Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rites and Wrongs: Witchcraft in the British Horror Film

Horror loves an absence. And if there was one thing missing from England in the mid 20th century, it was religion. In the era of rock'n'roll, free love, and counterculture politics, the poor old C of E saw its numbers tumbling. Faith lost out to rationalism and secularism, and the most popular comedy troupe on television could get away with Monty Python's Life of Brian, and then go on to score an intellectual and moral victory defending it against a bishop on a chat show. Even cuddly old Doctor Who had stories bashing religion - in The Masque of Mandragora, the Doctor must defeat an evilsect which threatens the birth of the Renaissance (portrayed as the acme of humanist achievement), and in The Face of Evil, a priest goes insane and actually kills God (or at least the mad computer, which looks like Tom Baker, that he's been worshiping for years - don't ask.) They even dared to provide a rational explanation for religious phenomena; in The Daemons, an alien with big horns who's been having a centuries-long nap in his spaceship turns out to be the Devil

Ah, yes, the Devil. You see, what better antidote to all this rationalism than its exact opposite: a set of ideas built not on logic but on spells, magic, incantations, appeals to a higher power? Witchcraft in British cinema became the ultimate escape from, and the ultimate challenge to, this very dry and stark world of numbers and data. "A morbid desire to escape from reality" is how Peter Wyngarde's character, Norman Taylor, describes the appeal of superstition in Night of the Eagle (1962), but he could just as easily be defining the appeal of the horror film.

"I do not believe." That's actually the first sentence Wyngarde utters in Night of the Eagle, and it fits the template of all witchcraft movies, in that the protagonist (usually male) always starts in a position of absolute scepticism, and the tension of the film lies in how far they - and the audience - need to be pushed before they start to believe in the powers of darkness. In Night of the Demon (1957) - recently restored by the BFI and arguably the greatest film on the supernatural ever made - director Jacques Tourneur brilliantly sums up the protagonist's dilemma merely through the use of light. The first time we see psychological investigator, Holden (Dana Andrews), he's on a plane bound for London, trying to get some sleep before taking on Karswell, a wealthy aristocrat whose prowess in the dark arts Holden believes to be fraudulent. The woman sitting behind him (the daughter of one of Karswell's victims who senses the truth of his claims) is reading about the case and so has her overhead light on, a light shining directly into Holden's face. He squirms and wriggles, trying to hide his eyes from the glare, just as he will continue throughout the film to avoid facing the reality of the demon on his tail. But eventually, he cracks, and the final straw comes during a - crucially - scientific demonstration, where another man Karswell has marked for death is subjected to hypnotism, his subconscious self relaying the full horror of the demon's apparition, as he lies strapped to a chair under a bright, white light

But what exactly are these unbelievers supposed to be believing in? Unlike in, say, the vampire or werewolf movie, the nature of the threat in witchcraft films never seems to be the same twice. Dennis Wheatley's idea of devil worship is very different from Roman Polanki's, for example. The problem is that well, witchcraft never really existed. Oh, sure, it's "one of the oldest religions", as Wyngarde's nemesis, Flora Carr, puts it in Night of the Eagle, but it was never standardised or put down in holy writ; it's present in almost every culture in the history of mankind, but varies wildly from country to country. Indeed, the whole mystique of witchcraft comes from the very fact that it was never official, never publicly known about or acknowledged, the province of a few adepts. And horror movies have only muddied the waters further, gleefully jamming together any old imagery or antique hocus-pocus that sounds good and might deliver a shiver or two. So it might be worth separating out these different strands so we can better define what "movie witchcraft" really is.

We may as well start with the Historical Witch, a woman tried, tortured, burned at the stake or drowned because she was genuinely believed to have special malevolent powers. Such women are the victims of Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General (1968), Michael Reeves' superb film based on the genuine, real-life magistrate who had hundreds put to death during the English Civil War. It's from this era that the children's bogeywoman image of the old hag with pointy hat and broomstick derives, but it's worth remembering that ideas of evil, supernaturally gifted women stretch right back to Ancient Greece, to the goddess Hecate and her greatest devotee, child-killing Medea, who Ovid portrays so vividly in Metamorphoses. Of course, feminists would argue - quite rightly - that the attack on witches was really a victimisation of women, and that the portrayal of witches as libidinous young gals - as in Blood on Satan's Claw (1970), for example - is part of a tradition that casts female desire as a potentially troublesome force in society, and women's ability to enchant and seduce as something of which every male should be suspicious.

Then there is the rural Wise Woman of peasant lore, halfway between a local healer, applying poultices and dishing out herbal remedies for fevers and chilblains, and the inheritor of received wisdom passed down through the generations. Much of that "wisdom" is religious in nature - the passing on of pagan ritual, for example, in recently Christianised countries. Indeed, religion itself complicates witchcraft more than anything, as symbols and ideas from one faith are adopted and reworked in another - the iconography of Jesus Christ mirrors that of his Ancient Greek forebear, Apollo, for example. Which may be why, in Terence Fisher's Hammer horror The Devil Rides Out (1967), the script has Satan, Osiris and Set as all part of the same mythology. Furthermore, the way orthodox religions have demonised mystics - such as the Cabbalists (mystic Jews) and the Rosicrucians (mystic Christians) - has enabled horror writers toexploit their beliefs as an easy shorthand for heresy and evil.

This leads us to another problem - the modern world's misunderstanding of medieval science. In those days, every area of human endeavour and thought was considered to be science - so astrology and divination were taken as seriously as anatomy and physics. Alchemy - now a byword for dark chicanery and superhuman powers - was practised by many renowned philosophers and intellectuals. It was not just about turning lead into gold, it was the science of "bettering" oneself, transcending the earthly to reach spiritual perfection (notice the religious dimension). The modern institution of the Masons might itself be built on a misunderstanding of medieval practices, taking its name from the stonemasons' guilds that constructed cathedrals across Europe and jealously guarded the secrets of their trade, partly because the construction of places of worship was a holy act, but partly also to preserve their stranglehold on business. Indeed, the 20th century is awash with societies - secret and open - that claim a link back to ancient organisations and purport to continue their ideologies when, in fact, little of those ideologies was ever written down and has been all but completely lost. Think of Wicca, modern paganism, even Aleister Crowley - though he was more upfront and arrogant about creating his own religion, and has become the model for every Satanist mage ever since, particularly Mocata in The Devil Rides Out.

Ah, yes, devil worship - did it ever really exist? Not really, not as an organised religion. Perhaps the closest we've ever come to it is those poor, deluded Goths in the US who dress up in black robes and buy "Satanist Bibles" from the Mind, Body, Spirit section. But that hasn't stopped horror film makers conflating it with witchcraft since time immemorial. But if we look back over these various "types" of witchcraft, an intriguing thread emerges - that of the transfer of knowledge. And the witch - as opposed to the mage or sorcerer - is typed as female. The Wise Woman, thanks to her class, is illiterate, and thanks to her sex, is precluded from the education reserved for young males. And yet, she is the receiver of wisdom which they know nothing of. In other words, one could argue, that in a patriarchal society, the witch represents the female intellectual.

This idea is literalised in Night of the Eagle, when female professor Flora Carr laughs at her rivalNorman Taylor's typically masculine attempts to define and rationalise what is happening, as she uses supernatural forces to undermine his promotion over her. Her final triumph comes in an absolutely ingenious sequence where, cornered in his own classroom, Taylor retreats from the demon which he believes is about to slay him, and backs into the blackboard and the words he wrote for his own students earlier in the film - "I do not believe" - rubbing out the word "not" as he writhes in terrorIn The Witches (1966) -Hammer'sunderrated contribution to the genre, which has recently been restored and shown at the London Film Festival - Joan Fontaine's schoolteacher, Gwen, finds that the local village is in thrall to a secret coven. At one point, she is asked to write and direct the annual children's pageant, which she constructs round the theme of inventors. In response to a girl asking why she must dress as a man, Gwen delivers the gloriously sexist line (from scriptwriter Nigel Kneale) "no woman ever invented anything." But later, she discovers that the coven is led by a woman, Stephanie (Kay Walsh), who sees herself as both the pioneer and the inheritor of a new form of life - immortality - which she has discovered by researching old tomes and esoteric texts as if they were a "science". This idea of witchcraft as science is picked up on in almost every film under discussion here and is crucial to the power it exerts over our imagination. As Stephanie says, Gwen believes in the H-bomb without understanding anything of the theory behind it or how it is made. Thus, modern science seems like a kind of sorcery in itself, a fantastic force beyond the ken of the average human being, yet whose achievements are very real. You could say science makes "believers" of us all.

Witchcraft films amplify this sense of helplessness before the modern world and relate it to the general sense of paranoia in Cold War society. Lacking any monsters or physical transformations to shock us with, they scare us with the suggestion that everyone around us could be a witch, and that therefore, by implication, we do not belong. This idea is most brilliantly exploited in the king of British horror movies, The Wicker Man (1973), recently re-released in cinemas in the newly restored "medium cut". A totally sui generis one-off (Is it a horror film? An erotic comedy? A musical? Actually, it's all of these), The Wicker Man follows Christian copper, Howie, to a remote Scottish island where a little girl has been reported missing. It turns out this story is just a ruse to get him to the island where, as a virgin, he will be sacrificed to their god. And the entire island is in on it. Every single character apart from Howie is part of the sect that will destroy him. This is the ultimate paranoia trip.

But the real genius of Anthony Schaffer's script design is that, at the end, we realise the whole film has been a rite. Every action made by the community has been part of a complex ritual to make Howie the Perfect Victim; thus Britt Ekland (and her body double's) nudie scene is not gratuitous, it's a crucial testing of Howie to prove he is pure. This is why those who maintain the studio cut is actually the best version have a point - it eliminates the prologue on the mainland and gets straight to the island, making the film itself "pure" in that it is only made up of the rite from beginning to end.

Nearly 40 years later, Ben Wheatley pulls the same trick in Kill List (2011). A brilliant shaggy dog story that deliberately leads its viewers up the garden path, it appears to be about a couple of small-time hitmen tracking down some sorry-looking targets in the nowheresville of the Midlands.But their victims seem to anticipate and welcome their arrival, while everyone around them -from a seemingly normal young woman who scratches a mysterious symbol into the back of a bathroom mirror to a doctor who refuses to administer medicine and instead speaks in riddles - appear to be in on the game. It turns out their employers are members of a powerful religious sect which has marked out one of the hitmen, Jay, as a bizarre object of worship. Like Howie, he is slowly but surely being forced into a corner, one where he will be forced to ritualistically kill his wife and son. Once that's done, the film ends abruptly - the rite is over.

But these films are not just exercises in paranoia. Buried within the cheery malice of The Wicker Man is an extremely witty reflection on the clash of religions. The islanders have ensnared Howie because their crops are failing and their faith tells them that a sacrifice must be offered. But what do they use for this sacrifice? The adherent of another faith. And one who is pure in that faith, a martyr to it, repressing his lust to avoid sex before marriage, for example. In other words, it's a religion that needs another religion to define it and make its practice whole. Schaffer's point is that, although religions portray themselves as the only Way to the Truth, and demand conversion so everyone adheres to this Truth, they can only thrive in opposition to other ideas that are demonstrably different to that Truth. So that conflict - violent conflict - with another sect might actually be a route to strengthening the faith of its worshippers. Think of that in terms of modern international politics and you realise that Schaffer's seemingly light-hearted script has a deadly serious lesson hidden within it.

Other films in the genre also pick up on this religious tension. In both The Witches and Blood on Satan's Claw, the coven base their activities in a deconsecrated church, as if drawing power from the collapse of the old faith. Stephanie's brother, Alan, tries to distance himself from the witchcraft in his village by retreating into a room stuffed full of religious paraphernalia where he plays endless church organ music - Kneale's brilliant metaphor for religion as a prison of the mind, a means of not dealing withthe reality outside it - just as Howie desperately botches together a makeshift wooden cross in another desconsecrated church to bolster his trembling resolve.

Stephanie taunts Gwen by telling her that if she "gives in" to belief in the supernatural, she will have "failed"; thus, the double bind in which witchcraft, or indeed any religion,traps unbelievers is that, if they cave in, the faith has won, and if they refuse to believe the "obvious truth" before them - in the form of demons or whatever - they will not have the power to stand against it. This is what Christoper Lee's Duke de Richleau means, in The Devil Rides Out, when he tells Paul Eddington's character "You are the weak link - because you do not believe." It is almost as if the sceptic is co-erced into believing in order to defend themselves - another way in which witchcraft in these movies triumphs. Notice how Stephanie subsumes the threat of Gwen's hostility by making her part of the coven. Jay is brought - literally - into the inner circle and actually thanked for playing his part in the rite while Howie, of course, is honoured as the cherished centre of the islanders' ceremony.

It all ends darkly for Jay in Kill List, the quiet, very English applause that greets the slaughter of his wife and child an ironic counterpoint to the genuinely disturbing violence that has dominated the film to this point. The words of the high priest - that the sect is involved in "reconstruction" - echo in one's mind. What is being reconstructed? Society? Is it significant that the hitmens' victims are all avatars of the establishment - a priest, a librarian, an MP? Why the constant references to an incident in Kiev, a nebulous affair in the East involving security and bombs? Is this film covertly about Iraq, its post-traumatic effect on the English psyche (the massacre in the tunnels oddly recalls such films as Black Hawk Down with well-armed soldiers versus faceless insurgents)? And why that applause - does this old troubled squaddie need some long-denied approval..? Whatever the answer, the world portrayed reeks of manipulation, power and darkness, and it's the world of Britain today. The Wicker Man, by contrast, ends like a Shakespearean comedy with the entire cast singing and dancing (even poor old Howie is belting out a hymn). Has there ever been a happier ending in cinema history? Think about it - an entire community has come together, men, women and children, in the performance of a complex ritual and it's all gone to plan. Hooray! So let's leave it there - back in the Age of Aquarius and free love - with the ultimate triumph of paganism. The "evil" religion has won, but instead of the Cold War world of paranoia, fear of nuclear holocaust and an advanced science that we don't understand, there is convivial joy, smiling faces warmed by the setting sun, the sea breeze in our hair, and a boring, wooden Scotsman burning to death so we can have some good grub on our plates next year. And most importantly of all, there is the knowledge that we were all in it together.

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