Monday, February 20, 2012

Ash Tree, The (1975) (TV)

... aka: Ash Tree by M.R. James, The
... aka: Ghost Story for Christmas: The Ash Tree

Directed by:
Lawrence Gordon Clark

As good fortune would have it (or so he thinks), Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge) has just inherited a sprawling country manor and all of its possessions. Almost immediately upon arriving, strange things begin to happen. Members of the staff repeatedly refer to him as Sir Matthew, he keeps having visions of things that happened there years earlier and animals in the area have been mysteriously turning up dead. As it turns out, Richard has inherited the home from legendary witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (also played by Petherbridge), who himself had died there under very mysterious circumstances. Dr. Croome (Preston Lockwood) explains that Matthew's body was unexplainably toxic and anyone who touched it had swollen arms and hands for weeks afterward. On the same property not long ago, many witches were tortured and killed. When Richard unwisely decides to move a grave belonging to falsely accused "witch" Anne Mothersole (Barbara Ewing) - who was hung along with two others - things take a turn for the creepier, especially in regards to a huge ash tree where strange noises that sound just like babies crying can be heard...

This 32-minute period ghost tale was a BBC TV presentation and part of their popular, long-running annual "Ghost Story for Christmas" series, which were fairly faithful adaptations of M.R. James stories (this one adapted by David Rudkin) shown around the holidays. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark had previously made the excellent and chilling A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (1972) entry, which is perhaps the best of the bunch, as well as THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971), LOST HEARTS (1973), THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS (1974), THE SIGNALMAN (1976) and STIGMA (1977). While The Ash Tree carries on the series' reputation for quality and is competently made, it isn't quite as creepy as some of the other tales. The film blends the present with the past, with Matthews' life bleeding over into Richard's; causing him to periodically zone out from reality. The final revelation, which explains both the animal mutilations and why Dr. Croome is insistent the tree be cut down (which - of course - it isn't), seems almost random, though I'm sure it's faithful to the original story.

Witch hunter Hopkins was also the subject of the classic Vincent Price vehicle WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968; aka The Conqueror Worm). All of the Ghost Story tales have been issued on both VHS and DVD by BBC.


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