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.
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