Wednesday 2 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #7: Recapitulation, Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan's Claw

So last night I launched the Kickstarter for The Age of Miracles and it's got 28% of the way to its modest goal. While I'm waiting for that to fund, though, let's continue the folk horror watch, eh?
So part of this project was to try to create a filmography of folk horror, and from that construct a sort of semiotic framework of the genre, which is sort of grand sounding, but hey, what's wrong with a bit of ambition sometimes?
Blood on Satan's Claw: Horrible folk.
Folk horror, in my opinion, has at least some of these characteristics:

•  It's cheaply made.

•  It isn't set in a city.

•  The place matters though. The landscape is important.

•  It builds slowly, depending on implications and fear rather than frights.

•  Supernatural elements, often religious (Christian or pagan) might be arguably hallucinatory or absent altogether... (e.g. The Witch, Baby, Murrain, Penda's Fen)

•  ...but if they're not present, at least one character believes that they are, or behaves as if they are, and that belief, which might be pathological, helps to drive the conflict of the story (e.g. The Wicker Man, The Witchfinder General, Robin Redbreast, Kill List).   

•  It's usually white. Look, it just is. It's the elephant in the room. It might deal with historically marginalised groups and social classes, but they're white groups. Folk horror is the whitest horror (Wisconsin Death Trip makes it explicit by writing out the indigenous Americans altogether in the first few minutes with a patent, obvious lie. Onibaba is one exception that's been cited to me, although I haven't seen it. Simon Magus deals with a Jewish community).

•  Although still mostly made by men, women are often prominent, either as protagonists or villains, and the horror/fantastical elements might well be related to female sexuality (e.g. Stigma, Baby, The Witch, The Blood on Satan's Claw, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders). These films often pass the Bechdel test.

•  It's usually an accident. Before about 2010, no one actually set out to make a "folk horror" movie (with one exception, and we'll get to that in a minute).

I think that many of the best of these films were just made to be scary or unsettling, simple as that, but I think the aesthetic extends beyond simple horror films.

So now I've hit the halfway point of We Don't Go Back, and I think it's time for a recap.

So far, I've looked at:
Two television plays that adopt folk horror tropes for the sake of economy and storytelling.
A recent movie consciously playing to folk horror tropes.
A ghost story that ties female biology to psychogeography.

On the other hand, I've tackled a number of edge cases: 
An art movie that fed musical and literary texts that inform folk horror.
A documentary that uses folk horror tropes to interrogate American rural poverty.
An edge case; an American film that looks like the nearest equivalent to an American folk horror.

The texts I plan on looking at for the second half of the project include:
A Field in England and Kill List; 
The Passion of Darkly Noon (another edge case); 
Penda's Fen;
and Simon Magus. 

As a genre is often best defined by its spoofs, I'm also planning to chuck in the episode of Doctor Terrible's House of Horrible entitled "Scream, Satan, Scream!"

 I might also try Robin Redbreast if I get round to sourcing a copy before I run out of steam, and The Ash Tree and A Warning to the Curious if I can think of something interesting to say about them.

 You may have noticed some omissions to the list. Because so far I haven't looked at the three movies on which the subgenre of folk horror hinges, namely Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan's Claw and The Wicker Man. In fact, they're arguably the only films that are uncontroversially, undeniably called folk horror by everyone. More than that: the subgenre only even exists because Piers Haggard, the director of The Blood on Satan's Claw, wanted, he said in a 2004 interview, to make a "folk horror movie". Piers Haggard invented folk horror.

So I sort of have to talk about these movies. 
 I'm going to leave The Wicker Man for the grand finale, and talk today about the two earlier films, which are in some ways very much of a piece with each other.  
Vincent Price plays... Vincent Price. Playing Matthew Hopkins.
I don't know what to say about Witchfinder General (or as the film's credits card puts the title, Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General) that hasn't been said already, or which is particularly interesting. Part of this is that I am in that infinitesimally small category of people who quite like creepy films and don't much care for The Witchfinder General. 
When I started this project, and I said I was planning on doing The Blood on Satan's Claw and The Wicker Man, my friend Ian Moore said to me on Twitter, "well you'd better do Witchfinder General too, then, because you can't do two without doing the other one" and my heart sank, because I knew he was right.

So this is the contractual obligation post.

Watching it back to back with The Blood on Satan's Claw has been an interesting experience. For one, Witchfinder General's dated aesthetic is shown up very solidly by its less well-known successor. It was made by 25-year-old Michael Reeves in 1968, and in a lot of ways – its score, the colour saturation that makes the blood such a bright scarlet, the way in which the supporting cast acquit themselves and punches don't land – it looks like, for all the assured nature of its set pieces, it could have been made at more or less any time in the preceding ten years.

An analogy: as a teenager, and this would have been in late 1993 or early 1994, right, I remember reading in a music magazine that The Velvet Underground and Nico was among the greatest albums ever made. I was in the habit of buying myself an album a week at this point, and so I went out and dutifully bought a copy of the album, and... it sounded like a bunch of very, very medicated people playing underwater, badly. It was tinny. It had no weight. Now when you have about twenty CDs, you do end up playing them over, and I put in actual work to get past the fact that rock music in 1993 didn't sound like that and try to find the parts that were unlike anything else on earth. I had to get past the barrier of time.

Because if Witchfinder General looks sort of wonky and rough, in context it actually looks much better if you compare it to any other British genre film that year. And as a story, it holds together, thankfully free of massive plot holes. It's a really straightforward movie, with no twists of any import. Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Stearne go around (graphically) torturing and executing innocent men and women as witches, and this works fine as a business for them until they have a bit of a work-based disagreement and a pair of their victims, Richard and Sara, prove braver and stronger than they anticipated. Although Richard, a heroic Parliamentary soldier, breaks under torture just like everyone else – it's just that him losing the plot means he breaks free and sets to Hopkins with a wood axe.

So the baddies get their due; but the film ends with screaming and trauma anyway.

And I'll keep saying this, but I don't find it a film with much interesting to say. It does what it does, pretty well, and then it's done.

Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is a capable, sympathetic hero who is neither stupid nor overly ahead of the game. You root for him, and it's satisfying that the scene where he saves an officer's life isn't just to establish his heroism and loyalty, but also has a payoff later in the movie, because the same officer he saved repays the debt in a logical, reasonable way. You never really feel that any of the goodies makes a stupid or illogical choice, which shall not, as we shall see, be the case in The Blood on Satan's Claw.

But in the end, you're not here for Ian Ogilvy and co, you're here for Vincent Price as the baddie.

And the most interesting and rewarding thing in the film is the dynamic of the relationship between Hopkins and Stearne. They're both murdering psychopaths, but Stearne (Robert Russell, his performance smothered by being dubbed with someone else's voice) has no illusions about what he is. He tortures and kills innocent women because he wants the money, and he enjoys doing it. And although there are some moments where Stearne says things that amount to "Hurrah, I get to do unspeakable things to women!" or "Can I torture some innocent women now?" it's revolting rather than silly, which is the desired effect, I suppose. Hopkins won't admit, right to the end, that he's like that too, even though he plainly is.  

Problem is that this relationship isn't explored fully – why are these two awful men hanging out together? – although one exchange between the two bad guys, at gunpoint, or flintlockpoint or whatever, gives us this great line:
Hopkins: I hold all human life dearly, Stearne, especially my own!
It's not enough though, for Vincent Price to just stride around being Vincent Price. In fact, I don't think it helps the film. By his very presence he adds an element of camp, something that pretty much every other film with the folk horror label steers well away from, and which the Witchfinder General really wants to.

At times, Witchfinder General's leering violence towards helpless women – lynched, stabbed, burned, drowned – is nauseating, but then it's an exploitation horror movie and they do that.

Which doesn't make it OK.

At least Witchfinder General doesn't have a lengthy and gratuitous rape scene, though.
Which brings us far more neatly than you'd hope to The Blood on Satan's Claw.
Patrick Wymark as the Judge in The Blood on Satan's Claw. He's also in Witchfinder General for like about thirty seconds playing Cromwell.
The Blood on Satan's Claw is basically Witchfinder General done again, only with the Witchfinders as the goodies and the witches being actual witches, even though the goodies are uptight pricks and the baddies are sort of groovy and fun, or would be were it not for the mutilation and human sacrifice.
On the right is the late Anthony Ainley, here playing the Curate, who's a bit of an uptight prick, but not a bad guy. He's best known of  course for playing the biggest prick in the universe for a solid decade.
I'll put it out there: I don't much care for The Blood on Satan's Claw either. Having said that, just like Witchfinder General, the film has things in it to like.

It's got an absolutely brilliant soundtrack that veers between eerie, gentle and playful without ever becoming camp; the cinematography is never short of amazing. And apart from one hilariously idiotic bit I'll go into in a moment, it always looks gorgeous. I went crazy with screenshots because the film has so many brilliant images. Blood on Satan's Claw is packed with atmosphere.

Or it is until someone starts talking. The dialogue is diabolical, and not in the good way.
Rosalind, after going the sort of insane that you only get in horror movies.
The plot: decent Ploughman Ralph finds a skull in the furrows of his plough. It's not human. it has an eyeball in it.

From the moment this happens, weird things follow. Angel Blake, a local teenager (scream queen Linda Hayden) finds a claw and either because she was evil to begin with ("Black Angel", get it?) or because she's easily corruptible, becomes the High Priestess of Satan, leading a coven mostly made of teens with a few gross old people. they all grow weird patches of skin, which Behemoth harvests and uses to rebuild his body.

Meanwhile, Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams) bring his fiancee Rosalind to his aunt's house. Because the Judge is staying in the spare room, Rosalind has the attic, and Rosalind goes mad and grows claws on her right hand, with which she claws Auntie in the face. The local doctor prescribes a trip to Bedlam for poor Rosalind.

Meanwhile, and this film is going to have an awful lot of meanwhiles, Auntie runs off, and after they've looked for her for a bit, she's never seen or mentioned again.

This sort of thing happens quite a bit.

As far as I can make out, it was originally supposed to be an anthology movie, with three plots that were roughly linked, but only roughly, and it became a single plot quite late in the game. This is still pretty obvious: the film has a handful of parallel plotlines that don't interact in any meaningful sense, and which often don't make a while lot of sense. This harms it another way. So, when Auntie runs off about twenty minutes in, that wouldn't have been a problem in a twenty minute segment. When the Judge appears at the beginning and reappears at the end, that would have worked as a decent framing of the plot. I can imagine a version where the Judge is hearing testimonies, that are told in flashback as discrete stories, which is a trope Amicus/Tigon movies (of which this is one) were very fond of, with the coda at the end being him going and killing the monster abruptly (spoilers: he does).

Peter, the next night, hears weird noises in the attic. This is what happens next:

He hears something moving about under the floorboards. One of the floorboards bumps up, knocked by whatever's beneath it.


OK, look. One of my pet hates with modern genre fiction is when characters act like theyre aware of the genre they've found themselves in. Like in Firefly, where everyone knows they're in science fiction and behaves accordingly. It drives me to distraction, I hate it so much. I'd rather someone behaved like a real average person.

But on the other hand, sometimes people in genre films don't even do that. They do idiotic, ridiculous stuff that no one would ever do. Stuff that makes no sense at all.

And... I went back and watched the scene twice because I couldn't believe it was so stupid.

Peter lifts the floorboard, lies down on the floor, and sticks his arm down in the hole and gropes around.


If it was rats, you wouldn't. Or mice, even. Since it is in fact Satan, he gets his arm dragged down. When he pulls his arm out, a furry clawed hand – a hilariously bad effect – is grasping his arm. He gets free and puts a chest over the floorboard.

Then he runs screaming from the house, like you'd expect.

No, I'm kidding. He goes back to bed and falls asleep. IN THE SAME ROOM.

In the same room in the same house where SATAN HIMSELF (or at the very least, a burglar with an unconvincing glove) is knocking about under the attic floorboards.

Peter is woken, as you'd expect, by the hand around his throat. Of course he is. He does finally behave in a sensible fashion, flailing around for a knife with which he hacks and hacks at the hand... except it's his own hand. Of course it is.
Look at this. Just LOOK AT IT.
The Judge does a bit of research. It's all down to Satan, you see. Satan is at work in the parish.

Ah well, says the Judge. Gotta go do some stuff back home. Bye!

Before clearing off, he gives the Squire (who is, as we shall see, an idiot) some of the strangest advice ever. He says you have to let the evil grow for a bit because that way you'll get all of it.

How is that good advice? HOW?

Let them become more powerful because they'll be easier to beat!? THAT ISN'T HOW IT WORKS!

Could it be... SATAN?
Meanwhile, Angel Blake, an early adopter of Instagram eyebrows, starts causing those patches of hairy Satanic skin to grow on all the teens, who either join her coven... or DIE. Young Mark dies, his bloodied body left in the woodshed for his mum to find. which is easy, because one of the teens says to Mark's mum, "We put him in the woodshed."

Angel goes to the house of the uptight Curate in her nightie. The Curate sees her come in and says, "Oh, I've been meaning to talk to you about your academic progress," rather than WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING COMING TO MY HOUSE IN A NIGHTIE? And then she gets proper naked and tries to seduce him and he says no, so she accuses him him of raping her at the first instance, namely Mark's funeral. And also of Mark's murder, which the Squire believes without question, despite the culprits having gloated about having done it to Mark's mother already, so everyone knows who did it.

Angel then sets up a trap for Mark's sister, and Ralph's sweetheart, Cathy Vespers.
Angel and Cathy (Wendy Padbury, not long after her stint on Doctor Who)
The trap being her sacrifice, which happens to her while she's being raped.

You heard me.

It's utterly gratuitous. Mark they just kill. Cathy, they rape. In front of everyone. Several of the teens get off on the scene. Cathy dies in pain and terror. And stabbing with sheep shears. Which Angel licks after she's done the deed.

There is no reason for a rape scene, other than the scriptwriter thought a Satanic mass needs to be blasphemous, so let's rape her. It's simple really. But it's already established that the baddies just kill their victims? Why rape her too? It's excessive, nasty, unnecessary.
Margaret (Michelle Dotrice)
The Judge comes back to cleanse the town. he organises a pitchfork wielding mob. One of the coven, Margaret, gets caught by the mob and nearly drowned. 

Ralph – and bear in mind that he's found Cathy dead and knows the witches did it – rescues Margaret from the mob and takes her home. It goes somewhat like this.
Ralph: It's OK. You're safe now. I won't let them do horrible things because they think you're a witch.
Margaret: I have to get going now though. I have to make a date with Satan. Satan is my master.
Ralph: You can stay and get better, and none of this silly talk of witches.
Margaret: Nah, I'm off. Because I'm a witch who serves Satan. Hey, want to come join the coven? we could have loads of kinky evil sex.
Ralph: That would be silly.
Margaret: Seriously. Loads of sex. And it's evil sex. Because I'm evil. And a witch. Who serves Satan, my master.
Ralph: This be madness. And you're not a witch, obviously.
Margaret: No, I keep telling you, Satan is my master. How hard is this to understand?
That's only a paraphrase, obviously, but that's the upshot. She keeps telling him about being one of the witches who murdered his sweetheart. And he doesn't believe her. He refuses to. And I mean, he's a good lad, but there's a point where you have to go, OK, maybe she's actually a witch.
Angel: She's getting all sacrificey. 
The ending's really rushed. Margaret runs off but leads the dogs straight to the coven which has bewitched poor Ralph, whose leg has started sprouting hair. And the Judge whips out a big steel sword and skewers Satan, and Angel Blake gets pitchforked by a mob member, and it's all over. The End.

Blood on Satan's Claw is such a frustrating movie. It has a great soundtrack, a great cast and a great sense of eerie rural atmosphere. It looks amazing.

But there's this rape scene. That's only there because they thought it would be cool to have a rape scene. And some terrible performances, idiotic plotting, terrible dialogue, and a couple of hilariously terrible effects. What to do? Is it even a curate's egg, and that's the kindest thing one can say, and even then, does cinematography and music make it worth watching? A nice looking, great sounding bad movie is still a bad movie.

What does one do with The Blood on Satan's Claw?