Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Haunted Landscapes: a Season of Folk Horror: part 3

This is the final part of Irish Film Institute, to see Folk Horror themed films being shown as part of their Haunted Landscapes season. Folk horror is a term coined by Mark Gatiss. You can read my account of the first set of these films here and the second here

There was more black magic action in Night of the Demon (1957), Jacques Tourneur's adaptation of M.R. James's 'Casting the Runes', about a magus who is able to set a malevolent demon on his enemies and a man who finds himself marked for death by the monster. Among other things, it is famous for providing the "It's in the trees! It's coming!" sample for Kate Bush's 'Hounds of Love'. It is also that odd beast, a noir horror film, with much use made of shadow, lots of men in hats and long coats, an opening scene in which a man drives along a darkened road by night, a closing scene in night fog beside a railway track. And yet it is not fully comfortable in its embrace of the uncanny, with the magus a somewhat bumptious type and various interludes with mediums and hypnotists seeming almost like comic relief for all that they are advancing the plot of horror. In that regard it feels less certain of itself as a horror film than Cat People, Tourneur's 1942 classic.

Night of the Demon is famous for the studios insistence that the monster be shown in it ("If people go to film called Night of the Demon then they'll feel ripped off if there is no goddamn Demon!" must have been the logic). Tourneur on the other hand wanted the Demon to be left unseen, more terrifying if the audience's imagination is left to run riot. In truth, the long shot version of the Demon is actually quite scary, reminiscent of the monster in Forbidden Planet in its semi-corporeality. The close-up version is pretty ridiculous though, that classic dud monster who ends up looking a bit cute thanks to its trying too hard to be fierce. And despite its ridiculousness, the close-up view of the monster gets used in all publicity for this film, including by the IFI in the run up to this season.

And how fares this enjoyable film as a member of the folk horror genre? I'm not too sure. All the black magic stuff and people in posh houses again feels like something other than folk horror. On the other hand, there is a bit where the protagonist goes to Stonehenge and looks at some runes carved into the stones, calling to mind the ancient folk ways of England, so maybe we will let them away with it.

And the last film was the most recent, The Blair Witch Project from 1999. You have surely seen that found footage film about the three people who get lost in the woods while trying to make a low budget documentary about a legendary with. Looking back on it now it is striking how none of the people involved in have gone on to do that much. Given how much of a stir the film caused at the time this may be surprising. I am also struck by how short it it is, possibly because a film of people wandering around in the woods and then being woken up by strange noises at night can only go on so long before it gets boring.

It is still a most unnerving. The sense that the characters are doomed comes early to the viewer, and it is their dawning sense of their inescapable fate that gives the film its mounting dread.

Sound design corner: I know people who are into cinema sound design get annoyed when people say "oh, like music?" when the concept of sound design is outlined to them, but in Blair Witch Project it was noticeable that in the very last sequence (when the characters run around through the world's spookiest derelict houses, pretty much knowing they are about to die) the film sneaks some low volume music onto the soundtrack. This should break the illusion that this is unmediated found footage, but the volume is so low and the scene so engaging that most audiences probably do not notice.

Folk horror credentials: well there is a witch in it (or mentioned in it) and there is a fair bit about folk beliefs and folk lore (albeit of the completely made up variety).

So there you go. After reading all this, what do you understand by the term Folk Horror?

For more Folk Horror action, see my account of interesting conference A Fiend in the Furrows here and here.

image sources

Night of the Demon (Verdoux)

The Demon (BFI)

Blair Witch Project: the basement (The Dissolve)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Haunted Landscapes: a Season of Folk Horror: part 2

I continue my account of trips to the Irish Film Institute, to see Folk Horror themed films being shown as part of their Haunted Landscapes season. Folk horror is a term coined by Mark Gatiss. You can read my account of the first set of these films here.

The second day of the season saw us in the IFI's smaller screen for a showing of Quatermass And The Pit (1967), a Hammer film version of the late 1950s TV series, both scripted by Nigel Kneale. Kim Newman introduced the film, about which he has written a book. Quatermass (a rocket scientist) finds himself investigating strange goings on when workers on an extension to the London Underground discover an unexploded bomb that turns out to be a spaceship older than humanity. There are shocking revelations and the release of long dormant powers.

When things come together in Hammer films they are the best things in the world: not schlocky or camp but genuinely unnerving. Everything comes together in this one, with the design, acting, scripting and direction all making this one of their greatest works. But is it folk horror? One might say no, arguing instead that this is horror science fiction in the Lovecraft mould, yet it still has a folk feel to it. The horror is very much located in a physical place, with the sense that the buried ship has had a malign influence on its surroundings since time immemorial (a trip to the library reveals that the area above it has been regarded as haunted and unhallowed as far back as there are records).

With this film I must particularly sing the praises of Barbara Shelley, a Hammer stalwart, who in this plays one of the archaeologists. She appears in a succession of amazing outfits that appear to have driven the colour coordination of the sets and astutely plays a role a world away from the screaming victim more commonly seen in Hammer films (often played by Ms Shelley). Hers is not the lead role but I did watch this wishing she had been given a fairer crack of the whip by film history.

The next film was the first I had not seen before, it being Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a Czechoslovak film from 1970. Its Luboš Fišer soundtrack was re-released some years ago by Finders Keepers and became quite popular with people who like that kind of thing. Having listened to the record a good bit made for a strange experience finally seeing the film. It is a somewhat avant-garde work, described by Kim Newman as being exactly like Company of Wolves, except with vampires instead of werewolves. As such it falls into the world of films about teenage girls and their sexual awakenings. Valerie is menaced by shifty characters who try it on with her and who may or may not also be her close blood relatives. A sinister Nosferatu-like figure directs proceedings. Her grandmother may also be one of the vampires. Things happen, but it is not a plotty film. Instead it is a work of great beauty, with a wonderful combination of visual images and music.

But is Valerie and Her Week of Wonders folk horror? I fear not, but it would be churlish to complain about this rare opportunity to see this classic of obscure cinema.

Following that we found ourselves watching the third of the films that Mark Gatiss used to define the folk horror genre. It was The Blood on Satan's Claw, a 1970 film directed by Piers Haggard, made by the same production company as Witchfinder General, seen on the season's first day. This one is also set in days of yore (the 18th century or some such) and begins with a young yokel finding a strange looking hairy skull in a field while ploughing. He brings a grumpy old judge to investigate, but the skull has vanished, yet it soon transpires that Evil has descended upon the locality.

This one was introduced by Donald Clarke, Irish film critic. One of his interesting points was that the film is like a hippy dream gone bad. The servants of Satan in the film are the beautiful flower children, while it is ultimately The Man (the grumpy judge) who puts a stop to their shenanigans. For all that the cultists are murderers and rapists, they look far more like the good guys than Judge Establishment. There is a disturbing brutality to the judge defeating the cultists by laying into them with a big sword at the head of a mob of irate villagers.

This is a great film, managing a more straightforwardly disturbing tone than Witchfinder General and entirely lacking its sense of schlock. For all that the film features a Satanic monster gradually becoming more powerful, the real sense of menace is more psychological, either in the way that the young people are somehow turned by the Dark One or else appear to have their minds destroyed by exposure to the purity of evil. There is also an arbitrariness to the Dark One's ways: why does the lad who finds the skull in the first place remain unaffected by its power?

And is it folk horror? Well, there is not so much about folk practices but it is set in the English countryside and does feature folk, so I suppose it must be. Its eerie soundtrack is also reminiscent of music on the Mount Vernon Art Lab album The Séance at Hobs Lane.

The next film was Hammer classic The Devil Rides Out (1968), a black magic film adapted from the novel by Dennis Wheatley (with Richard Matheson writing the script). It has Christopher Lee playing the Duc de Richelieu, who discovers that a young friend has got mixed up with Satanism. Richelieu turns out to have made an extensive study of the Black Arts (while fortunately remaining resolutely on the side of righteousness), so he and another more square-jawed hero friend battle to save the impressionable young lad before it is too late. It is a film I have seen before and they showed the trailer before everything in the IFI recently, so it felt very familiar when I watched it. It is schlock but it is great schlock, with Lee delivering classic lines like "It's the Goat of Mendes - the Devil Himself!" as though he means them.

It is also striking how the film is pretty much about a battle of poshos against satanists, with most of the satanists also being poshos. Everyone seems to live in mansions and have armies of servants at their disposal. From having read the book the film is based on, this reflects well Wheatley's snobbish world view. Overall the film is an enjoyable romp: a good Hammer film but not necessarily the kind of thing enjoyed by someone not wedded to the Hammer aesthetic.

It is not particularly folk horror; in fact I fear that it is what members of the Folk Horror Revival community on Facebook refer to as "not strictly folk horror". There is nothing really about folk practices or traditional ways, with the film being more straightforwardly an example of gothic horror. So how did it make it into the season? Well, maybe there was a good print available, or maybe it makes for an interesting counterpoint with Blood on Satan's Claw in terms of how satanic forces are represented.

My account of the last films I saw in the Haunted Landscapes season can be read here.

For more on folk horror, see my account of A Fiend in the Furrows here and here.

image sources:

Kim Newman's Quatermass and the Pit book cover (Palgrave Higher Education)

Barbara Shelley (Magazines and Monsters)

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Wikipedia)

The Blood on Satan's Claw (Ferdy on Films)

The Goat of Mendes (21st Century Wire)

Monday, October 03, 2016

Haunted Landscapes: a Season of Folk Horror

The Irish Film Institute held a season of folk horror films. What the hell, I thought, buying tickets for all of them. For those that do not know of such things, Folk Horror is a term coined by Mark Gatiss in a 2010 BBC documentary about horror cinema. The three films Gatiss proposed as the epitome folk horror are all from the late 1960s or early 1970s. They were included in this season, as were many several others.

I have not seen Gatiss's documentary so I do not know how exactly he defined his genre. I think of it as being a combination of the uncanny with folk beliefs and practices, though the canonical films do not all readily fit such a mould: indeed, it would largely leave us with folk horror being a one-film genre, with that film being The Wicker Man. So instead I will now bomb through the films shown in the season and we can see if any kind of commonality can be seen.

First up there was Witchfinder General (1968), one of Gatiss's trinity. Directed by Michael Reeves, it tells the story of Matthew Hopkins, a real historical figure who hunted and executed large numbers of suspected witches in eastern England during the chaotic Civil War period. The film has a curious relationship with the reality of the Hopkins story. On the one hand outdoor scenes are filmed in places where Mr Hopkins stalked and killed his prey, but the film presents a more lurid version of his activities, throwing in a baroque witch burning at one point (with hanging being the more usual method of executing witches, or so I understand). The film's narrative drive comes from the quest for revenge of a soldier whose betrothed has been abused and debauched by Hopkins & his thuggish assistant, with the grim ending turning the soldier from square-jawed hero into violent maniac.

For all that this is one of the defining films of the folk horror genre I find Witchfinder General's inclusion therein somewhat problematic. There is very little sense in the film of anyone actually believing in witchcraft (either people considering themselves witches or sincerely believing that others are practitioners of the black arts). Accusations of witchcraft appear as a cynical ploy for people who want to punish their enemies or satiate violent urges. Hopkins himself is hard to think of as anything other than a conman using his witch hunts as a way of enriching himself (though his being played by Vincent Price has a lot to do with this). Perhaps what makes this folk horror is its evocation of the latent sadism and malevolence of the common folk, which we see in those scenes where jeering crowds watch the abuse and execution of those accused of witchcraft.

Famously Michael Reeves did not want Vincent Price in the Hopkins role, wishing that he could have Donald Pleasance instead, but the studio insisted. Price and Reeves did not get on, and at one point Price exclaimed to the much younger Reeves, "I've made 80 films! What have you ever done?", to which Reeves replied, "I've made three good ones". Or so it is said.

That same evening I saw The Wicker Man (1973), again introduced by Kim Newman. I have started thinking that this might actually be my favourite film in the world and that I will never turn down a chance to see it. Part of its fun is that it circulates in a multiplicity of versions, so whenever it is shown you never quite know what you are going to get. Newman mentioned that they did not actually know what version they were showing tonight, so he must have been as surprised by me to see an odd two night version that nevertheless leaves out the snails and 'Gently Johnny', felt by many to be the film's best song. Newman also confessed to a sneaking regard for the short version, which was originally shown with no fanfare as a support film for Don't Look Now, with much of its early word-of-mouth power coming from the fact that people were seeing it completely without preconceptions. I know what he means, as I still shudder at the memory of short horror film The Cottage,which I saw unexpectedly before Airplane 2 or similar back in 1982.

The Wicker Man is the folk horror film because the sense of unease and then the horrific climax all derive from the crazy folk customs of the islanders. An odd feature of the film noted by Newman is that it has become very popular with neo-pagans, which he likened to Spotlight becoming a favourite of Catholic priests. The analogy does not quite work, as the priests are a shadowy off screen presence in Spotlight while The Wicker Man is very much about the islanders and their funny ways, but it does bring home how odd it is to have people watching a film about a death cult and saying, "we love those guys".

One other thing occurred to me after an online discussion on the film. In The Wicker Man the pagan islanders are in opposition to the uptight Christian cop Sergeant Howie (played as you know by Edward Woodward). To modern viewers (and I suspect to many in 1973) the two poles of unbending Christianity and pagan fertility cult are both equally strange. It might be that if someone were to try and remake the film now (please don't) or to make something new but similar they would need to replace Howie either with a Dawkins-style scientific rationalist or someone with a more "whatever" approach to religion.

Part two of my write-up of the Haunted Landscapes season is here.

If you want to delve further into this Folk Horror business, see my account of interesting conference A Fiend in the Furrows here and here.

image sources:

Mark Gatiss (Celluloid Wicker Man)

Vincent Price (Guardian)

The Wicker Man poster (Wikipedia)