A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS
THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER
Color, 1971, 45m.
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
Starring Robert Hardy, Clive Swift, Thelma Barlow, Will Leighton
Color, 1972, 50m.
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
Starring Peter Vaughan, Clive Swift, Julian Herington, John Kearney
BFI (DVD) (UK R2 PAL), Shock (Australia R0 PAL)
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS
Three years after the original version of "Whistle and I'll Come to You," the M.R. James TV train really took off thanks in no small part to director Lawrence Gordon Clark, who took on five adaptations of the spook story legend's tales for the BBC's "A Ghost Story for Christmas" in the '70s and then rounded out the series with additional versions of Charles Dickens' creepy "The Signalman," Clive Exton's "Stigma," and John Bowen's "The Ice House." He also directed a flawed by interesting version of James' "Casting the Runes" in 1979 for ITV, which sort of plays like an unofficial cousin to these more famous outings.
The first of his adaptations to be aired was "The Stalls of Barchester," a low-key but occasionally very scary mood piece about a bespectacled scholar named Dr. Black (Swift) whose seemingly mundane assignment of sorting through the assets of the Barchester Cathedral library takes an eerie turn when he comes across the papers of the late Archdeacon (Hardy), who plotted to gain his position through murder. However, he soon comes to discover something truly horrific about the wooden choir stalls in the church, which are tied to a famous local tree and a sinister local legend.
This one finds the James/Christmas formula already honed to perfection: a doubting protagonist to carry the viewer into the story, a tale of hidden secrets and malfeasance among the previous generation, a slow and steady opening act to build up atmosphere, and a blood-freezing finale to send viewers off to a sleepless night. Few have pegged this as their favorite of the cycle, but it's an excellent start and should hook in anyone looking for a good shiver or two. For some reason this was withheld from home video until its early 2012 Australian release, which looks much better here than the dupey copies from occasional broadcasts over the years. Like its '70s successors, this was shot on 16mm and has a somewhat rough and strangely otherworldly visual texture; it's a far cry from the glossy HD shooting you see now, but that's a permanent part of its charm. The BFI version released later in 2012 marks its first UK video release in any format, and the transfer looks very similar element-wise (including the dupier main titles, which have always looked pretty cruddy due to optical printing) but features a significantly higher (and variable) bit rate; the more careful compression results in more stable blacks and slightly more consistent flesh tones. Just bear in mind this will never look like a million bucks.
The following year saw what many regard as the high point of the series, "A Warning to the Curious," which features an unforgettable opening in which a man digging into a hill in the Norfolk countryside is stopped by a creepy local who keeps insisting, "No digging." When the interloper ignores him, he gets a very nasty surprise right in the cranium. We then charge into the main story of Paxon (Vaughan), whose hobby of English archaeology and amateur treasure hunting has brought him to the coastline of Seaburgh. There he meets Dr. Black (Swift again, and yes, he's the same character) and reveals that he intends to find the last of three crowns of East Anglia which kept the British Isles safe from invasion. The other two crowns have been irretrievably lost, but this final one could be the key to fame and fortune -- despite the fact that the last man who came close to finding it twelve years ago (as we saw in the opening) met a very ugly end. When he actually does find the crown, he gets something else in the bargain and realizes it doesn't intend to leave him alone.
Intensely creepy stuff from start to finish, this is a bit more gruesome than expected for the series (including a bit of gore at the end), though it's actually milder than the grotesque deaths in the original short story. Interestingly, this was the only M.R. James title of the "Ghost Story" cycle to get a 2001 BFI DVD release, and that one also went out of circulation very quickly. This is easily the grainiest entry of them all, which appears to be an intentional stylistic choice; the combination of bright green trees, gold sand, and that hazy cinematic sheen creates an ambience that suits the story perfectly. The Australian transfer appears to be from the same source, which looks a bit dated and mushy now.
In a pleasant surprise, the BFI 2012 release of Warning (which pairs this with Barchester, just like the Shock one) is a completely fresh transfer and markedly different from any seen before. Details are significantly more defined, colors are more accurate and stable, and the film grain has a much tighter, more natural look here. The minor film damage is also different, interestingly enough; there's less speckling and general debris during the opening credits, for example, but you'll notice a few scratches and scuffs here in different places compared to the older transfer. Definitely worth upgrading for this one.
On top of that, the BFI release finally includes some very welcome special features for these important titles. Clark appears for video introductions to both films, running 10 and 12 minutes respectively, complete with prominent spoiler warnings. He talks about how he got involved with getting the series off the ground, his personal affinity for James, and his interpretations of the themes and the common traits of the stories' protagonists, and it's nice to hear him preserved for posterity about some of his most famous works. On top of that you get two episodes of the 2000 series Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee, in which the horror legend appears in a yuletide drawing room to read and act out the stories for an appreciate audience (complete with moody POV shots and other cutaways to enhance the experience). Both are presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and look excellent, given their more recent vintage. The liner notes booklet begins with a solid Jonathan Rigby essay, "Traces of Uneasiness: Lawrence Gordon Clark and The Stalls of Barchester," which covers the early days of the James adaptations and lays the groundwork for Clark's entry into the productions. Adam Easterbrook tackles "A Warning to the Curious" by examining both the locations and the social climate of Britain at the time, painting a vivid portrait of TV and horror attitudes in 1972. The Reggie Oliver bio for James from the "Whistle" disc is carried over here, while Simon Farquhar's bio for Clark is accompanied by additional ones for Hardy (by Frances Donaldson), Swift (by Lisa Kerrigan), and Vaughan (by Kathleen Luckey), plus additional Rigby notes about the two Lee readings. Curl up on a chilly night, turn out the lights, and enjoy.
More BBC Ghost Stories: Whistle and I'll Come to You, Lost Hearts / The Treasure of Abbot Thomas / The Ash Tree, The Signalman / Stigma / The Ice House, A View from a Hill / Number 13.