The tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas has been part of the festive season for hundreds of years. A Christmas Carol is perhaps its most famous manifestation; but the stories of M. R. James are also a key element. The tales of James, an English mediaeval scholar and Provost of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, were originally narrated as Christmas entertainments to friends and selected students.
Due to this original context, many of the stories have a detached scholarly tone, some hefty doses of academic humour and some borderline embarrassing attempts to write for characters of lower social stations, grovelling and gossiping in broad East Anglian vernacular.
There are plenty of charms to the stories in their early forms, and they still draw out a certain level of anxiety when enjoyed late at night, after a jar or two. But, when it comes to their visual adaptation, in an age where cinematic horror has had decades to expand and refine the art of the ghost story, the works of James can feel a little tame without a bit of helpful re-imagination.
The gold standard of that remains Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You – which takes the core elements of the original story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad but obscures and downplays a number of details. Particularly, in the story, the final encounter with the fateful “crumpled linen” is a more detailed and laboured game of cat and mouse – whereas in Miller’s version, the meeting is fleeting, and disturbed quickly enough for us to see something unnerving, but not for long enough that we can begin to think about the apparent weaknesses or limitations of the spirit. At the same time, there is no ending where the entity is banished at the end – leaving a suggestion it may still linger with Professor Parkin, or even us, after the credits. Most importantly, then, there is an attempt to make the threat current; to show it as being relevant to us or the characters we are living through vicariously.
Mark Gatiss’ 2021 adaptation of The Mezzotint comes close to pulling off the same trick. Gatiss is an interesting figure in terms of contemporary horror – a traditionalist whom other traditionalists detest. Many a purist has bemoaned his approach to The Mezzotint; both due to his willingness to give women and people of colour roles, which the Etonian Tory James would not likely have accepted; and because he takes ‘liberties’ with the story by adding to it. They will no doubt have the same thing to say with his next A Ghost Story for Christmas tale – Count Magnus. But rather than sacrilegiously seeking to befoul the works of an author he does not respect, it seems to me that these actions were born out of love for the source material, and a desire to make them relevant to future audiences; even if that means having to drag them, kicking and screaming, out of the past.
Gatiss’ The Mezzotint is mostly a faithful adaptation of James’ story of the same name, up to a point. When it does stray from the source material, however, I would argue it is entirely appropriate, in order to try to either modernise some heartily fusty old English sensibilities, or to inject elements of jeopardy in the story’s present day – something the rambling original neglects, in favour of copious golfing anecdotes.
The story follows Edward Williams (Rory Kinnear), a museum curator who stumbles onto a disturbing artefact when seeking engravings to fill out a collection. Each time someone looks at the picture, it seems to alter slightly – gradually revealing a gruesome historical trauma in an English manor house. Initially the picture seems ‘unremarkable’: an image of a house’s façade on a cloudy night. But then a second viewer remarks how beautifully realised the moonlight is… and another soon agrees before adding that even the “ghastly figure” in the foreground has a kind of charm. They photograph the picture when the figure disappears, and a window in the house is left open, before finally Williams’ maid remarks that it isn’t the sort of picture to hang up where children can see, as it now features a final horrific image of the skeletal figure absconding with an abducted child. This is faithful to the original telling, but Gatiss then injects a second layer to the tale.
Williams has been investigating his family tree in recent months, determined to get to the bottom of a mystery going back four generations. His great-grandfather was, in whispered tones, illegitimate and Williams, as a man with no surviving family, wife or children, is keen to get to the bottom of things. It’s a humanising inclusion, which immediately makes Kinnear’s character more of a relatable presence than the ivory-tower port-swillers of James’ original – and it also serves to draw the horror out of the past, and to make it relevant.
James simply explains the backstory of the picture – a hanged poacher taking revenge on the owner of the manor by taking his only child and ending his line – before it returns to normal, is placed in a museum, and never changes again. But there is no pay-off in that, nothing that draws any of our characters in, or explains why their story is in any way of more note than the one in the picture. Why aren’t we just told that without the awkward framing device of the mezzotint?
In this case, however, Gatiss interweaves the two stories cleverly, giving us a reason why all of this is happening around Williams. And because the story has also built him up as a believable and even likeable individual, we now have a reason to feel fear in the here and now, either through him, or for ourselves after the ending cuts to black.
That is not to say The Mezzotint is perfect. In its climax, it arguably shows too much of what is going on. Rather like Keith Thomas and Guillermo del Toro’s underwhelming adaptation of Pickman’s Model, horror about art can struggle when we are able to inspect it closely. The revelation of Pickman’s pictures being painted from a “photograph from life” only works as a horrific signifier if the narrator’s reaction to the image, and our own imagination, are all we have to go by. When filmmakers present some CGI or prosthetics to baby us with the horrific image itself – as that adaptation does in decreasingly impressive detail – it invariably does not live up to our expectations. It needs to be left vague to really upset us.
The Mezzotint does this relatively well when it comes to the chilling picture it centres on, because the etching is not supposed to be photorealistic anyway – so our imaginations can still run wild a little. But when trying to draw this threat into the real world, we are not afforded the same space. A slow-edited sequence of grey limbs and skull-shaped masks allow us to inspect events and figures before us a little too thoroughly, showing up their rough edges and failing to live up to the horror we imagined, to the extent there is a sneaking suspicion that what is playing out before us is actually some kind of prank on the poor, unsuspecting academic. The less-is-more approach of Whistle and I’ll Come to You might have been a better route to take – although on the basis of Gatiss’ fantastically over-the-top body of work, maybe this was him trying the less-is-more approach.
Even so, beside this need for a little extra finesse, and a tad more restraint on what the filmmakers wanted to show us, The Mezzotint is a success. By taking the best elements of the story’s core, and building on it, adding to it and twisting it to fit with times it would never have expected, Gatiss has made James’ tale into a malevolent spirit of its own. A disembodied echo through the ages, a haunting antiquity, distorted and estranged with each re-telling.