M.R. James Onscreen: 6 Terrifying Jamesian Tales from Film and TV


1. Night of the Demon

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Jacques Tournier’s masterpiece is a loose adaptation of Casting the Runes, an M.R. James story in which an English occultist offs his rivals by surreptitiously passing them runes which make them the a target of a terrifying demon. In this adaptation, a famous American sceptic is summoned to England to investigate the mysterious death of one of his colleagues, only to find himself embroiled in an occult plot and pursued by dark forces.

Although it steers fairly close to James’ signature style in mood and tone, relying on slow-building tension and atmosphere rather than staple shocks, it divides audiences with its inclusion of the demon itself.

An impressive piece of effects work for the time, some claim that the vision of the demon contradicts the Jamesian principle of implied menace. Either way, the final scene in which the occultist, inspired by Aleister Crowley, receives his comeuppance is a visually extraordinary sequence that more than justifies Tournier’s decision.


2. Blood on Satan’s Claw

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M.R. James’ work had an inestimable impact on the British folk horror revival of the 70’s and Blood on Satan’s Claw represents a defining moment in the genre. The tale of a rural 17th Century English community who are beset with woe after a farmer uncovers the rotting skull of a demon on his land, the film hinges on several key Jamesian elements.

The supernatural artefact that is discovered or disturbed and then wreaks havoc in an isolated setting, the implied supernatural power of the landscape and the rational protagonist, quick to dismiss the superstitious claims of the villagers only to be confronted himself by the otherworldly, are all classic James tropes.

The film enjoys great success in mixing these elements with more contemporary 70’s horror concerns; the rebellious and sexually active youth, demonic cults and even elements of body horror as the village children grow to become more like the creature they worship.


3. Whistle and I’ll Come to You

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This 1968 adaptations’ popularity spawned the tradition of the BBC ‘ghost story for Christmas’. Based on James’s story of the same name, it features an eccentric and somewhat unlikeable professor holidaying on the coast of East Anglia. Discovering a whistle half-buried in the sand, he takes it with him, captivated by the Latin inscription ‘Who is it who is coming?’

Following his discovery he is plagued with nightmares and illusions which challenge his natural academic inclination towards scepticism and, ultimately, his own sanity.

Under the cruel spotlights of 2017, this adaptation holds up surprisingly well. Centre stage is the East Anglian landscape, which here has a menacing quality all its own. Michael Horden as the sceptical professor is captivating. His performance is riddled with nervous tics and uncertain glances, heightening his characters vulnerability in the face of the otherworldly.

It’s easy to see why a 1968 audience would have been spellbound by this ghostly tale, and why a rich tradition of festive chillers was born out of it.


4. A Warning to the Curious

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Probably the most well known and arguably the most effective of the BBC adaptations, Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1972 film may also be the most faithful to its source material. It presents the story of a man holidaying alone when the chance discovery of an ancient crown brings the wrath of a local ghost upon him.

Although it is a faithful adaptation, A Warning to the Curious is by no means a by-the-numbers adaptation. It presents audiences with a far more linear construction than the convoluted narrative of the original short story, for one. It also reimagines Paxton, the story’s protagonist, very differently from James’ vision. Where Warning embodies the spirit of James’ work better than almost any other adaptation, however, is in its varied and inventive use of the landscape to create tension and dread.

Where many films come to rely on claustrophobia for their scares, Warning imbues the audience with a genuine fear of wide open spaces. The mournful expanses of East Anglia become legitimately unnerving over the course of its run-time.


5. The Tractate Middoth

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Mark Gatiss, a man whose horror knowledge runs deeper than almost anyone, is a huge fan of M.R. James, with a fantastic BBC documentary on the author to his name. He’s dedicated to reviving the BBC ghost story at Christmas tradition, and in 2013 he shot The Tractate Middoth, his own contribution to the canon.

It’s a worthy adaptation, but The Tractate Middoth is not one of James’ most accomplished stories, and not easily adapted. The central conceit revolves around a treasure hunt for the legacy of a deceased devil-worshipper, and is littered with plot contrivances and coincidences that will leave modern audiences cold.

Where this adaptation is on firmer ground is in the dishing out of frights, and the depiction of the creature itself, as dry and dusty as the book it guards, is excellent. It’s a real shame that this respectable entry didn’t lead to a new string of updated adaptations of James’ work.


6. Drag Me To Hell

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Despite its divisive PG-13 rating, Sam Raimi’s return to horror in 2009 with Drag Me To Hell is pretty joyous. It never delivers the grotty thrills that fans of the Evil Dead series prayed for, but it retained his trademark mix of horror and humour, like an old EC comic, and he’d clearly lost none of his enthusiasm or inventiveness.

Telling the story of a young woman who suffers under a gypsy’s curse, the film explores themes of anorexia and eating disorders with a subtlety that Raimi is not usually known for. It also delivers the kind of breakneck horror antics that made his reputation as one of the most exciting voices in horror.

The tone is about a million miles removed from the fusty chills of James, but the story still owes a lot to his work. It’s a (very loose) adaptation of Casting The Runes again, and there’s something Jamesian about the physicality of the Lamia that stalks our protagonist. The mixture of repulsion and fascination, although handled completely differently, is classic James.

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