Sunday, 21 December 2008

Sunday Night is.. Dead of Night 1

Christmas is the time for ghost stories. There is a British film of 1945 called Dead of Night, a portmanteau film, meaning it is made by several directors, pulled together into a single narrative based on a house party where the guests tell stories of supernatural experiences. Here is the IMDb entry. This is the poster.

The poster looks gorier and much more sensational than the film, which is rather beautiful and properly troubled. Looking at it one can't help thinking of M.R. James who is, I think, the touchstone for English ghost stories. There are three particularly good episodes. Here is the first, the Christmas party with a very young Sally Ann Howes. I will add other parts later. The whole film is on YouTube, in episodic chunks.

M.R.James himself said there were five key features of the English ghost story:

The pretense of truth
"A pleasing terror"
No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
No "explanation of the machinery"
Setting: "those of the writer's (and reader's) own day"

Well then., here is the gorgeous intro with the credits, followed by the Christmas Party episode.


The Christmas Party

The frame is the clever thing. It seems static, but it is what holds the mostly innocuous pictures in place. Then again it is not what happens but what one imagines might happen. Some of the time anyway.


Mark Granier said...

Thanks for those clips George. I have seen that movie, but it's good to view those scenes again. I have always had an appetite for ghost stories/films, ever since I was very young, so (like many of us) I am a connoisseur. In any case, I have a far clearer idea of my preferences regarding ghost/horror/fantasy stories and films than I do regarding wine (full-bodied or dry, and that's about it). Here's some stocking fillers for you:

I think Jacques Tourneur's 'Night of The Demon' might be one of the best adaptations of an MR James story. This is good scene:

A little melodramatic but very effective: a memorable scene from the 'The Haunting':

Here's a little poetry, from Jack Clayton's excellent adaptation of James's Turn of the Screw, 'The Innocents':

A question. Who wrote the poem? The screenwriter? Henry James? I don't recall it being in the novella. Anyway, here's the opening sequence for good measure:

Lastly, here are two scenes from one of the most frighteneing ghost movies I've ever seen: Herbert Wise's production of Susan Hill's 'The Woman In Black' (about a callow young solicitor who is sent to a small seaside village to wrap up the paperwork for the woman who lived in a certain 'Eelmarsh House'. But no, the ghost isn't the lady of the house, but someone whom she knew.

Happy Christmas.

George S said...

What a feast, Mark. Thank you! A very good Christmas to you too.

Jeremy said...

MR James is, of course, wonderful, and I imagine that you find those East Anglian settings rather appealing. I think of the setting of Jonathan Miller's film of 'Whistle and I'll Come to You', and imagine Sebald's spirit being summoned by the carved bone instrument along that stretch of beach.

Perhaps my favourite story, however, is 'The Willows' by Algernon Blackwood; I think you'd enjoy it if you've not already. And it's set on the Danube, too...

George S said...

Yes, I know 'Whistle and I'll Come To You'. It is very good indeed. I must have read the Blackwood some time in my early twenties but not since. I have a very old Penguin Blackwood upstairs. I'll see if it is there.

There were those old Pan Books of Horror too. I had two or three and there were some decent stories there. Though it is not so much the horror as the haunting that matters.

On New Year's Day it has become a custom for us to walk with two good friends along the beach to greet the seals at Winterton. Max would have liked the walk. Never did it with him, alas.

Mark Granier said...

Oh yes, 'Whistle' is one of the best of James's stories, if not the best, and the film of it is damned good and holds together well even today; it's a wonderful example of his own 'key features of the English ghost story', as set down by George earlier, especially in its absolute refusal to explain the 'machinery'. It is that refusal (locking in the strangeness) that often makes a ghost story truly haunting.

George, I remember the Pan books too, a bit too much gleeful adolescent gore at the expense of good yarn-spinning (I remember one in particular called 'Raspberry Jam'), but occasionally good fun. I also remember a heavy old tome on the family bookshelf, called 'A Century of Horror Stories', with some very good ones in it. Roald Dahl edited a great anthology 'Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories', with an excellent introduction, reissued recently.

Surprisingly perhaps, Steven King can do a good ghost story (in fact, he is generally far better with short stories; the novels tend to be grossly over-padded). The one I am thinking of is called simply '1408' (the number of a certain hotel room). The story loses its footing a bit towards the end, but it is worth reading for the beginning, a wonderfully atmospheric, prolonged and quite subtle conversation in which the hotel manager gently tries to dissuade a ghost-busting journalist (who of course doesn't believe in ghosts) from spending a night, or any time at all, in the room in question. DO NOT watch the recent movie/DVD adaptation, which is way off the mark.

One of the best ghost stories ever written is, I think, H.G. Wells's 'The Red Room', on a par with 'The Monkey's Paw'.