2 December 2023


Ghost Stories for Christmas Volume 2 BFI BluRay. 3 disc set.

Director Lawrence Gordon Clark is celebrated for his direction of the seventies TV adaptations of the ghost stories of M. R. James. Clark brought a technical finesse, dramatic pacing and sensitivity to these productions. He was hugely sympathetic to the spirit of James’s writing. 

In the cinema we really only have Jacques Tourneur’s wonderful, but very different, James film, Night of The Demon to equal the BBC Christmas outings (Though James’s influence can also be strongly felt in Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw and Nigel Kneale’s scripts for The Stone Tape and especially the Beasts episode 'Baby'). Above all Clark’s craftsmanship is exemplary in presenting us with spooky televisual drama of a dark intimacy (Of course apart from Clark’s own scripting he also employed seasoned adaptors like John Bowen and David Rudkin).

The James stories in Ghost Stories for Christmas volume 2 are the Clark-directed 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas' (1974) and 'The Ash Tree' (1975). Yet this ghost story strand departs from M. R. James to also give us Charles Dickens’s story 'The Signalman' (1977) and two contemporary stories, the psychologically disturbing 'The Ice House' (1978) and the folk horror frights of 'Stigma' (1977).

These five short films, ranging in length from 32 to 37 mins, are, for me, masterly examples of not just brilliant ghost / horror tale productions but an important part of a long tradition of short stories / short scripts realised for TV stretching back to programmes like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.

Almost fifty years on these BBC ghost stories come shining through as classics of TV drama.

The 'Treasure of Abbot Thomas' concerns a treasure of gold to have been hidden in the grounds of a church. Thomas was an alchemist and supposedly in league with the devil. A priest and his friend set out to discover the treasure - a quest resulting in horrific consequences for those who dare. Michael Bryant is superb as the reverend Somerton who’s attacked by the slimy deposits, clinging to his discovery, and then fiercely pursued by a hooded ghostly monk. Clark’s editing is terrifically exact, knowing just when to pull back from or towards subtle shocks. It’s well written (Bowen’s script even incorporates a satirical swipe at mediums) visually arresting and the memorable choral and percussion music of Geoffrey Burgon is appropriately disturbing.

'The Signalman' is a powerful study of solitude, mental disturbance and pre-cognition. Denholm Eliot arguably gives us his finest TV performance as the railway signalman haunted by spectres and a train crash. Andrew Davies’s script - or is it really Dickens’s story? - digs deep into the fears of the signalman and his visitor friend. Whilst Clark directs with a rare feel for the uncanny. Those moments containing the cried out question “Hello, below there!” will long stay with you. A wonderful ghostly drama.

'Stigma' is from an original story by Clive Exton and is a horror film rather than a ghost narrative. A family are living in a cottage very near the megalithic stone circle at Avebury. A stone is discovered in their garden. On unearthing it an intense wind strikes Katherine (Kate Binchey) who is then stricken by an ancient curse that causes her to bleed uncontrollably. Exton’s writing explores her bleeding on both the level of paganistic forces and an inferred marital tension with her husband Peter (Peter Bowles). Clark elicits excellent performances from everyone and brings an authentic domestic poignancy to this folkish horror short.

John Bowen’s 'The Ice House' is even less of a ghost story and more of a creepy, surreal depiction of menace and containment more in common with the unclassifiable stories of Robert Aickman.

Paul (John Stride) is recuperating, after leaving his wife, by residing in a health spa in the countryside. His masseur has disturbingly “cool hands” which is the first sign of odd happenings in the spa. Nearby is an old ice house and a strange species of flower. (“The flowers are not self-pollinating. They persist until they are replaced.”). The brother and sister who run the spa speak in a formal manner which has a blank verse quality reminiscent of Harold Pinter. Their ‘intension’ is to freeze the bodies of the residents, keeping them in a state of preservation in order to delay or even defeat death. Paul cannot escape. Powerful, original and brilliantly daring, 'The Ice House' shifts us into the realm of allegorical SF horror.

David Rudkin realised his talent for evoking the supernatural to great effect in his screenplay for M. R. James’s 'The Ash Tree'. Edward Petherbridge plays Sir Richard / Sir Matthew in an account of the new owner, of Castringham Hall, who is determined not to marry his fiancΓ©e and produce heirs. But the ash tree tapping outside of his bedroom window disturbs him along with his ancestor’s involvement with a witch forty five years ago in 1690.

Subtly different viewpoints and perspectives make 'The Ash Tree' so gripping. Through elliptical editing and staging Sir Richard is eerily transported back into a dark past which puts him on trial for his relative’s behaviour during the witch’s hanging. It’s beautifully filmed and acted, maintaining a cryptic and guilty relationship with Richard’s ancestry and his fight to resist a witch’s curse. The scenes in his bedroom when devilish things crawl over his body and the eventual burning of the ash tree are some of the creepiest passages in the whole of the BBC Ghost  Stories series.

This three disc set comes with many extras and commentaries. I particularly recommend Nic Wassell’s seventeen minute video essay Spectres, Spirits & Haunted Treasure; Adapting M. R. James (2023). Just about the most succinct film on the differences between the films and the stories I’ve seen.

Ghost Stories for Christmas volume 2 also includes two later BBC M. R. James films A View from the Hill (2005) and Number 13 (2006).

I’d have liked to have included them in the seventies productions as outstanding adaptations but alas they are not. They’re perfectly adequate, in their own way, but for me, too detached with a tendency and to muffle the Jamesian horror, and they lack a real sense of belief in their source material.

A year ago I wrote praising the BFI’s Ghost Stories for Christmas volume 1. Volume 2 is equally as good. And the Blu Ray format brings an even greater depth and definition to these films. This is a limited edition that you should snap up immediately.
  • Alan Price

29 November 2023


Alex Matsuo. Women of the Paranormal. Privately published, 2023.

Writers exploring the history of the paranormal have often noted the prominence of women in the field, most particularly such individuals as Catharine Crowe, Helena Blavatsky, Eleanor Sidgwick, and mediums such as Florence Cook and Eusapia Palladino and the Fox sisters. 

21 November 2023


Chris Alexander. Corman/Poe. Interviews and Essays: Exploring the Making of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films, 1960-1964. Headpress 2023. 978-1915316073

From the very beginnings of cinema there have been adaptations of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Thou Shalt not Kill (1914) directed by D.W.Griffith up to the new Netflix series The Fall of the House of Usher (2023) there lay a long trail of films attempting to capture the frequently morbid sensibility of this hugely influential writer. 

14 November 2023


Andrew Screen, The Book of Beasts. Headpress 2023.
Andy Murray. Into The Unknown, The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale. Headpress 2017.

Does a book examining the six episodes of Nigel Kneale’s television series, Beasts warrant 430 pages? Beasts is a large, attractive paperback with copious black and white illustrations and undoubtedly a labour of love from author Andrew Screen.

8 November 2023


Avi Loeb. Interstellar, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Our Future Beyond Earth. John Murray Books, 2023.

This book is potentially a trailblazer and may be one of the first in a new genre. A book about aliens visiting Earth that is not written by a UFO enthusiast trying to investigate close encounters, but is very much a consideration of that subject through the actual evidence uncovered by astronomers and cosmologists.

1 November 2023


Nathalie Morris and Claire Smith (Editors) The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger. (BFI Bloomsbury, 2023
Pamela Hutchinson. The Red Shoes. (BFI Bloomsbury 2023)

Readers of Magonia have a marvellous opportunity to enjoy the current celebrations of the work of scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell. We have a new book about them and a season of their films. 

28 October 2023


Michael Heaney. The Ancient English Morris Dance, Archaeopress, 2023.

The title raises a question straight away, doesn't it? Just how ancient is the 'ancient' morris dance? It was certainly the view of many people that morris dancing was very ancient indeed, with roots stretching back to pre-Christian times. 

18 October 2023


Karl Svozil. UFOs: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena: Observations, Explanations and Speculations, Springer, 2023.

Part One provides a chronological summary of some of the most famous and ‘unexplainable’ UFO cases including foo fighter sightings in WWII, Roswell, 1947, Arnold’s flying saucer sighting of 1947, the Lubbock Lights, 1951, Washington, 1952, Exercise Mainbrace, 1952, Rapid City, 1963, Socorro, 1964, Valensole, France, 1965, the Tehran Incident, 1976, Frederick Valentich’s disappearance, Rendlesham Forest, 1980. Well you get the picture, basically a greatest hits of ufology.

11 October 2023


Short Sharp Shocks: Volume 3 (Flipside 47) (2-Disc Blu-ray Set) BFI. 2023.

And so we reach Volume 3 of BFI Flipside Short Sharp Shocks. Volumes 1 and Vol 2 were hugely successful. If you have them you’ll certainly want this set. However perhaps your purchase will rest on the basis of being a series-completist because content-wise Volume 3 is probably the weakest. It’s not that it’s bad but more surprising than shocking.

6 October 2023


Trevor Hamilton, Arthur Balfour’s Ghosts: An Edwardian Elite and the Riddle of the Cross-Correspondence Automatic Writings. Imprint Academic. 

Over the years, I’ve rather gloated over my standard reply to the sceptics’ usual line: ‘There’s not a shred of evidence for an afterlife’. Not being remotely a sceptic myself – because of some personal experiences that aren’t strictly relevant here – I’d reply, ‘Oh, so you dismiss the Cross-Correspondences, do you?’