‘Casting the Runes’ is widely regarded as one of M.R. James’s most memorable tales (it achieved second place in a poll of members of ‘Ghosts & Scholars,’ the M.R. James society) and as such, it’s hardly surprising that it has been brought to screen on two occasions, firstly as Jacques Tourneur’s acclaimed 1957 black and white film, ‘Night of the Demon’ and subsequently in this rather more humble television production dating from 1979. It is often erroneously recalled as part of the BBC’s ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ strand as it shares the same director, the redoubtable Lawrence Gordon Clark. However, it was actually transmitted by ITV much later in the decade and despite the presence of Clark behind the camera, it’s somewhat less effective than any of his earlier James adaptations.
It is particularly hampered by that scourge of so much 1970s television drama on a tight budget (and inspiration for a fine Monty Python sketch), the uneven contrast between the use of film for location work and video in the studio. The Ghost Stories for Christmas, on the other hand, were shot entirely on film. So whilst Clark’s photography is typically rich and atmospheric for the wintry exterior scenes here, it’s frequently compromised by the flat, over-lit interiors. The production also suffers from being given a contemporary setting. Divorced from the context of Edwardian academia, the ambience of which so suffuses James’s work, much of the dread and isolation seems to evaporate, whilst Clark’s camera is given far less detail to linger over.
The updated narrative is something this adaptation has in common with ‘Night of the Demon’ and it’s impossible not to compare the two. Certainly the film is more successful, exuding a potent sense of paranoia and tension largely absent here. Fortunately the television production is not entirely lacking in terror. The opening scene is particularly effective, expertly directed by Clark who unlike Tourneur does not reveal too much of the threat. Equally, the scene in which Dutton discovers Karswell’s warning mysteriously manifested in the frames of her film is an eerie moment, with Jan Francis making a far more sympathetic protagonist than Dana Andrews. Meanwhile, Iain Cuthbertson does a fine job of matching Niall MacGinnis’s memorable performance as Karswell, despite the bizarre American accent.
More problematically, the production seems to compare itself to ‘Night of the Demon,’ apparently purposefully avoiding an attempt to compete with one of the film’s defining moments, the suspenseful climax in the train carriage when the runes are finally passed back to Karswell. Indeed, the conclusion here is so perfunctorily handled that the entire story feels decapitated and denied an effective pay-off, its earlier shortcomings remain in focus. ‘Casting the Runes’ ultimately comes across as a flawed effort, not without its moments, but lacking the atmosphere of Clark’s earlier productions for the BBC. Whilst we can be thankful for Tourneur’s film, it still seems a shame that a director so sympathetic to James’s vision as Clark was unable to do full justice to one of the writer’s most characteristic works.
Originally transmitted on 24th April 1979
Produced by Yorkshire Television