Last year the BFI released Ghost Stories for Christmas: Volume 1. This year, as sure as tragedy follows intellectual curiosity in an M R James story, Volume 2 has followed Volume 1. Having just about managed to crawl out from behind the sofa after the terror of last year’s release, it’s time to find out if this collection measures up to the impressive content of Volume 1.
Once again we have classic short films from the ’70s, and this time there are five to enjoy. On top of that there are two more modern stories from the revival series, and this time ones that hadn’t already been filmed: 2005’s ‘A View from a Hill’ and ‘Number 13’ from 2006, both of which really deserve separate reviews. Additionally there is the early 2000s Christopher Lee story-telling of ‘Number 13’. An impressive amount of material even without additional special features.
The films themselves do vary in quality, though none of them are exactly bad. ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ is wonderful, with remarkable performances from the entire cast, especially Michael Bryant as the sceptical the Rev Justin Somerton, and with an excellent seance scene and a bit of secret code breaking just as good as anything Nicolas Cage dealt with. Also, a big shout out to the steps at Wells Cathedral Chapter House, a location eagle-eyed film and television fans will see used time and again. The only let down is a scene where the Reverend unearths the McGuffin; sadly the special effects don’t quite work.
Not a criticism you could aim at ‘The Ash Tree‘, the next film in the collection. In fact the monster special effects – odd, spider creatures with distorted baby heads for bodies – is the best thing about it. Obviously created before CGI, there is something about the fakeness of the puppets that makes them all the more horrible. Everything else is fine, with the BBC budget and flashbacks to witch trials lending a Witchfinder General feel to it.
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The third story in the series, and the first that isn’t an adaptation of M R James, is ‘The Signalman’. The Dickens classic is perfect TV special fare. Spooky, intimate, and not needing flash effects, and what amounts to a double header between the two leads, Bernard Lloyd and Denholm Elliott. Elliott, who plays the signalman, brings all of his not inconsiderable acting clout to the role, and the result is something truly spectacular.
The next film, the last in the series to be directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, is also the first to be set in modern times. It’s also the first to not be an adaptation, instead created specifically for the series. The decision to update to setting to modern times was not a good one. The distance of a historic setting adds a credibility to the horror. Add to that the fact that the BBC do costume drama very well, it lends a timelessness to the production. The story itself is a little woolly and it shows, despite the effort put in by leads Kate Binchy and Peter Bowles.
The final film in the set, and the final one of the original run, is ‘The Ice House’. As a piece of television it’s interesting, but as a ghost story it’s not much cop. With another modern setting, it does have a few eerie moments, but all in all it’s something of a damp squib to end what was an excellent run.
In addition to the extra short films included, which are excellent, other special features include new audio commentaries for each of the features, and a new video essay by Nic Wassell which focuses on the adapted M R James stories in this collection and the previous one. Additionally, there are some archive interviews with director Lawrence Gordon Clark. As should be expected, the BFI restoration is good, striking the perfect balance of maintaining feel but making it suitable for modern home entertainment systems.
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The main criticism of last year’s release was the price tag; could it be justified? This year the same question might be asked, but it feels like here you’re getting a little more bang for your buck. Once again, this is a collection that no horror fan should be without, and makes excellent Christmas viewing.
Ghost Stories for Christmas: Volume 2 is out now on Limited Edition Blu-ray from the BFI.