Sneak Peak: Adam Mason’s Empire of Dirt

Few modern directors have such a distinctive, visceral style as Adam Mason, and it’s fair to say that I’ve taken a keen interest in his career so far: over the years I’ve reviewed his feature films Blood River, Pig, Luster, Junkie, and Hangman, and also interviewed Adam (together with collaborator Simon Boyes). I’ve always felt excited and challenged by his work. So obviously, when I got the opportunity to take a look at his brand new short film, Empire of Dirt, I jumped at it.

Rather than a straightforward stand-alone short film, Empire of Dirt is intended to introduce characters and themes which will be explored fully in a feature-length offering. As such, no time is wasted: we’re shown, briefly, that these events are taking place in Manilla, 1997, and then we’re straight in to a frantic shootout, followed by a skirmish in a dilapidated building. It seems as though our protagonist is coming to the aid of a desperate, terrified woman, at least on first impressions: whatever his loyalty to her is, he pitches himself into some gritty, bloody and physical action, killing those he finds, with the violence happening both on and off screen. It’s a testament to Mason’s directorial abilities here that, even in a few short minutes, you feel as disturbed by the violence taking place off-screen as you do the violence in front of you.

However, any resolution to all of this is withheld: the film executes a radical shift, revealing to us that there is far more here than meets the eye. Our main character is acting under duress; supernatural elements are briefly introduced and we see enough to appreciate that that this isn’t some standard hitman, and the girl he’s saving? The first glance didn’t reveal everything about her, and she isn’t what she seems to be. Quickly, the film moves from its harsh realism into nightmare.

As a taster of a potentially full-length film, Empire of Dirt merges enough of the raw and the bizarre to suggest a deeply-intriguing and engaging tale could follow. It is full of that vivid claustrophobia which Mason does so well, and it looks superb, with strong palates of reds, blues and greens. The resonant music keeps up the emotional weight throughout, and the introduction of those otherworldly elements, even in a few short minutes, raises the tension of the film to an almost unbearable level, suggesting that we can expect a particularly grisly spin on haunting, conscience and revenge. I’m certainly curious…

There’s a great deal within Empire of Dirt which would reward development into a feature length format, and I look forward to being able to comment on the whole story.

IT (2017)

Few writers have had their work adapted for the screen half so much as Stephen King, nor with such variable results, but then this is exactly to be expected when the man himself’s work has varied so wildly over the years. When it comes to the huge tomes from his early days, such as The Stand and IT, the TV miniseries has often seemed to be the way to go, rather than making a feature film. Particularly bearing in mind that epic-length films are really more a contemporary domain, it no doubt made sense, even if for manageability alone, to serialise the events of the books over a period of weeks. The resulting TV version of IT, made in 1990, for all its (now apparent) flaws cemented itself as a formative experience for many viewers, particularly those of us in our thirties. Look at it now, and what you mainly see are the awkward birth pangs of CGI; back then, though, everyone – very few of whom had read the book, and many of whom were children themselves – were frightened of Pennywise the Clown.

Of course, knowing this, the new, epic-length film version of IT has repositioned itself so that the Losers Club are actually growing up in the late 80s, not the 50s; the nostalgists which the film is depending on now see their own childhoods reflected within the story, rather than seeing their childhoods simply in the memory of watching the series. The snake is eating its own tale: series like Stranger Things come along and commemorate the creepy 80s, then a film comes along which casts some of the same kids in a newly 80s story. But then, in a film about children’s fears, this approach is completely in keeping with things as a whole.

We start on familiar territory, and one of the many iconic scenes we saw first in 1990, only made more savage, more jagged for our jaded post torture porn palates (if that phrase gets into The Guardian, you saw it here first, and I’m very sorry.) On a stormy afternoon in Derry, Maine, older brother Billy (Jaeden Lieberher) is helping his kid brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to wax a paper boat, so that Georgie can go and sail it along the flooded gutters. The boat sails really well, so much so that little Georgie can’t keep up, and the boat disappears down a drain – but someone catches it. Georgie is amazed to see a clown deep within the sewer, who promises him his boat back, if he’ll only reach out and take it…

Months go by. Billy and his family are not alone in having children missing, but as devastating as this is, Billy and his friends have enough hell from their day to day lives: bullying, isolation, puberty, indifferent or downright wicked adults. It’s a combination of all of this which presses the so-called ‘Losers Club’ into the dual world of escapism and danger which solving these mysteries entails; slowly, they begin to piece together a unique puzzle, and they throw themselves into the path of something bizarre, demonic and very hungry which has long been hiding in the sewers beneath their home town.

This is not the full picture, and indeed, what turns out to be IT: Chapter One only concerns itself with the flashbacks to childhood, which link the Losers Club back together as adults in the novel. It’s clearly explained that more is to follow, and the way in which the story has been chaptered here actually works well – or at least, the first film does, so I hope subsequent films do likewise. There are certainly a fair few questions about Pennywise and his actions which could be explored at some point; perhaps there’s some assumption that viewers will already appreciate the extra dimensional elements already, which is fair – or, the film also works perfectly well as a straightforward horror staple, the omnipotent bad guy who knows just what you fear. It would however be interesting to see how much exposition is going to follow.

IT also uses its now thirty-years-old setting, a world before health and safety, safeguarding and more concerted efforts to tackle bullying, to present childhood itself as horrific. Sure, these kids didn’t have to prefix ‘bullying’ with ‘cyber’, but no one was tranquilised by mobile phones and social media, either: it plain didn’t exist. Your plight was your own, and your world ended at the edge of town, or went as far as your friendship group – if you had one. It seems to me that knowing all of this – seeing these changes – has also been used to add to the impact of the supernatural horror. (This would have been as much the case had they left the setting in the mid-twentieth century, mind, but fewer of us would now recognise that in the same degree of detail.) As for the adults in IT, and bearing in mind that many viewers are now approximately the same age as them and not the kids, they’re represented as negligent at best, incestuous at worst: they cajole, they medicate, they exploit but most of all, they ignore their offspring completely. Their children are ripe pickings for any sinister force which might come along.

Whilst the sinister force itself relies on jump scares and a brand new toolbag of terrifying antics, the end result is definitely entertaining, with some ingenious new scenes – and no one could level the charge that the SFX here is lacking, though how they’ll feel in another twenty-seven years remains to be seen. The film moves at a fast pace, doesn’t skimp on the gruesome carnival of Pennywise’s tricks, and ramps up the splatter throughout, giving rise to complaints from some quarters that the genuine otherworldliness of the novel has been sacrificed. It’s certainly true that IT (2017) takes its cues from the likes of Insidious as much as it does the old miniseries, and it looks every inch the modern horror, with more fast-moving, snarling antagonists, heavy use of shadow and even the odd moment you catch yourself recalling from the many Far Eastern horrors which have emerged in the past twenty years or so. Still, considering he only gets a few moments of screen time, Bill Skarsgård does a decent job as Pennywise, a challenging role for someone themselves only in their twenties. I feel that the nu-Pennywise lacks something of the innocence which Tim Curry was able to convey (and then shed, to great effect) but this he makes up for, with the aid of clever special effects assistance, in scenes which are brand new and now very much his own. It’s probably fairly unlikely anyway, but I never want to see a slide projector again.

So, it’s been simplified, it’s been dressed up in new clothes, and it’s been (perhaps slightly cynically) repackaged, but it would be difficult to deny that the new, faster, sleeker and even more monstrous IT isn’t vastly entertaining anyway. Decisions have to be made whenever turning to Stephen King for source material, but I think that, largely, the right decisions outweigh the more questionable ones here.

IT is on general release in cinemas now.

 

Celluloid Screams 2017

Festival season is upon us once more, and one by one, the best horror and genre film festivals of the UK are revealing what they have lined up. Myself and co-editor Ben often take ourselves down to Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema for Celluloid Screams: now in its ninth year, it has introduced us to a range of excellent films during the years we’ve been attending, and films we see there have often wound up on our ‘Best Of’ lists at the end of the year – proving that festivals are where it’s at for film fans. This year looks to be no different, with an absolutely stellar line-up coming our way. Whilst there’s often a bit of overlap between festivals of this nature (no bad thing, in my opinion, meaning that most people will be able to get to at least one of the screenings they’re after) Celluloid Screams has also got the steal on some intriguing and exciting new films.

Here’s some of the highlights for me:

The Endless (Friday 20th October)

We’ve been big advocates of filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead here at Warped Perspective (or rather, back in the Brutal as Hell days) and there’s a good reason for that. Benson/Moorhead blend clarity of vision with sharp characterisation and masses of imagination; they never feel they need to give the audience a safe journey, and both of their films so far (Resolution and Spring) rank amongst some of the most memorable films I’ve personally seen in recent years. I cannot wait for The Endless. Engage copy and past mode:

A decade after leaving their home at Camp Arcadia, an isolated new age cult, brothers Justin and Aaron (directors Benson and Moorhead stepping in front of the camera this time) struggle to make ends meet in their normal lives. When a videotape arrives containing an invitation to revisit the camp, the two brothers are drawn back towards their previous life, initially enamoured once more with the seemingly idyllic existence that they used to share. The longer they stay however, the more it becomes apparent that the retreat and its surroundings are governed by strange and indescribable forces that threaten the very existence of those who dwell within it.

Borley Rectory (Friday 20th October)

…And breathe. Anyone who is interested in ghostly phenomena will likely have heard of Borley Rectory, once vaunted as “the most haunted house in England”. As a child, poring over investigator Harry Price’s accounts of this place terrified me so much that I had to sleep with the lights on for weeks. I’m beyond excited, therefore, to see this story – over six years in the making – making it to the screen. Director Ashley Thorpe calls his film an ‘ultrasound of a haunting’ and I anticipate great things. The involvement of League of Gentlemen/Psychoville actor and writer Reece Shearsmith is another element in its favour; alongside the other Gents, two of whom are going to be present at the festival (see below), Shearsmith has been integral in scooping up all manner of horror tropes and presenting them to us in bleakly comic form. It takes know-how to blend terror and comedy, but of course Shearsmith has carved a career as a horror and genre actor of some calibre, so appearing in a piece of work which picks at the seams of the ghastly British consciousness is exactly the kind of progression I’d both hope for and expect from him.

68 Kill (midnight showing, Friday 20th October)

Much has already been said of 68 Kill, the vast majority of which has been glowingly positive, and this sounds like a great film to pick for the late night slot. Trent Haaga is a safe pair of hands when it comes to what the blurb describes as ‘outrageous’ cinema:

Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) is a sucker for a pretty face. Dominated by his dangerously beautiful girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord), he duly accedes to her every whim. However, poor Chip lands himself in a whole heap of trouble when he reluctantly agrees to assist Liza with the robbery of $68,000 from her sugar daddy. This theft leads to a blood-splattered and increasingly outrageous sequence of events, as Chip tries desperately to find a way out of his chaotic situation and return to the simple life he once knew.

I Remember You (Saturday 21st October)

An Icelandic supernatural noir/horror? Sign me up; this tiny nation is (accordingly) something of a rarity on the genre and horror circuits, but has a culture, folklore and outlook all its own which is ripe for on-screen exploration:

Based on Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s best-selling novel, this supernatural scandi-noir is certain to send a shiver down your spine. An elderly woman hangs herself inside a church in the remote Westfjords of Iceland, which leads to an investigation into a number of strange deaths of elderly people in the region. Freyr, the new psychiatrist in town discovers that the deceased woman was obsessed with the disappearance of his 7-year-old son, who vanished without a trace three years prior. Across the bay in an abandoned village, three city dwellers are restoring a house when a series of supernatural occurrences begin to unfold. These two stories gradually intertwine and it turns out that the disappearance of a young boy decades earlier may hold the key to uncovering the truth.

Tragedy Girls (Saturday 21st October)

Been hearing good things about this one, and any skits on the pervasiveness of the ‘likes’ culture of social media (by the way, please ‘like’ and share this post for our edification) and our mordant preoccupation with celebrity deserve to be seen and enjoyed. This one will no doubt make us laugh at it all, too, which is exactly the reaction we need in greater abundance:

Meet Sadie and McKayla, aka the ‘Tragedy Girls’. Together, they run a website devoted to true crime. Their fascination with the subject is boundless, and the girls soon find they’re no longer satisfied with merely writing about violence, and decide to embark on a more ‘hands-on’ approach. Comedy ensues as the delightfully gruesome killings end up looking like accidents, much to the girls’ frustration, as they crave recognition for their murderous prowess. As their exploits attract attention to their small town, the Tragedy Girls quickly become engulfed in the social media fame they always dreamed of – but will their relationship survive it?

Special Event: Inside Number 9 (Special Anthology Screening – Saturday 21st October)

Remember how I said The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville wrought horror into uncomfortable laughter? Add Inside Number 9 to that list: it’s another piece of genius writing and storytelling for television which calls to the late, great horror telly of years gone by. With this special anthology screening of a selection of episodes, writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith will be in attendance both to introduce their work, and answer questions afterwards.

M. F. A (Sunday 22nd October)

I’d expect this to be the most harrowing piece of work on the bill. However, these are often the films we need the most; weave a story out of something disturbing and possibly relatable, and you can explore the feelings it engenders in a way which often just fails to materialise when you simply look at news or statistics:

Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) is a shy and withdrawn art student. She has a hard time fitting in with her peers, so she’s thrilled when she receives an invitation to a party from handsome classmate Luke. However, the evening takes a devastating turn when Noelle is brutally raped.

After seeking help from various sources, Noelle encounters hypocrisy, injustice, and a total unwillingness to address the situation. Her frustration soon turns to anger, and Noelle decides to take matters into her own hands. She sets out to avenge rape survivors whilst channelling her rage into her artwork, creating dark and affecting pieces for her thesis. With a mesmerising performance by Eastwood, this captivating revenge thriller tackles rape culture in modern society head-on with a fierce and unflinching intensity. Though it does contain scenes that some viewers may find upsetting, it deftly tackles the tough subject matter to shine a spotlight on a very real issue.

This is just a snapshot of the weekend to come: there’s plenty more at the website, including a staggering array of short films, which are always given their fair dues at Celluloid Screams (and often make for the most unusual and innovative pieces of film you’ll see during the year). Also, look out for some classic screenings of Suspiria (which is turning 40) and Hellraiser (which is turning 30!)

Passes for the whole festival are priced at £85 (or a tenner less for concessions) or, if you’re a young whippersnapper between the ages of 18-26, you could get a £60 pass as part of Showroom Cinema’s Cine26 membership scheme. Individual tickets go on sale on the 22nd September. We’ll see you there!

The Guardians (2017)

Though a few notable films have bucked the trend, it’s still comparatively rare, at least in Western cinema, that we see so much of a mention of Stalin or the Soviets whilst Nazi bad guys are ten a penny in all manner of horror, sci-fi and exploitation cinema. So, when I saw the promo material for Guardians – a modest budget Russian sci-fi – it seemed that here we’d have a film to buck the trend, what with all the mentions of Stalin taking action in response to the Nazis developing ‘super soldiers’ and what-have-you. It turns out that this context is mainly for the press information and doesn’t really feature in the film at all, however, so aside from some black and white images relative to the Cold War in the opening credits, the film is set squarely in modern-day Russia.

Still, we do find out early on that there’s a super-secret Russian military project called Patriot, which, during the early part of the Cold War, used Bad Science in an attempt to one-up the enemy by creating a select few shapeshifting soldiers called – you’ve guessed it – the Guardians. But after the head honcho scientist August Kuratov goes power-mad, tweaking himself (if you’ll excuse the expression) into some sort of super-mutant whilst rigging up his laboratory to explode whenever anyone tries to thwart him, then the by-now disparate Guardians have to be reunited. Yes, we’re in the modern day by now, but time does not affect either creator or Guardian in a normal way. Their aim? To stop Dr. Kuratov doing something faintly confusing which involves taking control of all the machines in ze vorld! (See! I’m used to this being the Germans…)

The Guardians themselves, once back together, need to use their slightly odd array of skills to defeat their erstwhile engineer. So we have: Ksenia, a woman who becomes transparent in water, and is impervious to extremes of temperature; Khan, a guy who can move very fast and has some equally speedy swords; Ler, who can make stones move, and (my obvious personal favourite) Arsus, who can turn into a half man, half bear (the top half) or if he’s really up against it, an ENTIRE BEAR, replete with Incredible Hulk style magic reappearing trousers when he becomes a man again. The rest of the film prioritises a number of what look like reasonably budgeted fight/action scenes, with a fair few head-scratching moments regarding the plot: it feels rather as if things are being raced through here, simply in order to introduce some action heroes who are clearly being set up for a sequel by the end credits – which is okay, but if you’re expecting a detailed story, best forget it. In fact, you’re probably already thinking of a certain other franchise at this point, and yes, the similarities to X-Men are manifest, albeit the latter takes more time (or more time makes it to screen) to establish character and motivation. It’s as if director Sarik Andreasyan has looked at all the X-Men movies and got a little ahead of himself, wondering how he could propel his own characters to those heights. This is clearly a film made by a team cognisant of the rage for superheroes ongoing in cinema. Guardians goes at a run throughout, where perhaps it would have established itself better by taking a breath.

Still, given these similarities, it’s interesting to see where it does differ from that other film about a taskforce with superhuman mutations, and I think it’s interesting that Guardians has a Russian threatening Russia – at least as his first port of call – whilst the Guardians are from/have been scattered to the far corners of what once was the USSR. It is, I suppose, an idealised spin on history, where an evil globalist marches on Moscow and has to be suppressed by the Old Guard. Or, of course, I’m reading far too much into a film which revels in its cartoon strip, sci-fi lite substance, because I will say this: I rather enjoyed it, even though Marvel et al tends to leave me cold. It’s aesthetically pleasing, blends well-choreographed action with suitable cartoony CGI sequences, and plumps for the more family-friendly route through things, so – if watching the slightly jarring broad American dubbed version, of course, which is also fun – everyone gets to play. If you’re prepared to park your brain at the door, and you know you’re going to be getting something akin to a video game with fight sequences and cutscenes, then yeah, Guardians feels oddly tried-and-tested, but there’s enough here for simple entertainment. Ultimately, any film which uses the phrase “FULL BEAR MODE” has done enough. Frankenstein’s Army this ain’t, but it does what you’d expect, on its own terms.

The Guardians is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

A Ghost Story (2017)

The way that I first found out about its existence no doubt did a great disservice to A Ghost Story. Remember that Guardian newspaper article from July, which argued for something called ‘post-horror’? Post-horror is, of course, simply the latest in a long line of terms invented by people who can’t quite accept that they may have liked or made some horror: we’ve had dark fantasy, social thrillers, and now we have post-horror; Nia has already debunked this more succinctly than I could do here. But the fact is, this was my first introduction to David Lowery’s film, and it could easily have poisoned the well. To anyone in a similar position, I’d say – see the film. It may be the case that it isn’t to your tastes: it’s a quiet, subtle and almost voiceless film, with minimal action and the majority of its quite devastating messages left to audience imagination. But it also manages to be one of the most horrific stories about time that I have ever seen, adding a different perspective to the old staple idea of ‘a haunting’ which has the potential to really get under your skin. It’s certainly got under mine.

The nameless couple at the heart of the story (played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) seem to be deeply in love – we start by seeing them cuddled intimately and sharing stories, with ‘M’ (Mara) describing how, as a child, she moved around a lot and would always write and hide small pieces of paper bearing messages – so that she left a little of herself wherever she’d been. Moving forward, the couple now seem to be planning a move of their own, away from the small house which will go on to figure hugely in the film. M seems more engaged by all of this than her partner, ‘C’, but in the rapid-fire way which is a hallmark of this film, we move forward again: C has been killed in an accident, right outside the house. His partner has to identify his body, which she does, in an understated but moving scene. All of this is traumatic in its own right; she pulls the sheet back over his face, and leaves his body behind.

At this point, C sits bolt upright. The sheet which covers him stays in place, referencing the old idea of ghosts wearing shrouds (see the alleged ghost photograph taken at Newby Church in the UK as an example) and also the prevalent idea in Western culture that ghosts remain because of some sort of unfinished business. Instead of walking through what looks like an exit, which is incidentally the only slightest nod to conventional ideas about the afterlife in the film, he walks home. From now, the character is mute and invisible. Whereas in a book like The Lovely Bones, where the deceased narrator is again drawn back towards their loved ones, in the novel we have just that – a narrator. Here. we have to read the ghost’s actions, even gestures, and we can do no more. We do know, however, that C’s ghost is fascinated by M, and desperate to reach out to her. Here. it could easily have segued into something which feels familiar – a Ghost (1990) for the Tumblr generation, where things seem bleaker but more picturesque as a rule. However, the key moment comes when M moves out; the ghost remains, trapped, waiting for her. Weeks – or years, decades? – go by. He observes life unfolding, but it is intermittent; a moment gives way to a different season, different residents. Still the ghost is there, (usually) invisible and unable to voice his thoughts. In this, A Ghost Story is indeed a horror story, because there can be few things more horrifying than the prospect of an eternity in this state.

And it’s time – not any evident God or other force – which drives the quiet horror of the film. C’s ghost is fixated on achieving something in the house, but seems to forget, or time runs away from him, or he begins to observe things around him, which are distracting. The mundane holds sway, he observes day upon day upon day of it, yet he seemingly lacks the ability to focus on things of his choosing. We accompany him in this confused, unsettlingly non-linear state, allowed to tune in only at certain moments; the effect of this is very eerie, almost unpalatable. Things which we see or hear only underline the great powerlessness of this key, yet unspeaking, faceless being, and by proxy, us (though a particularly overt nihilistic speech takes a moment to hammer that powerlessness home). And time is huge – it can wipe everything away, or do worse. The film forces us to contemplate how time is doing the very same thing to us, with some key scenes in particular showing just how tenuous it all is, and how the mundane can easily shift to something cataclysmic. It’s all presented in such picturesque fashion, too, that this only underlines the deep sadness here.

A Ghost Story presents age-old concerns and truisms in an artistic, innovative and finely-detailed form. It takes away many of the markers audiences might be expecting, but in so doing, it casts us adrift in the same settings and states as C, which allows the film to cast a very sombre spell. As I said earlier in the review, its low-pitched approach will be too quiet for some (I heard someone bemoaning this as the credits rolled) but after expecting something rather smug, something deliberately ‘post-horror’, instead I found a film which is imaginative, sophisticated and incredibly affecting. It’s rare – rarer than I’d like – that I see a film which I keep returning to in my head, days after the fact: A Ghost Story definitively achieves this, with next to no dialogue and only little exposition. Sometimes that which speaks least speaks the loudest, and there are no easy answers to be had.

A Ghost Story is now showing in selected UK cinemas.

 

 

 

 

30 Years of Stage Fright

Note: this feature contains spoilers!

In a small US theatre, the cast of avant-garde performance The Night Owl are readying themselves for their big opening night. In true Stanislavsky style, the director wants everyone locked in, so that they can really get into their roles. This is a health and safety disaster waiting to happen in its own right, so it’s even more of a shocker when a psychopathic luvvie breaks out of a nearby psychiatric hospital that very night, dons the suitably eerie owl mask being used in the performance and then runs amok, picking off the actors one by one. Yep, this is the film most commonly now known as Stage Fright (or StageFright, but I’ll stick with the distinct words if I may), the first film made by director Michele Soavi as a foray away from his mentor Dario Argento: it carries a lot of the hallmarks of Argento’s work, as you’d suppose it might, but it also shows a director already more than capable of committing his own style to celluloid.

There’s so much to love about this film, and perhaps after an interval of thirty years one of the first things you notice is just how roaringly 80s it is: not the most compelling opening statement to make about a film from this era, true, but for someone who grew up in the 80s, a patterned stocking here, some teased hair there and the addition of a Cramps shirt are all pleasantly familiar, because nostalgia can have a pull as strong as gravity: on a superficial level, Stage Fright starts life as Flash Dance with added weapons, a horror riff on a new on-screen trend. But, at a safe distance, you can see less salubrious elements too – people struggling to make their rent, a woman so hellbent on retrieving her damn gold wristwatch that she will risk death to get it back (several times) and the sleazy, predatory money man who has a say both in how the play is performed and what the girls do for him. Quelle change, I suppose, but for me it has that veneer of its era. Not for nothing does Soavi give us the scene where blood spatters over a stack of dollar bills – it’s like a little symbolic ode to the decade.

For all that, this is a horror film, and by this point in the 80s, horror was established enough and popular enough to be self-referential on a scale not seen before: horror cinema had often become about the knowing nod, relying on audiences to know some of the conventions, or at least to have seen enough of the wealth of films already floating around and far more readily available, thanks to good ol’ analogue technology. Freddy Krueger was doing the rounds by now, wisecracking and gurning for the camera as he terrorized teenagers; Henenlotter was grossing audiences out with his body gore gags; even Romero could afford to reference his own work in the otherwise relentlessly grim Day of the Dead (remember the little jingle from Dawn which plays over the zombie being left in the dark to ‘think about what he’d done’?) Stage Fright, too, is often cleverly self-referential, and deserves more dues for it. The whole film-about-a-play which is itself based on an exploitation script, where in one scene director Peter matter-of-factly announces that it’s time to give the rape scene a go, seems to me to be a spin on the behind-the-scenes elements of many of the films being made under the masked killer banner around this time. It’s an actor who initiates the horror here, after losing his mind in his acting career.

Tellingly, Peter is also insistent that when serial killer Irving Wallace gets loose, a ‘real event’ like this will help him to sell theatre tickets. Again, how many horror films have been either based on real events, or even rumoured to contain ‘real footage’? Peter’s an old crook, but he might even be right – well, so long as there are enough actors left to perform. Also, back when Stage Fright was made, it took its place amongst a number of films where antagonists deliberately broke the specific ‘fourth wall’ of the TV/cinema screen (like The Video Dead, Demons 2) or the horror begins in a theatre or cinema, such as Demons (which has a lot of crossover cast members with Stage Fright). Threat and murder merge with performance: bodies become props, and in Stage Fright the final, most obvious nod to genre film is in the glaringly obvious and literal murder set piece which Wallace eventually puts together. I suppose today we might call all of this ‘meta-‘, but in our jaded twenty-first century parlance, that’s become a bit pejorative, sadly. We’ll just say instead that Stage Fright does more than tell a straightforward story, whilst managing not to forget to tell it altogether.

In many ways, Stage Fright belongs squarely in the by-now-established slasher genre, a place where it’s often filed away: early promotional materials emphasised the goriness, and in fairness, we have the nasty weapons, the omniscient killer and the ubiquitous ‘final girl’. But, this is a Soavi film. Not content to tell a story within a story and just hack and stab a route straight through it, Stage Fright also manages to interweave some of the Gothic elements which had been appearing in the genre since Bava first blazed a trail – linking gialli to Gothic – and which led to Argento bringing his creepy aesthetics to violent gore. Soavi’s adaptation of Gothic elements is gentler and more traditional than Argento, I feel (it’s also quite coy on nudity, as an aside) but the Gothic is undoubtedly there. The pathetic fallacy of an ominous rainstorm had been doing the rounds for centuries, then we have a black cat stalking through the set (completely unperturbed by the human suffering, obviously) and what looks like a Gothic artist Caspar David Friedrichs-style painted backdrop, at one side of the 80s backdrop being used by the Night Owl cast. Oh, and a huge mad owl, which is pretty Gothic too. After cutting his teeth on a Gothic slasher, Soavi went on to make a Gothic zombie movie in Dellamorte Dellamore – so he clearly enjoys using these aesthetics into his work, and does so brilliantly.

All of this, and in a well-paced, taut piece of cinema which doesn’t waste aimless minutes trying to be ponderous or edgy. It’s a roll call of genre stars, too, with Giovanni Lombardo Radice doing a camp turn as a dancer, Barbara Cupisti as Alicia, David Brandon as the sardonic Englishman Peter (catch the future echoes of Francesco Dellamorte) and – though he’s uncredited – it’s the co-writer of the film and Anthropophagus the Beast himself, George Eastman, running around with the owl head on. Keen eyes might also notice the Anthropophagus promo photograph perched in one of the dressing rooms. Just to throw one more name in here, a trivia fact on IMDb suggests that sleaze lord director Joe D’Amato at one time planned to remake Stage Fright under the title Willy Shocks Treatment, where the killer would be clad in light bulbs, but I’m not sure if my mind can fully comprehend this…anyway…

Soavi continued to explore the Gothic in The Church, refining his own visual style and atmosphere, but sadly concluded his forays into the horror genre with Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) – which is one of my favourite films – in the early Nineties. As my co-writer Ben said when I mentioned writing this piece, Soavi has been residing in the ‘where are they now?’ category ever since, at least as far as film fans would appreciate it: these days, his filmography is awash with TV movies, which don’t look particularly engaging to my (admittedly untrained) eye. So why did such a promising and innovative director pack it all in, when he seemed to be on the up?

This is always a difficult one for me, as I suppose I want directors whose work I like to be as dedicated to genre film as my imagination supposes they are. In actuality, there are lots of other factors at play, one of which might well be a complete distaste for making any more horror, as well as the usual stuff about money and funding. And then, Soavi’s old mentor Argento is still making horror films, and his work has progressed from the sublime to the ridiculous, so…a long career in horror can be a difficult path to take. You never know what the future will hold. But at least I’ve seen a film about a mad killer in an owl mask at least once, and I think we can appreciate, even at thirty years on, what a well-executed piece of horror entertainment Stage Fright really is. Should Michele Soavi ever fancy a return to this kind of fare, it’d be impossible not to welcome it.

Wolves at the Door (2016)

Considering their importance to the subculture consciousness – y’know, having probably dismantled hippie culture ready for the start of the 70s – cinematic versions of (or interpretations of) the Manson Family murders have always been…problematic, shall we say. Some of the very vaguest of nods to the case have been played for great, exploitative fun (such as I Drink Your Blood) whilst some have gone for the full art-house treatment (such as Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family) and – for me – not quite worked. It’s a different prospect altogether when you actually namedrop the case, as Wolves at the Door chooses to do: the Manson Family inspiration is right there, writ large on the cover art. Openly using such a well-known case has its issues; these are also writ large all over this film.

It all starts fairly no-nonsense, looking for all the world like every other home invasion movie which we may have seen over the past decade or so: some white suburbanites have someone shadowy and apparently very strong break into their home, where they daub words like ‘PIG’ in blood on their doors. The cops arrive, and fill in the gaps for us: it seems that some young hippies, or radicals, or other 60s-style ne’er-do-wells have been doing similar things all over LA – though one cop acknowledges – rather significantly – that this most recent attack seems to show that it’s ramping up a bit. We then cut to a slightly soporific gathering of twentysomethings – where one of their party is about to go away, and so is being given gifts and so on before they head back home together. You know what this means, folks: it’s someone’s Last Night. Alongside a police officer’s Last Shift, this is dangerous territory. I should also say that one of the group is a pregnant actress called Sharon…

True enough, soon the gang of young nasties are on the approach to the soporifics’ house, where they spend an awful lot of time channeling the slasher antiheroes who had yet to appear in cinemas at that stage, by appearing silently in doorways, seemingly defying logic and physics to be everywhere at once, and also moving with the silent certainty of a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers. As for the rest of the film, I’d normally be wary of spoilers, but in this case, there’s hardly the need. The nasties get into the house; bad things ensue, but nothing too horrifically recognisable from the Manson case files, which makes the whole thing feel simultaneously a tad disparaging and rather pointless.

See, this is the thing when you oh-so loudly and proudly declare that your film is based on the Manson murders. These murders are amongst the nastiest and most well-known from the era, and to this day, horror films shy away from torturing and killing heavily-pregnant women (as an example) so this leaves the film at an impasse: do you recreate all of the grisly details from the case, dare any disapproval, and also land yourself the task of creating tension around events which many viewers will already know well? Or do you deviate from the case, despite name-checking it – and, if you do something rather different, won’t you be held to account for that? These are issues which dog Wolves at the Door throughout, but, I’m sad to say, they’re only some of the flaws causing issues with the film.

Wolves at the Door plumps for the most simplistic approach possible throughout. Plot markers are thrust home in an unnecessary and rather uncomfortable way, I must say, and any endeavours to make us like characters who are so transparently about to be carved up always fall flat; more time is taken on needless props and jargon words to convince us that yes, this is in fact the late 60s. All of these irritations are magnified by the fact that you already know – more or less – what’s going to happen, especially when you see that some new perspective is not going to be forthcoming. Even at a running time of just 70 minutes, the weight of expectation – together with the dull pains of familiarity – makes the film feel incredibly slow.

In its race to be a HORROR FILM, too, Wolves at the Door also mashes loads of elements from other, quite separate genres together in a way which makes me feel that director John R. Leonetti may know a little about the horror genre (he’s worked in a variety of settings and genres) but doesn’t have high regard for its fans. As already mentioned, some of the scenes look like they’re Straight Outta Halloween, but in other places, the home invaders resemble Japanese ghosts (long hair in face, supernatural silence, moving as if on coasters) and everywhere, there are problems with that whole jump scare thing which only works, if we can call it working, by frying your nerves. Imaginative, this ain’t – and when images and news reel footage finally appear to try once and for all to link this lacklustre film to that horrifying and significant sequence of real events, it feels like the only genuine surprise we get: what a pity it also feels like an insult.

Wolves at the Door is available on DVD and digital download now.

 

 

Malady (2015)

With some films it’s clear, even from the opening seconds, that they are not going to provide an easy viewing experience, and this is definitely the case with Malady (2015), a first feature-length from director Jack James which I’ll confess has left a rather unpleasant aftertaste with me. This emotional effect has been carefully constructed, of course, and it’s there every step of the way. As the opening scenes blend emotional exchanges between a dying mother and her adult daughter, Holly (Roxy Bugler) with the end result – her funeral – there’s an immediate weight and sense of dread here. Holly’s mother spends her dying breath imploring her soon-to-be bereaved daughter to “find love”: left with little else, Holly tries to move on and fulfill her mother’s last wish, pushing herself to go out into the world – though it’s a struggle, and this frail young woman doesn’t seem particularly willing or able to feel at ease.

However, by chance she meets a thoughtful young man, Matthew, who seems to have plenty of morbid preoccupations of his own, though just what these are is left a mystery at this stage. Matthew and Holly’s early courtship is rather unconventional, shall we say, and dinner, drinks and a chatty stroll home are not on the cards – but nevertheless, after an awkward night together, Holly decides to stay. A relationship forms.

The thing is, when people get together off the back of some great trauma, the damage they’ve experienced will probably seep through, somewhere. As Holly – played with genuine frailty by Bugler here – seems to be on the verge of recuperation, as insecure and grief-stricken as she clearly still is, Matthew (Kemal Yildirim) receives a phonecall. His own mother is, apparently, dying. Holly feels herself to be well-placed to offer support on this, given her own circumstances, but after accompanying her almost-silent new partner to his mother’s house, it becomes clear that there’s an altogether different set of maternal anxieties to contend with there. What follows is an oppressive unfolding of family drama, where every line of dialogue and every looks seems imbued with sinister, sickly significance.

There is a great deal to admire in how this film has been shot and soundtracked, each of which show a lot of care and skill. The discordant sound design is superb: it gets going as soon as the film begins and rarely lets up throughout. As for the shooting, the film is underpinned with anxiety, and it keeps the pressure on the nerves by its relentless focus on people’s hands, as well as their facial expressions. The close, often unsteady camera work lends a suitably claustrophobic feel to the film – even the intimate scenes feel unseemly via this technique – but then to balance this, there’s thoughtful shot composition and lighting, often rich with lots of contrasts. Appearances can be deceptive, perhaps: scenes can be warm and inviting, but the human drama unfolding is anything but warm. Human relationships in this film are not straightforward, to say the least, and the film’s style mirrors that.

The overall effect of Malady is unnerving. It’s far closer to art-house than to conventional storytelling with its emphasis on emotional states, not plot. Along those lines, I’d say that you’d need to be in contemplative mood to sit through this slow-paced psychological study. It’s not easy viewing, does not offer any cosy reconciliations or explanations, and it won’t provide you with a neat, linear narrative arc, either. Its subject matter is often (usually!) difficult, and to get at the truth of what’s been going on here, you need to go through some uncomfortable mental gap-filling which won’t make you feel particularly good. All in all then, I’d say that Malady is an excellent example of its kind, one which will stay with you, but should be approached with due awareness of its harrowing subject matter and intense style. This all makes it as hard to review as to watch, but what’s clear is that director Jack James has talent and has here created something bizarre and unique out of bereavement, love and loss.

Malady is available on VOD now.

Folk Horror: Fire, Ash, Dirt, Stone and Night of the Eagle (1962)

Editor’s note: this article contains a full discussion of Night of the Eagle and as such contains spoilers.

“I DO NOT BELIEVE” are the first words both spoken and seen in Night of the Eagle. These words are the crux of a lecture being given by Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a rational man who is deeply cynical about the new wave of magical thinking already diffusing through society by the 1960s. However, by this point in time, the supremacy of science and rationalism was already fraught with problems; as Taylor acknowledges, magic may have let the genie out of the lamp, but science was by then poised to unleash nuclear warfare. It’s the first acknowledgement of a broader malaise which filters through in the film: although it’s a microcosm, real-life concerns, such as professionalism and promotion, collide with the prospect of older, supernatural forces, and the end result is great anxiety and risk for all concerned.

Taylor is a success story, with a successful career, a beautiful and charming wife (Janet Blair) and two homes, although it’s wife Tansy, in the main, who seems to use their seaside cottage. He’s also in the frame for promotion within the university, despite a few problems rumbling along in his life – a female student who seems to be skating dangerously close to an inappropriate interest in him, her envious (and academically weak) boyfriend and perhaps most insidiously of all, other women in his life – colleagues and the wives of colleagues – who are bastions of passive-aggressive carping and bitter jealousy regarding him, though with characteristic 60s swagger, Taylor brushes this off, perhaps too readily. Tansy is less convinced, regarding one of the wives in particular as a ‘middle-aged Medusa’, but it seems that she has her secrets, too.

Appearances can be deceptive…

After a dreary Friday night playing bridge with a selection of oblivious males and watchful females, Tansy begins to act strangely. After their guests leave, Tansy becomes frantic, looking for something which she claims is a shopping list. Eventually, she finds what she’s looking for: an effigy, like a voodoo doll, woven into the fringes of a standard lamp. Taylor, a little baffled by her panic, continues to get ready for bed, but at around the same time he finds something very strange in one of the bedroom drawers – a dead spider in a ceramic pot. She demurs, saying it’s just a souvenir from their time living in Jamaica, but within a short space of time the Taylors’ quaint, domestic cottage is suddenly turning up a whole host of curios, charms and spells; it’s like looking again at a photograph and suddenly noticing a host of new details that you missed on the first glance. Taylor, the thinker, is decidedly unimpressed. The final straw comes with his discovery of a range of phials of graveyard dirt: he insists that the whole lot gets consigned to the fire, despite Tansy’s by now desperate pleadings that dark forces are poised to destroy him without her protections. True enough, almost the moment that the flames consume the charms (including, accidentally, a locket portrait of himself) Taylor’s extraordinary luck begins to fail. Blind chance, or something more?

The overriding feeling in Night of the Eagle is one of the loss of control: for me, it’s very difficult not to sympathise with Taylor – and by extension, the (largely) orderly world in which we live – as rule, principle and procedure dissipate. Suddenly, the world begins to move very fast; emotions spill over, rules are broken, even technology becomes unsafe. In a few deft moves which take place off-screen, the Taylors’ home is suddenly stripped of its modern conveniences. We even get a bit of pathetic fallacy – check out the ominous storm which precedes the first big scare and voila, a picturesque cottage in 60s Britain becomes a Gothic castle, complete with a malevolent thing on the doorstep, trying to get in – whilst making surely one of the most terrifying sounds ever committed to celluloid. But there’s no simple escape: when the lights come back on, even the analogue tech itself has become a conduit for black magic, a theme which returns right up to the film’s climactic scenes. The twentieth century is stripped back and pushed down into the murky past.

The dawning of the age of…

Unquestionably, Cold War era paranoia holds hands with magic in Night of the Eagle, from the moment it’s invoked in the first scene of the film until the very last scenes. It’s signposted once, but it lingers in the film throughout. The idea of people who look like us and act like us, but harbour destructive secrets and want to overthrow us by any means is something integral to so many films of the era. However, this also shows parity with the beliefs of the past, when it was witchcraft which threatened to do the same thing. At this time too, the irony is that the very real fear of the four-minute warning was very likely to have made people drift away from the rationalism which had made such a thing possible, even likely. The early 60s were already seeing a steady resurgence of interest in new-old religions, magic and paganism. This is the difficult impasse which seems to form the backbone of Night of the Eagle: the dark side of rationalism led people to look to the past, but the practices of the past they resurrected brought additional paranoia and the threat of harm. These things cast their shadows over the film, whether overtly or covertly. Night of the Eagle also excels, via its script, at reminding us just how long our relationship with magic has been. It’s thoroughly interwoven with our language, and it’s there in the dialogue: ideas are ‘bewitching’, people act as ‘good luck charms’, people laughingly suggest people ‘sell their soul to the devil’ for a good outcome. The script is simply able to add the phrase ‘we can press a button’, and we know now what that signifies, too.

“Witch or woman, what was it?”

Although Night of the Eagle’s approach to gender (and to race) can feel out of step with modern thinking, it’s an important factor in the film’s plot, and gender is very important in the film. Tansy is a housewife: Taylor implies that boredom has therefore driven her to her magical practices, but she insists – quite vociferously – otherwise. What Tansy is doing is operating within the domestic sphere where she ‘belongs’ to control the external environment, as witches have long done historically. Think about the stereotype of a witch: the cauldron, the broom. Objects which were part of the average home hundreds of years ago were imaginatively ritually re-purposed for witchcraft. Tansy isn’t so different, and even Taylor acknowledges that we – women – still use ritual in our daily lives, whatever form it takes; it’s just that Tansy is performing ritual magic. As much it pains me to hear Tansy castigated as ‘hysterical’ by her husband (oh, that word…) and to also see her on the reverse of that – utterly catatonic and self-sacrificial, that does not ultimately take away from the great power held by women in the film, or the wildly malevolent joy with which Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston) intones the words ‘burn, witch, burn’  as she attempts to kill Tansy – a phrase which gave the film its alternative title. It seems that Flora may have been defending her ward, a student who alleged that Taylor had sexually attacked her – or, she simply believed what she chose to believe. Incidentally, Flora does have a role outside the home, so she can add black magic to her professional credentials – although, by the end of the film, we’re shown in no uncertain terms that women really couldn’t have it all at the time.

If women are harmful sleeper agents, then consider also the impact of the Taylors’ tenure in Jamaica, where – we are told – Tansy first picked up her magical habit from fraternising with the locals. You don’t have too look too far for anxiety about the effects of a more ‘primitive’ belief system on a more developed one, and that could easily form the basis of a completely different article, but I will say this: the impact of this Jamaican magic is of note within Night of the Eagle because, as Tansy says, “it seemed to work”. It’s not simply harmful because it’s Other – it’s simply harmful. As we have seen in Svetlana’s feature on American folk horror, Haitian supernatural practices have become interwoven with American folk beliefs: this is another example of the terrific impact of racial and cultural Others on a Western cultural landscape. In the 1960s, ideas of horror seemed to have to adjust to this ever-changing landscape, poised to degrade at any time and sweep modernity away. Even wives were weaponising; even beliefs were vulnerable and permeable.

Folk horror and Night of the Eagle

This idea of precarious modernity is at the heart of a great deal of folk horror, and to my mind Night of the Eagle does share enough common ground here to qualify as folk horror – even if an outlier in a sub-genre which proves tricky to pin down anyway. First of all, Night of the Eagle does an excellent job of making the viewer feel nettled, uneasy – the way which Things are Supposed to Be is balanced on a knife-edge, and these things come tumbling down in quick succession. The creeping influence of witchcraft is making its way into modern life, content to kill those who stand in its way. In fact, here we have magical practices arriving on British shores thanks to a modern global network and the possibilities attached to an academic career: modernity has created the conditions necessary for this malevolent magic to thrive. The ancient college buildings and the clearly ancient cottage inhabited by the Taylors may now be modern in outlook and trappings, but they still become subsumed by ritual practices and supernatural dangers – those modern trappings even facilitate magic. Old and new are again united in the film.

Where it differs, perhaps, is in the way Taylor has to come to accept that strange things are happening; once he has done this, he can escape, although things cannot be the same again. A man of few words, we are never told how he feels, but we’re in the same position as him, by the end. We don’t know if the eagle falls by chance or intent. We don’t know if Tansy survives by chance or through magical protections. The world is a more uncertain place by the end of Night of the Eagle. In this respect, Norman Taylor is more of a Rosemary Woodhouse than a Sergeant Howie – he encounters a cult, and his rationalism gets modified by the encounter. The Taylors survive. But at what cost?

This tense yet ambiguous film doesn’t waste a frame, yet it still leaves us with questions. At the end of the film, there’s a delicious circularity in seeing Taylor sprawled against the same blackboard where “I DO NOT BELIEVE” is still written. One of those four words is obliterated as he presses, in wild-eyed terror, against it; the muddled message which remains, by accident or design, is perhaps the best way to summarise this fantastic film.

 

 

Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful & Things Strange by Adam Scovell

As horror is increasingly picked up by the academic community, with more seminars, papers and conferences emerging yearly, it’s little surprise that the renewed interest in folk horror is also making its way into print via this new wave of academia and its authors. Adam Scovell’s book, Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, is a meticulous and considered study of the genre – not seeking to rigidly define the sub-genre of folk horror, mind, but rather to spend ample time discussing its themes, ideas and preoccupations. Beginning with the so-called ‘Folk Horror Chain’ – Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and of course The Wicker Man – Scovell then travels through a wide range of film and television, focusing on the golden age of folk horror (the 1970s) but extending his analysis further where relevant. This approach – not keeping or dismissing material outright, but using the Folk Horror Chain as a start point and then developing flexibly from there – lends the book a useful if broad sense of direction, as it moves through a range of comment, excerpts of analysis, outsider critiques and interviews, anecdotes, and short plot synopses.

Despite being largely academic in tone, with words like ‘diegesis’ and ‘gestalt’ peppering the chapters throughout,  this is by no means a straightforward academic tome, even whilst clearly not a coffee table book. I particularly enjoyed the self-deprecating Wicker Man screening anecdote which opens the book, for example, and in places the text is actually rather literary – things which add to the overall variety and therefore the engaging qualities of this book. I’ve long said that academic writing has the potential to be some of the worst written English out there; writing is about communication, even if it’s communicating complicated ideas, so if that’s not happening, then the writing has failed in its job. Happily, that isn’t the case here, though I’ll freely admit that the word ‘Hauntology’ still doesn’t quite sit right with me, and it’s used a lot in the book, even before it gets its own chapter. That, of course, is my issue and not the book’s…

There’s engaging content here throughout, which I feel would intrigue fans as much as academics – though that’s a bit of a false dichotomy these days, I know. For instance, I really enjoyed the section on M R James and his screen legacy which so often comes to us via Lawrence Gordon Clark, a talented figure who has done a great deal to shape our appreciation of ‘folk horror’ (see also: Nigel Kneale, whose work is happily given due consideration.)  The 70s themselves are shown as uniquely placed to have given us so much folk horror,and we also see, interestingly, the way that the decade now comes down to us as a kind of folk horror realm itself – other, distant, uncanny, tinged with nostalgia. There is also a section on more modern forays into folk horror (The Witch, A Field in England, Kill List) as well as a whole host of films and TV I’ve never seen, but would now seek out: The Shout sounds fascinating. All in all, the level of research and knowledge showcased in Hours Dreadful is second to none.

Where I would part ways with the book most sharply is in its closing pages. Here, bringing the book up to the current day, the phenomenon of folk horror is tied in at last with Brexit Britain, forging a link between folk horror’s unthinking ‘local people’ who reject outsiders with those who opted to vote Leave last June. I won’t deny that Brexit has changed the political landscape of Britain – it undoubtedly has, and the naff jingoism of right-leaning newspapers (together with the barely-stymied snobbery of left-leaning newspapers) was and is a source of exasperation and embarrassment. Nor do I deny that many people in Britain have problems with immigration, or ‘non-local’ people, to keep it going – of course they do, and during the run-up to the vote nearly every day brought a vox pop with someone who seemed to completely misunderstand what the vote was really about or could do. But if I was to play devil’s advocate, could I not suggest that the unthinking devotion to a system, the inner workings of which are a mystery to many of even its most ardent supporters, could be compared to horror, too? That London really is a different realm with its own rules and practices? That those young people wandering with their placards and their chants could’ve washed up from Quatermass? Or does this kind of hyperbolic commentary only feasibly run one way? Of course, metaphors break down the instant you really begin to examine them, so we need to tread carefully with them – which is perhaps the key point to be made here (even if the book’s closing pages aren’t suggesting Brexit will inform the horror landscape – rather, that Brexit Britain itself it is the horror.)

Overall, however, Hours Dreadful and Things Strange is a fastidious piece of work which deserves due credit. It’s a dense text and not pitched as an easy-come, easy-go page turner – but it’s considered, offers much food for thought and adds scores of its scholarly, but enthusiastic ideas to the current folk horror renaissance. There’s a very useful bibliography and filmography included here too.

Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange is available to buy here.

The Land Knows: the Sinister Seams of the British Folk Horror Landscape (Part 2)

“COMPLETE US THE CIRCLE!” STORIES OF STANDING STONES

The numerous standing stones of Britain are familiar, beloved points on our landscape: Stonehenge is now an integral part of the British tourism trade, for instance, bringing in visitors from around the world. There are examples of monoliths and circles throughout the country – over 300 in England alone (and far more in Scotland, that old ‘Other’ for so many horror films.) But, still, comparatively little is known about the purpose of these structures. We can glean that they marked, in some ways, the significance of the seasons, but the finer points of this significance are left to educated guesswork – the kind of guesswork which draws people to these sites for solstice celebrations today. Going back in history, only Romans such as Suetonius and Julius Caesar were there to pass comment on the rites of the Ancient Britons, and they were hardly unbiased commentators. Today, standing stones seem to do two things: they function as markers (of when life was different) and they provide mystery (how did our forebears use these places?) In horror, their importance extends further still: we know that they are in some ways temples to the old gods, but even if we have lost sight of those rituals and those gods, have those gods lost sight of us?

Consider the implications of interfering with a stone circle in 1977’s Stigma, written by Clive Exton and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who directed several other of the above-mentioned Ghost Story for Christmas TV episodes. It’s also relevant to say that, throughout the TV and cinema of the 1970s, Avebury (the location of Stonehenge and a number of other monuments) crops up several times. In Stigma, a young couple moves into a remote country house, which just so happens to be in the middle of a stone circle. Their renovations – which shift a standing stone – disturb a force that has been long buried, with the resultant action focusing on wife and mother Katherine’s body and what happens to her as a result of this modern transgression. A flawed narrative perhaps, but a story that points directly to the risks of breaking a stone circle, even in the twentieth century – with links arising between Katherine and an uncovered burial beneath the dislodged stone, presumably a ritual sacrifice. This dark side to picturesque and harmless ancient monuments would occur again during the decade.

“HAPPY DAY!”

In Psychomania (1973), the group of bikers thwarting the rules of life and death do so in wide-shot locations that feature a stone circle, just to underline the strangeness and otherworldliness of the plot in a film which we would probably not otherwise consider here. Along similar lines, and something which definitely seems to fit with the current discussion, it’s still incredible to me that The Children of the Stones (1976) was ever aimed at children, although one of the hallmarks of the 1970s seems to be that the distinction between kid-friendly and adult-friendly content was less clear. Even the public information films of the decade, which intended to caution children against dangerous behaviour, are often remembered today as akin to horror film viewings. I saw Children of the Stones for the first time in the mid-eighties, and it really got under my skin. The story of the village of Milbury – built in the midst of a stone circle (and again set, and filmed, in Avebury) makes for a strange new home to son Matthew and his father, Adam. A creepy story of indoctrination and weird psychic phenomena (and yet another sinister patriarch) ensues, with the stones themselves at the crux of the plot, whereby the circle has come to exist in some sort of time loop, making its influence seemingly inescapable. I have not revisited the series in many years; a mish-mash of terrifying music, blank-eyed schoolfellows and that painting usually drift to mind first when I recall it now.

Here, I’d find it remiss not to mention Season of the Witch (1982), a sadly underrated horror story which has long suffered for the baseless link to the Halloween franchise made by the title. It’s not a film usually included in discussions of folk horror (at least to my knowledge) but it’s a neat little nexus for some of the anxieties we’ve been discussing in these features.

As a clash between the modern and the ancient, first of all, I’d argue that Season of the Witch is second to none: here, fragments of a Stonehenge stone are being added to mass-produced Halloween masks in order to control the wearers via a mass media trigger – TV. The reason given for this is simply to rejuvenate the festival of Samhain, which we modern folks have co-opted as Halloween, a festival where, as antagonist Conal Cochran sneers, people simply send their children “begging for candy”, ignoring the bloodshed and sacrifice originally associated with the Celtic New Year. Well, no more. Here, not only is a standing stone – from the most famous standing stones in the world – integral to the horror, but also it’s physically been transmitted to the New World, where the intention is to wreak havoc – old against new, misunderstood tradition against crass modern. Moreover, not only is America in danger, despite the distance between it and the British Isles, but its beloved free market and TV media are the things being used to promulgate that danger. Never were old and new brought to bear on one another in such a clear, direct way. Witches, Jack O’Lanterns and skulls – magic, ritual and death – via mass sale – transmit the destructive magic of a British standing stone to a crowd of naive and distant victims. Like Count Dracula and his native earth, as he purchases a property in England via modern and legitimate channels, it seems that this malign monolithic power (as it’s imagined here) can be carried and established in a new terrain simply by manipulating the modern system.

“IT HAS A POWER…”

This set of concerns is at the heart of a great deal of folk horror: a past believed long-buried and ‘safe’ rears its head again, jutting into a world believed to be so calm, predictable and dependable. Rational people are made to reconsider their values in horrific circumstances; closed communities hold sway, and unsound practices either win out or resume (or often, both). At the heart of all of this is the land itself. Whether it’s what the earth conceals, or the powers it can confer; whether it’s what springs from the earth or the ancient monuments upon it, the land itself is key, and something sinister can always be unearthed…

The Land Knows: the Sinister Seams of the British Folk Horror Landscape (Part 1)

Idylls are not idylls in the British folk horror world, and the land itself hides a multitude of sins – even if ‘sins’ are a relatively modern phenomenon, by its standards. This small, but significant sub-genre derives a great deal of its power by examining the deep unease generated by Britain’s ancient history: the palpable, unshakeable sense that there is more out there to know than we currently do. Moreover, whilst the fear of insularity and pagan old ways jarring against the modern is integral, often the mysteries of the soil itself lead people astray. Something breaks out from beneath their feet; people fall under its sway, or they fight for rationality, but they must fight – against the forces of Nature and their representatives, the old gods.

“GROWS THE SEED AND BLOWS THE MEAD, AND SPRINGS THE WOOD ANEW…”

No film better understood (or embodied) the idea that you could quite literally unearth an evil than The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). In this seminal film of its kind, it’s the process of ploughing the land which turns up something unexpected – the remains of something ungodly. This simple act, in a fraught rural agrarian society, pushes the whole of that society to the edge of a precipice, as the village’s young people begin to fantasise about the remains and turn away from their fraught relationship with the Church towards more carnal forces. (The Church’s shortcomings are also explored in another contemporary film now held up as canon in folk horror tradition, Witchfinder General). It’s interesting that, in her book, Looking For The Lost Gods of England, author Kathleen Herbert identifies two things which are relevant to The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Firstly, the age-old importance of the soil in pre- or very early Christian times, where it was seen as a conduit between man and god, and secondly, accounts of rituals which incorporated the plough as a means of making offerings to the land – by literally ploughing offerings to the gods into the dirt. The spectres of these practices were retained by early Christianity, though – typically – shorn of any pagan significance.  In The Blood on Satan’s Claw, the camera acknowledges the importance of the soil, and a deliberate decision was taken to place the camera on ground level or even beneath the level of the dirt. This tactic gives the land a prescience and a menace, which is borne out by later events – the accidental discovery of physical, but supernatural remains.

If something is unleashed simply via turning the land over, then what happens when something is deliberately placed in the ground? The master of quiet English horror, M. R. James, grappled with these possibilities in some of his best short ghost stories: he fills his tales with barely-tangible ancient terrors, which creep into view (almost) when modern interventions permit them. Some of these are summoned, accidentally or otherwise; some are malign entities which simply take their moment to escape. There are a number of stories which process these fears. In An Episode of Cathedral History – bearing in mind that cathedrals were often built on sites which formerly had other, pre-Christian ritual purposes – the tale tells of a mysterious tomb, whose disturbance causes strange phenomena to occur in the town and (possibly) releases a supernatural force, a ‘lamia’ – a term meaning a monster, or a witch. Whatever the creature is, it’s certainly something which Christianity would prefer locked safely away in hallowed ground (and there, we have the idea that the dirt of the earth can be sanctified with a Christian blessing, which speaks volumes to the beliefs of the past.) Perhaps the most famous James story, however, apart from ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You’, is A Warning to the Curious; the unearthing a Saxon crown, buried in the earth for the protection of the land, leads to severe repercussions for the amateur archaeologist who digs it up. Albeit in a simplified form, A Warning… was filmed as part of the superb A Ghost Story for Christmas series in the 1970s, as one of several Jamesian yarns adapted for television. The sense of a something relentless, a portent of doom, is married perfectly to a sense of the dispassionate, but harmful British terrain.

More recently, in film, The Fallow Field (2009) returns to the horrors of the soil, providing us with one character, Calham, who owns a farm and is the only person who truly understands his fields’ bizarre and disturbing yield, though keeping his secrets until almost the film’s close. Similarly, in Wake Wood (also 2009) pagan rituals come at a price, allowing a grieving family some time with a ‘rebirthed’ lost child who returns from the grave, but binding them to the land with various edicts – else their beloved daughter will be changed, irrevocably. Alright, this is an Irish film rather than British, but many of the plot elements overlap with other, older folk horrors, particularly the close-knit community whose alpha male acts as a custodian for the sinister magic being employed by the villagers.

This brings us up to The Borderlands (2013), a found-footage style folk horror which isn’t served particularly well, in my opinion, by this ubiquitous shakycam approach, but which introduces some good ideas about the ‘lie of the land’ and what lurks within it. It’s another film where the new God bumps head with the old, as the Vatican explores a secluded church in the Devon countryside. It transpires that the church is built on an old pagan site and that the local community is well-versed in ungodly practices, but the film goes further than that, making the land beneath the church a sentient character in its own right. In this respect, it’s a film reminiscent of The Ten Steps (2011), a brilliantly-economical horror short where a young girl’s fear of the basement means her parents – out at dinner while she’s home alone during a power cut – guide her down the ten steps to the meter in the dark, so she can get the lights back on. However, her descent doesn’t end at ten steps…

The clay can work wonders: it can manipulate people, birth terrors, and remind us all that the old gods hold sway. Perhaps we’re slower to see the significance of the soil in one of the folk horror classics, The Wicker Man (1973). Many of the elements we associate with the sub-genre are of course there – the pagan practices, the closed community and the threat to Christian outsiders, but at its heart, The Wicker Man is as a tussle between science and unreason, with the land of Summerisle itself at the kernel of the clash. The film only really discusses this element at its close. Howie, as he pleads for his life, has a moment where he invokes rational scientific argument to attempt to dissuade Lord Summerisle from doing what he’s about to do. The crops have failed, he points out, because the soil on the remote Scottish island is completely unsuited to growing apples – gulf stream or not. They were bound to fail.

The inhabitants of Summerisle have built an industry on something very tenuous, and in their efforts to maintain their industry they are driven to sacrifice life to the ‘old gods’ so encouraged by their feudal Lord. Class and economics are at the forefront of this story, whatever the invocations to gods of the sea and land, and at the heart of it all is a poor soil, which cannot sustain what the community wants from it, regardless of the gods, old or new, being invoked.

SYLVAN FAMILIES

As well as what’s happening below the soil, the trees and structures on top of it have also figured significantly in folk horror. Woodland – which once covered huge swathes of the British Isles – has long been the stuff of nightmares, but it perpetuates British cultural identity, too: most children still know the stories of Sherwood Forest, for instance – an area that is still around today, though greatly depleted. Taking this link further still, the novel Mythago Wood (1984) encapsulates the idea that ancient woodland embodies our history: the woodland described here is a parallel universe, inhabited by archetypes of the British consciousness, from Celts to knights, through to monsters and magic. This can be a thrilling place, but it can also be menacing.

The menacing woods are of course a staple of horror, and today the ‘cabin in the woods’ probably qualifies as a new folklore, known as it is to so many. Interestingly, films like Pumpkinhead (1988) and more recently, The Witch (2015) are set in North America, but show that Old World threats and beliefs accompanied British and other European settlers when they emigrated there. The witchcraft being used in each of those films bears parallels to anxieties about witchcraft already long-familiar in Britain and Northern Europe. The Witch is a particularly telling example of folk horror, where the settlers are (probably?) persecuted by malign forces, practicing witchcraft in ways Christians of that era would recognise and dread. Perhaps the people who spring from the soil take their terrors wherever they go. And, as an aside, the description given of the ‘Blair Witch’ by an interviewee in the ground-breaking (pun noted) found footage horror/’documentary’ The Blair Witch Project (1999) sounds an awful lot like the creature which escapes from the cathedral tomb in M. R. James’s Episode of Cathedral History…

Part Two of The Soil Knows is coming soon…