Today: May 17, 2024

A Ghost Story For Christmas

“There’ll be scary ghost stories,
And tales of the glories of the
Christmases long, long ago”
(Andy Williams, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”)

Halloween is held up as the traditional time of year for spooky stuff, for fairly obvious reasons. However, there are many purists who hold that the true holiday for matters spiritual – and in particular ghost stories – is Christmas. That may seem at odds with the image of Yuletide, but it fits in with the origins of the holiday. Many of your favourite festive traditions come directly from old pagan practices of the Winter Solstice, and ghost stories extend naturally from that. What better time is there to set the mood for a tale of terror than the longest, darkest night of the year? As such, many have kept the tradition alive over the years including filmmakers. So, get draw the curtains, and throw another yule log on the fire as Ed Boff looks shares some of his favourite Christmas Spirits …

Curse Of The Cat People
Producer Val Lewton, the mind behind RKO Studios’ horror output in the ‘40s, had a habit of doing exactly what his producers weren’t expecting. Cat People wasn’t the Wolf Man knock-off its studio mandated title suggested, but instead a mature look at matters of belief, cultural alienation, and sexuality, way ahead of its time. So when the studio convinced him to produce a sequel, the end result was something radically different again. It’s arguably not even a horror movie at all, but instead a wonderfully melancholy tale of childhood. Oliver and Alice, the leads from the original story, have moved on, and have had a daughter, Amy, but they are worried about her. Amy’s introverted, at an age when the boundaries between the real and the imaginary aren’t that clear, and she’s made a new friend; Oliver’s dead first wife, Irena. In this story, it’s never made clear if Irena is really there or simply a figment of Amy’s imagination (much like her were-cat affliction in Cat People), but the clever script by DeWitt Bodeen means that it doesn’t matter. There is still a fine story here. The last acts of the film take place over the Holidays, and it’s one of the loveliest and atmospheric depictions of the season from the period, with a dark edge that balances well against the child’s eye view of the story. This film didn’t do well on first release, due to how different it is to the original, but in the time since, it has gone on to be considered a classic, and a good example of how a ghost story (or is it a story with a ghost?) doesn’t have to be a horror story. On that note, this film was the directorial debut of Robert Wise, who’d later make one of the greatest haunted house films ever; 1963’s The Haunting.

Dead Of Night
The Christmas ghost story is a decidedly English tradition, so it makes sense that Ealing Studios’ foray into the genre would include a nod to it. In the second story of this portmanteau, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, young Sally O’Hara is at a Christmas Party held at an old manor house. During a game of sardines, she finds an old nursery near the back of the attic, and has a very strange encounter. This is far from the film’s most elaborate segment, and it’s not even that ‘scary’ in a traditional sense, but it delivers everything you want from a good ghost story.  While you can see how this ends, it’s still a truly sad moment when it arrives.  The rest of Dead Of Night is fine classic British spookiness too… well, apart from the comedy relief Golfers story, but that works too in a charming way. Incidentally, when Dead Of Night was released in America, they thought it was too long (at only 103 minutes?  And people think audiences today have short attention spans.). So both the Christmas and Golfing stories were cut out… which confused a bunch of people, as events of the Christmas story got a call-back in the finale to the linking narrative. Whoops!

A Christmas Carol (Richard Williams)
No discussion of Christmas ghost stories can be complete with a mention of the most well-known and beloved of all. Charles Dickens’ tale has been adapted so many times over the years, by so many different creators, each of whom bring their own spin to the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, as well as Jacob Marley’s ghost. One version of particular note is the animated version made by Richard Williams in 1971. This twenty-five minute TV production (which later got a theatrical release) features voice work from Alastair Sim and Michael Horden, reprising their roles as Scrooge and Marley from the 1951 version. It’s notable in that visually, it hews very close to many of the original illustrations of the book, in particular the original 19th century engravings. Also, this bills itself as a “Ghost Story for Christmas”, and it plays up to that, emphasising the more grim and spooky parts of the tale. As an example, this is one of the first adaptations to include a detail from the novel that when he first speaks, Marley’s jaw falls almost completely out of his head! This actually won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 1972, but unfortunately has fallen through the cracks since then. It’s never had an official DVD/Blu Ray release. If you can find it, though, it’s worth it for seeing a very different take on a yuletide favourite.

Dead Of Night: “The Exorcism”
This Dead of Night has no connection to the Ealing one, but was a BBC TV series from 1972.  (The title’s been used for a few other films and shows too). The BBC has made a whole bunch of ghostly productions for Christmas over the years, most notably the yearly series of tales directed by Laurence Gordon Clarke in the seventies.  Not many though actually reflected the day itself, but this episode does. One of only three surviving episodes of the seven part series, this has a pair of couples meeting for Christmas dinner at a recently renovated home in the country, which backs to at least the Middle Ages.  What follows is a harrowing, and bleak experience, as a tragedy from many years hence is played out before them. Touching on issues of class, this is a powerful 50 minutes of television, worth picking up the DVD from the BFI of the series for this alone. Also, the same production team behind this also produced the ghostly drama that ran on BBC Two that year’s Christmas Day; Nigel Kneale mix of the supernatural and sci-fi, The Stone Tape.

The Legend Of Hell House
Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House takes a similar set up to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House (four people, two men, two women, investigate an infamous haunted house), but goes in a very different direction. While the feature film version scripted by Matheson removes some of the nastier elements (and there are some very nasty things in the novel) and moves the action to England, it captures the powerful heart of the story extremely well. Not only do the characters in this film face the malevolent forces within the Belasco House, “the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses”, but they are divided between more strictly cold, scientific theories and spiritual notions of what’s going on; and the ghosts of the house use this to their full advantage. At a transitional time for the horror genre, this was one of the last great British supernatural horrors of the age, which is bolstered by a strong script, an oppressive set, and atmospheric music from Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop fame. Oh, and in keeping with our theme, this takes place in the week leading up to Christmas – there’s little in story really reflecting it, but it has a mood that’s unmistakeably wintry.

Mister Corbett’s Ghost
Here’s something different to end with. Not a ghost story for Christmas, but for New Year!  Based on a story by Leon Garfield, this 1987 TV movie has a young apothecary’s assistant, fed up with his cruel master (the titular Mr. Corbett), ends up meeting the Collector of Souls, and makes a rash request of him. His attempts to hide his crime only puts him into a far more impossible situation, as the clock counts down to midnight. This plays like a strange old fable, and is wondrously atmospheric for it, aided by a lot of period dialogue and a strong cast. Most recognisable is the legendary John Huston in his final role as the Collector of Souls (this was directed by his son Danny Huston), although another familiar face is Burgess Meredith in a small but entertaining part. It’s Paul Schofield as Mr. Corbett though that makes the best impression with a performance that is both pitiable and chilling. This has only recently resurfaced on DVD, but is a perfect treat for the season, definitely worth checking out. Let’s face it, its only main competition is Ghostbusters II

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