Nowt as Queer as Folk

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.

Blood on Satan’s Claw: Insert your own eye based pun.

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.

Jane Asher has one hell of a bad cake in The Stone Tape

 

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.

Sean experiences how I felt watching When Saturday Comes

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.

Kill List: Wiccan Weird

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.

4 thoughts on “Nowt as Queer as Folk”

  1. The recently revived Hammer films added to the genre earlier this year with the Irish film Wake Wood. Sort of a cross between Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and the agrarian British horror films you mentioned its premise is heavily rooted in the idea of the dark and ancient power of nature and the conflict between rational science and instinctive belief. My review can be found here: http://wp.me/p1e2fk-dj but it’s definitely one for your list. (although I do have to question that Gatiss coined the concept of Folk Horror but have no evidence to dispute this, his History of Horror series was magnificent though).

  2. Now, Anne Billson mentioned Wake Wood as a potential for the list and I’ve got a copy here for watching this week but will your review spoil it at all? If not I’m on it like a stink on shit.

    As for Gatiss coining the term, I did a quick search to see if it is the case. Couldn’t find anything to prove otherwise. And I really like him too so I quite want him to have it.

  3. HELLO. IT HULK. VERY INTERESTING STUFF ON DISPLAY HERE. HULK INDEED FAMILIAR WITH BOTH THE MOVIES AND CONCEPTS YOU’RE DELVING INTO AND HULK AGREE. IT IS SOMETHING VERY SPECIFIC. THERE CERTAINLY SEEMS TO BE AN INNATE DIFFERENCE FROM OUR AMERICAN “FOLK HORROR” WHICH SEEMS TO SOLELY BE ABOUT HOW INBRED COUNTRY FOLK’LL KILL THEM CITY BOYS (BUT USUALLY INCORPORATING SOME SORT OF COMMENTARY ABOUT HOW THE CITIES HAVE CREATED THOSE CONDITIONS IN THE FIRST PLACE, OR SIMPLY LEFT THEM BEHIND).

    HULK CAN’T WAIT TO SEE KILL LIST.

    HULK THANK FOR POINTING IN DIRECTION OF THE GATISS PIECE TOO.

    CHEERS.

  4. Sorry, spectacularly slow off the mark in responding. I try to keep my reviews spoiler free and include warnings where not. I don’t think my Wake Wood review gives away anything that isn’t on the DVD cover! That said, you have doubtless watched it by now, if so what did you think?

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