BBC Ghost Stories Volume 3 (Lost Hearts, The Ash Tree, The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas) – BFI

The third volume of the BBC Ghost Stories, restored and released by the BFI, is perhaps the darkest set of stories to come out of television adaptations yet.  This release sees the last of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s screen transformations of the stories of M.R James before the director went on to adapt stories by the likes of Charles Dickens and even commission entirely new tales of the chilling for Christmas.

The first short of the release is in the form the morbid but enjoyable Lost Hearts from 1973.  The tale follows a young boy as he is sent to live with an estranged uncle upon being orphaned.  While staying at the stately home his eccentric academic of uncle lives in, he becomes haunted by the visions of two strange children who attempt to attract his attention even from the initial stages of his journey to the manor.

The twist in the story is what its success pivots on, though it’s hinted early on where the true menace lies in this dark, embedded tale.   The children are a particularly scary element, but they are perhaps shown a little too much in the light of day, especially at the story’s ending.  However where this adaptation is most effective is in its sound.  Though it’s actually relatively faithful to James’ original prose, the production team have clearly used it as a springboard to create something much more intense.  This is specifically down to the sound of the film which is a mix of children’s distant laughing to a grating hurdy-gurdy played by one of the ghosts.

This sets the tone for the following two adaptations too which push the boundaries of the previous adaptations both in terms of gore and of scares.  The ghosts in all three seem more like demons than simply a spiritual entity all of which possess powers beyond the usual conventions of ghosts we’ve seen in the BBC adaptations so far.

1974’s The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas presents us with a ghostly protector that can use a slime to torment the Reverend Somerton who has made the mistake of falling foul to the most typical Jamesian trope; finding an old, valuable artefact that is in fact an inorganic demon.  He is also that crusty type of man, found in the dusty heart of academia, which hide their greed and genuine persona behind a visage of intelligence and intellectualness.  He resembles Michael Horden’s character from the previous stories but is more fool hardy and far less easy to like.  Whereas it was easy to feel sympathy for Peter Vaughan’s character in A Warning To The Curious, even with the circumstances relatively similar, it’s hard to feel sorry for the Reverend’s fortune.

The Ash Tree is the darkest of the three stories on show here and perhaps exercises the most artistic licence with James’ original story.  From a relatively short tale of visions into a witch hunting past, David Rudkin’s adaptation features all sorts of nasty and unsettling elements.  Sir Richard Fell has inherited an estate and is changing it into the Italian palace he longs it to be.  Upon the property sits on ominous ash tree which seems to be the source of bad luck and houses in its heart an angry and vengeful presence.

Mixing Witchfinder General like visions with some genuinely disturbing creatures (which can only be described as screeching spider babies), The Ash Tree feels more like a Tigon film than an M. R James story.  However this still means it’s highly enjoyable and is a dramatic and shadowy end to the James adaptations.

The release itself houses few on disc extras.  Each story comes with an insightful introduction from Lawrence Gordon Clark and just the right amount of restoration (i.e. no atmosphere killing VIDFIRE).  Most of the interesting curios around the stories are housed in the releases’ booklet which is easily the biggest so far.  This includes essays and assessments of both stories and James himself which makes for an interesting read.

Though the films themselves aren’t as subtle or as effective as those on the previous two releases, Ghost Stories Volume 3 is another solid release in a collection which is looking set to define the autumnal horror releases for 2012.

Adam Scovell

Ghost Stories Volume 3 is out on the 17th of September.

Images from Moviemail and the BFI/

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