The horror genre has come such a long way from its beginnings in folklore and books that it is almost unrecognisable. The release of V/H/S 2 is testament to how inventive and shocking modern horror can really be. Horror as a genre is ever expanding, developing its cult roots while increasing in the mainstream in quantity and quality. Amidst all the publicity of the tentpole screamers and ever more outlandish ways of attracting attention, trust the BFI to go back to horror’s roots and remind us all of the power of storytelling. As part of their Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season the esteemed institution are releasing Classic Ghost Stories, a series originally shown on the BBC during Christmas 1986. The words of MR James are read in chilling fashion by Robert Powell, simple yet effective, a far cry from modern cinematic developments but every bit as terrifying.
Taking up his position in a well appointed study, often in front of a strategic fireplace, Powell begins his assault on your senses using merely words and a handful of brief film sequences to strike fear into the heart of his listeners. Luckily for him he has the words of MR James, a legend of the ghost story arena, to combine with his masterful voice, capable of gripping changes of pitch and intensity to create some of the most celebrated readings of the genre. The Mezzotint is an unsettling tale of a haunted picture and The Ash Tree is an entrancing vision of witchcraft and ghastly curses. There are three more tales as well as three episodes from the rarely seen BBC series Spinechillers, read by Michael Bryant. The DVD also comes with an excellent illustrated booklet to further enhance its value, as if these historic readings were not enough.
Though Powell is ostensibly imitating MR James own readings he has a thoroughly engaging delivery of his own. An award-winning actor of inimitable pedigree Powell has the perfect range to pull this apparent imitation off. The small number of film sequences is unnecessary as the casual change from one voice to another ably defines the stories. Not only is Powell’s voice pitch perfect for the occasion, his tempo and enjoyment of the tales makes it even more difficult to break the grip of the words of James. During the long preamble of The Wailing Well Powell lulls the audience into a sense of calm and joviality with the story of a Boy Scout troupe. He begins slowly to insert spine-tingling dreadfulness by minute degrees of change in not only his voice but with his demeanour, appearing almost uncomfortable himself with the gruesome details of the story. Powell uses the confidence of one suitably talented to ease his audience in before grabbing them by the hairs on the back of their neck and transporting them through each tale in via gradients of terror.
Though this medium seems incredibly dated and may not draw as much attention as the newest horror releases it is as much for the younger generation as it is for people who will remember the original airings. Far from being niche or purist, it serves to enhance the genre as a whole, easily finding a place amongst modern interpretations. Classic Ghost Stories is also available as part of the larger Ghost Stories for Christmas box set including readings from the likes of Christopher Lee, a six DVD set for the more avid collector, but this smaller collection is enough for someone on the entry level. So sit down and join Powell by his fire and be transported using his words and your imagination into some of the most ghostly territory available today.