|"Lost Hearts" (1973.)|
AFA is a paradise for those who enjoy avant-garde films and deep-dives into underseen auteurs from Europe and elsewhere. But it also has featured some very enlightening programs of genre films. This past Halloween the theater did a festival of “folk horror” spawned by the documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror by Kier-La Janisse.
The doc is terrific but takes the concept of folk horror in several different directions, meaning it actually should be a lot longer than its 195 minutes (which one should go through with a notebook in hand to write down the titles of intriguing films that are mentioned quickly and impress via startling images). In this era of unnaturally bloated docs, Woodlands is rare in that regard; one hopes that there is more of it to be seen when it is released by Severin Films on disc next month.
|"The Wicker Man" (1973).|
That model applies to many of the films mentioned below, because I’m going to focus on this first and most complete of the segments of Janisse’s film. The second big segment involves American folk horror in film, which is primarily tied up in the familiar “horrors emerge when a new building is built on a Native American burial ground” plot. Add to this theme similar happenings in Australian films, where something new has been built on Aboriginal burial grounds.
The third overarching theme of the doc are films that present folk horror from different countries/continents, containing little or no Wicker Man-style conflict with the present. A number of these films are going to be released next month in a folk horror box set from Severin Films (called “All the Haunts Be Ours”) that includes restored versions of 19 films mentioned in the Woodlands doc, which is also contained in the box.
Staying with the first theme, though, one comes across a proliferation of British telefilms that presented folk horror tales — either of the Wicker Man stripe, pitting the “old ways” against Sixties/Seventies morality, or more traditional horror tales about introverted characters discovering weird relics of a past era, primarily those written by the scholar-author M.R. James.
|"Whistle and I'll Come to You" (1968).|
James’ tales are very low-key and usually involve the protagonist losing their mind. An absolutely perfect example of innovative TV horror filmmaking is based on a classic James tale, “Whistle and I’ll Come to You.” This 1968 film serves as the perfect introduction to his work and to the U.K. TV treatment of folk horror.
The only horror film directed by the renaissance man of the “Beyond the Fringe” troupe, Dr. Jonathan Miller, “Whistle” contains a wonderful streak of low-key comedy, as its protagonist, an old professor (Michael Hordern) mutters to himself as he discovers an ancient whistle while he is on a seaside vacation. Like many James protagonists he loses his mind as he ponders the whistle and starts having delusions. “Whistle” was one of a bunch of earlier James adaptations for TV that led to the James-centric series of telefilms in the 1970s called “A Ghost Story for Christmas.”
Although it has a bit of the talky quality common to many teleplays, “Robin Redbreast” (a 1970 episode of the series Play for Today; also to be found on the forthcoming folk horror box) effectively communicates the culture-clash aspect of folk horror that was later honed to perfection in Wicker Man.
|"Robin Redbreast" (1970).|
Penda’s Fen (1974) is the most complex of any of the films included here, because it is a coming of age tale that involves history, fantasy, religious prohibitions, budding sexuality, and the music of Elgar (one of “Unkle Ken” Russell’s favorite musical titans). It also will be included on the “All the Haunts Be Ours” box set.
|Penda's Fen (1974).|
Murrain (1975) is a less talky exploration of the city/country, old/new culture-clash that informed “Robin Redbreast.” In this telefilm written by Nigel Kneale (best known for the “Quatermass” series) a veterinarian is told by the inhabitants of a small country town that a local woman is a witch and she is causing their animals to die.
The popularity of subdued-but-still-menacing horror on British TV spawned a wonderful series of telefilms, all of which aired on an evening just prior to Xmas. “A Ghost Story for Christmas,” which ran for eight years in its initial incarnation (a current reboot of the series is now airing thanks to one-man-horror-factory Mark Gatiss), produced some terrific films, all of which are worth viewing and qualify as classic horror TV. There are many elements at play here, but one of the most impressive is the use of locations in the British countryside in every one of the films.
The director of the whole “strand” of films (as they say in the U.K.), Lawrence Gordon Clark, is looked upon as a modern master of low-key but still very creepy chills and thrills, always arriving as part of a character study about a solitary protagonist. And the best part of this whole experiment in reviving ghost stories for Christmas? The films can be watched all year round, as the stories are not set at Xmas and are not at all “seasonal” in nature.
The first film was “The Stalls of Barchester” (1971). A suitably minor-key item adapted from M.R. James, it presents horror of a kind that remains mostly offstage. We follow a scholar who happens upon information about an archdeacon’s death and a mysterious curse.
“A Warning to the Curious” (1972) is the longest of the bunch (at 50 minutes) and builds upon a legend about three crowns. An antiquarian travels to a seaside town to find one of the crowns and immediately begins seeing an apparition of an ominous figure. The piece moves slowly but decisively toward a nasty ending, but as always, Gordon masterfully sketches characters and thereby depicts the eroding of a “proper” man’s mind.
The ghosts appear in the very first scene of the period piece “Lost Hearts” (1973), as our boy hero (an orphan, naturally) is brought to a mansion in the country. The boy’s host, an oddball adult distant cousin, “hosted” two children who are now “gone” — and if there’s one thing that’s scarier than a weird apparition on the beach (as in “Warning” and “Whistle”), it’s creepy child ghosts. The strand began to truly hit its stride here.
“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” (1974) is testimony to the fact that Clark distinguished each of the films and made each one especially memorable, even though James’ plots repeat certain elements. Here two skeptics about spiritualism — a young man and a theologian — begin to believe that there is lost treasure to be found, hidden away by an Abbot who also was an alchemist and a magician.
“The Ash Tree” (1975) is the most overtly scary in the series. It begins with another arrival at a haunted abode. This time it’s a nobleman who has inherited a giant mansion that is haunted by the specter of a witch trial that the nobleman’s ancestor presided over.
Here the horrors invade our antihero’s mind early in his stay at the house. We move between past and present in a fluid fashion (as was done in the brilliant teleplays of Dennis Potter) and are heading inexorably toward the scariest end in any of the James adaptations. The secret? The jarring scene involving the titular ash tree takes place late at night and Gordon wisely kept the play’s creepiest element in the dark.
While “Ash Tree” is the most overtly scary entry in the series, “The Signalman” (1976) is without a doubt the most compact and best acted. The first of the films not to be adapted from M.R. James (its source is a short story by Charles Dickens), it features Denholm Elliott as the title character, a railroad switchman who is terrified that there is going to be a massive crash of trains that he can’t possibly prevent.
The format of “discovery” is the same here, as a traveler on foot finds the switchman and then hears his story. But, as in “Ash Tree,” we are without doubt dwelling in Elliott’s mind at key moments. This entry emphasizes the character study aspect of these stories, while also offering an absolutely sublime lead performance.
The first original script in the series, “Stigma” (1977) deals with a family that has moved to a remote country house. The mother wants to have a large stone removed from the backyard. As a construction crew struggles to remove it, she begins to bleed (yes, this should’ve been titled “stigmata,” but that would’ve blown some of the weirdness).
By the end moment where the daughter in the family “explains” what has been going on in a few lines of dialogue, we are fully aware that the removal of that stone was, in effect, tampering with dark forces. Clark did a wonderful job here of “updating” the series by following characters who exist entirely in the present but are indeed haunted by the past. The use of Christian imagery as the “curse” (yes, that’s a pun) that befalls our heroine as she tampers with a Pagan artifact is quite brilliant, especially because we remain tethered in the present and never see Pagan worshippers or any historical figures.
The film can be seen here.
The last in the original strand of films, “The Ice House” (1978), is another wonderfully weird concoction that features (nearly as jarring as scary child ghosts) an uncommonly good-looking and uncommonly creepy adult brother and sister who run an upper-crusty spa housed in an old mansion. Our hero in this tale (again, an original script) is a logical chap who discovers the secrets of the resort and is both attracted to and disturbed by the brother and sister.
|"The Ice House."|
Here again, the past is never openly on view — there are simply emblems of the evil perpetrated at the resort. As in “Stigma,” this play is quite well-written and implies more than it ever shows.
As noted above, this strand of telefilms has been revived by Mark Gatiss, and so there are ghost stories for Christmas once again. I can’t vouch for the recent films, as those are (per Sarris) “subjects for further research.” But this original group of films and its four precursors listed above, have no specific ties to the holiday or to anything about the Christmas season in general.
Like all good horror, they could be linked more properly to Halloween (that most blest of unholy holidays), but in fact are highly watchable entertainment all year long.