Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Haunted Landscapes: a Season of Folk Horror: part 3

This is the final part of Irish Film Institute, to see Folk Horror themed films being shown as part of their Haunted Landscapes season. Folk horror is a term coined by Mark Gatiss. You can read my account of the first set of these films here and the second here

There was more black magic action in Night of the Demon (1957), Jacques Tourneur's adaptation of M.R. James's 'Casting the Runes', about a magus who is able to set a malevolent demon on his enemies and a man who finds himself marked for death by the monster. Among other things, it is famous for providing the "It's in the trees! It's coming!" sample for Kate Bush's 'Hounds of Love'. It is also that odd beast, a noir horror film, with much use made of shadow, lots of men in hats and long coats, an opening scene in which a man drives along a darkened road by night, a closing scene in night fog beside a railway track. And yet it is not fully comfortable in its embrace of the uncanny, with the magus a somewhat bumptious type and various interludes with mediums and hypnotists seeming almost like comic relief for all that they are advancing the plot of horror. In that regard it feels less certain of itself as a horror film than Cat People, Tourneur's 1942 classic.

Night of the Demon is famous for the studios insistence that the monster be shown in it ("If people go to film called Night of the Demon then they'll feel ripped off if there is no goddamn Demon!" must have been the logic). Tourneur on the other hand wanted the Demon to be left unseen, more terrifying if the audience's imagination is left to run riot. In truth, the long shot version of the Demon is actually quite scary, reminiscent of the monster in Forbidden Planet in its semi-corporeality. The close-up version is pretty ridiculous though, that classic dud monster who ends up looking a bit cute thanks to its trying too hard to be fierce. And despite its ridiculousness, the close-up view of the monster gets used in all publicity for this film, including by the IFI in the run up to this season.

And how fares this enjoyable film as a member of the folk horror genre? I'm not too sure. All the black magic stuff and people in posh houses again feels like something other than folk horror. On the other hand, there is a bit where the protagonist goes to Stonehenge and looks at some runes carved into the stones, calling to mind the ancient folk ways of England, so maybe we will let them away with it.

And the last film was the most recent, The Blair Witch Project from 1999. You have surely seen that found footage film about the three people who get lost in the woods while trying to make a low budget documentary about a legendary with. Looking back on it now it is striking how none of the people involved in have gone on to do that much. Given how much of a stir the film caused at the time this may be surprising. I am also struck by how short it it is, possibly because a film of people wandering around in the woods and then being woken up by strange noises at night can only go on so long before it gets boring.

It is still a most unnerving. The sense that the characters are doomed comes early to the viewer, and it is their dawning sense of their inescapable fate that gives the film its mounting dread.

Sound design corner: I know people who are into cinema sound design get annoyed when people say "oh, like music?" when the concept of sound design is outlined to them, but in Blair Witch Project it was noticeable that in the very last sequence (when the characters run around through the world's spookiest derelict houses, pretty much knowing they are about to die) the film sneaks some low volume music onto the soundtrack. This should break the illusion that this is unmediated found footage, but the volume is so low and the scene so engaging that most audiences probably do not notice.

Folk horror credentials: well there is a witch in it (or mentioned in it) and there is a fair bit about folk beliefs and folk lore (albeit of the completely made up variety).

So there you go. After reading all this, what do you understand by the term Folk Horror?

For more Folk Horror action, see my account of interesting conference A Fiend in the Furrows here and here.

image sources

Night of the Demon (Verdoux)

The Demon (BFI)

Blair Witch Project: the basement (The Dissolve)

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