Whistle and I’ll Come to You
Imagine a horror film with no anticipation, no sense of danger, no foreboding, no inexplicable happenings, no haunted house, no droplets of blood or creaking floors, or ominous bass line on the score. Imagine no music at all.
What if there was only the fear itself? Would that work?
Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You, produced for BBC television in 1968, is a singular piece of horror cinema because for its first half, it eschews “atmosphere” almost completely. Minimalism is not really a sufficient description; absenteeism would be better. Miller harnessed one of the characteristics of the short ghost story, which is that it is often told by amateurs like a joke, providing only the essentials required for the punchline to work, and took this idea to a startling extreme. The resultant film is, to many, almost inexplicably petrifying.
Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936) was not just a writer of ghost stories but also a legendary teller of them. His tales were read by candlelight to a small group of friends every Christmas Eve in the rooms of Kings College, Cambridge, where James was vice-chancellor, and later to schoolboys at Eton College. So popular were they that they have never since been out of print. Read to oneself, or out loud to an audience, James’s stories are still deliciously effective today, and Miller’s monochrome version of James’s most popular tale, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad is both a reverent retelling and a subversion. For James delighted in descriptive atmosphere, painting vivid pictures of solemn landscapes and coloring complex characters with filigreed detail. James’s subtle, gradual build-up of tension is from the classical school of storytelling, but Miller (like James a Cambridge polymath, a qualified doctor, comedian, and director of radical English-language versions of classical Italian operas) takes this story to another place.
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