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…

Welcome to Our Folk Horror Special…

Strange, isolated houses, villages and islands; closed communities, whose initial friendliness seems to mask something deeply sinister; people who have rejected modernity, or have simply been passed over by it; ritual practices; the uncanny; dark magic; pagan symbols; the threat of the old ways spilling over into the new, with devastating consequences…

Welcome to a special series of Warped Perspective articles on the phenomenon of ‘folk horror’.

We owe our use of the term ‘folk horror’, if I’m not mistaken, to the writer and actor Mark Gatiss who used the term in his History of Horror TV programme. Nevertheless, even if Gatiss came up with a pithy, recognisable shorthand, albeit that director Piers Haggard also referred to ‘folk horror’ in describing his own work, then his umbrella term took hold because it described a sub-genre already beloved of film fans. Those three key films chiefly associated with folk horror – The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw – established a new kind of uncanny cinema, where the vulnerabilities of established Christian thought were exposed to unreason. Considering the enlightened times in which these films were made, they seem to represent a hankering for a magical past, or at least for something both more powerful and mysterious than the current order had to offer. It’s possible, too, that the Age of Aquarius and the new wave of magical thinking found its portrait in the attic in at least some of the folk horror which emerged from the late 60s through the 70s. If magic was indeed back, and if young people were turning their backs on the norms of their parents’ generation, then what could all of this mean?

It’s certainly true that folk horror has garnered a considerable amount of attention lately, with some fine publications emerging and a range of interesting voices adding to the discussion. Some of this is undoubtedly nostalgia; perhaps some of it also stems from an appreciation of horror that is (at least seemingly) supernatural in origin, marking a move away from the bodily-fixated horrors of the nineties and noughties. Our fascination with the ghostly and the arcane never goes away for very long, certainly, and the renewed interest in folk horror testifies to that.

However, in the articles we are going to run, we’ll be looking further afield than a handful of key feature films, because – however vital they are – we believe that there’s more to say. As well as examinations of some of those genre-defining films from 70s Britain, we will also be looking at American folk horror, considering its differences and similarities to European (and other) folk tales.  Throughout this special, we’ll look at lesser-known films, relevant literature, and other traditions which we feel are ripe for the folk horror treatment. Our intention isn’t to dilute the sub-genre beyond all appreciation, mind, but we do feel that some other relevant and engaging material definitely deserves to make an appearance here. And, if the 70s were a melting pot which led to a harking back to darker, but perhaps not so distant times – then what creative horrors will await those of us today, living through some of the most tempestuous and tribal times within memory?

Folk horror is an appealing (appalling?) concept and a broad church, and we hope that our run of features will reflect these things. We hope that you enjoy them: the first will be appearing later today…

The Handmaiden (2016)

Whilst it’s over ten years since director Park Chan-wook began stepping back from the beautiful, but brutal revenge sagas which first brought him to our attention, it’s nonetheless fair to say that I was surprised by The Handmaiden, his most recent feature. Although in some ways you can see commonality – deceptive appearances, surveillance, sexuality – between this and his earlier works, it’s otherwise a very different beast, a period drama which makes us look and look again at what we are being told before we can really understand its story. However, Park allows himself one minor tentacles/torture set piece. It’s only fair; they’ve done him proud up until now.

The film is set in 1930s Korea: while Europe was grappling with the rising possibility of another war with Germany, the Japanese had already extended their empire to include China and Korea, occupying the latter from 1910. A young Korean girl, Okju, is told that she’s been selected for the role of handmaiden – or a lady’s maid – for a wealthy Japanese heiress, Hideko, who lives with her uncle at a grand Korean mansion. Okju – going by the Japanese name of Tamako for her new role – is both spellbound and intimidated by the place, a weird mish-mash of Japanese and Western architecture, and at first can only gather scraps of information on her new mistress, who is apparently much-afflicted with her nerves. Tamako’s first meeting with her is after Hideko has a violent nightmare, but the new maid can’t help but be warm and informal with her from the outset, doing her best to calm her. Thus, a peculiar friendship is born.

But it turns out that Tamako isn’t as innocent as all that. She’s not Okju, or Tamako, but Nam-Sookee, a likeable little rogue from Korean criminal stock: her mother was hanged for being a thief, and her network of aunties, cousins and young charges keep company with some very crooked people indeed. Amongst these are fellow con-artist ‘Count Fujiwara’, a Japanese nobleman who is really neither of those things, but wants to get close to the wealthy Hideko, so that he can marry her and secure her fortune for himself. Getting insider knowledge from the lady’s maid is all part of this scheme, but he promises Sookee a cut of the profits when he’s done and he has, as he puts it, dumped Hideko in a madhouse. Everyone, it seems, has their price and Sookee has her own ambitions to get far away from her current situation, so she agrees to this set-up.

The thing is, she’s unprepared for the melancholy and enigmatic Hideko, whose beauty charms her, while she’s troubled by the bizarre relationship Hideko has with her elderly uncle, a bookseller and collector who uses her to perform readings for his invariably male buyers and guests (spoiler: he doesn’t ask her to read The Famous Five to them). Likewise, Hideko is intrigued by this lively new maid who speaks her mind and seems oddly earnest. Gradually their relationship changes, though the extent of these changes is steered in surprising directions. A long film in three separate chapters, Park allows different voices to come to the fore as he – gradually – reveals the truth. Some scenes are repeated and extended as other characters assert how things actually happened, telling us their version of events. The overall effect is very immersive.

“What does a crook know about love?”

Although the way is never left clear, the film really shines as an examination of the redemptive power of the two girls’ relationship, something which blossoms on screen. Park takes his time with this story; nothing is rushed. Sex is a key factor in this – throughout, even the intimation of sex with men is coarse and sadistic, whereas with women it’s gentle and intimate – but minor scenes work just as well. For example, where Hideko laces her maid into a tight corset, so that they each mirror the other (there’s a great deal of this mirroring elsewhere) they can speak to each other as equals for a short time, which encourages each of them to relax their guard a little. These moments of breakthrough eventually guide the two girls to their later actions. Essentially, the machinations of others bring them together, and it’s these little moments of parity which help their relationship to move beyond the strictures imposed on it by other forces – those which underestimate and belittle them. It’s this error of underestimation which is turned to such brilliant effect in the third chapter, something definitely worth waiting for.

The Handmaiden is also a beautiful piece of film, where every fragment of every scene looks sublime. From the characters themselves – I’m sure Min-hee Kim is carved out of marble – to their clothing, to the interior shots and the landscapes, it looks as though some kind of mathematical formula has been used to perfectly compose every moment. Even someone eating a grain of rice turns into a vision. And if you think I’m exaggerating, well – you need to see it, then you’ll believe it.

A film which unveils new ways in which its characters understand the world is always the product of a skilled hand, and Park Chan-wook certainly fits that bill. Whilst links to horror are for the most part subtly unfolded here, all neat aesthetic twists and stock-in-trade unhappy heroines, the film still has an ugly underbelly of vice and criminality. It’s the threat of these forces winning out which really drives the story, but also allows the story to expand as sumptuously as it does. This is another phenomenal and challenging piece of work.

The Handmaiden will be released on Standard and Special Edition DVD/Blu-Ray by Curzon Artificial Eye on 7th August.

 

 

 

 

 

Stalker (1979)

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m woefully ignorant of the diverse cinema of the former Soviet Union; this goes even for those filmmakers who bridged that East/West divide, such as the best-known of the bunch, I’d say, Andrei Tarkovsky. Stalker (1979) is the first of his films that I’ve ever seen and, yep, I’m afraid that goes for Solaris too. Now, as to whether Stalker is the best starting point remains to be seen; it’s certainly a challenging film, and I can’t help but think that the ‘sci-fi’ tag attached to it may do it a disservice in some respects. When we think of science fiction, we think of the visible presence of the improbable. In Tarkovsky’s work, the improbable is there as context only, and there are no flashy effects or plot developments after the framework is established.

The film begins in a dank, dour apartment with a family – father, mother and child – sharing one bed. Medicines and syringes adorn a nearby table. Dad (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) is looking with affection upon his sleeping daughter, but relations between him and his wife seem strained, to say the least: he tries to sneak away, presumably for some sort of employment, but Zhena (Alisa Freindlikh) is angry, doesn’t want him to leave and winds up inconsolably weeping on the floor. It turns out that his employment is that of a ‘stalker’. These people lead others into a mysterious part of the landscape known as the Zone. The Zone simply…appeared one day: some believe that it was the result of an asteroid, some say it was the work of some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence. Soldiers sent to this region disappeared and so, to try to safeguard others, the authorities erected a guarded cordon around it, making it intensely dangerous for anyone to sneak in. Stalkers help people get in – and they do so because it transpires that within the Zone, there exists the potential to make one’s heart’s desires come true.

Together with two other men – known only as ‘The Professor’ and ‘The Writer’ – the stalker takes them through deserted, waterlogged streets and nearer to their destination, avoiding gunfire along the way. The further they go, the more the landscape seems to be post-apocalyptic in some way; everything is broken, or derelict. Absolutely everything is flooded. The route is dangerous, they are low on resources and the soldiers keep up their assault on them, but eventually, they are able to reach the outskirts of the Zone.

Here, the palette changes from sepia to colour. This new area is a lush, but still a war-scarred place, and the stalker insists that they cannot simply walk straight to their destination – somewhere known as the Room. He tells the two others that the whole place is rigged with traps to keep people away, and that they must tread very, very carefully. Many people have, he insists, perished, right on the threshold of the Room. They must go cautiously, and they must also wait, and wait, for the right time to move on.

These three men – although acquaintances at best, rather than friends – spend a great deal of the rest of the film philosophising and pondering just what it is that they want from this ‘Room’. This futile hankering after something unknown has nothing in common with any of the sci-fi I could mention; if anything, this is Waiting for Godot with a science fiction back-story. It’s also similar to Godot in that these similarly, broken, shabby men are hanging around waiting for something which is a possible means through dissatisfaction and hardship, but they don’t really know what this relief will look like when they find it. And, as they don’t know what it looks like, they don’t really know how to progress. Stalker is incredibly oblique, and although there is some intimation of a tricksy intelligence which is keeping them all from what they want, this film is otherwise a long digression on the meaning of life which will, I am sure, test the patience of many viewers. I’d say you would need to have your appreciation of art-house in the ascendant, far more so than any lingering love for sci-fi or indeed any other genre, in order to enjoy this film (which, at a testing two hours forty minutes, may turn out to be rather important…)

Being art-house orientated, Stalker successfully looks very striking indeed, positioning its characters against abandoned places and post-War bunkers (the film was shot on location in Russia and Estonia, each of which still bore the marks of conflict, even in the 1970s.) It also boasts a painterly approach, with lingering shots, creative uses of colour and a camera which deviates from the inner turmoil of the three men to pan over interesting, and clearly composed tableaux of potentially symbolic objects. Stalker is massively lo-fi, however, with an emphasis on rather cerebral dialogue about ‘the meaning of it all’ and an appropriately obtuse Soviet conclusion where we learn only not to ask again in future. La La Land, this categorically ain’t.

So – as a first expedition with Tarkovsky, this was admittedly a challenge for me. Stalker is a strange, hypnotic and well-soundscaped creative enterprise, for sure, as well as being quite unlike anything else I’ve seen (apart from, as mentioned, a certain play by a certain Beckett) but it’s also dreary and motionless for much of the time, a chance to peer through the undergrowth and dereliction at some troubled souls without really being able to see any of them through their plight. I guess this is kind of the point. Should you wish to pick this one up, then, the Criterion Collection are about to issue a special edition which boasts a new digital restoration and a crop of special features.

Stalker will be released on 24th July 2017.

 

The Beguiled (2017)

I will say I was rather surprised to see that The Beguiled had been remade. Not frothing-at-the-mouth indignant that anyone could ever remake such a film, but more intrigued that anyone would want to do it: the 1971 original, starring Clint Eastwood, was a strange project which probably didn’t find its audience upon release and it’s struggled to get due recognition since. It’s not a romance, and it’s not a war film, it’s incredibly tense, but it’s low on action. These trope-defying films have a hard time and they’re a hard sell. So why return to the subject matter all over again?

Happily, the saving grace here is Sofia Coppola. Whilst her filmography isn’t vast, she’s shown that she has a deft hand when it comes to drawing out new subtleties from even the best-known stories. For example, most people know who Marie Antoinette was and what became of her; in her film of the same name, Coppola managed to make her story poignant again by showing her as a girlish, vulnerable figure undone by frantic political upheaval, not some staid figure or (as popular propaganda had/has it) an aloof idiot who thought the poor could eat cake if they didn’t have bread. If anyone could recast something familiar in a new set of ways, then perhaps Coppola could. Adding an intriguing cast, the stage was set. This remake could well be worthwhile.

Virginia, the 1860s. The story starts with a little girl, Amy, gathering mushrooms in the woods near the boarding school where she studies and lives. It’s a pretty, sylvan scene, but the Civil War is in its death throes just nearby and the booming of cannon keeps interrupting the birdsong (this totemic noise continues throughout the film until it becomes stiflingly silent when it finally stops.) Amy is startled to see a wounded Union soldier sheltering underneath a tree; he asks for her help, and so she supports him back to her school, where the last few inmates there with no other place else to go eventually carry him indoors to treat his wounded leg. The man is Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a recently-arrived Irishman who only signed up for the Yankee cause for money. Panicked and injured during a recent battle, he had escaped. Hence, as he’s keen to point out, he has survived. The women at Miss Martha’s Seminary ponder what to do with him, but decide to let him recuperate.

His presence in the school soon changes their lives, however. At first it’s barely perceptible, but the girls (even the very young girls) respond to there being a man around by wanting to help him, or please him, or even just talk to him. Even the two responsible adults, Miss Martha herself (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) forget their tight-laced Christian demeanours in his presence – even if only momentarily, before they snap back into type. All the women and girls begin to take more care over their appearances, dressing up for him, squabbling over jewellery and dresses, and all of them seem completely pliable after even a kind word or two from McBurney. It’s a situation he’s very keen to exploit.

Having no great moral impetus – beyond hard cash – to get back to the battle, he sets his morals aside completely, happy to manipulate each of the women for – is it his own vanity? For sport? Or simply to secure their Southern hospitality for as long as possible? It seems that it’s any or all of those reasons in turn, but what’s certain is that the power shifts in The Beguiled move one way, then another, like a needle and thread through a tapestry (or any of the other less orthodox fabrics we see when we encounter this women’s work in the film). First McBurney is powerless – completely prone, after his injury, and the women who tend to him seem to enjoy his powerlessness: Miss Martha cleaning his (almost) naked body is turned into a queasily erotic tableau where a man potentially about to die of his injuries becomes some serious eye candy: furthermore, the enjoyment she gains from looking at him and touching him is ratcheted up by the use of microphones which pick up the rapid changes to her breathing, a trick the film employs elsewhere with the other women. Then, McBurney takes full stock of his situation, flattering and cajoling the women – particularly Miss Edwina, who Dunst effectively plays here as a living powder-keg. She’s an insular and downbeat character (teaching will do that to you) but her emotions reflexively spark into life when it transpires that she’s been lied to. Thus, the power shifts again, and again after that.

Although there’s barely a raised voice in The Beguiled, and we see trickery, rather than all-out violence, the tension simmers along unmercifully all the way through the film. This is due to the above-mentioned cannon fire which never moves off completely, the proximity of troops from both sides of the conflict, and of course the almost unbearable goings-on within the school: those old friends sexuality and envy move through the cosy, quiet rooms like a miasma, eventually giving rise to something like Misery (1990) where a man is hobbled and brought down. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, as the old saying goes – well, perhaps, but much of it in The Beguiled is in word and not deed, whilst the deeds themselves – when they occur – are not protracted, or even shown on screen that much. The final act – here, as in 1971 – may therefore not feel like an adequate pay-off for everyone; for me, it was completely in keeping with the manner of the story. With a man around, the women have begun to re-assume the more traditionally feminine roles and interests they’ve had to set aside, because the slaves are all gone and they must do their own digging and their their own shooting (if needs be). When that man transgresses, manipulating them and using them, the women are left with their traditional feminine pursuits, so they have no option but to use these as their weapons: the film concludes in an unholy trinity of needlework, cooking and sex. Even in times of war, even on the losing side, feminine wiles and pastimes can be lethal.

A worthwhile update to a challenging original piece of Southern Gothic, The Beguiled is in cinemas now.

 

 

RIP George Romero

It’s with shock and sadness that we have learned that George Romero has passed away, following a short battle with lung cancer. He was 77 years old.

His breakthrough film, Night of the Living Dead, accidentally spawned a genre – with the ghouls which he envisioned becoming our ‘zombies’ – not entities which had anything to do with the original connotation of the word, but rather unthinking agents of contagion – slow moving, inhuman, relentless. It’s perhaps difficult for us to appreciate that the zombie, with all its associated lore, stemmed from just one man and his work, but it did. Romero refined and developed his ideas for this new wave of movie monsters over his next two zombie films, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead – and the original ‘Dead Trilogy’ is now an integral part of horror film canon. But those films, as innovative as they were, would likely not have cemented such a following had they not also showcased Romero’s wry politicking, where we’re shown in vivid and often harrowing detail that it’s the humans who are the real monsters. Does it ever get easier to watch Ben’s final scenes in Night of the Living Dead? Or to witness what happens to ‘Fly Boy’ in Dawn? How would we behave if we were isolated survivors of something so cataclysmic? Would we wander back to the shopping mall, too?

A return to the zombie genre later in his career lacked the verve and the impact of his earlier work, with his later films Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead never attaining the same organic sense of social commentary, but people were delighted to see him working again after such a long hiatus. Still, it’d be incorrect to see him solely as ‘the zombie guy’ anyway, and would do him a disservice. The Crazies – which pre-dates Dawn of the Dead – is a great, manic film, and the underrated (and very subtle) vampire horror of Martin is a whole world away from the zombie genre. Whilst Romero’s filmography isn’t vast, he made enough films to show that he could indeed be versatile.

An affable, good-natured man, he wasn’t in the least fazed by many of the things which makes fans seethe today. When he attended Frightfest in 2005 for the Land of the Dead premier, someone asked him how he felt about his films being remade. Perhaps they expected a tirade, or at least some words on the lack of spontaneity in modern cinema, or so on. Romero just smiled and shrugged, pointing out that no one was taking his films away – they were “still right there on the shelf”. He didn’t feel that he had anything to be worried about, and that people would always have his films, as he’d intended them, for as long as they wanted them.

Well, for that we can be grateful now, though it’s shot through with sadness that we’ve lost yet another giant of genre, someone who has shaped fandom for so many of us for so long.

RIP, George A. Romero. You will be sadly missed.

 

 

 

 

Exquisite Terror 5

Maybe we’re a little biased as in the not-too-distant past we released a magazine of our own, but it’s always good to see the resurgence in print media, and Exquisite Terror – now in its fifth edition – is a stylish, studious take on horror, with original illustrations and content. Running to just over 50 pages, the focus is once again on quality not quantity, with a range of features and interviews spanning both film and literature.

By far the longest article in the publication – running to nine pages, minus the accompanying full-page illustrations – is James Gracey’s study of Dario Argento, entitled Penetrating Flesh. It’s a detailed analysis, by and large ‘critiquing the critiques’ by discussing a range of existing articles or books which allude to the intersections of horror, sex and cinema. There are some intriguing points made, though several of these critiques hinge upon pornography as a misogynistic monolith, something I feel needs to be looked at with a more nuanced eye by those who so often invoke it. That said, Gracey does question some of the ideas about women as passive mutes, pointing out that in Argento’s films, this is refuted as much as reinforced. Penetrating Flesh is scholarly in tone, though also displays a fan’s knowledge, whilst referencing a lot of further reading and research.

On the Trail of the Witchfinder

Personally, out of the entire publication, I most enjoyed Jon Towlson’s feature on British director Michael Reeves. Reeves, who directed two phenomenal films (The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General) died as a very young man following an overdose. Towlson’s feature focuses on the psychogeography of Reeves’ life, looking at the homes and pubs which were not only close to his heart, but probably integral to how he lived. These spaces were where he socialised, threw ideas around and – towards the end – grappled with what he saw as the deeply wrongheaded criticisms of his work, particularly the then much-maligned Witchfinder General, now considered a classic of its genre. It’s an interesting perspective, looking squarely at the seeming incongruity between Reeves’ films and his surroundings but always remaining sympathetic and engaged. It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion of this piece – that the death of Michael Reeves so very young was a phenomenal loss.

By and large, Exquisite Terror 5 belongs to older, dare I say ‘classic’ horror, for the most part. The Script Behind the Classic: The Omen by Martyn Conterio offers a neat potted history and some interesting facts about the film, contextualising it by pointing to the increasing absence of ‘God’ from society at the time. It’s a fair point; Time Magazine ran its ‘Is God Dead?’ cover in the late 1960s and some good godless horrors were spawned in the years which followed, including The Omen. This is a readable and engaging article.

A new perspective on Hannibal Lecter is offered in Impenetrable Sanity, a feature which considers the character from the point of view of legal definitions of sanity, deciding that it’s unlikely Lecter would have got away with an insanity ruling in the first place, given his profile and behaviour. This is a somewhat dry account in places, but I can’t deny that it’s an interesting way to come at one of the most notorious characters in crime fiction. Sticking with fiction writing, a conversation with esteemed author Ramsay Campbell on his memories of fellow author, Robert Aickman, is full of warmth and good humour, though of course if you’re unfamiliar with Aickman, then reading some of his work should be your first port of call. There’s another interview in ET5, definitely of interest to 80s horror fans, with ‘Uncle’ Bob Martin, formerly of Fangoria Magazine. Integral to early fandom for many, Martin discusses his early experiences of running the magazine (including where it got its name) and chats about his work with Frank Henenlotter, the master of bizarre body horror.

God Bless America…

Exquisite Terror doesn’t seem to have an overarching editorial policy, meaning there’s no impetus to toe a line, one way or another. This boosts the variety of features on offer – a good thing – though of course it also means that I, like anyone else, will always prefer some articles to others. God Bless America: Stephen King’s Shining by Jim Reader comes to mind here I’m afraid: there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with how this piece is written, as it flows well, but the claims it makes about Kubrick’s seminal horror film seem based on very tenuous evidence. These feel like pre-existing tenuous claims, too, as many improbable interpretations of The Shining already featured in the frankly bonkers documentary film Room 237 (2012), which at the very least made me wonder what it is in particular about The Shining that bears such strange fruit. The premise – that Kubrick’s film is a commentary on the historical treatment of Native Americans, based on two lines of dialogue and some incidental images of Native Americans – is no more convincing now that I encounter it for the second time here. On a similar note, Once Bitten: The Queerness of Becoming Other ostensibly features a ‘queering’ of a handful of werewolf films, but what’s counted as lycanthropic in nature seems a little broad. Also, to my eye, some of the interpretation seems somewhat awry (I don’t know Der Samurai, but one of the key scenes mentioned as evidence of the links between queerness/othering seems to have firm markers of hetero-, rather than homo-erotic lust.) Finally, if you say that werewolf films reflect the anxieties about the AIDS panic of the 80s, then I think we need specific examples.

Still, overall I enjoyed Exquisite Terror 5, just as I enjoyed Exquisite Terror 4. It doesn’t really matter if I don’t agree with every word; sometimes it’s half the fun if I don’t, whilst I can appreciate the trials and tribulations involved in keeping a project going to such a good standard and appreciate the magazine as a worthwhile endeavour. The only slight shame is that Naila sticks to editing rather than writing herself these days, but she’s clearly comfortable handling the editorial aspects. Should you enjoy a somewhat more highbrow take on horror, then this magazine is one for you. Long may it reign.

Exquisite Terror 5 is now available for pre-order. You can find it, and previous editions, here.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

For someone not given to supernatural beliefs, I have a fascination with supernatural horror, and there are few supernatural horrors more famous than The Amityville Horror; close to forty years after it first appeared, there are still films getting made which carry the Amityville moniker. One of the key reasons for the success of the original film was the link between the screenplay and the ostensibly ‘true story’ of the Lutz family, whose experiences are dramatised in the film. The Lutz haunting is itself well known, and a fascinating, terrifying story in its own right, comprising a bizarre blend of testimony from the family themselves and a host of others who had become involved with them, such as the self-styled ‘demonologists’ Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose case films have incidentally turned up elsewhere in horror cinema – such as in The Conjuring (2013) and Annabelle (2014). Any description of a haunting as ferocious as the one recounted by the Lutz family always seems to me to be a detective story, too: people corroborate or contradict one another, recount or re-assert what they experienced. Still, the film itself doesn’t much trouble with these ambiguities, preferring to play out many of the events described by the Lutzes on screen, in as straightforward a way as you can muster when those events include inexplicable phenomena.

“GET OUT!”

The film begins with a multiple homicide at the property – an event which did occur at the address – before winding the clock forward by a year. The house is now on the market, and going at a steal; it’s an ideal proposition for the newly-married Kathy and George Lutz (Margot Kidder and James Brolin respectively). At very first, things are of course fine; however the priest (Rod Steiger) who wanders in to the property to give it a blessing, before becoming overwraught and spending most of the rest of the film incapacitated, is the one who seems to exacerbate things, if you ask me. From that point on, strange things begin to happen: daughter Amy begins to talk about an imaginary friend; the house is plagued with flies; George begins to maniacally chop wood (?) and disembodied voices are heard…

Whilst I’ve condensed down the strange phenomena into a list, that doesn’t mean a great deal, for the most part, is going on here. Truth be told, The Amityville Horror has many limitations and relies primarily on bad vibes (with the obligatory spook’s-eye-view camera shots replacing more ambitious goings-on) and the threat of worse, with limited pay-off. A great deal of time is afforded to George’s mysterious flu-like symptoms and shortening temper, which aren’t particularly diverting – or perhaps not handled so well, as the equivalent testimony from the real-life George Lutz is far scarier. There are a fair few vomiting clergy in the film as well, which means only that we are left to imagine unholy bad smells.

So, I think it’s fair to say that some elements seem rather contrived now. The personified house with the glowing red eyes, the obligatory kids’ choir over the opening credits, and the HUGE and OBVIOUS foreshadowing (3:15! You got that? 3:15! 3:15!) has been done to death ever since. I hadn’t seen this film since I was unreasonably young, and I must say, it hasn’t retained much of the impact it had on me then, as I remember being quite disturbed by it. That said, as I was watching my screener copy, a chunk of my ceiling fell down for no reason I could see, and I jumped out of my skin – so the film was clearly doing something right…

“Jody doesn’t like George…”

…And there are some successful elements – the ‘red eyes’ scene still works well, for instance – enough so, that the film has enjoyed great influence on other horror films which have followed in its wake. The impact of these key scenes is always increased, for me, when you remember that an adamant family was convinced that these phenomena were real – enough so that they eventually fled the house, leaving all of their belongings there, even leaving food on the table. The whole ‘based on a true story’ preamble, which we’re so used to now, owes much to the success of Stuart Rosenberg’s movie, as does the ‘real time’ unfolding of events, a technique still integral to many scare stories (it’s relevant to note that much ghostly ‘found footage’ embeds real time via its shooting style.) Sure, there’s some back-and-forth between banality and histrionics, but The Amityville Horror is an important chapter in the genre and is worth a place in your collection.

Should you wish to part with your cash for a new edition, I can only compliment the steelbox version recently released by Second Sight: it’s an attractive bit of kit, and comes with a set of four replication lobby cards. There are a wealth of extras on the disc, too, comprising cast & crew interviews as well as an interview with a member of the Lutz family (son Daniel) and the usual stack of trailers, TV spots and radio spots.

The Amityville Horror is available on remastered Blu-ray now.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

When we ‘see what’s on the slab’ in the horror genre, it tends to be a young woman. Some of the films in question are just plain gut-wrenchingly horrific (such as Nacho Cerda’s Aftermath), some are undoubtedly horrific, but all the same cleverer than many might give them credit for (Deadgirl) and then – there’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a film which is quite unlike the vast majority of its predecessors, despite presenting us with yet another anonymous, unsullied female cadaver. This in itself is unusual; when you consider that this is the third feature by André Øvredal, it goes from ‘unusual’ to ‘bloody weird’. Yeah, this is the guy who directed the Norse legend-based Trollhunter before it all went strangely quiet on that front, considering the modest but solid reception which the earlier film garnered. Hey, no one can ever accuse this man of sticking to what he’s tried and tested before: this latest film, some six years on, is a bizarre change in direction. However, it has the nous to go all in, melding body horror to something which goes far beyond any of that, with our ‘Jane Doe’ positioned at the centre as if in the middle of a grisly Venn diagram.

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5 Deranged Doctors of Horror Cinema

As a Swedish death metal musician once asked, ‘Who examines the doctors?’ and it’s a fair question, speaking to an anxiety which crops up again and again in horror cinema. Little wonder it does, too: ever since Victor Frankenstein decided to use his university education to stitch together dead bodies as a scholar of the ‘unhallowed arts’, people going rogue with medical expertise has formed a key component of the genre, somewhere we can play with our very real worries about these people abusing their skills, position and power. Here are some of my favourites…

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Horror in Art: The Devil, Sin and The Bottle – Artwork by George Cruikshank

Britain has an illustrious history of cartoonists and illustrators who have been ready to represent life and all its ugliness in spectacularly ugly fashion. Hogarth’s work still has the power to repel, and in Georgian Britain, caricaturist James Gillray made things even more grotesque, regularly representing the monarchy for whom the era was named as toothless, gormless idiots, whilst turning ideals – such as the French Revolution – into allegorical depictions of monsters. If Gillray was the man best-known for sending up the Regency, then it was George Cruikshank who best satirised the rest of the 19th Century – initially following in his father Isaac’s illustrious footsteps as his apprentice. In the earliest years of his career, Cruikshank turned his own hand to political satire; then, as now, there was ample material, and to be fair, the Prince Regent often made himself a ripe target for ridicule…

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5 Feelgood Horrors…

For many people, horror films wouldn’t be the obvious choice if they wanted to feel in some ways uplifted. Horror isn’t about feeling good, after all – or at least, that’s not the usual verdict. It’s about feeling scared. Many people would perhaps be more likely to go for a period drama, a musical, a romantic comedy, or something of that kind: the type of film where, when it comes down to it, everyone eventually settles for something or someone and lives ‘happily ever after’. That’s the more normal thing to help a person relax, and probably the last thing which would pick me up.

Personally, if I’m going to revisit a film, it’s because it offers me something completely and utterly different than the everyday, and there are a number of films which I can happily watch over and over, coming out of the other side feeling…better. Good. I’m not talking about comedy horror. Nor horror in a cathartic way either, which I think relates to a different kind of horror film, but more as if I’ve had a pick-me-up. I want proper escapism, not realism – give me fantastic creatures, other worlds, stories which turn everything upside down, people who step outside the everyday forever, never to return. That’s the sort of thing which I find elevating, even if the ‘happy ever after’ motif is complicated at best, or even absent altogether. That’s another of the joys of the horror genre – it never seems to feel bad about ending things badly, if it’s part of the story. It has more leeway. It can take us on longer journeys and show us more interesting sights along the way.

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