M.R. JamesIain CuthbertsonJan Francis
Casting the Runes
Medium: TV
Year: 1979
Director: Lawrence Gordon Clark
Writer: M.R. James, Clive Exton
Keywords: Casting the Runes, horror
Country: UK
Actor: Iain Cuthbertson, Jan Francis, Bernard Gallagher, Joanna Dunham, Edward Petherbridge, Christopher Good, Patricia Shakesby, David Calder, Jane Lowe, Alan Downer, Clifford Parrish, Christine Buckley, Abdul Ali, Simon Prebble
Format: 48 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0492874/
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 12 April 2010
There's one film adaptation of M.R. James's Casting the Runes, the classy Night of the Demon (1957), and approximately two TV versions. I say "approximately" because I've also found some possibly unrelated uses of that title. I can't believe that the Hot Metal episode (1986) has anything to do with ghost stories, being a sitcom about the newspaper industry, but the Extreme Ghostbusters one (1997) sounds as if the scriptwriters were aware of James's original. An internet synopsis makes it sound like the usual cartoon nonsense, but it is a story called Casting the Runes in which a bad guy's giving runes to people he doesn't like so that a demon will kill them.
However the two adaptations which credit M.R. James and would be recognised by purists are episodes of Mystery and Imagination (1968) and ITV Playhouse (1979). The former no longer exists, although we do have a preview trailer for it. It's one of four black-and-white M.R. James ITV adaptations from 1966-1968 that have all since been lost. However the 1979 one has survived. It's from director-producer Lawrence Gordon Clark, who's apparently best remembered for a series of annual Christmas ghost stories for the BBC, many of which were by M.R. James. He did The Stalls of Barchester (1971), A Warning to the Curious (1972), Lost Hearts (1973), Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974), The Ash Tree (1975), The Signalman (1976) and Stigma (1977), plus of course this Casting The Runes adaptation for Yorkshire Television.
Overall, I quite liked it. I didn't think it was brilliant, mind you. It's not as good as either Night of the Demon or indeed James's original story, but it's a solid example of 1970s British television that's not without a certain amount of atmosphere. Its problem, I thought, is that it seems too mundane to be truly spooky. They've updated it to contemporary times, with Dunning being a director-producer of television programmes, which doesn't help when it comes to wrenching your brain into a receptive state for a story of demons and magical curses. It's not at all bad, mind you. I liked the location footage, especially the snow. There's a bit of an aura about snow. Nevertheless it can't compare with 1957 black-and-white Tourneur or the genteel elegance of James's prose.
Furthermore, it's shorter and slighter than Night of the Demon. This shouldn't surprise anyone. It's a TV episode, not a movie. This makes it more faithful to the original, but it means we don't get to know Iain Cuthbertson's Karswell, for instance, while Jan Francis's Dunning seems surprisingly quick to believe in curses. Yes, I realise I'm liable to grumble just as much about bloody-minded sceptics who refuse to acknowledge the truth even when it's about to bite their faces off, but there's such a thing as a happy medium.
That said, apart from the tweaks to update it for 1979, as an adaptation it's both respectable and faithful. They've kept character names, although Dunning's had a sex change to become Jan Francis. The first victim is still called John Harrington, for instance. Karswell's motivation is closer to the original's than it was in Night of the Demon, in that basically he's an author who he can't take a bad review, while they even still quote The Ancient Mariner. As for the plot, it's well and straightforwardly structured and they've come up with a clever idea for giving the runes back to Kerswell at the end. That's better than its Night of the Demon equivalent, actually. It's unfortunate that what happens afterwards is merely reported to us rather than seen, but gains huge points for being much more evil than I'd expected. That was a nasty little twist.
They've also allowed themselves to get closer to the original's three-month warning than Night of the Demon dared. It's a month rather than a week, although this was probably a mistake. The passage of time seems to lurch rather.
However the big question mark in any adaptation of Casting the Runes will always be the demon. That's actually one of my favourite things about the original story, with its "horrible hopping creature in white" and that creepy exchange at the docks. "'My mistake, sir; must have been your rugs! ask your pardon.' And then, to a subordinate near him, ''Ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could 'a' swore 'e wasn't alone. Well, whatever it was, they'll 'ave to see to it aboard." Night of the Demon had problems in this area. Lawrence Gordon Clark in contrast takes the safe but slightly boring approach. We get cool glimpses of something near John Harrington in the opening sequence, but thereafter there's no attempt to suggest any kind of presence following around either Francis or Karswell. This might have been the best practical solution, bearing in mind that in Doctor Who terms we're a couple of months after the end of The Armageddon Factor, but I'd love to see an adaptation of this story one day that managed to get the demon right.
Jan Francis is good. Iain Cuthbertson is memorable in a role that's giving him surprisingly little to do. He's a presence rather than a character, really.
At the end of the day, it's television. You shouldn't go in expecting it to bear serious comparison either with my all-time favourite English ghost story writer or with a film that's liable to get called "the best British horror movie". However it's pretty good and it has some intriguing details, like the doll's house voodoo and the giant rope spider. You can't fault its integrity. Nice touch with the dead housekeeper, by the way.