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Why I took them off the list: After watching The Advent Calendar (2021), I was in the mood for some more creepy Christmas fare. So I turned my attention to the legendary Ghost Stories for Christmas produced by the BBC in the 1970s.
The initial entries of this curious trend were all based on M.R. James classic short ghost stories, birthed out of his tradition of telling creepy tales to his friends to pass the time on Christmas Eve. So I thought it was the perfect time to cross some of these retro entries, all directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, off my list.
While I had previously seen some of the later TV movies in the series, such as the Dickens adaptation The Signalman (1976), I had shamefully failed to catch most of the earlier James-based entries before. So, settling down by the log fire, I finally got around to watching them as the nights got colder and the festive season approached.
Without further ado, let’s dig in and see if these ghoulish tales stand up in the modern age!
1. The Stalls of Barchester (1971)
Putting aside a rather unnecessary framing device that bookends the story, this tale is one of the most effective and creepy of the BBC’s first run of adaptations of James’ ghost stories. Like many of the others on this list, The Stalls of Barchester is a story about a character who seems to face some supernatural comeuppance after making a poor moral judgement. However, it nevertheless stands out for its use of creepy imagery and a steadily mounting sense of dread.
Final Score: 7/10
2. A Warning for the Curious (1972)
This tale has quite a few elements familiar from most of James’ stories – a stuffy academic protagonist poking their nose into things they don’t understand, and a vengeful supernatural force out to punish them for doing so. What makes it exceptional though are the creepy filmmaking techniques used to portray the relentless pursuit of the sinister ghost. It really understands that on-screen monsters are most terrifying when glimpsed fleetingly or at a distance.
Final Score: 8/10
3. Lost Hearts (1973)
Creepy kids are an evergreen horror trope for good reason: when handled well, they can be absolutely terrifying. And arguably even more so when they are creepy kids who are no longer on this mortal coil.
Lost Hearts certainly ticks both of these boxes, as a pair of long-dead kids, complete with deathly pallor reminiscent of the vampire spawn from Salem’s Lot (1979), terrorize a young orphan boy who has recently arrived at the sprawling estate of his almost comically sinister distant cousin. The reveal of what the eccentric old man is actually up to is pretty disturbing and surprisingly dark for a James story,
The presence of the eerily playful ghosts only adds to the unnerving vibe, especially when one of them decides to play their favorite instrument with his disturbingly long fingernails. You’ll never be able to think of Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man in the same way again (if you hadn’t already had it ruined for you by David Fincher’s Zodiac, that is).
Final Score: 8/10
4. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)
The most drawn-out and uneventful of these M.R. James adaptations, The Treasure of Abbott Thomas has a lot in common plot-wise with A Warning To The Curious but far less of the atmosphere and suspense. While it starts out promisingly with a creepy seance, it soon descends into tedium as the central characters set off to uncover a buried treasure…and spend most of the runtime digging and analyzing old books.
While it does have an unnerving ending, it too is a bit of a pale imitation of a couple of other better-executed finales in the series. Probably the weakest and most skippable of the bunch.
Final Score: 5/10
5. The Ash Tree (1975)
The Ash Tree is perhaps the most overtly supernatural of these first Ghost Stories for Christmas and was clearly heavily influenced by the emergence of folk horror like The Wicker Man around the time of its release. The story sees a wealthy aristocrat return to inherit his ancestral home, only to seemingly become possessed by one of its previous owners, a man who participated in persecuting local ‘witches’ to hide his infatuation with one of the accused.
The man is also visited by creepy, shadowy specters, which he first comically attempts to flat-out ignore, before being completely consumed by visions of the misdeeds of his ancestor. The action climaxes with a bizarre and unsettling occurrence centered around the titular tree, a trippy nightmare of a scene that ranks as one of the ickiest and most disturbing images of the series.
Final Score: 7/10
Hope these picks help you have a Merry – and creepy -Christmas! And stay tuned for my next article, a list of the most underrated TV shows of 2021.