Holy Terrors: Film Review

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In August 2017 via the pages of Fortean Times Magazine I first heard of the film Holy Terrors created by Mark Goodall and Julian Butler much to my delight and anxiety. Not only was it a movie featuring 6 weird tales of Arthur Machen but it was made in Whitby! Machen and Whitby – two things I cherish very dearly so I was very eager to see this film but also worried that it might be awful. (Those worries were happily unnecessary.)

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Also at the time we at Folk Horror Revival were organising the Winter Ghosts event for the following December in Whitby. I mentioned to our Events Manager, Darren Charles how the film could’ve been a good addition to our bill if it were not already fully booked. Then much to my surprise and delight, I received an email from the film director Mark Goodall, who had heard about our event and was wondering if we would like to screen Holy Terrors there. Would we?? Is a bear Catholic? Does the pope … Yes! We were interested!
Some jiggling around of schedule and the film was added to the bill and was indeed an atmospheric and beautiful end-piece to the event.

Before discussing the film further, just a short resume of Arthur Machen, for although his light is belatedly beginning to shine brighter, outside of certain horror fiction circles, he is still something of an unknown quantity to many folk.

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Born in Wales in 1863, Machen’s career in weird fiction blossomed out of the Symbolist and Aesthetic fin de siècle of the 1890’s. Like a number of other artists and writers of the era, Machen’s work was a curious brew of spirituality and decadence. Blending paganism and Christianity both in his work and in his own personal mysticism, born the son of an Anglican minister he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but did not renounce his Christian faith. He therefore, in a sense, has an air of the notion of Celtic or Insular Christianity, whereby it has been suggested that some of the earliest priests of the Celtic Church were possibly former druids some of whom preferred to preach in the outside cathedral of nature than within a church; and that numerous acolytes of which were ascetic hermits that lived in remote quiet places. Oddly enough it is often claimed that the Synod of Whitby marked the official end of the Celtic Church. (The Synod of Whitby (664 A.D.) was a Northumbrian synod where King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would calculate Easter and observe the monastic tonsure according to the customs of Rome, rather than the customs practised by Irish monks at Iona and its satellite institutions. The synod was summoned at Hilda’s double monastery of Streonshalh (Streanæshalch), later called Whitby Abbey.)

Machen was one of the early masters of weird fiction, particularly a faction of which, with his own use of folklore (notably the use of fairies not in their tiny twee Disneyfied forms but as the strange human sized people of old lore) and spirit of place, may now frequently be referred to as Folk Horror.
Those who cite Machen as an inspiration or to express enthusiasm for his work include figures as diverse as the writers H.P. Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges, Stephen King, Ramsay Campbell, Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair and Sir John Betjeman through to musicians such as Mark E. Smith, Belbury Poly and Current 93. Notorious occultist Aleister Crowley was a fan of Machen’s work but reputedly it was far from being reciprocated, with Machen having a personal dislike for the man.

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So how would Machen’s subtle strange tales translate to screen?
Holy Terrors slowly fades in to scenes of an empty shore and a desolate man. The hauntological soundscape of composer David Chatton Barker (Folklore Tapes) leads us to the body of a man beneath a bridge. Thus opens ‘A Cosy Room’ the first of the 6-weird tales of Arthur Machen. (Indeed, I can vouch it is a cosy room and one not devoid of otherly presence either as I recognised it straight away as a room that I myself have spent several nights in. In fact, after viewing Holy Terrors for the first time at Winter Ghosts, it was the room that I would return to sleep in that very night. The filming location for this segment was The Stoker Room of the cool and quirky hotel La Rosa in Whitby’s East Terrace. Overlooking a great view of Whitby Abbey and the harbour, the wonderful building-sized cabinet of curiosities that is La Rosa hotel has a plaque outside marking it as a place that author Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll of Wonderland fame amongst other things, stayed at several times. The Angel Hotel in New Quay Road is also suitably plaque-bearing as a residence where Machen stayed.)

The opening wordless narrative shot in atmospheric black and white marked in me the feeling that I was really going to like this film, but also mark it as a film that would not appeal to viewers who only like their horror visceral, fast and with a simple plot and conclusion. Like the tales of Machen, this film adaptation is steady, subtle, atmospheric and most often strange rather than horrific. Some of the tales do not build up to a definite explanation and conclusion but remain more as captures of a strange moment or sequence, rather like many reported real life anomalous experiences.

So, it is safe to say from the outset I could see that Holy Terrors will not be to all tastes but is deliciously to mine.

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We are then invited to taste The White Powder of the second tale. This is one of the Machen stories to have a more typical sense of narrative in that it follows an event to a solid culmination. It is a tale of both dread and decadence and has both the air of M.R. James ‘The Ash Tree and Kafka’s Metamorphosis but still remains essentially a Machen tale.
(an amusing synchronicity with the screening at Winter Ghosts was that the imbiber of the said White Powder of the film develops an odd black spot on his hand as an early symptom that something is amiss. The black spot very much resembled the black spot on the audience members’ hands that bore the blurred remains of the mark of the Folk Horror Revival sun symbol hand-stamp.)

The White Powder is a solidly told tale and it really brings forth the power of Goodall’s film-making. Relying strongly on an audio narration that bonds Machen completely with these new dreaming of his creations, the character that is etched within the faces, particularly the eyes of the actors in this film is a strong motif, that in its use becomes somewhat hypnotic. Another film-making skill that Goodall employs to great effect is making Whitby timeless; the use of soft focus, careful framing and light bleached backgrounds removes any trappings of modern life such as shopfront banners and so forth.

Crowhurst, R.; The Angel of Mons, c.1914

Crowhurst, R.; The Angel of Mons, c.1914; National Army Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-angel-of-mons-c-1914-182603

The third tale is one of Machen’s most famous, not because it is his best work or most identifiable of his style but because it has been noted as being the possible origin of the Angels of Mons legend.  At the Battle of Mons on the French borders in 1914, it was claimed and published in the British Spiritualist magazine in 1915, that British soldiers were protected in battle by a host of Heavenly angels. However, in 1914 The Evening News newspaper had published Machen’s story The Bowmen, in which a battalion headed by Saint George intervenes in a conflict between World War I British and German forces.
Out of all the stories within the Holy Terrors film The Bowmen could have been the most problematic for a low budget production. By the effective use of old newsreels of wartime footage, Goodall skillfully conquers this problem and overall the artistry of the entire film does not give the slightest impression at all that it is not studio funded. The photography, editing and production is on the contrary not only skillful but beautiful.

The fourth segment of the portmanteau initiates us into the Ritual. It is however not a ritual of hooded or sky-clad figures in the depths of a wood or desecrated church but that of a playground game of schoolchildren. The simplicity of this has a deeply unsettling nature and again the actors of Holy Terrors deserve applause. To act without words uttered needs to tread a line between expression, subtlety and communicative skill lest it become exaggerated like a mime performance. Again, we find great casting is at work here, for the children have a look to them that would not see their faces out of place in antique Victorian or Edwardian photography.

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The next tale, The Happy Children remains with the theme of strange youths. Unlike those in Ritual, there is a question arises as to whether these children are alive or even of human nature – a Celtic belief about Fairies is that they are spirits of the dead and the Happy Children indeed have an otherworldly sense to them. This segment again effectively uses the townscape of Whitby as a strange and beautiful filming location, and with good cause for this tale is set in Whitby. It is renamed Banwick but the tale is undeniably inspired by Machen’s visit to Whitby on a journalistic task to report on the town’s Jet industry. The story reveals Machen’s mystical sensitivity both of place and to the horrors of war. Whitby and other towns on the North Eastern English coast had been subject to wartime attack by the Germans and Machen’s reference also to the biblical slaughter of the innocents undertaken by Herod in his efforts to eliminate the infant messiah.
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A phrase within the story describing Whitby as The Town of Magical Dream is a perfect description (it also is aptly used by Carolyn Waudby for her excellent essay on Whitby). The night after Winter Ghosts I walked Whitby’s streets and the pier and the 199 steps to Saint Mary’s Church and the Abbey, and it was not mere suggestion but there was a palpable otherness to the coastal town darkened save for the twinkling of Christmas lights. There was a definite presence, not unwelcoming for the most part save for the pool behind the abbey where I felt that I was not meant to proceed further so I didn’t and for a strange unsettling sensation in the Screaming Tunnel of the Khyber Pass. I know that I am far from being the only one to sense something strange in Whitby’s thin sea fretted air – Machen sensed the liminality as did Bram Stoker and Mark Goodall captures it in Holy Terrors as do Michael Smith and Maxy Neil Bianco in their atmospheric and poetic short film ~ Stranger on the Shore: Hounds of Whitby.

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Francis Frith: The Peart family. Whitby 1891

Holy Terrors concludes with Midsummer and for the first time, the effective ambient monochrome palette is replaced with colour; but this is the colour of hand-tinted antique photographs, the faded pastels of half-remembered dreams and half-forgotten memories. It is a fitting place to leave the darkness and step into the light, but minding always that they are integral to and part of each other.
And on this note we will depart this house of souls, with the conclusion that whilst Holy Terrors may not suit the constitution of all, it is a film that has found its way under my skin and into my head and heart and for it its understated beauty and mesmeric invocations, it is something I feel that has touched me deeply. When I first read about this film with my mingled feelings of trepidation and tantalisation, I happily know now that I had nothing to worry about but happily a fair bit perhaps to fear.

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Holy Terrors DVD available here

Holy Terrors book available here

Review by Andy Paciorek

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