In Ireland in 1953, while on a financially-enforced recess from filming Othello, Orson Welles portrayed himself in a short, but effective, little ghost story entitled Return to Glennascaul. This two-reeler was inspired by the haunted land of Ireland itself, "haunted I say, because there is no land so overcrowded with the raw material of tall tales. That's what this is then, a tall tale". It was directed by Welles' long-time friend and collaborator Hilton Edwards, founder of the Gates Theatre in Dublin, where Welles began his acting career.
The film begins with Orson driving along a secluded country road, a road lined with the bare trees of autumn. Rain is pouring down heavy and the night is pitch as black. In the distance up ahead he sees a man in a trench coat tinkering with the motor of his car. Welles pulls up and asks if he would like a ride. Once inside the car the stranger offers Orson a cigarette and Orson comments on how beautiful his cigarette case is. The stranger remarks, "Yes, isn't it ....as a matter of fact I had quite a strange experience at that exact part of the road where you picked me up tonight".
Since this is a short film, Welles doesn't linger on the man's narrative very long, instead interrupting him to tell us, the audience, the story as he heard it. It is Welles' narration throughout the film that makes this simple story so appealing because his off-handed way of telling it makes us feel as though we were the sole recipients of his tale at a casual dinner party.
It seems this man was in the same situation as Welles - he was driving down that very same road one stormy night and saw two women standing beneath the signpost, a mother and her grown daughter. He asked if they would like a ride and they told him where they lived, it being a little ways further on, near Dublin. The man gladly took them there and they invited him inside for tea, to thank him for his trouble. The house was a large manor set back from the main road. In glass, above the entryway, were the words "Glennascaul". In Ireland, most houses are named and this one bore the name Glennascaul, meaning Glen of the Shadows.
It was not until the stranger was seated and having tea with them that he realized how peculiar they were dressed, as though they were from a different era. The house also seemed old-fashioned, especially since the pair were using gas lamps to light the room. While having tea, the daughter took interest in his cigarette case which was an heirloom from his uncle, a world traveler. It was given to his uncle as a gift in 1895, from a young woman whom he had intended on marrying and it bore the inscription...
"Until the day break and the shadows flee away".
The man enjoyed his visit but, realizing it was late, he bid them farewell and began to depart when the young woman called out to him, "You will come back!". And indeed he did. It is his return to Glennascaul which makes up the supernatural aspect of this film.
Return to Glennascaul is your traditional old-fashioned ghost story visually told through George Fleishman's excellent cinematography and a surprisingly tight script, penned by Hilton Edwards. The short is merely 23-minutes in length. This was Edwards first attempt at writing and directing and it is quite obvious that Orson Welles gave him some technical support for it could easily be mistaken for being one of Welles' very own projects. Accentuating the ambiance is a simple but haunting theme performed on a harp. At choice moments, merely the plucking of a solitary string sends chills down one's back.
Very few Irish ghost stories have been put on film and even fewer with Irish cast members. Return to Glennascaul features Michael Lawrence in the leading role of George Merriman, the hitchhiker, with Shelah Richards and the lovely Helena Hughes in the part of the mother and daughter. Richards was at one time the reigning star at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was also the aunt of the famous stage/film actress, Geraldine Fitzgerald.
When Return to Glennascaul was released in theatres it was quite popular in Britain, as well as in the States, where it soon became known as Orson Welles' Ghost Story. It even went on to be nominated for Best Short Subject at the Academy Awards.
Orson Welles' presence in this short classic lends it a special touch of humor which makes it all the more entertaining. Return to Glennascaul is one of our favorite ghost stories, especially enjoyable to watch on a cold cloudy day, and we hope that our readers will make it one of their favorites as well.
Click here to watch Return to Glennascaul in its entirety on Youtube.
This post is our contribution to Shorts! A Tiny Blogathon hosted by Fritzi over at Movies Silently. Be sure to stop by her website to read all about your favorite shorts and discover new titles that you never saw before.