Review: Bella in the Wych Elm

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During the Second World War, four lads looking for bird’s nests on the grounds of Hagley Hall in Worcestershire found a skull in a hollow elm tree. The police, investigating, found a woman’s skeleton there, clearly hidden in the tree after death, but no further clues were found. But after the case became known, in an unsettling development, variations on the words WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM? began to appear on walls across Birmingham and the Black Country. Someone knew who Bella was, evidently; but others took up the question, so whoever knew was safely anonymous. The question of who put Bella in the Wych Elm became part of the modern folklore of the Black Country – a fact which gives the lie to the idea that the modern age doesn’t allow for new folk legends to rise.

Tom Lee Rutter, a native of the area, has a pretty decent run of short films under his belt, but this one is more personal, part of the culture of the Black Country, a spooky, quaint piece. His grandmother and her friends used to go to Wychbury, “looking for Bella.” The story was used to scare naughty children: behave or I’ll put you in the wych elm.

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Tom’s Bella in the Wych Elm: A Midlands Phantasmagoria is a 35 minute documentary film which tells the story of the finding, and explores some of the rationales people attached to the mystery over the years. Was “Bella” a gypsy? A victim of human sacrifice? A murdered sex worker? Or someone else?

In style, the film owes a lot to James Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1999), with its use of the fiddle on the soundtrack, its black-and-white dramatisations and its variety of voices: whispered voices of a ghost, an anonymous letter-writer, the New Forest coven. The most time is given to the friendly voice of “Tatty” Dave Jones (actually a member of ska-punk band The Cracked Actors), who sounds like nothing more than the sort of storyteller that the Midlands always seemed to me to be full of – a friend who lived there for many years once described Birmingham as like that person who stands at the corner of a party and seems unprepossessing until you talk to them and realise they’re really one of the best people you’ve ever met, an assessment which I have always heartily agreed with. Jones tells the tale with a warm, engaging tone, and the scratchy, well-judged visuals surpass its budgetary limitations.

The main thing you have to do with a documentary, a thing that many independent documentarists forget, is that you have to have a thesis; a documentary is an art form in its own right (one of the muses, lest we forget, was a patron of history) and you have to have stakes with a piece of art, a direction in which your story will go. Bella in the Wych Elm succeeds at this right from the beginning. It gives a solution (a solution which some versions of the story, not mentioned in the film, discount), but the apparent conclusiveness of the solution in the film is set beautifully against the fact that it doesn’t make the event any less mysterious, nor does it diminish the way in which poor Bella has entered the local myth of the Black Country. It brings in Margaret Murray and the New Forest Coven, the witchcraft-related murders of the post-war years, and other, perhaps more mundane, but no less strange phenomena. And all of that serves the film’s central theme: This is where stories come from.

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In that way, Bella in the Wych Elm succeeds spectacularly. It’s a smart, clever, beautifully constructed piece that reminds you that the mundane, the horrible and the numinous are often very close together and that the modern world still produces folklore.

The DVD comes with a couple of alternative versions of the film and some postcards to sweeten the deal, but they’re just extra decorations on an already excellent package. I cannot recommend this enough, as a document on British folklore, a solidly made documentary film and as a fine work of art from an independent director.

This is where stories come from.


Bella in the Wych Elm can be purchased at bellainthewychelm.bigcartel.com

Review by Howard David Ingham (Room 207 Press)

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Review: this is not a picture

this is not a picture by Howard David Ingham

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this is not a picture is a collection of eight short ghost stories, by Howard Ingham of these here parts, probably best known to revivalists for his excellent series of film reviews, We Don’t Go Back. The tales here are linked by pieces of art – a photograph, a TV play, a song – each of which is central to the plot.

Of the stories here, the one that stands out as being of most interest to folk horror fans is “The Austringer (1969)”, which revolves around a lost BBC play, bringing to mind the once seen and now half-remembered, haunting quality the likes of Penda’s Fen and Robin Redbreast had before being made accessible again by BFI re-releases. The tale cuts back and forth between the unscrupulous collector who unearths a copy from a deceased acquaintance’s collection and the play itself, with the two inevitably meeting. The excerpts from the TV play are particularly spot on, evoking the atmosphere of the supernatural plays of the era.

My personal favourite is “An envelope”, where a man grieving for his disappeared girlfriend comes into possession of an envelope full of polaroids depicting horrifying scenes, seemingly from a parallel reality where something has gone very wrong. Each photograph is described in detail, sketching a horrific world, leaving you to fill in the details with your worst nightmares. It’s made all the weirder by the fact that it was written in the author’s sleep, like he unconsciously tapped into some horrendous parallel world. More speculative horror than folk horror perhaps, but deeply unsettling.

The striking thing about this collection is its humanity, the way the characters relate to each other and the world around them, indeed one of the tales – “So I caught up with Dennis” – derives much of its uneasiness from a changed relationship between two old friends. No matter how weird the situation is, the characters and their actions always remain believable.

A thoroughly engaging collection of tales. You can pick up a copy here.

Review by Scott Lyall

Review: The Eyrie

The Eyrie by Thom Burgess, illustrated by Barney Bodoano

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New folk horror-themed graphic novel The Eyrie draws on the folklore of author Thom Burgess’ native Sussex. It follows Rebecca, an American photo-journalist, who is sent to a remote part of Sussex on a job by her boss, staying in his old country house. Before she sets off to the local pub, she lights an old lamp she finds, to guide her home, and this signals to… something. Before long, she’s plagued by mysterious events: banging on her door in the middle of the night, devices losing power, mysterious figures turning in photographs, and terrifying, not quite human apparitions.

Compelling and eerie right from the start with its foreboding landscapes, The Eyrie is unsettling enough even before the supernatural elements coming creeping in. Once summoned, things escalate to the dreadful (in the best sense of the word) climax in a fashion that will make you feel almost relieved once the full horror of the situation is revealed.

Barney Bodoano’s gritty black-and-white art complements the atmosphere, encapsulating the bleak landscapes perfectly, with half seen figures in the mist adding to the menace.

One of the great things about the folk horror revival isn’t just looking back at the classics of the genre, but seeing the influence of them in contemporary works, and with its tale of coastal folklore, ancient objects and troubled locations, The Eyrie inevitably brings to mind MR James, but updated for a world where isolation can be conveyed by a lack of phone signal, and the encroachment of the weird by corrupted digital photographs.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and creepy tale. If you’re a fan of the weird and eerie, well worth getting hold of.

Copies can be ordered at www.theeyrie.bigcartel.com.

Review by Scott Lyall.