Casting the Runes 1979 is a pleasingly disquieting drama ideal for Halloween season, says RICHARD MARKWORTH
TITLE: Casting the Runes
DIRECTOR: Lawrence Gordon Clark
CAST: Iain Cutherberton, Jan Francis, Bernard Gallagher, Johanna Dunham, Edward Petherbridge.
Review of Casting the Runes 1979
Having directed five, highly regarded, dramatisations of M R James’ classic tales for the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, Lawrence Gordon Clark was a natural choice to helm an adaptation of the author’s Casting the Runes for the ITV Playhouse strand in 1979.
James’ story had inspired two previous productions, providing the source material for Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece of horror cinema, Night of the Demon (1957) and a now sadly lost entry in the television anthology series, Mystery and Imagination (1968). By 1979 the story was ripe for a further re-telling.
Written for the screen by Clive Exton, the ITV version makes some drastic changes to the original text. Most notably, James’ protagonist, researcher Edward Dunning, is replaced by a female television producer, Prudence Dunning (Jan Francis).
The film opens on bleak, snowbound countryside where a young man, John Harrington (Christopher Good), meets a brutal end after being pursued across desolate fields by a barely glimpsed, gargoyle-like apparition.
Jumping forward several years, the story switches to a Prudence Dunning-produced TV expose on dubious paranormal practitioners in which cult leader and self-styled “Abbot of Lufford” Julian Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson) is referenced in a derogatory manner. Furthermore, Karswell’s 1969 book “A History of Witchcraft”, containing such provocative passages as “evil, the only true good”, is held up by the show as an example of “mumbo jumbo”.
While Dunning is being congratulated on her programme by boss Derek Gayton (Bernard Gallagher), Karswell is seen preparing a sinister ritual involving a dollhouse, model spider and a figurine clearly representing Dunning. It is obvious Karswell does not take kindly to criticism and has vengeful plans for the unsuspecting woman. One wonders how someone so sensitive would cope in today’s age of social media and online trolls.
Gayton grows concerned for Dunning when he learns through friends, Elise (Patricia Shakesby) and John Marriott (David Calder), of John Harrington’s unnatural death. It transpires Harrington had ridiculed Karswell’s original manuscript and the cult leader had somehow discovered this slight. One month later Harrington was found dead with almost every bone in his body broken.
Meanwhile, Dunning unwittingly encounters a predatory Karswell in the local library where he deliberately upsets her pile of research books as she is checking them out. He returns them with an apology but, as anyone familiar with the original story or the Tourneur film will be aware, Karswell has passed her more than mere books.
That night a terrified Dunning is menaced in her home by a demonic spider. The following day she confides in Gayton who insists she stay with him and his wife Jean (Joanna Dunham). The couple apprise Dunning of the grisly fate met by John Harrington after he had crossed Karswell.
Visiting Harrington’s brother Henry (Edward Petherbridge), Dunning learns John was convinced he was being followed in the weeks leading up to his end. This feeling was ignited upon discovering a mysterious slip of paper bearing runic symbols in a theatre programme handed to him by a large man. Dunning swiftly connects this incident with her brush with the stranger in the library and realises, in both cases, the man was Karswell.
Dunning and Gayton consult a chapter devoted to casting runes in Karswell’s much-derided book. The tome claims the runes, when passed to a victim, will cause the recipient to die within a specified time unless returned to their originator, thereby transferring the curse to them. Sure enough, they discover a sheet of runes secreted between the pages of one of Dunning’s research books.
Dunning finds herself in a desperate race against time as she endeavours to turn the tables on Karswell, but her tormentor proves a cunning opponent and one not to be underestimated.
Casting the Runes 1979 may lack some of the polish of Clark’s BBC films but, despite the slim budget afforded to this presentation, still carries enough of the director’s familiar stamp of quality, and cleverly spooky flourishes, to ensure it fits comfortably within his supernatural oeuvre.
The library sequence, where a shadowy Karswell stalks Dunning is particularly remindful in tone of Robert Hardy’s nerve-wracking journey through a darkened cathedral, followed by an unseen pursuer, in The Stalls of Barchester (1971) and generates a similar air of unease.
Clark makes excellent use of the snowy exteriors, gifted to him by the fortuitous arrival of a blizzard shortly before filming. The snow serves as a powerful representation of humanity’s insignificance when confronted with forces, whether natural or preternatural, greater than itself.
Francis is excellent as Dunning, with her portrayal of a successful career woman deteriorating into a state of near hopelessness skilfully accomplished.
Cuthbertson brings a palpable sense of threat to his portrayal of Karswell, imbuing the character with a manic delight at his own evil, lurking beneath a thin veneer of civility. This is chillingly exemplified by his cruel laughter when humiliating Dunning during an attempt to thwart him.
Despite the fact some of the visual effects betray the lack of funding, this remains an involving tale of the uncanny with Clark subtly building tension and ensuring the audience empathises with Dunning’s plight. Furthermore, there is a concluding twist in which the consequences of the protagonist’s actions have genuinely horrific connotations.
Casting the Runes 1979 is a pleasingly disquieting drama ideal for Halloween season and is guaranteed to make you think twice before accepting anything handed to you by a stranger.
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