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.


  1. Whoa, that sounds like a weird one.

    1. Totally weird and creepy. I loved every minute of it.

  2. It's pretty interesting to hear that this film was originally shot in color. I can't imagine that third image in anything but black and white. It looks like something straight out of a nightmare. Kind of worthy of Thomas Ligotti.

    I love that simmering atmosphere of sinister intent that you described in your review. This movie and me will have to get together sometime.

    1. Unsurprisingly, that third screenshot comes piping hot out of one of the protagonist's nightmares! Chilling black and white compositions are what this film was made for, and luckily the BBC's shoddy archiving has revealed this basic fact to us.

      You should absolutely check it out. You will love it.