A beguiling bleakness:
Casting the Runes
Following his final film for the BBC’s A Ghost Stories for Christmas series, Lawrence Gordon Clark went freelance and landed at ITV where he turned his considerable talents toward directing another M.R. James story, Casting the Runes, for their Playhouse strand…
At the time of writing, we are approaching Christmas, which for many who love horror means quietly menacing tales of the supernatural as much as mince pies. And so, dear reader, join us for a brief salute to a relatively unsung and minor classic of the form (supernatural tales, not mince pies) with Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1979 television adaptation of Casting the Runes.
The 1970s was a time of wild contrast in Britain. Wealth inequality was at its lowest but the country was beset by industrial action. Music, film and television had entered a period of creative fecundity that would continue Britain’s position as an innovator and leader in culture for decades to come. And yet, the country was afflicted by power cuts, inflation, the rise of the far-right and the beginning of the slow death of that one-generation-only dream of the middle class. Parallels can be drawn with our most recent decade, one where it has similarly seemed the good times were over and terminal decline was inevitable.
It is perhaps then not surprising that the horror produced throughout the decade had a peculiar and beguiling bleakness. Stories across books, film and television took us to dark places and often left us there at their conclusion, no happy endings or release. One of the towering achievements of these years was the annual BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas, a mix of filmed adaptations of M.R. James, Dickens and original screenplays (one of which, ‘Stigma‘ (1977), was contributed by the writer of this version, Clive Exton). These haunting tales of a genuinely disturbing and dangerous ‘other’ lurking just out of sight are rightly hailed as classics of the genre.
All but one of these were directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, a talented director with an unerring ability to present creeping dread onscreen. After he had finished with the BBC sequence, Clark wasn’t done with the supernatural. For the ITV Playhouse (1967-82) strand, he took on the challenge of providing an updated version of M.R. James’ Casting the Runes. The story had been adapted some two decades before by Jacques Tourneur for the 1957 classic Night of the Demon, one of the great British horror films. A decade later it was adapted again for the anthology series Mystery and Imagination, an episode that is sadly lost to us.
As with Tourneur’s film, Casting the Runes updates the story to then-contemporary times. It gives us a female Dunning (played here by Jan Francis) and an American Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson) and adheres loosely to the major beats of James’ chilling short story. It’s a version that isn’t particularly well-remembered these days or seemingly thought of highly. We have a tendency to compare and a low-budget 50-minute television adaptation shot on a mix of film and video has little chance of equaling the impact of a crisply produced black and white big screen version directed by one of Hollywood’s most skilled psychological horror craftsmen.
And yet, there is much to enjoy in this production, starting with a glorious opening sequence which took full advantage of the blizzard conditions it was shot in. There’s a clear folk horror influence to this beginning, evoking memories of films like Piers Haggard’s 1971 classic The Blood on Satan’s Claw, finding as it does the menace inherent in indifferent nature. As we start, a man we later learn is called John Harrington is out walking his dog in the snowy countryside until the animal becomes unnerved by the presence of something out there with them, something that is slowly, inevitably hunting John. It benefits hugely from the snowy landscape and, in its un-retouched presentation on the Network DVD, a scratchy film print as well as a menacing score to unsettle us at the play’s outset.
In this version, Karswell is a cult figure no doubt influenced by the likes of Anton LaVey, who calls himself the Abbot of Lufford, and he has made somewhat of a name for himself as the writer of a book called A History of Witchcraft and as a proponent of a philosophy that would have ‘Vice as the only true virtue, lust as the only true modesty, indecency the only true decorum and evil the only true good’.
When Karswell is mocked by a television exposé on ‘mumbo jumbo’ produced by Dunning, he determines to take his revenge on her next. Our introduction to Karswell is in the converted rectory where he lives, surrounded by grandly tacky gold ornaments. Karswell enacts his curse, manufacturing a meeting with Dunning. When Dunning is attacked in her bed by a creature created from Karswell’s magic, and she learns Harrington had written a scathing report of Karswell’s book and paid for his life with it, Dunning begins to understand her scepticism will not keep her safe.
The remainder of the play is equal parts unnerving and melancholic. Exton and Clark work together to create a setting where the characters live in a definably real world that is being intruded by something ancient and unrelenting. There are some great performances, with Francis an anchor to everything as the unravelling Dunning. Cuthbertson has a grand time as the wicked Karswell, here a genuinely malevolent presence, a character who seems to revel in the power he wields. Filtering through a decade of that beguiling, bleak approach the play also has a suitably harsh conclusion as it fades out, the wreckage caused by Karswell extending far beyond the final shot of a devastated Dunning.
Though not part of the BBC ghost stories, this adaptation of Casting the Runes shows Clark learned well what worked for them and has much to recommend for those who appreciate the uniquely chilly, uncompromising horror the 1970s produced and acts as an effective chaser to much of what proceeded it. The Network release is also very much worth picking up for the extras. First, is an ITV Schools adaptation of James’ ‘Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance’, which although made to demonstrate to children the way music can be used to support and enhance visuals, in no way scrimps on the horror and ends with a bravura sequence of terror. There is also a rather good 1995 documentary about James himself featuring contributions from Christopher Lee and Jonathan Miller (who of course directed the first BBC version of ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You‘ in 1968) amongst others.