Last year Mark Gatiss made a wonderful 3 part documentary about his love of horror films called ‘A History of Horror’. Interestingly I think it would probably be better served if it was called ‘My History…’ because it is such a personal series of programs exploring his fascination with the macabre and murderous world of the horror film. At one point Gatiss explores the theory that there is a curious sub-genre of British horror film, comprising only three films and featuring something layered deep within the British psyche. Calling this crop of films ‘folk horror’ he picked out The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General and proceeded to explain how their engagement with the nature of paganism and a kind of earthen ancient spirituality seemed to dredge up something unique for our isles, a special kind of fear. Gatiss highlights the scarcely seen Blood on Satan’s Claw (the extract is here on YouTube) and in his exploration with director Piers Haggard he focuses on the notion of something being innate in our soil – in the land itself. The notion that buried somewhere in the earth beneath our feet is a portion of our blood-soaked history is a powerful one indeed and one that might go further than these three films and occur in certain other parts of our sparkling horror history.
I like this idea of something ancient and innate, it sounds vaguely Lovecraftian in some respects, the notion of something so primal it defies our understanding and has a unique and incomprehensible power over us. It reminded me immediately of a television play a friend of mine had managed to find a recording of for us to watch. It’s called The Stone Tape (the entirety of which is available on that there YouTube) and was written by Quatermass legend Nigel Kneale. In it a team of scientists discover a room that appears to be haunted in an old stately mansion they are working in. They begin experimenting and find that the haunting is actually a form of recording in one of the ancient stone foundation walls, a recording of a woman screaming and falling. It looks dated but there’s no escaping the chilling nature of the story and the idea that you can imprint something so strongly into the earth that surrounds us seems too similar to be a coincidence. I know Mark Gatiss is a fan of Nigel Kneale so I’d love to know what he thinks about the tenuous connection, whether he’d considered any similarities between this TV classic and his ‘Folk Horror’ films. Not that I would include The Stone Tape alongside those films, it’s too different and contains little of the religious friction that powers those classics.
I liked the idea of ‘Folk Horror’ so much that I started to see it more often, in fact I’d make a damn strong case for including Christopher Smith’s excellent film Black Death in with the select cadre. The Sean Bean starrer had all of the elements required, it’s set in the rural middle ages (earlier than the other films admittedly) with the rivalry between Christian religion and pagan activities at the forefront just as with Gatiss’ trio. It managed, excellently, to keep you guessing about the supernatural elements right to the end and was mean and brutal throughout. I can’t really see any cause for keeping it out of the list. If that’s the case maybe we can go ahead and start to include some other films too or at least look for elements of films that seem similar or informed by our collective connection to this druidic pagan past.
This brings me to a film I was lucky enough to see at an advance screening recently, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. What’s most striking about the film is that it isn’t really horror; at least those elements are scant until about half way through the film where the hints and clues dropped in the first half start to coalesce. It is to the strength of the narrative that it never saw fit to fully explain what is happening at any point, even when the characters themselves are demanding answers none are forthcoming. But toward the end (and I’m being extremely careful about spoilers here) it positions itself as something special, something that elevates itself to the playing field of our new ‘Folk Horror’ canon. When I questioned Wheatley about this at the Q&A session, asking if he felt it fell in to this sub-genre of Gatiss’ creation, he said it was absolutely a fascination of his that every inch of our island was soaked in blood, that it had been fought over so much that something lingered in the land. His answer harked back again to the inescapable, the recorded in the land, in the earth, in the rural backdrop that serves as Kill List’s final setting and that features so heavily in all the other films.
Yes, I like this new classification of a sub-genre and I want to see more made of it. I don’t have the time for a full academic breakdown of its signifiers and such but I think I’ll be keeping track of what pops out of the ground in the near future with an eye on the pagan and the puritan. Just keep your eyes peeled for any odd woodland rituals, processions, tortured confessions, wicker constructs, naked dancing and such.