Friday 26 April 2019

We Don't Go Back #90: Requiem (2018)

Crikey, how long is it since I did a We Don't Go Back post? Obviously that's because other book projects are in the way. Still, from time to time I'm still going to pick up on stuff I missed or stuff that matters. Like Requiem, BBC1's prestige folk horror serial of 2018. For those who care, I should note that this is possibly one of the most spoilery essays I've ever done. Seriously, the spoilers start in the very first sentence.

It's important that you realise that Requiem doesn't just climax with a Wicker Man twist, it climaxes with the exact Wicker Man Twist: Tilly (Lydia Wilson), in a remote village in the provinces, risks everything to rescue a child from a cult, only to find that the child was a lure, that it was her they wanted all along, that they contrived even to bring her here to solve the central mystery of the story in the first place. She came here “with a pure heart and of your own free will” (in those exact words), because it was inevitable that she do so. Tilly's destruction is then the only possible outcome.

There is no question then that Requiem, a BBC production, a prime-time prestige drama in a classic one-and-done-six part serial of the sort they don't do nearly as much as they used to, is anything other than what I'd describe as a late-period example of deliberate folk horror, without ever once naming itself as such. Its supernatural horrors – which are unequivocal, and most definitely not imaginary, appear in the first half of the first episode (where they are ambiguous, and hinted at) and then largely vanish until episodes five and six, where they become increasingly explicit, without ever becoming the big CGI blowout of so many horror movies and TV shows.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Matilda Grey, Tilly, is a cellist who has benefitted from the tendency of the classical music scene to pick on a photogenic and talented young musician, usually a woman, as the figurehead of an attempt to bring classical music into the mainstream. She gets interviewed on BBC Breakfast in one segment, which I guess is where she would be, and the simple fact of her having been on TV is, we will later discover, is the entire reason for everything that happens over the course of the six episodes, although Tilly doesn't know that. She's not terribly sympathetic as a character; she's vain, tends to take people who love her for granted and is presented as the sort of person who takes offence at her one-night-stand making her breakfast in her kitchen because it's too intimate. And the characterisation doesn't really get far beyond that. Requiem isn't shy about giving us reasons why she might have wound up like this, but understanding a person doesn't make them any less of an asshole. And this is a problem, because Tilly deserves better than this, I think, particularly when contrasted with Hal (Joel Fry), her saintly accompanist, best friend and enabler, who is Secretly In Love with Tilly, because of course he is. Thankfully, he neither acts on that beyond being a terrible enabler, nor do they wind up in a couple – in fact, it's finding that he might be able to have a healthier relationship with someone else that later on gives him the balls to go and help Tilly in a way beyond simply acting on her behest. But then, immediately you can see Hal has more depth than Tilly and she's supposed to be the protagonist and that's sort of a problem. 
Tilly's mother Janice (Joanna Scanlan) commits suicide in front of her, on concert night, right after having made lunch plans with her daughter. Tilly realises quite reasonably that this is an extreme way to avoid a lunch date and begins to dig, finding materials in her mum's effects which refer to a missing child case in Wales some two decades before. Hal suggests they drive down to the village of Penllynith to find out more. There she works out quite quickly that her mother was not in fact her mother and that she is not Matilda Grey, she is in fact Carys Howell, the child who vanished 23 years before. But no one believes her, especially not Carys's mother Rose (Claire Rushbrook), who has been approached too many times by young women claiming to be her child. Those who do come to believe her are either outsiders, marginalised in some way, or members of the cult of ritual magicians who are, it transpires, the reason for Carys's abduction, since “Janice” believed that even Rose was part of the cult and rescued the child, adopting new identities for her and her “daughter” and only getting caught when Matilda has that news interview.

And more happens, but essentially that's it. Lots of things happen in the first two episodes and the last two, and very little happens in the middle. The action clings strenuously to the aesthetic conventions of the Prestige TV Thriller (see also Midwinter of the Spirit), and sometimes this is to its detriment. So for example, at the end of episode five, Hal is made to crash his car by an (almost) unseen supernatural agency. Matilda hurries to the scene and, panicked, asks the local officer (Darren Evans, or Chips from Submarine, if you prefer) what happened to Hal, and Chips from Submarine says, “He's gone,” and then Matilda does a 100% Classic Slow Motion Grief Recoil, which is completely a cliché of this sort of TV show, except that it's undercut when Chips from Submarine says something like, “No, I mean he's disappeared,” and Matilda's like,” Wait what?” mid-recoil, and the episode ends with any impact that might have gained being utterly drained away.

Likewise, the scene when Hal reappears and he's naked and eating a dead animal with his teeth and fingers should be jarring and sinister, but it's fumbled and so it's just sort of comical, even a bit League of Gentlemen.

All of this would seem to suggest that Requiem is bad TV. It's not, not at all. It's a perfectly serviceable bit of TV drama, and a perfectly serviceable folk horror homage, and it's certainly at least as good as most of the prestige thrillers broadcast in the last few years. Its central performances are good: Lydia Wilson, Joel Fry, Claire Rushbook, and Brendan Coyle (who plays a sympathetic retired policeman) all play the thing like they mean it. The music is good. The setting is good.

I like that it is rooted in real-world occultism, with John Dee's sort of magic, all Enochian letters and black mirrors, and a plot to conjure an archangel and use a human being as its vessel. I like also that it isn't afraid to approach new technologies as vehicles for tension, rather than just ignoring the fact that protagonists have, you know, smartphones.
It does some unexpected things, and sets up things which it then pays off in an unexpected way, for example, a dialogue given by what may or may not be Janice's ghost where she recalls physically shaking the child Carys when she wouldn't behave, and then Carys coming to her and clinging to her later, is a genuinely affecting and crucially true piece of writing, well played and able to stand on its own. Later we'll see another child cling to someone who abused him in the same way, and see how in a lot of ways it's worse, and that moment was probably for me the only real chill in the serial, although that's also likely to be because of the sorts of things I find chilling.

And although in a lot of ways the finale of Requiem is rushed (so for instance, we only find out what happened to Hal after his disappearance in two very brief scenes) it does take the time to explore the implications of what happened to Tilly after facing her fate, and gives a concrete idea of where this is going after we're done watching, and that's to its credit. Tilly wakes up after the frightening and explicitly supernatural effects of the ritual, and the cult are gone. We see Tilly return to the hospital to see her real mother, who now accepts her, and her younger brother, who was terrified of her, but who now clings to her. PC Graves (Clare Calbraith), the police officer who has handled most of the events here, warns Tilly that she will have to explain what happened. Tilly shrugs and says, sure, but she remembers nothing. In the hospital bathroom, we see that Tilly is possessed by the archangel the cult summoned, and that she murdered every one of them and buried them in shallow graves.

This itself is a bit clichéd, I admit – the “everything is fine, she's OK – PSYCH! NO SHE ISN'T, SHE'S TOTALLY POSSESSED” ending is as much a part of the horror canon as anything else that Requiem pulls out, but it's weird how gutsy that ending feels. There is a sense of commitment to the horror project here, a commitment and direction that's absent in the other significant British small-screen folk horror drama of 2018, Gareth Evans’ Apostle, which by comparison really doesn't know what it's doing, where it's going or what the tropes it's using are even for.
Both Requiem and Apostle (both, significantly, set in Wales, an underused venue for folk horror) could be said to be playing Folk Horror Bingo, in the way that they take on the plot trappings of folk horror. An outsider, a closed community, a remote place, a mystery that leads to destruction, pagan or occult beliefs, all are present. But Requiem takes to heart the attitude of folk horror, the underlying tensions of class, the conflict between rural and urban, the contradiction of free will and predestination, and the basic problem of the statement, We Don't Go Back: we don't go back, except we must, and it destroys us if we do, and destroys us if we don't.

But this new sort of folk horror speaks to its source material in a way that the originals didn't need to. Writer Kris Mrksa drew on several folk horror and urban wyrd standards for Requiem: he mentions Rosemary's Baby and Don't Look Now, but is quiet on the subject of The Wicker Man (presumably because that would give the whole game away). But he also apparently drew on personal experiences of family tragedies and early-life bereavement, and frankly the parts of Requiem that speak to those things are the best parts by some distance.

In the end, Requiem is mainly an important part of the new wave of folk horror because it was made as a prestige drama by the BBC, and because, having gone straight to Netflix in several other parts of the world, a hell of a lot of people saw it. Is it great? Nah. It completely gets why The Wicker Man works, but then it just, you know, redoes The Wicker Man. But it's one of several pieces of evidence that folk horror is back in the mainstream, for better or worse. 2018 was, I think, the peak time for folk horror, and Requiem was right on that wave.

Want to read more of my film criticism? My Bram Stoker Award nominated compilation We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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