Secret Rites (Derek Ford, 1971)
In the tradition of mad Mondo movies, this oddly hilarious artefact of 70s counter-culture exists between pseudo-documentary, dramatized hoax and what might happen if Alan Partridge masterminded a TV special on satanism. Charmingly English in its quaint bohemia and featuring an invariably groovy psychedelic soundtrack this delightful curiosity is a budget black mass that clocks in at a swiftly watchable 47 minutes.
Patience (After Sebald) (Grant Gee, 2011)
The first in Grant Gee’s fascinating trilogy of films inspired by landscapes and literature (before Innocence of Memories on the writer Orhan Pahuk and The Gold Machine on Iain Sinclair), Patience: After Sebald takes the German poet and critic W.G. Sebald’s melancholy classic of psychogeography, The Rings of Saturn, and recreates the traipsing histories of its central Suffolk walk. With sections of the book read by actor Jonathan Pryce and contributions from Iain Sinclair and Andrew Motion, the foggy dereliction that animates Sebald’s prose is also perfectly textured in the bleakly lyrical score (by sound artist Leyland Kirby, a.k.a. The Caretaker). Shot in grainy black and white redolent of the book’s included (and artificially aged) photographs, the documentary becomes a ghostly perambulation that effectively mines the same meandering palimpsests of time that make Sebald’s writing so nourishingly haunted.
Symptoms (José Larraz, 1974)
Although directed by the Catalan filmmaker José Larraz, Symptoms was a UK production and competed as the British entry for the 1974 Cannes Film Festival; following that prestigious honour it was all but lost, becoming a holy grail for cult film fans. In the same year that Larraz’s more lurid and violent Vampyres arrived, the artistic direction of Symptoms took a more eerily understated and psychological turn. Helen Ramsey (an unnervingly hypnotic performance by Angela Pleasance) invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to join her in an isolated mansion in the country. What unfolds is an ineffably disquieting study of obsession and desire that, haunting a space between Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Altman’s Images (1971), brings an uncanny tilt to its depiction of the country house.
The Dead of Night (Albert Cavalcanti, Charles Chrichton, Basil Dearden, 1945)
Arguably one of the best ghost-tale anthologies of all time, this Ealing Studios gem (starring Googie Withers and Michael Redgrave) crackles with charming absurdity, genuine frights and, in its final tale, an early and unforgettably unnerving rendition of the ‘evil ventriloquist’s dummy’ tradition. A fireside classic that holds up beautifully.
Arcadia (Paul Wright, 2017)
The dancing spirits, village fetes and standing stones of folkloric England are collaged into a grand archival séance with the rural cartographies of lost time in Paul Wright’s hypnotic work of montage. From the pastoral peace of countryside footage and eccentric England to pagan rhapsodies of folk horror, Wright brews up the alchemy of archival clips (alongside music from Portishead’s Adrien Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory) into a lushly occult landscape of visual rhythms and seasonal drift.
By Our Selves (Andrew Kötting, 2015)
Andrew Kötting’s haunted pilgrimage across the British countryside takes its inspiration from Iain Sinclair’s book, Edge of the Orison (1997), and retraces the tragic journey of English poet John Clare (1793-1864)from fleeing an asylum in Epping forest to his fateful homecoming, 80 miles away. Kötting takes the perambulatory possibilities of the documentary further into a landscape his own ranging artistic sensibilities have enabled : between collaged diary, cine-scrap-book and esoteric travelogue Kotting’s world is a visionary mischief found in traversal; a collaborative trek (including regular contributors Alan Moore and Sinclair) into the arcane viscera of Englishness as a territory imagined through happenstance and the muddy miles underfoot. In By Our Selves, Toby Jones plays the wandering avatar of John Clare (his trail in generational communion with his father, the actor Freddie Jones, who has also famously voiced the poetry of Clare), as he makes his way through eerily lensed black and white forests and forgotten lanes.
Shadowing the journey is the unnerving presence of Kotting’s otherworldly ‘straw bear’ creation, like a foreboding extra from The Wicker Man (1973) he becomes a shuffling symbol of the film’s dualities: the hope of a guide and the fear of surreal dislocation; ceremonial official or malicious prankster; guardian spirit or paranoid delusion; pagan England or performance art; and, ultimately, the embodiment of both, the mischief and madness alongside the hope and fear of a poetic journey that fits seamlessly into Kötting’s madcap shamanism. From the ritual landscape-art and existentialism of his short Klipperty Klopp (1984) to the haunted dream territories of The Whalebone Box (2019), Kötting’s journeying palimpsests thrust the viewer into the turning soil and skin of time; down here in the now and then, alive to the remarkable physicality of England’s ghosts.
Other Side of the Underneath (Jane Arden, 1972)
Jane Arden’s confrontational, hallucinatory and anguished exploration of mental illness haunts the landscape of British film. Taken out of circulation and impossible to see for 25 years following its release, and with the shadow of Arden’s suicide in 1982, it was a phantom presence in the legacies of Br experimental film and radical feminism (also being one of the only British films to be solely directed by a woman in the 1970s). A woman’s body is recovered from a lake in a rescue operation that takes on the strange poetry of the ceremonial; she is revived and taken to a derelict asylum. The rest of the film takes place in a fractured and nightmarish logic of group therapy sessions, violent ritual and feverish visions. The film was an adaptation of Arden’s 1971 experimental play, A New Communion For Freaks, Prophets and Witches, that had been previously performed by her controversial theatre group, Holocaust. Threading together political momentum from the anti-psychiatry movement with a fierce deconstruction of patriarchal oppression, Brechtian performance and intimate psychodrama combine to propel a uniquely avant-garde journeying into the unconscious. Harrowing and poetic, brave and ethically fraught, The Other Side of the Underneath is an uncompromising visual scream from the ‘Madwoman in the Attic’.
The Owl Service (Peter Plummer, 1969- 70) / Children of the Stones (Peter Graham Scott, 1976)
What would a self-respecting list of haunted British esoterica be without the trembling broadcasts of strange TV? From a generation scarred by the bleak scaremongering of Public Information films in the 1970s (with a voiceover from Donal Pleasance, The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, 1973, is a personal favourite) to the Christmas BBC Ghost Stories or the infamously banned episode of Ghostwatch in 1992, TV has always been a haunted medium.
We could recommend all of Inside no. 9 or Mark Gatiss’ adaptations of M.R. James, the Nigel Kneale scripted The Stone Tape (1972) or the recent supernatural Victorian menace of The Living and the Dead (2016)…however, we decided instead upon two classic series: The Owl Service (1969-1970) and Children of the Stones (1977).
Based on Alan Garner’s 1967 fantasy novel of the same name, The Owl Service was the first fully scripted colour production for Granada and has been by critic Kim Newman to the work of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais in its complex use of ambiguity. Garner’s fascination with folk tales works its strange magic into a troubled coming of age tale that re-enacts stories associated with the ‘flower-faced’ woman of Welsh mythology, Blodeuwedd.
Following the adventurous japes of astrophysicist Adam Brake and his teenage son Matthew after arriving in a small rural village situated within a megalithic stone circle, Children of the Stones is an admirably unsettling landmark of weird children’s TV. Filmed on location at Avebury (a site that also attracted the experimental vision of Derek Jarman in his 1973 short, Journey to Avebury, or the more recent work of experimental filmmaking duo, Daniel and Clara in their ongoing multimedia engagement, ‘Landscape Imaginary’) and with an unsettling score by Sidney Sager, the seven episodes explore the circular repetitions of a pagan rift in time.
Secret Ceremony (Joseph Losey, 1968)
Joseph Losey’s bizarre melodrama of grief and substitution has an unbelievable cast (Mia Farrow, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum) delivering unbelievably strange performances in a film that, understandably, baffled audiences and critics alike. Steadily acquiring a justified reassessment, Losey’s feverish oddity conjures a mood that swings between gothic tragedy and histrionic farce. Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) is a prostitute who is grieving the loss of her daughter, she encounters the obsessive and haunted Cenci (Mia Farrow) who is also mourning and finds in Leonora an uncanny resemblance to her dead mother. In the creaking bell jar of an old London mansion, family traumas and haunting memories are exchanged and enacted with increasingly feverish commitment. As old Hollywood haunts new Hollywood, swaying under the abusive hand of a volatile patriarch (Robert Mitchum playing Cenci’s stepfather), Losey’s un-hinged drama injects a campy mania between the simmering atmosphere of Robert Altman’s Images (1972) and the tense domestic anguish of Harold Pinter.
Sleep Has Her House (Scott Barley, 2017)
The artist and filmmaker Scott Barley has been making an array of startling short films since 2012, drawing influences from painting, poetry and avant-garde traditions into a mystic and deeply experiential immersion in landscape. In 2017, Barley’s independent vision reached a new summit in the feature length majesty of Sleep Has Her House: a darkly sublime slow-cinema testament to the mute power of mist as it hangs over a forest, of the shimmering calligraphy of lightning on a river, the pale forms of horses in the night, and ghostly iterations of weather (and ultimately light) that intimate, with weight and scale, a deepening mystery of cosmic change. With no narrative, voice or conventional bearings, Barley’s film is a profound journeying of sight and attention, undulating with portentous hypnosis across the landscape. A truly miraculous film that bears witness to the haunted house of nature; a film that was, just as miraculously, shot entirely on an iPhone.