Saturday, 19 January 2013

Whistle And I'll Come To You

1968, UK, Directed by Jonathan Miller
Black & White, Running Time: 42 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R2, BFI; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Dolby Digital Mono

Based on one of author M.R.James' (Montague Rhodes...) most famous stories, which was written around the turn of the twentieth century, Whistle And I'll Come To You as filmed in 1968 is a fairly simple tale: an elderly academic man goes to stay at a seaside hotel for a few days, taking rambles on the beach and generally absorbing the kind of air we're probably now allergic to in cities. On one of his walks he discovers a crumbling grave at the cliff's edge, the whole thing on the verge of going over the side with a couple of more years of coastal erosion. Rummaging through the dirt he pulls out a partially exhumed whistle which he takes back to the hotel to clean up. He finds an inscription on the side which suggests that some 'one' will come if the item is used, which the skeptical old man does. He's soon experiencing vivid and disturbing nightmares, feelings of being followed, and the apparent witnessing of an apparition's manifestation that pushes his mind into madness.
Having only recently seen for the first time this short film made for BBC's Omnibus series, there was some expectation based on the reputation it has acquired over the years (indeed, this reputation warranted a remake of sorts in 2010). The film is starkly shot in black and white, the seaside actually looking cold, unaccomodating, and rather mundane. This of course is part of the point: James liked to feature relatively ordinary people (who generally resembled his scholarly self) in typical locations before something very much inexplicable occurs. I think herein lies much of the power - it's quite easy to identify with the character and place even if we haven't been there and are not like that personally, because it all seems so rooted in convention. The eccentric central character, Parkin, is a rather cumbersome, insular man of university background (the same as, I understand, the author of the story). Like most intellectuals (and most average people these days) he only seems to believe in whatever has a rational explanation, and nothing outside of that can possibly exist. Of course this is primarily why the story probably came into being - it's telling complacent individuals who think they know everything about this world that they actually don't. The film's dialogue makes poignant use of a Shakespearian quotation during a conversation between Parkin and someone else at the hotel when the gentleman reminds Parkin that there are 'more things in Heaven and Earth than dreamt of in your philosophy', a statement which the intellectually arrogant Parkin amusingly turns on its head during a retort. Parkin's discovery of the whistle is what points his life along a path to a kind of undesirable enlightenment. He becomes aware of a motionless figure seemingly watching him on the beach, and later begins experiencing lucid dreams that wake him repeatedly, building a sense of absolute impending dread that increments towards a blood-chilling conclusion. Aside from the sometimes irritating habits and incessant mumblings of Parkin the film certainly lives up to its reputation - the palpable sense of terror, fear of unknown and unexplainable things, encroaching forces invading the life of previously obvlivious human. Miller and his crew achieve all of this with what is clearly a negligible budget and a minimalist plot. He does this through perfect framing (i.e. often seeing only what he wants you to, suggesting that more - the unknown - lies outside of your/the camera's vision) precise editing, and the fine performances bringing a classic story to life. I think a lot of modern horror film-makers could learn something from studying this film. For example, there is a cliche in many horror films where the viewer is 'tricked' into thinking something terrible is happening only to find that a character is dreaming it - in this film Miller demonstrates what a nightmare is really like. The use of startling sound interspersed with long bouts of eerie silence, Parkin captured in extreme close-up as he sleeps/wakes/almost fears looking around him/drifts back off, imagery that doesn't seem to completely make sense - your blood goes cold! The final scene where the supernatural truly makes itself known is filmed slowly with a long camera pull-back that elicits an almost unbearable level of tension before you've even seen anything. This sort of terror is too uncommon in cinema, but then I guess if it was common it would possibly lose its effect in some way, hence Whistle And I'll Come To You is a gem as far as the horror film is concerned, and the experience has stayed with me for days afterwards.

Shot on 16mm and transferred in standard definition from what are described as the best remaining elements, BFI has produced a superb transfer despite only being available on DVD. The original aspect ratio is retained, the range of greys from deep black to bright white is digitally replicated nicely, there is a natural and pleasing grain factor present throughout, whereas print damage appear to have been largely eliminated. It was once available on DVD (and VHS tape) in 2001 (from BFI) before going out of print and selling for princely sums on ebay ,etc. I'm unsure if the transfer on this 2012 edition is new or just the same as the old disc - either way it looks brilliant. Sound is clear and undistorted (mono only, as recorded) and all of the old disc's exrtas are present - these include a quarter of an hour introduction/history lesson by horror author Ramsey Campbell, a half hour filmed reading of one of Campbell's own short stories (which technically looks and sounds a bit ugly due to unprofessional recording techniques), plus a forty minute audio recording (of better quality) of the James story by Neil Brand. On the new disc there is also a too-brief three minute interview section, plus it includes the fifty minute 2010 BBC version of the story with John Hurt taking the lead. The new DVD can be purchased separately or as part of a sumptuous boxed set going by the title of 'Ghost Stories For Christmas', which as a horror fan I was itching to pick up. It's quite expensive but very thoughtfully put together, consisting of five discs, eight hours of films, plentiful extras, and a fifty page booklet heaving with essays (in addition to another smaller booklet).

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