Earliest film of Christmas ghost story sees light

Watch the BFI’s restoration of The Mistletoe Bough (1904), the oldest film version of a classic Christmas ghost story.

Watch the full version of The Mistletoe Bough on the BFI Player.

Guaranteed to spook a whole new generation over 100 years later, the earliest film version of a classic Christmas ghost story is about to see the light of day in a new BFI restoration. Made in 1904, The Mistletoe Bough is based on a ghostly folk tale traditionally sung or recited at Christmas time, predating even Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

The restoration, including a new score by Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs, will have its big-screen premiere at a special event called Nightmares Before Christmas at BFI Southbank on 14 December. It is already available to watch on the BFI Player, our new video-on-demand platform.

The story of a husband who loses his wife during a game of hide and seek, only to be startled by her ghost 30 years later, inspired author Kate Mosse’s newly published collection of short stories The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales and is referenced in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

“The Mistletoe Bough is an appropriate seasonal treat for the BFI’s current celebration of Gothic cinema,” says Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s curator of silent film. “109 years since it was made, this charming film still has the power to inspire a chill with its rendering of the legend of the Mistletoe Bough and its tragic bride.”

The BFI National Archive has long held an original release print from 1904. Now the film has been digitally restored: it was scanned at 2K resolution using a ‘wet gate’ process to eliminate surface scratches and the image has been stabilised, to create a new High Definition master.

The film was probably shot near the Clarendon Studio, Limes Road, Croydon, and combines exterior scenes with those shot on studio sets. Although the final shot of the bride’s skeleton is missing – it was common for the endings of reels to get progressively shorter, through damage caused by repeated projection – this remains a fascinating early example of filmed gothic.

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