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: Folk Horror by Adam Scovell

 

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What is Folk Horror? When did a group of disparate texts become linked under the banner of a relatively new subgenre? Do the works of M.R. James, Dennis Wheatley, and Nigel Kneale share common preoccupations? Were The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General exploitation films or did they reveal something deeper about that era’s attempts to reconcile conflicting views of past? How has this previously critically scorned subgenre become the focus of scholarship?

Writer and filmmaker Adam Scovell’s text is a subjective survey of the genre that explores its genealogy, formation of a cannon, and wider considerations about cultural shifts. Arguing that the subgenre is fluid, the author suggests that instead of using Folk Horror as a term to retrospectively categrorise books, films, and TV series, it should be employed to open up discussion about thematically connected texts and what present day attempts to form a cannon may say about the critical community.

Acknowledging that ‘Folk’ is an ambiguous term, Scovell’s study suggests that it may refer to cultural practices, aesthetic practices specific to a particular community, and thematic commonalities. Particular focus is paid to the 1960s counter-culture movement and the emergence of alternative lifestyles. This subculture sought to establish a socially progressive model of society which incorporated Folk traditions.

Scovell concedes establishing a precise definition of ‘Horror’ is equally problematic. The term is constantly modified and historically has incorporated Folklore based narratives.

The author suggests that the term may have been originated by director Piers Haggard in a 2003 interview for Fangoria Magazine.

Mark Gatiss’ 2010 documentary series A History of Horror used the term to categorize three films; The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, and The Wicker Man. Gatiss noted that the films ‘shared a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore, and superstitions.’ Scovell uses the same three films to form a Folk Horror Chain which provides a theoretical model for analysis of the subgenre, commercial imperatives, reception by later generations of critics and fans, alongside an analysis of contemporary cultural trends.

Scovell’s study is wide-ranging in scope and rigorous in its analysis. The book analyses a vast array of Folk Horror literature, films, and TV series demonstrating that the subgenre is still a potent creative and commercial force. Establishing a theoretical base for further academic investigation, he identifies core thematic elements and offers potential explanations for why Folk Horror continues to resonate.

Folk Horror is published by Auteur Publishing

Adam Scovell’s has written about key Folk Horror films for the BFI.