Friday, May 21, 2010

"Along the coast of Norfolk there persists an ancient legend. It is said that in the Dark Ages, when the Vikings were a constant scourge, the three royal crowns of Anglia were hidden in the ground. The crowns, so the legend runs, had a strange power. No foreign army would invade the kingdom of Anglia so long as at least one of them remained undisturbed. Since that time, the site of one crown has been plundered by thieves and its treasure melted down; another has been covered by the encroaching sea. Only one crown now remains lying somewhere in its royal burial ground."
"A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS" is one of the classic ghost stories of M. R. James; who would prove to be a mine of material for the BBC when the undertook to film and air "A Ghost Story For Christmas" each year to scare the life out of its viewers. "If there was a golden age of horror for BBC television then the 1970s were it." These words written by Phil Tonge for the Introduction to David Kerekes' useful tome on British horror television "Creeping Flesh" is the absolute truth. Particularly gothic horror. And M. R. James was at the apex of these ghostly tales. Most certainly, the idea for "A Ghost Story For Christmas" arose directly from the 1968 film "WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU" aired on OMNIBUS in 1968. Directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern, this masterpiece of horror was also derived from the M. R. James short story "O Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad". Starting in 1971 and lasting until 1978, the BBC specially filmed and aired a yearly "Ghost Story For Christmas" beginning with "THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER" (yet another M. R. James story) broadcast on the (late) night of December 24, 1971 at 11:05 pm. "A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS" would be the second installment: broadcast from 11:05 to 11:55 pm on December 24, 1972. The film stars the excellent Peter Vaughan as the hapless Paxton, Clive Swift as Dr. Black, David Cargill as Boots and Joun Kearney as Ager with Gordon Clark at the helm.
The story opens with the retelling of the legend of the 3 royal crowns of Anglia as the camera pans a chilly and deserted beach. An archaeologist is seen digging on a small hill. A strange cloaked man insists there is "No digging!" When the archaeologist brushes him aside, the strange man grabs a weapon (is that a bill hook?) and basically hacks the archaeologist to death with it. 12 years later we find an amateur treasure hunter named Paxton vacationing at the same location on the Norfolk coast. He appears to be out of work and, toting a book called "The Legend of the Anglian Crowns", plans on doing a little digging around. It's the off season, so the only other guest in the hotel is a Dr. Black: a frequent lodger who likes to come to the area to paint landscapes. During a visit to the local ancient church, the vicar tells Paxton that the locals still believe in the legend and, in fact, there was a family called Ager who had traditionally been charged with guarding the crowns against snoopers. In fact, 12 years before William Ager, the last of his line, had murdered an archaeologist who was searching for the crown. Ager now lies buried in the cemetery by the church. Boots, the caretaker of the hotel, denies having ever heard of the Ager family but Paxton is unconvinced. Paxton finds a journal having belonged to William Ager in a rare book store and tracks down Ager's former house. The woman living there complains of seeing a tramp who has been hanging around the woods. All during these searches, Paxton is vaguely aware of a distant, cloaked figure who seems to be following him and staring. Telling Boots that he must return to London for the night on business, Paxton instead hops a train with his shovel and goes out to where his research seems to hint the crown may be buried; yes, it's the exact same spot the archeologist was murdered. Paxton begins digging -- but he has the uneasy feeling of being watched. After night falls, Paxton unearths a human skull then a spearhead and finally the royal crown of Anglia. Thoroughly spooked at this point, Paxton secretes the crown about his person and begins to leave -- only to be chased by the terrifying figure. The next day Paxton boards the train and, as he is waiting for it to depart, a porter opens the door as if to usher another passenger into the car. However, there is no one there. Paxton hides the crown inside his suitcase in his hotel room and notices Ager's journal has been sliced to ribbons. A mysterious, wheezing cough is heard in the room next door -- where no one is staying. Later, Paxton encounters Dr. Black painting a beach scene. Black points out that there is a figure standing in the distance. Paxton eventually tells Black about the crown and, completely wigged out by now, asks the doctor to accompany him while he returns the crown to where he found it. Now Paxton is convinced he is being stalked by the ghost of William Ager and he will find no peace until the crown is returned. Later, while alone in his room, Paxton is suddenly plunged into darkness as the candles are extinguished. Strange sounds are heard within the room and, panning a torch across the room Paxton catches a glimpse of a ghastly pale figure squatting down over the suitcase containing the crown. He screams in horror. Boots and Dr. Black enter to find Paxton alone and sobbing over the suitcase. Paxton and Black return to the excavation site later that night. Black stands watch with a torch while Paxton re-buries the crown. All the time the ghost of Ager watches from the nearby woods. The next morning, Dr. Black suggest Paxton and he go for a walk. The two men depart as Boots watches. Moments later, Dr. Black emerges from the hotel asking Boots if he's seen Paxton. Flabbergasted, Boots informs Dr. Black that Paxton just went off with someone he swore was the doctor. Dr. Black hurries off in the direction they went. Eventually he catches up enough to see Paxton being chased by the mysterious figure and running for his life. It seems returning the crown will not be enough to appease the vengeful spirit. What happens next? Well, I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that the ending underlines the fact that one should not meddle in otherworldly events.
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS is a thoroughly creepy and, at times, genuinely frightening experience. Anyone having seen WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU however will no doubt notice a STRONG resemblence between this film and the earlier one. The bleak seaside setting, the buried object, the ghostly watcher from afar. However, even with the strong sense of deja vu while watching, I believe the viewer will find A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS to be a thoroughly enjoyable, flesh-crawling fright. Peter Vaughan plays the part with wonderful understatement. Paxton is not out to harm anyone -- he simply wants to make a name for himself and feel important. The viewer will feel a great sympathy towards Paxton when, after having taken that foolish fatal step, he can seem to find no way to extricate himself from the terrible mess he's place himself into. There are a couple truly frightening moments; the scene in the darkened hotel room is a chilling highlight. All in all, A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS is a deft and sure realization of a truly spooky ghost story. Watching it in the dark on a windy night will no doubt have you crawling out of your skin!

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