The Sermon: A Review

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The Sermon opens with some beautifully shot images of the English countryside haunting, magical and pictureseque they set the scene perfectly. These are followed  by an opening credit sequence that recalls the heyday of Hammer and Amicus films, a lone crow flies into shot and lands in a lonesome tree. A close up of the crow sits behind the films titles, in homage to Piers Haggard’s folk horror classic The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Already this feels like familiar territory.

The story concerns the events of a small rural village somewhere in England. We are presented with images of a young woman and her father, the local preacher preparing for the sermon of the title. She is filling a glass decanter with wine, whilst the father shaves in preparation of the coming events.

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The vast majority of the film’s eleven minutes takes places in the church hall, as the preacher well spoken and charismatic takes centre stage. The sermon itself is unsettlingly homophobic in nature and makes for incredibly uncomfortable viewing. What it does is, it sheds a little light on the attitudes of the community, its people and its prejudices. The preacher’s hateful attack on homosexuality is strikingly outmoded to us in today’s world, and yet the congregation is supprtive of his principles. It highlights perfectly for me the positive changes that we as a people have undergone over the last 50 or 60 years in our attitudes to sexuality. I am reminded somewhat of The Wicker Man, in that we are presented with a rural community isolated not only geographically but also from modern liberal thought. One imagines how Sgt Howie must have felt upon finding out that certain archaic practices were still being practiced many years after popular belief in them had faded away.

The final twist in the tail is a satisying turn, it is harsh and unpleasant in its execution, however it makes for a great ending. The film is not yet out on general release so I am unable to discuss the storyline any further at present, other than to say it is an excellent film and well worth checking out if you get the chance.

Overall, The Sermon is a very well made, beautifully scripted short film. The music by Benjamin Hudson and Cape Khoboi fits perfectly,  and it features some genuinely lovely cinematography, that really captures the essence of the English countryside. I am not entirely sure if it was intentional, but several external shots were taken from a low angle. This was very reminiscent of Dick Bush’s amazing cinematography for Blood on Satan’s Claw, where it was used to great effect to hint at how everything rises up from the earth. This may or may not be the case, however I felt compelled to raise it in passing.

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Director Dean Puckett cut his teeth making documentary films, the most recent of which was released in 2013, Grasp the Nettle highlights the exploits of a group of land rights activists who battle to set up alternative communities in Britain. The Sermon is his second fiction short to have been supported by Creative England and the BFI after the comedy, horror, sci-fi short Circles in 2015. Circles, which was also set in Devon involved paranormal investigators taking their revenge on a group of crop circle hoaxers. I will certainly be looking forward to seeing more from Dean on the evidence of The Sermon.

The Sermon will receive its premiere at the BFI Flare London LGBTQ+ Film Festival this coming weekend, Saturday March 24th. I have included more information for those interested in checking out this excellent folk horror gem.

BFI Flare: Altered States

 

Requiem For A Village (David Gladwell, 1975)

It’s hard to imagine what a non-native would make of this curious and densely-layered film which manages, quite wonderfully, to be both near-unintelligible and yet to also give voice to the subtle conflicts that lie at the heart of the English countryside, of the English soul.

It’s hard to imagine what a non-native would make of this curious and densely-layered film which manages, quite wonderfully, to be both near-unintelligible and yet to also give voice to the subtle conflicts that lie at the heart of the English countryside, of the English soul.

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Taking as its ostensible plot the day-dreams and mutterings of an elderly man who spends his days cycling back and forth from his housing-estate home to a Sussex country graveyard where he ineffectually clips the grass around the graves with hand shears, Gladwell’s film builds contrast and juxtaposition until the viewer is almost giddy. Even this simple introduction holds multiple layers – the box-like boredom of the estate’s modern homes sits in contrast to the individually-named and hand-crafted gravestones, the old man cycling on a dual carriageway causes the modern cars to swerve and slow – but it is the quieter contrasts that make the film what it is; tarmac and woodland paths, handpainted signs and plastic hoardings, the warm-eyed father’s wedding speech and the councillor’s exhortation to action.

As our near-silent narrator patrols the graveyard, talking quietly of those lying under the soil, he almost literally invokes the past in one of the films many striking scenes. Soil and gravel push upwards to let the village’s past residents emerge once more, not as zombies or ghosts but as waking-dreams that laugh and smile at each other as they are conjured from the old man’s memories. From here, we are taken on a journey through his recollections of life gone by and the film’s core message of the past fighting an ever-losing battle against the modern; a young man (one we slowly realise is an earlier version of the old gardener) marries his young bride, a team of wheelwrights make a cartwheel, fields of grain are scythed into sheaves and the slow procession of days continues. This is interspersed with a sub-plot of the past being erased as modern-day earthmovers and diggers sweep the fields away, razed clean to make way for yet more housing estates, yet more boxes.

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All of this could quite easily become a twee, rose-tinted piece of pastoral aggrandisement, where bucolic bumpkins go about their simple lives with an ignorant joy. Thankfully, this is not the case and Gladwell uses a brief but unsettling montage of sexual violence – shocking even now so who knows what effect it had in the 70s – to show not only the visceral side of the past but also to let us reflect on the unthinking rape that the modern world performs on itself as it plucks up virgin forest, ploughs fertile fields into barren concrete.

In one scene, the old man parks his bike and stands before one of the giant earthmoving machines. Looking for all the world like a peasant facing down the livestock-devouring wolf, or even the tax-extorting baron, he stands and flings a clod of earth at its man-high wheel. It is a feeble gesture, and an ineffectual one, but it is a stand he has to make and, as an old man fading from the world, it is his final stand.

Viewers wanting a return to the horror of films like ‘The Wicker Man’ are likely to be inevitably disappointed but ‘Requiem For A Village’ provides that true horror-of-the-folk in that their ways, the ways they have lived their lives, are no longer viable.

As an aside, Gladwell’s 1964 short work ‘An Untitled Film’ is an excellent companion piece to ‘Requiem For A Village’ and is included as an extra on the BFI DVD. Filmed in slo-mo black & white and using a hauntingly experimental soundtrack, ‘An Untitled Film’ makes the simple act of building a bonfire almost infernal and the killing of a chicken into something horribly elongated. A child leers out from behind tree branches, perhaps in horror or delight. It preludes the daily-routine-as-horror of Bela Tarr’s ‘The Turin Horse‘ by some decades and performs the same function with a subtlety that is startling.

Adam Scovell has written two excellent pieces one both Requiem For A Village and Gladwell’s earlier work for his Celluloid Wicker Man blog.

Dan Hunt, 2016