Nowt as queer as folk-horror 2

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(c) Film 4 / Rook Films

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This is my second post about British folk-horror movies – i.e. movies that don’t rely on generic and usually-imported plot-elements like serial killers, vampires, werewolves or zombies for their scares, but instead use things lurking in the darker corners of Britain’s indigenous folklore and legends.  Previously, I wrote about this sub-genre up until the end of the 1980s and Ken Russell’s 1988 epic The Lair of the White Worm, a film so ludicrous I’m surprised it didn’t convince filmmakers that British folklore could never be the source of anything scary.

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Actually, there’s another 1980s film that I forgot to mention.  1986 saw a British-Irish co-production called Rawhead Rex, based on a short story that’d appeared in the third volume of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood anthology series.  Often, Barker devises his own mythologies for his stories and screenplays, as he would with the later Hellraiser films, but in Rawhead Rex he borrows from old tales found in various European cultures about ‘wild men of the woods’ – wodwos is the term for them that appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that famous alliterative romance of the late 14th century.

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Rawhead Rex has an alliterative title, all right, but there’s nothing romantic about it.  The story features a hulking, hairy, humanoid and utterly bloodthirsty monster who since pagan times has been magically imprisoned under a huge rock in rural Kent.  In the present day, a farmer uproots the rock and unwittingly releases the beast, who runs amok, killing and eating people.  He’s only stopped with the discovery (in a church) of an ancient talisman, shaped like a pregnant woman, which drains him of his strength.  Like most of Barker’s early writing, Rawhead Rex is full-on in its gore and brutality – two of the torn-apart victims are young children – and I suspect he was less interested in exploring themes of nature, fertility and death in British folklore and more interested in creating a Jaws-type juxtaposition between the creature’s primordial savagery and the picture-postcard serenity of the modern Home Counties countryside.

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Unfortunately, when Rawhead Rex was filmed, the moviemakers shifted the setting from Kent in England to County Wicklow in Ireland.  This gives the film a more old-worldly and Celtic-y feel but removes the jarring contrast between monster and environment that Barker created in the original story.  Meanwhile, though the basic plot elements are still there, director George Pavlou doesn’t make much of them – there’s a pagan monster on the loose, it can only be defeated by a strange altar-stone that shoots out magic energy beams and well, that’s it.  A third problem is the appearance of the monster.  I didn’t think it looked too bad in stills from the film – though Barker hated the filmmakers’ depiction of it and likened it to a “nine-foot-tall phallus with teeth” – but when I caught up with Rawhead Rex on TV a while ago I had to admit, yes, it looked very much like a man in a crap monster-suit.  In fact, I was reminded again of my old friend, the monster in the 1970s advertisements for Chewits – “Chewits!  Even chewier than a 15-storey block of flats!”

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(c) Alpine Pictures

From zillastyle.blogspot.com

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By the late 1990s, a new generation of British filmmakers with a fondness for the macabre had appeared and the second wave of British horror movies was underway, a wave that’s continued to this day.  One of the first films out of the blocks was Darklands, a folk-horror one about a conspiracy involving human-sacrificing Welsh pagans and Welsh nationalist politicians.  (It’s probably not a favourite movie among members of Plaid Cymru.)  Directed by Julian Richards and filmed in Swansea, Newport and at Port Talbot’s imposing steelworks, the 1998-released Darklands is a bit duff, although I like how it features the late, great Jon Finch in a supporting role.  Playing the hero, a Welshman with a suspiciously Cockney accent, is Craig Fairbrass, who at the time was enjoying a Jason-Statham-type career roll as an action hero.  As critic Kim Newman noted in Empire magazine, “Craig Fairbrass isn’t quite right for a role that asks him to spend more time running away from people than nutting them.”

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Newman was also narked by Darklands’ predictability.  Not wanting to give too much away, he wrote that the plot was “so clearly patterned on a specific early 1970s horror classic that it soon becomes obvious where it is headed.”  The website British Horror Films was blunter in its appraisal of this Welsh folk-horror movie: “it’s The Wicker Man, boyo, but with buckets of blood and lots of swearing.”

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Once the second British horror-movie boom got going, it became clear that filmmakers were mostly looking in the same old places for their ideas: zombies (28 Days and 28 Months Later, Shaun of the Dead, Colin), werewolves (Dog Soldiers), aliens (Monsters, Attack the Block, The World’s End), serial killers (The Last Horror Movie, Mum and Dad, Tony), etc.  Occasionally, though, films have tapped into something more eerily and mysteriously British for their chills and some of these films have been very good indeed.  Here are half-a-dozen of my favourites.

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The Last Great Wilderness (2002)

Scottish director David Mackenzie’s first film is a strange but endearing hybrid that hovers on the fringes of being a horror film, thanks to a scene of shocking violence near its end, a sub-plot involving a ghost and the way that its script flirts with The Wicker Man – yes, it’s that movie again.  Alastair Mackenzie and Jonathan Philips play a pair of eccentrics, one on the run from some gangsters and the other planning an arson attack on the Scottish home of a rock star who’s eloped with his wife, who get lost in the Scottish Highlands.  They end up at a mysterious lodge run by the mighty Scottish character actor David Hayman, where people suffering from various psychological disorders (agoraphobia, nymphomania, etc.) are receiving treatment.  Hayman’s group-therapy methods seem to include paganism, for everybody there is preparing for an upcoming celebration that involves an ominously big bonfire…  Actually, the pagan element in The Last Great Wilderness doesn’t really add up to much, but it gives an opportunity for Glaswegian indie band The Pastels (who provide the celebration, and the film, with its music) to make an appearance wearing dresses.

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(c) Geographic / Domino

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In 2012 Hayman appeared in another film inspired by British, more specifically Scottish, folklore, Sawney – Flesh of Man.  In this he played a modern-day descendant of the legendary Sawney Bean, who in the 15th or 16th centuries supposedly lived in a cave at Bennane Head on the southwest Scottish coast, waylaid and devoured travellers and managed to sire a clan of 48 hungry cannibals.  Apart from Hayman’s performance, alas, the film is poor.

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Wake Wood (2009)

Hammer Films was the studio most closely associated with the original British horror-film boom, but it wasn’t until the late noughties, after the studio had been re-established, that it got around to making a proper folk-horror movie, the Irish-set Wake Wood.  Although the story, about a vet and his wife moving to a rural village after the death of their young daughter and encountering a pagan cult who claim they can safely bring the dead back to life if certain rules are followed – needless to say, the rules aren’t followed – is no great shakes and borrows from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, director David Keating captures the Irish countryside well.  Wake Wood was filmed around the village of Pettigo on the County Donegal / County Fermanagh border and the melancholic landscapes there, of autumnal trees, rain, stone dykes, thorny hedgerows and, in the distance, funereally-turning wind-turbines, form an effective backdrop to the grisly events in the plot.  (The blood and grue that the hero encounters during his veterinarian work is particularly hard to watch.)

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Unfortunately, Wake Wood snuck out between two more hyped releases by Hammer, Let Me In and The Woman in Black, and received little attention from critics and audiences.  Which is a pity – it’s not great but it’s certainly better than the crude 1989 movie adaptation of Pet Sematary.  And the eerie, pulsing music by Michael Convertino is good too.

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(c) Hammer Films

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Outcast (2009)

Another unfairly neglected British-Irish film, Outcast is the story of a pair of travelling people, a mother and son with magical powers, being pursued from Ireland to Scotland, where they try to keep a low profile in the housing schemes of Sighthill in western Edinburgh.  On their trail is a mysterious hunter / hitman called Cathal and an equally-mysterious, bestial something that rips its victims to pieces.  As Cathal has magical powers of his own, these two pursuers may be one and the same thing.  Unfortunately, the film has a botched ending – it never makes clear what exactly has been going on and it shows too much of the killer beast, which was scarier when it was hiding in the shadows.  At least this one doesn’t look like the Chewits monster.

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That said, Outcast has some lovely moments.  When the hunter and hunted use their magical powers to try to outwit one another, the film goes off into a weird, ritualistic and lore-ridden world of its own.  It also manages to convey the idea of supernatural forces from an older, stranger, rural world creeping into a modern, urban one; even into the concrete alleyways and apartment-blocks of Sighthill.  This is underlined by a sequence where the film’s young hero and heroine sit on a revolving roundabout in a playground at the city’s edge, so that behind them the concrete cityscape alternates with the twilit countryside.

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And Outcast has a great cast.  Sci-fi and fantasy nerds will drool over it because it features James Cosmo, Kate Dickie and Daniel Portman, all of whom would later appear in Game of Thrones; and also it features Karen Gillan just before she became the splendiferous Amy Pond in Doctor Who.  But the real acting revelation – especially if you only know him for playing Bofur the Dwarf in The Hobbit movies or for his appearances in a string of annoyingly laddish commercials – is James Nesbitt as the brutal and driven hunter, Cathal.  He’s so single-minded that he’ll happily disembowel a pigeon or saw off pieces of his own tattooed skin in order to conduct a gruesome divination ritual that’ll bring him closer to his quarry.  I just wish Nesbitt would do stuff like this in his Thomas Cook adverts.

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(c) Vertigo Films

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Black Death (2010)

Directed by Chris Smith, Black Death is also an international co-production (Britain and Germany this time) with a strong cast: Sean Bean, John Lynch, Andy Nyman, Tim McInnery and David Warner.  It feels a little out-of-place on this list, although it’s set in medieval England and the plot – during the time of the great plague, a young monk has to escort some church-employed warriors to a remote village where, it’s rumoured, the villagers have reverted to paganism – clearly channels that of The Wicker Man.  However, it was filmed in Saxony-Anholt and Brandenburg in Germany and its forested and marshy landscapes look too wild and desolate to pass for the British countryside.  Mind you, it’s set at a time before that humans had tamed much of that countryside with agriculture, so I suppose Britain looked much wilder then than it does now.

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Bravely, Smith gives the film a bleak ending that echoes that of the old folk-horror classic, 1968’s Witchfinder General – in which the hero grows so obsessed with destroying the villains that he loses his own goodness and becomes indistinguishable from what he’s fighting against.

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(c) Egoli Tossell Films

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Kill List (2011)

A Field in England (2013)

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With Kill List and A Field in England on his CV, director Ben Wheatley is the Orson Welles of modern British folk-horror.  However, clues to how his filmmaking career would develop are present in his first film, 2009’s Down TerraceDown Terrace is ostensibly a crime movie, but its story of a melancholic old gangster in Brighton who’s more interested in playing folk music and studying his local genealogy than in whacking his rivals make it seem in a sub-genre of its own: folk-gangster.

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Kill List begins in gangster territory with two hit-men, played by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, undertaking a job with a mysterious crime syndicate that has them travelling around the country and eliminating various people on the titular ‘kill-list’.  But unexpected things occur – their victims, instead of fleeing or begging for mercy, greet them with open arms.  Also, there are suggestions of crimes being secretly committed that are so unspeakable that Maskell flies into a homicidal rage when he glimpses them on a video recording.  Then for their final assignment Maskell and Smiley find themselves entering the grounds of a country mansion, and they find themselves too on the grounds of a certain, much-loved British folk-horror movie from 1973.  You know which one it is.

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Actually, the blog A Year in the Country pointed out recently that Kill List “felt like the true sequel to The Wicker Man, not The Wicker Tree.  More in keeping with the themes of that film but through a modern-day filter of a corruption that feels total and also curiously banal.”  I wrote about The Wicker Tree, Robin Hardy’s disappointing 2010 sequel to The Wicker Man, a little while ago and I can safely say that Kill List blows it out of the water.

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(c) Film 4 / Rook Films

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If Kill List is Wheatley’s take on The Wicker Man, then A Field in England is his riff on Witchfinder General.  Sharing that film’s English-Civil-War setting, it has a handful of exhausted soldiers (including one played by Reece Shearsmith) fleeing from a battle by breaking through a thick hedge on the battleground’s edge.  When they emerge on the hedge’s far side, they find themselves in a vast, overgrown field where they soon fall under the spell of a sorcerer, played by Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, who sets them to work digging holes for some obscure and presumably nefarious purpose.  Even by the standards of Wheatley, who doesn’t like giving his films much plot exposition, A Field in England is a baffling, if beguiling, film; and things take a further swing towards the outlandish when the characters ingest some magic mushrooms and experience kaleidoscopic hallucinations.  Incidentally, the field that appears here is actually at Hampton Estate, which specialises in ‘traditional agriculture’, between Guildford and Farnham in Surrey.

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The film is weird rather than horrific, although a scene where Shearsmith emerges, transformed, from Smiley’s tent after something unseen but hideous has happened to him there – we’ve heard him screaming – is about the most disturbing thing Shearsmith has ever done.  (And this is the man who used to play Papa Lazarou in The League of Gentlemen.)

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The Borderlands (2013)

Finally, there’s this film directed by Elliot Goldner, which made a stir recently.  I hadn’t been that interested in seeing it, as its plot synopsis – it’s a found-footage movie about some Vatican-assigned investigators checking out a remote English chapel where it’s claimed a miracle has taken place, only to discover dark forces at work – made it sound like The Blair Witch Project meets The Exorcist.  And I hate found-footage horror movies.  It always bugs me that the guy holding the camera never thinks of dropping it and running like hell, like any normal person would, when something horrible appears in front of him.

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Actually, The Borderlands gets around the found-footage credibility problem by having the clerics wear camera-and-microphone headsets at all times as part of their investigative procedure; so they can’t drop the cameras.  Meanwhile, the film’s religious elements get subverted as it becomes apparent that the spooky chapel – which in real life stands at Denbury in Devon – is on a site of ancient pagan worship, where something older and more malevolent than Christianity might be lurking.  Some have likened the path the film goes down to the works of HP Lovecraft, although it reminded me more of the Welsh occult writer Arthur Machen.

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The film also gets a big boost from its two main actors, Robin Hill (a long-time collaborator with Ben Wheatley) and Scottish comic performer Gordon Kennedy.  The characters they play have their faults – Hill is a motor-mouth who isn’t as funny as he thinks he is while Kennedy is surly and overly fond of the bottle – but they become likeable and end up forming an engaging double-act.  Which makes the claustrophobic ending (filmed in Chislehurst Caves in southeast London, which last saw British horror-movie location-duty in 1980 in Norman J. Warren’s dire Alien rip-off, Inseminoid) all the more horrifying.  We’ve enjoyed being in Hill and Kennedy’s company and don’t want bad stuff to happen to them.  But it does.  Bugger.

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(c) Metrodome

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Nowt as queer as folk-horror

 

(c) British Lion

 

Establishment film critics and film historians in this country may find it an uncomfortable truth – a source of embarrassment and dismay, even – but for long periods a sizeable section of the British film industry has been dedicated to cranking out horror movies.

 

Specifically, there are two periods when British horror filmmakers have been prolific.  The first was from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s,  This was when studios like Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the British wing of American International Pictures (AIP) knocked out macabre products, some of them full-blooded gothic fantasies, others more downbeat, psychological and set in the urban present.  The directors who made such fare ranged from the critically acclaimed (Michael Powell, Jack Clayton and Roman Polanski) to the – at the time, at least – critically derided (Pete Walker, Michael Armstrong and Norman J. Warren).

 

The second period has run from the late-1990s until today and again the directors involved have ranged from the critically applauded (Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright and Gareth Edwards) to the critically frowned-upon (Alex Chandon and Jake West, whom I’m sure are bothered not one jot that most critics don’t like their films).  This time, though, the emphasis has definitely been on the downbeat, modern and urban – and indeed, grungy, nasty and nihilistic.  Even at the moment, while reports appear in the media about the British film industry being, yet again, in deep shit, these usually-unheralded and beneath-the-radar British horror movies just keep on coming.  In the past two years, off the top of my head, I can think of Before Dawn, Byzantium, Cockneys vs Zombies, Berberian Sound Studio, Sightseers, A Field in England, The World’s End, The Seasoning House, In Fear, Borderlands, The Quiet Ones, Stalled, Scar Tissue, Soulmate, Blackwood, The Last Showing,  Following the Wicca Man, White Settlers and Monsters: Dark Continent.  (Okay, I haven’t mentioned Strippers vs Werewolves, but who’d want to?)

 

Curiously, what British horror films in the past and nowadays have seemed reluctant to do is to embrace the macabre folklore, traditions and history of the British Isles themselves.  When they haven’t been dealing with deranged killers in contemporary settings – Carl Boehm as the crazy photographer stalking models and dancers in Michael Powell’s notorious 1960 movie Peeping Tom, Sheila Keith as a cannibalistic granny drilling people’s heads open in Peter Walker’s grim 1972 epic Frightmare, feral kids and / or psychotic hoodies running amok in James Watkins’ 2007 movie Eden Lake and in a dozen other modern British horrors – they’ve dealt with tropes that’ve been borrowed en masse from Hollywood and from continental Europe: vampires, werewolves, zombies (a lot of zombies recently).

 

To be fair, even before the cinematic era when Britain – and Ireland – had a burgeoning gothic literary tradition, writers like Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley,  Charles Maturin, J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker often used the European mainland for both the settings and the inspiration of their most famous stories.

 

And when the first wave of British horror-filmmakers did mine Britain’s past for ideas, they often didn’t look beyond the days of the British Empire (which admittedly loomed large in recent British history at the time).  Hence, you get a strain of ‘colonial horror’ films like The Reptile (1966), The Oblong Box (1969) and The Ghoul (1974), in which upper-class Brits went abroad, behaved badly, got cursed by the natives and then returned home with guilty, horrible secrets as their punishments.

 

(c) BFI

 

Nonetheless, over the years, critics and cultural commentators have come to identify a British-horror-movie sub-genre known as ‘folk-horror’, wherein the horror springs from sinister things that, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, bustle in the hedgerows of eerie, mysterious and rural old Britain.  In August 2010 even the ultra-prestigious British film journal Sight and Sound saw fit to devote an issue to ‘the films of old, weird Britain’.  So in this post, and in a later one, I’d like to write about what I consider to be the best ten (or so) British folk-horror movies of all time.

 

Night of the Demon (1957)

“It’s in the trees!  It’s coming!”  Fans of Kate Bush will recognise this line from the opening of her 1985 song Hounds of Love.  It’s sampled from Night of the Demon, an appropriate choice with which to start this list because it appeared just as the first British horror-movie boom was kicking off in the late 1950s.  Furthermore, it’s based on the short story Casting the Runes by M.R. James, one British writer who wasn’t reluctant to dig into homespun folklore and legends for scary ideas.

 

The druidic runes in question are those inscribed on some parchment given to investigator Dana Andrews by black-magic cult leader Niall McGinnis, after Andrews has antagonised him with his scepticism.  Not only does the parchment foretell Andrews’ death at a particular point in the near-future, but it also seems to be bait for something big and diabolical, presumably pagan in origin, which has begun to stalk him – and it’s going to catch up with him, fatally, at the time predicted.  If the plot sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because Sam Raimi quietly borrowed it for his 2008 horror opus Drag Me to Hell.

 

With filming locations that include Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, the British Museum and – where better? – Stonehenge, Night of the Demon is an atmospheric and intelligent movie.  It has a wealth of lovely little details.  Reference is made to the celebrated lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Like one that on a lonesome road / doth walk in fear and dread / and having once turn’d round, walks on / and turns no more his head / because he knows a frightful fiend / doth close behind him tread.”  Disconcertingly, McGinnis makes his first appearance performing magic tricks at a children’s party.  And it’s creepy – up to a point.  The sequences where Andrews notices something trailing after him, getting ever closer, signified by a weird rattling sound and an odd-looking ball of smoke floating in the distance behind him, are wonderfully unsettling.

 

Alas, producer Hal E. Chester didn’t believe that the scariest things are those left to the imagination.  Overruling the wishes of Andrews, director Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett, he insisted on inserting, into the movie’s climax, footage of a big, scaly, warty monster.  (The bloody thing has always reminded me of the clay-motion creature featured in 1970s TV advertisements for the British sweets, Chewits – “Chewits!  Even chewier than a 15-storey block of flats!”)  Needless to say, this wrecks the suspense that Tourneur has built up during the preceding movie.  Bennett was particularly incensed and once claimed that if Chester “walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.”

 

(c) BFI

 From zillastyle.blogspot.com

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

East Anglia is one of my favourite parts of England and 1968’s Witchfinder General, which starred Vincent Price and was directed by Michael Reeves (who died shortly afterwards at the age of 25), is possibly the most East Anglian movie ever.  It deals with a figure from local history, the notorious 17th century ‘witch-finder’ Matthew Hopkins, and it turns the County Suffolk countryside into an unsettlingly pretty backdrop for Hopkins’ brutal activities.  Among the movie’s locations were Brandeston Village, St John’s Church near Thetford, and Dunwich and Orford on the Suffolk coast.  Also used in the area were two aircraft hangars near Bury St Edmunds, which were converted into studios for filming the interior scenes.

 

Witchfinder General’s climax was shot inside the castle at Orford and locals old enough to remember it recall how screams emanated from the castle dungeon for three days solid.  Orford Castle belongs to English Heritage and I’ve heard that originally the film was supposed to finish with a deadly conflagration.  However, when Reeves realised he couldn’t set fire to an English Heritage property, he toned things down slightly in his script – instead, he had hero Ian Ogilvy hack Price bloodily to death with an axe and gouge out another villain’s eyeball with the spur on his boot.  As you do.

 

(c) Tigon Films

 

Price and Reeves didn’t get on at all during Witchfinder General’s production.  Reeves considered Price too showy an actor for the role, but the star had been forced on him by the movie’s producers.  Nonetheless, Price ended up giving a low-key but chilling portrayal of villainy, which is now considered as one of his best performances.

 

Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970)

Tigon Films, the studio responsible for Witchfinder General, made this movie two years later.  It’s also set in rural England in the 17th century and comes across at times like a particularly phlegmy BBC costume drama, one where actors and actresses clad in wigs, cloaks, stockings and buckled shoes tramp through the mud between thatched cottages and address one another in heavy accents as ‘Master Gower’, ‘Mistress Vespers’ and ‘Squire Middleton’.  However, it’s suffused with far more blood, nudity and paganism than you’ll ever get in a BBC costume drama.

 

The film begins with a farmhand accidentally turning up a hideous something from the soil whilst ploughing.  Before long, there’s an outbreak of devil-worship, human sacrifice and general debauchery among the local youngsters as they come under the spell of a supernatural entity – presumably the thing unearthed in the field.  Blood on Satan’s Claw seemed particularly freaky to me as a kid because it contained a number of young actors and actresses whom I knew from watching various innocuous comedy and drama shows on 1970s TV: Simon Williams (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Michele Dotrice (from Some Mothers do ’ave ’em) and, playing the spectacularly ill-fated Cathy Vespers, Wendy Padbury, who’d just finished a stint as Patrick Troughton’s companion in Doctor Who.

 

(c) Tigon Films

 

The best performance, though, is given by Linda Hayden as Angel Blake, the local minx who becomes the entity’s voluptuous high priestess and worships it in a ruined and deconsecrated church.  In real life, the church is to be found at Bix Bottom in Oxfordshire.

 

Directed by Piers Haggard, who filmed many of the outdoor scenes at low angles to give the impression of something looking up at the human world, out of the soil, Blood on Satan’s Claw is distinguished too by a lovely, folky but sinister score by the Australian composer Marc Wilkinson.  Wilkinson uses a cimbalom (an East European hammered dulcimer, once popular with gypsy musicians) to great effect and I’ve heard that he later gave advice to composer, singer and musician Paul Giovanni – who’d be responsible for the equally beguiling folk music featured in the next film on my list.  Which of course is…

 

The Wicker Man (1973)

However, I’ve written enough posts about this film in the past, so I won’t go on about it here.  Except to mention the locations it was filmed at in Scotland: Anwoth, Burrow Head, Castle Kennedy, Creetown, Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkcudbright, Port Logan and St Ninian’s Cave in Dumfries and Galloway region; Culzean Castle in Ayrshire; Plockton on the Highland coast; and the Isle of Skye, which provides the view of the Old Man of Storr rock formations in the movie’s credits sequence, seen while the doomed Edward Woodward flies his seaplane to the island of Summerisle.

 

(c) British Lion

 

And that was really it as far as folk-horror was concerned in the UK’s first horror-movie boom.  A few other films used the idea that witchcraft was being practised behind the curtains of rural Britain’s cottages and farmhouses – for example, the 1964 black-and-white movie Witchcraft, directed by Don Sharp and starring an ailing (at times visibly drunk) Lon Chaney Jnr; the 1966 Hammer movie The Witches, with a script by Nigel Kneale based on Norah Lofts’ novel The Devil’s Own; and 1976’s Satan’s Slave, directed by Norman J. Warren, scripted by film critic David McGillivray and starring Michael Gough with an unfeasibly bushy moustache.  However, I don’t consider any of them to be much good.

 

(c) AIP

 

In 1970, after Witchfinder General, director Gordon Hessler and scriptwriters Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking mounted an Elizabethan-set horror movie called Cry of the Banshee, wherein a witch-hunter, again played by Vincent Price, is punished by a witches’ coven who summon up a Celtic faerie demon called an aos sis – not the banshee of the title – and send it after him and his family.  However, the film was low-budgeted and interfered with by its producers and the result was disappointing.  Still, the credits sequence, animated by a very young Terry Gilliam, is worth seeing.  Some movie fans, meanwhile, have expressed love for another Don Sharp movie, 1973’s Psychomania, which incorporates witchcraft and a pagan stone circle into a plot about English Hell’s Angels becoming indestructible zombies.  I like Psychomania, though it falls into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category rather than into the ‘actually good’ category.

 

‘So bad it’s good’ is the only way to describe 1988’s Lair of the White Worm, directed by the once-great Ken Russell, and of which the Guardian once said: “Badly shot, clumsily edited and seemingly scored by a teenage boy who has just taken delivery of his first synthesiser and then pressed the buttons one by one…”  It stars Hugh Grant as Lord James D’Ampton, a languid aristocrat living in the remote English countryside who finds himself having to do battle with a monstrous worm-snake-dragon creature that’s inhabited a local cave since prehistory – the film’s cave scenes were shot in Thor’s Cavern in the Derbyshire Peak District.  Grant also comes up against one of his neighbours, played by the sultry Amanda Donohoe, who’s actually a snake-vampire creature in human form and who acts as the beast’s high priestess.  Yes, I bet these days Hugh Grant doesn’t advertise the fact that he has this movie on his CV.

 

Helping Grant out is Peter Capaldi, playing a resourceful but very stereotypical Scottish archaeologist who discovers that the snake-vampires can be hypnotised by the sound of the bagpipes, just as real snakes are by snake-charmers.  Meanwhile, the scene where the fanged Donohoe bites Capaldi under his kilt makes Lair of the White Worm worth its DVD rental price alone.

 

(c) Vestron Pictures

 

The film has a chaotic script.  When Ken Russell isn’t loading on the psychedelic flashback scenes that see early-Christian nuns being raped by Roman legionaries and crucified Christ-figures being crushed by giant snakes, he goes to town on worm / snake / phallus imagery – the shot where a vacuum-cleaner tube entwines itself around Catherine Oxenberg’s ankle is just one of many.  Still, if you look hard enough, you’ll find some interesting references to British legends about monstrous ‘worms’ – eel-like dragons – terrorising the countryside, such as the one about the Lambton Worm that supposedly took place by the River Wear in north-east England at the time of the Crusades.

 

The legend of the Lambton Worm was commemorated in a lusty folk ballad written by Clarence M. Leumane in 1867 and the song gets an airing here – with its title changed to The D’Ampton Worm, in acknowledgement of the name of Grant’s character.  Unfortunately, its performance by Emilio Perez Machado and Stephen Powys, who show more enthusiasm than subtlety, makes it the most clodhopping folk song ever to grace a British folk-horror movie: “John D’Ampton went a-fishing once, a-fishing in the Wear / He caught a fish upon his hook he thought looked mighty queer…”  Paul Giovanni it is not.   (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJEq6_foO-o.)

 

There were, thankfully, better things to come…  (To be continued.)