DVD Review: The Juniper Tree

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Slow-burning Icelandic Folk Horror.

Bleaker than Disney adaptations, this version of a Brothers Grimm fairytale is an overlooked film that viewed from a twenty-first-century perspective is a much-needed antidote to Twilightified narratives.

Director Nietzchka Keene was originally in Iceland on a Fullbright scholarship to make a different film when she decided to jettison the project and bring the dark Grimms story to the screen.

Keene’s melancholic and austere film evokes the story’s unsettling tone without being too slavish in following the original text. Wisely choosing to be free with the source material, the director relocated the story to Iceland. Removing the narrative from its original Germanic setting and placing it in a new historically specific context gave it a grounding which would have been resonated with Icelandic audiences. Trimming the story’s more fantastical elements, the director was committed to communicating a sense of plausibility.

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Recording a then vanishing folklore tradition, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales were originally written for an adult readership. Sanitized by publishers and Disney screen adaptations, the original versions of the tales are dark and disturbing explorations of a society’s social, cultural, psychological, and psychosexual fears. Nietzchka Keene had studied the narratives and wanted to wed their commentary on female sexuality with a study of Icelandic folklore traditions in the period immediately after the nation converted to Christianity.

In Icelandic folk tales, the divide between the worlds of the living and dead is not firm and fixed, deceased family members return to issue warnings or tempt the living into tasting death’s embrace. Nietzchka Keene’s changes to the Grimm’s narrative incorporates this strand of folk literature. Adding the ghost of a deceased mother to the story accentuates the already palpable sense of unease.

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Filmed in the summer of 1986, the film seemed fated to rot in an archive. Lead actor Bjork’s propulsion to internationally successful recording artist resulted in funds to complete editing being made available and the film was released in 1990.

Self-consciously meshing contrasts, the film demands total concentration. Its commitment to historical authenticity is deliberately offset by the decision to get Icelandic actors to record their dialogue in English. Filmed in stark monochrome, the dramatic beauty of an Icelandic summer has never before seemed so menacing on screen.

This Nordic Folk Horror is worthy to be placed alongside The Wicker Man, BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and Witchfinder General.

The Juniper Tree is available to order from Amazon.

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Book Review: Getting Carter by Nick Triplow

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Comprehensive biography delivers everything you wanted to know about the rise and fall of an influential writer.

Despite being well respected in France and attaining cult status in America, Ted Lewis is largely forgotten in his native Britain. Author of nine novels, his legacy today largely rests on the move adaptation of Jack’s Return Home, filmed as Get Carter.

Fusing techniques borrowed from the hard-boiled American crime fiction with social realism he founded a new school of British crime writing. Continuing to exert a strong influence on contemporary fiction, echoes of his most famous work can be found in Jake Arnott’s underworld novels, Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast, David Peace’s Red Riding trilogy, and Shane Meadows’ film Dead Man Shoes. Notable fans of the author include Derek Raymond, James Sallis, Max Allan Collins, Ben Myers, and Cathi Unsworth.

In life and death, the author drifted into relative obscurity and his most famous work has been obscured by the better-known Michael Caine starring film version. Despite being championed by a small but dedicated group of admirers greater acclaim continues to elude Lewis and his work. Currently, most of his novels are out of print in print in the UK. For decades Ted Lewis was one of the most significant British crime authors most people had never read.

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Nick Triplow’s meticulously researched biography is the definitive account of Lewis’ life and his work’s continued relevance. The book is a nuanced study of a tortured soul that is as compelling and rich as anything written by Lewis.

Equal parts social document and crime fiction, the best of Lewis’ novels attempted to stretch the parameters of what it was possible to achieve within the confines of British crime fiction. Defined in the popular consciousness by the Mike Hodges directed film Get Carter, Triplow reveals that the adaptation was largely ignored or misunderstood until undergoing rediscovery and rehabilitation in the 1990s courtesy of Loaded magazine’s aborted attempt to publish a comic-strip version. Triplow suggests that Crime Time‘s publication of a Lewis retrospective issue in 1997 alongside the screening of a restored Get Carter at the National Film Theatre momentarily placed the author, or more specifically his most commercially successful work, in the new laddism zeitgeist. It was particularly apt that the book and film were reappraised in the dying days of Britpop having previously been recognised as signalling the end of the 1960s.

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Interviewing school friends, university classmates, work colleagues, drinking pals, and fellow writers Triplow examines possible causes of Lewis’ self-destructive behaviour and his excessive drinking. Discussing Lewis’ literary output in relation to his life Triplow reveals that the author frequently transposed real events, people, and places into his work. The experience of being tormented by a sadistic headmaster was retold in Lewis’ 1975 novel The Rabbit. Gangsters met in Soho drinking clubs inspired characters and events in Get Carter and subsequently written crime novels and TV scripts.

Getting Carter is an impressive study that shatters numerous half-truths and myths about Lewis that have circulated since his death. Triplow skilfully recreates a long lost era enabling the reader to momentarily walk in Lewis’ path and understand why he stood apart from other crime writers.

Getting Carter is published by No Exit Press