Wednesday 1 August 2012

Casting The Runes (ITV Playhouse)

The Rune Show

Casting The Runes (ITV Playhouse)
UK 1979
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
Network Region 2

Warning: There are ending spoilers here 
if you don’t already know the basic story.

This review wasn’t originally intended to go up until next week sometime but I just found out that today is M.R. James' 150th Birthday (not that he’s around to celebrate that fact). Thanks to Mr. Jim “Hypnogoria” Moon , who also shares the same birthday, for alerting me to that fact... although I don't believe Mr. Moon is also 150 years, as yet.

Finally got to see this 1979 adaptation of the great ghost story writer M. R. James’ Casting The Runes. I may have seen it back in 1979 too, little things were ringing bells ever so slightly as I was watching it, but if I did I suspect it didn’t make too much of an impression on me as an eleven year old trying to survive school. I was probably a lot busier getting thoroughly freaked out by two TV shows I loved at around the same kind of timeframe, and which this adaptation actually bears a little similarity to in tone, methinks - The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel. 

I have read the short story on which this is based in a collection of M. R. James stories available at a very “value-for-money” price from Wordsworth Classics (check out their website here) but that story didn’t make much impression on me as much as some of the other brillant tales in that same volume. I was also familiar with the tale in two movie versions (one of them uncredited) which, to be fair, are best termed as being “inspired by” rather than being full blown adaptatons. The first of these, Night Of The Demon (aka Curse Of The Demon, reviewed here) is a great movie by Tournier and well worth having a watch if you like fifties British horror movies. The second adapatation is not in any way credited as being such, and I am certainly not wanting to accuse anyone of doing something they shouldn’t. Especially when it’s such a great film, too. However, in my humble opinion, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (reviewed here) was very much... um... an homage to the original story idea, shall we say. It even, like the end of Night Of The Demon, ends on the railway tracks.

The 1979, 50 minute TV adaptation of Casting The Runes is a much less grander affair, but it still plays quite loosely with the original and, like Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, transforms the central male protagonist into a female character, to give more balance to the cast I suspect. That female protaganist being played by Jan Francis, who I remember very well from a UK romantic comedy TV show from the 1980s called Just Good Friends, but who some of my readers might better remember (certainly better than I) from playing Mina in the 1979 movie version of Dracula. Here she is a TV producer who has said unfavourable things about the Alaister Crowley-like Julian Carswell, played here with much menace by Iain Cuthbertson. Carswell slips her some paper with a runic curse on it and, as the story always goes, she has to somehow get him to retake posession of this paper-based curse unawares before a month is up, or an invisible demon will come to claim her life.

It’s actually quite a good piece of entertainment as a whole. Not exactly as chilling as it possibly would have been in the context of what people had to compare it to at the time of its original broadcast, but certainly it has an atmosphere all its own and the bit which involves a big, tentacled rubber spider turning up in Jan Francis bed when she least expects it, was immediately followed by a commercial break, because it possibly would have been a “bit of a moment” back in the day (and this was one of the things that vaguely rang some bells with me while I was watching). It foreshadows, in every way, a similar and even more terrifying “lurking in your bed sheets already” surprise in the Japanese horror movie Ju-on (aka The Grudge).

One of the things that this did bring back to me, and hit me in the face with an epiphany of understanding about 60s and 70s TV production in general, was the fact that the sets and spaces that the cast inhabit are all very sparse and uncluttered. Now, it may be because we have become more materialistic in real life due to the sheer amount of goods manufactured and consumed - that this was indeed the way we lived back then and I’ve just forgotten. But everything seemed to be so “underdressed” in terms of the sets that, well, they did look like the cast were just standing around on sets rather than actually existing within a credible environment. And I think this is a trait of this kind of television back then and, to be honest, I know I wouldn't (nor I’m sure, would many of the original late 1970s audience) have given it a thought at the time... it’s just the way it was. It does, however, look more than a little fake now, which as I said, it certainly wouldn’t have then. Dated, perhaps, is the conclusion I’d have to reach. More so than a movie set would, though, so maybe budgetary and time elements were more of a factor too, rather than just mere cultural differences through the decades.

Of course, with less to worry about in terms of the sets getting in the way, the manner in which the shots are framed and the placement of the characters within those shots are done quite meticulously and are a joy to look at. I’m not the biggest fan of the traditional, pre-21st Century 4:3 TV aspect ratio but, if done right (and you only have to look at the early cinema of Akira Kurosawa to see this for yourself), the shot design and the flow created by the editing of those shots together can be just as valid in this “shape of canvas”, so to speak, than any other alternatives.

All in all, I must say, it was a thoroughly entertaining 50 minutes and the ending, where our heroine succesfully passes the curse back but at the cost of the lives of the innocent passengers in an aircraft shared with Karswell, when the demon comes to kill him and take his soul, gives one pause to think about the consequences of an act once things are set in motion.

As an aside... I wouldn’t normally watch an ITV programme these days. I tried watching a sci-fi series they’d made themselves about six years ago, screened after the 9pm watershed, and after wading through all the adverts (something I’m not prepared to do, so I taped it) they still managed to bleep out a swear word... after 9pm... and in their own show. At least write it out guys... not bleep it out.

Anyway, I mention this because, back in the seventies, there still was the occasional good TV show on “the third channel”, believe it or not, like the aforementioned Sapphire & Steel and, of course, the fourth and final of Nigel Kneale’s groundbreaking Quatermass seriels (the previous three had been BBC productions). So here I was, watching an ITV Playhouse of the week and, right there and then within the first ten minutes, Jan Francis says "p*ss off!" Now I’m really not bothered much by swear words, to be honest. I think if you’re writing a character that would use them, you use them. If not... don’t. Pretty simple. But I did cheer a bit inside when Jan Francis said that because, as I’d imagine you well know, there’s no way they would get away with that nowadays on prime time TV and I think it’s good when something from our very recent past holds a mirror up to modern society and reminds us all how backwards and Victorian we’ve become over the last few years... where political correctness has reached new lows of incredulity and creeping, insidious foolishness.

So, yeah... Casting The Runes. Nice adaptation and if you are a fan of 1970s TV and spooky stories then very much worth a watch... and very much worth a read in a collection of M. R. James stories for that matter. A thorough recoimmendation from me.


  1. Nice, remember watching this back in the day.

    Thanks for the memory trip.


  2. Hi there,

    Thanks very much for reading.

    All the best.