Arcadia Review and Interview

Arcadia, Directed by Paul Wright – Review by John Pilgrim

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If you could understand. You would take my hand.
And I would spread so far, just like Arcadia.
{Psychic TV}

 

Arcadia, an idyllic image of life in the countryside, a pastoral paradise and the home of Pan, the half-goat, half-man god of Greek mythology who revels in rustic music and the company of wood nymphs.

 

The film Arcadia which, following its cinematic release, is now available in a splendid DVD package from the British Film Institute, is both consonant and dissonant with such associations as it transports the viewer into a strange world of forgotten customs, folk rituals and hidden practices from the last hundred years of British history.  For while many of the bucolic images are indeed delightful, a number of the scenes in this remarkable film surface darker currents and traditions in Albion’s recent past.

 

The publicity for Arcadia proudly promotes the film as offering ‘a visceral sensory journey through the seasons, exploring the beauty, magic and madness of our changing relationship with both the land and each other’.  This is an apt précis and Arcadia’s viscerality is indeed undeniable, with joyful scenes of dancing and naked pastoral celebration contrasting starkly with disturbing footage of fox hunting and other blood sports. Also central to the film’s sensory impact is a powerful score by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp) which provides dynamism and coherence to the myriad of images that are skillfully woven together by Paul Wright. Arcadia is by various turns naturalistic, dream-like and the stuff of nightmares.  Snippets of odd dialogue and disturbing images punctuate the film, disrupting the stream of cinematic consciousness, prompting the viewer to reflect on how our environment and peculiar traditions have come to shape our everyday reality in today’s Britain.

 

While focusing primarily on scenes of a pastoral nature – many of which are quite extraordinary – the film progresses on to depict British life in more contemporary urban settings. The contrast is marked and may jar for some, the viewer is implicitly challenged to reflect on whether the less desirable aspects of British rural life continue to the present day, simply manifesting themselves in new guises.

 

There is much in Arcadia that will intrigue those who are fascinated by the folk horror genre and open to exploring neighbouring cultural fields. Arcadia offers the opportunity to re-visit and reflect on Albion’s peculiar traditions. FHR was fortunate to have opportunity to pose a couple of questions to Paul Wright, Director, and to Adam Scovell, film-maker and author of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, who worked on the archive research.

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FHR: Arcadia unearths a myriad of forgotten customs, delights and horrors from the celluloid history of the British countryside. Which of these made the greatest impression on you? And what do you hope viewers might learn or reflect on, particularly in the social context in which we now find ourselves?

 

PW: Rather than merely showing the chocolate box version of the countryside that is often seen, I was a lot more interested in exploring the more unusual, hidden or forgotten versions of the land. The contrasts of darkness and light, beautiful and horrific, picturesque and the disturbing, along with feeling that different truths were emerging, like ghosts from the past, was integral to the film from the start. On a personal level it was this stranger footage I connected most with.

 

Watching some of the folk customs especially was something of a breakthrough as a lot of the material had this wild, complex energy of being both extremely appealing yet terrifying at the same time. Seeing parallels between some of these rituals and more modern day equivalents was also an exciting part of the process. It was always the idea to leave some space for the audience when viewing the film.

 

The main themes we were interested in exploring were how we connect with the land, how we connect with each other, and what changes there have been between these over the years. It was always the idea that the piece would work as an emotive, sensory experience rather than an intellectual one.

 

Something that became impossible to ignore, and was present one way or another in most of the films in the archive, was the huge inequality in Britain both then and now and how that too has taken on different guises over the years but has, ultimately, remained. It felt right that this became one of the main themes running through the film.

 

AS: The most interesting and exciting footage I watched for the film was definitely a little short M.R. James adaptation made by a local film society in the fifties. I’m not sure how much of it was used in the final film but it was very interesting in itself as it was Whistle And I’ll Come To You and it seemed to foreshadow some of the visual choices of Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version for the BBC.

 

The most horrifying thing taken from the footage was more of an accumulation of watching lots of various different blood sports. There’s so much archive material gleaned from aristocrats’ home movies and obviously one of the chief things they recorded in their day-to-day life was a variety of fox hunting, hare coursing, and various different animal management from the gentry’s farming enterprises. It was a slow, building violence, that started to seep into me every day and solidified for me the frustrating dynamic still virulent today in regards to the countryside being the playground for the rich and their violent habits, even when illegal or endangering species and other wildlife.

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FHR: How did you go about choosing the material?

 

PW: There was a lot of viewing of material, mainly of the BFI archive and later the regional archives. Pretty early on I sketched a rough structure based around the four seasons. Each season had some themes and buzzwords on what may be useful to look out for and hopefully would give the piece some sort of a narrative and progression throughout.

 

From there it was myself and Adam Scovell watching a lot of footage and marking down any moment, image or sound that was interesting or could be useful down the line. This was a pretty painstaking process, there must have been thousands of notes, but ultimately rewarding to be able to explore such rich material and of course having those moments where you knew you had found something that would be great in the film we were trying to make.

 

It was then about myself and Michael Aaglund, the editor, assembling these various highlights and starting to play around with them on the timeline, still using the rough structure of seasons as a starting place but also being open enough to let the footage itself inspire new ideas. It became a pretty organic process at this stage.

 

AS: I simply worked from Paul’s detailed list of words and themes. Sometimes there would be something that just stuck out simply because it was so odd (a small documentary on a pub that started serving garden snails, for example, which certainly wouldn’t have ticked anything specific on Paul’s list of themes), but mostly it was following Paul’s lead and figuring what would work best for his vision of Arcadia.

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www.bfi.org.uk/whats-on/bfi-film-releases/arcadia

Possum Review

POSSUM (2018.)

Directed by Matthew Holness.

Starring Sean Harris and Alun Armstrong.

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I didn’t by any stretch of the imagination have a miserable childhood. I didn’t live in poverty or in a run down house on the edge of some industrial area that not so long ago was a rural and beautiful place. Wallpaper wasn’t peeling off the walls. Everything wasn’t a dull yellow and the garden wasn’t overgrown and hiding the ruins of some long forgotten out building. I didn’t have any of that but Possum made me think I did.

Without revealing too much plot, Possum is the story of Phillip (Sean Harris) returning to his childhood home and having to live with his demons. It is unclear what he has done to make him return home. His stepfather lingers in the corners of the house seemingly tormenting him. In the background a story develops about a missing person and Philip seems to have some baggage that he needs to get rid of. You need not know anymore as you enter into this fever dream of your life in the United Kingdom of the bleak 1980s. As I watched Possum I felt like I was watching a public information film. It was like a memory of sitting in a classroom watching a huge box television that had been wheeled in by the janitor. I was expecting to be warned about the dangers of railroad crossings. The video suffering from the neglect of nobody adjusting the contrast on the television for at least ten years and the audio suffering from a build up of static and the wear of repeated viewings. Instead of the dangers of railroads or a lesson in science or geography you have instead been heavily dosed with LSD. As it sets in a long suppressed memory comes to the fore and plays out on screen. The demons are set loose and become a horrendous reminder of a life you aren’t sure if you did or didn’t live. That is what Possum was to me.

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Visually and audio wise Possum is a masterpiece. Think Scarfolk Council and you are there. Remove all humour and insert forgotten trauma instead. The music is haunting and used along with sound effects to great effect. Drifting in and out like that worn out VCR copy you probably watched a hundred times in your time at school. The story is disturbing and even though slow captivates you and keeps you engaged. It builds and builds in tension throughout and it never lets you truly understand what is happening. For a lot of people today that sounds poor, but to me it was brilliant. Why does the missing person story keep appearing? Is it relevant? What is the significance of his step dad? Is that really there? And so on and so on.

The only issue I had with it was a poorly executed ending. It sure is disturbing but it ultimately fell flat for me. But then again I feel that is what the horror genre suffers from most of all. It is hard to wrap up such subjects, especially ones as bleak as this. Ultimately you should watch it and let those suppressed memories come flooding back.

Reviewed by Paul Beech

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Book review: Some Dark Holler by Luke Bauserman

Ephraim Cutler is a 16 year boy, living in the backwoods of Appalachia in the aftermath of the American Civil War. His mother hasn’t been right since his father was killed in the war, killed by a Union bullet. She blackmails him into taking revenge by killing an innocent Yankee, so Ephraim, forced to choose between killing an innocent man or the death of his mother, commits murder. To try and redeem himself, he flees into the forest, but unknown to him, there’s more powerful and sinister forces than the local townsfolk after him, and soon he has a hellhound on his tail.

Some Dark Holler is richly evocative of it’s setting, drawing heavily on Appalachian folklore. I found this to be one of the most interesting aspects of the book, seeing how traditional European beliefs had changed when transplanted to America; the hellhound is a real dog reanimated by a black magic ritual rather than the spectral hound you may be more familiar with, there’s also a granny doctor, an old woman wise in the ways of healing, similar to the wise women of old. It certainly made me want to find out more about the folk tales the author drew on. Luckily, he’s produced a book on this very subject, which is available free from his website, which I’m looking forward to reading.

The plot itself moves along at a fair old gallop, with a fair few twists and turns. Although it’s the first book in a series, it’s satisfying as a stand alone book. I’ll certainly be picking up the sequel when it comes out this year.

More info at www.lukebauserman.com, where as well as his previously mentioned ebook, the author also blogs about local folklore, so well worth checking out.

Review by Scott Lyall

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.

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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

Wyrd Kalendar; A Year of the Truly Unusual

The turning of the year provides ‘Tales From The Black Meadow’ author Chris Lambert with the thematic basis for his new ‘Wyrd Kalendar’ compendium, a collaboration with illustrator and Folk Horror Revival creator Andy Paciorek. Each darkly spun tale matches with a chosen month of the year, providing a folkloric and portmanteau feel to the book, with Paciorek’s richly detailed and haunting artwork prefacing the individual chapters.

This work therefore takes us from the frostbitten and hungry underground denizen in January’s ‘The Resolution’ (a tale of Lovecraftian imagination with a conclusion that will stay with you long after you have closed the pages of the book) to the terrifying timeslips of ‘February 31st’, the ‘king for a day’ twists and turns of April’s chilling ‘Chasing The Gowk’ to the twisted and disturbed nursery rhyme of ‘May Pole’. As the wheel of the year spins increasingly faster the sense of the unsettling and macabre if anything increases, ‘June Bug’s hugely effective body horror is reminiscent of one of Nigel Kneale’s scripts from ‘Beasts’ whilst July’s ‘Grotto Day’ is a deeply unusual and disquieting take on the brownie or ‘little people’ legend. August’s ‘The Weeping Will Walk’ is distilled folk horror, both subtle and suggestive in what darkness lies within the village ritual; October’s ‘The Field’ continues this folkloric aspect to even bloodier and satisfyingly grimmer heights. There is a distinct filmic or theatrical quality inherent in these dread tales; one can easily imagine a number of these being either staged or filmed; never mind ‘A Ghost Story For Christmas’, how about ‘A Ghost Story For Each Season’? November’s pitch black poem ‘All Saint’s Day’ (where the blood almost drips from the page) and December’s festive yet foreboding ‘Santa Claus And The Witch’ bring the Kalendar to a fittingly horrific close; yet there is the distinct impression that the spectres and wraiths contained herein will undoubtedly start back at their practices as before, the cycle of the year bringing them once more to terrible and terrifying life.

For aficionados of folk horror, weird fiction (especially readers of Robert Aickman’s dark and unusual stories), of Lambert’s excellent previous outing ‘Tales From The Black Meadow’ and of Paciorek’s intricate and beautiful ink work this volume comes highly recommended. We all must keep and mark our time; why not do so with the Wyrd Kalendar?

Grey Malkin.

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