(c) Rook Films
Here’s the final part of my round-up of recent British horror movies.
Actually, I suppose I shouldn’t mention Black Death in this round-up since (a) it was released in 2010 and isn’t really that recent; and (b) it was made with German money, filmed in Germany and used a largely German crew, so it’s only part-British at best. However, it is set in medieval England, has a mainly British (and Irish) cast and was directed by Christopher Smith, who’s been a leading light in the New Wave of British Horror Movies that’s been in progress since the late 1990s. Smith’s other films include 2004’s Creep (which I hated) and 2006’s Severance (which I enjoyed). Indeed, two actors who were in Severance, Andy Nyman and Tim McInnery, appear here alongside Sean Bean, John Lynch and the venerable, but mighty, character actor David Warner.
Bean plays the head of a group of church-employed warriors who, during the worst days of the Black Death, are sent to investigate a remote village that’s escaped being stricken by the plague – because, according to rumours, its inhabitants have abandoned God and struck a deal with sinister, ancient, pagan deities. After trekking across a dangerous, plague-ravaged landscape, Bean and his grizzled followers arrive at the mysteriously tranquil village in question and suddenly the film turns Wicker Man-ish. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. There’s even a scene where the Christian warriors find the village’s church, abandoned and cobwebbed, and Bean sets the cross back on the altar table – just as Edward Woodward did in the ruined church in The Wicker Man. It has to be said, though, that with his steely glare, gritted teeth and big sword, Bean is a hell of a lot better prepared to face a village of pagans than Edward Woodward was.
(c) Egoli Tossell Film
I liked Black Death a lot, partly because of its cast – Lynch is especially good as the weariest, wisest and most humane of the warriors – and partly because, while it gives you some engaging characters to root for, it’s unflattering about their religious loyalties. This is a ‘no-one wins’ film where fanatical Christianity is no more attractive than fanatical Paganism. Indeed, Smith deserves kudos for filming a particularly dark ending that echoes Nietzsche’s warning about he who fights monsters being in danger of becoming a monster himself.
Unfortunately, Black Death opened and closed without making much of a ripple and it seems to have stalled Smith’s directing career – the last I heard, he was working on something called Get Santa. Which is a shame, as the movie is zillion times better than Season of the Witch, the similarly-themed (but much more expensive) shambles with Nicholas Cage and Ron Pearlman that was released around the same time.
A few years ago it looked like the modern British horror-movie boom would fizzle out in a welter of asinine and loutish horror-comedy films aimed at the sort of blokes who watch Top Gear and read Loaded magazine – dross like 2008’s Lesbian Vampire Killers (James Corden and Matthew Horne head into the remote British countryside on a male-bonding trip and have hilarious sexist hijinks with a horde of Sapphic lady vampires) and the following year’s Doghouse (Danny Dyer and Noel Clarke head into the remote British countryside on a male-bonding trip and have hilarious sexist hijinks with a horde of raunchy lady zombies). Despite this development, though, the boom has survived. However, some dyed-in-the-wool fans may now fear there’s been another troubling development that could kill it off for good. Yes, recently, British horror films have started to get serious. To get pretentious. To get – ugh! – arty.
Yes, they may wonder, could anything be worse than having a clutch of new British horror films that don’t follow the normal route, going straight to DVD and getting an airing on the Horror Channel – but that instead enjoy a run on the arthouse-cinema circuit? For this happened last year with Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.
I’m being facetious because I liked A Field in England and Berberian Sound Studio. However, both films have been derided by some traditional-minded horror fans. For instance, the film critic in the British horror-fiction magazine Black Static made no secret of his contempt for Field (and for Wheatley’s films in general) while Studio was lambasted on the popular horror-movie website Bloody Disgusting.
(c) Rook Films
A Field in England stars Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley, a duo who have form in recent British horror films. (Both of them appeared in The World’s End, Shaun of the Dead and John Landis’s 2010 retelling of Burke and Hare. Shearsmith has also been in The Cottage and, obviously, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, while Smiley turned up in The Outpost and Wheatley’s excellent Kill List.) It has a handful of exhausted and befuddled soldiers in a battle during the English Civil War escape the carnage by forcing their way through a huge hedge on the battleground’s edge. Emerging on the hedge’s other side, they find themselves in a deserted, overgrown and seemingly endless field where (a) they manage to conjure a sorcerer – Smiley – out of nowhere by pulling on a mysterious rope; (b) they spend a lot of time digging a hole; and (c) they ingest some magic mushrooms, leading to kaleidoscopic hallucinations that’d look very hippy-ish and 1960s-esque if they weren’t in monochrome – for Wheatley has filmed the whole movie in black and white.
Although I hardly had a clue what was going on, I found A Field in England oddly engaging. There’s a particularly impressive scene involving Shearsmith’s character that’s so unsettling it’s worthy of a David Lynch movie. Clearly, a gap existed in British cinema for a weird, hallucinogenic, black-and-white, English Civil War-set film involving fields, hedges, sorcerers and digging holes. And I’m actually glad that Wheatley made an effort to fill that gap.
(c) Film 4
Things get weird and hallucinogenic towards the end of Berberian Sound Studio too, although for most of its running time it has something approaching a coherent structure. On one level it’s a docu-drama about how a sound-effects man (played by the wonderful character actor Toby Jones, who’s the son of another wonderful character actor, Freddie Jones) goes about the business of creating the screaming, gurgling, bludgeoning, slashing and splattering noises required for a horror film, in this case a typically gaudy, violent and misogynist 1970s Italian one called The Equestrian Vortex.
On another level it’s a character study and a tale of culture clashes, as Jones, an Englishman who’s shy and quiet almost to the point of social awkwardness, finds himself working in an Italian film studio where the atmosphere is the opposite of his buttoned-up restraint. The Italian filmmakers are slaves to their passions, their carnal ones as well as their creative ones – the Italian starlets working in the studio are as disposable in their employers’ sex lives as the characters they play are disposable in The Equestrian Vortex’s brutal script. Meanwhile, that most un-English of things, a big crucifix, hangs on the studio wall.
All Jones really wants to do, it transpires, is makes soundtracks of birdsongs, raindrops and rustling breezes for documentary films about woodland areas in the Home Counties of England – we see a clip of one and it looks really boring. It’s a mystery, then, why he took on this bizarre assignment in Italy. And it’s hardly surprising that he starts to crack up, which is presumably why the film takes a severe leftfield turn towards the end.
I sort of wish it hadn’t taken that leftfield turn, as up until then I’d enjoyed the film’s two strands – the informative stuff about how a horror-movie sound-effects studio works and the character / culture-clash stuff involving the timid Jones. But there was enough enjoyment in the movie as a whole for me to give it my approval.
One nice thing about A Field in England and Berberian Sound System is that, for all their pretentions, they’re made by people who have an obvious knowledge and love of horror films of the past. Field owes a great deal to a certain sub-genre of British horror movie set in the 17th century, where men would wear wigs, cloaks, stockings and buckled shoes, tramp through muddy rural backwaters and address one another in phlegmy voices as ‘Master Gower’ and ‘Mistress Vespers’ and ‘Squire Middleton’. The most famous examples are Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw, which were made respectively in 1968 and 1970 by the studio Tigon Films.
Studio pays homage to the Italian giallo movies of the 1970s, whose two most famous practitioners were the directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento and whose basic plot was succinctly described by Christopher Fowler in his recent book Film Freak: “a black-gloved killer would murder several busty, semi-clad victims in inventive, colourful ways before being unmasked as an outside suspect who had been traumatised as a child.” Often designed, lit and filmed with stunning flamboyance, often equipped with baroque synthesiser scores – most famously by the German progressive-rock band Goblin – and often sexist to a jaw-dropping degree, there’s been nothing quite like them before or since. Thank God, feminists would say. The Equestrian Vortex, the film being made in Studio, is an imaginary production but at one point director Peter Strickland allows us to see its credits scene and hear its theme music and, doing so, he provides us with a loving pastiche of the giallo sub-genre. Here’s a link to it, at youtube:
Does this mean, though, that forty years from now, British arthouse directors will be making movies that pay homage to a certain horror-film sub-genre that was once popular in Britain at the end of the noughties – one in which James Corden and Danny Dyer would head into the remote British countryside on a male-bonding trip and have hilarious sexist hijinks with a horde of saucy lady werewolves? Somehow, I doubt it.
(c) Film 4