After a long delay, I have finally obtained the BluRay for the best short horror films from around the world shown at the 2020 HP Lovecraft Film Festival (a streaming festival that year).
It’s an interesting batch, with only one film loosely based on a Lovecraft story, and a couple of others that might be called allusions to the works of HPL.
A pretty good US-made film in an atypical setting. What starts out as the usual, boring night at work for a country and western DJ/radio talk show host named Rooster turns into a bewildering experience in recursive horror when several of his call-ins request that he play an oldie they call “U14”.
Rooster has no clue what U14 is, if it’s a song title or a juke box number, but since so many people are asking for it, he has a look in the store room. After digging through stacks of old 45s, he finds a box containing a set of cassette tapes labeled U1, U2, and so on. One is labeled U14, so he takes it back up to the control room along with some antique equipment that will let him broadcast tapes.
Ealing Studios is best known for its sometimes dark comedies, but in 1945 they released this early example of horror anthology — the type of film that another British studio, Amicus, would turn out regularly 20 to 30 years later.
While it’s often remembered for its final segment, there are other good and spooky stories presented here, original material or adapted from writers such as EF Benson and HG Wells. Four different directors worked on the individual segments. And the implications of the framing story are even more unsettling.
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is driving along a country lane somewhere in Kent. As he approaches a rather charming half-timbered house, he stops and stares at it for a moment before going on.
Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) is waiting at the gate to greet him, and the chatty dialog informs us that Craig is an architect whom Foley has invited down to his home, Pilgrims Farm, to have a look at the house with an eye toward expanding it.
While Craig says that “I’ve never been here before. Not actually,” he seems strangely familiar with the place. He knows already that they need more than the two bedrooms they currently have and another living room, and that the converted barn, where the Foleys are currently putting their guests, has central heating and modern conveniences. When they enter the house, he knows where to go to hang up his hat and coat before Foley points the alcove out. He also knows that the other guests for the weekend are having their afternoon tea before Foley takes him into the parlor, where Mrs. Foley (Mary Merrall), Eliot’s mom, is pouring out tea for the group.
Let’s meet the rest of the party:
Psychiatrist Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk). In those days, psychiatrists were all Freudians and had foreign accents, and the good doctor is no exception.
Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird).
The Courtlands, Peter and Joan (Ralph Michael and Googie Withers).
A teenaged girl named Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howe) who is a neighbor of the Foleys.
I’m familiar with most of these actors later in their careers, so it’s always interesting to see them so young.
As the group is introduced to him, Walter Craig seems to find them all as familiar as Pilgrims Farm. He even says that Dr. Van Straaten will treat him; he always treats him.
This baffles the doctor, since he’s never met Walter before, and Walter at last explains his deja vu:
“I’ve seen you in my dreams. Sounds like a sentimental song, doesn’t it? I’ve dreamt about you over and over again… Everybody in this room is part of my dream. Everybody.”
Amicus Studios was generally considered second-best in British horror after Hammer, but this anthology film is just the sort of thing they did so well during the 1960s and ’70s and are best remembered for: The House That Dripped Blood, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, and Asylum.
From Beyond the Grave is Amicus’s final horror anthology. It showcases four tales written by R. Chetwynd-Hayes–who is not an author I’m familiar with, so I can’t say how these segments compare to his original short stories.
The framing story features a dusty little antique shop named “Temptations, Ltd.” in an obscure back street in London, run by a mild mannered, equally dusty proprietor (Peter Cushing, playing it in a very understated manner). The premise connecting each story is that the type of customer you are determines your ultimate fate.
Our first visitor to the antique shop is Edward Charlton (David Warner), dressed in the mod style of the late ’60s. He is immediately attracted to an old gilt-framed mirror. The elderly proprietor wants £200 for it as a genuine antique, but Edward questions its authenticity and says he’ll give 25 quid for it. The proprietor accepts this offer without bargaining.
A little later, at a party in his flat, Edward boasts to his friends about how he cheated the old man by making him believe that the mirror was a reproduction. Edward estimates that it’s really about 400 years old.
One of his friends observes that “It looks like it belongs in a medium’s parlor– so let’s have a séance!”
In spite of some qualms by Edward’s girlfriend Pamela, they do. The rest of the party is keen and Edward claims certain mediumistic gifts.
His séance produces interesting results. Blasts of blue flame shoot up from the single candle on the table, and Edward rather incautiously invites whatever spirit he’s contacted to “come in.”
Neither he nor his friends notice that the mirror seems to be fogging over, as if the reflected room on the other side of the glass is filling up with mist.
I’ve written blog reviews of two other adaptations of this, the most influential story written by M.R. James: Night/Curse of the Demon, the 1957 Jacques Tourneur film, and the 1970s ITV version starring Jan Francis. Both adaptations moved the story to a contemporary setting and made changes to the characters and plot, while retaining that central idea of a curse that you can only get rid by passing it back to the man who gave it to you.
Britain’s Amicus film studio was in many ways a sort of Hammer Jr. in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Its output is often confused with Hammer’s–so many of its films also star Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee–but they can be distinguished by their wider use of source material. No Dracula or Frankenstein sequels here, but anthologies based on short stories by Robert Bloch and less well-known horror authors, plus original story ideas, and the occasional obscure novel brought to light.
This particular film, with its lurid title, is based on a ghostly gothic novella with the more sedate title of Fengriffen. Its implied horrors are spiced up with some shocking ’70s red-paint gore, and the extensive use of a bloody severed hand crawling around. Its heroine and hero, an extremely pretty young couple (played by the extremely pretty young Stephanie Beacham and Ian Ogilvy), are supported by a cast of distinguished actors in small roles. And, yes, one of them is Peter Cushing.
Like Dragonwyck, it’s a Rebecca-ish story, and this film gives us a Rebecca-ish opening voiceover:
“In my dreams, I go back to the year 1795, to a time when I was happy. I was on my way to be married. I was going to the house in which I was to find my days filled with fear, my nights filled with horror.”
Sir Charles Fengriffen and his fiancée Catherine are riding toward his home, Fengriffen, in a carriage. The couple are not yet married, so they are accompanied and chaperoned by her Aunt Edith. Catherine is viewing her future home for the first time.
Fengriffen House, when we first see it, is a place many people will immediately recognize. Oakley Court is a 5-star hotel just outside of Windsor today, but in the 1960s and ’70s it was abandoned. British film studios often made use of its handsome exterior and rooms within. TheRocky Horror Picture Show would be the most famous example. Some viewers may feel the urge to sing “There’s a liiiiiiiiiiight, over at the Frankenstein Place” at the sight of it.
I’m a little bit sad looking at it for this review; I had made reservations to have tea there in July, and of course that whole trip had to be cancelled.
Inside, Catherine tours the rooms of her new home. Her first impression, and question are, “What a lovely old house. Is there a ghost?”
“Ghosts galore,” Charles assures her, and lists a few in a joking manner. He doesn’t mention the one that will be so destructive to both of them. At this point, he doesn’t believe in it.
This second audio-drama boxed set from Big Finish carries on the adventures of detective Madame Vastra and her assistants as presented in The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 1.
Dining With Death
The first episode is noteworthy in that it’s written by Dan Starkey, who plays Strax.
Even back in the 1890s, Earth was a common meeting-place for various aliens, being both an out-of-the-way galactic backwater and neutral territory. When representatives of two great empires, attempting to negotiate a peace settlement, are blown up along with half the restaurant where they were having dinner, Madame Vastra ends up agreeing to act as a facilitator for further diplomatic talks–which will take place at her home.
I saw Robert Lloyd Parry, self-described storyteller, perform twice last summer at the NecronomiCon in Providence, Rhode Island. Seated in a darkened theatre lit only by candles, he didn’t simple tell us stories, but rendered highly dramatic recitations of M.R. James’s ghostly tales with character voices, one or two props, and expressive emotion whenever the narrative called for it. He was the surprise sensation of the Con; I wasn’t the only person present who’d never heard of him before, but came away a fan of his work.
When I found out earlier this year that some of his performances were available on DVD, I ordered a couple. The one I was most interested in getting a copy of was Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, the first story I saw performed in Providence.
You can read MR James’s original story online. I’ve also previously reviewed the 1968 BBC adaptation starring Michael Hordern as the rationalist Professor Parkins, whose views on the supernatural are drastically altered when he finds an ancient whistle and accidentally summons a spirit that forms a body for itself from the sheets on the spare bed in his hotel room.
This tense and suspenseful story about the return of a young girl’s possessive lover–long after she’d grown up and given him up as dead–is another episode from the 1980s ITV series, Shades of Darkness. It’s based on a short story by Elizabeth Bowen.
In 1916, Kathleen was engaged to Keith Cameron, a somewhat forceful and intense young pilot. One evening at a party in her parents’ home he took her aside and quietly told her, “I’m off to war, but I shall be with you sooner or later. You need do nothing but wait.” He made her promise, although we never hear what exactly she promised him she would do.
“An unnatural promise,” Kathleen (Dorothy Tutin) recalls in voiceover, much later in her life. “I could not have plighted a more sinister troth.”
He grabbed her by the wrist, twisting her arm up to kiss her hand. Frightened, Kathleen broke away from him and ran back to join the others at the party.
Some months afterwards, Keith’s mother telephoned to tell her that Keith was shot down while flying a mission over France. He was reported as missing, believed killed.
Kathleen grieved, but lived on. Years passed. Eventually, she married a writer named William Drover (Robert Hardy) and had two sons, the elder of whom Robert (a not-yet-famous Hugh Grant) is now grown and has joined the RAF to fight in WWII. Robert, home on leave, wants to marry his girlfriend Anne right away before he returns to duty. While watching the young couple courting in the garden, Kathleen remembers her own wartime romance.
The Drovers have been living out in the country during the first years of the War because of the Blitz. Now that the bombing seems to be over, Kathleen is taking a trip to London to visit old friends and see how their townhouse in Kensington has held up. As long as she’s at the house, she intends to pick up a few things they left behind there, including some books her husband wants as references for a history he’s currently working on.
Most of what follows is a detailed picture of wartime Britain during the summer of 1941. There are ruins of bombed-out houses, surviving houses crowded with unusual boarders, plenty of people in uniform on the streets, rationing of food (Kathleen brings some carefully packed eggs from her own chickens with her as a gift for a friend).
One might almost take this for a drama about life during the War… except that when Kathleen arrives at her Kensington home–which is undamaged apart from some cracks in the walls and plaster dust over everything–she finds a letter addressed to her on a table in one of the rooms upstairs.
A clean square in the dust on the table in the front hall shows that the letter was lying there first. The doors were locked and the windows are intact.
How did it get there? Kathleen wonders. Did the caretaker bring it in?
In ghost stories of old, little ghost-girls were more likely to be sweet, sad, and sympathetic than scary. Such an example can be found in this episode of the 1980s UK anthology series, Shades of Darkness, based on a short story by May Sinclair.
I’m not familiar with the original story, so I can’t judge this as an adaptation. I found it a moving tale about a dead child who isn’t haunting to seek revenge, but to try to reach her guilt-stricken parents.
Late in 1926, a young man named Garvin, no first name given (John Duttine), has come to the countryside seeking peace and quiet to work. He’s trying to write a book of county history–which county isn’t made clear, but it’s Oop North and from the accents I’m guessing Yorkshire.
Mr. Garvin has been staying in the village, but the room he’s in overlooks the schoolyard and there’s too much noise whenever the children are outside playing. The local doctor, MacKinnon, has recommended a nearby farm which might be willing to take a lodger. Garvin walks out to the farm to meet the Falshaws, a gruff middle-aged farmer, his wife Sarah, and a simple-minded niece, Rachel.
Would they be willing to give him a room? That “depends on the missus,” Falshaw says bluntly. There are no children at the farm at the moment, but there will be one in a month or so. Mrs Falshaw is expecting.
Mrs Falshaw doesn’t object, and Rachel shows Garvin to the empty room upstairs. At first, Garvin tries the door of another room down at the end of the hall, across from the Falshaws’ bedroom, but that door is locked. He does like the room that Rachel takes him to; spacious enough, and with a big window with a view of the yard. He’ll just go back into town and get his books and things.
“It’ll be all right,” Rachel assures him. Until then, Garvin didn’t think there was anything to be worried about.
In the early ’80s, my local PBS station showed a few episodes of Shades of Darkness, an anthology series of ghostly and other paranormal tales from Granada Television in the UK, primarily based on short stories by women writers such as Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Bowen. I’d forgotten most of them over the years, until I saw that some (but not all) of these episodes were available in a DVD set.
It’s around 1910. Mrs. Stair, who won’t be seen again after this first scene, is showing the Boynes, Mary (Kate Harper) and Ned (Michael Shannon), an American couple from Waukesha, Wisconsin, around an empty, old English country house that’s for sale.
All the things that would make the house undesirable for other prospective buyers make it the Boynes’ ideal home: It’s 7 miles from the nearest rail station, no electric light, and primitive plumbing. The couple have come into a lot of money through Ned’s sudden windfall with Blue Star Mining stock, which has enabled him to retire 20 years earlier than planned. He intends spend his days writing a book on economics, and he and Mary are looking for just such a place as Lyng to live out their long-standing dream of retreating to the remote peace and quiet of a “genuine Elizabethan manor.”
When they hear that there’s a ghost, they’re delighted. Ned doesn’t want to “drive 10 miles to see someone else’s ghost”; he wants a haunted house of his very own. But both he and Mary are puzzled when Mrs. Stair tells them that, according to local legend, you don’t know you’ve seen the Lyng ghost until a long time afterward.