DVD Review: Ghostwatch

On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC aired this program as a live, reality show (although it was actually neither). Banks of telephones were at the ready to receive calls from the general public to hear about their own brushes with the supernatural.  Viewers were promised an evening in the most haunted house in England–not some ancient gothic-style edifice with towers and secret passages and a long history of beheadings and nuns walled up when the place was an abbey, but an ordinary looking council house in a post-war suburban development in a place called Fox Hill in Norfolk.

Mike Smith at the Ghostwatch phones What gave the show not only a sense of being real, but a certain air of respectability, was the presence of some of the BBC’s prominent personalities of the day. The host was journalist Michael Parkinson–a face very familiar to the British viewing public since the 1970s; the closest American equivalent would be someone like Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw. Also appearing were Mike Smith and his wife, Blue Peter’s Sarah Greene. But the person I’m most familiar with among the group is Craig Charles, who was Lister in Red Dwarf, and who provides the comic relief until things get too gruesome for comedy.

After a brief introduction by Michael Parkinson, we are shown a piece of videotape recorded by psychic researchers inside the house at Fox Hill, in a bedroom where two little girls are just going to sleep. A time code in the lower right corner shows that it’s nearly 4 am when thumping sounds are heard coming from the walls. Things start to fly around the darkened room. Both girls are screaming and their mother comes in.

Dr. Pascoe and Michael ParkisonMr. Parkinson is seated in the studio with a parapsychologist, Dr. Lin Pascoe, who’s been involved with the Fox Hill haunting.

Mike Smith mans the phones like it’s a PBS telethon except that the Beeb isn’t asking for money and they aren’t giving away canvas shopping bags. (Although I do like the black T-shirts with the Ghostwatch logo that Sarah Greene and some of the television crew are wearing.)

Sarah, along with a cameraman named Chris and a sound guy also named Mike, will be spending the night in the house with the family, whose name is Early. Remote cameras have been placed in all the rooms and can be viewed at the studio and from the monitors in the equipment vans parked outside, where Craig is stationed.

Although the DVD runs a straight 90 minutes, dialog here and there indicates that the scenes that follow were shown at intervals between other programs throughout that Halloween night.
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DVD Review: Classic Ghost Stories

This was an extra DVD in the M.R. James Ghost Stories set. I’d mentioned that a couple of the other disks had an extra short feature in which Christopher Lee took the role of M.R. James, presenting one of his stories to a group of enthralled students. These are similar short features, done in 1986. Each is about 10 minutes long.

The actor telling the stories is Robert Powell, wearing spectacles and a pinstriped suit with a high Edwardian shirt collar and the black robe of a Cambridge don. The setting for the room he is in likewise suggests that of a scholar at Cambridge, with a desk and shelves full of books on one side, a comfy armchair before a fireplace with a high fender on the other, and a pointed-top Gothic door.

The Mezzotint
On the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX04.htm.

This is one of James’s most memorable stories, a good, creepy tale of a museum curator who purchases a mezzotint (a kind of engraving) of an old house:

It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. On either side were trees, and in front a considerable expanse of lawn. The legend “A.W.F. sculpsit” was engraved on the narrow margin; and there was no further inscription. The whole thing gave the impression that it was the work of an amateur.

But this scene changes and becomes more disturbing each time anyone looks at it.
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DVD Review: The Stone Tape

The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale, aired on the BBC on Christmas day 1972 and again the following Halloween, then disappeared into the BBC archives for decades. But it wasn’t forgotten. For many British people around my own age, it’s the equivalent of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark or the little Zuni fetish doll chasing Karen Black around in Trilogy of Terror–the spooky made-for-TV movie you saw once as a child that scared the hell out of you.

Jill and some blobby thingsNigel Kneale is rare among television writers in that he’s famous enough to have his name at the top of the credits. The only other writer of similar standing I can think of would be Richard Matheson.

Kneale is probably best known for his Quatermass series (I really must settle down and write something about Quatermass and the Pit one of these days; I’ve been meaning to since last fall.) What made me buy this DVD from Britain, aside from curiosity regarding a hi-tech ghost story I’d heard so much about but never seen, was the additional attraction that Kneale does commentary on the disk.

This story begins as Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arrives to begin her first day’s work at an enormous neo-Gothic Victorian house that’s in the process of being converted into offices and lab facilities for a team of researchers.

The most interesting thing I learned from the DVD commentary is that, while the interiors are all studio sets, the house used for the exterior shots once belonged to Ada, Lady Lovelace. She was Lord Byron’s daughter but also famous in her own right for her work on Charles Babbage’s theoretical Analytic Engine; she’s credited as the first person to write a computer program and the programming language Ada is named after her. Kneale says he only learned about the house’s history during filming and it’s a coincidence that Jill is a brilliant computer programmer–a remarkable job for a woman in the early 1970s.

As Jill’s tiny car enters the house’s courtyard, it’s nearly crushed between two large lorries backing up in opposite directions. What’s striking about this scene is that even though Jill is leaning on her car’s horn, neither of the lorry drivers nor any of the dozen or so workmen unpacking crates of equipment from other trucks nearby pay the slightest attention. This will become a theme.

Jill moves her car out the way just in time, but she’s badly shaken up by the incident while the other members of the research team arrive.
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DVD Review: Lost Hearts

“Lost Hearts,” one of M.R. James’s early stories, is a more conventional type of ghost story, in which the dead seek revenge against a wrong done against them. But the ghosts are not the horror here and, for once, the scholarly gentleman is no mere witness nor a victim, but the villain of the piece.

It’s on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX03.htm.

The BBC version filmed for Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve in 1973 begins on a very Dickensian note. We are in the early 1800s–James’s story was set in 1811, but this looks more like the 1830s or ’40s to me. A horse-drawn coach comes riding out of the morning mists; inside is a little boy dressed in a top hat, caped coat, and scarf, and looking like the Artful Dodger. (This same child actor, Simon Gipps-Kent, also played young Pip in a film version of Great Expectations made around the same time; he grew up to be Michael York.) The boy is Stephen, recently orphaned and invited to come and live with a distant cousin.

“Is it much farther?” he asks the coachman in weary tones.

“Not long,” the coachman assures him. “Don’t lose heart.”

As the coach passes by an open field, Stephen sees two raggedly dressed children, a boy and a girl, around his own age. They wave to him; the horse shies.

When the coach arrives at the large, old house, its owner, Mr. Peregrin Abney, is waiting eagerly. He is much older than his young cousin, an elderly man, with long, white hair and spectacles. He greets Stephen with avuncular warmth, shakes the boy’s hand, asks when Stephen’s birthday is–asks it twice. Stephen will be 12 on October 31.

Mr. AbneyAbney seems like just the sort of absent-minded, comical gentleman one might find in a Dickens novel, if more intellectual than the usual Dickens character. He has an interest in the occult and studies books of antiquary spells.

Simon Magnus, for example, wrote that one who performs a certain spell can “fly through the air.”

Mr. Abney then jumps off his library steps, but doesn’t fly. “Not yet.”

A harmless eccentric? No. As we learn more about the type of spells Abney is most interested in, the ones about how to gain immortality, he grows more sinister.
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DVD Review: A Warning to the Curious

Legend has it that three silver crowns were buried somewhere along the East Anglian coast in Anglo-Saxon times to ward off invasion. These three crowns can still be seen on coats of arms around Norfolk and Suffolk. In the 1600s, a silver crown was supposed to have been dug up not far from the coast but its finders, more interested in silver than in priceless historical artifacts, promptly melted it down. A second crown is said to have been lost to the sea due to erosion.

The Three Crowns on a Coat of Arms M.R. James uses this legend as the basis for “A Warning to the Curious,” written in 1925, and builds a ghost story upon it. Two friends are staying at an inn at the seaside town of Seaburgh when a third guest at the inn, a man named Paxton, approaches them and tell them how he has traced the location of the third silver crown and actually dug it up. Now he wants to put it back. “I’ve never been alone since I touched it.”

The remaining crown has been guarded by a local family named Ager since time immemorial; the last, William Ager, died some years ago but continues to take his duty seriously even after death. With the aid of his two new friends, Paxton puts the crown back, but that doesn’t mean he’s been forgiven.
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DVD Review: Whistle, and I’ll Come To You

From the 1960s, the BBC presented a television series on Christmas Eve titled A Ghost Story for Christmas. Just recently, I picked up a set of episodes from this series on DVD, most of them based more-or-less faithfully on the short stories of Montague Rhodes James.

M.R. James, who was a Cambridge professor, biblical scholar, antiquarian, and historian, had his own tradition of reading his latest story aloud to friends or students on Christmas Eve. Many of his best ghost stories involve scholarly men like himself who accidentally stumble across some inexplicable horror–some, like the museum curator in The Mezzotint are merely witnesses and survive their brush with the supernatural while others, like poor Mr. Wraxall in Count Magnus, are not so fortunate.

The first of these I’m going to look at is one of my favorites, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. It’s on the Thin Ghost site at  http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/150

A figure on the beachWritten in 1903, Oh, Whistle concerns a professor who doesn’t believe at all in the supernatural until he takes a vacation at a seaside inn; there, he finds an ancient tin whistle in the ruins of a Templar preceptory and blows into it, summoning up an entity that forms a body for itself from the sheets of the spare bed in his room. After his encounter with this creature, “the Professor’s views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be.”

This story has been adapted twice by the BBC, once in 1968 for the show that led to A Ghost Story for Christmas and again in 2010. Both versions dropped the “Oh” and “My Lad” from the beginning and end of the original title (which, by the way, is a quotation from a song by Robert Burns).

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Going on with Dark Shadows after all

It’s been awhile; I’ve continued to watch Dark Shadows on DVD, but for a long time wasn’t sure whether or not I would go on writing about it since we’re now well into the part that most people who know the show at all are already familiar with.

But what the hell.

Since a whole lot has happened since I last wrote about this series and I want to catch up, I’m going to condense the story through a number of episodes.

When last we looked in on Barnabas Collins, he was renovating his old home to make it look as it did when he lived in it over 100 years ago. Now that he has parts of the old house fit to receive company, he invites his family and a few chosen others over for a costume party; he will provide the costumes.

Costume partyNormal people might say “What fun!” or “I’m not dressing up in that silly outfit,” but the Collinses regard the upcoming party with a strange sense of foreboding, as if they’re expecting something terrible to happen. They repeatedly speak of how Vicky is too much in love with the past.

As Barnabas delivers the party clothes, he also provides historical identities for each person, based on whom their clothes used to belong to. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and her brother Roger are given clothes belonging to Barnabas’s parents Naomi and Joshua. Carolyn’s dress belonged to a cousin named Millicent, and Vicky’s once belonged to Barnabas’s beloved Josette. Burke Devlin, who has also been invited, is given a suit belonging to Josette’s husband, Jeremiah Collins.

Barnabas’s hostility toward Burke isn’t just due to this old rivalry, however; at this point in the story, he’s rather smitten with Vicky himself and she and Burke are about to become engaged. (I’ve no idea what happened to Vicky’s sort-of boyfriend Frank; he just disappeared awhile ago without comment.)
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DVD Review: Night of Dark Shadows

I put this movie into my Netflix queue because of the title, thinking it had some connection the supernatural soap opera. In spite of the title, however, it has little to do with the TV series; the little it does is more of a detriment than than a benefit except in the marketing sense. Changing the names of a few characters and locations would remove the relationship, but improve the viewing experience.

The story begins with Quentin Collins and his wife Tracy (Kate Jackson before she was anybody famous) inheriting the family mansion, Collinwood, from Mrs. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard whom it seems has recently died. The Collinwood seen here doesn’t resemble the house in the series. Instead of flimsy studio sets for the interiors, Collinwood is a now shown inside and out as a handsome and spacious, actual house. This is a reasonable change; the filmmakers had a much bigger budget, so of course they’d want to make use of it with a good location.

The housekeeper, Carlotta, is waiting to welcome the young couple upon their arrival. The Collinses jokingly refer to her as “Mrs. Danvers,” but they don’t know the half of it.
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