A Warning to the Curious (1972)

Posted by Matt Foley on October 27, 2009 in Blog tagged with
For a while I have been thinking about posting a short film on here that could be watched by everyone and perhaps, in turn, generate some debate. After searching online for a suitable film I have reconciled myself with again returning to a BBC adaptation of a famous ghost story (an Andrew Davies adaptation of ‘The Signalman’ (1976) has previously been blogged on here). This time I will be focusing on the 1972 adaptation of the M.R. James short story ‘A Warning to the Curious’. Larwrence Gordon Clark is responsible for directing both adaptations and there are clear parallels between the two for anyone who wants to watch both (for example, the use of silence, the consciously slow narrative pace creating suspense, the use of uncanny doubling and the play upon the uncanny feeling of deja vu). In ‘A Warning to the Curious’, however, Gordon Clark takes the sole writing credit for the screenplay and, as far as I can tell, Andrew Davies is not involved. Also, this screen version is quite different to the original story.


Rather than provide any kind of introduction, that may drop in a few annoying spoilers, it seems apt just to get on with watching the film. It’s divided into five parts on Youtube and you’ll need a total of about fifty minutes to watch all of it. I think it’s worth this time in order to consider the film’s staging of haunting and I’ll provide some very general cursory observations below in order to start discussion. What will be put forward here is intentionally a work in progress and there is much more to be said. Also, I have not embedded the videos because on some browsers this disables the “full screen” function.


I don’t wish here to provide too much of an exhaustive reading of the film. As far as I’m concerned there are clearly two different modes of haunting at work, each overlapping and infecting the other, and the space where this overlapping occurs comes into being in the experiences of Mr. Paxton.
One mode of haunting exists on the plain of ideas. The folklore of the dark ages, specifically the superstition surrounding the effect of “The Three Royal Crowns of Anglia”, becomes a ghostly presence, palpable in a spectral atmosphere, which haunts and attacks the symbolic order of the more reasonable present. Paxton seems seduced both by the tale and the power of the crowns – a power based upon withstanding the realm of the Other – but he is terrified and unsettled by the spectral atmosphere surrounding both the town and the forest where the crowns are hidden. The natural world, in the gusts and rustling of trees and shrubs, has some knowledge of the dark forces that may invade if the final crown is disturbed.
The second mode of haunting is apparitional in form and embodied in the appearances, disappearances and reappearances of William Ager. In the opening scenes Ager comes across as more strange than terrifying but in death he is gifted the powers of the apparition. His haunting figures some of the anxieties the piece stages in its handling of spectral folklore in general but Ager also stands separate from these. He plays the distinct role of a guard who maintains the status qou of the superstitious force of the crown and, in turn, protects the present from the invasion of the Other. His two most notable apparitional attributes are his ability to appear, disappear and reappear and, secondly, the ghostly power of his gaze which, from the perspective of Paxton, carries a terrifying castrative force and the threat of punishment by absolute law.  Paxton seems to understand that he is meddling with the natural order of things and to a degree he accepts this pursuit – whilst still being terrified by it.
We are left to wonder, in the playful use of déjà vu as Dr. Black boards his steam train in the final scenes, whether Ager will once more be compelled to call upon his powers of the apparition that both terrify and invoke a primordial guilt in whoever has tampered with the protective power of the crown of Anglia. In general though, does this adaptation not suggest not only a link between the ghost and law, but also that this law is founded upon something other than reason – something natural, innate and uncanny?

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