This Christmas in collaboration with Roger Clarke (film critic and author of A Natural History Of Ghosts) we present a season of spooky screenings at Picturehouse Cinemas. These are all inspired by the work of Charles Dickens as well as the renowned writer of ghost stories M. R. James on the 80th anniversary of his death.
Deputy Director of Programming Carol McKay talks us through how the season came together.
When I was a little girl my mother used to tell me about watching a drama at Christmas when she and my father had just bought their first tiny black and white television. They had seen the BBC’s Whistle And I’ll Come To You, the 1968 adaptation of the M. R. James story, and my mother had been so scared. She could never completely articulate why she was so terrified of bed sheets, but the imagery had stuck with her and it piqued my interest as a child. Of course in those days you couldn’t access TV shows whenever you wanted, so the story also really fed my imagination.
Years later I saw Mark Gatiss’ Crooked House, the BBC supernatural mini-series inspired by James. I liked it a lot and started to read the author’s stories for myself. James famously used to tell ghost stories to his undergraduates on Christmas Eve as a professor at Cambridge University. In print they are simply terrifying. A complete Christmas junkie myself, I have always marvelled at the way Charles Dickens ended up shaping so much of the festive season with his own ghost story and morality tale A Christmas Carol. So I started thinking about a way of bringing the two together through film.
A Christmas Carol has been adapted numerous times for the big and small screen, but this season we’re showing by far the best version, the 1951 film Scrooge starring Alastair Sim. By contrast, there is only one straight film adaptation of M. R. James’s work, Night of the Demon, from his story Casting The Runes. The film screens across Picturehouse on 4 December. A series of TV films were also made in the ‘70s for the BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas strand, but the lack of film versions strikes me as baffling given how eminently filmable his stories are.
I could however see some strong M. R. James influences and traits in other films. I met up with Roger Clarke, an expert on James and the oral tradition of ghost stories. Roger is also a film critic and we discussed how we felt a recent film like Under The Shadow, for example, seemed to be very M. R. James in story and approach. It turns out that director Babak Anvari was indeed strongly influenced by James and in particular his Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. Roger also told me that ghost stories at the winter solstice could be traced back to the English Civil War, so this informed our inclusion of British Folk Horror Blood On Satan’s Claw in the season.
I then looked at the way James talked about the assemblage of his stories: “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo. Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.” It seems too simple when outlined here, but it makes for a powerful concoction when presented in the stories and movies.
These narrative traits are also very visible in J-Horror. So, we’re showing the beautiful and creepy Dark Water to showcase one of the very best Japanese horrors, one which is not often screened in the UK. As in Ring, The Grudge and the like, a set of rules are presented which, if not adhered to, promise doom to the characters. This often manifests itself as a curse and you can see the trope expertly updated and westernised in It Follows and before it, more viscerally Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, both of which feature in the season. Researching this project, my colleague Jo Blair and I were delighted to find so many fans of M. R. James’ work out there. We are linking up with some of them to do special events and fun extra stuff: people like Leah Moore and John Reppion who have recently published a graphic novel adaptation of four of the stories.
I hope audiences will come and enjoy the chills in the films selected, also the thrill of discussing them afterwards, and I hope more will be inspired to read M. R. James’ ghost stories. The resurgence of interest in James, which we are happy to be a part of, goes to show that you can’t keep good writing down, or filmmaking, nor should you! Beware.’
Book now for A Warning To The Curious: Ghost Stories At Christmas. Dates vary at participating cinemas. Explore the season.