Those working on a TV special on the history of witchcraft have peculiar run-ins with a mysterious, reclusive alchemist known as Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson, Gorillas in the Mist), a man who openly espouses lust, deviance and all-around evil. When one character recalls a co-worker's fatal brush with Karswell (depicted in the prologue) and says that her unfortunate friend was found with "his face fixed in sort of an animal smile," you know creepy things are a-coming, and they are.
Karswell works his black magic via cursed pieces of paper that promise death in one month unless the curse can be reversed — a more lenient time period compared to The Ring's “seven days.” To be more specific would ruin Runes’ shocks, delivered via antiquated methods although they may be. Remember, Runes' was an era before DVRs and DVDs, so resist the urge to pause to get finite details; just let the show do its work as intended.
The wintry outdoors cast a spooky pallor to the 47-minute proceedings, even the scenes in broad daylight. Admittedly, the show’s switch from filmed exteriors to video-shot interiors can be jarring, but only initially; the story (superbly adapted by The Awakening’s Clive Exton) digs its claws into you quick enough. Note: Arachnophobes, beware.
Acorn Media’s Casting the Runes DVD contains more than meets the eye. Watch the two extras back to back, and it's almost like digesting an M.R. James Creepshow-style omnibus, or as close as we’re likely to get. One is a 20-minute episode of something called Music Scene: ostensibly a documentary on composers, but its framework interview dissolves near instantly into a fine 1976 short, “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance,” based on another of the author’s stories, also from 1911.
In the film, Humphreys (Geoffrey Russell, Murder by Decree) attempts to map the disused garden maze on the property newly bequeathed to him by an uncle. The shock ending is clever and creepy. Note: Arachnophobes, beware.
The other extra is “A Pleasant Terror: The Life and Ghosts of M.R. James,” a documentary on the celebrated writer. At 51 minutes, it's longer than the main program and carries interview segments with actor Christopher Lee and novelist Ruth Rendell, among others. But its real selling point is twofold: It contains both mini-adaptations of other James’ works, and clips from the BBC's adaptations of “The Ash Tree,” “Lost Hearts,” “A Warning to the Curious” and the immortal “Whistle and I'll Come to You,” all of which I now want to see. Oh, and note: Arachnophobes, beware. —Rod Lott