CFF Volume 4: Scary Stories Review

“Is it too scary for the children?” has been a persistent worry of parents, teachers, governments and various moral guardians ever since the invention of narrative cinema, passing on in one form or other through various manifestations of fright in popular culture. This, of course, ignores hundreds of years of evidence to suggest that children rather like to be scared. Parents were tucking their children up in bed with hair-raising tales of evil dwarves, wicked stepmothers and cannibalistic old ladies long before the invention of Doctor Who or The Haunt of Fear and it’s surely no surprise that juniors continue to wolf down whatever juvenile horror books are offered to them – the current craze is for the Adam Blade Beast Quest series which over the course of umpteen volumes includes virtually every conceivable variation of man versus monster.

Equally, for people of my generation, the films and programmes we most fondly remember from childhood seem to have been the ones which frightened us. I watched hundreds of hours of television as a child but there is little that I recall so vividly as Children of the Stones and Shadows. In a similar vein, at the cinema as part of my regular Saturday Morning Picture Show – at the ABC in Leeds – I must have seen most of the Childrens Film Foundation films, but the only one I remember is James Hill’s The Man From Nowhere and that’s because it scared the living daylights out of me. I haven’t seen it since it came out and it still lingers at the back of my mind. It’s appropriate then that The Man From Nowhere is the opening item on the BFI’s latest instalment of films from the CFF which is given the umbrella title Scary Stories. It’s accompanied by two later entries from the studio: Haunters of the Deep from 1984, and John Krish’s Out of the Darkness (1985) which was one of their last productions.

The weakest of the three films is certainly Haunters of the Deep, largely because it has a plot which seems terribly hackneyed and predictable. In one sense this isn’t an entirely fair criticism because all of the CFF films are, on one level, predictable. But a good director can overcome this problem with imaginative use of familiar material – as James Hill and John Krish demonstrate elsewhere on this disc – and it seems to me that Andrew Bogle doesn’t manage to do this. The pacing is slow with seemingly endless exposition to establish a very simple situation of miners being trapped and helped by two children with the aid of a ghost. The inclusion of an American family doesn’t help matters much – Becky, played by Amy Taylor, is rather less likeable than her counterparts in other CFF films – and potentially creepy moments are somehow pulled away from as if Bogle is afraid of frightening his audience too much. There are certainly compensations along the way though. Andrew Keir lends his strong, charismatic presence in a role reminiscent of that played by Robert Shaw in The Deep and the cinematography of the Cornish locations by Ronald Maasz is lovely.

By comparison, John Krish’s Out of the Darkness, also set in the 1980s, knows exactly what it’s doing and builds up a fine head of steam. The last twenty minutes are so are pretty grim stuff and not at all what you might expect from a childrens drama. Some patience is needed with the unappealing children at the centre of the story and occasional plot points made me shake my head with disbelief – a mother leaving her chidren to stay with a stranger would have been odd even in 1985. But the story, set in Eyam is a strong one, dealing with memories of the Black Death which have scarred the ancient Derbyshire village and left long shadows which touch the present. It’s beautifully handled by Krish in his capacity as director, editor and screenwriter, as he builds the tension minutely right from an amusing shock moment in the first couple of minutes which is accompanied by hints of something not right. The pace is far stronger than in Andrew Bogle’s film and Krish, as he demonstrated in his unforgettable railway safety film The Finishing Line has no qualms about his films being too dark for the kiddies. There are obvious Enid Blyton elements here in the kids getting together and having a mystery but the absence of a father is a contemporary touch and the development of the story has a menace which is far removed from Blyton’s trademark cosiness. Krish’s use of the English landscape as a place of terror has something of the quality of great English horror films like Witchfinder General, particularly in a hallucinatory sequence set in the field above the village. The central idea is similar to the situation in a contemporary Doctor Who story, The Awakening, but this is considerably more stylish.

Good as Krish’s film is, the jewel of the set is The Man From Nowhere written by John Tully, which combines a nice Victorian feel with some genuinely creepy moments. It has a very simple plotline – Alice, an orphan, is sent to live with her uncle but finds her happiness threatened by repeated encounters with a mysterious man in black who warns her that she is in grave danger if she remains in her uncle’s house. The period trappings definitely recall The Railway Children but James Hill, a good and undervalued director, is particularly strong on hints of menace and the shadows within bright sunshine. The appearances of the eponymous man are heralded with a startling synthesised sound effect which made me jump even when I knew they were coming. Hill keeps us right on edge throughout the fifty-six minutes and even the obligatory happy ending doesn’t quite relieve the ominous atmosphere. Ronald Adam deserves credit for making the familiar role of the grumpy old uncle with a heart of gold a little less clichéd than expected and Sarah Hollis-Andrews is an appealing and resourceful young heroine. There’s also a gang of urchins who are well handled by James Hill and turn out to be indispensable during the amusing climax. There’s a lot of the traditional ghost story in this episode, perhaps in atmosphere more than in content, and it makes a rather nice companion to the BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas series.

The Disc

This is the fourth disc in the BFI’s series of films from the CFF (later the CFTF) and it maintains the high standard of the previous volumes. All of the films have been remastered in HD and look about as good as they ever have done.

The best transfer is given to The Man From Nowhere which is the only one of the films primarily intended for theatrical exhibition and as such, the only one presented at a ratio of 1.85:1. It’s very solid with strong colours, good contrast and plenty of fine detail. Out of the Unknown and Haunters of the Dark are presented in fullscreen and look fine although perhaps a little flatter than the earlier film. The original mono soundtracks are equally satisfactory. Regrettably, no subtitles are provided.

There are no extras on the disc itself but there is a typically pleasing booklet provided. This contains essays from John Tully, John Krish and Rachel Moseley and has a lovely cover illustration.

7 out of 10
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