Following 2017’s Holy Terrors (review here) the excellent film adaptation of various tales by the mystical author Arthur Machen, the directorial duo of Julian Butler and Mark Goodall return with a tale from another past master of the mysterious and macabre – Oliver Onions* and an adaptation of his short tale ‘The Beckoning Fair One’.
The premise of the story follows a writer as he moves into a new apartment in order to complete a novel. Eventually it is revealed that apartment is haunted by the ghost of a previous resident- the ‘beckoning fair one’ of the title.
Timed at 23 minutes, Goodall & Butler’s version of the tale stays closer to Onion’s original short story than the 1968 Don Chaffey directed adaptation that featured as an episode of the ABC/ITV supernatural/weird anthology series Journey to the Unknown.
The Chaffey version has a different tone and replaces the author protagonist with a painter. It gives a specific time-setting in that it takes place 25 years after the World War 2 bombings of London and in doing so gives a more thorough exposition of the presence in the house than either Onion’s story or the Butler-Goodall version. The Chaffey adaptation runs at one hour which is perhaps too long to tell the story as it feels repetitive in parts rather than tension-building. It is however worth a watch both in itself and as a contrast to Goodall & Butler’s envisioning. (There is also a 1973 Italian Giallo film called Un Tranquillo Posto di Campagna – A Quiet Place in the Country inspired by the tale.)
Butler & Goodall only take 23 minutes on the tale which is enough to do it justice. Its tone and atmosphere is rather oneiric; slow-burning yet getting subtly under the skin delivering an entirely believable yet uncanny experience. Its sound design and crisp well-framed photography coupled with an aesthetically pleasing palette and good location choices serve up a pleasant yet eerie package – with a tale and delivery that does hazily unsettle. It is set in contemporary times, but still maintains a timeless quality. It keeps close to the psychological aspect of the original story, keeping the presence within the house and the brooding will of the building itself to the front and foremost -its horror is cerebral and suggestive not an exhibition of gore or jump-scares.
Having a narrator detail the entire tale over live-action footage may not be to the taste of all viewers but for a film of this length serves its purpose well. Indeed I could see Butler & Goodall’s The Beckoning Fair One sit perfectly into A Ghost Story For Christmas slot. Having previously seen (several times actually) and loved their take on the tales of Machen, they have now displayed an empathy and understanding of Oliver Onion’s macabre tale and how to deliver it. I am left hungering to see them take on more of the past visionaries of the horror short story. I’d be curious and keen to see what they could do with the tales of Robert Aickman and Algernon Blackwood for instance.
If anyone from the BBC happens to read this, take heed for Goodall and Butler are creating work that suits these times but also sits comfortably with established spooky series such as A Ghost Story for Christmas, Supernatural (1977) or The World Beyond etc.
The Beckoning Fair One can be seen in its entirety HERE
Portrait of Oliver Onions – Andy Paciorek
*Oliver Onions (1873 – 1961) was an author and artist from Bradford, England. Originally trained as a graphic artist, Onions began writing fiction under the encouragement of the American writer Gelet Burgess. Turning his hand to detective stories, science fiction and historical drama also, it is perhaps for his short tales of the weird, supernatural and spectral that he is best known. His 1911 collection Widdershins which features The Beckoning Fair One is amongst his most famous and critically acclaimed works (including amongst several other writers of weird fiction). As with The Beckoning Fair One, the theme of the relationship between creativity and madness is a theme that he returned to in his work several times.
Married to the novelist Berta Ruck and the father of two sons, Oliver Onions passed away in Aberystwyth, Wales in 1961.
Review by Andy Paciorek
All images unless credited otherwise © Julian Butler & Mark Goodall