Directors: Lawrence Gordon Clark, Derek Lister, Luke Watson, Pier Wilkie
Starring: ‎ Michael Bryant, Edward Petherbridge, Lalla Ward, Denholm Elliott, Kate Binchy, Peter Bowles, John Stride, Mark Letheren, Pip Torens, Greg Wise, David Burke, Tom Burke
Year: 1974-1978, 2005, 2006
Duration: 174 mins
Country: UK
BBFC Certification: 15

The air is getting cold and the nights are drawing in. Halloween may be over, but that doesn’t end the spooky season and, as we approach December, the BFI are treating us once again to a collection of the BBC’s traditional Ghost Stories for Christmas, this time completing the series initial 1970’s run while mixing in some of the more modern efforts and a bevy of intriguing extras. So, pull your cuddliest blanket around your shoulders and get ready for seven more tales of terror…

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) – dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

The set starts with this intriguing M.R. James adaptation directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. Michael Bryant is nicely aloof as the selfish Rev Somert who teams up with young Lord Dattering (Paul Lavers) to hunt down the missing treasure hidden by a disgraced abbot in Wells Cathedral – as the story progresses, Somerts motives in finding the treasure start to seem less than noble as he disregards warnings of a supernatural guardian watching over the hoard.

Shot on video for that “daytime soap opera” look, the cinematography here is intriguingly claustrophobic, chock full of close up shots with very few wide angles. This does make the film feel less grand than it should be, particularly in the location shots around Wells cathedral, but there are some inspired shots, especially during an early seance scene. There’s great use of sound too, creating a sense of unease.

While it has suitably creepy moments it’s a little too uneven, with the supernatural underpinnings quickly vanishing in favour of a decidedly proto DaVinci Code-esque plot. That said, the reveal of the treasure guardian is nicely unsettling but short lived and dips the story more into Lovecraftian psychological horror.

The Ash Tree (1975) – dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

Another M.R. James story, The Ash Tree sees the series dip into its darkest territory yet, with the tale of an aristocrat slowly going mad after inheriting his family estate, and a curse from the days of the witch hunts begins to infest his subconscious.

The Ash Tree is an effectively creepy tale with echoes of folk horror and an undertone of human darkness, psychological horror and cursed bloodlines, with some genuinely unsettling imagery throughout – especially in its creepy finale.

While the cinematography makes good use of its Cornwall locations with plenty of wide shots of rolling hills and coastlines, this film is once again shot on video, bringing a disappointing daytime TV look to the visuals.

The Signalman (1976) – dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

The first non MR James adaptation of this series sees Denholm Elliott deliver a superbly nuanced performance as the titular Signalman in this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic ghost story. As a railway signalman who repeatedly sees a ghostly figure standing next to a seemingly cursed tunnel, Elliott delivers his dialogue with doom laden expertise.

The Signalman is widely regarded as one of the best films in this series and it’s easy to see why. Eerie and unsettling with an excellent use of light and shadow in its cinematography and a minimalist soundtrack that recalls Jonathan Miller’s Whistle And I’ll Come To You, The Signalman is a story that broods its way through an increasingly tense tale to a shocking conclusion.

The first of this set with a very filmic quality to the visuals, it’s a beautiful short film making excellent use of the Severn Valley Railway locations and is easily the best in this set.

Stigma (1977) – dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

The first of the Ghost Stories for Christmas series to have a present day setting, Stigma is an intriguing tale and an original script by writer Clive Exton. A folk horror tale about a family moving into a cottage and disturbing ancient burial grounds, setting a curse onto the mother Kathy, played excellently by Kate Binchy. It’s a much more conventional haunted house/possession story than the typical Ghost Stories film, and quite refreshing for it.

It’s also notably the most bloody of the films so far with some nightmarish body horror as Kathy begins inexplicably bleeding while showing no wounds on her body. There’s also excellent turns from Peter Bowles and Maxine Gordon as her husband and daughter who gradually begin to figure out something isn’t right, and their reactions when it seems like it seems too late to save their loved one are as haunting as the curse itself.

The final Ghost Stories For Christmas directed by Lawerence Gordon Clark, Stigma is bleak and grey in its cinematography, a slow burning and quietly brooding film. There’s a frantic nature to the last 10 minutes building to a darkly ambiguous ending and delivering a solid short horror film that’s worth revisiting.

The Ice House (1978) – dir. Derek Lister

Shot from another original script, The Ice House sees recently divorced Paul (John Stride) take up residence at a health spa to recuperate and begin to suspect something is amiss with its sibling owners and the strange Ice House in the grounds.

Another contemporary story, The Ice House is a relatively quiet affair relying on mood over shock. There’s a strange “not quite right” undercurrent to the behaviour of the guests and staff lending the story an almost  surrealist nature which also has a bizarrely sexual undercurrent.

It’s a great looking film with some beautiful use of colour and is strangely poetic, however the rather plodding story and odd narrative choices lead it to ultimately be one of the weaker films of the series.

Bonus Films

As with last year’s set, there are a number of slightly more recent films from the Ghost Stories For Christmas revival included, this time forming a pair of M.R. James adaptations from the early 2000’s.

A View From A Hill (2005) – dir. Luke Watson

Mark Letheren stars as a nervy archeologist visiting Pip Torens upbeat squire looking to sell his family estate, seeking valuation on the property and its contents in this echo back to a more traditional style of Ghost Story. While exploring the grounds, the archaeologist borrows a pair of seemingly cursed binoculars, allowing him to see the ruins of a local abbey rebuilt but eventually causing his reality to begin crumbling.

A View From A Hill is a quiet story with a penchant for visual storytelling which echoes Lawrence Gordon Clark’s earlier films in the series and the psychological aspects of the tale deliver some superbly unsettling sequences.

At nearly 40 minutes it’s not the tightest film of either the classic run or the revival and the early digital photography hasn’t aged well, looking a little soft with some harsh chromatic aberration on display. It’s still an effective tale and a good addition to the set.

Number 13 (2006) – dir. Pier Wilkie

Once again, this M.R. James tale sees an academic finding themselves way out of their depth, with Greg Wise as the softly arrogant historian taking a room in a seemingly haunted hotel. Number 13 has a solid cast with David Burke returning from A View From A Hill bringing his son Tom Burke (TV’s Strike) with him. Also present is Paul Freeman, Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Beloq.

There’s a slightly more occult feel to the plot with mysterious writings, gothic vibes and a Lovecraftian mood that echoes the cosmic horror authors Dreams in the Witch House with its odd building layouts and nighttime visitations by mysterious figures.

It’s a much less subtle film than the classics and even the preceding A View From A Hill, but it’s certainly a more glossy affair and still worth a look to round out this set of horror shorts.

Bonus Features

  • Presented in High Definition
  • A View From a Hill (2005, 39 mins, standard definition): a young museum curator, Fanshawe finds himself in possession of a pair binoculars that grant him a strange new ability. Ignoring all warnings about their necromantic creator, Fanshawe carries out his research, but the bloody past of the area is best left undisturbed…
  • Number 13 (2006, 40 mins): infuriated by the ghoulish noises made nightly by his neighbour, Professor Anderson is soon driven to investigate the diabolical secrets of the old hotel and mysteriously vanishing room 13
  • Newly recorded audio commentary for The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by writer and TV historian Simon Farquhar
  • Newly recorded audio commentary for The Ash Tree by writer and TV historian Jon Dear, incorporating material from author and editor Johnny Mains
  • Newly recorded audio commentary for The Signalman by TV historian Jon Dear and actor and writer Mark Gatiss
  • Newly recorded audio commentaries for Stigma and The Ice House by Kim Newman and Sean Hogan
  • Spectres, Spirits and Haunted Treasure: Adapting MR James (2023, 17 mins): a newly commissioned video essay by Nic Wassell exploring some of the classic BBC adaptations of the work of MR James.
  • Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee – Number 13 (2000, 30 mins): Ronald Frame’s adaptation is brought to life by the horror maestro
  • Introductions by Lawrence Gordon Clark (2012, 39 mins): the director introduces The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, The Ash Tree, The Signalman, and Stigma
  • Illustrated booklet with archival essays by Alex Davidson, Dick Fiddy, Simon Farquhar and Helen Wheatley

Another superb collection with an excellent array of extra features and an essential addition to 2022’s Volume 1 set, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The films don’t always hit the mark as individual pieces, but presented as part of the whole this is a great box set to add to any horror collection.

While this brings an end to the original run of films, including rounding out the three earliest entries to the 2000’s revival, I’m hoping that there’s plans afoot to bring Mark Gatiss’s recent revival series, set to continue this Christmas with an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 294, to a similar box set.

GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS (VOL. 2)
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One Response

  1. bobby

    “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” wasn’t shot on video for that “daytime soap opera” effect, it was like all the others shot on 16mm film stock. Also, daytime soaps are an American tradition, not one in Britain during the ’60s and ’70s (though there was ‘The Sullivans’ – Aussie import).

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