A VIEW FROM A HILL NUMBER 13
Color, 2005, 40m.
Directed by Luke Watson
Starring Mark Lethern, Pip Torrens, David Burke
Color, 2006, 40m.
Directed by Pier Wilkie
Starring Greg Wise, Paul Freeman, David Burke
BFI (DVD) (UK R2 PAL), Shock (Australia R0 PAL) / DD2.0
A VIEW FROM A HILL
Twenty-seven years after putting the Ghost Story for Christmas annual series on ice, the BBC officially revived it again in 2005 with a new adaptation of a story by M.R. James, the legendary ghost story writer who inspired some of the finest '70s episodes. The comeback story was "A View from a Hill," a simple story about young historian Dr. Fanshawe (Letheren), who borrows a pair of binoculars when his own get broken during a bike mishap on the way to curating an archeological collection. The new pair once belonging to the late father of his host, and he finds he can see things in the lenses that don't appear in reality -- especially a strange abbey from his vantage point next to the sinister Gallows Hill. What is their secret, and why do the binoculars seem to open a window into the world of the dead?
A credible attempt to revive the beloved TV tradition, this one manages to spark some of that old magic thanks to a few good shocks (especially the skull face gag), and the subdued but eerie ending wraps things up on a nice shuddery note. Lethern makes for another solid entry in the line of vulnerable, solitary men confronted by an inexplicable supernatural menace, and as usual the tension between the unseen dangers of the natural world and the false security of modern society make for a good backdrop.
Like many other BBC productions around this time (notably the revival of Doctor Who), this was shot on standard def 16:9 video, which is passable enough on DVD but definitely a step down compared to the shot-on-film textures of the prior entries. You'll see lots of edge haloes and occasional video noise, flaws simply inherent in the way it's been shot. Like many of the previous entries, this made its official home video debut in an Australian DVD set of James adaptations, while the premiere UK video edition from the BFI in 2012 (available as a standalone disc or part of a five-DVD set) is visibly taken from the same master. However, as with its peers, the more careful and healthier compression results in an improved presentation, though there's still only so much that can be done with this one. The stereo audio is modest but effective at times, particularly the harrowing pursuit through the woods.
The following year saw another new yuletide episode, this one adapted from the more familiar James story "Number 13." Adorned with a mustache, the very good TV actor Greg Wise (who appeared in Sense and Sensibility and went on to marry Emma Thompson) takes charge here as the studious Professor Anderson, who causes some difficulty at his hotel when they can't seem to provide a room complete with both a comfortable bed and a good working desk. Finally he finds what he wants in Room 12, which is situated next to Room 14... with no number 13 between them. Another scholar had disappeared on the premises suddenly without paying his bill, so he has to pay upfront before beginning his work-- which takes him into a dark history involving witchcraft, local scandal, and Heironymous Bosch's painting, "The Garden of Earthly Delights." Most unsettlingly, in the middle of the night he hears disturbances... and when he walks outside, Room 13 is suddenly situated next door. What's inside the room, and can he unravel its mystery before the demonic danger inside claims him?
Though it makes some significant changes from the source story (including relocating the events from Denmark to the English countryside), this underrated tale is a very satisfying little bit of spookery that sits comfortably next to its predecessors. The evocative music score is a big plus as well, and while the little bonus twist at the end won't come as much of a shocker, the climax itself is a great piece of barnstorming terror, revealing just enough behind the door to the thirteenth room to have you looking nervously over your shoulder. Complete with some surprisingly effective middle-aged makeup and gray temples, Wise is excellent in the role; the supporting cast is notable as well, including Paul Freeman (aka Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark) and a sympathetic turn from the impressive Tom Burke (Donkey Punch) as a librarian and the professor's sounding board for all the strange events, complete with an interesting homoerotic undercurrent that pays off with a nice chuckle at the end. This one sadly didn't mean more yearly ghost stories come Christmastime, but a 2010 "remake" of "Whistle and I'll Come to You" indicates that this on-and-off series might still be far from over.
Far more technically slick than "A View from a Hill," this one looks excellent on DVD and was presumably shot in HD given the much richer, deeper blacks and far greater detail levels. The earlier Shock release looked quite good, and again the BFI version vaults past it with plenty more breathing room on the disc and a nice rendition of its subtle, chilling textures. A really solid piece of work all around, and for those newcomers who might feel a little intimidated jumping straight into the more famous '70s stories, this could be a nice introduction as well.
There's only one video extra this time around, but it's a great one: the "Number 13" adaptation from the four-episode, 2000 series, Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee (a sort of unofficial offshoot with the horror legend reading and acting out M.R. James stories for an appreciative Edwardian-style audience). Lee has a fine time reading the story (whose much more faithful presentation here makes for a nice case study in contrast), and it also fits nicely with the previous two Lee readings included on the pairing of "The Stalls of Barchester" and "A Warning to the Curious." As usual, the hefty enclosed booklet includes an essay on "A View from a Hill" by Simon McCallum (who discusses both the source story and production in fine detail), a Jonathan Rigby piece on "Number 13" (which explains the budgetary reasons for some of the story changes), Reggie Oliver's bio of M.R. James, Robert Lloyd Parry's literate dissections of the two short stories, and a brief Rigby piece on the Christopher Lee version discussing some of the tasteful narrative adjustments. A fine set and a chilling but endearing way to close out this essential line dedicated to one of the most consistently excellent horror series in TV history, which now seems to be put to rest... but hopefully not for long.