A Ghost Story for Christmas Films Ranked

10. Lot No. 249

The second short story adaptation from a writer not named M. R. James (and only the second non-James adaptation of the revival) sees Mark Gatiss take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story of malevolent attacks of an Egyptian mummy at Oxford. Kit Harrington stars as Abercrombie Smith, a medical student who helps revive his downstairs roommate, Bellingham, from a fainting spell. He has got lots of scrolls and papyrus and other Egyptian artefacts, including Lot No. 249 from the auction house, which may or may not come to life at his command, Caligari-style, to carry out his evil wishes.

A sufficient tale that has been streamlined for the 30 minute runtime it has been forced into, everything is apt and adequate. It looks great, the makeup and prosthetics on the mummy are beautiful, and despite having to do a little more show than tell that the original source story employs, this is a reality of 2023 television, and short film horror on BBC at that; you’ve got to give the viewer what they’re paying their license fee for.

Everything holds together OK, the new kicker ending required but thankfully inevitable enough to feel organic and suitably pulpy. It’s a nice little Egyptomania chiller, and though transforming Peterson into an unofficial Sherlock Holmes (complete with him asking Smith to move to Baker Street with him) is indulgent and takes you out of the tale for a moment, it’s OK for a cold winter’s evening and a little shiver down the spine, even if being only just workable. Maybe another 10 minutes (if allowed) would have given it that final spark of life required, but what we have is still very fair.

9. Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010)

Nearly a decade before Peter Capaldi joined the A Ghost Story for Christmas alumni, another Doctor would get their chance at a James story.

John Hurt here takes the lead in this re-imagining of the classic tale that started this all off in ‘68, helmed by Neil Cross of ‘Luther’ fame (who also wrote some ‘Doctor Who’ episodes; yes, it’s the BBC, there’s a lot of crossing over).

Stepping into the modern day, a retired science academic, at the advice of one of the workers at his wife’s care home, takes a break for a few days to visit one of their old haunts. On the beach he discovers an old ring, and soon there are people banging on his door at night when nobody else is in the hotel, and a strange figure in white stalks him on the beach.

This version of “Whistle” has its pros and cons. The pros being that John Hurt is perfect, and that a bleak sense of sorrow and loss pours from him in every second of screentime, while the direction from Andy Dr Emmony manages to build an atmosphere of unease and tension. However, the step away from the James story, by changing a strange, avenging spirit to a manifestation of grief and sorrow at his wife’s illnesses, makes it too obvious what the story is going for, taking away some of the atmosphere the story always had. This also means that the finale, which is far too obvious and in-your-face, loses the potency it could have had, those in charge seemingly believing that we wouldn’t be able to understand what had happened so far and thus needing to make it excruciatingly obvious.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a decent adaptation, but one that required some changes to make it stellar.

Recommended for you: 1984 (1984) Review

8. The Stalls of Barchester (1971)

The Stalls of Barchester was the very first film of the series, and was released over fifty years ago.

According to research by a curious archiver many years prior, there was a new archdeacon who took up residence at Barchester Cathedral. Played by Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge from the Harry Potter films), Archdeacon Haynes finds himself questioning his senses when he begins hearing voices inside his house. A strange cat prowls nearby, footsteps tread behind him as he walks, and the very stalls of the cathedral were made from woodland once used for black rites in the dead of night.

The first half of this film is adequate at best, but when Hardy steps forward to command the screen, the film really ups the creep factor. Once in its sights it doesn’t let go, with murmurs around every corner and a sense of unease rising on the back of the neck. It fully understands the Jamesian idea of holding back almost indefinitely until the final moment to unveil, for a moment, the shocking image, and does it damn proud.

Hardy gives one of the best performances of any of the series, truly embodying a man struggling to understand, and believe, what is happening to him, ironically trying to prove the scientific because the thought of anything beyond the mortal realm is too much. If the beginning doesn’t grab you, then be patient as by the end you’ll be loving every frame.

7. A View from a Hill (2005)

The first of the revival era gives us a fresh look through some old binoculars. Staying with his friend at Richard’s newly inherited country estate, Dr Fanshawe spots an old cathedral when using some binoculars on a hilltop walk, but it’s not there when he looks with his own eyes. Turns out that Richards’ father, a man who had strange, unusual interests, had them remade just before he died. If that isn’t enough, there seems to be something in the cathedral, something moving, coming for Fanshawe.

With a low budget meaning that several scenes had to be cut from the original script, writer Peter Harness (who would later write episodes for, guess what? ‘Doctor Who’,) and director Luke Watson nevertheless managed to capture the antiquarian spirit of James for the modern age in a fine adaptation.

Bringing in an extra little scare sequence or two to update the story’s pacing for the contemporary viewer, its focus simply on telling a chilling story with whatever they had around them works wonders. It is finely paced, and the final moments of ambiguity give it that air of mystery and haunting enigma that a classic ghost story should always have.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5

Leave a Comment