Old films

· culture ·

We found very little worth watching over Christmas. This didn't bother us much, as we were happy to chat or listen to music or read. However, we did watch two particularly good films, and both were fairly old.

I don't know quite how this has happened, but I've never seen It's a Wonderful Life (and I call myself a film buff — it's shocking). I've seen enough parodies, clips and homages to the film that I feel as if I've watched it, but I thought it was time to see to real thing. We rented it from Lovefilm, and settled down to watch it on Christmas Eve; highly appropriate, given that the film is set on the same day. I thought that I might find it a bit sickly and sentimental, but I was utterly charmed by it. James Stewart is perfect as George Bailey — you really feel his frustration as he is torn between doing what he sees as his duty and what he really wants to do. When he turns on his wife and children in impotent rage at his impending bankruptcy, it's quite frightening. It might be idealistic, but I'd really like to believe that the world really works like that, and that good people who do selfless things eventually get their reward.

The other enjoyable experiences (we watched several) were the ghost stories of M. R. James, which were televised in the 1970s. The stories, published around the 1900s, are unbelievably creepy. He never described the ghosts or monsters in stories very clearly, but let your imagination build them up. He also constructed an amazing level of psychological suspense from very simple stories. The filmed versions were quite faithful to this approach, and just let you glimpse the ghosts out of the corner of your eye, so to speak. We watched the programmes with candles lit and the lights out, and thoroughly enjoyed being scared.

My favourite was A Warning to the Curious. It confirmed my opinion that Norfolk is a deeply creepy place, and had some deeply shivery moments. At one point, the main character is digging up a cursed crown in some woodland at the dead of night. Quite why he's doing it a night when he knows that the last person who tried it was found murdered with a billhook, and he's already felt that he's being followed is — of course — one of the great mysteries of the ghost story. He thinks he hears something and shines his torch beam around the trees. As this little beam of light moves over the tree, you briefly see a white face peering out from behind one of the trunks. Yaarghh! I gripped my cushion pretty tightly right then, I can tell you.