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Why I took them off the list: After checking The Killing Tree (2022) off my list, I decided to stick with more Christmas-time horror and review the films in the BBC’s revival of this classic TV tradition.
I already reviewed most of the original run of episodes from the 70s directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark last year, all of which were based on the classic ghost stories by M.R James.
I considered checking out the last remaining couple of episodes from that decade but instead opted for the most recent installments, all of which were written and directed by James uberfan and talented actor Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Mycroft Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock).
Like the tales that aired from 71-75, Gatiss directed and adapted the stories from James’ short fiction (with one exception as he had a crack at conjuring up a completely original story in the vein of his idol’s fiction).
Curious to see how this old TV trend had been reimagined for the modern era, I decided to check out these newer ghost stories in the run-up to Christmas. So, let’s dig in!
Note: Gatiss’ 2022 entry into the series, Count Magnus, hadn’t been released at the time of writing, so I’ll save it for next year!
The Tractate Middoth (2013)
Gatiss’ first shot at reviving the Ghost Stories format follows the formula of most of the adaptations of James’ work quite closely and features many of his trademark elements.
There’s the early 20th-century academic setting, greedy people getting involved with ancient things they don’t understand, and a vicious spirit of supernatural vengeance.
The MacGuffin that sets the plot in motion, a seemingly cursed book, isn’t the most dynamic premise and much of the action is set in a dusty old library and unfolds as somewhat dry conversations between academics.
Though it doesn’t do much to freshen up or modernize the somewhat predictable narrative, there are still some fun hints of Gatiss’ trademark sly humor throughout, and it is beautifully shot.
Final Score: 6/10
The Dead Room (2018)
The only film in this revival series that’s set in the modern age and tells a story not directed adapted from James’ work, The Dead Room is also one of the best.
Gatiss’ original tale follows a flamboyant but somewhat curmudgeonly radio host whose specialty is telling macabre horror stories with Shakespearean delivery.
Set almost exclusively in the confines of the radio station as the host’s past regrets literally come back to haunt him, The Dead Room is claustrophobic and creepy, but also genuinely funny.
Gatiss is clearly having fun playing around with the tropes of the genre here, and it’s also an excellent showcase for Simon Callow, who gets to show off both his considerable comedic and dramatic chops.
Final score: 8/10
Martin’s Close (2019)
Gatiss returned to a direct adaptation of a James story with this tale of unusual court proceedings in the 17th Century. And he ultimately delivers an all-around more confident and entertaining tale than his first go-around in The Tractate Middoth.
There’s a better balance of humor and suspense and it moves along at a lively pace, using a tricky flashback-within-a-flashback structure (which can often be disastrous) to generate plenty of suspense.
The period details are lush and atmospheric, and the material is well-served by a troupe of excellent actors, particularly Peter Capaldi as a no-nonsense solicitor. Also, the climatic reveal might be one of the creepiest James moments yet put to film.
Final Score: 7/10
The Mezzotint (2021)
Possibly the best-looking of all of Gatiss’ Ghost Stories so far, The Mezzotint is lushly shot and incredibly atmospheric.
The film has an incredibly simple concept, essentially joining the likes of The Witches (1990) and the recent Earwig (2021) in prominently depicting a seemingly haunted piece of art. But Gatiss executes it effectively, and it had me gripped with a feeling of dread throughout.
Men (2022)’s Rory Kinnear has great presence in the lead role as a buttoned-up art collector, and the supporting cast all give lively performances as well. The biggest star of the show, however, is the creepy titular artwork, which manages to weave an uncanny and terrifying spell on both the characters and the audience without much effort.
Final Score: 8/10
Bonus! MR James: Ghost Writer (2013)
This documentary special aired immediately after the initial broadcast of The Tractate Middoch and sees Gatiss himself delving into James’ life and how he came to redefine the Ghost Story in his era.
Tracing the author’s life as an academic and how he managed to fall into his side hobby, it’s an enlightening look into James’ background that is elevated by Gatiss’ obvious love of and appreciation for his stories.
I hope you’ve found some inspiration for a spooky night curled up by the fire over the festive season! Have a Merry – and Spooky – Christmas and see you in the New Year!