Folk Horror for the Atomic Age

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Folk horror is one of those nebulous sub-genres that seems, when one first sets out to define it, relatively simple. Yet the longer one dwells on it, the more one is exposed to it, the more complicated the definition becomes, until at last one simply throws up one’s hands and exclaims, “Well, I know it when I see it.” It is a subgenre, or a movement, or a style (like film noir, we can’t even agree on what descriptive category of thing it is) that lends itself to personal interpretation. At its core a British phenomenon, it is nevertheless easily adapted to the experience of someone like me, who grew up on a remote farm in Kentucky surrounded by local legends and ghost stories and who watched those vast woods surrounding the farm get whittled away year by year, by development and the need to claim the land for electric towers and other accoutrements of the modern landscape that stride across rural picturesque with the brazen disregard of one of the tripods in The War of the Worlds.

Still, as fluid as the interpretation of folk horror can be, there are a few basic tenets that serve as a foundation and that are, if not always present in every story within the style, certainly important to the formation of its core philosophy. First and foremost is the setting. Folk horror might be reconfigurable based on personal insight and experience, but it is almost always tied in some way to the land, and the genre’s most notable stories all take place at least partially in some remote, rural village or isolated farming country. Often, this remote rural pastorale is threatened by the encroachment of the modern, often in the form of an industrial development, a research team, or some mysterious military presence. Usually, the central character is an outsider. The outsider may be benevolent, may be antagonistic, but usually, no matter their intentions, their very presence brings about dire consequences. Finally there is, under it all,  some ancient belief or legend or power, generally pre-Christian and pagan in nature, that is awakened by the presence of the outsider, disturbed by the march of industrial landscape through the green lands. A conflict inevitably arises between the ancient and the modern, whether it’s a sacred glen versus the need to build a highway or old pagan custom threatened by Christian expansion.

Given how tied to the land, how seemingly “agrarian” folk horror is, it might not seem the most fertile of places to go digging for science fiction. But folk horror and science fiction have a longstanding bond, and certain characteristics of the science fiction that arose in the atomic age share quite a bit with folk horror. HP Lovecraft is not considered by most fans of folk horror to be a writer of folk horror himself, though many of his stories showcase elements of the style. But in Lovecraft, there are definitely the seeds of a melding between folk horror and science fiction, a coupling that would come to fruition most prominently in 1955’s Quatermass 2, the BBC’s sequel series to the highly popular The Quatermass Experiment. The Quatermass Experiment was relatively straight-forward science fiction. Quatermass 2 took the science fiction and explored it within the framework of folk horror. The action was set in a rural community. Professor Bernard Quatermass is the outsider who stumbles upon a mysterious and horrifying secret. Rather than having to do with witchcraft or pagan rites or some long forgotten deity, the threat in Quatermass 2 is born of the atomic age. Despite the lack of stone circles and fairy folk, pretty much everyone mentions Quatermass 2 when they do a survey of the best in folk horror.

My personal favorite atomic age folk horror tale came a few years after the third in the Quatermass series, all of which were adapted for the cinema by Hammer Studios. Like the Quatermass movies, it came from Hammer. These Are the Damned (1961, but not released until 1963) is a curious film that effectively pulls off the difficult stunt of starting off as one type of story but ending up a very different type. As one nears the end of These Are the Damned, one wonders how the hell it ended up where it did — but upon examining the progress of the film, it makes sense. It is equal parts crime melodrama, science fiction, and “atomic age” folk horror within the realm of pioneered by Quatermass 2. There is the remote setting, here the seaside resort town of Weymouth that despite its tourist trade still feels isolated. There’s the naive outsider in the form of American wanderer Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey). There’s suspicious locals, headed up by juvenile delinquent Joan (Shirley Anne Field) and her over-protective brother and gang leader King (Oliver Reed, who probably counts as an ancient and primeval force of nature). There’s even something like old pagan statues or stone circles dotting the remote landscape, in the form of a Bohemian sculptor’s bizarre creations, often perched at the edge of cliffs overlooking the tumultuous sea. If the camera pulled back and revealed a wicker man on the hill behind her artist’s bungalow, no one would be surprised.

Based on the first half of the film, one could be forgiven for thinking this a juvenile delinquent film, and that “the damned” referenced in the title are the gang of directionless youths engaged in random acts of petty mischief and violence, for whom the quaint British seaside isn’t inspiring but is instead smothering. Among these activities is using Joan to lure unsuspecting, horny tourists down alleys where the gang can mug them, which is how Joan initially meets Simon. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange had been published just a year prior, and it’s obvious that Alex and his droogs served as a model for King and his cronies. Even A Clockwork Orange‘s delinquents seem petty and childish at first, until all of a sudden we learn they’re capable of some truly nightmarish crimes. Similarly, while the teddy boys who open These Are the Damned seem to be mostly about wearing funny little hats and causing minor disturbances as the local arcade, Oliver Reed lends King an air of pent-up potential ultra-violence. It is a minor bit of shame that the gang is otherwise so ludicrous. At times like Eric Von Zipper would be a more suitable leader for their shenanigans, which consist of a lot of movie gang usuals like walking funny, aggressive crossing the street against the light, lockstep marching while whistling the movie’s theme song, and pestering women by saying “‘ere, ere’ ere, wot’s all this then? A pret’y bird? ‘ello, luv!” On top of that, there’s the film’s theme song, courtesy of a bunch of old British guys trying to write hip, young music. Mention the film to anyone who knows it, and you are guaranteed that a good many of the responses will just be people citing the lyrics to the movie’s absurd but dangerously catchy “Black Leather” theme song.

Joan doesn’t feels guilty about leading Simon to a beating (later, we’ll all feel that he kind of deserved it anyway), but she finds him interesting, or at least different from her brother and the comical buffoons he leads. She seeks Simon out, finding him aboard his boat and eventually deciding to play hooky from the gang with him. King doe snot approve, and so begins a wild chase across a British seaside that goes from lovely to menacing very quickly. As Joan’s brother and protector, Oliver Reed’s King is set up to be the obvious villain, dogging Joan and her new lover Simon with increasing obsession, but he is a much more complex character than one expects, a man who is protective of his sister because the two of them have grown up on their own and have seen nothing but the worst in people. So King expects the worst of any man who shows an interest in Joan (a more incestuous jealously is apparently implied in the novel on which the movie is based, though Hammer chose to tone that down in order to avoid trouble with the censors).

Similarly, American traveler Simon is set up as a good-natured dope, but he quickly reveals a sleazy side from which his character’s likability never fully recovers. He remains someone nominally the protagonist but, we can’t help but remember, with something a little sinister lurking beneath the surface. If the film has one weakness, it’s the forced romance between Simon and Joan. There is no chemistry between the two, and the film’s insistence that there is is only made more awkward by some of the stilted dialogue the two are supposed to sling at each other. One can’t wait for their romantic interludes to be interrupted by Oliver Reed’s scowling face appearing at the window. There’s never anything on display that makes it believable Joan would become intrigued by this guy, though it is interesting that she initially thinks him rather gallant only to discover, to her horror, that her brother was right, and Simon is just one more guy that wants to get into her Capri pants, even if he’s less coarse in going about it than the average street hood. Simon remains kind of a load, the guy you think is OK to be around in a group but don’t want to hang out with one-on-one. Especially if you are a woman.

Beatnik-y sculptor Freya (Viveca Lindfors) is the film’s most interesting character other than King, though also it’s most cryptic. She’s a beatnik-y artist who for some reason is involved with the enigmatic military doctor Bernard (Alexander Knox). It seems she might be interested in him mostly because he represents a frustrating unknown. As Freya says to him, public servants are the only servants who get to keep secrets from their masters. She professes a complicated personal philosophy that vacillates between cynicism and idealism an is the closest thing to a voice of reason. Simon is too clueless, King too violent, and Bernard too coldly logical. When she discovers the nature of Bernard’s work, Freya has the most insightful reaction to it (“Inherit what?”). When King shows up at her remote cliffside bungalow searching for his sister, Freya recognizes him as something akin to a dangerous animal but isn’t afraid to break him down psychologically, a battle of wills that ends when King goes nuts and starts smashing Freya’s creepy sculptures, ranting about how they’re hollow inside and reducing Freya to a panic. She has a run-in with one of King’s gang as well, in a surprising bit of character development for the too-old-to-be-a-delinquent teddy that leads to rumination on the directionlessness and impotent frustration of Britain’s post-war generation with the stiff-upper-lip, God-save-the-Queen types of the previous generation berating them and the promise of nuclear war making everything seem pointless anyway.

Then there’s the horrible secret at the military base outside of town, and it’s something far worse than Ollie Reed’s camp gang of teddy boys. As the film winds its way toward the introduction of it shocking science fiction twist, viewers encounter a second group of the damned, another group of youths who feel smothered and directionless.. Whatever levity might have come from the theme song and the gang’s antics is all but forgotten once Joan, Simon, and King end up in the caves beneath the military facility. There they discover something that becomes increasingly more horrific and tragic the more one learns about it. A group of children use the caves as a hide-out, an escape from what is revealed to be an Orwellian underground laboratory in which they are subjects of some sort of education and medical experimentation. The y are observed in every aspect of their being by Bernard, who only speaks to them by telepresence. When one of the military men does visit the children in person, he does so clad head to toe in protective gear. The unexpected arrival of Joan, Simon, and King stirs up the rebellious feelings that have been simmering amongst the children, who are as in the dark as to the nature of their circumstances as the outsiders.

The palpable sense of horrified frustration comes to a head in a dramatic finale that ends in devastatingly bleak fashion. I always love a good juxtaposition of the quaint and expected with the futuristic, and this film’s seaside setting suddenly crawling with men in radiation suits is particularly unnerving. Freya’s macabre sculptures take on a different character, and as they are left scattered around her clifftop house it becomes chilling just how much they resemble the ghostly shadows left behind in Hiroshima after the atomic blast. In Hammer’s more famous horror films, good might have eventually triumphed over evil in the end, but in These Are the Damned, we’re afforded no such catharsis. There are no good guys, no bad guys, no solutions. The assumption of atomic annihilation inevitability looms over everything, and thus it introduces one final group of “the damned”: the entire human race, who despite fantasies to the contrary about leather jumpsuits and shoulder pads and dune buggies, has no hope whatsoever of surviving a nuclear war of the type people expected during the Cold War (incidentally, much is made about the cold body temperature of the children, them being true products of the Cold War). Black leather may smash and kill, but it’s no match for radiation suits and government men in tweed.

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These Are the Damned confounded Hammer’s marketing department, who had no idea how to sell it to audiences. Horror? Science fiction? Director Joseph Losey scored a minor film noir classic with The Prowler, and there’s definitely elements of the crime film and noir in These Are the Damned as well (Losey went on to direct the Eurospy farce Modesty Blaise and one of the most infamous Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor films, Boom! and had previously directed one of Hammer’s first forays into scifi-horror, a Quatermass cash-in called X the Unknown in 1956). When it made its way across the Atlantic, American distributors were at a loss as well. They cut it down from 87 minutes to 77 (British censors had already chopped it from the original 96 minute run-time) slapped together some poster art that implied it was a semi-sequel to the popular horror film Village of the Damned and changed the original British title (which was simply The Damned) to These Are the Damned to make the fake connection more convincing.

It did nothing at the box office despite some critics praising it (the New York Times, among others, was particularly enthusiastic) and lapsed into near total obscurity, even during the home video era. It wasn’t really until it started showing up on television channels like Turner Classic Movies as part of Halloween season marathons that many people got to see the movie. That’s how I first saw it, and it became an instant obsession for me, a mesmerizing film that lends itself to repeat viewing and always seems to contain new layers. Although based on the book Children of Light by H.L. Lawrence, if you told me this had been based on a treatment for another Quatermass film, I’d believe you (there’s even a guy in it named Bernard, after all). Like Quatermass 2, it examines the atomic age through the lens of classic British folk horror tropes. Unfortunately, there’s no Professor Quatermass here to save the day; just a lost young woman, a seedy American insurance salesman, and an unstable teddy boy with a nice umbrella.

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4 Comments

  1. It also has James Villiers, playing a character a little like one of those “toff” characters (I guess that’s the right label) he was so good at playing.

  2. Yeah. An uneven film to be sure but well worth while. The first third to half was kind of “yeah, ok,” for me. But as soon as the story of the children kicks in it, it’s “wow!.” McDonald Carey, an American actor who spent most of his later career on the daytime soap “Days of our Lives,” even begins to warm up for me in the second act. The artist, Freya (beautifully played by Viveca Lindfors) was a real stand out. Her character was most likely the Losey stand-in. Her conversations with military doctor, Bernard (Alexander Knox), were some of my favorite parts of the film. The whole secret of the child project is bleak, cynical, horrible and nihilistic. Everyone is completely and totally eff’ed at the end of this one. They either lose their life or their soul.

    Aside from it’s genre trappings this is a very personal “art film.” You don’t mention it but Joseph Losey was a blacklisted American director who went to England to continue his career. He did have a left leaning bent. I love his American film “The Boy with Green Hair” about WW II orphans and being a shunned outcast that doesn’t fit in, starring the young Dean Stockwell(!) as the titular boy. Most of his filmography is a little difficult to find on DVD. Scanning the reviews, Losey seems to be hit-and-miss but he definitely had a personal viewpoint as a director and that was often not easy path.

    I always enjoy any new piece by you, man! Thanks!

  3. Pingback: There Are Witches In The Woods – Monstrous Industry

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