Dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark
Part of the BBC’s annual series A Ghost Story for Christmas, which ran from 1971 to 1978 and featured some of the small screen’s most chilling moments, A Warning to the Curious was adapted from the short story of the same name by MR James. It tells of a down on his luck amateur archaeologist who goes treasure hunting along the Norfolk coast in search of the fabled lost crown of Anglia, which supposedly helps protect Britain against invasion. He is soon hounded for his trouble by the crown’s spectral guardian…
Lawrence Gordon Clark was responsible for many of the James adaptations in this series. Clark’s approach to revealing the horror is in keeping with James’ own quiet approach and it is unveiled slowly, suggestively, so as to heighten the impact and maintain the foreboding atmosphere of dread. The construction of the opening scene, in which an archaeologist is murdered while digging in search of the crown, is masterfully taut and creepy. The barren location – all howling wind and sinisterly swaying trees – coupled with the editing and sense of utter remoteness creates an uneasy atmosphere which culminates in sudden savagery, setting the tone for the grim events ahead. The desolate and windswept Norfolk coast, replacing the Suffolk coast of the short story, is a fittingly eerie locale and echoes similar landscapes used to terrifying effect in Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of James’ Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad.
While certainly not based in the Seventies, A Warning to the Curious still manages to touch upon on certain issues that were prevalent throughout Britain at this time, such as the soaring unemployment rate. The protagonist is not the young antiquarian of James’ original tale - like Lovecraft, James favoured socially awkward protagonists ensconced in academia - he is now an older, recently unemployed city clerk who dabbles in archaeology and is searching for the legendary lost crown to gain wealth and up his social status. His lowly standing is beautifully conveyed in the scene where the innkeeper offers to unpack the clerk’s suitcase and notices his shoes in dire need of resoling.
The small seaside town seems pleasant enough when introduced, but as proceedings unfurl, its dark secrets and ties to spooky ancient lore are gradually revealed. We learn of the folklore and legends surrounding the crowns of Anglia and the unearthly entities that guard them. This aspect of the story arguably posits A Warning to the Curious in the realms of folk horror, as the bloodlines of certain rural communities are gradually exposed to reveal their connections with creepy traditions and ancient local legends. Much of these connections are discussed in the scene where Paxton visits an isolated church and talks with the priest there, who mentions a mysterious, deceased family - the Agers - who were said to have sworn to guard the crown at all costs. Throughout everything it is implicitly suggested, through creepy camerawork, or the occasional glimpse of a shadowy distant figure, that Paxton is being watched by someone. Or something.
This was one of James’ last stories, and it is one of his bleakest. Aside from a few minor changes, including the profession of the main character and the omission of the multi-layered narrative utilised by James, Clark’s adaptation is a faithful one, particularly in its evocation of dread and increasing hopelessness. Several memorable moments include a frantic, disorientating chase through the woods at the denouement and the revelation of the presence of a shadowy stalker in Paxton’s bedroom, briefly glimpsed crouching on the floor as Paxton fumbles for his torch during a power cut. Chilling stuff.