Stigma: Folk Horror #5

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A few traditionalists might have sipped their glass of vintage port uneasily while tuned in to the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas in 1977. Previously these had all been classic adaptations of the work of M.R. James or Charles Dickens. This was a new script, set in the present day and had more in common with David Cronenberg than it did some earlier entries in the annual series. And it was about as Christmassy as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon.

Clive Exton supplied the screenplay. Best known for British serial killer film 10 Rillington Place, Exton had also written Doomwatch in 1972, which might be described as an eco-thriller with elements of folk horror. His script here combines body horror with folk horror, not that anybody would have used that latter term when Stigma was first shown on BBC1.

The Delgado family have just moved into a new picture postcard cottage in Avebury, Wiltshire. Katherine (Kate Binchy) and daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) travel home in a car and Kate faces some low-level resentment from her daughter during the journey. Verity is hardly thrilled to be escaping to the country from London, sensing that teenage kicks will be hard to come by in a sleepy village.

When they arrive home, two workmen Dave and Richard are struggling to hoist a huge stone in their garden from the ground.

‘Why can’t you leave it there?’ Verity protests, and the workmen agree she has a point.

‘It’d spoil the lawn,’ Katherine notes, perhaps a little reluctantly.

You just know this is a bad idea, don’t you?

The camera pans across to the fields beyond the garden, the site of one of the Avebury stone circles that could be seen fleetingly moments earlier.

As she starts preparing a meal, a commentator on the radio outlines the progress of two Voyager spacecraft launched some months beforehand. This is the modern world, and the future is more important than the past, the mysteries of space more fascinating than the ancient mysteries on their doorstep.

Outside, she watches on as the men’s JCB crane finally lifts the stone, albeit only six inches or so above the ground. As it does so some wyrd forces display themselves but only to Katherine.

Wind gusts into her face. She is sent into a trancelike state. She traipses indoors where ornaments, a clock and framed pictures rattle. Small cracks run up a wall. A small mirror smashes. Katherine recovers somewhat.

Verity is unaware that anything strange happened, which the viewer might read as a strong indication that what just took place was only in Katherine’s head.

Soon, Katherine sees blood smearing a plate. She examines her hands but there’s no visible cut. Maybe it’s from the brisket of beef she has begun to prepare, but no – and I better warn you that some spoilers lie ahead.

Tiny droplets of blood begin to inexplicably ooze from her side and forehead for no identifiable reason.

It’s like a particularly distressing anxiety dream (and twice we can glimpse an etching of Fuseli’s famously disturbing image The Nightmare where an incubus sits upon a woman sleeping with outstretched arms). In her bathroom Katherine desperately attempts to wipe the blood from her torso. This is an uneasy, even harrowing watch. I would guess that some complaints were fired off to the BBC about the (semi) nudity but this can’t be viewed as salacious in any way. If anybody enjoys watching this then I’d advise them to seek professional help.

Eventually, the bleeding subsides, and Katherine is able to dine with Peter and Verity that evening.

That night, though, Peter is woken by the noise of a steady drip. Vague voices are heard and laughter. He gets up goes to investigate. An onion rolls off a table, a knife rotates, and some oven rings have been left on. Perplexed, he goes back to bed. 

The next morning, the workmen return with a larger crane. This time round the stone is completely dislodged. Dave and Richard find a skeleton underneath where it lay, and it’s surrounded by carefully placed daggers. Verity suggests that this means the burial was intended for a witch.

‘The old religion,’ she explains. ‘Read about it in a book. They used to bury them under big stones.’

She begins to peel away the outer layer of an onion’s skin, her nails bright red. Maybe she’s also read that onions help ward off evil spirits.

Meanwhile, very bad things are happening to her mother.

Directed by BBC Ghost Story for Christmas regular Lawrence Gordon Clark, Stigma lasts just over half an hour and is continuously engaging from start to finish.

Kate Binchy excels at portraying – without words – the growing panic of her character and there’s a great use of location. By a coincidence, 1977 had started with another drama filmed in Avebury, Children of the Stones on ITV’s late afternoon children’s slot (and believe me, they don’t make them like that anymore on children’s TV).

Most critics disliked Stigma, although surprisingly, the Daily Mail was impressed, their reviewer noting that it ‘worked on the imagination as well as the senses’. I agree, though why the curse unleashed by the stone’s removal only affected Katherine remains a mystery to me.

For more on Stigma, click here.

The Wicker Man (1978 Novel): Folk Horror #4

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The Wicker Man novel

Until this week, novelisations of films are something that I’ve managed to avoid since the 1970s. I might have a copy of John Pidgeon’s Slade in Flame lying around somewhere but I’ve never felt the need to re-read it. That was the only one I know that significantly differed from its source material. It was much darker than the film, which was already considered by many too dark for young Slade fans.

As Allan Brown points out in his 2006 introduction to Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man novel: ‘More often than not these are hack jobs, souvenirs, vestigial remnants of the days before videotape allowed enthusiasts to possess their own personal copies of films.’

We’re all familiar with comments on adaptations from literary sources along the lines of ‘It wasn’t as good as the book’, but I doubt that anybody has ever claimed a novelisation was better than the film it was based on.

Novelisations tended to come out in time to accompany the release of the film that they are based on, or just afterwards. Never before, as that would have given away too much of the plot. The Wicker Man was exceptional in that it wasn’t published until the summer of 1978, over four years after the initial release of the movie.

This was an ideal time for it to come out, though.

Late in 1977, Cinemafantastique magazine had dedicated the bulk of an entire issue to the film. And as it reported, earlier that year Rod Stewart, by then dating Britt Ekland, had offered a six-figure sum to buy what it called the ‘nudie movie’ and destroy it, in an attempt to keep his girlfriend’s nude scenes from being seen by audiences. This publicity was no doubt welcome for the film, even if the story bore little or no relation to the truth. The National Enquirer has never enjoyed a reputation as a bastion of truth-telling. Stewart totally denied the rumour later.

Around this time, Hardy and Christopher Lee both travelled over to America on a promotional tour . The movie began picking up a number of very good reviews as it made its way across the country. At Boston’s Orson Welles Theater – a cinema renowned for helping break non-mainstream movies – it proved a big box office success. The word was spreading. Deservedly so.

Robin Hardy in 2011

The novel starts with Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary birdwatching with his schoolteacher fiancée Mary Bannock on the fictional Ben Sluie. Despite their shared passion for ornithology, this is no romantic afternoon for the couple outwith their working hours. He’s on the job, having been tipped off that someone wants to steal some rare golden eagle’s eggs. He catches the thief, rather courageously too.

Afterwards, he’s given a letter from a fellow officer sent from a concerned ‘child lover on Summerisle’ reporting the mysterious disappearance of a twelve year old girl Rowan Morrison, together with a photo of her. He agrees to investigate.

That same night, he spends further time with Mary. We learn about his religious beliefs. He is a strict Episcopalian, with a respect for other (established) faiths. He doesn’t hesitate in going out of his way to help a visiting Jewish couple from America find a good hotel serving as an example of this.

Engaged for three years already, Howie has never yet out any pressure on Mary to have sex. She is Presbyterian but less devout. Although far from any kind of feminist firebrand, she has read authors like Germaine Greer (then considered highly anti-establishment). Whether Howie would approve of this remains unsaid but I’m guessing he’d disapprove. Strongly.

She’s secretly assumed for some time that there will be no marriage between them until she converts to his brand of Christianity but that night he asks her to marry him with no question of any switch of denomination. She says yes and they agree to be wed in two week’s time.

As he walks home from Mary’s place, he decides to enter the Bull’s Head pub in his home town of Portlochie. But not for a celebratory drink. As it’s still open after closing time, the dutiful cop feels the need to make sure no more booze is served. This is a very Howie way to behave.

Summerisle is the ‘most distant isle in his precinct’, a place he has never visited before. Warmed by the Gulf Stream and picturesque, he feels as if ‘he had flown off the edge of his known world to some enchanted Arcadia’ as he gets ready to land in his police seaplane.

Not that he approves of privately owned islands, believing they encourage a laxness in their communities with regard to law abiding. On his arrival, this theory is soon reinforced.

They’re an uncooperative lot. He disapproves of their attitudes too, finding them course and far too fond of revelling in the local bar. As a man who strives to observe what he refers to as ‘God’s good teaching’, he’s shocked to come across a group of a dozen or so young couples having some houghmagandie outside the Green Man.

Howie even imagines that God has possibly led him here and ‘shown him these terrible but exciting images to test him.’ He considers arresting them all and charging them with indecent exposure in a public place but as he watches on, he also fantasises about giving Mary an orgasm like the ones some of the girls are experiencing.

Not surprisingly, once in Summerisle the novel closely follows the plot of Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay. Howie visits May Morrison’s shop with its chocolate hares that he thinks are rabbits. He quizzes the local schoolchildren over the disappearance of Rowan and is met with blank faces. And just like the film, he discovers too late in the day that an appointment with the Wicker Man has been made on his behalf.

The Wicker Man novel 1978

Is it worth a read?

If you’re a fan of the movie, yes, although even then it’s far from essential.

Obviously, it’s impossible for anybody like me – who’s seen the film multiple times – to read this without conjuring up visions of Edward Woodward’s portrayal of Neil Howie throughout. Whenever the name Lord Summerisle appears, I think of Christopher Lee. And when Howie hears Willow thumping the wall that divided her room from his and then slapping her own body as she sings, guess who I’m thinking of?

Answer: Britt Ekland and Britt Ekland’s body double.

Just as in the film, it’s easy to find Howie’s puritanism annoying. He’s a virgin and his knowledge of sex has been gained mainly from reading The Young Christian’s Guide to Sanctified Bliss in Marriage. Not a book I’ve
got round to reading yet myself.

He gives off an air of moral superiority but when quizzing Willow about the whereabouts of Rowan, the idea of ‘inflicting pain on her, to gain the information he so desperately needed, crossed his mind.’ The idea excited him.

This isn’t the only time he comes over as a hypocrite but on the page, Howie often comes across more favourably than he does on celluloid, even if he is still a hard man to like.

His love of birds certainly makes him more a more sympathetic character. This is shown from the very beginning with him seeking to protect the eagle and her eggs. And at the climax, while engulfed by flames and knowing he is about to die a painful death, he still manages to free some caged birds imprisoned in the giant wicker structure, ensuring they aren’t sacrificed along with him.

As novelisations go, I’d guess that this is one of the better examples, albeit I should point out that 1973’s The Wicker Man film is arguably a very loose adaptation of David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual. Confusingly, the 2006 American remake of The Wicker Man even credited Ritual as the original basis for the Shaffer screenplay on which it was based.

Not that I’ve ever felt the need to watch that one.

To further add to the confusion, Hardy claimed to have started writing the novel before Shaffer had finished his screenplay, although Shaffer always denied this. Whatever the truth of the matter, this is primarily the work of Robin Hardy and the co-authorship is down to him recycling much of Shaffer’s script’s dialogue verbatim.

Cowboys for Christ by Robin Hardy

Hardy returned to similiar territory in 2006 with his novel Cowboys for Christ.

Published by Luath Press, this is a spiritual sequel of The Wicker Man, dealing again with the clash between a pagan community and Christian outsiders – in this case two young fundamentalist Texans on a mission to Scotland to preach the gospel to the unGodly. The novel provided the basis for the 2011 film, The Wicker Tree which Hardy also directed.

For more on Cowboys For Christ, click here.

Blood on Satan’s Claw: Folk Horror #4

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Blood on Satan's Claw

Happy Halloween, everyone. This time round, a 1970s chiller usually considered as one of the ‘unholy trinity’ of folk horror films, along with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man.
Late 17th century England.

A ploughman Ralph (Barry Andrews) is startled when, in the course of his work, he churns up a skull with a gigantic intact eyeball, across which a worm wriggles. It’s hard to tell what kind of animal the skull once belonged to. It resembles a human in some ways and a livestock animal in others.

According to Ralph: ‘It was more like a fiend.’


He feels the need to report on his find to a visiting bigwig – that’s bigwig as in an important person locally, who also wears a big wig as bigwigs did back then. Actually that’s where the term bigwig comes from, isn’t it? I digress. This is a man known as the Judge, after his profession, and he’s played by Patrick Wymark in his final screen appearance. Sceptical, he tells Ralph: ‘Witchcraft is dead and discredited,’ but he is persuaded to take a look, although the skull is gone by the time Ralph shows him the furrow where he’d found it.

The setting here may look as idyllic as a Constable painting but soon it is engulfed in wyrd goings on. Very wyrd goings on.

A young woman suddenly goes mad without any rational explanation, and her hand becomes a disfigured claw . A child, Mark Vespers, disappears and is found dead. Mysterious fur patches begin sprouting on the bodies of some young villagers – ‘the devil’s skin’ as this phenomenon is known as.

Something disturbing is affecting most of the area’s schoolchildren. As their teacher Reverend Fallowfield puts it: ‘There is growing amongst you all an insolent ungodliness which I will not tolerate!’

This warning does little good. Most of them stop attending his classes and take to gathering around an old church in ruins next to the local woods.

Blood on Satan's Claw - Pagan Tribe

Angel Blake, his most rebellious pupil, pays him a midnight visit and attempts to seduce him although he rejects her advances.

Afterwards, at the funeral of Mark, she insists to her father that Fallowfield molested her and attempts to implicate him in the murder of Mark.

Her eyebrows also grow in size and change colour, although I’m still not sure why. Is this to do with the devil’s skin or does she just think it makes her look more fiendishly foxy?

It’s not long before a satanic panic has gripped the village, leading to a clash of the generations. The older folks tend to support the church and law and order, while Angel and her mainly teenage followers take part in pagan rituals and run wild in the country. In fact, by this point Angel does look like she could have just returned from a visit to the first Glastonbury Festival in 1971, the year the film was made.


Blood on Satan’s Claw is very much a product of its time. Pushing the boundaries of sex and violence was in the air, with Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and Get Carter being only three examples of British movies that courted controversy around the same time.

Inevitably, and I rarely say this, Blood on Satan’s Claw was deservedly given an X-certificate. This was mainly down to a ceremonial rape scene where Cathy, a servant girl who isn’t one of Angel’s cult, is scourged and then gang-raped by members of the new satanic tribe while others leer as they watch on.

As Brian Senn pointed out in his book Twice the Thrills! Twice the Chills! screenplay writer Robert Wynne-Simmons was inspired by equal parts Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the case of Mary Bell, an eleven year old from Newcastle who had recently murdered two boys aged three and four, showing no remorse afterwards. I doubt rivals Hammer would have ventured into such dark territory for inspiration and this does make the film an even more distinctly queasy watch, even almost fifty years after it was shot.

This is another movie made by Tigon British Film Productions, an independent production and distribution company, that deserves far more than just a footnote in the annals of horror. Founded by Tony Tenser, a man dubbed ‘the Godfather of British Exploitation’, Tigon’s output aimed at a more realistic portrayal of horror then their competitors and Blood on Satan’s Claw is certainly more gruesome than any Hammer movie I can think of. Just try and avoid wincing when a doctor flays a circle of hairy flesh from a female’s thigh, let alone the aforementioned rape scene.

The Blood on Satans Claw still

Director Piers Haggard completed the film on a budget of only £82,000, which even at the dawn of the 1970s was inexpensive by just about any standard. ‘If you stay on budget’ Tony Tenser liked to declare, ‘you stay in business.’

As Hammer floundered financially and artistically as the 1970s progressed, Tenser considered buying the company. A fascinating what-if scenario.

I digress again.

Tigon will be best remembered for Witchfinder General but much of their output is worth seeking out, and Blood on Satan’s Claw is right up there with their best.

Despite this, it wasn’t initially successful although the New York Times did heap praise on it. In Britain and the States, it was teamed up on a double bill with another Tigon horror, The Beast in the Cellar, playing everywhere from drive-ins in New Jersey to Glasgow’s art house cinema, the Cosmo.

Blood on Satan's Claw Glasgow Screening

Over the years its reputation has grown, especially after Mark Gatiss – in his BBC4 A History of Horror series – enthused about it, calling it a ‘folk horror’ – a term originally coined by Haggard.

Okay, some suspension of disbelief may come in useful as the story progresses but there is much to enjoy over the course of its 93 minute run time.

Piers Haggard is an underrated director. He began his career in theatre and worked at the Royal Court, Glasgow Citizens and the National, and was a TV veteran by the time he began work on his cinematic debut, 1970’s Wedding Night.

Here he brings out the best in his cast, no mean feat as many were so young. Linda Hayden is particularly good.

From the very first scene, there’s some inventive camerawork on display. Few films have ever utilised so many low shots, some even being shot by cameras placed in large holes dug up by the crew. A devil’s eye view you could say.

Cinematographer Dick Bush really excels here and would later go on to work on Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) and Lair of the White Worm (1988).
The film also boasts an exceptional score by Marc Wilkinson, which incorporates the ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument that sounds similar to a theremin, and the cimbalom, which for more than a hundred years has been associated with the Devil.

Footnote: Maybe by coincidence, the decaying church that we see at various points (St. James in Bix, South Oxfordshire) was to be desecrated in 1974, with presumably a number of young people taking part in some black magic rituals and breaking into coffins.

On a happier note, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2015 has helped preserve the Norman church.


Penda’s Fen: Folk Horror (#3)

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Penda's Fen 1973

When I think about English director Alan Clarke, I think of a young borstal boy clobbering the head of a fellow inmate with a sock filled with pool balls. I think of a bunch of football casuals planning to establish themselves as the most feared firm in the country, or I think of a skinheaded Tim Roth strutting around London on the lookout for some aggro.

His name doesn’t conjure up dramas set in idyllic rural villages overlooking the Malvern Hills, with a central character who is seventeen but does his best to sound like an old, lifelong Conservative, pompously clinging on to the last days of empire. This is Penda’s Fen, though, shot in 1973 by Clarke for the BBC’s Play for Today strand.

The play (or film for television according its author David Rudkin) opens with a shot of a Worcestershire landscape that could almost be a John Constable painting.

Spencer Banks plays the priggish sixth former Stephen. Social skills obviously aren’t his strongpoint, and he is highly unpopular at his posh all-boy’s school. Extemely proud to be English, he is also a devoted Christian (his father is a parson) and he rails against the unions who, he believes, are holding the country to ransom through their industrial actions. I’m guessing he would approve of Mary Whitehouse, Britain’s most high profile killjoy of the era.

Spencer Banks - Penda's Fen

On the week of Penda’s Fen being screened in March 1974, the top 20 of the British singles chart included Queen’s Seven Seas of Rhye, Devil Gate Drive by Suzi Quatro and Bowie’s Rebel Rebel but predictably, Stephen is no glam fan. Instead, he adores Edward Elgar, and the nearest Stephen manages to get to rebel rebelling is when his mother insists he turn the volume on his Bush Dansette as Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is being blasted out. He glares at her, clearly thinking about disobeying her. But he doesn’t.

The highlight of Stephen’s social life is a night out with his parents to the local parish hall where a debate is taking place between some stuffy locals and Arne, an incomer, who writes controversial TV plays and whose politics are a radical mirror image of Stephen’s. It’s easy to assume that he is a substitute character for Rudkin.

Arne outlines his ideas on how the village and the country as a whole could be improved. He also makes mention of what he sees as a sinister and highly secretive local development with government involvement – later we get a hint of what is happening there with a probable radiation death before this subplot is quietly ditched.

Not surprisingly, Stephen despises Arne. ‘He’s a terrible crank,’ he shrieks to his mother. ‘He’s unnatural.’

‘Stephen,’ she chides him. ‘You can be grotesque.’

Despite his traditional outlook, it’s obvious that he holds some kind of fascination for the local milkman – look that one up if you’re under 30 – a young man who looks like he’s just back from an allnighter at Wigan Casino. Is this sexual?

Strange visions begin to haunt Stephen’s sleep. He sees golden angels and naked schoolboys. A demon visits him, with a face that momentarily morphs into Joel’s. It squats on his bed like the incubus in Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, its distinctive hooked nose resembling Elgar’s.

Soon, while Stephen shelters from some rain in a barn, he gets to meet the ghost of his favorite composer, and later comes across King Penda, reputedly the last pagan king in England.

Penda's Fen church

As the visions continue, his worldview begins to unravel. He becomes strangely drawn to Arne and his wife and starts visiting them. He even encourages Mrs Arne to adopt children and doesn’t baulk when she mentions that homosexuals ‘make very good fathers I’m told.’

When Stephen asks if his next play will be outrageous, Arne admits that he’ll have to tone it down. ‘The public have lost the imaginative strength they had,’ he explains. ‘Their sight and will to see what’s really going on has been steadily weakened by the entertainment barons for gain, by the yes men for cravenness.’

It wouldn’t be hard to guess what his opinion would be on the dumbed-down television offered up by Britain’s 21st century entertainment barons like X-Factor, Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island.

This complex drama is very 1970s, the pace is slow, its ambitions are high and its author doesn’t feel the need to spell things out, preferring to let the audience work out what is going on for themselves. Don’t expect to see anything like this on TV any time soon.

Penda's Fen March 1974

As noted by the TV correspondent of my local newspaper, the Glasgow Herald, an arts show Real Time felt that the play was important enough to discuss later that same evening over on BBC 2. Rudkin was invited on to have his say and this show lasted 45 minutes, roughly half the length of the play. Sadly, I’d guess that any tape of this held by the BBC would have disappeared long ago.

Penda’s Fen split opinions. While many critics praised it – including, surprisingly enough, the Daily Mail – it wasn’t to be shown again on British television for over fifteen years.

Should it be classified as a folk horror?

Author David Rudkin doesn’t believe so, although as Rob Young pointed out in Electric Eden, his book on visionary British folk music: ‘It was created at exactly the same time as The Wicker Man, and deals with a similar theme: the lingering pagan presence in the British landscape, and by extension, in the soul of the nation.’

Rudkin himself considers it a ‘political work’. It also examines religion, myth, the family, repression, nationhood, and history.

Penda's Fen still

Clarke excels, and some of the phantasmagorical imagery he presents us with is as disturbing as it is startling, especially one involving a truly bizarre series of atrocities in a gorgeous picture book setting, which I won’t ruin for anyone who hasn’t already seen the play.

Some might find criticism with the special effects on display, and although these look outdated today, they must have appeared rather impressive for British television of the era.

Penda’s Fen is far from perfect. There’s little real drama and much of the conflict is interior. The theology debates failed to arouse much interest in me and surely more could have been made of the radiation death, but it is such a thought-provoking piece of drama that I have a hunch it won’t be too long before I’ll want to see it again. Rudkin is a highly individual voice and I’ll be seeking out more of his work in the forthcoming weeks and months.

For more on the play click here, and for David Rudkin’s official site, here you go.

The Bulldance aka Forbidden Sun (Folk Horror #2)

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The Bulldance aka Forbidden Sun

The term folk horror has been increasingly bandied around in recent years. Coined by Piers Haggard in 2004, when he explained to Fangoria that with Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), he ‘was trying to make a folk horror film’, Mark Gatiss then borrowed the term for his Home Counties Horror episode of A History of Horror for BBC4.

From that moment on ‘folk horror’ was picked up by many critics and film fans. It’s not easy to precisely define its meaning but it’s generally used to describe films (and TV plays/series and literature) that deal with often insular, rural communities, and pagan rituals and folklore.

Should The Bulldance be categorised as a folk horror?

It does certainly tick a few of the boxes associated with the subgenre. There’s the rural setting in Crete (although it was filmed in what was then Yugoslavia), and it does examine pre-Christian traditions in the shape of Greek mythology.

The Bull Dance Ritual

Pagan is an umbrella term and whether modern day Hellenic polytheists should be considered pagan or not is a source of argument among some practitioners. Or so I’m told.

Extra points surely, though, must be awarded for the involvement of the director of The Wicker Man. Robin Hardy supplied the story and the screenplay. He additionally acted as exec-producer and had originally been slated to direct, although Zelda Barron eventually took on that role.

In his generally excellent book Inside The Wicker Man, author Allan Brown mentions that many American fans of the Hardy directed film perceive what is known across the Atlantic as Forbidden Sun as a kind of sequel to Hardy’s 1973 classic, which I find curious. If you decide to watch this 1988 movie, don’t expect The Wicker Man with sunshine. Or leotards for that matter.

Forbidden Sun - Training Routine

Okay, the movie. Paula (Samantha Mathis), was a gold medal winning gymnast at the 1984 L.A. Olympics, forced to retire at fourteen through illness. She arrives in Crete to spend a summer semester at an elite all-girl’s school for American gymnasts. Her aims are simple: to get fit again and see some of Europe. She sails to the island where the gym is situated on a boat with Ulysses (Svetislav Goncic), a young man with few social skills, and a fellow student Elaine (Renée Estevez, daughter of Martin Sheen). As they disembark, Ulysses attempts to brush his hand against Elaine’s breasts. She warns him off but later claims to Paula that he’s harmless.

The island is idyllic and the Roman built gym intrigues her, especially as their exertions are looked over by the Night Goddess, a sculpture of a female that the girls refer to as the Sex Goddess. It’s said that she brings the girls good luck.

But only if they deserve it.

Bulldance - Jane and the Night Goddess

The facility is run by Charles (Cliff De Young) and Francine (Lauren Hutton) who are immediately taken by Paula, as are her contemporaries. She’s even praised as ‘the champ in the camp’ and soon gets to meet coach Jack (Robert Beltran), who was pally with her dad, and who most of the girls have a crush on. One even seems to be involved in a hush-hush affair with him

As Elaine is dating English guitarist Steve (Marcus Myers), the girls also get to party his band The Lemon Boys, who are in Crete to record their latest album. They’re played by real-life act Hard Rain, whose roots include a punkish Brighton band – wait for it – Midnight and the Lemonboys.

What a summer this is gonna be for Paula!

Although not in the way she might have imagined at this point.


Fifteen minutes have passed without a hint of horror and already it’s obvious that The Bulldance completely lacks the magic of The Wicker Man. It’s like some not terribly interesting made for TV movie. Luckily, it does improve, although not to the point where you’re likely to become particularly absorbed in the fate of any of the characters.

In addition to their training regime, the girls are also given tours of historic places of interest and Francine teaches them Greek mythology.

She takes them to see a fresco depicting a fearsome looking bull, whose story she has earlier outlined to the class: angered by a deception by the king of Crete Minos, Poseidon casts a spell on his wife Pasiphaë, inducing her to fall in love with the bull that he had gifted to Minos to sacrifice, Pasiphaë later giving birth to a half-man, half-bull, Minotaur.

Francine goes on to explain the origins of ‘the Bulldance’, this being a massively dangerous somersault over the horns of a charging bull, that is believed to have been last practiced several millenniums ago. ‘I doubt if any modern gymnast could do it,’ she declares.

Jane (Viveka Davis), the school’s rebel, isn’t so sure and becomes obsessed by the idea of re-enacting it. And she’s the kind of gal that, well, isn’t afraid to grab the bull by the horns. She convinces Elaine to persuade Steve – who has an art school background – to create a Minotaur mask, so the gymnasts can perform a form of the dance as a routine at their end of term show.

Forbidden Sun -Minotaur mask

During a group training run, one of the girls goes missing. When found, she has to be hospitalised and it transpires that she has been the victim of a sexual assault.

The girls immediately pin the blame on Ulysses, who has just been caught spying into the girls’ room, using his binoculars.

As an attempt to gain revenge, they lure him to their studio, where they encourage him to don the giant bull mask (which they then lock). With his vision obscured by it, the girls lash out at him until he is unconscious. Suddenly panicking, they attempt to revive him with the medically dubious method of pouring half a bottle of brandy down his throat.

Soon afterwards, it emerges that he was not behind the attack. Surprise, surprise, his pervy behaviour was only a red herring. Who coulda seen that coming?

The plot twists consistently fail to deliver surprises. Lauren Hutton kept reminding me of Jessica Lange, only without the exceptional acting ability. Not, that she was rotten but I’m guessing she is another model turned actor, who was more suited to the former profession.

Likewise, Samantha Mathis and Viveka Davis were both fine, without ever really shining. I remember Mathis gaining some rave notices around this time but her career never blossomed in the way some imagined it might. Nowadays, she’s maybe best remembered as the one-time girlfriend of River Phoenix.

Forbidden Sun Minotaur mask

As for Zelda Barron, she’s an interesting figure. She started as a secretary then script supervisor, and performed continuity work on Cry of the Banshee and Slade in Flame. Moving up the ranks, she took on the role of associate producer on The Coal Miner’s Daughter and was special consultant on Reds. She even shot a number of videos for Culture Club.

As a director, her biggest success was Shag. A movie about the 1960s dance craze in case you found yourself raising an eyebrow at that title. The experience of working with so many young female actors on that played a big part in the decision to give her the job on The Bulldance.

Here, she demonstrates her talents only intermittently, with some imaginative shots of the gymnasts in action – some of the girls were obviously trained athletes. As newcomer Paula arrived at the school, I momentarily thought of the entrance of the vulnerable Suzy to the ballet academy in Suspiria. But it lacked any of tension that Argento generated there.

In his 2012 book Serendipity… A Life, producer Peter Watson-Wood (who later also produced The Wicker Tree) recalls The Bulldance immediately falling behind schedule. After five days of the shoot, he noted, Barron had yet to complete the first day’s schedule. To attempt to make up for lost time, whole pages were dropped from Hardy’s script.

As for the soundtrack, The Lemon Boys’ songs are competent enough, as is their incidental music, but to paraphrase a comment by Alex Cox that I quoted in last week’s post, it lacks the excessive genius of Paul Giovanni songs like Willow’s Theme.*

They maintain that they were never even paid for their work on the movie.
Clearly the production was always a troubled one.

Today, it’s almost forgotten, but it’s still just about worth a watch if anything folk horror related is your thing.

* Around ten yeas ago, I caught one of them, bassist Simon Laffy, at a ‘secret’ gig in Rockers in Glasgow as a member of Man Raze, who wanted to perform a warm-up show before their support slot for Alice Cooper at the Clyde Auditorium later that evening. A bit rocky for me, although it was nice to see Paul Cook on drums.

Witchfinder General (Folk Horror #1)

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Witchfinder General

Moviedrome, a BBC2 series originally hosted by Alex Cox, is where I saw many cult movies for the first time. Michael Reeves’ classic Witchfinder General was one of these, screened in 1992 as half of what was dubbed the ‘Religious Madness Double Bill‘. John Huston’s Blood Wise being the accompanying film shown.

He may be keen to observe platitudes such as ‘The Lord’s work is a noble thing,’ but I’m not quite sure how much witchfinder Matthew Hopkins’ religious madness is to blame for the large numbers of witches and warlocks he dispatches here, as his love of money and sadism would also have to be considered major factors. This is a man who loves his job. He travels around East Anglia with his equally psychopathic sidekick John Stearne, investigating accusations of withcraft and sorcery.

Hopkins certainly has a high rate of success in proving these accusations true, but the odds are very much stacked in his favour. His methods of discovering the ‘truth’ include torturing the suspects during interrogations and if confessions fail to be extracted, then he can still prove their guilt.

As two women and a man are tied up and lowered from a bridge into a foul looking river, he explains with an inscrutable face that if they should sink, he will know they have been lying. And if they manage to swim or float, then guess what? Yep, that will prove their guilt ‘beyond a shadow of doubt in the sight of God,’ as Satan will have taken control of their bodies. They will then be withdrawn from the water and hanged by the neck until they are dead.


It may not take a hotshot lawyer to see a flaw in this logic.

The movie is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Ronald Bassett, a fictional account of real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who is said to have ordered the death of around 200 people in the space of just a few years in 17th century England.

What’s frightening here isn’t any jumpscare, spooky soundtrack, or vampires, demons, zombies, ghosts or monsters.

It’s the religious fervour whipped up by Hopkins in the towns and villages he visits, along with the attitude of locals, whose engrained belief in both Christianity and superstition, ensures they won’t intervene on behalf of the falsely accused. Many even gleefully encourage the hangings, drownings and burnings that Hopkins orders with an air consisting of equal measures of moral superiority and malevolence.

At one point, we’re shown the aftermath of a burning. A group of children roast some potatoes in the same flames that have so recently engulfed and taken the life of an innocent woman, and in scenes like these Reeves demonstrated his potential to become a top filmmaker.

Witchfinder General - Children Roasting Potatoes

Price turns in one of his finest ever performances here and ironically he was only given the starring role because small American independent AIP contributed enough to the film’s £83,000 budget to be able to dictate that an actor contracted to them was given top billing.

Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasance and on the set, the director and Price clashed, mainly because Reeves wanted Price to tone down the campy, often melodramatic style of acting favoured by AIP. The famous story here is that, during one fierce row, Price approached Reeves and boasted about the fact that he had acted in eighty-four films, before asking Reeves how many films he’d made.

The twenty-four year old answered: ‘Two good ones.’

I’m guessing he was gambling that Price had never actually seen The She Beast, a schlocky micro-budget Euro-horror with nothing much to recommend it.

The action, and there is plenty of that in Witchfinder General, is set against the backdrop of the English Civil War and been compared to a western revenge tale. You can see why, with horses galloping across the lowlands of Suffolk, almost as a substitute for the American Plains, the revenge drama element coming via a roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has several very strong reasons for wanting Hopkins dead.

Vincent Price in Witchfinder General

Perhaps significantly, cinematographer John Coquillon was later given several jobs by Sam Peckinpah, including his last western Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973).

Coincidentally, around the time of Witchfinder General‘s release, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was being heavily criticised for what many critics judged as excessive violence. Reeves’ film would experience similar problems in this regard.

In Britain, censors demanded a number of cuts in order for it to be granted even an X-certificate.

Nowadays, when massively popular TV series like Game of Thrones can include scenes that veer towards torture porn, this might sound strange but back then sex and violence were high on the lists of what moral majority types wanted banned in Britain. Reeves was forced to comply with the British Board of Film Classification.

The film found many fans but some significant enemies too. In the Sunday Times, Dilys Powell dismissed it as ‘peculiarly nauseating’, while Alan Bennett in The Listener called it ‘the most persistently sadistic and rotten film I’ve seen,’ before adding: ‘There are no laughs in Witchfinder General.’ Which is like complaining about the lack of gore in the Lady in the Van or The History Boys.

Witchfinder General - Burning the Witch

Since then its reputation has grown, although not everybody came round. Echoing earlier criticism, Ken Russell told Benjamin Halligan (author of a biography of Reeves) that ‘this is one of the worst films I have ever seen and certainly the most nauseous.’ Even Alex Cox, in his Moviedrome intro, damned it with some pretty faint praise, calling it ‘a fairly routine Price horror movie with none of the excessive genius of the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poes films.’

The standing of Michael Reeves, who was dead within months of the film being premiered, has also grown. In recent years he’s been hailed as ‘the lost genius of British cinema’ and ‘lost visionary of British film’.

Re-titled The Conqueror Worm in America, Witchfinder General was made by Tigon British Productions, who were also behind Reeves’ previous film The Sorcerers and who would later put out Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) – which, together with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man (1973), has been referred to as the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of Folk Horror.

And more on that term in the months to come.

Maverick Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, The Neon Demon) had planned to direct a remake but it was announced last month that he would now act as a producer on the project, with John Hillcoat (Lawless) taking on directing duties instead.

‘I’m drawn to the dynamic departures behind this remake,’ Hillcoat told Empire. ‘The idea of a world pushed to extremes where fear preys upon all, unleashing religious fanaticism, rival factions, tribalism, heretics, and witch hunts… feels strangely familiar in today’s world.’

And yes, sadly, anti-witchcraft legislation still exists in a number of countries, albeit ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is only nation where practising it remains legally punishable by death. A grotesque state of affairs and one that shows no signs of ending. The kingdom set up a special ‘Anti-Witchcraft Unit’ in 2009. Since then hundreds of men and women (mostly foreign domestic workers from Africa and Indonesia) have been convicted of ‘magical crimes’.

Just as the opportunistic Hopkins came up with the idea of implicating Marshall and his fiance in witchcraft purely as part of a personal grudge, it is suspected that many of the recent cases in Saudi are the result of the migrant workers complaining about issues like not being paid and their employers’ retaliating by accusing them of witchcraft.

The spirit of Matthew Hopkins lives on.

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