POOR COW

27:05:17

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As Summer reluctantly hoves into view the nights get lighter and the weather warmer, a 9pm Film Night becomes harder to sustain, as movie watching is surely a pursuit that lends itself to darkness and the sense of cosiness you get when it’s pitch dark outside and an icy wind is scouring the streets. It was with a bright sun streaming through the blinds that Chris C and I settled down with a customary mug of tea each to watch Poor Cow (1967), Ken Loach‘s first foray into cinematic territory after starting his career in television.

As we’re taking our first sip of Yorkshire Tea (the best there is) Ken thrusts us headlong into a graphic birthing scene. Carol White, playing the ironically named Joy, is having a baby, presumably courtesy of her petty crook husband Tom (John Bindon). Unfortunately Tom can’t be there because he’s a 60’s thug and he has other things to do like casing joints or looking for a thinner tie or something.

Tom is abusive and treats the child as an inconvenience. Joy deserves better and she’s promised a comfortable life when his gang’s next big job comes off. Of course it doesn’t come off, and after a scuffle in a street full of shoppers a policeman holds Tom’s face against a rain drenched pavement. He’s sent to prison, giving Joy the chance to set up with Dave (Terence Stamp), a petty crook. Hang on, haven’t we been here before?

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Stamp is charismatic, good looking and kind to Joy and little Johnny. In a weird break from the London flip-side of the swinging 60s, in which most of the drama takes place, the family go on a camping holiday to the Welsh countryside. Joy and Dave make love under a waterfall. At this point in the real world it’s just getting dark outside and we’re into a can of beer each.

Dave eventually also ends up in the slammer and it’s revealed what an unpleasant criminal he actually is, unless you consider locking an old lady in a bathroom while you slap her about a bit and rob her house quite reasonable. To pay the rent and feed Johnny and herself, Joy is encouraged by a female mate to pose in a baby doll negligee for a photography club of drooling middle aged men, some of whom it transpires don’t even bother putting film in their cameras. Loach spends quite a long time on this particular scene. Just saying.

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At the seaside and in London pubs, like Hogarth’s prints Loach’s camera catches members of the non-acting public and lays their characters bare. A grimace, a gap toothed smile or a nonchalant shrug is enough, and just enough to expose a kernel of truth. There is a real skill in the creation of a collective human milieu in which to root the story of this woman and her tribulations. All to a Donovan soundtrack too.

Loach is undoubtedly an expert at filming drama with a documentary eye. The scenes of backstreet London, washing hanging limply between tenements and children playing in gutters, achieve a real beauty because of their brazenness and considered framing. There is no affectation, it seems real and unfiltered. Unfortunately Goddardesque intertitles pop up every now and again, often poorly spelled, an unforgiveable lack of attention to detail. A common device in French cinema, they seem needlessly pretentious in this very English film and add nothing to the rhythm and forward flow.

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The original novel was by Nell Dunn. Loach had previously adapted one of her other works, Up The Junction for television. Such was Terence Stamp’s fame at the time that he reputedly turned up on set in a Rolls Royce. Joy’s first husband Tom was played by dodgy actor and real life gangster John Bindon.  Famous for provoking fights and being an associate of the Krays he was acquitted of the murder of Johnny Darke in a Fulham pub in 1978, but it effectively ended his acting career and he died of AIDS in 1993.

Carol White carries the entire film with a sympathetic and wholly believable portrayal of a woman whose bad choices never carry her forward, but leave her treading water in a world of damp rooms and unreliable men. She temporarily loses Johnny at the end, but on finding him again on a derelict demolition site her true colours shine through. The constant spur to carry on is her own flesh and blood in the form of this child and his future.

White’s real life was plagued by tragedy and bad choices too. She had problems with alcohol, drugs, shoplifting and suicide attempts. She died in Florida in 1991. A television film of her life called The Battersea Bardot was shown in 1994.

And now it’s dark.

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ROOM AT THE TOP

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This is a superb film. We both agreed on that. It’s one of those works where everything  just comes together as a coherent whole and, although it has a 115 minute running time, long by Film Night standards, it never drags or sags in the middle. We weren’t the only ones to admire Room at the Top: It received six Academy Award nominations including Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Hermione Baddely, who only appears on screen for 2 minutes and 32 seconds, making it the shortest ever performance to be nominated for an Oscar.

Although the picture was released in 1959 the story actually takes place in the late 1940s, a chronology that can be worked out by careful attention to dialogue details, because relatively young men speak about their wartime experiences. Chris C did the math.

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The first things we see during the opening credits are Joe Lampton’s (Laurence Harvey) socks propped nonchalantly yet confidently on a railway carriage seat as his train pulls into the Yorkshire town of Warnley. Leaving behind the dull, poverty ridden slums and factories of his hometown Dufton, Joe has come to take a job at the Borough Treasurer’s Department.

From the second he claps eyes on Susan Brown (Heather Sears), daughter of Warnley’s industrial bigwig, he is infatuated, not only with her personal charms but also in her potential as a pathway to his dreams: A large house, a large bank balance and respect. Mr and Mrs Brown (Donald Wolfit and Ambrosine Philllpotts) send Susan abroad to prevent Joe getting his grubby, working class hands on her.

The genius of the piece is the casting of Simone Signoret as Alice Aisgill, a French woman trapped in both an unhappy marriage and a northern nothingness of a town. John Braine‘s book has Alice as a Yorkshire woman with a progressive sexual outlook, but Signoret adds a calm, knowing intelligence to the role. Her assured acting and the sensuality she exudes is the centrepiece around which the rest of the drama revolves. She is older than Joe, but the two fall in deep together. Her husband finds out, refuses a divorce and threatens to ruin Joe.

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In the end Joe marries a pregnant Susan, so he gets what he promised himself, but a tragedy has played out and true feelings lie unresolved and tattered. This delivers more depth than your typical Angry Young Man drama, with the strong female role of Signoret’s adding such relevance. For me a key scene is Alice admitting to posing naked for an artist when she was younger. Joe goes ballistic, his sense of entitlement shattered and his sexual double standards ironically also laid bare.

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I think we watched Room at the Top in rapt quietness. That’s always a good sign. There was no picking at spots in the narrative or pulling frayed bits of the script apart during the showing. It won an Oscar for Best Screenplay (Neil Paterson, with uncredited work by Mordecai Richler) and a nomination for Best Director for Jack Clayton. A sequel entitled Life at the Top was made in 1965. It also starred Laurence Harvey and was directed by Ted Kotcheff. Man at the Top, a 1970 television series following Joe Lampton in later life was broadcast by ITV. It lasted 23 episodes and starred Kenneth Haigh.

Be careful what you wish for.

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Writing about Room at the Top

LUNCH HOUR

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The night is dark and windswept, with rain in the air and an angry sea pummelling the cliffs. A lone figure silhouetted against the darkening sky makes his forlorn way along the desolate cliff top path. This is Chris Corner coming round for another  Film Night. Supersonic Saucer (1956) was the first part of our double bill, and we watched it with childlike pleasure (see previous review). The second film, a far more grown up affair, required quite an extensive brain recalibration to appreciate fully. I’m not sure we achieved that on the night, so I watched it again for the purposes of this blog post, and it certainly benefits from a second viewing.

Lunch Hour (1962) was written by Rumpole of the Bailey creator John Mortimer, originally as a stage play. This is evident in its economy of characters (Girl, Man, Hotel Manageress) and its reliance on dialogue rather than location. It has also been adapted as a radio drama and a BBC Thirty Minute Theatre presentation as Kings Cross Lunch Hour (1972) featuring Pauline Collins and Joss Ackland. The stage play starred Wendy Craig, an apt choice for a piece about an extra-marital fling, as Mortimer had a brief affair with Craig which resulted in the birth of her second son.

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Another Bryanston Films production, the date of the copyright is stated as 1962 in the opening titles, although the IMDb gives the release date as 1961 which seems to be when the stage play was first performed. The credits appear over moving railway tracks intersecting and separating, giving the impression of travel. A visual clue to the unravelling and splitting of the narrative that occurs as the story progresses?

We never learn the characters’ names, but a young wallpaper designer (Shirley Anne Field) and a married man who works at the same company in a less creative capacity (Robert Stephens) are making early attempts at having an affair. Finding it difficult to get any privacy during their numerous lunch hour rendezvous, he books them in at a cheap hotel as a married couple. Their courtship and failed attempts to kick things off are told in flashback, him being hesitant and faux-chivalrous, she more poised and sassy.

The sexual politics of the 1960’s workplace is examined as the communal tea trolley comes round and all the employees congregate around it for a mid-morning break. The females are generally looked on as fair game by the Brylcreemed and suited executive types. As one particularly oily Lothario announces, girls from art school pose no special problems. The factory premises, the design studio where the women paint wallpaper motifs, the offices where the chaps strive to look more important than the next man, and the print room with its presses rolling out huge quantities of finished wallpaper, are an interesting window into the relatively recent past. Airy, light interiors without a computer screen in sight and people walking from one department to the next to convey a message, rather than simply emailing.

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Stephens is somewhat naive and out of his depth as he first meets Field by helping her pick up a folder of dropped drawings from the office floor. Impossibly luminous and magnetic, she is far more assured and knowing, obviously skillful at thwarting greasy would-be suitors. In an interview for Radio 4’s Film Programme, Shirley Anne Field speaks about how much she enjoyed the making of Lunch Hour. She mentions John Mortimer’s numerous changes to the script, which he based on listening to the cast’s casual conversations and altered on the fly. There is certainly a high premium placed on rhythm and language.

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The story concocted by Stevens as to why a respectable man and a 24 year old girl require a room for an hour during the middle of the day provides the springboard for Field to dive into realms of kitchen sink fantasy that seemingly become an alternative reality. An alternative reality that is based in Scarborough, of all places. The tables are well and truly turned by the girl, the question is whether she’s knowingly calculating what she’s doing or just getting carried along on a wave of untruth. I personally plump for the former.

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SHIRLEY ANNE FIELD ON THE FILM PROGRAMME: RADIO 4 2011

SUPERSONIC SAUCER

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The second part of this Film Night double feature was LUNCH HOUR (1961), the review for it will be posted as soon as possible.

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This could be difficult. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since watching these two films. Things have happened: An unexpected stay in hospital for one. Nevertheless, in an attempt to stay true to the pledge of recording every film we’ve watched in the Film Night 2017 series, here goes.

This was a double bill of two short features, starting with Supersonic Saucer (1956). It was good to see the Children’s Film Foundation logo with the massive capital letters ‘CFF’ against the backdrop of pigeons taking flight from Trafalgar Square. It brought back memories of the Essoldo at Sheffield Lane Top. I used to go there occasionally on a Saturday afternoon with a few schoolmates on the bus. It had torn seats, fag burns, and two Art Deco statues that cast a watchful eye over the sweet throwing and dubious adolescent goings on. It closed as a cinema in 1975 and became a bingo hall.

Anyway, Supersonic Saucer seems to have been made on a similar budget as a bus ride to the cinema and the purchase of a matinee ticket might cost. Perhaps a carton of Kia-Ora too to pay the special effects chap. People make a big deal of the premise that Spielberg may have got some of his ideas for ET from the film. In hindsight it seems entirely possible that he could have come up with his child sized alien story quite independently. The two films are not exactly peas in a pod.

It concerns these three kids (Marcia ManolescueGillian Harrison and Fella Edmondswho are left behind at a boarding school, in that mythical England where most CFF adventures take place, to while away their summer holidays. There are two girls and a lad who looks the spit of a young Jacob Rees Mogg and knows a lot about science. They are completely unfazed at finding a little alien in a tree, which they call Meba and take indoors.

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Meba is a bit like a shaved owl wrapped in a white sheet so that only his eyes can be seen, avoiding any need for fancy creature animation. He communicates telepathically, cries a bit, can turn time backwards by rolling those big eyes and has the ability to transform himself into a flying saucer. If the kids wish for something, for example money or cakes, Meba simply flies through the town and nicks them. Of course it’s pointed out that stealing is wrong and Meba pops the cash and cakes back.

A gang of crooks, known only by numbers, are bent on robbing the school, thus  allowing the kids and the alien ample scope to show how stupid adults are. Meba has lots of fun with repeatedly turning time backwards as the hapless baddies try to climb a long staircase. Of course, in the fullness of time, the forces of good prevail and the little chap flies off to his home planet.

The head felon is played with relish by rotund character actor Raymond Rollett. The original story, although it’s no War of the Worlds by any stretch of the imagination, was written by Frank Wells, son of the great science fiction writer H. G. Wells. Frank was a main executive at the CFF.

Watching Supersonic Saucer is great fun, not always for the right reasons I fear. A much better film on a similar theme, also made under the auspices of the CFF, is The Glitterball (1977). It takes place in a recognisable, gritty 70’s England and features cool, stop- frame animation.

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BLACK JACK

Film Night is currently taking an Easter break, but here is Chris Corner’s vivid account of the making of Ken Loach’s Black Jack in Whitby, originally published on his own blog.

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It was August, towards the end of the summer holidays of 1978 and I was at my nana’s – a tall house half way up Blackburn’s Yard on the old East Side of Whitby. My seagull’s perch (an attic window) gave a view of all the steps leading downhill between the pantiled terraced cottages. A short, narrow tunnel-like passageway through the buildings led to Church Street. I’d look out across the town and harbour, watching the boats but on that cloudy day there was something interesting happening below in the yard itself.

A thin man with sandy hair and big glasses was peering intently through a hand-held lens. He was standing with a small group of people behind a camera attached to a sturdy tripod in a patch of weeds outside a whitewashed cottage across the yard. They stood there for quite some time. I didn’t know who the man was but remember being in no doubt that he was in charge of whatever they were doing – he was the one who was directing things and things were being directed. I later discovered it was Ken Loach.

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He was filming an adaptation of Leon Garfield‘s novel, Black Jack. This particular scene involved three different shots. The sequence began after the giant Frenchman, Black Jack, had risen from his coffin and made his escape – taking young Tolly with him. They ran down the steps below my nana’s and onto a raised area that overlooks the lower part of the yard. Black Jack paused and saw some washing hanging out to dry. More steps were negotiated, Black Jack snatched the old rags before hurrying off towards Church Street via the passageway. The scene only lasts seconds in the finished film but seemed to take the best part of an afternoon to shoot. It was shot in daylight but the action was made to look like it took place at twilight.

A lot of filming was also done in the nearby old coaching inn, The White Horse and Griffin. This building was in a semi-derelict state, as were many in Blackburn’s Yard at the time. It was being used as a fisherman’s store, full of nets, buoys and crab pots. It is now a hotel and restaurant. The White Horse and Griffin had escaped the attentions of renovators in the 1950s and 60s and retained many of its 18th century features. The inn was used as the interior of the ‘madhouse’ as well as for some street scenes.

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The crew went to great lengths to make the yards appear as they might have done in the 18th century. However, a lot of their work hardly made it into the final film. Most buildings in this part of Whitby date from exactly the right time period for the story. They were made dirty with pots of special filmmaker’s grime. They painted it on everything, doors, windows, walls. Even the Yorkshire flag stone paving was coated with what looked like compost. The interior of the White Horse didn’t need much fake muck. Carpenters hid anything anachronistic by removing it or boxing it in – they constructed substantial-looking timber frames, beams and angular buttresses. There were swinging shop and pub signs, baskets and old barrels.

Black Jack, Loach’s first costume drama, is one of my favourite films. Ken Loach seems to make things real by doing very little. Although, after watching him working that late summer afternoon on one short scene – it was obvious he was doing a lot. Chris Menges‘ evocative, grainy photography is excellent. Grass and trees are summer green, interiors are realistic, dark and dusty away from the occasional pools of natural light. Birds sing loudly thanks to sound recorder, Andrew Boulton. His floor boards creak under ancient footsteps, the walls echo, sounds fade in and out organically. The actors don’t overact. In fact, some barely act at all and this adds to the poignancy. There’s a soul and warmth that permeates the whole film. It’s enhanced by memories of seeing part of its creation in the late summer of 1978.

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Black Jack won the Critics’ Award at Cannes in 1979. Ken Loach directed Kes in 1969 and won the 2006 Palme d’Or with The Wind That Shakes the Barley. I, Daniel Blake (2016) has just won Loach a second Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Chris Corner’s blog

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

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A long time ago at a Film Night far, far away we watched the 1989 version of The Woman in Black. Compared to that, this 2012 Hammer production is a lavish affair. Eel Marsh House seems to grow organically from the ground, encased in roots and creepers and alive with supernatural promise. Whereas the earlier version made a virtue of desolation and subliminal tension, this one revels in period decoration and trinket-stuffed interiors. It is quite comforting to have Hammer doing what they do best though. Being back amongst the heavy velvet curtains, huge rooms and sweeping staircases is like putting on a favourite old coat.

It is basically a haunted house story, therefore all the clichés are there, but that’s kind of the point isn’t it? Aiming to break new ground or be cutting edge would be churlish. Anyway if you happen to be the studio that first developed the aforementioned clichés for mass consumption, I say good luck to you for giving them a home again.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young solicitor whose wife died in childbirth some years earlier. As a last ditch attempt to save his job he is tasked with examining the documentation of Eel Marsh House, an empty, dead residence on an island only accessible by a treacherous causeway over tidal marshes. The previous owner was a Mrs Drablow who mourned a lost a son swallowed up by the mud of the salt flats.

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We have a glitter lamp in the living room which we habitually have on when watching films. On this occasion it started faltering a bit, flashing on and off by itself. It probably needs a new bulb or something. It’s amazing how often these fluctuations matched the action onscreen. For example, as Arthur first stepped over the threshold of Eel Marsh House, the light went off and stayed off for some time. During lurid periods of frenzied activity it strobed and pulsed. The environment certainly has an effect on the whole experience of absorbing any stimulus, and in this case it inexplicably enhanced it.

I expected Radcliffe to be weak because of his unavoidable boyishness, but he acquitted himself adequately, although looking slightly out of his depth on occasions. Unfortunately he is often onscreen with the orming Irish character actor Ciarán Hinds who plays Sam Daily. His presence overshadows Radcliffe’s with a ruffled, looming earthiness. He befriends the young solicitor, and as he owns a car, offers to ferry Kipps to and from the island.

Directed by James Watkins, from a book by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black has been made into a TV movie, a stage play and a serialised radio drama, always to great acclaim. The screenplay is by Jane Goldman who keeps everything ticking over nicely, like the clockwork mechanisms of the antique toys in the film used to such unnerving effect. There is a real feel for the Gothic flicker of a shadow passing across a mirror or a barely glimpsed silhouette in the background. Maybe the Woman in Black is seen too early on though? Maybe the dread should have been given more time to soak in?

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The house used was Cotterstock Hall in Oundle, Northamptonshire. The outside of it is all enhanced with CGI tendrils and vein-like roots climbing the walls. The causeway over the marsh was actually the path to Osea Island on the Essex coast. Filming could only take place there within a four hour window because of the tides. It has to be said that the drive inland from the island takes the viewer suddenly from flat salt marshes to Yorkshire Dales type limestone hills and drystone walls. It creates a kind of geographical disconnection which jars a bit.

It’s a great fun, back of the sofa film with no complicated underlying concepts to bother yourself with, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. A worthy, old-school Hammer jumpfest with high production values, impressive design, exquisite interiors and a solid script. Is it as good as the 1989 version? There’s only one way to find out I guess. We’re going to have to watch that again now.

There you go, and I didn’t mention Harry Potter once.

Damn!

THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTINE

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This was an Inside Number 9 (Series 2: Episode 2) that we watched as a supporting feature to Wake Wood.

Christine (Sheridan Smith), dressed as a saucy nun, brings a fireman called Adam (Tom Riley) home from a New Year’s Eve party to the flat she shares with uptight Fung (Stacy Liu). Then the DNA helix of her life starts to inexplicably unravel, the connections become tangled and she transits from one perfectly pitched vignette to the next.

Before long Adam the fireman is asking where to put his CDs when he moves in? Then a baby is born. Then it’s her 30th birthday party and her dad is there along with other family members, but Alzheimer’s has left him inert. Then Adam leaves her. Then Dad turns up again to offer her solace, but this time he can speak coherently. Then…

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me Mum, I’m getting everything jumbled up’.

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We can’t fathom how these things connect and why we’re rushing headlong through this disarranged life. All the time in the background, turning up at incongruous moments and infiltrating the story is a weird stranger in a plastic rain mac (Reece Shearsmith).

Again the twist at the end is a collision of all that’s gone before and Christine’s destiny is revealed.

Worth watching twice. Firstly to enjoy the story as it stands. Secondly to fit each piece together and tie them into the end.

The 12 Days of Christine on the BBC iPlayer

ABOUT FILM NIGHT

WAKE WOOD

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How appropriate that Hammer‘s first theatrical release for 30 years should be a story based around rebirth. A couple who lost their young daughter to a savage dog attack are granted her back for three days, but three days only. Enough time to say their goodbyes, then they must relinquish her back to the grave.

Vet Patrick (Aidan Gillan) and pharmacist Louise (Eva Birthistle) set out to begin a new life in Wakewood (it’s all one word on the road sign), but they stumble into a patriarchal society with a secret knowledge of resurrection. The Lord Summerisle of the piece is Timothy Spall, all tweeded up and softly spoken as Arthur, the leader of the community.

The rebirthing ritual is suitably convoluted and gory and it visually mirrors Patrick’s work as a vet delivering calves.  It requires a dead body, and luckily a man gets crushed by an unruly bull on cue, so that’s that sorted. It also requires a relic from the person to be resurrected, so it gives Patrick and Louise the chance to go to their daughter’s grave at night and  exhume her. In classic Hammer style it’s pouring with rain as Patrick shovels out the earth and splits the coffin lid with Louise looking on.

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Sure enough, via lots of goo, ritual spine cutting and fire, nine year old Alice (Ella Connolly) is given another three days alive with her parents. There are strict rules to keep to and the stipulations need to be exact. Unfortunately Mum and Dad were a little lax with one of the key elements and things go slightly awry.

Wake Wood tries so hard to be a folk horror film, but it is way too physical and modern looking. There isn’t a grounding in deep time. We don’t get the history of the place and the background of the characters is scant. I would have liked to have got to know them better and cared for them more.

The editing is at times overdone. Long, lingering, haunting shots are largely absent, and I think this harms the build up of atmosphere. I don’t think the film’s problems are budget related. Sure, it was made without spending millions, but wouldn’t it be cheaper to film fewer shots and edit them more thoughtfully? It has the look of a TV movie in parts. Contrast this with another low budget British folk horror movie, The Borderlands (2013) to observe how creepiness can be created via stasis.

The supernatural element isn’t brought forward often enough, and the gore is unpleasant to look at, but not scary. There are nice touches, for example a small wind farm delineates the outer perimeter of the town, the huge white windmills marking a boundary between old and new.

The ending is extremely clever. The more I think about it, the more it seems a really creepy idea. Could a Wake Wood 2 develop from it?

The film was directed by David Keating. He hired Chris Maris as cinematographer after seeing his work on the Swedish horror flick Frostbite (2006). Despite its extremely Irish look, much of Wake Wood was filmed in Sweden. Judging by other reviews lots of people rate this picture highly, and at the core it has heart and guts and deserves to be seen. Hammer are always welcome at Film Night.

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IMAGES OF THE MAKING OF WAKEWOOD

ABOUT FILM NIGHT