It’s always interesting to see rarer examples of 70s British cinema, particularly when these are so noticeably different in style to other, more famous films of the era. So, it’s a credit to Nucleus Films that they’ve released the decidedly unusual Ghost Story (1974), a subtle film which evokes the uncanny scares of M R James – particularly ‘The Haunted Doll’s House’ or ‘The Mezzotint’ – rather than the lurid, high-colour horrors of contemporaries Hammer and Amicus.
The film is loosely set in the 1920s, and follows two men, the agreeable Talbot (Larry Dann) and chap-about-town Duller (Vivian Mackerall) as they arrive for a weekend’s shooting at the borrowed country seat of a man with whom, strangely, they’re barely acquainted – one McFayden (the irrepressible Murray Melvin). Although the two guests have very little to say to one another, they’re at least agreed that they were surprised to receive such an invite. However, McFayden assures them he just wants some company, so they set about making the dilapidated house habitable for their stay – with poor Talbot bearing the brunt of the other men’s rather cruel sense of humour.
Talbot assumes that the other people he sees in the house are another facet of his companions’ trickery. How else can he explain the presence of a beautiful, fragile young woman (Marianne Faithfull) and her maid (Felicity Kendal), who are about to be separated by the actions of the young woman’s brother Robert (Leigh Lawson)? It’s quite a jape as they seem to have arrived in early Victorian garb, too. Whenever he’s left alone, Talbot bears witness to the strange second life of the house’s unseen inhabitants, in a story worthy of a Victorian sensation novel. Duller and McFayden mention nothing, and so only the suggestible Talbot seems privy to this intrigue of illicit love, private asylums and crime – and, gradually, both whilst asleep and awake, Talbot becomes aware that whatever is in the house is growing ever more sinister.
This film really has a stellar cast, a mix of established theatrical actors and established – even notorious – figures. Marianne Faithfull had barely emerged from her darkest days of heroin addiction, homelessness and prostitution when filming for this part, and it shows in her strained, nervous performance, particularly during her incarceration scenes (the director also mentioned that serious intravenous drug use had frozen one of her hands into a fist, something which they just had to accommodate in how they filmed her). The three men – Talbot, Duller and McFayden – all work brilliantly together, each interesting examples of different kinds of masculinity during the early decades of the 20th Century. There’s also a small role for British TV sitcom star Felicity Kendal, and Hammer actress Barbara Shelley also makes an appearance (in a very different, less glamorous type of role).
I was really surprised to discover that the bulk of Ghost Story was filmed in India. Director Stephen Weeks was looking for an authentic 20s/30s Britain, and found it in the old Raj (in one of the palaces of the Maharajah of Mysore, to be precise). The rooms and grounds were frozen in time in a late Victorian-genteel style, and so the location lent itself perfectly to the film’s needs: one of the strong points of the film is this evocative completism. I certainly didn’t guess that the film had been made abroad at all, and the director could not have done a better job with creating atmosphere.
My only major criticism of the film is that I found the story-within-the-story tended to be a lot more intriguing than scary. I wanted to find out what had happened to the ‘other’ inhabitants, rather than feeling anxious when they appeared. This is due to a couple of factors: the first is that it took a little while for me to be drawn in by the framing story. As well-cast as the actors were, it wasn’t quite clear to me, at first, why they were all there, and McFayden and Duller’s treatment of Talbot made me initially feel nothing but sympathy for him! Then of course the second story could have been penned just to personally entice me in, having as I do such a fixation on salacious Victorian novels…
What I did get from this film in spades was a sense of its skill and uniqueness. The creepiness exuded by Ghost Story is of a very different kind to that which many audiences will be used to: there are no sudden scares, no heart-stopping moments. This is a sophisticated and gradual gathering of strange circumstances and surreal dreams, many of which are very effective, and some novel scenes (many involving a creepy bisque doll, which pre empts the following decade with its armies of devilish toys!) The modern world and the ghostly world merge brilliantly, the performances are engaging and the musical score neatly underpins the film’s otherworldliness.
This is an understated film, well-deserving of a new release (it had a limited life on VHS as Madhouse Mansion) and definitely one for fans of the building tensions of series like the old BBC Ghost Stories and Supernatural.
If you buy the Nucleus release, you will also be treated to a plethora of extras including a fascinating, extensive interview with the director and cast members (hence some of the trivia embedded in the review) as well as a collection of Stephen Weeks’s short films. It’s a shame he didn’t make more films as Ghost Story shows evidence of an inspired approach to this kind of material.