'This house, it's unhealthy':
Stephen Weeks' Ghost Story
Paul Lewis' essay on Ghost Story (1974), takes an in-depth look at Stephen Weeks' independent haunted house film and its profound sense of Englishness...
Barely released during the 1970s, Stephen Weeks’ utterly independent 1974 oddity Ghost Story probably built up its largest domestic audience through late-night screenings on the BBC in the 1980s before vanishing from the roster, only to reappear in 2009 via a packed-to-the-gunwales DVD release from Nucleus Films (which has subsequently been superseded by an excellent Blu-ray release from the same company).
Anyone who stumbled across Ghost Story via one of those television broadcasts will no doubt recall the film weaving its strange, otherworldly spell – a product of some clever juxtaposing of quiet class-based humour with much darker themes (the Victorians’ treatment of the mentally ill, incest) and haunting use of sound and music. Certainly, this writer vividly remembers catching the film, unexpectedly, via one of those television screenings and being haunted by it; struggling to find a way to revisit the film until a good number of years later, certain elements of it etched their way into my subconscious. (The film had been released on VHS in America, in a slightly re-edited version, under the awful title Madhouse Mansion, the retitling presumably intended to avoid confusion with John Irvin’s 1981 film Ghost Story, an adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel.)
Whilst the likes of Hammer were busy during the 1970s trying to update their franchises… you know, for the kids – replacing the ageing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee with the likes of Ralph Bates and Shane Briant, and desperately bringing their Gothic horror stories into the present via pictures such as Alan Gibson’s Dracula A.D. 1972 (in, well, 1972) – Weeks decided to make Ghost Story a throwback to an earlier era.
Ghost Story was written by Stephen Weeks, in collaboration with Philip Norman and Rosemary Sutcliff. Norman, then a journalist with the Sunday Times, wrote the first version of the script, injecting into it a certain amount of P.G. Wodehouse-style comedy. The script was then polished by Weeks and his friend Rosemary Sutcliff, the much-loved historical novelist mostly known for her 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth. (Ghost Story was the only completed screenplay with which Sutcliff, a writer of richly detailed and carefully-researched historical fiction for children, is credited as writing or co-writing, though the period setting of the film’s central narrative and its richly-textured flashbacks to an earlier time seem to show the influence of Sutcliff’s approach to historical storytelling.) Weeks and Sutcliff brought their shared love of M.R. James’ ghost stories to the material; the finished product has more in common with the low-key scares of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas strand than with the graphic horrors of the contemporaneous productions by studios like Hammer, Amicus and Tigon.
Ghost Story was Weeks’ third feature-length film. After a series of shorts (including the ‘long short’ 1917, set during the First World War, in 1968), Weeks’ feature debut had been I, Monster (1971), which Weeks directed for Amicus. I, Monster was, of course, a gimmicky adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that was intended to be shown in 3D – though this idea was scuppered before the film’s ultimate release. Subsequently, Weeks made Gawain and the Green Knight in 1973, for producer Carlo Ponti. Disagreements between Ponti and United Artists, the film’s distributor, resulted in Gawain and the Green Knight being recut. This was such a negative experience for Weeks that he vowed to make his next picture, which would be Ghost Story, completely independently, self-producing the film and thereby avoiding studio interference. Following Ghost Story, Weeks revisited the premise of Gawain and the Green Knight in the 1984 film Sword of the Valiant, and in the same year began production on the never-completed The Bengal Lancers – which was reputedly to be a loose adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth.
Set at an indeterminate point in the late 1920s or early 1930s, Ghost Story’s narrative focuses on three acquaintances (friends would be too strong a word) who gather, after not having seen one another since graduating from university four years previously, at a country house which one of their number, McFayden (Murray Melvin), claims his father is involved in selling. McFayden has invited Talbot (Larry Dann) and Duller (Vivian Mackerrell) – but neither Talbot nor Duller remembers encountering one another during their time at Selwyn College.
The outward intention is to indulge in a spot of shooting and generally have a jolly old time. However, the truth is slightly different: McFayden has inherited the house, which has a troubled past, and is unsure whether he wishes to live there or sell it. ‘The family has always had this strange feeling about the place’, McFayden tells Talbot much later in the film, adding that ‘The house hasn’t been lived in since a cousin of father’s went a bit loopy there’. McFayden suggests that there are stories that the house, situated near the old Borden Lunatic Asylum that was decimated by fire during the 19th Century, is haunted. He has invited Duller, because Duller is an amateur Harry Price-style ghosthunter, and Talbot; McFayden and Duller believe that Talbot’s naïvete will make him a likely magnet for supernatural phenomena.
Talbot soon begins to experience strange visions of a previous era, which are interspersed throughout the main narrative. He sees Robert (Leigh Lawson) making an agreement with Dr Borden (Anthony Bate), of Borden’s Lunatic Asylum, in order to incarcerate Robert’s sister Sophy (Marianne Faithfull). Robert wants his sister put out of the way because she is the object of his incestuous desire, and this troubles him. However, later flashbacks experienced by Talbot show that whilst Sophy was held in the asylum, Dr Borden plotted with his nurse (Barbara Shelley) to burn down the building, the patients sedated inside it, in order to collect the insurance.
Eventually, in the present, Duller leaves McFayden’s house, complaining that McFayden’s ‘“baronial hall” isn’t haunted: it’s too bloody uncomfortable’. Talbot and McFayden are left alone in the house… with the spirits of the past.
Weeks struggled to find a suitable location for the production, wanting to avoid sites in the South of England that were too familiar from various other British horror films of the period. Oakley Court in Bray was considered but was ultimately rejected since it had appeared on so many Hammer horror films. Instead, Weeks travelled to India in the hope of finding a location, shaped by that country’s imperial past, that was reminiscent of a ‘lost’ Britain.
By sheer chance, Weeks came across a photograph of Bangalore Palace, built in a Tudor Revival style during the 1870s, in a guidebook that he discovered in a book shop upon arrival in India. Bangalore Palace was chosen for the film’s exteriors, and en route Weeks was shown another palace which provided the film’s interiors. The result is that the film has a distinctly vague setting in terms of time and place – like a strange simulacrum of the ‘lost’ Britain that Weeks hoped to capture in India. ‘I say, it’s rather like old times’, McFayden says near the start of the film when the trio meet up. ‘Not really’, Duffer comments nonchalantly.
Much of the story is focalised through Talbot, so in the early portions of the film, we are suckered in by McFayden’s deception – believing the trio have gathered at the house to simply have a reunion of sorts. Ghost Story is a film that deserves – nay, demands – to be rewatched, as when one knows the direction in which the story is heading, there are subtle clues in the film’s early sequences: for example, McFayden’s noticeable reticence upon approaching the house when the trio first arrive, and his insistence that Talbot enter it first.
So Ghost Story is a film about deception, and about snobbery. Through some superb casting, Weeks assembles a trio of characters who display very different traits – so different, in fact, that one can hardly imagine them getting on under any circumstances, something which is amplified by their costumes too. Originally, David Leland and Ronald Lacey were considered for the roles of Duller and Talbot; but when the production moved to India, Lacey’s doctor advised him not to take the part, for health reasons.
As a consequence, the roles of Talbot and Duller were recast – going to Larry Dann and Vivian Mackerrell, respectively – though through his talent agency Lacey helped to secure some of the film’s other cast members and is credited as a ‘production consultant’ on the film. It seems that Murray Melvin was always Weeks’ choice for McFayden, however. Spending much of the film dressed in white, McFayden is extrovert and flamboyant, and in his performance, Murray Melvin wonderfully suggests an undercurrent of uncertainty – or unease – within the character. Talbot is grinningly boyish, given to trying to engage the others in friendly conversation which is rebuffed either gently or, more often than not, in a more bullish manner. In one scene, Talbot (desperately over)dresses in a tuxedo and white tie, but for much of the film he wears a tweed suit, tie and a woolly tank top under his jacket, which speaks of his (lower?) middle-class background. By contrast, with a razor-thin moustache and an ever-present cravat, Duller is an intolerable snob, Mackerrell emphasising the snobbery of the character by seemingly holding every conversation over the bridge of his nose.
There are lots of little asides about snobbery and class attitudes that probably don’t travel that well for non-British audiences. ‘There goes the living proof of university entrance by scholarship’, Duller says mockingly to McFayden, on the trio’s first night in the house, after Talbot has left the room. There’s a wonderful moment when the three men go shooting on the moors, and crack shot Duller bags a bird with barely any effort (Mackerrell fires the shotgun into the air, and the bird comes crashing down in the same shot – presumably thrown into the frame by an offscreen crew member). Taking a break, the trio pass around the sandwiches Talbot has made for them. ‘I can hardly believe it’, Duller says disparagingly, before adding with disgust: ‘It’s… jam!’ This incident finds its narrative echo – and the gag has its payoff – later in the film. As Duller leaves McFayden’s house, Talbot criticises him for ‘charging off like this. I think it’s a rotten, poor show’. Duller looks at Talbot and sneers condescendingly: ‘Jam’, he says simply, his top lip curling in distaste.
The character of Duller was Vivian Mackerrell’s only feature film role, though Weeks cast him in the incomplete The Bengal Lancers. Mackerrell was, of course, the well-documented inspiration for the character of Withnail (played by Richard E Grant) in Bruce Robinson’s iconic 1980s comedy Withnail and I (1987): Robinson and Mackerrell had lived together in Camden during the 1960s. Mackerrell plays Duller wonderfully, with a haughty sneer that goes from 8 to 14 on a 10-point scale. As an amateur ghosthunter in the Harry Price style, who McFayden has invited to the house owing to his interest in the supernatural (McFayden tells Duller at one point, ‘Your hobby has always amused me’), Mackerrell is shown performing strange bits of business with various implements – rather like the gadgets in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984).
During one evening, Talbot witnesses Duller sitting in pyjamas on the floor of his room, lit candles and an esoteric book open in front of him, as he performs some sort of divination rite with what appears to be a pair of tuning forks. Duller’s most memorable bit of kit is a pair of goggles with red lenses, which he presumably believes will enable him to see evidence of the supernatural. ‘If there are psychic phenomena’, Duller tells McFayden, ‘they must give off some vapour or at least cause some temperature change in static air. It’s only a matter of common sense’. In response to this, McFayden jokes dryly, ‘You disappoint me. You mean that ghosts don’t run around in white sheets anymore?’
The film’s opening moments hint at the supernatural shenanigans that amplify as the narrative progresses. The picture opens with a train journey, the face of a female passenger photographed through the glass that separates the compartment from the corridor. In the glass, another face is reflected faintly, barely visible. The effect is not dissimilar to the use of multiple exposures on glass plates, to suggest the presence of ghosts, that was the stock-in-trade of Victorian spirit photographers. Thus, Talbot – whose train journey this is – is already shown to be existing on the thin line between the worlds of the living and the dead, and the viewer might be reminded of the symbolic significance of trains – as objects that suggest liminality or in-betweenness (ie, between one destination and another, between the corporeal and the ethereal) – in the Victorian ghost story: for example, the pivotal train journey in M R James’ ‘Casting the Runes’ (1911), and in Charles Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ (1866).
As the trio first arrive at the house, Weeks presents a montage of shots from different perspectives, the car’s arrival shown framed through a window; from a high angle, looking down from the mock-Tudor ramparts; a shot of a weathervane on the roof; shots of a pair of windows that appear more like eyes; and various other shots of the house, intercut with shots of the three men. An eerie wind-like sound is heard on the audio track, followed by the ominous ‘cawing’ of a lone crow – itself often considered a bad omen. Weeks suggests that McFayden’s party’s arrival is being watched – by spirits, or by the house itself – and the sequence is reminiscent of the arrival of Oliver Reed’s family at the Allardyce’s country home in Dan Curtis’ adaptation of American writer Robert Marasco’s 1973 haunted house novel Burnt Offerings (released two years after Ghost Story, in 1976).
The relationship between McFayden and Duller is ambiguous, but Weeks seems to suggest these two men may have been lovers in the past. As the trio drive to what Duller dryly refers to as McFayden’s ‘baronial mansion’, Talbot sees a pretty girl cycling past. He comments to the others, ‘I say, did you see that pretty little thing bombing around on her bicycle?’ Both McFayden and Duller, non-plussed, ignore this comment. This in itself does not necessarily suggest that the two characters are gay, but their behaviour in the house – amplified by the extent to which they exclude Talbot from their conversations – implies a sense of intimacy between them. This is reinforced by the photography: Duller and McFayden are often framed together, but Talbot is usually photographed alone. The theme of sexual repression is amplified in the story of Sophy, whose brother Robert has her incarcerated in the mental hospital because of his incestuous desire for her. This, again, is largely relegated to subtext… until a local girl (Sally Grace), who is seen in bed with Robert post-coitus, suggests that rumours are spreading in the village that Robert had his sister put away because he fancied her: ‘She says you’re moody because you put your sister in a madhouse’, the girl tells Robert, in a distinctly rustic accent, in reference to something an acquaintance has told her, ‘That’s not all they say, an’ all. They say you’re moody ’cause you fancied ‘er’.
Near the start of the film, Duller and McFayden discover, concealed in the issue of The Wizard that Talbot has been reading, a series of nude photographs of women. They laugh at Talbot’s peccadillo (‘Good lord. Talbot, who’d have thought?’, McFayden observes mockingly) and hide the comic book; when Talbot returns to the room, Duller and McFayden pretend to be in conversation. ‘You haven’t got anything I could read, have you?’, Talbot asks meekly, ‘Have you got anything I could borrow?. ‘What would you like, Edgar Allan Poe… or M R James?’, Duller suggests and mimics a ghost as Talbot prepares to depart the room. ‘He’ll go mad’, McFayden laughs. This seemingly innocuous line resounds with the later revelations in the story (Robert’s gaslighting of his sister Sophy, and her incarceration in the mental hospital), and the suggestions late in the narrative that Talbot may indeed have ‘gone mad’: in other words, the ambiguity surrounding the extent to which Talbot’s visions of the past may be taken as ‘real’ or whether Talbot has begun to lose his own grip on reality. Certainly, there are parallels between Robert’s gaslighting of Sophy and McFayden and Duller’s bullying manipulation of Talbot, and after Duller leaves the house, Talbot’s behaviour becomes increasingly off-key. However, whether the visions are ‘real’ or not is perhaps ultimately a non-question: the real depth in the material comes from the ambiguity, the overlaying of one world with another, and the sense of the whole enterprise taking place in a state of absolute liminality where Talbot’s grip on the material world becomes increasingly tenuous.
Sophy, of course, is the film’s true ‘victim’. Sent to a mental hospital by her brother, who harbours an incestuous desire for her that he wishes to bury, Sophy finds herself enmeshed in Borden’s plot to burn down the lunatic asylum to collect the insurance money – with no regard for the safety of the inmates. The film makes it clear the Sophy is victimised by a patriarchal society – two men, Robert and Borden, controlling her fate for their own selfish ends. Robert has convinced Sophy that she is mentally unstable – effectively gaslighting her. In the first vision of the past that Talbot experiences, we see Sophy conversing with Rennie (Penelope Keith). ‘I’ll even try to be clever’, Sophy says, hoping to avoid the ire of Robert, who has threatened to ‘send me away’ because he claims Sophy is, in her words, ‘off my head’. ‘Don’t try to be clever’, Rennie tells her, ‘Be good’. This line finds its echo later when in a further flashback Sophy is shown in her bare cell in the asylum, now a quivering wreck, as she mutters, ‘But I am a good girl. I only anger Robert when I’m sick… My headaches’.
The flashbacks, to Sophy’s life, that Talbot experiences seem to be replayed by the house –almost as a validation of the ‘place memory’ or ‘stone tape’ theory of supernatural phenomena – the notion that the energies expelled by dramatic events are somehow ‘recorded’ and ‘replayed’ in the presence of trigger objects or within certain environments. (These may be the oak-panelled walls of the McFayden’s country retreat.) The concept of ‘place memory’ originated in the Victorian era and was developed in the work of H.H. Price, the Welsh parapsychologist.
In the 1960s, the idea had been revitalised in the work of T.C. Lethbridge, after Lethbridge had all but turned his back on the academic world of archaeology and directed his attention to researching and writing about what he called ‘the odd’ in books such as Ghost and Ghoul (1961). The concept of ‘place memory’ had been further popularised in 1972, via Nigel Kneale’s teleplay The Stone Tape, directed by Peter Sasdy for the BBC. H.H. Price’s notion that objects can somehow record and replay past events is also captured in Ghost Story via the presence, each time Talbot experiences a flashback to Sophy’s life, of an antique doll named Elizabeth. (In addition, the flashbacks are carried through the sound of the rattling of the house’s pipework.) In one night-time sequence towards the end of the film, Elizabeth takes Talbot by the hand and transforms into a small girl, leading Talbot across a moon-drenched lawn towards the site of the old asylum, where Talbot experiences a vision of the night the mental hospital was burnt to the ground. The doll seems to be a locus for the supernatural activity and makes a particularly effective surprise appearance in the film’s coda. Creepy dolls would, of course, become a key paradigm of later horror films: for example, the Zuni fetish doll in Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror (1975) or the ‘Charlie Boy’ episode of Hammer House of Horror (1980).
More recently, possessed/supernatural dolls have been incorporated and reworked ad infinitum in US horror pictures from Child’s Play (Tom Holland, 1988) to Annabelle (John R Leonetti, 2014). Elizabeth, however, is an innocent-looking thing, with a child’s face and a blue-and-white dress and bonnet – an index of Sophy’s innocence which was sacrificed at the altar of her brother Robert’s illicit desires and Borden’s greed, and a symbol of feminine fragility. (Weeks has said that as production came to an end, Elizabeth was found inexplicably broken on a chair in the corner of a room in which the crew were picking up shots.).
Marianne Faithfull was cast in the fairly minor part of Sophy to add a soupcon of ‘star power’ to the picture. However, at this point in her life and career, Faithfull had experienced more than her fair share of difficulties – both in terms of her well-documented addiction to drugs, particularly heroin, and a period of homelessness. Weeks has suggested that though Faithfull was said to be ‘clean’ when she was cast in the part, she arrived in India with a boyfriend who seemed to be supplying her with narcotics during the production. There are some parallels between Faithfull’s tragic life experiences and the role of Sophy, which arguably gives Faithfull’s performance a greater sense of depth and resonance.
Some additional ‘star power’ was also contributed by the casting of Barbara Shelley in the role of Borden’s nurse: for horror fans, Shelley was of course known for her roles in several Hammer’s films, including Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), and Roy Ward Baker’s big-screen adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967). The other key female role, that of Rennie, was filled by Penelope Keith, who in the years following the production of Ghost Story would become famous amongst television audiences through her roles in sitcoms such as The Good Life (1975-78) and To the Manor Born (1979-81).
Reminding us of the cruelty of the fairly recent past, Victorian asylums seemed to be ten-a-penny in British horror films of the early 1970s: from the madhouse in The Creeping Flesh (Freddie Francis, 1972) from which Professor Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) recounts his strange tale, to the insane asylum that is the focus of the narrative events in Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974). The original script for Ghost Story had been titled, simply, ‘Asylum’. A couple of years before the production of Ghost Story, Weeks reputedly presented this script to Amicus’ Milton Subotsky, with whom Weeks had worked on I, Monster, and when Amicus released Roy Ward Baker’s Robert Bloch-scripted picture Asylum in 1972, this necessitated a change of title for Weeks’ project – which became Ghost Story.
In Ghost Story, Borden’s Lunatic Asylum is thoroughly corrupt: from the outset, Borden is shown to be motivated by greed. When Robert meets with Borden and asks him to incarcerate Sophy, Borden – his face turned away from Robert – renegotiates the terms of Sophy’s incarceration. Robert cannot see Borden’s brow sweating, an index of deception, as Borden tells Robert that the governors now ask for two years advance payment rather than 18 months – and also requests Robert to make the cheque out to Borden himself rather than to the institution. ‘I’ll make the adjustment myself’, Borden adds anxiously. (Borden is obviously pitching to Robert a ‘wonky donkey’, but Robert is so desperate to have Sophy incarcerated that he cannot see, or refuses to acknowledge, Borden’s crooked tactics.)
In a later flashback experienced by Talbot, Borden and the nurse are shown making plans to burn down the asylum – with the inmates inside. ‘We’ve no option’, Borden tells the nurse, ‘Ideals we held 15 years ago no longer matter’. The pair plot to sedate the patients before the fire is started; the ultimate intention is to collect a large sum of insurance money, presumably to pay off debts that Borden has incurred.
Eventually, as the film’s final flashback reveals, the inmates revolt and put Borden in ‘the box’ – think of a sauna box in which one’s head sticks out, rather like the one Sean Connery’s James Bond traps Count Lippe (Guy Doleman) in, in Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965). There, they surround him and cover his chin and throat with soap before advancing on him with a straight razor. They also trap the nurse in one of the rooms and clamber over her, throttling her. The inmates were recruited from a nearby colony of hippies. Their ‘method’ approach in the scenes in which they rampage through the asylum caused much consternation for Barbara Shelley in particular, who feared that she would come to harm during the moment in which the bedraggled lunatics strangle her.
Perhaps the film’s most telling moment comes when Talbot first arrives in the house and discovers, in the room he is given by McFayden, a cup of tea in a saucer. He feels the cup. ‘Warm’, he observes quietly, before adding that ‘He [MacFayden] might have said. I could have done with one of those’. However, neither MacFayden nor Duller has made the cup of tea: one may only presume that it was brewed by some terribly English spirits.
Ghost Story is ultimately a film that is haunted by a sense of Englishness, or rather a sense of what it means to be English – and deeply, profoundly repressed – in the ‘lost’ Britain of the inter-war years.
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