The Supernatural On Film Part 2
Films can shape writers as much as books. My love of the supernatural stems from the earliest films I saw, although none were from Hollywood except ‘The Haunting’. On Sundays we always had double cinema bills of old – sometimes very old – films. It was a great cheap way of catching up with what you’d missed.
The supernatural movies I saw this way were ‘Night of the Demon’, ‘The Innocents’, ‘Village of the Damned’, the Quatermass films and ‘Dead of Night’, one of the few anthology films that really works, along with ‘From Beyond The Grave’, with its eerie pairing of real-life father and daughter Donald and Angela Pleasance.
It always surprised me that there weren’t more British supernatural films, because supernatural literature was born in our hillsides and woodlands, from MR James to Robert Aickman. More recently, a movement of ‘rural folk supernatural’ films has appeared, citing titles like ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Wake Wood’, ‘Night of the Eagle’, ‘A Field In England’ and ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’.
Andrew Michael Hurley’s beautifully observed novel ‘The Loney’ returned to the rural supernatural by allowing religious elements back into nature as the early 20th century writers did, but we’ve lacked a film equivalent. Supernatural themes need a sense of the unknowable, and Hammer’s directors were far too unsubtle to allow for the mysterious.
The closest I can think of, oddly enough, is ‘Kill List’. Wheatley has – or at least can sometimes have – a sense of strangeness it’s hard to shake off, and the film’s late left-turn into the unknown leaves a real mark.
Hammer stands out more uniquely than ever now that its films have become a peculiar pastime for middle-aged-to-elderly folk to pore over as if they were trainspotting. The films that caused such outrage could now (mostly) be released under general certification, and can finally be seen for what they are – an interconnected series of European chamber fables, rich in folk lore and superstition.
They are static and verbose, replete with overheated arguments about good and evil, and feel like medieval morality plays or even puppet shows. Yet for all their cod philosophising and outmoded effects, they often have a curiously sinister and supernatural atmosphere that should be laughable but isn’t because everyone takes it so seriously. If I was putting together a showcase of say, six Hammer films that say something about the supernatural, I’d choose ‘Dracula, Prince of Darkness’, ‘Brides of Dracula’, ‘Plague of the Zombies’, ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’, ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’ and ‘The Reptile’.
As a body of work they feel remarkably consistent in in their pursuit of traditional supernatural themes. In the same way, the Corman/Poe films, copying Hammer, had a claustrophobic and peculiar atmosphere of their own. Helped by the fact that they were created by teams so that the design, writing, music and casts remained consistent, these two cycles are ripe of rediscovery from a different angle; far from being shockingly new, as critics proclaimed, they were returned to much early ideas about supernatural from the literature of the past.
The Corman/Poe films are far more concerned with the melancholy of death and loss, and the taking of revenge, whereas the UK ones are riven with problems of class, morality and propriety.
The big problem is that as the grip of religion recedes, how will we reimagine the supernatural story? Perhaps it has reached the end of its line…