Archive for MR James

A Ghost Story for Christmas

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on December 31, 2013 by dcairns

The BBC has a long tradition of televised ghost stories at Christmas time, often involving M.R. James adaptations. Mark Gatiss has happily revived the idea this year with his version of The Tractate Middoth.

But here’s one from the ’70s, (heyday of this activity) made by commercial television, and it’s at least as good as the Lawrence Gordon Clarke movies the Beeb were turning out, while running about a third of the length. James is such an economical writer and most of his stories so simple that it’s no squeeze at all, and in fact the film feel’s leisurely. But the sting in the tale is powerful — it even gets away with depending on special effects, which work precisely because they’re so unexpected after the low-key exposition. It feels like the film itself has been invaded by another reality.

Interesting to see a maze played for terror before THE SHINING. Our director, Tony Scull, who, like his film, has existed without leaving any trace upon the IMDb, exploits the ragged and decaying hedgerows so he can film through them and get what we call Sid Furie shots, where the camera seems to be spying on the actor, implying some sinister presence. Sadly, this stops him from doing what Kubrick did, moving the camera through the maze giving us the subjective impression of being lost and enclosed. True, he wouldn’t have had access to a yet-to-be-invented steadicam, but hand-held could work just as well — wobble and lurch can add to our nervousness.

But he scores at the end, particularly when the credits start to rise before the VO has finished wrapping up the plot — this sounds like it could be messy, but it’s beautifully effective, capturing attitude of the uncaring universe as embodied by the TV schedule — we have to move on, and we can’t worry too much if some poor chap has just had his nerves shredded. And how are your nerves? Feel any urge to look behind you and check that no malefic presence has materialized through the floorboards while you were intent on your screen?

BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas (Expanded six disc set) PAL ONLY

STOP PRESS: we’re told that this short is an extra on this DVD: Casting the Runes [1979] [DVD] Maybe if a few of you click through and buy it I’ll feel less guilty about inadvertently pirating something that was commercially available! The main feature is a TV adaptation of the same MR James story that became NIGHT OF THE DEMON…

“We’re gonna need a bigger goat.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2009 by dcairns

drag-me-to-hell

The above line is copyright a guy called David Solomons. So please forgive him for writing FIVE CHILDREN AND IT.

But our subject today is a different fairy tale, one by Sam Raimi. It’s about a magic button that can transport you to an enchanted kingdom. Called Hell.

But should Sam’s movie, DRAG ME TO HELL, be called DON’T DRAG ME TO HELL? Anyhow, as everyone will tell you, it’s a more-funny-than-scary thrill-ride full of bodily fluids and things that go bump. It’s also rather ethnically insensitive in its stereotyping of gypsies as curse-giving harpies and drunken revelers. One sympathetic gypsy, that’s all I’m asking.

Since nobody seems to be shouting about the film’s borrowing from Jacques Tourneur and Charles Bennett’s NIGHT OF THE DEMON, by way of MR James’s source story The Casting of the Runes, Fiona wants me to point this out, particularly how the film’s climax shows a character caught between a pursuing demon and an oncoming train. The idea of the object that dooms its owner to hell and must be passed on to some other poor victim also appears in Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale The Bottle Imp (filmed by me, not too skillfully, some years ago). 

If there was something missing here, and I felt there was, it was a lead character in tune with the hyperkinetic ‘toon slam-bang of Raimi’s action sequences. Bruce Campbell in the EVIL DEAD films is popular precisely because he makes everything funnier. Alison Lohman’s casting here is supposed to evoke sympathy, which seems at odds with the film’s gleeful splattering and battering of the poor protag. The film’s second act is basically a serious of savage beatings and facials. It’s in keeping with the kitten-slaughtering gimmick, admittedly, since Lohman’s chief attribute on display is perkiness and wide-eyed naivety. But torturing a cutie-pie may be entertaining to some people on some level but I don’t know how funny it is. Bruce Campbell always engaged the audience in a strange way so that they shared his sense of the ridiculousness of his ordeals. Maybe Lohman could have done some of that, but she certainly hasn’t been required to.

Lorna Raver (!) is suitably vile as the Romany hell-hag, Bojana Novakovic is striking as her grand-daughter, and Dileep Rao underplays nicely as a mystic who keeps saying “Yes,” in a calm voice. But the trouble with underplaying in a Raimi movie is that he kind of lets the air out of every scene that isn’t a ghost-train/abattoir action set-piece. The performances don’t seem to quite connect with each other, the words dying in the sound stage vacuum between the actors: a thin murmur of post-dubbed atmos is piped in to fill the gaps, but blank spaces seem to yawn between each shot, Peter Deeming’s photography seems overlit, especially compared to what he achieved on LOST HIGHWAY, and CG shadows are a poor substitute for the real thing.

Borrowing from his SPIDERMAN franchise a little, Raimi fills the screen with CGI (another MR James adaptation, Jonathan Miller’s TV play Whistle and I’ll Come to You shows that a mere piece of floating fabric can be truly terrifying, but it must be real fabric) and gets the heroine wet. Because that’s the way to a fanboy’s heart. 

Still, Fiona and I somewhat enjoyed the film, possibly because the central romance between a cute girl and a nerdy guy sort of resonated with us for some reason.

Now I’m off to shoot my low-budget remake, DRAG ME OVER THERE. It’ll be quite short.

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