Mr Corbett’s Ghost 1987 is a spooky television classic worthy watching on Halloween night, writes DAVID SAUNDERSON
TITLE: Mr Corbett’s Ghost
RELEASED: 31 December 1987
DIRECTOR: Danny Huston
CAST: Mark Farmer, Paul Scofield, John Huston, Alexei Sayle, Burgess Meredith
Review of Mr Corbett’s Ghost 1987
Mr Corbett’s Ghost is a television film from 1987 that harks back to the days of candlelit fables and tales that chill the bones, not through fright, but rather through the probing of moral quandaries.
Directed by Danny Huston in his feature debut, the film serves as a poignant family affair, with the last on-screen appearance of his father, John Huston. Acting legend Paul Scofield also graces the screen – as a favour to the director’s father – in a role that only he brings great gravitas.
The film – based on Leon Garfield’s 1969 book, Mister Corbett’s Ghost and Other Stories, is set on New Year’s Eve in 1767, in Gospel Oak, now a North London suburb, but then a quaint village.
Mark Farmer plays Ben Partridge, an apprentice to the town’s apothecary, Mr Thomas Corbett (Paul Scofield).
As is often the case in tales where moral lessons are to be learned, a seemingly trivial event leads to fateful decisions: Ben is forced to work late by his seemingly-miserly boss, Mr Corbett, thereby missing his New Year’s Eve celebrations.
In a moment of frustration, Ben wishes his employer dead – a wish that, that soon realises he has the power to manifest. (It should be pointed out here that Mr Corbett seems like a stern boss, but he’s certainly no stereotypical monster deserving of death!)
Enter John Huston’s character, a mysterious late-night customer, setting the stage for the Faustian drama to unfold.
The film’s setting is north London and includes many of the places we cherish here on the Spooky Isles, including places like Jack Straw’s Castle, Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery. There’s plenty of dark folklore and history to savour too, such as dark forest, some murderous footpads and a grisly gibbet!
Paul Scofield delivers a performance that is nothing short of outstanding. He embodies the apothecary Mr Corbett with a complexity of emotions — from sternness to sorrow, tinged with wry humour.
Many may have played Mr Corbett as a Scrooge-like character, but without redemption. Schofield – who won the Best Actor Oscar for A Man of All Seasons – naturally shows commitment to his role, which elevates the film to a must-watch.
John Huston, though not as stretched in his role as the soul collector, also lends class to the production.
Mark Farmer, as young Ben, works hard to match his master thespians, adequately portraying the rashness of youth.
Considering it was his feature debut and a student project, Danny Huston’s direction is particularly impressive. Leon Garfield’s writing, coupled with Huston’s direction, crafts an intricate tapestry of moral decisions and their weighty consequences.
Thoroughly chilling, the film delivers a moody atmosphere, befitting its themes and period setting.
For a production of its scale and resources, it manages to delivery spookiness rather effectively. The ghostly elements serve not so much to scare, but to weigh on your conscience.
The film’s running time of just an hour feels neither rushed nor drawn out, but rather the perfect length for this moral tale to unfurl its lessons. It is a story that leaves a mark, an ‘underseen’ gem that more people should seek out.
As a Faustian fable, Mister Corbett’s Ghost speaks in subtle tones, reminding us to be careful what we wish for.
Although this ghost story is based on New Year’s Eve, if you’re looking for something different on Halloween night, Mr Corbett’s Ghost is definitely worth a look.
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