Friday 2 December 2016

We Don't Go Back #19: The Shout (1978)

(This post carries a warning for some mild nudity, below the cut)

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.
It is based on a story of the same name by Robert Graves. It sticks to the plot of the story closely.

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.
Graves: Your old motorbike?
Doctor: Yeah.
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]
Graves: Yes.
Doctor: That's normal. Now look at that! [He points to another tree, under which some of the inmates are sitting]
Graves: Yes?
Doctor: That's... mad.
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).

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.
Permanent guest.
He tells Anthony and Rachel that he spent eighteen years in Australia, living with the Aboriginal people. And there, he learned magic. They ask if he had an Aboriginal wife, and he says yes, and if he had children, and he says none that lived, and that he'd killed the ones he had, which is, he says considered normal among the Aboriginal people. While learning magic, he reveals as the film goes on, he learned how to shout in such a way that people die, and to steal the love of a woman by taking possession of some nondescript object belonging to her.

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.
It's a disturbing film that unfolds at a dreamlike pace. The composition is flawless; it was quite hard finding screenshots for this film because even though it gives an impression of stillness, it's in constant motion, the quality of the visual scene dependent on continual movement. And no sound is wasted; the sound design is exquisite.
Sound design.
Anthony is an avant-garde musician; in the tradition of Delia Derbyshire, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, he uses offbeat objects to create unusual sound – marbles in a tray, the drawing of breath through a lit cigarette – and electronic equipment to record and distort it (which perhaps bears comparison with the concerns with hauntological soundscapes that run through The Stone Tape). Crossley says Anthony's music is empty, and, yes, it seems sterile, as if he's distancing himself from the sounds he makes. The studio itself is full of bizarre bric-a-brac; on the walls are prints of a number of paintings by Francis Bacon, perhaps as inspiration. The goals of his art, these paintings become mirrored by his life and the lives of those around him.

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.
Frozen out.
Why can't she have chosen? In my reading, Crossley's magic instead provides, as magic does, an access point for an enlightenment or a dark enlightenment. She has been wronged. Here is a magnetic man who, unlike the slightly effete philanderer she's married to, wants her (the ending of the film, I think, underlines that; even after his power over her should have dissolved, even after she gets her buckle back, even after she is still plainly still with Anthony in some way, Rachel has chosen Crossley). Is Crossley a better choice? Hell, no.
The painting...
She obeys him now, quietly, without question. And she distorts herself for him, becomes one of Anthony's pictures (Bacon's Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours, 1961 – Anthony has it in black-and-white print, and as she adopts the pose, the film shifts momentarily to black-and-white to underline the point).
She distorts herself.
In the act of "stealing" a person who was never really owned, Crossley "steals" her personhood, and she becomes, either willingly or not, and you can read it either way, a possession. An object. Depersonalised, dehumanised. For me it is the single most frightening scene of the film.

 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.
At the end of the film, the police come looking for Crossley. They're going to arrest him for murdering his children. He's not lying about that, then. Perhaps the thing about the ritual murder of his children as Aboriginal culture is an excuse. Perhaps it's a delusion, if not a lie, because it is certainly an untruth. And what the truth about that culture is, we'll never know, because the only narrative of it is mediated through Crossley. You see the Aboriginal magician from whom Crossley is supposed to have learned his craft briefly at the start of the movie, walking over a sand dune. But he doesn't speak. You don't see him again. 

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)