TV Reviews

Ghost Stories for Christmas Volume 1 – Limited Edition Blu-ray Review

As a species we quite enjoy a harmless scare. An elevated heart rate followed by a quick endorphin rush caused by adrenaline is just the thing to warm us up on a cold winter’s night. Turn that into a collective experience and, come late December, you have a wonderful opportunity for a pleasant feeling of warmth and group bonding. This is why, for hundreds of years, telling ghost stories around the fireplace was a strong, Christmas tradition. Sadly, like many Christmas traditions, the puritans put pay to this spine-tingling fun and it never really took off again. Dickens publishing of A Christmas Carol in 1843 reinvigorated many traditions, including the ghost stories at Christmas but, alas, it never regained its former glory, and these days Christmas is probably felt by many to be a time of laughter, light, and jolly old elves filling stockings.

But there are still a few glimmers of that earlier time; a time when we couldn’t exorcise our fear of the dark by a flick of a switch, and the cold of winter made us all yearn for the light of the summer sun. Writers from Robert Louis Stevenson to H.P. Lovecraft have taken their turn in keeping that old tradition alive, and throughout the 1970s – plus the occasional revival – the BBC did their bit with A Ghost Story for Christmas.

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This new Blu-ray release is a nicely presented, three-disc set, which collects four features, all based on stories by writer M.R. James, and released as part of ‘In Dreams are Monsters’, the two-and-a-half-month BFI UK-wide film and event season celebrating screen horror. 

Disc one contains ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’; an interesting choice as it’s not strictly part of the A Ghost Story for Christmas canon, having been released in May 1968. Yet it doesn’t feel out of place thanks to having been filmed in black and white and making the most of a bleak and windy British coast. The story is a journey into the nature of reality and perception and stars the wonderful Michael Hordern in what is almost a one man show. It was written and directed by Jonathan Miller who brings us – if not a completely faithful adaptation of James’ original story – an innovative and masterly shot vision of terror. Indeed, despite being 55 years old, this short film remains one of the single, most terrifying ever committed to celluloid, which no doubt accounts for it being the first feature and receiving the lion’s share of the special features. 

Photo courtesy of BFI & BBC.

Also on disc one there is an archive introduction presented by horror writer Ramsey Campbell, as well as Campbell reading his own M.R. James inspired story ‘The Guide’. It’s not the only reading you get on this disc either, as ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’, the original short story by James that the film is based on, is read by Neil Brand. There is also a short discussion between Miller and Christopher Frayling discussing the film itself. Almost as an afterthought the disc also contains the 2010 ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ film, starring John Hurt. The only original special feature is a rather informative and enjoyable commentary from TV historian Jon Dear.

On disc two we have Lawrence Gordon Clark’s ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ and ‘A Warning to the Curious’. The first tells the tale of the growing madness of Robert Hardy’s Archdeacon, a murderer tormented by the curse of ‘Austin the Twice-Born’. Clive Swift plays Dr Black, the scholar who uncovers the tale and investigates further. Unusually for the time, both interior and exterior scenes were shot on 16mm film, allowing for a far more interesting and textured film than is usual of the time. Clark also directed ‘A Warning to the Curious’. Peter Vaughan does an excellent job as the main character, Mr Paxton, and its rather fun to see Clive Swift’s return as Dr Black. Swift is always likeable on screen, but here he’s given the opportunity to show real loss and the dawning realisation of terror. Both of the films are evocative and engaging, using darkness like a paintbrush and managing to thrill.

Photo courtesy of BFI & BBC.

As for special features, both have filmed introductions by Clark. Of particular delight is the inclusion of Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee. A four part mini-series broadcast December 2000, in it Lee takes the role of an M.R. James style storyteller. Here we have parts one and four of the original series, which were ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ and ‘A Warning to the Curious’. Dear returns to give a commentary for ‘Warning’, while Kim Newman and Sean Hogan give insight and chat though ‘Barchester’.

Disc three brings us ‘Lost Hearts’. Once again Clark directs, but here Robin Chapman adapts. With the story focusing on children, both living and dead, it’s already set up to be pleasantly spooky, and though probably the weakest story featured, it still doesn’t disappoint. This disc also has an introduction from Clark and Newman, and Hogan return in the commentary, but given the embarrassment of riches on the first two, the special features section feels rather sparse.

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The clean-ups are pretty good. Especially noticeable is the quality of sound, which makes a huge difference to those of us who have seen some of these in the past and been distracted by cracks and hiss. This was a particular problem with ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’. Despite the restoration, these films still feel more at home on a smaller screen, but that is more due to filming choices and budget constraints.

These are interesting films that come with excellent special features and are the kind of thing that the BFI should be releasing. However, ten years ago they put out almost exactly the same package on DVD – but with more episodes. Other than the commentaries it looks as though nothing else has been added for this Blu-ray release, and the clean-up alone makes it hard to justify the new price tag. Still, if you’re looking for an interesting present for the horror fan in your life, you could do worse than this set.

Ghost Stories for Christmas Volume 1 is out on Blu-ray on 5th December from the BFI.  ‘In Dreams are Monsters‘ runs until 31st December. 

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