Cult Movies: Ghost Stories For Christmas Eve collects classic BBC creepshows

A BBC special with Christopher Lee reading the MR James stories is included as an extra
A BBC special with Christopher Lee reading the MR James stories is included as an extra A BBC special with Christopher Lee reading the MR James stories is included as an extra

Ghost Stories For Christmas Eve

GHOST stories at Christmas were an integral part of the BBC TV seasonal schedules in the 1970s. Beautifully appointed, lovingly crafted creations aimed at adding a traditional frisson of fear into viewers huddled around the fireplace, a glass of eggnog in hand and a tin of Quality Street at the ready, they were a highlight of festive listings for millions.

Usually adaptations of MR James literary classics, they were uniformly atmospheric affairs weaving their slow-burning spooky narratives in stuffy Victorian settings from draughty hotels to cold church benches.

Ghost Stories For Christmas Eve Vol 1 from the BFI brings together four of the finest BBC broadcasts and presents them on beautiful newly remastered high definition Blu-ray discs for the first time.

While there are equally impressive offerings to explore in the series – and here's hoping the Vol 1 in the title means that there are more volumes are on the way – this is truly the pick of the bunch, and the three discs here represent the very finest productions from the fondly remembered franchise.

The first short story adaptation here is also the oldest and perhaps the most fondly remembered. Whistle And I'll Come To You was produced in 1968, with Jonathan Miller directing Michael Hordern in an unnerving tale of madness in a barren seaside town.

Hordern is a bumbling professor, a loner who finds a whistle poking out from a gravestone while strolling the sand dunes near his lodgings. Once he blows the whistle, he summons up something supernatural and his mind swiftly unravels. Odd and dreamlike, it's a slow moving and arty offering but unforgettable all the same.

The Stalls Of Barchester (1972) is an equally edgy story of mystery amidst Barchester Cathedral library. Another dry but intriguing ghost fable it retains its power to chill all the same. A Warning To The Curious is a more visceral affair as an archaeologist (Peter Vaughn) is stalked by a murky figure when he goes searching for an ancient, and oddly powerful, crown. All the classic James tropes of dusty academia and people digging up stuff they really shouldn't are present, making this perhaps the best BBC ghost story of them all.

The final short film in the set gives it a good run for its money, though. Lost Hearts, from 1973, is a "once seen never forgotten" tale of a young orphan boy who is tormented by the apparitions of dead children he keeps seeing when he moves into his uncle's old stately home. A bit more gruesome than the others, Lost Hearts is chilling and disturbing in equal measure.

As ever with the BFI, there are a wealth of extras to supplement the experience. These include commentaries on all four films from critics of the calibre of Jan Dear and Kim Newman and a rare chance to enjoy Ghost Stories For Christmas with Christopher Lee, an hour long 'talking head' MR James special where the horror legend reads the stories in his usual sonorous tones. It's the perfect spooky companion piece to a perfectly spooky and festive flavoured boxset.