The Canterville Ghost (1996)

Any horror fan of a certain age can tell you that 1996 was a big year for Neve Campbell. Off the back of that year’s The Craft and (more pointedly) Scream, the then-23 year old Canadian actress was elevated from “one of the girls off Party of Five” to a genre movie star, a status she retains to this day thanks to the enduring popularity of both aforementioned films. However, many of us (including, until very recently, myself) may be unaware that Campbell made a third venture into spooky territory that same year, starring alongside Patrick Stewart in a modernisation of Oscar Wilde’s novella The Canterville Ghost. The comparative obscurity of this one isn’t too great a surprise; for one, it was made for television, and by stark contrast with Campbell’s other 1996 films it’s resolutely family-friendly. Yet while it may not carry the same status in the popular consciousness, and is by no means without its obvious problems, The Canterville Ghost is in its own way a very endearing, old-fashioned take on a traditional ghost story.

I will confess that, on top of having been hitherto unfamiliar with this film, I hadn’t read Wilde’s story until very recently either, and it’s fair to say that this adaptation by screenwriter Robert Benedetti plays pretty fast and loose with Wilde’s material, sadly losing a bit of the wit along the way (something the author was quite well known for, as you might have heard once or twice). Where the novella in many respects plays like a dry run for Beetlejuice, playing heavily on the ghost’s irritation at having to deal with modern Americans in his house – all of whom, parents included, accept his existence immediately – this version of events plays things in a more conventional kids’ movie fashion, with the children knowing the truth and being driven to overcome their parents’ scepticism.

Campbell is Ginny, a teenage girl who, because of her father’s work as a professor of physics, finds herself moved with her family from their native Indiana to a huge old country house in England, Canterville Hall. Being a teenager, Ginny is very sullen about it all, even if her parents and her little twin brothers seem thrilled. We might wonder how a simple physics professor can afford so grandiose an abode, yet it seems the rent on the property is unusually low as tenants tend not to last that long, as the property is said to be haunted. While Ginny’s parents naturally dismiss this as an old wive’s tale, she and her brothers encounter the ghost, Sir Simon de Canterville (Stewart), on their very first night. While at first their energies are focused on a) trying to convince their parents of his existence and b) get him to stop haunting them, Ginny’s explorations around Canterville Hall lead to a deeper understanding of Sir Simon’s tragic situation, and a resolve to help him find the eternal rest that has eluded him for over 400 years.

Given the U-rating and the gentle tone, it would seem quite the stretch to class The Canterville Ghost as a horror film. In a curious, and quite agreeable way, the film took me back to that wonderful video of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing in which they extol the virtues of traditional spooky storytelling for children (Price talking so memorably about “creeping doors!” and “London in the fog!”). That’s really what we’ve got here: an old dark house, replete with a hidden door in the library to a cobweb-strewn passageway, which can of course only be traversed with a candelabra in hand. As much as these environments can be utilised to build a sense of dread, they can just readily evoke a sense of magic and wonder, and that’s very much what we get here, even with the comparatively cut-price TV movie production values, and the somewhat perfunctory direction of Syd Macartney.

However, whilst The Canterville Ghost might not be so lavish as a theatrical production, much of the cast certainly lifts things up a few notches. Most vital, of course, is Patrick Stewart. Ever the Shakespearean, Stewart’s in full-on theatrical mode here, speaking in iambic pentameter, projecting to the back row at all times, and no doubt having a blast while doing so, even if the SFX utilised to convey his ghostliness are sometimes a bit slapdash. British viewers are also likely to thrill to the sight of Carry On veteran Joan Sims as the housekeeper, not to mention such other old national treasures as Donald Sinden and Leslie Philips. Indeed, according to Robert Benedetti’s interview in the extras, the entire cast and crew bar Campbell and himself was British; and unfortunately this proves to be one of the film’s main problems, as some of the American accents, notably those of the child actors playing the younger brothers, are a bit shaky.

The other key problem with The Canterville Ghost is that, beyond the central ghost story – which, again, is played rather more straight than Wilde’s prose would suggest (no Wilde/straight pun intended) – the other plot threads are just not that compelling. Campbell does her best with what’s given to her, but she’s laden with a pretty two-dimensional role, and the side thread of her burgeoning romance with a young Duke (Daniel Betts) is rather unconvincing, and not helped by a total lack of chemistry between the two would-be lovers. Similarly, her struggle to convince her sceptical father (Edward Wiley) of the ghost’s existence feels overdone, with the father coming off excessively mean-spirited in his refusal to listen to his daughter, and his haste to blame her for any wrong-doing.

Still, when all’s said and done, this take on The Canterville Ghost (one among a good many screen adaptations of the story) is an entirely agreeable serving of all-ages supernatural whimsy. If you’re after something mildly spooky and family-friendly, and don’t want to go with Hocus Pocus or The Nightmare Before Christmas for the umpteenth time, this is definitely one to look out for.

The Canterville Ghost is available now on DVD and Blu-ray, from Second Sight.