Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Signalman

I am discovering the joys of living in a Victorian terrace house in winter. It's freezing and I spend a lot of time under several blankets watching DVDs and exploring occult film and TV from the 70s. This led me to the excellent 1976 BBC adaption of Dickens' The Signalman.

The short story concerns a nascent friendship between a traveller and a railway signalman in Victorian England. After a chance meeting the traveler learns that his new companion has a profound dread of an impending but ill-defined catastrophe. The film is a masterful example of how to build tension. Lighting, sound and excellent dialogue all augment the wonderful pacing which leads to a terrifying climax.

This television play is a stark reminder of how reliant modern film makers seem to be on effects in order to instill horror. The availability of good quality CGI and prosthetics has led to a decline in atmospheric and implied horror and the rise of the ultra-visceral. It seems that producers fear that, unless it's all on the screen, audiences simply won't be satisfied. Nowhere is this more evident than in the BBC's latest cash-cow - Doctor Who. I love the 'old' stories for their weirdness and the inventive ways they managed to layer science fiction elements on to rather mundane locations. The new episodes are crammed with effects, extraterrestrial locations and aliens and it seems every story is about saving the universe. As a result I find them rather flat and devoid of the quirkiness of their predecessors.

Check out the full version of The Signalman below. If you like it, do watch the utterly terrifying Whistle and I'll Come to You, another landmark in BBC ghost stories.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful stuff. I think you put me on to the excellent boxed set of the MR James adaptations via Whistle and I'll Come to You, and they're now favourites. As always, readers whould be encouraged to read the original stories first however!

    I watched a new (very average) ghost film called The Conjuring the other night and this post came to mind - as soon as they showed the ghost about a third of the way through, all tension drained out of the film like air out of a balloon.

    Have you ever read Elliott O'Donnell? One of my favourite ghost story authors, in the 'ghosthunting' genre in the first decades of the twentieth century.