5. Penda’s Fen (1974)
Scripted by David Rudkin, this is another BBC Play for Today, originally broadcast on March 21st 1974. Spencer Banks stars as Stephen, a fifteen year old boy living in the real life village of Pinvin in Worcestershire.
The narrative follows Stephen, who has a passion for the music of Edward Elgar, through various conflicts and questions of identity and origin which parallel though to those of the village and England itself. Stephen is at odds with the disciplinarian authority of his school, his own identity as he discovers he was adopted and his sexuality.
Alan Clarke directs in a departure from his better known far more gritty works – although Penda’s Fen does contain a fusion of realism and fantasy sequences – Stephen encountering Elgar and King Penda himself (after whom the village is named).
Importantly for this list, the film evokes questions of the countryside (the country) and its identity – drawing attention to the fact that it has been, like Stephen, ‘adopted’/imposed upon by other rules and religions, at one point Stephen uncovers an unpublished manuscript written by his adoptive father, a priest, which contains many blasphemous statements. As the narrative voice over states ‘to he who cries blasphemy I say blasphemy twice’.
One wonders what the average TV audience made of Penda’s Fen in 1974 (and what they would make of it now), several critics at the time were in praise, to date (2014) it has only been repeated on Brit TV once in the 1980’s and has had no release on the home market (VHS or DVD). It makes for the most academic if least horrific example of folk horror on this list – possibly considerable as a companion piece to Alan Garner’s 1978 Play for Today Red Shift in 1978.
4. A Field in England (2013)
Director Ben Wheatley has acquired a bit of a reputation for folk horror traits since the twist ending of his 2010 film Kill List. This multi-platform release of this film (cinema, home media, download and broadcast on the same day), written by Amy Jump, was the subject of some speculation as to what aspects of folk horror it might contain, various speculative posters eluded to the 17th Century English Civil War setting and evoked the spirit of Witchfinder General.
Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith ) is an alchemist’s assistant who flees through a hedge from a battlefield and encounters two deserters played by Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover, they then encounter O’Neil whom Whitehead has been sent to apprehend for stealing his master’s work,
O’Neil informs them he knows where treasure is to be found buy digging, a dig which reveals only a skull and results in several deaths. The film ends as it began with Whitehead returning to the other side of the hedge.
The film, referred to as the directors ‘most unclassifiable yet’, evokes aspects from others in this list: the drawing on of old legend such as pulling a man from a mushroom patch possibly echoing something M.R James may have written about, the English Civil war setting and the cyclical narrative with only death at its centre.
Shot in black and white with realist leanings the film visually resembles 1975 docudrama Winstanley. Inspired by Wheatley learning of a technique used in the 17th Century of grinding down mushrooms into a fine powder to blow in the face of those one then performs magic tricks to, the film was billed as a something of a psychedelic trip into England’s past.
It remains a haunting and somewhat unique film in its own right despite arriving someway along a fresh strain of post-millennial folk horror themed films such as 2008’s Puffball, 2009’s The Daisy Chain and 2009’s Wake Wood.
3. The Blood on Satan’s Claw aka Satan’s Skin (1971)
Possibly considerable as the ‘perfect folk horror’, was originally scripted as a portmanteau in the same vein as those produced by Amicus at the time and set in the Victorian era.
Like many others, producers Tigon were keen to cash in on the success of Witchfinder General, seeing the film as a sequel in spirit, hence the 17th century setting and an abandoning of the portmanteau approach meant a hasty redraft for writer Robert Wynne-Simmons.
Wynne-Simmons was writing about the uprising of a pre-Christian nature cult and has since made clear that the ‘Satan’ of the title is not what the beast in the film is supposed to be. In contrast director Piers Haggard wanted to direct a film inspired the then recent Mary Bell case and focusing on the potential latent cruelty of children.
The result is a plot in which a plough hand unearths a demonic skull triggering the growing of patches hairy ‘Satan’s skin’ on the bodies of the village youth. These are then harvested by a growing cult of increasing depraved village youths, led by bad girl Angel Blake (Linda Hayden). The body parts are used to re-build the ‘satanic beast’. The local magistrate, the Judge (Patrick Wymark), is insistent he will only take action once the terror has grown enough to be cut down.
In recent years this film has seen revised interest as the folk horror genre is revaluated as it features many of the key elements, the uprising of an ancient force, an isolated rural community and opposition from figures of accepted authority. Satan’s Claw is an accomplished film in its own right (complete with memorable score) some of the deeds performed by the cult are shot with a chilling edge, the rape of Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury) is one rather notorious and awkward scene.
There are parallels here with both Quatermass and the Pitt and selected ghost stories of M.R James (several adaptations of which are themselves classed as folk horror) in that the ancient terror is accidentally unearthed or triggered. A further point of interest is the final shot in which the Judge’s eye mirrors that of an earlier shot of the beast’s eye within the unearthed skull – suggesting a potentially cyclical aspect to proceedings, just like the seasons, events will reoccur has they have before.
2. The Wicker Man (1973)
Director Robin Hardy’s film is possibly the most well-know and easily referenced examples of British Folk horror on this list. Rather like the Witches and Robin Redbreast it plays as more of a thriller than a horror.
With a script by Anthony Shaffer, ‘inspired’ by David Pinner’s novel Ritual upon which a direct adaptation was deemed unsuitable (a novelised version of the film was published in 1978). Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, arrives on the remote Scottish Island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a missing girl, Rowan Morrison.
Whilst there he encounters Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and the inhabitants and is repelled at their ‘unchristian’ pagan customs. His search leads him in circles as it is finally revealed that there is no missing girl and the whole scenario has been to lure him to the island as a sacrifice to bring forth a good harvest in the forthcoming year.
The comparisons with Robin Redbreast are clear, The Wicker Man taking a similar plot line and theme, effectively streamlining it to a far more cinematic level. Here the familiar folk horror conventions of the authoritarian ‘urban’ outsider coming into conflict with the old ways of paganism are perhaps most clear, apparently Lee (keen on the project from the start) had expressed to Shaffer that he wanted to make a film ‘about the old religion’.
Soundtrack plays a key role in the film, it has been referred to as folk(music)ploitation, composed by Paul Giovanni and Magnet (a group formed for the recording of the soundtrack) it draws on traditional folk songs. The film was produced by British Lion at a difficult financial time for the company (who were eventually bought by EMI), amid all this the film went through several edits and over the years and subsequent rereleases have had various pieces of footage restored and re-added.
The original cinematic release was an 87 minute B-picture which played as a double bill (in the U.K) with Nichols Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In 2009 Hardy made the long anticipated ‘spiritual sequel The Wickertree which received mixed reviews and is a repeat of the same basic plot (yet interestingly for this list echoes aspects of Castle of the Living Dead),
Lee also has a cameo. Now revaluated as something of a classic Wicker Man and its final shots have now become another iconic image of British cinema. Hardy, who like others involved in the original distanced himself from the 2006 U.S remake, now plans a third film ‘Wrath of the Gods’.
1. Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm (1968)
Director Michael Reeves and friend Tom Baker (not to be confused with the actor) devised a script loosely based on Ronald Bassett’s novel covering the 17th century witch trails carried out at the hands of real life figure Matthew Hopkins.
Co-funded by British Tigon and American International Pictures the film was seemingly intended as a low-budget tax-loss film for the exploitation market – the alternative U.S title cashing in on Vincent Price’s horror connection with earlier Edgar Allen Poe films of Roger Corman (Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasance for the Hopkins role but A.I.P had Price marked).
Reeves, having worked in Italy, and under the likes of Don Seigal was more interested in producing a British Western, hence certain aspects of the film’s aesthetic bear closer comparison with spaghetti westerns of the period than Brit horror.
Parliamentarian soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy ) discovers his fiancé Sara (Hilary Dwyer) and her guardian tortured by sadistic self appointed ‘witchfinder general’ Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his barbaric assistant John Strearne (Robert Russell) he ventures down a path of tragic revenge. In this end this leads only to misery and madness.
Here, a benchmark is set which arguable divides folk horror from that of the gothic, in the end there is no good v evil no neat resolution or redemption . Rather like the Wickerman one might expect a saviour at the final moment but this does not come – there is no God only the elements.
Similarly as David Pirie considers, the landscape and an empathy with it are what guide a character’s fate in these films – Reeve’s western style shots of Marshall galloping across the English countryside show the audience how the character slowly looses this. Price too delivers what many consider his best performance in a straight, cold manner – something he bickered with Reeves about on set but later admitted was the correct way to approach the role.
Nude/topless versions of certain scenes were reshot (not by Reeves) for the European exploitation market. The freeze frame ending of Sara screaming (imitated by several films in the immediate years afterwards) remains a haunting ending to a memorable and importantly different film, whose violence and bleak tone critics and censors where in minor uproar about (inc Alan Bennett who stated that ‘it made him feel dirty’) yet without it many of the films in this list would likely never have existed.
Despite this, A.I.P allowed Tigon to squander the film’s profits on a couple of obscure Brit sex-comedies. By the dawn of the 70’s cinema and audience moods were changing with greyer morals and ‘goodless’ endings which saw gothic peddling Brit rivals such as Hammer struggle, Reeves, who died aged only 25 from an overdose of prescription medication only nine months after the Witchfinder’s release was ahead of the game.
Author Bio: George Cromack is a tutor at the University of Hull’s Scarborough Campus, with a BA in Scriptwriting he also teaches evening classes in Scriptwriting and Film Studies for the WEA. Whist also working towards his PhD, he is a keen writer of both prose and script, Cold Calling, a film short written by George premiered in October 2013. Follow him on Twitter @MadBasil.