13. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)
1974, the heyday of the James adaptations.
After exposing a student’s family’s fake séance, a rational-minded reverend and his young protégé undergo a treasure hunt for the lost wealth of one of the monastery’s founders. However, Rev. Somerton uncovers more than he bargained for, and finds himself pursued by things beyond…
Moments of this adaptation are fun, such as the crawl through the tunnels to find the treasure, and the final moments going without sound and being left hanging are going to lodge in the mind. This technique would be used in later adaptations too.
The main trouble here is that, although the little treasure hunt is fun, it’s also a little boring. It’s a great idea, but there’s a lack of atmosphere for much of it, and the séance scene at the beginning, whilst showing the Rev’s rational mind which will equip him well for his logic-puzzle solving later, takes far too much time and feels disconnected from the main story. It’s not awful, but there are parts which don’t quite land the way they should.
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12. Number 13 (2006)
M.R. James didn’t often take on the ‘haunted hotel room’, as Stephen King would put it, with “Number 13” being the only real example that springs to mind barring his late-career story “Rats”.
This 40 minute version of “Number 13” trades Denmark for England, but keeps much of the general principles intact. Greg Wise’s Professor Anderson is in town to do some research on local figures in the area for the church, and he’s in number 12. Next to him is number 14. Only sometimes he hears noises coming from number 14, and when he goes out to check, a door with 13 has strangely appeared, only to vanish the next morning.
This adaptation manages to keep the antiquarian stylings of James nicely intact, and somehow the location shift doesn’t affect it that much. The final moments are a little over-dramatised for James, but work nicely for this modern take on the tale. And, whilst most of the story simply mumbles along, the shadow on the wall works well, straddling the line between too much and too little. It’s not fabulous, but it suffices for what it is. What it is, is ok.
11. The Ash Tree (1975)
The last of the M.R. James stories to be adapted for 40 years.
There’s a new squire in charge of the hall, and a bride to be visiting from Italy on occasion. He’s donating to the church, requesting an extra pew for the family. Of course that’s impossible, he’s told. He’ll have to move some of the bodies in the churchyard, and some didn’t die quietly; Matthew Hopkins may have tried one or two of them as a witch back a few hundred years ago. It’s probably for the best that he cut down that ash tree which is so near his house too; it is said that it can keep souls tied down to earth.
Anyone who has seen the ‘Doctor Who’ episode ‘The Witchfinders’ (S11, E8, 2017) will note immediate similarities between the two stories. Thankfully, this story has a little more atmosphere and coherence than the ‘Who’ tale, though not that much more, and manages to use its plotlines and the understanding of its audience to build a little suspense, as opposed to the other aspects of film form.
What keeps the film this high up the list is the ending. There is nothing as creepy, in all of the adaptations on this list, as those strange, scuttling, baby spider-like beings that appear at the end of the story. It’s pure nightmare fuel, and saves The Ash Tree from slumping further down.
10. Count Magnus (2022)
Mark Gatiss continues his run of James adaptations with the most recent offering from 2022 bringing Count Magnus to the small screen.
The ever-inquisitive scholar, Mr Wraxhall, travels to Sweden to investigate an old family’s history, and in doing so stumbles upon the legend of Count Magnus, whose involvement in old black rites cast a shadow over his legacy, one that might not slumber as much as Wraxhall thinks.
Jason Watkins does a good job as the eccentric, sceptical, overly-friendly (bordering on irritating) Mr Wraxhall, though Max Bremer’s job as Nielsen, the local inn landlord, is the shining light of the film. The main issue which stops this adaptation fully shining is that it all seems a little too slow; too much dribs and drabs of tales heard here and there to try and build to a climax which never packs the punch it should because the build-up hasn’t quite hit the marks it needs to.
And, whilst there are a few really good moments (a very gory reveal being one), and Gatiss has done his best to properly involve Wraxhall in the narrative, it still feels as if, even before the story is pieced together, we’ve already heard it (ignore the whole fact that a large portion of modern ghost story traditions are inspired by James to begin with). And, whilst weird fiction’s symbol is the tentacle, here, as part of its main scare system, it just feels out of place and overdone.
It’s a cosy film, but a cosy cliché at best.