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Severin Films. 15 disc set.
“Folk Horror” is a buzzword that has blossomed over the past decade to become a marketing phrase. It brings to mind things British, pagan and ancient/medieval, usually in that order. This makes for a nice narrow niche to categorize and sell to the audience; if a film has certain elements that are on the checklist checked off, it’s officially Folk Horror®. The genre even has its Unholy Trinity: The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General. Of course, with some digging, we find that there’s a lot more to the subject to beyond those tentpoles.
Woodlands (the first disc in the set, also available as a standalone release) comprehensively examines Folk Horror, beginning with its roots in folklore and literature and moving into film, starting with that Unholy Trinity and other British films, plus television programs like “The Owl Service,” “Children of the Stones,” “Doctor Who,” and the work of Nigel Kneale. The documentary then shifts to North America, examining it by region: New England (Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King); the South (influences of folk music and Evangelicalism), and the West (Native American lore). After that, the film goes global, focusing on horror in Eastern Europe, Australia, Japan, and Brazil, addressing a lot of films you’ve heard of (Viy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and the Coffin Joe movies, to name just a few), along with many more that you probably haven’t.
For a 3+ hour documentary, you don’t feel the time drag, and you’ll spend a lot of time afterwards Google-searching availability of titles. Even though it’s a deep dive into the subject, it also feels like it’s just scratching the surface and not even close to being the Last Word in Folk Horror. The subject is thoroughly examined, and even though you could walk away with some sort of definition, “Folk Horror” doesn’t seem “defined” in a way that traps it in a box. It’s a fluid term Continue reading ALL THE HAUNTS BE OURS: A COMPENDIUM OF FOLK HORROR→
PLOT: During a pandemic, a park ranger guides a young scientist to join up with a lone biologist conducting an experiment deep in the forest, but an ancient spirit may be stirring.
COMMENTS: It seems that a forest has grown over that old Field in England through the centuries, but ancient necromantic and alchemical evils still have their roots deeply embedded there. Locals talk of the legend of the pagan demigod “Parnang Fegg,” who may haunt the woods into which Martin and Alma venture in search of the reclusive Dr. Wendle. As they penetrate deeper into the forest, the scary-enough realities of their pandemic-ridden civilization are overrun by cthonic horrors. Is the evil caused by the vengeful forest deity; by a misunderstood alien biology, as Dr. Wendle suggests; or is it merely a group madness stemming from the local fungi that jet their spores into the atmosphere?
“I wouldn’t try to make any logical sense of it,” cautions Dr. Wendle. Indeed, In the Earth isn’t built around logical explanations, or even around its characters. Instead, everything exists for the sake of three intense and immersive psychedelic montages—all flash and bang, sound and light—evoking horrors both ancient and current. Protagonist Martin grounds the film in bodily insecurity; he’s out-of-shape due to lack of exercise during quarantine, and suffering from a nasty recurrent case of ringworm, too. As the film goes on, characters will suffer gruesome injuries, dwelt on in sickening closeups—anyone with a foot trauma phobia may want to avoid this one. But when the spore mist fills the air, the horrors migrate from the body to the mind.
Despite the minimalist four-characters-in-a-forest setup, In the Earth will play best in theaters; you need that big screen and surround sound for the complete experience. It all starts with the sound design, embedded in the rustling forest and anchored by another superb Clint Mansell score, all highlighted by a disturbing electronic cacophony played from the speakers hooked up to the trees. (The soundtrack can get startlingly abrasive, but it always puts you right in the middle of the film’s nightmares: it can be hard to distinguish the diegetic effects from sonic hallucinations added in post-production.) Then the visuals come on: fast cuts of experimental effects, mushrooms and dandelions bent by fish-eye lenses, red dyes spreading through oil, shots that look like you’re staring right through the floaters in your retina and the veins in your eyelids as bright light penetrates your eyeballs. Shadowy figures flash for milliseconds in the strobe lights. They aren’t being overcautious with that epilepsy warning, folks. I’d predict this one will end up as a minor drug culture favorite.
Wheatley conceived and wrote In the Earth soon after the pandemic hit, and shot it even faster (a fifteen day shooting schedule was all that was required). Still, it doesn’t feel rushed so much as in-the-moment. There is a certain refreshing humility to In the Earth—this is not a lavish, elaborately-planned-out multi-million dollar spectacle, but something the director has made out of necessity, adapting to circumstance. He made it because he has to make movies with whatever resources are available; if Covid-19 has temporarily shut down the studios, he’ll take his camera and a skeleton crew out to the woods. Good for him.
My only reservation is that In the Earth feels a little too much like an update of A Field in England, with flashier color trips and an overlay of pandemic anxiety, but minus the eccentric feel and esoteric setting. In the Earth isn’t entirely new ground for Ben Wheatley, but it taps into the zeitgeist and delivers its hefty payload of cosmic/folk/body/WTF horror with spiffy efficiency. If you’re a reader of this site, there’s an excellent chance that it’s right in your wheelhouse. After all, check out a small but representative sample of negative IMDB reviews: “Beyond weird and horrible”; “i have no idea what it was about”; “makes me feel like I should’ve taken acid before going to the film so I could understand what was going on.” If those quotes don’t get you excited to check this one out, I don’t know what will.
PLOT: The English Civil War rages, and a group of deserters bands together. Through bribes, threats, and hallucinogens, an occultist’s agent induces a scholar, a soldier, and a simpleton to aid him in summoning his master, O’Neal. Once brought on to this plane, O’Neal forces the trio to seek and find a treasure of immeasurable value—under pain of annihilation.
A Field in England was the first major motion picture to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, video-on-demand, and broadcast television.
The film’s budget was a modest £300,000 ($420,000 US) and took only twelve days to shoot.
No females appear on screen throughout the film, though the eponymous “field” is voiced (in a manner of speaking) by a woman.
On the film’s release, a craft beer was made available to cinema-goers with the film’s informal tagline, “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”
A limited (400-count) special edition double-vinyl soundtrack album went on sale accompanying the film’s release. For the true fan, a handful of these soundtracks included a blade of grass purportedly plucked from the titular field.
The number “320” suggests a strong bond to the spiritual and occult world.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as how the film begins with a warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences”, there are any number of images that might qualify (though by their very stroboscopic nature, they may be more of a subconscious kind-of-thing). However, the film’s coupling of sinister madness and unlikely humor is perhaps best exemplified by the shot of five souls romping through the field while in search of the mysterious treasure. (Although an earlier scene with a “giddy” protagonist is impossible to erase from one’s mind.)
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Magic mushroom faerie ring; tableaux “frieze” frames; tent from Hell
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Much like the instrumental meal in the story, the movie’s ingredients all work together toward weird ends—individually they are weird, and together they are greater than the weird sum of their parts. The viewer is presented with a black-and-white period piece with amusing, earthy dialogue and hallucinogens in lieu of sweeping drama and battle scenes. Lightning-fast editing, nebulous exposition, and too many occult nods to count all crash together like an ill planet upon the unsuspecting viewer.
PLOT: Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston) moves into an upscale high-rise tower block, designed by noted architect Anthony Royal (Irons), who also resides in the tower. The top floor houses society’s upper crust; the lower floors are where the more commonplace residents live (usually families). Laing resides in the middle. The tower has every convenience—pool, gym, a school and a supermarket—to meet residents’ needs, making it unnecessary for anyone to venture out into the outside world. When trouble develops with the building’s services, violence escalates as the residents form tribes to battle for resources.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Being based on one of J.G. Ballard’s seminal works alone might qualify it, though admittedly, there’s nothing weird in terms of presentation… in fact, it might be the most approachable Ballard adaptation since Empire of the Sun. It’s warmer than David Cronenberg‘s Crash, but in terms of the subject matter, it’s just as unflinching.
COMMENTS: At first glance, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise may appear to miss the mark, being too focused on recreating period detail (Amy Jump’s script sets it firmly in the 1970’s, when Ballard’s novel was first published), but those who stick it out will find it an extremely faithful—and blackly funny—adaptation.
Nailing the time and place to a specific period helps establish the film as a cautionary tale, not unlike something that might be seen on television at the time (like a literary “Play for Today“), but also helps to achieve some of the distancing effect found in Ballard’s prose. It also sets the stage for the use of a certain well-known pop song of the time, first used ironically in a string quartet arrangement, then returning as a sad elegy.
Wheatley and Jump are very respectful to the source material, while also fleshing out things that weren’t quite as explicit in the book. There’s some attention paid to the women and children (the period setting explains the sexism and misogyny shown by some male characters), and while there is no direct explanation of the cause of the mini-society’s devolution, there is a strong hint that it could be a social experiment running its course. As the film ends with a broadcast of a Margaret Thatcher speech, there’s a political dimension as well, which some might scoff at. The recent Brexit vote might cause one to rethink that.
“The Ballardian” interviews Ben Wheatley about the film.
Portishead did the elegaic version of Abba’s “S.O.S.” for the film. It was not intended for a separate single release, although the band did approve a video in honor of recently murdered British politician Jo Cox.
Producer Jeremy Thomas has spent over 30 years attempting to bring J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise to the screen. After projects with Nicolas Roeg and Vincenzo Natali, fell through, he finally hit paydirt with Ben Wheatley.
Dedicated to films from all over the world of the horror, thriller, sci-fi, action, experimental, and/or mash-up persuasions, Fantastic Fest is the perfect place to discover all-new weird movies of various origins. I tried to take in a little bit of everything, and I’ve come out with a list of the Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantastic Fest for 2015. Note: Due to scheduling conflicts I missed Takashi Miike‘s Yakuza Apocalypse, which I suspect would have made this list. Oh well.
5) Belladonna of Sadness (1973, Japan)
This was the most significant repertory screening for weird-movie lovers: a long-lost anime acid trip directed by Eiichi Yamamoto that never received a proper release in the US, but has been restored and re-released by Cinelicious Pics for 2015. Known to some for its use as a backdrop for musicians, the film’s visuals are without par, composed primarily of sprawling watercolor paintings that the camera pans across like an unraveling scroll. The art style is complex and elegant, with detailed linework and selective color, a kind of animated Art Nouveau, and the soundtrack is a thumping psychedelic score that pairs perfectly with the hallucinogenic imagery onscreen. As a purely sensory experience, the film is remarkable. The script and themes are less so. Hailed by some as a feminist statement, the story (inspired by Jules Michelet’s 19th-century nonfiction book Satanism and Witchcraft) follows Jeanne, a peasant woman in feudal France who is publicly raped on her wedding night by a skeletal baron and his courtiers. Physically and emotionally shattered, she turns to a demon spirit who offers her revenge in exchange for sexual devotion, and eventually she becomes a powerful sorceress who controls her whole town. On paper it sounds empowering, but in action it tends to stray far more into pornographic objectification of Jeanne, and the script is so bare-bones it would be about half the length without all the sex scenes. Narrative issues aside, this is definitely a must-see for anyone interested in experimental animation or weird stuff from Japan.
4) Men & Chicken (2015, Denmark/Germany)
My first foray into the wacky world of Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen, Men & Chicken is a sick, strange, and funny family drama about 5 brothers and their enigmatic scientist father. Mads Mikkelsen plays Elias, a chronic masturbator who, upon his father’s death, discovers that he and his brother were both adopted, and that they come from different mothers. The two go on a quest to find their biological dad and end up gaining three more brothers they never knew existed, all with odd habits and a decidedly anti-social bent. The five men try to make it as a family, to mixed success and much hilarity, while digging into the mystery of their brilliant-but-abusive father’s experiments. The narrative is meandering to say the least, but so incredibly enjoyable it doesn’t matter, with a perfect comedic cast, ridiculous dialogue, downright silly situational Continue reading TOP 5 WEIRD MOVIES OF FANTASTIC FEST 2015→
FEATURING: Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley
PLOT: During the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field while searching for an ale-house. In that field, they unearth (oddly literally) a fifth companion, who turns out to be a domineering alchemist. He manipulates the four deserters into hunting for a buried treasure, leading them on a journey of dubious magic, self-discovery, and psychedelia.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The last Ben Wheatley film I saw–Kill List–ended on a weird, brutally discordant note and it had its dark inexplicable moments, but I didn’t recommend it for the List because it felt too calculated and purposeful. A Field in England, on the other hand, is fully spontaneous, right up to the vaguely cyclical ending, and weirdness is its baseline. Those palatable touches of order and familiarity, like the vaguely heroic character arc and melodramatic villain, seem to spring wholesale out of the film’s twisted substrate; they serve, if anything, to orient and emphasize the weirdness, rather than undermining it. Because it is both random, and confident in its randomness, I submit A Field in England for consideration.
COMMENTS: A Field in England is a grimy, trippy gonzo costume adventure, one of the least heroic and most eccentric swashbuckler narratives I’ve been privy to. The story is so constrained, it’s almost cute: during the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field where they are manipulated into hunting for a buried treasure. Matters of friendship, power, fear, life, and death ensue, and a loose, quirky hero’s story takes shape, though it’s driven more by suggestive leaps of happenstance than by fate or necessity.
Like Wheatley’s previous Kill List, A Field in England benefits from being a pastiche. It wears the heritage of historical adventure films on its sleeve, but it also has buddy-comedy and art-film elements, and it brings it disparate tones together admirably. One of its special accomplishments is to operate as an art-film while exhibiting a British comedy’s sense of humor. The dialogue and situational gags are dry and crass, and they serve to establish the five characters in a way that makes them genuinely endearing, even as we puzzle over what the hell is actually happening to them.
The five main characters have names, Wikipedia informs me, but I didn’t really pick up on them during the film. To me, they represented archetypes: the coward (Whitehead), the soldier (Jacob), the fool (Friend), the lackey (Cutler), and the evil mastermind (O’Neill). Of these five, Whitehead got all the most pivotal roles, and Field ends up being his story. His character arc provided a framework for all the other relationships and interactions, and though he didn’t have the funniest or most endearing moments, he drove all the key developments in the non sequiturish plot. Without Whitehead and his four boorish cohorts, the movie might have been almost unwatchable, but it actually went down pretty smooth.
As I said before, the reason this is an accomplishment is that the narrative logic of the film is genuinely random, driven by a sort of weird intuition with no respect for cause and effect. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the film’s hallucinogenic drug subtext, which led to some trippy, seizure-inducing sequences accompanying the major plot points. It only worked because the whole film had a foggy, disorienting quality, disconnected from its own reality, with an unstable relationship between dreamy detachment and visceral sensory amplification. The swing from one extreme to the other is epitomized in Whitehead’s psychedelic character climax, where he shifts from a sort of bleary, stupefied slow-motion degenerate into a potent force of nature, a raging hurricane-god rising up from the swaying of the wheat fields.
FEATURING: Too many actors to list individually, and no one appears onscreen for long enough to qualify as “featured”
PLOT: 26 short horror films about death, each inspired by an assigned letter of the alphabet.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As you might expect from an anthology with a hefty twenty-six entries in a multitude of styles, it’s too uneven and not consistently weird enough for consideration for the List. That said, there are three very, very strange shorts here, and several others that nudge the weirdometer at least a little bit, which makes this worth a look-see.
COMMENTS: Rendered in a wild variety of morbid styles ranging from the avant-garde to the zany, these twenty six short films about death derive from a new breed of up and coming punk directors working in the diffuse genre that now loosely goes by the name “horror.” All the usual disclaimers about anthology films apply to The ABCs of Death, but this compilation faces an additional alphabetical hurdle: if A, B and C are all duds (and I say they are), the movie gets off to a slow start, and there’s nothing the editors can do about it. The order is locked in place and randomized, and the curators can’t impose any sort of flow on the show. The fact that each entry has to be unusually short (after the 11 minutes of end credits are subtracted from the run time we come out to four-and-a-half minutes per mini-movie) is more of a virtue than a drawback, since we aren’t asked to invest much time in the inevitable losers and failed experiments. The necessity for each director to hit hard and fast, with no time to build up true horror, led me to expect shock, gore, and cruel comedy to dominate over true terror. ABCs delivers on that score, but there was also a trend that make me wonder where horror’s head is at. Three out of the twenty-six entries—that’s 11.5%—prominently feature a toilet, and that’s not even counting the one that’s flatulence based. Has horror finally dug to the bottom of the bucket of viscera, and now there’s nowhere else to turn but the toilet to elicit cheap disgust? A more promising development, and one that’s much more to the point of this website, is that the exact same number of shorts (3, or 11%) were unabashedly weird-–suggesting that cutting-edge horror continues to be the last refuge for surrealism in pop culture. Before describing the three bizarre gems, we’ll mention a couple of odd, and not so odd, runners-up. “P is for Pressure,” set in a third-world country and involving a prostitute’s quest to buy an expensive present for her daughter’s birthday, is the omnibus’ only dramatic entry; although it has a morally sickening climax, it is authentically and unexpectedly touching. Though not written by Srdjan Spasojevic (who turns in an extreme but unmemorable riff on “R”), the violent and transgressive porn fantasia “L is for Libido” has a disturbing Serbian Film vibe (with a hallucinatory kick) that soils the mind. On the opposite end of the sexual spectrum, Catette and Forzani’s “O is for Orgasm” is a surprisingly beautiful and experimental explosion of color-filter eroticism that traffics in the concept of sexual release as “la petite mort.” In a normal compilation, “H is for Hydroelectric,” a Chuck-Jones-does-furry-porn style adventure in which an anthropomorphic Nazi stripper fox lures a British bulldog pilot to his doom, would be the WTF-iest entry. Here, however, it’s only an honorable mention, as that title is literally taken by “W is for WTF?” This is a study in surrealistic economy: initially appearing to be a self-aware parody, it quickly establishes a comic book mesh of Satanic gore porn, killer walruses, zombie clowns, and decapitated animators, then spins the images in a psychedelic blender for two gloriously insane minutes. “W” features miniskirted nurses and princess warriors in chain mail bikinis, but for gleefully adolescent gross-out sleaze, nothing beats Noboru Iguchi’s already notorious “F is for Fart.” It’s the tender tale of a lesbian schoolgirl that defiantly expresses a humanistic preference for the gas of an earthly lover over the vengeful flatus of God. “Fart”‘s motto is “let’s pass beyond the boundaries of good taste and become one together,” and does it ever achieve the first part, at least—this is a bad-taste stunner for an unstunable age. Still, top honors in the “weird” category go to Iguchi’s frequent collaborator Yoshihiro Nishimura, who continues to set himself apart as the splatterpunk brigade’s most inventive and audacious talent with ABCs’ capper, “Z is for Zetsumetsu” (“extinction”). A blond Nazi hermaphrodite fights a nude kung fu woman while a Japanese Dr. Strangelove comments on the action; it’s somehow inspired by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquakes, and there are satirical references to American imperialism, the nuclear power industry, and Japan’s own sense of racial superiority. A topless rendition of the 9-11 bombings may have Americans shaking their heads, but it’s hard to be too offended by something that resembles an insane sushi chef’s wet dream (multiple characters ejaculate rice). Whatever associations this stew of mad images raises in the Japanese consciousness, its bizarro bona fides are unquestionable.
Of course, we would have highlighted an entirely different set of segments if this piece had been written for a gorehound journal or a monster blog. One of the issues with what marches under the banner of “horror” these days is that it’s a loose confederation of disreputable interests that encompasses torture porn, black comedy, sick eroticism and experimental imagery alongside traditional stories of vampires, hauntings and madman. With two films prominently featuring pedophilia, and the aforementioned scatology and surrealism joining the expected blood and guts, ABCs‘ selections suggests that the modern horror genre is becoming a final resting place for the generally transgressive rather than for the terrifying per se.