Monday 30 January 2017

On a Thousand Walls #2: Candyman (1992)

When I started my We Don't Go Back project, one of the things that most delighted me about it was that so many of the films I loved were already in the category of folk horror. And it gave me the chance to watch things I hadn't seen for many years. Like Candyman. Candyman is one of the very rare pure horror films that I genuinely rate; usually I will tend towards the artsy, as I have said many times before, but Candyman (directed by Bernard Rose, and based loosely on a short story by Clive Barker) is strictly a genre piece. It is also, I think, one of the best horror films I have ever seen.

It is also about as close as you can get to an urban American equivalent to a folk horror piece. It is probably one of the most quintessentially Urban Wyrd movies ever made.

Friday 27 January 2017

On a Thousand Walls #1: The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz (1999)

So one of my favourite blogs right now is Adam Scovell's Celluloid Wicker Man. He writes about all the stuff I've been writing about these last few months and he's actually researching it full time, and he's academically inclined and he's got a book coming out soon. Anyway, back in 2015, he coined the term "urban wyrd", which he used to describe things that felt like folk horror, and looked like folk horror, and which clearly weren't. Adam talks around the subject, but he suggests a particularly urban subgenre made of folklore and psychogeography, social isolation and urban myth.

Now while I've been working on We Don't Go Back I've bumped into the occasional film that I want to write about, but had to discount because it just wasn't in the theme. I mean, it felt right, but it was in the city or it was about something other than folk. I'll be honest, there's two movies I've reviewed in We Don't Go Back that are very much edge cases: Symptoms, which doesn't really have the pagan thing so much, and Psychomania which has all the satanism and stone circles and stuff, but is somehow, indefinably not really there (it's still terrific though). But there's all these films that have that subtext I love and they're not folk horror and I still want to write about them and... you know, I reckon Adam had that experience too. Hence, urban wyrd.

In the spirit of being the second person to have a good idea, welcome to On a Thousand Walls, where I attempt to develop an idea of what a list of "urban wyrd" films looks like.

Adam talked in his post about Quatermass and the Pit and Death Line. I'll add to them Philip Ridley's Heartless. Dead Man's Shoes will get a write-up. I don't think there's a more quintessential urban wyrd movie than Candyman. I'm going to make a strong case for the inclusion of Christine Lawlor and Joe Molloy's Helen (a film that you either think is a work of stunning, mesmerising beauty, or an experience slightly less interesting than watching paint dry, and I'm in the former camp, but I respect and understand the latter). Similarly, I'm going to make arguments for Dennis Potter's controversial play Brimstone and Treacle, and for Andrzej Żuławski's almost as controversial collapsing-marriage horror Possession.

I'm going to start, though, with something more obscure and awkward than any of these, Ben Hopkins' 1999 oddity The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #32: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

I admit, I have been trying to catch this lightning in a bottle for a long time. Most of my fiction revolves around the idea of documenting the effects of a fictional thing that someone out there believes might actually be.

Monday 23 January 2017

Cult Cinema #1: Sound of My Voice (2012)

This is the first of a new, short series about cults in movies and TV. First up is Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij's Sound of My Voice.

Thursday 19 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #31: Symptoms (1974)

So occasionally in this project, with folk horror being the accidental genre it is and everything, I've found movies and TV that fit neatly into other genres and subgenres. Highbrow TV theatre. Ghost Stories. Documentary. Black comedy.

So I want to talk about giallo movies. In the genre's native Italy, “giallo” (yellow, for the pages of pulp magazines) seems to be used to describe any horror/thriller movie with a bit of sex and gore in it, but in the same way that the Japanese word for “comic book” means something very particular outside of Japan, giallo for the enthusiast means a very specific sort of movie. And already I’m out of my depth, here, and the fact is that the nearest most people get to giallo films are films that aren’t strictly part of that genre, but which draw their inspiration from it. I'm talking about films like Suspiria here. Repulsion (1965). Black Swan (2010). These movies are almost always highly emotionally charged. These movies are almost always highly emotionally charged. Although often artsy and meticulously constructed, they usually include over-the-top violence and gore (like the bit in Suspiria where there's this girl running away from a killer and she falls through a window that erupts into glassy shards and then ten feet into a room that is entirely! full! of barbed wire!) and they are often homoerotic in a soft-focus, voyeuristic sort of a way. And of course, it goes without saying that these films are almost always made by straight men.

I prefer myself to call these films Stabby Movies, because a lot of stabbing seems to happen in films like this. And in the field of Stabby Movies, Symptoms is quite stabby.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #30: A Photograph (1977), The Ice House (1978)

Certain writers and directors have cropped up here more than once. I've done two posts so far about Lawrence Gordon Clark's ghost stories, covering six things by him, and I have a couple more to do. Nigel Kneale has been covered three times now. I've written essays about three films by Ben Wheatley. I suppose the least well known of these multiple contributors to my homespun canon is the playwright and screenwriter John Bowen. Bowen's contribution to folk horror rests mainly on the lost-then-found Robin Redbreast, but his work has a running strand that often enters folk horror territory. Aside from his adaptation of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, there are these two other plays in the genre, another Play for Today, and another ghost story.

He's really consistently good. His stories are always about something. Bowen's stories seem to bring the downfall of the arrogant and smug, the overbearing and the privileged. He explores the faultlines between people and finds powerful stories in the widening cracks.

Friday 13 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #29: Ring, Ring 2, Ring 0 (1998-2000)

As different as our cultures are, I think Japan and Britain are more similar than we sometimes realise.

We're both island nations that used to have empires. We have populations centred around reasonably large cities and one massive sprawl that carries with it its own centre of gravity. And both countries have a rural landscape that is very much lived-in. People have lived there and have worked that land for thousands of years. There isn't a place that hasn't been seen by human eyes. There isn't a patch of land that hasn't been walked by human feet. And while each country has its own historical mainstream religion, in the the rural places folklore, paganisms and heresies persist.

The landscape is rich in psychic leavings exactly because it has never really been uninhabited. The distance of the countryside is temporal, a distance of belief, of feeling. This is the soil in which folk horror grows, wild as berries.

A land with layers of history is a land full of obsolete technologies.

I remember the old Bush radios, the transistors and ancient bits of circuitry that mouldered in my Dad's garage. The weird archaeology of it, the way that the ZX Spectrum we had when I was a kid is even more archaic now than these things were when I was young. All these things have ghosts.

In 70s Britain, that combination of technology and haunting gave us The Stone Tape. In 90s Japan, the same impulses produced Ring.

Wednesday 11 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #28: Psychomania (1973)

Psychomania is not, by most usual metrics, a good film. Nonetheless, Psychomania is terrific.

Monday 9 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #27: Moondial (1988)

I was 12 when Moondial aired. It was shown on Wednesday evenings, five minutes past five, in February, just before it got dark.

It was appointment TV for me, before I even knew what that meant. I saw the first episode because it was what happened to be on, and made sure I didn't miss another.

The second time I watched Moondial was in these last school holidays, and I had decided that I was going to put the first episode on with my kids watching. Because no critic of kids' TV is as exacting as a kid. If they didn't like it, I thought, I'd watch it later myself, or maybe I wouldn't bother, because I've already done three children's serials and why do a fourth if it's not much cop?

Friday 6 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #26: Epiphany

Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968);
The Stalls of Barchester (1971);
A Warning to the Curious (1972);
Lost Hearts (1973);
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974);
The Ash Tree (1975);
A View From a Hill (2005)1

How do you write about something so comprehensively signified, so seen as a touchstone for British television drama as a whole and the subgenre of folk horror in particular? What can you add?

I suppose I'll tend to the personal in this, as I often do. It's the Feast of Epiphany, Twelfth Night has passed. It is time to take down the trappings of Christmas.

Monday 2 January 2017

We Don't Go Back – Guest Post: The Company of Wolves (1984)

A guest post, this time on Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves. It's by Monique Lacoste, who I've known for maybe 13 years, although the last time we saw each other in person was when she very kindly let me stay at her home, then in Los Angeles, in 2005.

Monique is one of the smartest, funniest, and most courageous people I know. She describes herself a media scholar and student botherer who loves movies and cultural criticism. Monique says that she has been known to turn into a werewolf when provoked.

Monique has taken her brief much more seriously than I usually do (this is the first film article I've posted that has a proper bibliography!) and there's some real meat here.

The complexities of structure in The Company of Wolves allow for the navigation of a landscape of dreams, and the film's isolated geography, with a sense of combined proximity and distance so like the British countryside, lies in the territory of an adolescent imagination. In many ways it's a companion to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and several scenes are direct callbacks to that strange, awkward little film.

Enough of me. Today we're here for Monique.

Sunday 1 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #25: Red Shift (1978)

Of the last four subjects in the We Don't Go Back project, one was great but honestly pretty tough to write about, one was disappointing, one was unpleasant in all the bad ways, and one was just godawful.

I have a guest post in hand (and a really magnificent one at that), but that'll come on Monday, because I kind of felt funny about kicking off 2017 with someone else's writing. What I really needed to get us up and running again for a new year was a film that's just good, and which gives me something to write about. Thank the heavens for Red Shift.


It is uncontroversial among many people in the West that this last year finished has been in some way bad; in fact, all that happened was that the horrors of the world finally began to visit themselves on us in a mediated, creeping way, and in our arrogance we realised for once that we were going to have experienced a year that was, if not quite as terrible as most recent years experienced by people elsewhere, more on a par. It is sad that a great number of beloved public figures have died; it is appalling that our certainties that fascism would never return, let alone be accepted as part of mainstream discourse, have been proven so very complacent. 2016's electoral catastrophes in Britain and the USA are still far from genocides and crusades, but for the first time since 2001, we suspect that these things might come to our doorstep.

2016 was the year that it came to us that we had the same problems as everyone else, on a level beyond the purely intellectual. Inasmuch as a year is a period of time to which we ascribe a significance and a limit, 2016 was for most people in the world, a year like any other. All that happened to us was that we finally got to share some of it.

For me, the disappointments, failures and heartbreaks of 2015 continued into the early months of 2016. But by April, it began to turn around. I started to succeed again. Modestly, perhaps, perhaps on penalties, but a win in the penalty shoot-out is no less valid a victory. I won, this year gone. I won.

My wish for you, friend, and if you're reading this far, I'll count you a friend whether I know you or not, is that you will achieve your own victory in 2017.