Though Hallowe'en may be the seasonal time for tales of fright, Christmastime brings with it its own share of stories designed to make the blood run cold on a Winter's evening. Arguably the best Christmas stories contain an element of creepiness, be it a series of spectres visiting an old miser in the night, or even a green monster sneaking into sleeping households on Christmas Eve. The 1970s saw the BBC capitalise on holiday haunts by broadcasting an annual production of a classic ghost story, most often courtesy of famed horror writer M.R. James. Previously available on DVD, the BFI have now remastered and rereleased the first three stories in the series, along with their 1968 adaptation of ‘Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' which inspired the format of releasing a ghost story each Christmas through the 70s.
Whistle and I'll Come to You begins steadily, even slowly. Centring around a mumbling professor (Michael Hordern) who has come to stay at a coastal English hotel for a holiday. He keeps to himself, eating at a solitary dining table and wandering the beaches, eventually finding a whistle protruding from the ground of a gravestone. The professor blows the whistle and finds his normally rational mind haunted by a dark spectre that seems to be getting closer and closer to him. It's a little film that, at first, may test the patience of a modern audience, but stick with it until the finale. Though some may scoff at 1968's visual effects, the disturbing sound design elevates the ending to something genuinely chilling.
The second film, The Stalls of Barchester, sees the ever-lovable Clive Swift uncovering a long-hidden mystery of death and darkness while cataloguing the Barchester Cathedral library. This is a dry tale, but the film's use of shadowy lighting and unsettling, whispering sounds give a sense of foreboding, the influence of which can be felt in most modern horror today.
A Warning to the Curious starts much more abruptly, with a ghostly warning and a murder within the first few minutes. 12 years later, an archaeologist (Peter Vaughan) visits the same seaside town and is stalked by a dark figure on the sand-dunes. Viewers will notice a theme here with James' work (academic unearths malevolent spirit, pays the price), however, A Warning to the Curious is a stand-out in the collection due to its eerie score, creepy performances (Clive Swift returns!), and nightmarish atmosphere.
Rounding out the 1st volume is Lost Hearts, a classic tale of a young orphan plagued by visions of ghostly children as he moves into his older cousin's stately home. At a breezy 35 minutes, the shortest of the four films begins with enjoyably hokey make-up effects before becoming surprisingly graphic for a 1973 television production. Part of the fun of revisiting these old films is not just in how we experience them today, but in thinking how their original audiences would have found them. It's not hard to imagine how many post-Christmas nightmares Lost Hearts would have inspired.
As well as fresh, filmic transfers of each film, the BFI has provided a plethora of special features for fans of the series: director introductions, audio commentaries (some featuring horror expert Kim Newman!), interviews, and even readings of some of M.R. James' original stories. Perhaps best of all, retellings of the first three stories in this collection are included, starring late icons John Hurt and Christopher Lee. While some of these features are carried over from the original DVD release, each has been upgraded to high definition where available.
The BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas are the filmic equivalent of reading a ghost story by a warm fireplace on a cold night. As James' stories tend to do, each film takes its time building atmosphere and progressing the plot, ending with a finale that will send a shiver down the spine. Admittedly, contemporary audiences may find the films a little slow, but anyone with a fondness for ghost stories will find much to love in this ground-breaking 70s series.
Full Special Features include:
- Newly remastered by the BFI and presented in High Definition (Limited Edition)
- Newly recorded audio commentaries for Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968) and A Warning to the Curious by TV historian Jon Dear
- Newly recorded audio commentaries for The Stalls of Barchester and Lost Hearts by Kim Newman and Sean Hogan
- Whistle and I'll Come to You (2010, 52 mins): John Hurt stars in this 2010 interpretation of MR James's chilling tale
- Jonathan Miller and Christopher Frayling interview (2012, 3 mins)
- Neil Brand reads MR James's original story (2001, 42 mins, audio only)
- Ramsey Campbell on MR James (2001, 16 mins)
- Ramsey Campbell reads The Guide (2001, 27 mins)
- Introductions by Lawrence Gordon Clark (2012, 33 mins total): the director of seven of the BBC's classic A Ghost Story For Christmas episodes discusses his part in the first three instalments he directed
- Ghost Stories For Christmas with Christopher Lee (2000, 60 mins total): BBC Scotland's ‘talking-head horror' series starring the iconic actor as an MR James-like raconteur of fireside Christmas ghost stories. Included on this release are The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious
Ghost Stories for Christmas, Vol. 1 is available as a limited edition Blu-ray boxset from the 5th of December. Volume 2 is planned for release next December