Whistle and I’ll come to you

According to the IMDb, the following film doesn’t seem to exist. Yet I know it’s been released on DVD and that BBC Four has showed it this week. Looks like it’s the ghost of a film and, given the film’s subject, that’s quite appropriate.

Whistle and I’ll Come only lasts 42 minutes and was made for television back in 1968. It’s one of those telly chillers people caught (accidently or not) and never got over the experience. I know the feeling: back in the 1980s I saw a series with a frightening soundtrack (turned out it was the theme of Halloween), a blind man, a computer system gone berserk, a young heroine and all of it’s set in a dystopian future or parallel world. The final episode allegedly had the computer being overrun with (or spitting out) maggots, but don’t take my word for it: I was too scared to watch it by then and had to rely on other peoples’ recollection. Those who watched it still remember it, but – apart from one scene being shown in a compilation show back in the late nineties – it has never been shown again. (And yes, I was able to identify the show after just two seconds.)

The problem is: some of these shows have become so gigantic in your brain seeing them again after a couple of decades may cause you to be utterly disappointed if they’re finally released on DVD. Some remain as powerful as they used to be. Take The One Game for instance, a British four-part thriller from 1988. I still remembered a couple of scenes (the protagonist being cornered in a closed-down shopping centre by a group of bikers, someone drowning in the water with only a hand sticking out…) and though the series did look a bit dated when I watched it again in 2004, I still understood what had impressed me the first time.

Peter Sasdy made The Stone Tape back in 1972, based on a Nigel Kneale script. It’s a supernatural chiller, often cited along with Ghostwatch, but unlike that latter title, I couldn’t be impressed by The Stone Tape when I watched it a couple of years ago. Despite really like Kneale’s work, especially Quatermass and the Pit. Maybe I should watch it again one day, now my expectations are considerably lowered, but it’s not high on my list and my ‘to see’ pile is still huge.

Whistle and I’ll come was also released on dvd by BFI (like The Stone Tape). Jonathan Miller directed it as well as adapted it from a M.R. James short story. Now look up this writer on the IMDb and you’ll spot Whistle and I’ll come on the IMDb after all, cleverly disguised as an episode of Omnibus. So it’s there and it isn’t. Told you it was fitting for a ghost tale.

You probably know James, even if you didn’t know you did. His stories were the basis of several tv and film adaptations. Michele Soavi‘s La Chiesa (The Church) was based on one of his stories, but by far better known is the Jacques Tourneur classic Night of the Demon.

Like Night of the Demon, Whistle tries to chill you with things you can’t see. Sadly, Tourneur was way better at executing this kind of horror film than Miller. In Whistle and I’ll Come an eccentric professor finds an old whistle on the beach, blows it and summons a spirit. Actually, writing that down just made me want to see this film more than the film I actually saw.
Let’s blame Miller for this, after all he shortened the story’s title (from Oh whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad) and took some other liberties as well: he made the protagonist more eccentric, changed some of the dialogue (not being happy with the original). On the other hand, several scholars say – and who are we to disagree with them? – Miller stayed faithful to the original spirit of the story.

But I felt myself being disappointed by it. To use a metaphor, I started watching it with a healthy appetite, but still felt hungry by the end of it. It’s actually a fitting metaphor as the film does feature five minutes of non-stop eating: a scene where the professor is having a high-brow conversation at the hotel while eating his meal is followed by a stroll to the beach, where the professor eats some sandwiches, while talking to himself in what was probably an academic monologue.

The film’s theme is “losing your mind” and the fact it’s a professor who has confronted by this problem apparently makes it more interesting. In fact, the moment the professor closes his eyes and is subjected to a series of nasty dreams was visually most pleasing (catch it below), but that’s about it. It did feature a lot of weird angles, which is another sign this was made in the sixties (when filmmakers were still discovering television and saw it as a playground for some eccentric shots, the best of which ended up in movies).

It does use the beach setting to its advantage (if used right, it can help to build horrific images) and some of it lingers longer in the brain than the rest of the film (or indeed most other films), but overall I found Whistle and I’ll come to you quite dated and I couldn’t be convinced to see it as the iconic television movie it was portrayed to be. Then again, my expectations may have been too high and I’ll like it better if I see it again. But this one too isn’t high on my list and the ‘to see’ pile is huger than ever…

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