Friday 28 October 2016

We Don't Go Back #4: Stigma (1977)

(Warning: one of the images in this post could be disturbing. There's a lot of blood in it.)

For most of the 1970s, BBC1 broadcast a ghost story on Christmas Eve. The first six were adaptations: five MR James stories, the sixth Charles Dickens' The Signalman (in my – and a lot of critics' – opinions, the best of them all). And a lot has been written on these. The last two were original productions, and on the other hand receive comparatively little attention.

The stone.
The final production of that original run, 1978's The Ice House, is most charitably described as divisive. It's either stilted, silly and nonsensical, or it's one of the strangest, eeriest things you've ever seen. I fall in the latter camp, which is the minority, to be honest. It doesn't come under the umbrella of my project, though, although I'll probably write about it at some time because it deserves some words. The Ice Housei is the only one of the eight not directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who is rightly regarded as one of the greatest makers of British television.

Its 1977 predecessor Stigma, however, that's completely, uncontroversially folk horror gold.

The emphasis being on the horror. This essay will spoil plot details, as ever.
The crane hook, filmed to look for all the world like a noose.

It's a studied, mundane sort of an affair. Katherine (Kate Binchy), a plummy, middle class mother and her bookish adolescent daughter Verity (Marine Gordon) return to their – fairly new, we ascertain – home in the countryside. Some landscape gardeners are working to remove an old and ancient stone that sits in the middle of where Katherine's husband Peter (Peter Bowles) has decided the lawn will be. It's proving harder than they thought. At their first attempt at lifting the stone, they get halfway. Katherine, standing nearby, feels a strong wind blowing hard against her. The chain slips. The stone falls.
Katherine, dazed, standing stones in the near distance.
Katherine enters the house in a sort of daze. Everything spins. She doesn't know where she is. Her husband calls, and she comes to herself. But then she realises, that although she can't find a cut on herself, she is bleeding.
That's really it. Verity goes for a stroll around some standing stones. The family eat dinner. And Katherine bleeds, she bleeds with a private, growing panic, and then with relief she gets the bleeding under control. Peter wakes up in the middle of the night. A knife moves by itself, the hob has been left on. Peter feels a faint sense of unease. In the morning the workmen find the skeleton of a witch, stabbed in the side, buried between four daggers, in a space under the stone. And Peter finds something appalling, something that brings more panic and despair.
Peter, uneasy.
I can't really express the cold terror of the film. In a running time of barely 31 minutes it goes from unease to panic to relief; you take a breath, and then the unease returns, rises again to panic and finally screaming despair. And it's immediate, it's anchored.

A snippet of a real radio news report about Voyager 1 is heard, and sets the story in late August/early September 1977. And Katherine and Peter are played by actors called Katherine and Peter; they're playing themselves as if they were married. Peter Bowles, known for comedy, plays a straight dramatic role and plays it well. His fear turns to panic and then to anguish and it's absolutely believable. Maxine Gordon isn't so great as Verity, but in a production as brief as this, her dreamy alienation when next to the fatal stone while her father loses his mind seems appropriate, mirroring the dazed, haunted phase of Katherine's own experience. Like mother, like daughter.

The metaphorical buttons pressed by a suddenly bleeding woman aren't lost on me, particularly when they're set against the scenes of a young woman only just becoming aware of her womanhood. And while mother and daughter are both affected, albeit very differently, by the haunting, the father only reacts to the effects of the haunting on his wife.

The substance of the haunting is almost ridiculously simple. You lift the stone, you let out the witch's ghost and it strikes out at the innocent. But Stigma works because of its undertones, its texture. It isn't Gothic; it's just matter of fact.
A discovery.
It does have its problems, brief as it is. Only the two central performances are really good. It's short and oblique enough that on a first watch – and remember that on its broadcast, one watch was all you'd ever get – you could very easily miss the point, even though it's all there. And Stigma stands alone in its series as the only play with a female protagonist, although it certainly isn't the only one where the protagonist winds up dead. As good as it is, it bugs me a little that the way in which the ghost escapes from under the stone suggests that Katherine receives the force of its supernatural wrath for being a woman. I don't know if that's a feminist statement or a misogynist one. Maybe you can have it both ways.
Horrible, yes. 
But the mundane nature of the story is an important part of why it's a great example of folk horror. British folk horror works in part because we live so close by to really ancient things, and we treat them lightly. People in England really do sometimes have megaliths in their back gardens. The everyday minutiae of life sit in contrast with the ancient mysteries of a haunted Britain.

We have ghosts as our neighbours, and we would do well not to disturb them.