Pastoral Nights & Pagan Rites
Two film series lie back and think of England
Two British actors: Two men surrounded by flames, facing their mortality. In 1946's A Matter of Life and Death, David Niven is the debonair embodiment of the stiff upper lip as his Lancaster bomber flies to its burning doom. Twenty-seven years later, Edward Woodward screams to an absent God as he faces sacrificial immolation in The Wicker Man. Now two film series at the Alamo Ritz show the mystical threads binding these iconic moments together. The Archers celebrates the greatest filmmaking partnership in the history of UK cinema, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose complicated, playful, often surrealistic films redefined British pastoralism. Its counterpart, Black Sabbats & Blood Rites, conjures up the dark legacy of the island nation's fascination with pagan horror.
Running throughout the first two weeks of June, they reflect two very different sides of British culture. To Ritz booker Tommy Swenson, they are more kin than enemies. "There's a transgressive quality that carries through from the Archers to the folk horror stuff," he said. "The two series are unified, I think, by an engagement with a sort of mythic history of England. The folk horror films all deal with the return of elements from pre-Christian life and folklore – witchcraft, paganism, and especially sacrifice. They share a sense of rural menace and the anxiety of a haunted landscape. The Archers' movies are also totally interested in people's relationship with nature, with the mysterious and magical qualities of the Earth. There's a similar sense of tension between old ways and new, but they're coming at it through a very different lens."
The two series intertwine like ivy on an oak. The Wicker Man forms an unlikely kinship with Powell and Pressburger's I Know Where I'm Going! starring Wendy Hiller as an English woman falling under the spell of rural Scotland. "The two movies actually mirror each other," said Swenson. "They're both about lone outsiders visiting isolated communities on Scottish islands where 'the old ways' still reign."
Many of the films now form part of the canon of British cinema. Under their Archers shingle, Powell and Pressburger made dancer Moira Shearer a household name with The Red Shoes, featured here alongside a new restoration of their collaboration of The Tales of Hoffmann. The Wicker Man constantly influences contemporary filmmakers, while Ken Russell's The Devils became a crossover success by rewriting European nunsploitation as a powerful allegory for mob injustice.
Yet many titles are far less well known. With no prints of Gone to Earth in the U.S., Swenson had to specially import one from the British Film Institute. Then there is TV's contribution. Two years ago, he screened several episodes of the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas, a series that adapted works of British ghost story master M.R. James. These were at the heart of a brief period of truly disturbing TV shows, like 1970's Robin Redbreast, which Swenson calls "basically The Wicker Man in miniature and with a female protagonist. All the themes of a sinister rural return to frightening pagan rites are there." Two years later, Nigel Kneale played The Stone Tape, using the idea that ghosts are recordings of terrible, traumatic events. Swenson said, "It's really unsettling, and has a killer score from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop."
Ultimately, Swenson hopes all these films will be seen as part of a whole, since they show a Britain imbued with "a kind of haunted magic. By turns comforting and terrifying, but always full of awe."
"Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: The Archers" and "Black Sabbats & Blood Rites: British Folk Horror Cinema" run May 30 to June 14 at the Alamo Ritz. See www.drafthouse.com for tickets.