19 April 2024

Ghost Stories Volume 5 DVD Review

The fifth volume of the BBC’s Christmas ghost stories, released by the BFI next week, sees the combined issue of A View From a Hill and Number 13, the short-lived noughties reincarnation of that excellent strand of yuletide chillers, A Ghost Story for Christmas.

Stretching back to the 1971 offering, The Stalls of Barchester (but pre-empted by 1968’s superbly creepy Whistle and I’ll Come to You), the series was fixture of Christmas television through the decade before the wheels ultimately fell off and it was sadly canned. It was briefly resurrected in 2005 in the shape of A View From a Hill, with Number 13 following a year later, before history unfortunately repeated itself.

In the first of the spectral tales, A View From a Hill, archaeological academic Dr Fanshawe (Mark Letheren) visits the estate of formerly prosperous landowner Squire Richards (Pip Torrens) charged with cataloguing the oddities held within his impressive home. Among the curiosities is a pair of binoculars once belonging to a disreputable amateur archaeologist; a man whose extra-curricular, corpse-centric activities led to his untimely demise on the spot of an old execution site. Taking the binoculars to a nearby hill Fanshawe glimpses the ghostly image of an ancient local monastery, long since ruined; the disturbing apparition suggesting that the binoculars hold some ghastly power imparted by their late owner.

The adaptation of M. R. James’ Number 13 transposes the action from northern Denmark to a closely-knit, rural English setting, in which another academic (this one from Oxford and going by the name Anderson) finds himself in the employ of the local librarian. Anderson’s work revolves around some of the more macabre entries into the town’s archives, ones which reference civil war-era witch trails, and grim accounts of bizarre satanic rituals in nearby buildings. The Oxford man’s involvement in the case becomes more dangerous upon the realisation that his hotel room sits adjacent to a mysterious, occasionally perceptible and sinister room 13, a location with possible links bizarre goings-on.

The BBC’s Christmas ghost stories are uncanny in their ability to ramp-up colossal amounts of tension, and generate a tangible sense of dread in a little over half an hour, all with a miniscule budget. Luke Watson’s ability to suggest the presence of a malevolent woodland entity, stalking the forlorn yet determined Fanshawe in A View is absolutely Blair Witch-esque in its captivating, minimalist creepiness. Pier Wilkie opts to add a dash of visual horror to his tale in 13, in a largely successful move away from the simplicity of the previous story; the occasional moments in which the production’s lack of financial clout is visible are overshadowed by the charismatic and convincing performances of its cast. Paul Freeman is enjoyably devious as the untrustworthy librarian, Greg Wise thoroughly engaging as the uncertain professor who is dragged through the emotional and psychological wringer.

An exercise in economical horror, the DVD extras including essays by BFI Mediatheque Curator, Simon McCallum, author Jonathan Rigby (amongst others), and Christopher Lee’s 2000 reading of Number 13 contribute to a neat package. A fully fledged five-disc box set also available combines all of the BFI’s previous releases to remind you that not all TV is talent shows and Tyneside tantrums.

Chris Banks (@chris_in_2d)

★★★1/2

Rating:12
DVD Release Date: 29th October 2012 (UK)
Directed By: Pier Wilkie, Luke Watson
Cast: Greg Wise, Paul Freeman, David Burke, Mark Letheren, Pip Torrens
Buy Ghost Stories Volume 5:DVD


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