A Ghost Story for Christmas
One of the more controversial episodes in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series. Ellis Reed makes a personal exploration into 1973’s Lost Hearts…
The 1973 A Ghost Story for Christmas has, if you’ll pardon the pun, a special place in my heart. Combined with gorgeous visuals and haunting score, the scares in ‘Lost Hearts’ — including one iconic scene, which I’ll come to later — are a heady brew indeed.
The opening scenes give little cause for alarm. On a long country lane, a horse-drawn carriage trundles into view, emerging from a wall of fog. The sole passenger is a young boy who spies two children standing in a field. As they slowly wave at him, the horse is spooked, jolting him from the post-chaise window. When he looks again, they’ve simply vanished.
It’s a superb opening, and partly (not wholly) because it lulls me into a false sense of security. For one thing, the boy’s top hat is quite funny. A charming flute warbles in the background, playing a few scattered bars of Bruno Maderna’s Hyperion III. The title card makes me think of a windswept period drama. I know it’s a ghost story, of course—and guess, correctly, that I’ve already seen two ghosts—but it seems like an easy ride.
What follows is anything but. The money shot is a sequence that, for now, I’ll gloss over as “the hurdy-gurdy scene” (be warned: there are full spoilers coming later). I think it’s the scariest thing in the Ghost Stories for Christmas box set and one of the all-time greats of TV horror. (In fact, I’d put it almost on a par with the Ralphie Glick window scene in Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979.)
I’m not alone in finding it powerful. When ‘Lost Hearts’ aired in 1973, one critic described a battle of wills with his almost-adult son, who wanted to watch the end of Quartermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967). With undisguised glee, he recalls how his rival “went voluntarily and hastily to bed” after the hurdy-gurdy scene, leaving him alone with the remote control. “James’s ghost stories are the best,” he concludes, “because his ghosts themselves are not shadowy emanations. They are real and horrible, and the murdered boy and girl in ‘Lost Hearts’ are, in a way, more horrible than most.”
In 2015, the Guardian offered a similar view, recalling ‘Lost Hearts’ as “perhaps the most troubling” entry in the series. “As I prepare to go to bed and put the lights out one by one,” Michael Newton warns, “burdened by memories of them, I find myself seriously spooked.” Horror legend Ramsey Campbell called it “genuinely gruesome”— which is high praise indeed, from the author of The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976) — and described it as his favourite ghost story.
But this is yet to come because ‘Lost Hearts’ is just beginning and the ghosts seem quite benign. So, let’s talk about the plot. The boy in the top hat is an orphan called Stephen; he’s been sent to live in the country with his elderly cousin, the eccentric Mr Abney. Alarm bells start to ring when the housekeeper says that other orphans lived at the house. “They’re gone now,” she adds casually. “Over the hills and far away…” Stephen will learn what really happened to his predecessors, but first he must explore.
In a superbly-shot sequence, we follow him out of the house and into a mausoleum. He’s only there for a moment but it’s a visual highlight of the film; the camera paints him as a brown shadow in the open doorway, gazing up at stained glass cherubs. The effect is brief but marvellous, and far from the only moment of wonder. According to Simon Farquhar, “Lost Hearts sees the beginnings of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s fascination with sunlight, exemplified by a stunning shot of sunbeams reflected in a river… No other film in the series, not even ‘A Warning to the Curious‘, celebrates the English landscape so candidly.”
When Stephen leaves the mausoleum, he sees a girl and tries to chase her, bringing him at last to a river. Her reflection in the water is the first real scare of the story, but the second comes soon after, when he climbs a tree to find the source of her echoing laughter. A strength of the film is the way the ghosts are progressively more disturbing; when we first see them waving, the effect is haunting, rather than horrifying—but the face in the water is decidedly creepy, and so too is the echoing laughter. Later, when Stephen is walking with Mr Abney, he sees the boy and girl at a high window. They silently “shush” him and he holds his tongue.
After these encounters, Mrs Bunch tells Stephen about the previous orphans. Phoebe stayed for three weeks but vanished; she’s presumed to be off with the gypsies. “There was singing round the house for as much as an hour, the night she was gone,” the housekeeper recalls—“and lights in the woods, like will-o’-the-wisps.” Giovanni came and went in similar fashion, leaving his beloved hurdy-gurdy—which brings us at last to the famous scene.
Smiling eerily as he plays the antique instrument, the ghost of Giovanni hypnotises Stephen and “pied-pipes” him from his bed to the bathroom. At the end of the performance, the ghosts show Stephen their gruesome injuries, which appear on screen as practical effects: “No hearts!” he cries later. “They had no hearts! And the hurdy-gurdy—it was still playing!”
I don’t want to over-egg it, because this is, after all, a Seventies TV horror. Even so: if you overlook the dated effects, and lose yourself in the eerie grins and jangling score, you’ll find it chilling indeed. I don’t want to say “I’ll never look at a hurdy-gurdy the same way again,” because it was the first one I’d seen, and I doubt I’ll see another. But you get the point.
By this stage, we’ve correctly guessed that Mr Abney dabbles in the dark arts, which has something to do with the two ghosts. His asides have an occult flavour, and the obsession with Stephen’s birthday hints at a planned ritual. When the scheme is revealed, it’s worse than we imagined: in his quest for everlasting life, he’s been cutting the hearts out of living children. “Your innocent heart,” he tells Stephen, “must be the beating cornerstone to the gate—that unspeakable gateway, by which I will enter into eternity!”
Joseph O’Conor is superb as Mr Abney. In Ramsey Campbell’s DVD liner notes, his charm is “a clown’s permanent grin… liable to reveal its grimmer side at midnight.” The performance at the end is a welcome slice of first-rate horror (albeit, given the runtime, necessarily brief). Of the speaking roles, none are weak, but you might want to make allowances for the child-acting of the two ghosts. For me at least, their creepy smiles more than make up for the awkward ballet of their movements.
I’ve heard it said that M.R. James wasn’t very fond of ‘Lost Hearts’, which was an early tale that possibly broke his own rules. “You must have horror,” he once wrote. “Not less necessary, however, is reticence.” And again elsewhere: “Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it.” In terms of reticence, the reveal of the missing hearts is anything but, and the original text was only slightly more restrained:
“The boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle. On the left side of his chest there opened a black and gaping rent…”
Directing, Lawrence Gordon Clark had his own reservations. “I was never sure if we got ‘Lost Hearts’ right,” he said later. “I worried that we saw too much of the ghosts, when I was well aware of the power of suggestion.” In Farquhar’s view, Lost Hearts “does survive this uncharacteristic explicitness,” but I would go further. For me, the film’s power stems from it. After the gorgeous scenes of rural England, stunningly shot and mournfully scored, the unambiguous horror of the missing hearts is all the more shocking—and that’s why it stays with me.’