What’s it About?
A young orphan, Stephen, is sent to go and live with his strange, much older cousin at his remote country house. Once there, Stephen experiences terrible dreams in which he sees a missing young girl and boy
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
The uniquely incomparable and influential short story writer, Montague Rhodes James (Oh, Whistle and I will come to you, my Lad, The Ash Tree, Number 13 and A Warning to the Curious) published a collection of ghostly short stories called “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” in 1904 (Before that he published in magazines). James was also a prominent Medieval historian and his unique ghost stories are written in a very fascinating and ethereal manner. It was James’ intention to provide spooky tales of characters living quiet, routine driven, urbane and uneventful lives. The trick being that they are interrupted by supernatural events during which the protagonist must endure, survive or solve these events.
In 1968, Jonathan Miller adapted the renowned short by James called “Oh, whistle and I will come to you, my Lad” (You can read my review HERE) for the BBC as part of their “Omnibus” collection of shorts. After the success of the short, the BBC decided to further adapt stories by James as an annual “Ghost Story for Christmas” production. Since 1968 many more stories by James would be produced. Some varied in length, of course, due to the length of each individual story.
“Lost Hearts” aired on Christmas Day in 1973 after another successful episode, named “A Warning to the Curious” and before the short “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas). The short was directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark (Jamaica Inn), who has an extensive British Television filmography. It was the 3rd episode to air from that first season. It was dramatised by Robin Chapman (Force 10 from Navarone) and is the shortest of the numerous adaptations.
As the short begins, we watch Young Stephen (Simon Gipps-Kent), our protagonist, in a horse and carriage coach, riding through the chilly English countryside. He appears to be somewhat uncomfortable and uneasy with the ride. Upon seeing two small children in a field, waving to him, Stephen’s spirits lift up somewhat, anticipating some fun and interaction to befall him eventually. Stephen, who is an orphan, is on his way to stay with his eccentric older cousin, Mr. Abney, played by Joseph O’ Conor (Oliver, Elizabeth).
Abney is quickly established to be a very kooky and idiosyncratic individual. He mutters to himself, recites Latin and Greek poetry and writes constantly in his small leatherbound book. Despite appearing peculiar, he is kind to Stephen upon his arrival. He asks his live in, servant duo of Parkes (James Mellor) and Mrs. Bunch (Susan Richards of Village of the Damned) to help Master Stephen get comfortable in the cavernous house.
After he is settled in, he meets with the erratic and mystically obssessed Abney in his library. What follows is a queer exchange focusing on the upcoming birthday of Stephen. Stephen, feeling disconnected and confused, thinks nothing of the aberrant conversation, eager to explore the grounds. Abney lets him and while he does, he begins to see the same two children he saw earlier, playing in the fields. He chases them and also hears what sounds like guitar music. He thinks he sees one of the two children, a girl, climb up a tree. Stephen, after climbing, sees her closely and is frightened, resulting in his fall.
The movie, though being short, is simply effective, spinning a ghostly yarn in about the same amount of time it used to take Rod Serling to whip up an episode of The Twilight Zone. As things progress and Stephen’s birthday draws to a close, we begin to question Abney’s motive for caring for Stephen. He goes on and on about Stephen turning 12 and has a strange fascination with immortality and how one can achieve it. Meanwhile, Mrs Bunch spins her own yarns to Stephen.
She talks about 2 children. One a boy, the other a girl, that have gone missing and never turned up. Stephen listens but eventually the tales become to much for him to bear, especially when he thinks he is seeing the very same children that have gone missing or have they? Why are they appearing to him? Who are they really and what is their connection to his caregiver Abney and his servants.
I just a small amount of time, Gordon Clark establishes such a forboding atmosphere, enough to fill 3 full length films, and he does it well. The short is creepy, standalone and very singular. The strange use of the musical instrument called the hurdy gurdy is un-nerving and unconventional. When ever one hears it, you come to expect something terrifying and irregular to take shape. Abney, while on the outside a charming old dude, hides a very menacing motive which involves the sacrificing of young children. The short successfully merges the innocence of children during traumatic times with the malevolent manipulations sparked by an older and evil adult.
The short can be both playful and other times fiendish. The very idea of Abney wishing them (and doing) harm to Stephen is a powerful thematic element. The children themselves, named Giovanni and Phoebe (who had some “Gypsy” in her), are presences of nightmarish proportions. They appear much like the most Romero-esque of phantoms with long and haunting finger nails along with vile and hellish faces. Gordon Clark and Chapman manage to tell a mystifying tale on film. Every aspect of the short, including the morality play, by James is explored and the short remains one of the more disturbing, moody and sinister episodes in the “Christmas Ghost Story” strand. It is quite thought provoking, as tales of children in harm and peril, usually are. It is also visually appealing and immensely creepy during the shadowy night time scenes, when Stephen is most vulnerable.
“Lost Hearts” is a grand M.R. James short, that raises the eyebrows and the hairs on our collective necks. To go with the ghoulish imagery, there is that damnable music from the hurdy gurdy. Not to mention an old man about to violate and manipulate a child at 12 am straight, during his birthday. But, with all of this going on, you can’t take your eyes off of it all, as those two grusome apparitions make their way to set things right. The claustrophobic short has much to tell and much to the credit of the writers and director, it is a ghastly but poetic slice of that spine tingling world that many M.R. James fans find so attractive and pulling. You will never look at a hurdy gurdy the same way again. Highly Recommended!