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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.

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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.

Goodbye, Robin Hardy

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This year there will be no Wickerman Festival. Without Robin Hardy, who directed cult classic The Wicker Man towards the end of 1972,  there would never have been a festival in the first place.

The Wicker Man was not a success on release but this magical and intriguing film has grown in stature ever since to the point where, in addition to the festival named in its honour, there’s been a novelization by Hardy and Anthony Shaffer (who wrote the screenplay), a Hollywood remake starring Nicolas Cage (which I haven’t seen and have no real intention of ever seeing), a number of books on the making of the movie, fanzines, conferences and conventions, film location tours, a stage version and a number of documentaries. Even the recent animated video of Radiohead’s Burn the Witch paid homage to the film that has been described as ‘the Citizen Kane of horror movies’.

The genre of horror experienced a golden age in Britain in the 1970s. Obviously there was Hammer, while studios catering for a similar audience such as Amicus and Tigon thrived too; a post-Hammer ‘new wave of horror’ emerged in the middle of the decade with directors like Norman J. Warren and Pete Walker and there was also the big budget international hit, The Omen. The highpoint of horror in that decade though was The Wicker Man, a film that found no favour with distributors until it was brutally cut in length and relegated to a slot as the support film in a double feature with Don’t Look Now, back when your local picture house provided paying punters with a bit of value.

At times, when I began watching The Wicker Man myself for the first time as part of the BBC’s Moviedrome strand during the ’80s, I didn’t really know whether I liked it or not. Probably because it was utterly unique. I seem to remember it initially striking me as a macabre comedy with bizarre musical interludes such as the bawdy bar song, The Landlord’s Daughter, in praise of Willow (Britt Ekland) and May Pole, which resembled a surreal take on children’s TV of the period – Magpie meets The Incredible String Band.

By the time of Willow’s Song, though, I knew one thing: I wasn’t going to be switching it off until the final credits had rolled – and not just because of a naked Britt Ekland (well a naked Britt and her body double I should say) although I’ll happily admit that I would’ve been in Willow’s bedroom myself quicker than you could say Usain Bolt after that peculiar invitation.

In the unlikely case of you not knowing anything about the plot, Sergeant Howie, played by Edward Woodward, is a pious and pompous Christian with a particularly closed mind who is sent to the pagan community of Summerisle to investigate the alleged disappearance of a twelve year old schoolgirl called Rowan Morrison.

One of the unusual though great things about the film is that it is possible to dislike the priggish hero, a man so repressed he cannot even utter the word sex and who’s offended at every turn by the behaviour of the Bacchanalian islanders. Then there’s that unconventional ending, one of the most memorable scenes of any British film, horror or otherwise, which Robin Hardy shot magnificently.

Hardy really worked wonders on The Wicker Man, to the extent of making Dumfries and Galloway in November resemble May Day and the days leading up to it – at times there was snow on the hills and, while outside, extras had to chew ice cubes so their breath wouldn’t be shown on camera while actors had directional heaters aimed at their waists while they delivered their lines. It’s remarkable that Hardy coaxed so many fine performances from the stars of the film.

‘Hardy was a natural at directing actors,’ Edward Woodward recalled in Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man. ‘He wasn’t easy to work with but I mean that as a compliment. He didn’t let you get away with something just because you’d flash him a charming look, he made you do things differently.’

By coincidence, as someone who is attempting to actively avoid watching any of Euro 2016, I looked out my four disc Final Cut DVD yesterday and watched a couple of the documentaries spread across its four discs, intending to watch the so-called Director’s Cut while Germany faced Italy last night.

Before I got to chance to do so, it sadly emerged that Robin Hardy had died the day before.

~

In addition to his crucial role in The Wicker Man, Hardy also directed a number of other films including the similarly themed The Wicker Tree (2011), which was an adaptation of his novel Cowboys for Christ.

Robin Hardy had planned to make a third Wicker Man film as a tribute to his great friend Christopher Lee, who died himself last year. It really is a pity that Hardy didn’t get the chance to complete his trilogy.

Robin Hardy. 2 October 1929 – 1 July 2016.