Why I took them off the list: I love a good spooky tale around the festive season. And so the BBC’s yearly A Ghost Story for Christmas TV movie tradition, mostly adaptations of M.R James’ creepy short stories, really hits the spot.
I intended to continue to review the Mark Gatiss-led revival run of the series that started in 2013. But only one new installment has been broadcast so far, 2022’s Count Magnus.
So I decided to wait so some more could accumulate. Instead, I thought I’d go back to the installments of the revival from 2005 & 2006, before Gatiss’ involvement, to see how they stood up.
So, let’s dig in!
A View from a Hill (2005) IMDB description: “Dr. Fanshawe is not on holiday. As an archaeologist, he has been engaged by the squire to catalogue a private collection of local artefacts.”
Number 13 (2006) IMDB description: “In order to authenticate some historical papers in a cathedral town, Oxbridge academic Anderson stays at a local hotel in room 12, initially disregarding the lack of a number 13 as provincial superstition. During the night, noise conspires to keep him awake and the historian is astonished to come face to face with door number 13…”
Review of A View from a Hill (2005)
The first attempt to revive A Ghost Story for Christmas in the 21st century has much in common with the classic 70s adaptations of James’ stories.
As in many of those tales, a fish-out-of-water academic arrives in a rural backwater to do some sort of appraisal, only to become obsessed/haunted by a local, apparently supernatural mystery.
In this case, it’s a pair of antique binoculars that reveal things hidden to the naked eye. Most notably, a supposedly ruined abbey that appears in all of its original glory when viewed through the seemingly cursed lenses.
This is a neat premise, and there are some effectively spooky scenes involving the object’s visual trickery.
However, like many of the other installments, there’s a little too much padding involving people sitting at tables poring over dusty documents. Additionally, the ending is a bit random and anticlimactic, with few answers for either the characters or viewers.
Another downside is that protagonist Fanshawe is a bit bland and uninteresting, really no more than an audience proxy. The saving grace is an immensely enjoyable performance from Pip Torrens as arrogant, impatient aristocrat Squire Richards.
Torrens’ dry, snobbish delivery is a hoot, as is his belligerent interplay with his long-suffering butler (David Burke).
Total Score: 6/10
A View from a Hill (2005)
Directed by Luke Watson
Review of Number 13 (2006)
More of a traditionally structured haunted house tale than is typical of James, Number 13 plays with the classic trope of the titular unlucky room number. And the fact that many hotels omit it entirely because of superstition.
The story once again sees a city academic (Greg Wise’s Anderson) sent to appraise something or other in a backward town, only to come up against some mysterious goings-on in his hotel.
Most notably, the room next door eerily disappears at will and omits inexplicable noises that gradually begin to get under Anderson’s skin.
Additionally, a wall hanging of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights in his room seems to haunt the academic’s dreams. And he becomes increasingly flustered by the flirty behavior of ‘surly fellow’ hotel resident Jenkins toward female guests. So there’s an interesting subtext of sexual repression going on.
Although the discovery of past satanic practices in the hotel is little surprise, the escalating haunting is well-staged and creepy. The lush period details and cinematography are great, almost up to the level of Gatiss’ The Mezzotint.
The charismatic Wise is engaging as the protagonist and gets more of a multifaceted personality to work with here. David Burke is once again effective in a similar role as before, and his son Tom entertains in an early part as the brash and cocky Jenkins.
Total Score: 7/10
Number 13 (2006)
Directed by Pier Wilkie
Written by Justin Hopper, M.R. James
Hope you have a Merry (and spooky!) Christmas! We’ll be back in the New Year with plenty more reviews of underrated films and TV!