Lot No. 249 review: This Ghost Story for Christmas is a macabre marvel
To let these eerie gems slip away would be a terrible mistake.
"It's just so hard," Mark Gatiss told RadioTimes.com of his efforts to continue funding the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas strand. "I don't want to sound like a bleeding heart, but people love them and I really hope we can find a way. But I think it's perilous because, as I always say, it's such an unusual slot... it's just really hard to scrape the money together."
Originated in the 1970s under the stewardship of director Lawrence Gordon Clark, Gatiss has shepherded the eerie anthology since 2018 – following a previous one-off in 2013 – but fears that his latest effort, an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's short story Lot No. 249, could be the final outing.
If it is to be so, he can at least take some comfort in going out on a high with what is a sublime piece of brisk, spine-chilling horror. But the quality of this year's short only underlines what a huge mistake it would be to let this series, a thrillingly macabre alternative to the usual festive fare, slip away.
Lot No. 249 follows 19th century academic Abercrombie Smith (played with the ideal amount of stiff-upper-lipped reserve by Kit Harington) as he encounters the strange and exotic Edward Bellingham (a suitably slimy Freddie Fox), whose arcane research into ancient Egypt could be inspiring something terrible...
Shot in a single, albeit vast, location – Rothamsted Manor in Hertfordshire – this year's Yuletide chiller is perhaps the best Gatiss has yet produced. It's a gripping 30 minutes containing plenty of fun twists, with intricate production design and an evocative score by Blair Mowat offering heaps of atmosphere.
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Faced, by his own admission, with a limited budget, Gatiss makes virtues of these limitations. We spend almost the entire half hour with just three characters – Smith, Bellingham and Monkhouse Lee (Colin Ryan, perfectly cast as the unworldly student) – and this, coupled with some deft character touches inserted in the script and superb performances from the cast mean we feel we know these men intimately despite the short runtime.
The old horror trope of only allowing the audience glimpses of the monster is also employed, perhaps partly out of necessity, but it works wonderfully here to create a real sense of dread and unease – the brief sightings we do get are supremely effective and genuinely frightening.
Lot No. 249 is an even more impressive achievement when you learn that it was filmed in just four days – to make something this good under any circumstances is no small feat, but to pull it together in less than a working week is nothing short of remarkable.
"I'm hoping for an eccentric billionaire [to fund it]!" Gatiss joked when discussing the uncertain future of A Ghost Story for Christmas. It might be a long shot, but here's hoping the money can be found somewhere, somehow, to continue supporting what is one of the most distinctive pieces of entertainment the BBC puts out not just at Christmas, but at any time of the year.
A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lot No. 249 airs on Christmas Eve (Sunday, 24th December) at 10pm on BBC Two.