CASTING THE RUNES
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A classic tale of mystery and the supernatural
“No, no, Miss Dunning. You’ll have to be more clever than that.” With these words, Julian Karswell dismisses Prudence Dunning’s attempts to undo his satanic spell—a curse that terrorized and ultimately killed a writer a decade earlier.
Drawn from one of ghost-story master M.R. James’s most frightening tales, Casting the Runes pits an innocent television producer against a fiendish alchemist. While working on a piece exposing would-be mystics, Dunning brings unwanted attention to the reclusive occultist. In retaliation, he delivers a runic scroll that dooms her to a horrific fate, unless she can devise a way to turn the tables in her favor, at any price.
Iain Cuthbertson (Gorillas in the Mist, Children of the Stones) is thoroughly chilling as Karswell, and Jan Francis (Just Good Friends, Under the Hammer) plays the increasingly desperate Dunning to the hilt in this tense and atmospheric British thriller.
The M.R. James adaptation Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance (20 min.) and the documentary A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James (51 min.)
Due to the age of these programs and the improved resolution that DVD provides, you may notice occasional flaws in the image and audio on this DVD presentation that were beyond our ability to correct from the original materials.
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SUBTITLED feature begins with the same beautiful eeriness of early master paintings of Andrew Wyeth, neutrals in winter. The story name comes from an action of writing a spell onto a paper and delivering it to the victim; who then has the option to reverse the spell by personally returning the note.
The novel story of 22 pages is played satanically by Iain Cuthbertson (Painted Lady) as the bad guy; Jan Francis (Dracula) as the beautiful next victim; and tosses in several others who are well known on Brit film soil, like Edward Petherbridge (The Brief Complete Collection).
47 min. modernized 1979 adaptation, since the book appeared prior to TVs and jet travel.
Enjoy it for what it is.
Bonus (all subtitled) includes another film adaptation of M.R. James.
"Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance" is introduced by the music composer and is a short film (20 min) about a spooky garden maze's secret.
"A Pleasant Terror..." is 51 min. about the author. VERY interesting, enlightening, a good place to start on this DVD. Did you know this occult/supernatural novelist was a devout Christian, church archeologist? That's weird, spooky. This documentary is almost better than the feature.
The televised incarnation of Casting the Runes does a good job of building tension through a series of long Jamesian-styled dialogues between the characters, interspersed with spooky action sequences to liven things up. The spare creature effects are very low budget, but creatively staged for maximum creepiness. The acting, as with most British productions, is natural and wonderfully free of histrionics. Niall MacGinnis, the actor who played the alchemist Julian Karswell in Night of the Demon, was pitch perfect. Cuthbertson does not reach the heights of MacGinnis' chilling performance, but his take on Karswell as a sort of aging nerd who has devoted himself to black magic and total evil is impressive. For the most part, it's a successful interpretation of one of M.R. James' best stories.
Technically, the standard definition 1.33:1 full frame encode is fine for its age and TV source. Grain is moderate to heavy; color is decent, not vibrant,but not terribly washed out either; and speckling from dirt and debris is present throughout, but fairly light considering the age of the print. Light edge enhancement is noticeable, particularly around the heads of characters when they are against a bright background, such as the snowy Yorkshire scenes. The monophonic Dolby Digital sounds a bit odd at times, as though an electronic stereo separation was attempted; however, dialogue is generally distinct and the soundtrack free of any really bad distortion. The minimalist score, with its eerie, slightly dissonant flute and light use of electronic instruments, is just the right music for the film, not drawing great attention to itself, but sustaining a menacingly supernatural undercurrent.
The DVD includes a first-rate pair of extras. One is a brief film based on a rather minor M.R. James' ghost story, "Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance" (20 Minutes.) Despite the slight story, which James himself described as something written to "fill up the volume" of a collection, the film is an unsettling supernatural chiller with a fine performance from the small cast. A desolate, overgrown shrubbery maze and aging mansion makes for an authentic on-location backdrop with a uniquely English countryside appearance that would have cost a fortune to build as a set. The picture is very soft, probably a later generation video dupe, but we're lucky it has survived at all (unlike a few M.R. James TV shows from the sixties whose tapes were wiped).
The other extra is the 1995 British TV documentary hosted by James biographer Michael Cox, "A Pleasant Terror: The Life and Ghosts of M.R. James" (51 Minutes). It contains considerable information on "Monty" James, who was reticent about discussing himself in print. A couple of people who actually knew M.R. James are interviewed, and Christopher Lee has high praise for James' stories, which he considers superior to Bram Stoker's output. M.R. James was always ambivalent when pressed on the question of his belief or disbelief in the existence of ghosts, and there is an interesting discussion on whether James might have had a "ghostly encounter" of his own as a child. It's fascinating stuff for anyone interested in the author.
With no blood, guts, or gore, Casting the Runes will not slake the blood-thirst of a slasher fan, but should prove a genuine treat for followers of unsettling and atmospheric supernatural horror.