When is it best to put your demons on screen? When you've got a budget to do them properly, that's when.
M.R. James' tale Casting the Runes has an enduring appeal as one of his best tales, and rightly so. Published in 1911 it has all the classic elements of British gothic horror - an eccentric and malevolent antagonist living in an old abbey, runic death cards, unexplained events all topped-off by a rather nasty bit of supernatural payback. It has been adapted several times for the screen, the best of which is undoubtedly the 1957 film Night of the Demon directed by Jacques Tourneur. Tenebrous Kate has just posted a brilliant critical appraisal of this cinematic masterpiece. So I'm going to talk about it's slightly more rubbish cousin.
The BBC worked its way through many of James' tales in its excellent Ghost Story for Christmas series which ran throughout the 1970s (and was more recently resurrected). Perhaps because of the success of Demon they decided not to adapt Runes. Thus it was the rival channel ITV that brought the tale to the small screens in 1979 with the help of Lawrence Gordon Clark (who had worked extensively on the BBC's series). And he proved the BBC's caution justified.
Clark's version is laudably progressive but, ultimately, a hot mess of a show. He transposes the action to a modern-day big city and reenvisions the protagonist as a female journalist. It starts strong with beaucolic shots of the British rural landscape in snow and the first killing is quite horrible. He works in a bit of giant-insect horror to good effect. This harks back to a scene in the short story where a group of children are terrified by the antagonist, but also references some of James' best tales which put giant spiders or sawflies to good use. However, the show loses its momentum and falls apart in the second half thanks to poor pacing and the heroine's agency diminishing. The opportunities James' interesting antagonist Karswell provides are largely wasted (in stark contrast to Niall MacGinnis' amazing turn in the 1957 film). My main issue, though, is the rather unpalatable ending which implies that several hundred innocents die as part of the revenge on Karswell. This leaves an unpleasant taste and makes you kind of wish the giant spider had had its way with the heroine in Act 1.
All told, pretty much the only way Clark's version triumphs over Tourneur's is with its depiction of the titular demon. Clark keeps the beast off camera for the most part, and the few instances we see it are so well composed or shot that the thing is really quite unsettling. By contrast, a rather wonky rubber puppet is universally agreed to be the biggest let down in Tourneur's otherwise impeccable film. It's a lesson put to excellent use later in movies like Alien, Jaws and The Exorcist.