Village cricket is, I suppose, the quintessential folk horror sport. So arcane are its rules, so impenetrable to the uninitiated,1 that it might as well be a pagan ritual. I played it in school, but I never really understood it, nor were its strictures ever open to me. You're either born to it or you're not. Cricket allows no latitude for the outsider. It's pagan; the wicket, the stump, the ancient battle over the tree re-enacted in slow motion.
Cricket is the strangest of sports.
Aside from a brief vignette before the credits where a woman comes to view a dead body, Jerzy Smolikowski's 1978 film The Shout begins at a cricket match.
|The strangest of sports.|
Robert Graves, diffident, quite young, a little nervous (Tim Curry, in a completely uncharacteristic role) turns up late to a cricket match; he's told that he's been relegated to scoring. It becomes clear that Graves is a little nervous because the other team are the inmates of a psychiatric hospital. He's told he has a very interesting companion in the hut.
|You have the most fascinating companion.|
Doctor: I'll introduce you to him. His name's Charles Crossley. He's incredibly well-read. Claims to have travelled all round the world. And a genius of a mechanic. Fixed my old bike, spinning along.Charles Crossley (Alan Bates) is intense and strange. Crossley points out a man going out to bat (John Hurt) and begins to tell Graves the story of how the batsman lost his wife. The film shifts to flashback. Anthony (the batsman) is a musician, who lives in a village near the sea (it's not made clear, but I'm guessing in Devon) with his wife Rachel, a nurse (Susannah York).
Graves: Your old motorbike?
Graves: Then why's he here?
Doctor: He's not entirely normal.
Graves: Oh, and what's normal?
Doctor: Whuh... see that tree over there? [He points]
Doctor: That's normal. Now look at that! [He points to another tree, under which some of the inmates are sitting]
Doctor: That's... mad.
They're at the beach, sunbathing, and they both fall asleep. While they are sleeping, Crossley steals the buckle from Rachel's shoe. Later, he meets Anthony after church (Anthony stands in as the organist) and manages to invite himself to lunch. He doesn't leave the house. He becomes a permanent guest.
Rachel falls under Crossley's spell. She finds him irresistible.
It ends with death and fire; pain and loss. The shout works. It kills, more than once.
The Shout is troubling in ways beyond simply being a disturbing film. But that one reason why it's troubling is why it qualifies as folk horror. It's this: pretty much everything Crossley says about the indigenous people of Australia is untrue. It's a lie. The stuff about them killing their children is the fiction of white supremacists. The magic as he explains it is bastardised, false.
And yet in the film his magic works. He really can shout in a way that can kill.
Crossley is lying. Crossley's magic works.
Does he take Anthony's wife? Anthony is unfaithful. Rachel would have to be an idiot not to know that. And she isn't an idiot. Sure, if it makes Crossley happy, maybe he can think in terms of property and theft.
|She distorts herself.|
He's a smug brute, but if the only choice you see is between two toxic men, where do you go? And besides, every indication is that he can do what he says he does. His magic works.
|The pointing bone.|
Crossley is lying. Crossley's magic works. However you frame it, it works, and if he's lying about where he got it, where did he get it?
It's in his heritage. On the one hand. Let's assume he's not lying about eighteen years in Australia. He's stolen someone else's magic and lied about them. He's lived as an aloof outsider and maligned those people. He is a thief. He is a murderer. He is, in short, a colonialist.
And he colonises Anthony and Rachel's home, sets himself up in the way the British Empire set itself up all over the world. He colonises Rachel's heart, conquers it, forces her into a place of humiliation and property. Crossley is the product of empire. And as the product of an imperial and colonial heritage, he is the possessor of a terrible darkness that manifests itself as a malevolent supernatural force.
Or let's assume, on the other hand, that he's lying, and he never even went there. It works out the same way: he thinks it's his right to malign the indigenous people of another nation and steal the trappings of their religion, and mangle it in his ignorance into something unrecognisable. Again, it's in his blood.
Because as isolated as the rural countryside of England is, it is still the heart of a nation that lied and stole and murdered its way across the world. In The Shout folk horror accepts a wider context, becomes other than isolated. It represents the private heart of a horror that once ate half the world.
1In India and Pakistan of course, it's different. There, cricket is the game of the everyone, much as football is in England and rugby is here in Wales. I remember the acute disappointment of the locals on the development project in Uttar Pradesh that I stayed at in October 2005 that I didn't fully understand cricket and my bowling arm wasn't up to much. (back)