M.R. James
Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance
Medium: short film, TV
Year: 1976
Director: Tony Scull
Writer: M.R. James
Keywords: horror
Country: UK
Actor: Geoffrey Russell, Peter Wheeler, Peter Clough
Format: 20 minutes
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 8 April 2010
It's just a throwaway, really, but you can find it on the Network DVD of the 1979 ITV Casting the Runes. "Possibly one of the rarest of the still-existing M.R. James adaptations" says the inside sleeve, which seems fair enough since we're talking about a program sufficiently obscure that even imdb doesn't seem to have heard of it. It shouldn't take long to talk about, but it's not without interest. After all, anything with M.R. James's name on it has to be at least worth looking at.
In fact it's an episode of a schools program called Music Scene. We begin with a pretty girl walking along a corridor, which then gets repeated with different incidental music as the narrator explains the effect musical choices can have on drama. We then spend a minute or two discovering that yes, this is the 1970s as an example of contemporary fashion and hairstyles tells us about a specially commissioned adaptation of an M.R. James short story. After we've finished watching, we're supposed to talk about it with our teacher. What do we think about the music? What would we have done differently? The film then begins and we soon learn that the director's first job should have been to garotte the composer with his own guitar strings. Great Scott, it's horrible. It's not so much that it's bad, but more that it's music that practically jumps up and down screaming at you. The whole point is that they want children to notice it, so obviously they're pumping it up far higher than any sane person would choose. The best possible DVD extra on this disc would have been an alternate and less obtrusive audio track.
I liked the tinkly bell sound he uses at one point, though. I think it's a glockenspiel.
As for the adaptation, I like its length and understated nature, but I'd have preferred more clarity about the nature of the evil. M.R. James is a delicate writer to begin with. The original story goes into enough detail on the globe in the middle of the maze to make it clear that we're talking about Dante's inferno, from which everything else flows logically. The heat when someone touches it would be hellfire, while it makes intuitive sense that a hole leading downwards would eventually lead us to demons. Here though they're not really suggesting Hell or Satan, which makes those other things that happen a bit random. Furthermore they've moved some of the action indoors out of the maze, which cuts down on expensive location shooting but again makes things less clear.
That said, though, I quite liked the story. There's a narrator who reads occasional chunks of the original story verbatim, which gets mildly sinister when we're near the end and Mr Humphreys is tracing the map in his study. Geoffrey Russell does a respectable job as the protagonist, although I wasn't always convinced by Peter Wheeler as his bailiff, Mr Cooper. It's a well-chosen story in that it lets them do a good, faithful job with a couple of actors and an attractive location. Besides, despite my earlier comments, there is actually quite a lot of exterior shooting here. Then of course you've got the special effects of the demon itself, which looks a bit goofy but is still going far further than you'd expect in a schools programme.
At twenty minutes long, you can't lose, really. It's a slight piece, dragged down by its incidental music, but it has a couple of creepy moments. You could do worse.