Saturday, September 20, 2008

"THERE ARE MORE THINGS IN PHILOSOPHY THAN ARE DREAMT OF IN HEAVEN AND EARTH." "WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU" was a short film made in 1968 by director Jonathan Miller for the TV series OMNIBUS. Thanks to the kind generosity of Weaverman over at FLEAPIT I now have the film to peruse. (READ HIS OWN REVIEW OF THE FILM BY CLICKING HERE). The film is based on one of the classic ghost tales of M.R. James and it's one hell of an oddball film; not what one might expect. Weaverman professes to have had the bejabbers scared out of him the first time he saw it but also feels a kind of letdown in it as well on subsequent viewings. I've only watched it once (but I shall soon watch it again); however I can honestly say I wasn't disappointed at all. In fact, I thought the film to be rather astonishing and ballsy in its determination NOT to be sensationalistic but instead to follow the quiet, almost methodical spinning out of the ghost tale in exactly the same structure as many ghostly short stories on the printed page.
The two main areas where a viewer might have trouble will probably be at the beginning and the end. The film starts and goes on for quite some time without seemingly bothering itself about a plot. However, the plot is there and being subtly introduced -- I suspect a second viewing would make this even more clear. As for the end, it may seem by some to be kind of abrupt -- the major "ghostly happening" occurs and the film ends almost immediately. However, this is much the same structure that most classic ghost stories (and other horror short stories) follow; the story ends right as the major supernatural event has just occurred. In fact, a great many H.P. Lovecraft stories end right BEFORE the horror reveals itself.
The beginning of the film (after a short voiceover narration by Miller describing author M.R. James) finds our lead character Professor Parkins (a truly astounding performance by Sir Michael Hordern) arriving for a holiday in a rather desolate-looking, windswept and gray East Anglia (the B&W grainy photography of the film is a definite plus - it always looks distinctly chilly and windy throughout the film). The Professor is a dusty academic who seems desperately lonely on the one hand while also being utterly incapable of any normal social interaction with his fellow human beings. I simply can't think of another occasion when Hordern has been so completely watchable as he constantly mutters to himself, carrying on interior dialogue with himself, while absent-mindedly picking up stray words from the people who surround him without really comprehending what they're saying to him or what his proper response should be. Miller points out the Professor's loneliness by having him stay in a hotel room with two beds; underlining the fact that Parkins is by himself. The Professor in fact would much rather consult with his books or walk off along the dunes by himself than interact with other people; not because he wishes to be alone so much as that he doesn't know how to interact with other people. Hordern's performance is really remarkable in that he does not fall into the trap of making the Professor a dry academic caricature but instead breathes life into this eccentric antiquarian. A particularly sparkling moment occurs when Hordern grumbles to himself that he TOLD them he doesn't like tomatoes as he distastefully picks them out of his plate. Priceless acting all the way!
After seeing (at length) two chambermaids making up the beds in what will be the Professor's room, Parkins arrives at the hotel only to be greeted -- no, that's not the right word -- faced with a hotel manager who seems even less capable of social interaction than Parkins. The fellow mumbles so quietly and incoherently that one only catches about every 7th word. He's even more awkward around people than the Professor! This is just our first hint that odd things will occur during Parkins' stay. The scene where the man halfheartedly attempts to show the Professor his room is hilarious in its awkwardness; the hotel man obviously doesn't want to have to do it but somehow feels he must while the Professor wishes for nothing more than for the man to get the hell out and fidgets helplessly as the man interminably fusses and mutters. This scene is followed by an equally funny and awkward scene as Parkins goes down to the dining room for dinner only to find everyone has started without him. He takes his seat markedly separate from the other diners and sits there muttering to himself, obviously anxious to eat but worrying that the servants will never actually bring him any food since he's been late to table. While these scenes might seem to do nothing towards the furtherance of the plot, they indelibly map out Parkins' character which is so essential to what is about to happen to him. The Professor's intense discomfort around other people is conveyed beautifully as he stands in the hallway as another couple pass by. Hordern literally contorts and stretches his body AWAY from the people passing behind him until he's literally standing on the balls of his feet and leaning away from them -- almost resting his head on the wall in front of him. Now that's social anxiety, folks! It is precisely the characters inward-turned solitude that positions him for the ghostly happenings to come and why he is particularly susceptible to them.
This also, I think, shows how really gutsy Jonathan Miller was to keep the pace of the film slow and steady. Nothing is rushed but all unfolds in its own time. This lends a valuable quality to the feel and mood of the film so that the ghostly occurrences are actually startling. In fact, on one of the Professor perambles along the beach we almost don't notice at first the shadowed figure far behind him on the horizon -- until Hordern turns around himself and notices him. Whether this is meant to be the first appearance of the ghost or not isn't spelled out. However, the shot is held on the distant figure even after Hordern exits the frame. It is, in fact, just after Parkins discovers a wooden whistle in the partially eroded grave close to the beach that this figure first appears. I'd say it ain't just some old age pensioner going for a paddle, wouldn't you?!? When Parkins gets the whistle cleaned up he notices words in Latin carved on it. Translated it reads: "Who is this who is coming?" The Professor blows the whistle rather brazenly to find out. After he has blown the whistle, there has obviously been some change in him: his face registers puzzled apprehension. The scene immediately dissolved to that scene back at the beach with the distant figure -- but somehow the figure appears to be closer now. For the next several nights, Parkins has trouble sleeping. He spends much of his time sitting up in bed listening intently and, when he does sleep, is awakened by nightmares of being chased by an unseen figure. We hear marvelously unsettling sounds on the film's soundtrack at this point. Then, during a particularly vivid nightmare which visually reminded me greatly of Carl Dreyer's VAMPYR, we see the ghostly apparition and I can honestly say it's truly creepy and unsettling; it is literally a sheet (the most caricatured caricature of a ghost) bizarrely levitating in slow motion. Truly horrific when you see it! Once again, the marvelously cold B&W grainy photography and slow motion effects make the apparition indistinct and fluttery so you're not exactly sure what you're seeing. All you know is it look VERY unnatural and unsettling. The next day Parkins learns that the bed linen on his room's spare bed looks slept in -- SOMETHING has been in it. Obviously with the constant rustling noises, nightmares and overturned bedclothes, SOMETHING is indeed coming. Jonathan Miller's direction and Michael Hordern's acting vividly convey that sense that "something" is in the room with you, "something" is following me, "something" is just there in the corner of your eye, just beyond perception and only offering a fleeting glimpse. When it finally does arrive, the Professor is almost reduced to infancy momentarily from his mind-numbing fear.
WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU is another of those films which requires an attention span. In fact, that's probably the boldest thing about it -- even in 1968! It is positively daring in its subtlety. In that way, it greatly approximates the feel of an actual M.R. James short story; none of which are known for their pyrotechnics. WHISTLE is in fact one of those perfect "chill October night" viewings when the wind is blowing bare branches against your window pane. There's a chill running throughout the film and I like it. After all, isn't that what a good ghost story is supposed to give you? WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU isn't the best ghost movie by any means but it is daringly audacious and I think very successful in what it set out to do: offer up the genuine chill of a ghostly tale for all those who care to follow where it takes them. And I, for one, will never forget the appearance of that horrible, unnatural "thing" behind Michael Hordern in his nightmare on the beach!!!


Weaverman said...

Absolutely the best review that I've ever seen of this film. Well done. I've watched it four of five times in the last month and your review makes me want to watch it again.

Cerpts said...

Thank you very much -- for the film as well as the review of my review of the film. I've as yet still had no time to watch it again but I was hoping to watch it tonight once more. I'm assuming you enjoyed my little review because I enjoyed the film so much and that probably comes through in what I wrote. Not only do I want to watch WHISTLE again but I'm also now dying to dig out my copy of M.R. James' ghost stories and read them again as well. I'm sure it's been about 15 years since I've read them. But again thanks for the kind words about my ramblings; I'm very glad you liked it.