Casting the Runes is perhaps M.R. James’s most famous story, certainly his most influential. Its central concept of having a curse you can pass to someone else–or have it rebound back upon you with horrific results–can be seen in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell as well as the recent hit It Follows. The story itself was the basis of a terrific horror film made in the 1950s by Jacques Tourneur titled Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, depending on whether you saw the UK or US version.
But that’s not the film I’m going to talk about.
The television version of Casting the Runes made in 1979 wasn’t part of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, but was made by ITV Yorkshire Television. Unlike the BBC, and like most U.S. stations, ITV has commercials. In this case, the commercial breaks separate the show into 3 Acts as if it were a play.
While the structure of this TV version remains close to M.R. James’s original short story, there are several significant and noteworthy changes. The story has been relocated to Yorkshire and has also moved from the early 1900s to a contemporary setting to make use of modern technology. And, the most unexpected and curious change of all–the hero Dunning has become a woman.
Edward Dunning, an expert in alchemical manuscripts who reviews articles and papers for an unnamed scholarly society, is now Prudence Dunning (Jan Francis), who makes documentaries for a local television station (much like the one that made this program). Her most recent work is a series of programs debunking superstitions and supernatural claims. One of these shows is highly critical of an expert in the occult and self-proclaimed magician named Karswell–and Mr. Karswell does not take kindly to criticism.
Before we meet Prudence or Karswell, this version of the story opens with a prolog set about 10 years earlier with two men on a snowy Yorkshire farm. Although we won’t get their names until later on, they are brothers John and Henry Harrington. Henry (Edward Petherbridge, seen recently as the doomed Sirs Matthew and Richard Fell in The Ash Tree) is a metalwork sculptor who does his welding work in the barn, which he’s converted to a studio. John (Christopher Good) is visiting. John looks somewhat nervous before he enters the barn, but the two brothers converse about mundane things for a minute before John offers to take the dog for a walk.
John and the dog play fetch on the snow-dusted fields, oblivious to an ominous shape in the distance. We can’t see this figure clearly; it looks like a creature standing upright with one arm raised, oddly frozen in this position more like a photograph or life-size cardboard cut-out than something in motion. But it’s coming closer.
Eventually, John loses sight of the dog and goes to look for it. He finds it on the other side of a short tunnel that passes under a railway line. The dog is lying down, alive but it seems to be weak. Is it dying?
But John has little time to worry about what’s wrong with the dog. He sees the figure, which is very close now, and runs back through the tunnel into the field on the other side.
The scene has been respectably suspenseful up until this point, but now it gets silly. John falls down and begins to flop around in the snow as if in the grip of an invisible assailant. At last, we see the creature’s face up close in flashes; it looks like a magenta-tinted negative image of a gorilla mask. Which is more than a little disappointing.
Ten years later, Derek Gayton, Prudence Dunning’s producer at the television station, and his wife Jean are at home watching the latest installment of Prudence’s supernatural debunkings; we just see the end of the show in which Prudence speaks slightingly of Karswell. Derek is very pleased with Prudence’s work, but Jean is preoccupied. She’s certain she’s heard the name of Karswell before; she can’t think where, but the name has some unpleasant association.
From the voice-over of Prudence’s documentary, we learn that Karswell is an American, the author of a book titled The History of Witchcraft, and that he calls himself the Abbot of Lufford, since he lives in a former abbey near London. Karswell would not agree to an interview with Prudence, which she takes to mean that he didn’t wish to have his claims about possessing occult powers contested.
She’s wrong about that. As matter of fact, Karswell does know something about casting spells. When we first see him (Iain Cuthbertson, who played a nice enough guy in The Stone Tape), he’s already planning his revenge on Dunning.
In a room at his abbey, he’s apparently playing with a child’s dollhouse, which is a weird thing for a grown man to be doing. More weird still, he places a small piece of crystal and a large golden spider into the doll’s bed, then adds a doll wearing a red nightgown. Prudence has just purchased a red nightgown.
At a Guy Fawkes party, the Gaytons are watching the bonfire with another couple. The wife used to work with Jean at a publishing company, and she remembers who Karswell is. She tells the Gaytons the story of John Harrington, who also worked for the publisher and wrote a scathing and hilarious private assessment of Karswell’s History of Witchcraft when he submitted his handwritten manuscript to them. Harrington’s assessment was so amusing that it got passed around and Karswell eventually heard about it. And, as we saw at the beginning, John Harrington died horribly under strange and mysterious circumstances.
The next day, Prudence is at work reviewing her last documentary and preparing for the upcoming one. While she’s watching the part about Karswell, the following text appears on the viewscreen:
Suspecting some kind of prank, she and her editor examine the film and find no splices to insert this segment in; it looks like the text has simply appeared on certain frames of the uncut film. Prudence has never heard of John Harrington.
While she’s at the library doing some research for her next documentary, Karswell “accidentally” knocks over her stack of books when she isn’t looking and, with profuse apologies, picks them up and offers them to her. This is the first time we hear Karswell speak, and I have to wonder why on earth they decided to make the character American. He wasn’t in James’s story. Iain Cuthbertson certainly isn’t, and his attempt at an American accent is jarring.
When Prudence gets back to the television station, she gets a message that her housemate has suddenly and inexplicably come down with a severe case of food poisoning and will have to spend a few days in the hospital. So Prudence goes home to an empty house. She puts on her new red nightgown and gets into bed–and immediately feels something in under the blanket with her and jumps out again. Given Karswell’s doll-house spell-casting seen earlier, there’s no surprise that it’s a huge spider. We only see some legs sticking out from beneath the blanket, but the thing looks like it’s the size of a king crab.
At this same point in James’s story, after Edward Dunning’s cook and housemaid were hospitalized for mysterious food poisoning and he went to bed in an empty house, he put his hand under his pillow and:
What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.
I think James would’ve approved of the giant spider. As mentioned in The Ash Tree review, he was creeped out by big, hairy spiders.
As for Edward:
… he was in a spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night, looking every moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.
Which is what Prudence does too. End Act I.
Act II begins the following morning, with Prudence at work telling Derek about the incident. She can’t bear the thought of going back to her own home, so he invites her to come and stay with him and his wife. At the Gayton home that night, Prudence tells Jean and Derek about the other strange things that have occurred lately, including the cryptic message about John Harrington. Jean can tell her all about what happened to John after he was critical of Karswell.
And so Prudence meets up with Henry Harrington.
When I first saw that Dunning had been made a woman, I thought that the creators of this version of the story were intending to set up a romance between Prudence and Henry once the two began to work together against Karswell. But nothing like that happens.
Walking across that same field where his brother was killed, Henry tells Prudence that John had the sensation he was being followed in the days before his death. He also tells her that about a month earlier, John had gone to a concert and bumped into a man who fits Karswell’s description; a few days later, John found a slip of paper with odd runic writing on it tucked between the pages of his concert program. This speech is taken almost exactly from James’s story (except that it happens in summer, not November), including how the paper was destroyed:
The paper was lying on the book and we were both by the fire; it was a cold, windy summer evening. I suppose the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust — a warm gust it was — came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it straight into the fire: it was light, thin paper, and flared and went up the chimney in a single ash.
“Well,” I said, “you can’t give it back now.”
He said nothing for a minute: then rather crossly, “No, I can’t; but why you should keep on saying so I don’t know.”
I remarked that I didn’t say it more than once.
“Not more than four times, you mean,” was all he said.
After that, John received two strange objects in the mail, a calendar with the dates after November 18 torn out and an illustrated page from Coleridge’s poem, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with the lines:
“And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.”
John died on the 18th.
Once he imparts this information, Henry Harrington disappears from the story. In James’s version, he and Dunning work together to figure out how to defeat Karswell’s curse; here, it’s up to the Gaytons to help Prudence.
Prudence reads the part in Karswell’s book about “casting the runes” to put a curse on a chosen victim, and how the curse can be reversed if the victim returns the runes to the person who cast them before the allotted number of days is up. She has to hand the runic script back to him personally and he has to accept it without knowing it–he would refuse to take it back if he did know. If she can’t manage to do this before her 30 days are up, then she’ll die just the way John Harrington did. And is there an uglier death than being mauled by an invisible magenta gorilla? End Act II.
Act III. Prudence and Derek go back to her house, where she hasn’t dared set foot since the giant spider incident. There’s no sign of the spider, but the place is stiflingly warm even though the heat isn’t on.
Prudence looks through the books she brought home from the library that day she bumped into Karswell, and finds the slip of paper with runic writing on it (actually, it looks more like upside-down Greek, which they try unconvincingly to explain are related to each other).
Derek has opened a window, and the slip of paper tries to flutter out on a sudden gust of air, but they manage to capture it before it gets away.
Her first attempt to return the paper to Karswell doesn’t go well. Disguised in a blonde wig and enormous 1970s eyeglasses, Prudence calls at Lufford Abbey pretending to be a local council- woman who wants Karswell to fill out a questionnaire and accept some pamphlets. The fact that the housekeeper says “He’s expecting you,” before showing Prudence into the study should warn her, but go in she does.
The study is the room we saw Karswell in at the beginning, with the dolls house and a big, golden globe that seems to summon up some sort of spirit within it when it spins. When Karswell comes in, Prudence tries to offer him a pamphlet, but he refuses to touch it.
Brandishing another little doll with a blonde wig and a tweedy coat in the same pattern as the one she’s wearing, he tells her, “No, Miss Dunning. You’ll have to be more clever than that.” Then he laughs maniacally in her face and disappears into the golden globe.
As the time grows shorter, Prudence becomes more desperate. When she finds out that Karswell is about to leave the country for South America, she realizes that she’s only got one last chance.
It’s in her final ploy to pass the runes back to Karswell that I can see another reason for Edward Dunning to be changed into Prudence. She disguises herself as a stewardess and hides behind the ticket counter at the airport when Karswell is about to leave. A man might do the same, but almost everyone who worked those types of jobs in those days were women and she would draw less attention.
Another woman in the same style of stewardess uniform at the counter processes Karswell’s check-in, but while Derek and some unwitting passengers in the queue distract him, Prudence takes her place. She hands the ticket packet to Karswell, which he accepts. He doesn’t realize that it’s her and he has the runes back until it’s too late. Without saying a word to Prudence, he boards his plane.
So she’s won… but at a terrible price. When she and Derek return to his home to celebrate with Jean, they hear on the news that a plane bound for South America has crashed after some undefined disturbance in the passenger cabin, and everyone aboard is presumed killed. The show ends before we can see Prudence’s reaction to knowing that she’s brought about the deaths of so many other people along with Karswell.
It’s not a great adaptation, but it’s an interesting one in terms of how the story has been modernized for the 1970s and the change of sex for its hero. The special effects for the demon in the opening scene were cheap looking, and there were some other oddities, such as Karswell’s bad American accent, that I cannot find a reason for.