Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Robin Redbreast (1970) dir. James MacTaggart

from the BBC's A Play for Today

Logline: Unmarried, upper-middle class urbanite Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) moves into the country home she acquired in a recent breakup with a long-term partner. Once settled in, Norah begins to meet the village's few eccentric inhabitants who, despite their seemingly benign intentions, have something sinister planned for their new neighbor.

The shot opens on the exterior of a great stone church in the country. The camera zooms in towards the church's massive front window, inviting us inside the building as its bells chime over the soundtrack and a ponderous priest prattles away, extolling the grace of the Lord and his beneficence in allowing the town the bounty of its spring harvest. When the camera enters the church for us, and the priest continues his prattling, we're greeted by a most curious sight: there is no priest (though his voice continues to echo), nor are there any parishioners. The pews stand empty, as does the altar. This ghostly sight shifts into a montage as the frame cuts to static images of various items displayed in the church in honor of the village's Harvest Festival. Images of bounteous fruits, vegetables, and eggs then give way to close-ups of dead animals-- rabbits and chickens, specifically-- fading like spirits in reverse into existence on the bare white altar. The screen cuts quickly between further close-ups of these animals' vacant, bloodied faces as the priest wraps up his prayer of thanks to the Lord. In this moment, we see this food and these corpses not as a celebration of a higher power's gifts to the village, but as an offering of appeasement to that higher power, in hopes of attaining a similar harvest next spring. Almost precisely at the midpoint of director James MacTaggart's Robin Redbreast, the seemingly typical and unremarkable face of drab organized modern religion and culture collides with ancient pagan ritual in a macabre visual paean to sacrifices and offerings, to ghosts of seasons long past, and to death and the life it brings.

Broadcast in 1970 during the inaugural series of the BBC's long-running A Play for Today, Robin Redbreast is one of the great neglected gems of '70s English TV filmmaking. Starring Anna Cropper (of "The Exorcism") and written by John Bowen (who would go on to write two installments of the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas as well as one of the other surviving episodes of Dead of Night, "A Woman Sobbing"), the film should be of immediate interest to any admirers of English TV horror. However, the previous commercial unavailability of Robin Redbreast has made the film one more frequently written about than actually seen, a status shared by far too many English TV productions from the 1960s and 1970s, of which some have been lost outright. Though the original color print no longer exists, the film was preserved as a monochrome 16mm print in the BBC's archives. Recently restored and released by the BFI in the best condition possible, this subtle and menacing tale of rural folk horror is now available to the public for appreciation of both its unique sense of dread and its influence on later English horrors.

At its opening, the film introduces us to its heroine, Norah Palmer, as she converses with her snooty London-based friends about her plans to move into a country cottage for a stay of undetermined length. Her move is motivated by her desire to learn to live on her own in the wake of the breakup of an eight-year-long relationship. Wealthy, middle-aged, childless, and unmarried ("sex-starved, as they say," she sighs), Norah looks at her temporary residence in the country as a chance to adjust to her new existence. Although she clearly values independence in her personal life and career, we sense that the dissolution of her steady relationship has created a certain mid-life desperation within her. She recognizes that her unconventional lifestyle will inevitably bestow upon her a social stigma that her relationship previously obscured; she'll be judged by her friends and acquaintances as a woman who sought to avoid the constraints of marriage and thus suffered for it. Despite her obvious upper-middle class self-absorption, Norah is a progressive woman-- career-minded and contraceptive-popping-- and thus sympathetic for her refusal to conform to society's expectations for her. While she wouldn't want to live any other way, she also recognizes the need for self-reliance when faced with the potential loneliness and scorn such a lifestyle may bring. 

Therefore, her choice of the country as the location in which to build up this tolerance is one based in naivety about the countryside's population and its acceptance of modern sensibilities. Like her fellow city-dwellers, Norah imagines the rural villages of England to be peaceful, serene, and almost entirely devoid of human life and contact. The country, she figures, is a place where one can escape society's leering eyes and disdainful judgement. Her friends back home laugh to themselves about how she'll have nothing to do in the country but sit around  all day and develop a drinking problem. Whether the countryside heals or drives one mad, it's clear that these urbanites consider it a place of total isolation. It is this misapprehension of the rural sphere and the slow realization of the country life's sinister complexities that provide much of Robin Redbreast's horrific appeal.

It's not long after Norah arrives in her new home that she's intruded upon by the village's fellow residents. Her housemaid-- Mrs. Vigo (Freda Bamford)-- stands never far out of earshot, the stoic and scholarly Fisher (Bernard Hepton) invites himself into her garden looking for bits of archaeological interest, and her perpetually axe-wielding neighbor-- Peter (Cyril Cross)-- swings his tool incessantly just outside her window. The only village resident she takes a liking to is the young, hunky Robin (Andy Bradford), who is an appealing physical attraction for her but an intellectual bore. And, as with the other villagers, her unambiguous rejection of Robin does little to deter him from lurking outside her abode at all hours of the night. Everything Norah says or does is soon common knowledge among all of those who live in the village, the network of communication surrounding her being eerily comprehensive and instantaneous. The countryside may not provide the all-encompassing isolation that Norah imagined, but the lack of privacy she discovers is still enough to push one into madness. 

What becomes apparent through Norah's interactions with her new neighbors is the quiet menace of rural hospitality. All of the villagers she encounters are ostensibly friendly and helpful, but it's impossible not to perceive a forced ignorance in their words and actions, as if they could have predicted her various troubles-- rats in the walls, an unattached drainpipe, a bird in the chimney, missing contraceptives-- before they occurred and are attempting to conceal that knowledge. Their selfless, nearly patronizing generosity feels perfunctory and full of secret meaning, with every action they take part of a familiar routine that they're all silently chuckling over. Our suspicions develop along with Norah's, and by the third act she's spouting aloud the same mad notions about the villagers' motives that have been silently forming in our minds from the start. By that point, the villagers' hospitality has evolved into a smiling imprisonment. They cut Norah's phone line and disable her car all while pretending to be of assistance in remedying both. Their slow but deliberate seizure of the concerns of Norah's daily life wrests away the very control and self-reliance that she sought by moving to the country. They maintain their ruse of generosity up until the point that they're breaking down her door and dropping down through her chimney brandishing weapons. These country folk are an unflappable lot, totally committed to seeing their wicked plan through in as ironically benign a manner as possible. 

But it's the reversal of Norah's fortunes with regard to the villagers' intentions for her that provides the film's most ironic twist. The fact that, as it turns out, the villagers don't intend to sacrifice her to their pagan gods appears oddly disappointing to both Norah and the audience. Her self-absorbed Me vs. Them urban paranoia of country folk and their ways is somewhat deflated by her relative uselessness in their ritualistic scheme. She's demoted from the sacrificial victim, or the "prized bull," to the fertile earth that grows the next offering through an orchestrated pregnancy. In the villagers' patriarchal worldview, it's the blood of men that blesses the earth, with women as mere wombs employed to bear such useful kings. For a woman who thrives on her own status as an autonomous subject, the notion of being considered as little more than a reproductive vessel is a horrifying prospect. In this way, the villagers' vaguely sinister actions resemble a Paganist variation on the Satanists' coddling of Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968). The ancient conservative practices and beliefs of country society prevent any possibility for a modern woman like Norah to establish her own female identity. From the villagers' perspective, a woman of her type is disposable, but also far from their definition of a worthy sacrifice: they'll use her, but they won't glorify her.

With all revealed, Norah sees no choice but to hop into her miraculously repaired automobile and speed away from the village back towards the city she previously fled from. A final glance she casts behind her from the comfort of the driver's seat catches a momentary image of the assembled villagers in their true forms: they appear to her in ancient ceremonial garb, as emblems of a repressive society of superstition and tradition that's horrifying not for its explicit violence but for its patriarchal lack of interest in the individual woman. For them, Norah is the old hen that lays the egg to be offered on their sacrificial altar. If she refuses to lay it, they can always find another chicken. But, most chillingly, they're certain she'll lay the egg for them eventually: what's a woman like Norah to do, raise a child on her own in the big city while those around her silently cast judgement? The grinning, folksy paganism of Robin Redbreast would be revisited a few years later in Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973) (and then again, more specifically, in The Wicker Tree (2011)), but neither film explores this singular horror of gendered insignificance.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Exorcism (1972) dir. Don Taylor

from the BBC's Dead of Night

Logline: Two upper-middle class couples retreat to a refurbished country house for the weekend. All seems well until the lights go out and the wine begins to taste like blood: for this house had a previous occupant, and she's not soon to let her and her children be forgotten.

"The Exorcism" was the first short film to be broadcast in the fall of 1972 under the masthead of BBC2's short-lived horror anthology series Dead of Night. Of the seven episodes produced for the series, only three have survived past their initial broadcast, the rest having fallen victim to the BBC's reckless tape scrubbing practices of the era. (These three are now available on home video thanks to the tireless efforts of the BFI.) If "The Exorcism" is in any way indicative of the relative quality of those lost episodes, then their deletion is a tremendous tragedy. Written and directed by Don Taylor (who would go on to direct "During Barty's Party" and "Buddy Boy," the two most peculiar and formally innovative installments of Nigel Kneale's Beasts (1976)), this inaugural entry balances its creeping supernatural unease with damning (if slightly blunt) social criticism of the middle class for their ignorance of the history of England's rural strife and for tastelessly encroaching upon the land and homes that now serve as those poor folks' mausoleums.

It begins with a set-up as familiar to English psychological and supernatural horror as teenagers at a summer camp is to the American slasher: near Christmas, a well-off middle-aged couple, Rachel and Edmund (Anna Cropper and Edward Petherbridge), decides to spend the weekend at their country home far outside of London, inviting another couple, Margaret and Dan (Sylvia Kay and Clive Swift), to join them for the usual entertainment of copious food, wine, and banal conversation. Once they have safely arrived, the drab talk commences, revolving exclusively around Rachel and Edmund's blathering about their attempts at renovating the musty old house while Margaret and Dan offer snide compliments and condolences over having picked up this obvious bargain of a property. (Margaret snaps about her distaste for those couples she knows who live in posh London flats during the week and then insist on "living like cavemen on the weekends" in the rustic country without the amenities and modernization that Rachel and Edmund have at least attempted to install in their new rural getaway.)

As the inane conversations progress, we then hear Edmund and Dan trade off pithy quips about their skewed notion of Marxist theory and their mutual adherence to the notion that they must "concentrate on how to be socialists and rich." Because if you're thrust into a bourgeois society (and happen to land near the top of the social heap), you may as well make the most of your situation, however much you may resent it on philosophical grounds, right? The hypocrisy and bizarre but "rational" cognitive dissonance of this cast of pampered buffoons would be sickening if it weren't so comedic: we learn at dinner that Edmund has installed a spotlight above the dining table that shines directly down onto his carving plate, imbuing the feast with an opulent dramatic flair. The sight inspires Dan to guffaw at the difficulty Edmund should have in calling himself a socialist when in possession of such an extravagant set-up, immediately before uncorking his own expensive, decades-old bottle of Burgundy.

When the house's lights and phone die out for no discernible reason, the slow burn of audience irritation with these couples evolves into a darkly comedic pathos as supernatural happenings begin to spoil their enjoyment of their privileged luxuries: Edmund describes the wine as tasting unmistakably like blood, Dan and Margaret find the turkey to feel like fire in their guts, and Rachel discovers the skeletal corpse of a child soiling her bed's linen before vanishing. Ever the narcissists, the foursome attempt to rationally explain away the paranormal activity as individualized mass hysteria, or a shared distortion of perception affecting each of them in different ways. "We must be a very strong-minded lot," quips Dan after their "mass hallucination" prevents Edmund from being able to shatter a glass window pane with a hammer. The house and its ghost, frustrated with the couples' exceedingly "rational" inability to take a hint, decide to make their displeasure glaringly apparent. Tremors shake the set, causing the recently installed plaster walls to crumble and fall, revealing the cold, ancient brick that lies buried underneath. In this moment, the house physically rejects the structural improvements that Edmund and Rachel have used to conceal and ignore the history contained within. In another sense, the house is also rejecting the abhorrent presence of its new owners, making the exorcism of the film's title an ironic reversal of genre expectations: sometimes the spirits need to exorcise us.

Refusing to have its story erased along with the house, the film's ghost comes forward to address the intruders, taking momentary possession of the psychically sensitive Rachel to tell its sad tale. Through her medium, we learn that this phantasm was a poor widow of a past century who died of starvation in the house along with her children. The fortunes of the once modestly prosperous country town they lived in took a harrowing turn for the worse after the richer citizens packed up and moved their homes and business to the cities, leaving poverty and famine to wreak havoc among those unfortunate souls unable to follow suit (the woman, her soon-to-be late husband, and her children included). After her husband was executed for stealing food to feed his family, the woman ran to the town's squire (who was one of its remaining vestiges of affluence) to plead charity for her starving children. She was yelled at and chased away, but before leaving the property she crept around the squire's house and spied through a window the sight of him and his family partaking of a gluttonous feast, filled with meat, wine, and music (and so resembling that being held by our contemporary characters). What possible excuse, the ghost wails through Rachel, could justify the feast when "on the same planet, in the same village, people are starving"? Though this monologue veers into heavy-handedness-- overlong as it is and with its proclamations of the world's injustices as proof of the absence of God-- it also possesses a curious and affecting poetic power. The characters' upstairs discovery of the ghostly sunken corpses of the dead woman and her starved children locked in a dying embrace, along with their subsequent understanding of their personal karmic ills and the hunger-for-a-hunger retribution they must receive from beyond the grave in recompense, gives credence to the vengeful ghost's despairing words (as spoken through her medium) about the the earth's perpetually divided and violent social foundations: "This world is man's work. I recognize it by the bloodstains."

Yet as often as the script tips its hand, the film itself remains restrained and elusive. Largely without an ambient soundtrack, the setting is engulfed in a sense of emptiness and vacancy, befitting the characters' pronouncement after the supernatural force has taken hold of them that the world outside is nothing but darkness and silence. The only pieces of music played throughout the running time are those that are occasionally played on the modernized parlor's anachronistic clavichord, its antiquated strains of baroque melodies underlining the lingering presence of the home's ancient history despite the new tenants' every effort at "improvement." 

Featuring a small, single-set location, a limited cast of actors, and a preponderance of dialogue over action, the film's visual style (like much of '70s British TV drama) takes its cues from the theatre by using the camera to capture long, largely static takes of the various conversations that transpire, the frame alternating between close-ups and long shots depending upon where an audience member's gaze would naturally be drawn. The few violations of this visual approach are striking for their difference and impart an amusingly cynical import to those unexpected images captured. Chief among these illuminating visual surprises is a cut between the climax of the ghostly action and a slow zoom into the face of the parlor's television set, that (at the time) prime symbol of middle class frivolousness and excess in contrast to lower class poverty and starvation. The implication for the audience watching "The Exorcism" in 1972 on their very own television sets in their comfortable English households was, of course, the complicity and guilt they share with those drab, superficial characters they were just recently snickering at on screen. We all tune in to tune out the rest of the world, the film reminds us privileged few, but those abused, hungry masses of history outside preparing to claw at our doors certainly haven't forgotten about us.