Judge Russell Engebreston recently cast a mighty curse, when he hit his finger with a hammer.
Drawn from one of ghost story master M.R. James' tales, Casting the Runes pits a television producer against a fiendish alchemist.
The 1979 television airing of Casting the Runes, now available for the first time on a Region 1 DVD, was originally broadcast in the UK on ITV Playhouse, a comedy-drama series that ran from 1968 to 1983. Director Jacques Tourneur's excellent 1957 film, Night of the Demon (shortened and rechristened Curse of the Demon for the stateside release), was also adapted from M.R. James' short story. Although both films diverge from their literary source—each with its own strengths and weaknesses—they both manage to capture the creepy aura of James' tale. Clive Exton's TV script updates the setting of Casting the Runes from the Edwardian era to the late 70s, but overall hews closer to the story.
In a wintry Yorkshire field, John Harrington (Christopher Good) is walking his dog when he catches sight of a vague yet menacing black figure. In a panic Harrington sprints across the field but is overtaken, thrown to the ground, and savagely beaten to death by the near-invisible presence. Ten years later, television producer Prudence Dunning (Jan Francis) films a TV documentary on the occult that includes a critical segment on self-styled alchemist, Julian Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson, Gorillas in the Mist). After her program has aired, Prudence is reviewing her film on an editing machine and finds a message that reads "John Harrington—In Memoriam (1937-1968)—one month was allowed."
Although it was not in the original film, a quick inspection reveals that the message was not spliced in, but appears to be part of the original print. Prudence, already uneasy from the feeling that someone may have been stalking her, begins checking into Karswell's background and discovers that John Harrington had ridiculed a book written by the alchemist. In spite of her pragmatic nature, she reluctantly concludes that the vengeful Karswell may have employed a magical summoning ritual—runic symbols drawn on a strip of paper and passed to the intended victim—to call forth a demonic creature that stalked and killed Harrington. She determines the only escape from the curse is to pass the runes back to Karswell, who must willingly accept them—and now Prudence finds just such a runic inscription was stealthily slipped to her some days earlier.
Montague Rhodes James—a devout Christian, medieval scholar, and provost of Eton College—is sometimes referred to as the originator of the antiquarian ghost story, but in fact he had no fondness for fictions of moaning, weepy Victorian ghosts gliding down the hallways of architectural gingerbread mansions. James' deep knowledge of church architecture and scholarly religious tracts served him well in the construction of his short stories. His detailed, ornamental prose lulls the reader into the expectation of a staid and comfortable ghost tale, then quietly slips in a fiendish creature or suggestively gruesome description that is all the more startling for its unexpected intrusion and nastiness.
The televised incarnation of Casting the Runes does a good job of building tension through a series of long Jamesian-styled dialogues between the characters, interspersed with spooky action sequences to liven things up. The spare creature effects are very low budget, but creatively staged for maximum creepiness. The acting, as with most British productions, is natural and wonderfully free of histrionics. Niall MacGinnis, the actor who played the alchemist Julian Karswell in Night of the Demon, was pitch perfect. Cuthbertson does not reach the heights of MacGinnis' chilling performance, but his take on Karswell as a sort of aging nerd who has devoted himself to black magic and total evil is impressive. For the most part, it's a successful interpretation of one of M.R. James' best stories.
Technically, the standard definition 1.33:1 full frame encode is fine for its age and TV source. Grain is moderate to heavy; color is decent, not vibrant,but not terribly washed out either; and speckling from dirt and debris is present throughout, but fairly light considering the age of the print. Light edge enhancement is noticeable, particularly around the heads of characters when they are against a bright background, such as the snowy Yorkshire scenes. The monophonic Dolby Digital sounds a bit odd at times, as though an electronic stereo separation was attempted; however, dialogue is generally distinct and the soundtrack free of any really bad distortion. The minimalist score, with its eerie, slightly dissonant flute and light use of electronic instruments, is just the right music for the film, not drawing great attention to itself, but sustaining a menacingly supernatural undercurrent.
The DVD includes a first-rate pair of extras. One is a brief film based on a rather minor M.R. James' ghost story, "Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance" (20 Minutes.) Despite the slight story, which James himself described as something written to "fill up the volume" of a collection, the film is an unsettling supernatural chiller with a fine performance from the small cast. A desolate, overgrown shrubbery maze and aging mansion makes for an authentic on-location backdrop with a uniquely English countryside appearance that would have cost a fortune to build as a set. The picture is very soft, probably a later generation video dupe, but we're lucky it has survived at all (unlike a few M.R. James TV shows from the sixties whose tapes were wiped).
The other extra is the 1995 British TV documentary hosted by James biographer Michael Cox, "A Pleasant Terror: The Life and Ghosts of M.R. James" (51 Minutes). It contains considerable information on "Monty" James, who was reticent about discussing himself in print. A couple of people who actually knew M.R. James are interviewed, and Christopher Lee has high praise for James' stories, which he considers superior to Bram Stoker's output. M.R. James was always ambivalent when pressed on the question of his belief or disbelief in the existence of ghosts, and there is an interesting discussion on whether James might have had a "ghostly encounter" of his own as a child. It's fascinating stuff for anyone interested in the author.
With no blood, guts, or gore, Casting the Runes will not slake the thirst of a slasher fan, but should prove a genuine treat for followers of unsettling and atmospheric supernatural horror.
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