Solomon Kane (2009) Revisited

Five years after Van Helsing brought curdled reviews but box office gold, Kane seemed calculated to fit that film’s mould but also to stretch it, and carve out a bigger space for dark fantasy and horror in a historical setting. However, despite its connection to the British folk horror film tradition, Michael J. Bassett’s film never quite found its audience. Today is the 115th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, so let us meet again one of his most battle-scarred sons. Perhaps with the passage of time, we can see him a bit more clearly. 

Our introduction to Kane (James Purefoy) recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). It feels as if it was made for the trailer instead of the film,  and is not very Howardian. Thankfully, there’s a lot more of Howard in what follows. It is the year 1600, a time of casual cruelty, when the only light comes from the flames of battle. Ruthless and greedy, the privateer Solomon Kane meets his match in the Devil’s Reaper, who accuses Kane of having made a Faustian pact, and threatens to collect his soul. Next, we find Kane as a tortured monk, complete with ecclesiastical serial killer wall, tattoos and scarification to protect him from evil. As the wealth he’s donated can only make up for so much screaming, he’s booted out. The monks foresee purpose for him out there: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.” 

What if…

Not all paths are well defined either, and the film feels scrapbook-like, taking set-pieces and ideas from films from films like Plague of Zombies, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Solomon Kane is definitely the spiritual child of the Hammer era, and had it been made back then, you can imagine Peter Cushing portraying Kane with both humility and righteous fury. As it is, James Purefoy gives us a Kane who is convincingly haunted, and the film also successfully borrows its precursors’ sinister atmostphere, as Kane travels misty roads and gnarly woods. 

Dead people hang by the roadside and Kane has his own unburied dead to contend with: his early refusal to become a priest, the legacy his father denied him, and accidentally killing his bully-boy brother. Redemption is the film’s big theme, and has to carry the film’s forward movement in lieu of a tight plot. But what is the price of redemption, and who pays it? Kane’s guilt keeps him from violence at first, but evil follows him like flies on shit. Purefoy’s performance evokes pity – he clearly feels as vulnerable as those whose lives he’s destroyed. This film is about a man of privilege who learns he’s no different – and cannot separate himself – from the rest of humanity. 

Puritan family Idyll – William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite) holds court.

Set upon by robbers, he’s rescued by the Puritan family of William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite). Their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) sees the good in Kane, and even sews him a Puritan outfit, complicating the film’s theme of wicked paganism versus pious Christianity. Of course this is the writers shoehorning in his Weird Tales costume, but you also sense Meredith’s hope that the clothes maketh the man. Even Kane seems almost to believe he could be one of them. But the contrast with Kane’s broken family history and lonely future is acute: he cannot have a family like this, and when William (God love him) actually shows Kane a locket with pictures of his family, we know that by saving Kane they have doomed themselves. 

A band of raiders “recruits” villagers as thralls of the sorcerer Malachi. His lieutenant, the masked Overlord, does this by grasping their faces in his bare hands. It’s half contagion, half demonic possession – fitting in a time of plague (theirs, and ours). Of course, they meet our travellers. This is why Postlethwaite was cast: you can see his own soul escaping as he realises Kane cannot, will not, risk his soul by fighting and saving his son. The Crowthorns can’t look at Kane the same way now, and when he finally unleashes his wrath, it’s too late: Meredith is taken, and William mortally wounded. With the forbearance of one who truly trusts his God, he urges Kane to save his soul by rescuing his daughter. Then he dies in his wife’s arms. 

Meredith Crowthorn (Rachel Hurd-Wood), doffing her bonnet

After some sojourns – cue the crazed priest who tends to his flock-turned-zombies in the ruins of his church – Kane hears that Meredith is dead and goes looking for his soul at the bottom of a bottle. By coincidence (the borderlands of Somerset and Devonshire are a small place apparently), he meets some old shipmates who are rebelling against Malachi, and gets crucified alongside them. It’s Conan’s Tree of Woe all over again. Seeing Meredith alive, with his last strength he tears himself off the cross. The “pagan bad, Christian good” formula is disrupted again, as the rebels’ healer and seer tells him, “There’s more power here than your Christian god; you would do well to remember that.”

Juxtaposed against the simple and good Crowthorns are Kane’s own family. Back at the Kane family home we find out that Kane’s brother lives and – this is hardly a spoiler – is Malachi’s masked lieutenant. The sorcerer was brought in by Kane Sr. to save his son, and the magic made Marcus into the masked Overlord. So, this whole contagion of evil, this blight on the countryside, is the result of the power struggle in the local noble family. Toxic masculinity indeed! Kane gets to make up with his father, tossed in the dungeon for his troubles, and release him to whatever awaits beyond death. The final battle in the family’s great room then falters; it’s stuff we’ve seen in swashbucklers from the Douglas Fairbanks era onwards. Unmasking Marcus, of course, does not come without the tedious ableist trope of villains with facial differences. 

Masked villain

And far be it from me to suggest that more films kill women to motivate men, but to dangle Meredith’s fate, then reveal that the ritual to summon Kane’s infernal doom will leave her enough blood to get home on, feels anticlimactic! The demon coming for Kane’s soul works better; the human scale of Kane’s previous supernatural foes make this confrontation impressive. Anyway, Meredith safely delivered to her mother, Solomon’s vow is to continue his fight: “But evil is not so easily defeated, and I know I will have to fight again. I am a very different man now… I have found my purpose.”

Solomon Kane gets righteous

However, an intended trilogy never happened. Lest we sound overly negative: it’s not a bad film, not at all. For all of Kane’s searching for his own, the film has a soul. It has engaging characters and where the plot may not be surprising it at least has the familiarity of your genre favourites happily revisited. Instant nostalgia. Also, there is clearly an appetite for 17th century supernatural stories, given the later success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), beautifully shot using available light to tell an even more claustrophobic tale of a Puritan family stalked by a supernatural evil. But The Witch benefited from the folk horror revival then reaching critical mass. Add Game of Thrones to that, stoking an unsuspected mainstream appetite for fantasy in gritty (pseudo-)historical settings, and you wonder whether Howard’s ‘doleful knight’ would’ve fared better in different circumstances. Perhaps, if the Netflix Conan project is successful, the Howard canon will be ransacked and Kane will ride again. 

The Wild Hunt Trailer

I’ve given myself a black eye, all in the interest of art! We’d already written that our story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star, will appear in the Air & Nothingness Press anthology The Wild Hunt. This evening we had some fun making a trailer for it. As main images I used the photo of my own grandfather, and an old photo of a farm, up in the north of the Netherlands. I imagine the story set on a farm not unlike this one.

Having raided Angeline’s make-up bag (Max Factor! We’re going up in the world!)…

…I went a bit further with the eye-shadow than would be usual for the Gothic vibe. A piece of blue paper, with a hole in it, then served as blue screen matte.

And then it was time for the soundtrack, made in Garageband, mixing my own voice, the sounds of the Midwinter Horn and footage of baying dogs and galloping horses. Then I combined everything in iMovie. And there we are: the trailer for With One Eye, Bright As A Star! I hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it.

The anthology can now be ordered via the Air And Nothingness Press website. It’s a limited edition, 158 pages perfect bound, with french flaps. A real ‘hebbeding’ as we call it in Dutch!

(RvS)

Quatermass and the Pit

We were late technology adopters in our house. When we eventually did get a VCR (I must have been eight), my mother quickly made up for lost time in building a video collection, much of it supplied by the BBC Shop in Arthur Street. It must seem like a quaint concept for young folk in an era of streaming content: it was a bricks-and-mortar retail chain selling BBC videos and audiobooks, along with assorted programme merch and knick-knacks.

The VHS boom meant that early TV series became accessible to a new audience for the first time. My mother had vivid memories of when she was thirteen and watched Quatermass and the Pit at a family friend’s house after school, because her childhood home didn’t have a TV. In that winter of 1958/9, the series combined the authoritative voice of Cold War scientists, the doomsayers of the atom age, with the deeper currents of more ancient human fears.

I myself got introduced to professor Quatermass in 1992. I was ten and becoming chronically ill, and though we didn’t yet know why, the sense that Something Was Wrong had become all-pervasive. I remember coming home from the last day of P6, sitting down with a glass of flat Coke and getting wonderfully distracted from the ominous circumstances of my body by the differently but equally ominous circumstances of Hob’s Lane. My childhood TV landscape had been full of American Science Fiction cartoons that ended with heavy-handed moralising, and the original run of Doctor Who (itself influenced by Quatermass), which provided moments of real terror on what was often a shoestring effects budget. If Quatermass and the Pit played to my existing genre tastes, it also challenged me to think like an adult, and I loved it for that.

Quatermass and the Pit opens in Knightsbridge, where workmen discover a prehistoric skull in Hob’s Lane, which is a typical post-war mix of occupied buildings, bombed-out ruins and waste ground. That “Hob” is an old name for the Devil is the earliest hint of the occult disturbances to come. Paleontologist Matthew Roney reconstructs a small, previously unknown hominid from the remains, but his research is thwarted when further digging turns up a hull initially mistaken for an unexploded German bomb (common enough in London in those days). To get the military cordon lifted, Roney appeals to his scientist friend from the British Experimental Rocket Group: Bernard Quatermass, a Holmesian figure equally frustrated by the encroachment of the Army into his own work. This tension in the Rocket Group spills over into the investigation of the hull: the series illuminates both its own time and the future (now our history). The fictional ‘Operation Damocles’ foreshadows the nuclear blade at the throat of the whole world.

Uncovering and breaching the hull leads to seemingly supernatural disturbances, and talkative neighbours reveal a story from decades earlier in which a now bombed-out house was the centre of ghostly activity. Their biggest gripe then was not the poltergeist activity, but the media circus that it attracted, making them look foolish. They now fear the hull story will likewise snowball. This is where the series excels – while it has ideas and ideas, ultimately it is about people and how technology affects people, and every tiny role is great, every bit of business and dialogue adds depth.

Viewers who know their British ghost stories will be reminded of the Enfield Poltergeist case in the 1970s, but we can equally compare Victorian examples like Springheeled Jack, or even the ghoulish avidity with which people consumed news and “news” about Jack the Ripper. You could put any of those next to modern digital folklore like Slenderman and see many similarities, particularly the way in which the media becomes both observer and participant.

Quatermass discovers that the area has been a magnet for strange occurences since Medieval times. Those who see things – ghosts or devils, whatever would have been most feared in their lifetime – must be particularly susceptible to the emanations of the hitherto concealed spaceship. In this way, Quatermass and the Pit considerably predates Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark in exploring how humans interpret phenomena they don’t understand according to contemporary beliefs (e.g., the changeling stories of centuries ago become modern alien abduction narratives).

Drilling into the hull causes vibrations that distress people nearby, and ultimately, a soldier is carried out of the hull screaming in terror, having seen a ghost – apparently that of Roney’s hominid – walk through the wall. Worse, the hull turns out to contain the dessicated mummies of grasshopper-like aliens, presumably from Mars, which Quatermass and Roney suspect have been buried there for millions of years. They

believe that the hull has become imprinted with the psychic projections of the displaced Martians, and when they manage to extract these visions, it’s apparent that they are the memory of a race purge on Mars in its dying days.

Even more disturbing is what the Martians were actually doing on Earth: genetic tinkering with early hominids. It is as though the Martians hoped that their subjects would succeed where they had failed. Evidently their descendants are those sensitive to the hull’s emanations today, but it also seems that modern humans are just as likely to tear each other apart as our Martian progenitors. (And if you’re thinking that this sounds similar to the Engineers’ interference in the destiny of humanity in Prometheus, you’re absolutely right – Ridley Scott is of the generation to have grown up with Quatermass.)

The Army don’t believe Quatermass’s discoveries, and are convinced instead that the hull is a piece of Nazi propaganda. Presumably it suits their agenda (remember Operation Damocles) to blame an external foe, but what has been unleashed is something far more fundamental and profoundly psychological in its implications: our own nature, running rampant. By the end of the series, humans have had ample opportunity to see the worst that we are capable of, as the Martian spaceship inspires Londoners to riot: those in whom the alien DNA is strong feel compelled to re-enact the Martian race purge, killing en masse their neighbours who don’t share that lineage.

One of the most disturbing scenes involves Quatermass himself, previously the voice of reason, taken over by the primitive impulse to kill Roney. But his friend remembers the folkloric banes against fairies and devils, and uses these to destroy the artifact once and for all, sacrificing himself in the process. Nigel Kneale had contemporary concerns in mind when he wrote the series. The Britain of the late 50s was marked by a hostility of Britons toward foreigners and other “strangers among us”, and when Quatermass, faces the media (and us), it is to tell a terrible truth: “We are the Martians. If we cannot control the inheritance within us, this will be their second dead planet.”

(ABA)

The Wild Hunt

Stories of the Wild Hunt are mainly known in the Norse and Germanic countries, with a smattering in Great Britain. It’s when Wodan leads a noisy hunting party of the dead through the air, when the nights are longest and the days coldest. It’s supposed to be a harbinger of doom. Despite Christendom removing most pagan traditions, we can still find traces of the Wild Hunt, though Wodan has lost his place to figures like the pagan deity Herne the Hunter, or King Arthur, in England, and Hellequin in France.

Siege of Groningen by Bernard ‘Bommen Berend’ von Galen. The German bishop became a Dutch bogeyman and sometime leader of the Wild Hunt.

In the Nether-Saxon area, the north-eastern quarter of the Netherlands, you’ll also find the Rider on the White Horse, who also comes as an omen of natural disasters. This Rider too is identified as Wodan or St. Nicolas, and can be seen as a budget version of the Wild Hunt.

Folklorist Eilina Huizinga-Onnekes collected the following stories:

1920, Ezinge
The evening before Sunterkloas [St. Nicholas] several people from Ezinge had seen Sunterkloas. He rode over the field on a white horse and he himself was completely in white. And he had been wearing a big hat. Wiebe was afraid of nothing; he’d seen him too and had found it strange. So he had walked towards him and had said: “Have you already seen Sunterkloas?” And what happened with him then, he wouldn’t tell afterwards. But never again would he ask something like that. He’d been cured of that.
Sunterkloas is something completely different than some people imagine!

Wotan on his white horse Sleipnir

1932, Ruigezand, close to Niehove
On a stead at Ruigezand there always were a lot of hauntings. At Midwinter a cart always flew by. The doors always flew open with a bang. The farmhands often nailed the barn doors shut, but with a bang they’d all fly open again.

1915, Panser, between Zoutkamp and Vierhuizen
Well, you do know of the rider on the northern lane of Panser? On Old Year’s Night [New Year’s Eve] between twelve and one a horseman on a white horse rides up and down. Man with a high pointy hat and a rough cloak. He rages through the sky and once he flew over Geessie and her fellow. He had a big sword in his hand. Around that time there’s no-one about.

Map from 1620, with arrows pointing at the sites of the 3 tales (Ezinge off-map)

These three stories centre around the Reitdiep river, and despite its dykes flooding must have been a genuine fear throughout the ages. Panser is the name of the farm where there used to be a stronghold of the same name, on a wierde, a man-made hill. It’s the place with the oldest signs of human habitation in the area; pot shards from the 6th century b.c. have been found there.

In her Groninger Volksverhalen, Huizinga-Onnekes gathers stories of another leader of the Wild Hunt. It is said in East-Friesland (Northern German) that on Old Year’s Night, King Redbad rides with his wildly galloping horses through the Westermars. The barn doors fly open, but also close by themselves. Redbad, who died in 719, was the last pagan king in Europe. He was King of Frisia, when it stretched along the Dutch and German north coast. He refused to be baptised, saying: “I’d rather be with my forefathers in hell than with the Christians in heaven!”

Redbad, King of the Frisians, would rather not be baptised.

Huizinga-Onnekes’ contemporary K. ter Laan notes another remnant from pagan times.
A fiery wagon, pulled by four or six dogs, rides on the lane of the milking place of the erstwhile abbey of Rottum (once a pagan temple), where the rectory grounds are now.

One of the earliest and most important histories of the Anglo-Saxons was The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They had the same roots as the Germanic and Norse tribes and broadly shared their folklore. The following is said to have happened in 1127.
Let no one be surprised at what we are about to relate, for it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after 6th February many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this wild ride as near as they could tell.

The Wild Hunt; Wotans Gesang – Albert Richter, 1897

M.D. Teenstra, in his 1840 Volksverhalen en Legenden, in which he gathers the folklore of the northern regions.
Ever since the 24 September 1731’s infamous pyres of Faan, there walk from Niekerk to Lettelbert some rough black dogs, with burning eyes, in front of an iron cart, making a terrible shrieking and moaning noise.

De Faan was where the overzealous headman De Mepsche burnt dozens of people accused of sodomy; even in my mother’s childhood it was said that on the evening of that day, the horizon was burning and columns of smoke and fire could be seen. Not too far away from there, in Zevenhuizen, close to Leek, one can encounter the wild hunter with his dogs in the peat grounds.

Frau Holle or Perchta with the Wild Hunt, with Ekkert in front.

A footnote points towards Nicolas Westendorp, and his 1826 essay on Norse myths. Following these breadcrumbs leads to this gingerbread nugget from Germanic mythology.
It is told of Holla, that she sometimes treks through the land on a cart and gives it fertility; that she especially at midwinter (Christmas time), when passing through, rewards industrious spinsters yet punishes the lazy; often she gives prosperity and richness. In the Hessisch mountains lies a lake, the Hollenteisch, which is about 40 or 50 feet wide: women who climb in this well are made fertile by Holla: she gives from her well children to families, and hands out many flowers and cakes, which come from her own bountiful gardens. Sometimes she appears in the middle of the lake, in the shape of a beautiful white lady.
She also rides at the head of a furious hunt, and in Thuringen she is accompanied in that by the loyal Ekkert with his white stave: then you hear the barking of dogs in the sky, the blowing of horns, and the roaring of wild animals, and everything becomes pitch dark. In her parade you many times saw recently deceased people bound on wheels, or in other very painful positions. Ekkert warns people to get out of the way.

The White Reindeer

If there was ever any question about it, Valkoinen Peura (The White Reindeer) is the perfect example of why it’s worthwhile looking back in time, and across borders, for your folk horror. It is a Finnish film from 1952, directed by the Swedish director Erik Blomberg, and starring his (Finnish) wife Mirjami Kuosmanen. The couple also co-wrote the film, which leans heavily on Sami folklore.

When a newly married reindeer herder leaves with the reindeer, his wife visits a shaman to seek a cure for her loneliness. Soon, the village’s men are drawn by a white reindeer, which leads them to their doom.

It’s only fairly recently that the film has been readily available, now as well-presented, restored dual-format release from Eureka! which has English subtitles, audio commentary, a video essay, etc. I was introduced to the film by a niece of Kuosmanen and Blomberg, and watched it on VHS as taped from Finnish television. Not speaking Finnish hardly hampered my enjoyment; there’s very little dialogue, and the story is mainly told by the visuals.

Tonally comparable to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People and Bergman’s Seventh Seal and in particular The Virgin Spring, The White Reindeer is a small, frostbitten gem that justly has received the royal treatment from Eureka! and is worth making a Midwinter present of for someone else or yourself.

The Juniper Tree (1990) – review

poster for The Juniper Tree

Belfast is lucky in its festivals, and tonight we saw a screening of The Juniper Tree at QFT as part of Wanda: Feminism and Moving Image. Writer/director Nietzchka Keene tells a story of witchcraft, but more than that, a story of family resentment, building towards tragedy with the inevitability of a Greek myth. 

Two sisters, Katla and Margit, flee their birthplace after their mother is murdered for practicing witchcraft. Katla, the elder, tells Margit that they’ll go where nobody knows them, never telling their history, and she’ll find a man and work her craft to ensure he will never leave her. When they meet farmer Jóhann, that’s just how things proceed. But witch or not, you can’t make someone love you forever, and more to the point, you can’t persuade a grieving child that you’re his new mother. 

Jóhann’s son, Jóhas, resents Katla from the start, and though he and Margit bond over his ritual of leaving daily flowers on his mother’s grave, his hostility to his stepmother stokes tension between the newlyweds. Though Katla works various charms to try and control her new husband, it seems as though Margit is a more instinctive witch: she has visions of her mother, who gives the little boy a protective amulet. With Katla pregnant, Margit jealously intrigued by her brother-in-law, and Jóhas openly accusing Katla of witchcraft, the little farmhouse is not big enough to contain the family’s strife. 

The stark Icelandic landscape offers little protection, and is mirrored in the stark emotional life of the adults. When Margit despairs, she collapses before a basalt cliff NI audiences will recognise as akin to our own Giant’s Causeway. Jóhann rescues her, providing one of the film’s few moments of tenderness, and warns her not to repeat the adventure by telling her a story of trolls who steal a man’s wife and put her in a glass coffin. (Like “The Juniper Tree” itself, “Snow White” is a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm.) Elsewhere, we learn that when someone dies, their soul is tied to the heart of a bird – unless the bird’s heart breaks. Everybody’s heart breaks in this film at least once, and everyone is too honest for their own good. 

It’s as though, by too confidently describing the future she wants at the beginning, Katla prevents it coming to pass. You ask yourself, why didn’t she try harder to accept Jóhas, or why didn’t Margit keep her mouth shut about the child’s death; and yet, Jóhann only believes what he wants to believe. It turns out that the power of a love spell is nothing to the power of a man to delude himself that the woman he brought into his home did not intentionally ruin his life. 

In the end, he drifts out into the world, reminiscent of the almost-dead Heathcliff following Cathy’s ghost around the Yorkshire countryside. Margit is left with only the juniper tree that sprouted from the grave of Jóhas’s mother to proclaim Katla’s guilt – the louder because trees are so rare in that landscape – and the raven who perches in the tree. Margit believes it is Jóhas returned, knowing only the things that the birds know. 

(ABA)