being hurled off the passing train. Now his visions have returned with full force, and he fears something dreadful is imminent.

A magnificent exercise in isolated atmosphere and mounting unease, "The Signalman" marked the last period outing in the 1970s for the BBC ghost stories but really closed it out with a bang. The actual scares are ladled out sparingly (the apparition's face is definitely chilling stuff!), with much of the emphasis instead placed on the melancholy existence of a man who must work and live alone to serve the progress of a world he can't even see. It's a haunting tale in every sense, and as far as literary adaptations go, it's hard to imagine one much more potent than this.

The BFI originally released this film as a standalone DVD back in 2002, basically bare bones apart from a little text extra and some liner notes. The transfer was adequate for the time but definitely on the soft side, even looking borderline blurry at times. A completely different master from the BBC's American branch was issued with zero fanfare as an extra on the US release of Hard Times, an unexpected development revealed by these excellent Latarnia forum caps clearly The Signalmandemonstrating how superior that version looks. That second master seems to be the one used for the 2012 BFI reissue, which is very crisp and film-like with very satisfying detail levels. It's easily one of the best-looking titles in the series anyway (perhaps surpassed only by the marvelous "Lost Hearts"), and in terms of quality it's now one of the most impressive, too.

For reasons not quite made clear even in the DVD extras, the decision was made the following year to switch things to the present day and go with an original script not based on a short story. The result was "Stigma" by TV writer Clive Exton, a surprisingly intense and graphic bit of business that would still never come close to airing on prime time television in America. For the first time the focus here is not on men overtaken by the supernatural but a woman, in particular her body. Kate Binchy (who would next appear in the marvelous "Quiet as a Nun" installment of Armchair Thriller) stars as Katherine, who moves to a country home along with her husband, Paul (Bowles), and daughter Verity (Gordon). Some workmen are instructed to remove a large ancient stone in front of the house, part of a rock formation linked to a primitive sacrificial rite. As soon as the stone dislodges from the earth, a strong wind blasts both Katherine and Verity into near catatonia. Soon Katherine is plagued by uncanny events like blood seeping from her skin, fissures appearing in the walls and mirrors, and something rustling downstairs at night.

Probably a strong shock indeed to families expecting another creepy but relatively bloodless bit of ghostly entertainment, "Stigma" pelts the viewer with enough prolonged nudity and bloodshed to make one wonder whether they've accidentally stumbled into an episode of Hammer House of Horror instead. It's a harsh and downbeat piece of modern horror, one that will definitely entertain fans of the decade's move to more explicit terrors while probably blowing the minds of anyone unaware of what lies in store for them. The departure from the usual format took its toll, as this was apparently yanked from future broadcasts and became somethinThe Signalmang of a black sheep among the series. It's quite a worthy addition on its own terms, though, particularly thanks to its decidedly feminine look at Cronenbergian body horror and all that entails. Women's literature students could have a field day with the symbolism in this one. For its worldwide home video debut, the BFI presents it on very solid ground indeed with a rich presentation from what is likely the only broadcast master around. The color red gets a heavy workout here, of course, and the overall quality is comparable to other later ghost story entries.

For the last of the '70s ghost stories, director Lawrence Gordon Clark left the BBC, instead going on to direct a loose but fascinating 1979 version of M.R. James' "Casting the Runes" for ITV Playhouse. Instead, Coronation Street veteran Derek Lister took the reins for another original story, "The Ice House," written by John Bowen (who wrote the earlier "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas"). The result is easily the most bizarre of the ghost story cycle, so oblique that it doesn't quite assert itself as a ghost story at all. The story begins with recently divorced, middle-aged Paul (The Omen's Stride) relaxing in a sauna at a country spa run by strange siblings Clovis (Burridge) and Jessica (Romilly). Strange details begin to pile up: many of the male guests seem freezing to the touch; the nearby ice house is decorated with a unique vine sprouting a pair of exotic and alluringly enormous blossoms; and the two owners seem to be... a little too close for comfort. One night Paul decides to explore the inside of the ice house, and what he finds inside accelerates his spiral into a supernatural vortex.

That mind sound like sort of a straightforward horror story, but "The Ice House" is almost defiant in its efforts to sidestep viewer expectations. There isn't much of a linear storyline, with most of the film serving as a series of barely connected sequences filled with oddness and a perverse air of sensuality. There are only a couple of moments of actual horror, though the extremely ambiguous ending closes on an eerie note with a visual strikingly similar to the wrap up from Vault of Horror. This would probably be the worst possible starting point for anyone curious about the series, but for those who have seen the rest, this is a flawed but fascinatingly skewed coda for a TV milestone that wouldn't resurface again for decades. Once again this has never been available on home video in any format until the BFI release, which looks very good with the often overripe visuals looking very fleshy indeed.

As for extras, Clark once again contributes entertaining video intros (ten minutes for "The Signalman," eight for "Stigma") in which he talks about the background behind the story choices and some of the more memorable moments of filming. The highlight is easily his discussion of working with Elliott, who was enthusiastic about the project and worked for less than his usual rate. However, he arrived without enough time to fully memorize his script, so cue cards had to be placed around the set for some of the more difficult scenes (which is why his eyes wander around a bit during some shots). As usual the liner notes provide plenty of valuable material about the source stories and films, with broadcaster Matthew Sweet doing an excellent job on "The Signalman" (including bits on Dickens' real-life train trauma and the tradition of railway ghosts), Dr. Helen Wheatley tackling "Stigma" (including an apropos reference to Angela Carter), Simon Farquhar's additional look at "The Signalman" as the close of Clark's BBC horror tenure, and Alex Davidson parsing out some of the mysteries behind the "The Ice House." Featuring one bona fide classic and two brave but polarizing (and extremely rare) modern variants on the ghost story formula, this is a rather spectacular penultimate entry in a much-need revival of one of television's most important contributions to horror history.

Reviewed on August 24, 2012.