Casting the Runes (1979)

A genuinely scary and very well made television film based on a story by writer M.R. James. Network UK R2.

The Series

Although his books are very popular with ghost story fans, M.R. James has remained quite obscure outside of these circles - however, his stories did find a home and loyal following as part of a BBC series Ghost Stories for Christmas in the early 1970s. At the end of the decade, Casting the Runes was comissioned as part of ITV's long running ITV Playhouse series - a collection of one-off dramas produced by the various regional ITV companies - in this case, Yorkshire Television. The story had previously been adapted, again by ITV, in 1968 as a one-off teleplay, and most famously in the Jacques Tourner horror film Night of the Demon (1957).

In a field somewhere in Yorkshire, John Harrington is out walking his dog, when he becomes aware of something following him, fleeing in terror, he is struck dead. Years later, a local television producer, Prudence Dunning has just completed a documentary about the occult, including a critique of the mystic, Julian Karswell. Looking over the print of the film after broadcast, she discovers a mysterious reference to John Harrington has appeared on the tape, asking around she discovers that John Harrington had criticised Karswell, a month before his still unattributed death...

M.R. James' original short story was set in the Edwardian era, but this relatively loose adaptation by Clive Exton (who also adapted 10 Rillington Place (1971) for the big screen) brings it up to date for the 1970s - an interesting choice, probably budget driven, but rather in keeping with James' style - he gave his stories contemporary settings to give them a scary plausibility at times, something that many of the gothic or period horror stories lack because of the fantasy inherent in their settings. Exton's script changes a lot of the basic character details but retains the basic theme of the story, and most importantly manages to retain its unsettling and creepy atmosphere, with some clever updatings of the story elements, that fans of the book should easily spot. The story moves by very quickly, with the 50 minute television slot leaving no time for unnecessary subplots or padding although a couple of interesting new ideas are added by Exton - this does mean that characterisation is a little less than it could have been, but by the tense conclusion most viewers will be on the edge of their seats and the ending works perfectly.

Director Lawrence Gordon Clark had previously shot the BBC's M.R. James stories, and does similarly good work here; the opening death scene is simply a masterwork of horror, with out-of-focus glimpses of something following the doomed victim, never allowing us to really see what it is, but showing enough to elicit real fear in the audience, not just cheap jump-shocks. The light and partly electronic soundtrack works very well to build up this fear and really helps to boost the unsettling atmosphere throughout the entire film. The cast are all British television actors, with no major names, but all of them do a very good job - particularly Iain Cuthbertson as Karswell, and Jan Francis as the haunted Prudence

Casting the Runes is a horror story for a mature audience - no blood and guts, no sex and nudity, just genuine fear thanks to the well written story, and solid production. Fans of these sorts of stories will certainly want to pick this up, and I would recommend it to any fans of atmospheric horror films.

In brief:

Anyone famous in it? Iain Cuthbertson - a widely travelled British television actor, who starred in the film Gorillas in the Mist (1988).
Directed by anyone interesting? Lawrence Gordon Clark - a British television director who helmed a variety of the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas teleplays including The Signalman (1976) and M.R. James' Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)
Any violence? None
Any sex? None
Good soundtrack?A light and unsettling score that really boosts the atmosphere.
Who is it for?
Fans of ghost stories and atmospheric (not exploitation) horror films should really enjoy this.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio  - 1.33:1. Colour.
The picture quality is decent - as was standard at the time, the footage is a mix of video and film-stock so there are some occasional jumps in quality. It probably looks as good as it did when filmed.
Audio Original English mono - sounds fine for most of the time, there is a distinct humming sound for a couple of minutes in the middle of the film.
Subtitles None
ExtrasThe discs include:
  • A Pleasant Terror - a 1995 biography of M.R. James made for British televison by his biographer Michael Cox. With a partly dramatised telling of his life, plus clips from the various adaptations of his stories, and some newly filmed scenes. A fascinating and very well made documentary, with contributions from authors Ruth Rendell and Daniel Easterman, as well as actor Christopher Lee, and several people who knew James personally. Certainly worth watching for both newcomers and fans of the author. (50 Minutes - fullscreen, good print.)
  • Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance - very rarely seen, this is a short but very impressive adaptation of an M.R. James story, made for a Yorkshire Television children's show - well directed and written it is certainly worth watching, and is as interesting as the feature film. (20 Minutes)
Region Region 2 - PAL
Other regions? Not available elsewhere.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut, it is the original UK television print (including the original "advert break coming up" signals and the 'end of part' cards).



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 20th August 2007.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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