Volume 4 of the BBC Ghost Stories At Christmas is a mixed bag of the eerie and the spooky. Housing the last three instalments of the classic series before it ceased until its revival in 2005, it’s a must buy for one of the stories but its other two instalments wobble its consistency. The most appealing aspect of this release is that it contains possibly the best of all the ghost stories to be released by the BFI. Though the stories lacks a lot of the Jamesian qualities that made the previous few so warm and appealing, an icy chill sets the precedent for volume four and this is summed up best in 1976’s The Signalman.
It’s a faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ autobiographical ghost story and it hasn’t aged a single day. The adaptation, based around the horrors of a train crash experienced by Dickens a mere five years before he died, is loyal to the original text which allows the paranoia and the dark, relentless fear of Dickens to seep through. Mere minutes in, the viewer is invited to the one of the grimmest and isolated settings seen in the series; a shadowy signal box next to a tunnel. The sun’s rays cannot reach the lower part of this man-made valley and a perpetual shadow is cast over the area like a black hand.
The piece is essentially a two man play with both the signalman and the traveller never revealing their names. The traveller is initially given an icy welcome by the signalman who seems unnerved and unsure as to whether the traveller really exists. Upon gaining his trusts he keeps the dutiful signalman company as he relates a story of a ghostly vision that is haunting him from a past accident.
The premonition aspect of the story hints at time travel akin to The Shining, but it becomes increasingly clear that the ghost that lurks under the stop light just outside of the tunnel is an uncompromising and malevolent creature who at first seeks to warn the signalman of future accidents but instead ends up leading him to a rather nasty ending. The ghost itself is well realised and, more than any of the other ghost stories, it relies on the sounds of industry and Victorian technology to announce its presence, hinting at the old philosophy of the “ghost in the machine” mentality that haunted Victorians in fear of technological progress for some time.
It’s best for the viewer to make the most of the ghostly appearances in The Signalman. The next two instalments seem more like psychoanalytical dramas than spooky tales, perhaps explaining their lack of acknowledgment when the series is discussed. 1977’s Stigma seems more like a segment from an Amicus portmanteau film than a ghost story for Christmas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but coming after the gothic and ghostly The Signalman, it seems almost out of place with its modern day setting, eroticism and distinct lack of ghost.
Stigma does boast some nice folk horror elements though and its location work next to a stone circle gives it a similar feel to The Wicker Man or even Blood On Satan’s Claw. A middle class family are moving into a house and are having a stone removed from their garden to make way for their lawn. With slightly moving the stone, a wind is unleashed and the mother starts to bleed out of her skin. Perhaps it is the quality of the previous story that makes it seem so ineffectual but a solitary viewing seems essential to get the most from this story.
The final story also suffers from similar issues but also suffers a blow from losing director Lawrence Gordon Clark. The Ice House is a vague story, more about ambiguous implications than hauntings or ghosts. Derek Lister does a good job with the direction but the material itself seems flat and lacking in that simple but effectively detailed narrative form that M. R James stories employ. It also again has a modern day setting as well as a forced sense of eroticism (which rather oddly spills over into the incestuous) but boasts a handful of gripping scenes including a dark finale which sees its protagonist accept a fate worse than death. The setting in a health spar seems such an odd choice and the story would be helped enormously by a change in tone and era, adding a much needed dose of the gothic.
The release itself again has a superb set of transfers as well as introductions to The Signalman and Stigma from Lawrence Gordon Clark. Its essay book is also the best yet with two extremely useful and interesting essays on The Signalman and two essays that put up a reasonable defence for the latter two stories.
It seems sad that the original series had to end on an experimental whimper than a spooky bang. However The Signalman makes this an essential purchose alone and, even if the later stories don’t match its qualities, they’re still interesting curious that add a feel of modern horror to the release.