3. Lost Hearts (1973)
Want creepy ghost kids playing medieval instruments? Lost Hearts is the place to go.
When young Stephen moves in with his old, quirky cousin, at his rambling country estate, he knows something is amiss. Mr Abney seems nice enough, but his questions are strange, as if he’s confirming something for himself – something sinister. Between that and his books being all about the old magics and old times, one gets a little of the heebie-jeebies. And there are the ghostly apparitions of a young boy and girl, both of whom seem to be missing their hearts, the wounds still open to the air…
You never want a creepy ghost boy with a pale white face in an old English manor house playing a hurdy-gurdy with their hearts ripped from their chest. Every appearance of the ghosts, from the opening minutes of them waving to Stephen in the ploughed field, to their final revenge in the last moments of the film, put your hackles up.
Joseph O’Conor as Mr Aubry plays the line between spritely and sinister very well, providing a blood-curdling villain come the later reels of the film when all is revealed. Additionally, the folk horror trappings which were the unconscious zeitgeist of the time (just coming at the end of the unholy trinity of folk horror – Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973) – are perfectly pitched in Lost Hearts, giving us an incredible, short, sharp shocker of a film.
2. The Signalman (1976)
The only film in the series to be an adaptation of a previous work not by M.R. James, The Signalman was the series’ first step away from their guiding literary light, the BBC instead taking up the mantle of that other ghost story god, Charles Dickens.
In this tale of ghostly warnings from beyond, Denholm Elliott (who also played Marcus Brody in Indiana Jones) is the terrified signalman in charge of the train signal just before a long dark tunnel, haunted by a strange waving figure who appears just before a catastrophe occurs on the line. (Because we’ve had a few without a ‘Doctor Who’ reference, the original short story is mentioned in the Gatiss-penned episode ‘The Unquiet Dead’, mentioned earlier.)
It is the power of the performances from Denholm and the traveller, played by Bernard Lloyd (who would later play Marley’s ghost in the 1999 version of A Christmas Carol, a story also from Dickens), which give the film the weight it has.
Down in the valley, in the dark, the terrified signalman and the reassuring traveller bring you completely into the tale, and make it utterly believable and utterly human. Combined with the restrained direction of Lawrence Gordon Clark and editing of Peter Evans, as well as the ominous drones kept back almost indefinitely until just the very moment when it is called for, this adaptation has that palpable sense of dread that has kept fresh all these years. The cross-cutting for the finale still has a terrible potency, and overall The Signalman remains a remarkable feat of storytelling.
1. A Warning to the Curious (1972)
One of M.R. James’ most famous stories also takes the top spot as the best of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, now fifty years old.
An amateur historian and archaeologist goes on the hunt for the last of the three legendary crowns of East Anglia, which, so the legend goes, if it is removed, as its two brothers have been before, the coastline of Great Britain will no longer be protected and invaders will come. This historian, however, might find more than he bargained for, as it isn’t just the living that have a vested interest in keeping the British Isles safe from invasion.
The original tale was written just after the ending of the First World War, and with James being a lecturer at Eton College, and having seen and known many young men (some of whom he would have probably taught), go off to war and not come back again, the story is infused with that fear of the modern world eradicating the traditions of the past. In the film, nowhere is this summed up better than when Peter Vaughn’s historian Paxton is asked what he will do with his valuable crown, and he immediately replies “I’m going to put it back.”
With moments of Paxton fleeing a blurry figure in the background perhaps referenced subtly even in Alex Garland’s film Men (2022), the story of a man trying to violate the past to float his insecure position in the modern world seeps with dread. Every shot holds a bleak terror, muted and inhuman and detached. With moments similar to both “Whistle” and another of James’ stories, “Casting the Runes” (made into the incredible 1955 film Night of the Demon), there’s always something nearby, never leaving, always a lurking punishment, watching. It’s always out of shot, a suggestion, a veiled threat dangerous enough to strike fear into one’s heart through its anonymity. We warned you, you went too far, now you must pay.
H.P. Lovecraft, who was an admirer of M.R. James, stressed in his stories that sometimes we should just leave things unknown. Sometimes, there are things we just shouldn’t go near. This 1972 adaptation might be the immortalising of James’ similar sentiments on the matter. It is, as the title says, a warning to the curious.
Recommended for you: 100 Unmissable BBC Films
Which of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas short film anthology do you enjoy the most? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and Twitter for more insightful movie lists.