Obscure Horror Cinema: Whistle and I’ll Come to You

by William Burns

Although many will claim that the United States has been in the forefront of turning Christmas into an all consuming. soul sucking monster, the British got there first but in a much different way. Rather than let capitalism transform the holidays into a horrorshow, the BBC hearkened back to the Victorian Age, when Yuletide was more like Halloween, a time where the veil between the living and the dead was the most porous (just ask Ebeneezer Scrooge). The BBC show Omnibus commissioned a yearly ghost story teleplay from 1971- 1978 (an then a later revival from 2005-2006) to be broadcast during the twelve days of Christmas.  While there were a few contemporary scripts written especially for the program most of the short films were adaptations of classic ghost stories. The most adapted author for A Ghost Story for Christmas was M.R. James, the greatest Victorian ghost story writer in the history of supernatural literature (sorry Sheridan LeFanu). James was a medieval scholar and the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, where he would delight and horrify his students with his tales of the macabre and the uncanny.  In 1904, James published one of the most important horror fiction collections Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and would follow it up with three more anthologies of strange stories. James’s style is dry, understated, deliberate, and slow, gradually enhancing the weird atmosphere until the supernatural breaks through in a brutally shocking manner that forever haunts both the characters and reader. One of James’s most frightening tales is “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad,” the story of a professor who is vacationing on the desolate eastern coast of England. As he investigates a Templar cemetery, he finds an ancient whistle which he foolishly blows into, summoning something from the other side that won’t leave him in peace. This atmospheric story was adapted by Jonathan Miller into a chillingly realistic short horror film. Filmed on location on the bleak Norfolk coast, Miler uses very subtle yet stringent effects and imagery to convey the dawning understanding of the consequences of unleashing of forces one can’t understand or control. Unfortunately, these BBC teleplays never made their way over to the US but through the magic of the internet us Yanks can be just as traumatized as our UK brethren. 


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