meIt’s a project that’s always had a slight gritty vibe of Gretchen from Mean Girls bravely trying to make “fetch” happen, but “this is the season of goodwill and all that, so let’s keep trying to embrace BBC Two’s attempt to make the MR James adaptation by Mark Gatiss a Christmas tradition.” beloved.
Last year, if you’ll recall, it was The Mezzotint’s turn, the tale – told eerily and comfortingly – of a picture you probably own. His gentle progression through enough twists and turns to fill a half hour was quite a treat.
This year it’s the turn of Count Magnus, whose slight and unseen plots struggle to fill a small part of that time or just as engagingly.
Travelogue writer and researcher Mr. Wraxhall (described as “overindulgent” by narrator Krister Henrickson and played perfectly by Jason Watkins to inspire a mixture of affection and annoyance) visits Sweden. He has come to a small snowy village to investigate the correspondence preserved in the archives of an old manor house. Built by local landowner and legend Count Magnus, it’s now occupied by the spectral pale widow Froken de la Gardie (MyAnna Buring), her remaining servant Gustave (Jamal Ajala) and an assortment of unsettling ancestor portraits (that’s how I know her heavy mustache). The Wraxhall hostess offers him accommodations – “the house was so silent, so sad” – but he declines and goes to stay at the local inn, until we can get more information about the mysterious number from the innkeeper Herr Nielsen (Max Bremer).
Even as local landowners go with a heavy mustache, Count Magnus seems to have been a really bad type: flogging and branding any peasants in arrears with their rent and burning some inside their homes as a warning to others. “It is not remembered kindly,” says Nielsen, through which I gather him to be a master of understatement.
It was all before he visited the Holy Land on a black pilgrimage and rumors began to circulate about him having brought something completely unholy. Something, says Nielsen. “or someone.”
Overinvestigation is very probing, and this news only sends Wraxhall into further investigation. He finds papers on pilgrimages in the family archives, visits the count’s mausoleum in the local church grounds (A padlock fell off one of the chains around his grave! It doesn’t matter. Why did the tomb have chains closed around it? An overzealous visitor fails to ask about that time or on his next visit – when he falls Another lock! It doesn’t matter). He then has a coded conversation with the Deacon about the count’s general rumor followed by a horror with Nielsen, who tells him of a villager whose flesh has been sucked from his face by the count’s suspicious companion. A final unlock-less visit to the shrine and the tombs open, tentacles wiggling outward and poor Wraxhall leaning insane. An even worse fate awaits him at home, but this is a production with one jump scare in its arsenal and its end occurring completely off screen.
A small extra twist from Gatiss that’s a lot. It’s had more action than a hazy comic strip, but it has weathered the passage of time and has kept a lot of nice actors in lucrative jobs. I hope to return to Form, or a selection of fuzzy annuals from eBay next year. Santa, please take note.
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