Cult Movies: Ghost Stories For Christmas 2 is a Blu-ray box set of spine-tingling festive delights

Denholm Elliott in a scene from spooky 1970s TV tale, The Signalman
Denholm Elliott in The Signalman

AN EVENING or two spent watching a few classic BBC ghost stories for Christmas is a great festive tradition in our house.

There’s something strangely comforting about losing yourself in those deep, dark and gently spine-tingling tales that first became a fixture of Auntie’s yuletide schedules in the 1970s.

Mostly directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and usually based upon the short stories of MR James, they are the televisual equivalent of a comfort blanket or a well-worn pair of carpet slippers.

The best of these lovingly made and invariably slow-burning period dramas offer up a warm, cosy sense of familiarity mixed with just enough unease to keep you on your toes.

Last year, the BFI released a selection of the finest stories as a Blu-ray boxset and, since that sold well, they’ve gathered up another compendium of creepy tales for this year’s festive market.

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Second serving of spooky Christmas TV treats

If that first volume predictably nabbed the cream of the old stories, there’s still much to enjoy in this handsomely appointed second trawl through the BBC archives.

For this collection, the BFI have pulled in the five remaining episodes of the original 1970s run and added a few more recent forays into the world of ghost stories.

The cover of the new Ghost Stories For Christmas Volume 2 Blu-ray box set
Ghost Stories For Christmas Volume 2

The set starts with The Treasure of Abbot Thomas from 1974, a none-more-traditional MR James adaptation directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, it’s essentially a convoluted mystery tale about hidden treasure in Wells Cathedral.

High on clammy atmosphere and a little low on genuine chills, it’s an effective, if slow-moving, opener.

Proto-folk horror chiller

Next up is The Ash Tree from 1975, another James story again directed by Clark, that takes on the subject of witch hunts and insanity with considerable aplomb.

An exercise in folk horror before the term was even coined, this Cornish-set chiller is both stylish and spooky in equal measure.

Also entertaining are the two tales set in contemporary times. Stigma, Clark’s final directorial effort from 1977, sees modern civilisation disturbing ancient soil with dark and bloody results, while The Ice House from 1978 is an odd morality tale about a freshly divorced man (John Stride) who takes up residence in a health spa where the owners are strangely obsessed with an ice house on the premises.

A perfect package

There are, of course, a wealth of bonus materials to enjoy – including plenty of commentaries, video essays and an appealing booklet – plus a number of more recent ghost fables, including A View From A Hill (2005) and Number 13 (2006) to add to the package.

The best thing in the whole collection, however, has to be Clark’s take on the Charles Dickens short story The Signalman, which originally hit TV screens in 1976.

The first of the series not to turn to MR James for inspiration, it stars the ever-anxious Denholm Elliott as the titular signalman who keeps on seeing a terrifying ghostly vision standing alongside an apparently cursed tunnel.

Oppressive of atmosphere and genuinely unsettling at times, this is one of the greatest ghost stories in the series and worth the price of admission on its own. Get comfy on the sofa with it this weekend.

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