Saturday, January 10, 2009

Horror: Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968, Jonathan Miller)

Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968)
UK, 42 min
Directed by: Jonathan Miller
Written by: M.R. James (story), Jonathan Miller (adaptation)

All good ghost stories should be in black-and-white. There's something inherently creepy in the crisp, greyish tones of B&W photography, effectively evoking a time and place where scientific logic didn't hold such sway, and the existence of lingering human spirits seemed more plausible. Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968) was released as an episode of the BBC television series Omnibus (1967-2002), and was adapted from a short story by M.R. James. Though hampered in some ways by a brief running time, preventing any in-depth exploration of the main character, the film is a classic supernatural chiller, a creepy ghost story in the same stylistic vein as Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) and Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963). Michael Hordern is perfect as the doddering old academic professor who mumbles his way across the exquisite Norfolk coastal countryside, detached from almost all social interaction. With the rustle of bedsheets and the soft whisper of a man's voice, Professor Parkins will discover that his life isn't quite as "lonely" as he thought it was.

At its thematic core, Whistle and I'll Come to You is less a ghost story, and more of a character study. One might choose not to take the bed-rustling spirits literally, and to consider them the manifestation of Professor Parkins' unwillingness to consciously acknowledge the possibility of the supernatural. When asked whether or not he believes in spirits, the professor evades the question with an assortment of largely-irrelevant intellectual musings, boasting a sort of academic elitism that leaves his sincere breakfast companion (Ambrose Coghill) – who is consistently kept at a distance – feeling foolish. The film's brief opening narration notes that M.R. James originally intended his story as an allegorical criticism of "intellectual pride," and this theme always sits at the forefront. Having placed his complete faith in the superiority of academic and scientific thinking, Professor Parkins has lost the ability to coherently interact with other people, and his snobbery extends towards the outright rejection of such far-fetched notions in folklore as that of ghosts. Subconsciously, however, there is always that niggling doubt: what if he's wrong?

Whistle and I'll Come to You has an extraordinary emptiness that I think works extremely well. Very few scenes actually contain any traces of the supernatural, but, as we have already been told that we are watching a ghost story, paranormality is allowed to pervade every moment. Professor Parkins wanders the windy Norfolk coastline, pausing to take in the views, to eat lunch, to read a book – in any other context, such sequences may have bordered on tedium, but our anticipation of the unnatural consistently keeps us holding our breath. Most of the film's icy shivers are brought about through uncanny use of sound effects, knowingly exploiting the instinctive human fear of that which we can hear but not see; the nearby rustling of bedsheets, in these circumstances, was one of the most unsettling noises I've ever heard in a film. Unfortunately, at just 42-minutes in length, the film does feel rather incomplete, as though it is merely the opening half of a feature-length film. Still, considering the medium for which it was made, Jonathan Miller has undoubtedly achieved excellence in the horror genre.


  1. Whistle and I'll come to you an outstanding piece of work! I can never be finished with it. Watch it, leave it six months or so and watch it again. I even find myself muttering Prof. Bradley Parkins lines or
    my own lines in his stylee.(God, I'm loosing it!) The pace, the atmosphere, the other actors and actresses and of course the very simple but oh so effective climax.
    Brilliant. "A warning to the curious" very good, but not as good.

  2. Hi Anonymous,
    Your obsession with this film is slightly unnerving, but I love the enthusiasm!

    Of the subsequent Ghost Stories for Christmas, I've also seen "A Warning to the Curious," "The Signalman" and "The Stalls of Barchester."
    The latter was little weak, but otherwise I'm loving the series!


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