In terms of TV at Christmas, I always scan the listings for any ghost story adaptations. In recent years, ghosts, Christmas and the BBC have been very good chums, and it has been great entertainment on the whole. We've had the Crooked House sequence by Mark Gatiss, a Turn of the Screw adaptation, A View from a Hill and Number 13. These followed in the tradition of earlier classics such as The Signalman and A Warning to the Curious. I always harbour the hope that some organisation will bundle all these together in one fantastic box set - the BFI, for instance, who have released some before on DVD, although sadly now hard to get.
If such a box set was to suddenly materialise, like a ghost, it would of course include the film that many consider the inspiration behind the whole tradition - Jonathan Miller's 1968 masterpiece for the Omnibus series, Whistle and I'll Come to You. Based, like many of these films, on a short story by M.R. James, it has deservedly become known as a British supernatural film classic. It stars Michael Hordern as an uptight academic who stumbles upon a haunted whistle while visiting a Templar graveyard on the eerie Norfolk coast. It is one of those films that has achieved iconic status, particularly for its stunning finale.
Little wonder then, that there was some excitement - and a smidgen of concern amongst the devout - when it was learned that the BBC were to broadcast an updated version this Christmas. Trepidation was to some extent allayed when it was learned that the wonderful John Hurt would be playing the lead role (James Parkin) - even if reservations did remain when it was revealed that the story would be set in the present day. It went on air here in the UK last night, Christmas Eve...
I'm not as bothered by remakes as I used to be. Or, for that matter, modern day re-imaginings - thanks largely to the BBC's own Sherlock. And so, when the whistle becomes a wedding ring, the academic becomes an astronomer and is given an ailing wife in a nursing home backstory, I stuck with it. In part this was easy to do because it was so well made, having some of the misty, grainy aesthetic of Japanese horrors like Reincarnation with its amazing hotel set, and because Hurt was frankly superb in the lead. Like Hordern in the 1968 version, much of the haunting happens on Hurt's face, and the humanity of it all, the suffering, is carried in every line and furrow of his increasingly tortured expression. He is just brilliant in this.
The deserted hotel he stays in is incredibly creepy, and the scares as Parkin is haunted on the beach are very well handled. There are also some superbly eerie events up in his ghostly hotel room that were really quite frightening - I won't say what they were. All in, I was really impressed, and will watch it again when it is repeated, just to enjoy the magnificent turn by Hurt and the superb film making.
It is not, sadly, an unqualified success. Leaving aside issues about whether it remains sufficiently faithful to its source, I really didn't mind that, the film was still left wanting in one key area for me: the ending. I won't go into detail about it - I don't want to ruin it for those who haven't seen it - I will just say that I was left rattling through explanations and scenarios to find a suitable rationale for the conclusion. I probably came up with one or two that will do, but, and this is an important 'but', I would have preferred an ending that just made instant sense. Frankly, this sort of "required untangling" often blows the atmosphere in supernatural movies, retreating the viewer behind the glass wall again, and just diminishing the overall effect. I'm not saying the ending was a complete disaster, or didn't in the end make some kind of sense, just that in some ways I had already anticipated it, while in other more confusing ways finding the imagistic handling of it finally confusing. And that's a shame.
Having said all that though, never mind: I still loved nearly all of it, and it will easily be head and shoulders above other stuff on the box over the festive season. And, John Hurt is just a national treasure.