DVD Review: The Juniper Tree

11772753_sa

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.

vlcsnap-2017-07-30-18h34m10s952

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.

vlcsnap-2017-07-30-18h32m49s993

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.

Advertisements

Book Review: Folk Horror by Adam Scovell

 

C-V1JNlXUAI7guO.jpg_large

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.

Book Review: Icelandic Folktales & Legends by Jacqueline Simpson

51JSqSEt2fL

While Iceland’s Sagas have been recognised as one of Europe’s most significant bodies of literature its folktales have received comparatively scant attention. The popular conception of European folklore has been largely defined by the Grimm brothers work in preserving Germanic traditions of fairy tales.
For too long Iceland’s rich and distinctive version of the form was largely unknown in the English-speaking world. First published in 1972, Jacqueline Simpson’s study was an attempt to redress the balance. The text presents a selection of narratives which demonstrate that Icelandic folklore and fairytales were localised and aetiological. The author argues that the tales were originally told by a desperately poor hard-working community as a way of understanding their environment and also to reaffirm beliefs. Infused with humour and pathos, the collection provides an invaluable insight into early settlers beliefs and wishes.
Icelandic Folktales & Legends is not a definitive account of the nation’s mythology. Choosing to present thematic consistency rather than a loosely focussed cross section, Jacqueline Simpson has sourced tales from the first three chapters of Jón Árnason’s The Folktales and Fairy Tales of Iceland. The author’s decision to emphasise narratives featuring ghosts, magic, and supernatural beings has resulted in the exclusion of topics and themes which are arguably of equal historical and cultural significance.
Viewed as an introduction, not a definitive overview, the collection is an intriguing voyage into a world filled with trolls, elves, and hidden people.

Icelandic Folktales & Legends is published by The History Press

Book Review: The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (Trans by Mike Mitchell)

41wjshy8otl-_sx309_bo1204203200_

Labyrinthine expressionist horror novel.

A contemporary of Kafka, Gustav Meyrink was the illegitimate son of a minister of state and a Bavarian actress. Before the publication of his best-known work, he spent 20 years as the director of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank in Prague. Clinically depressed he suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. In 1891 Meyrink stood in his apartment with a revolver in his hand fully prepared to end his life when he was distracted by a scratching sound. Crossing the room he noticed that someone has slipped a pamphlet under his door. The leaflet saved him from attempting suicide again. Promoting an occultist group the pamphlet inspired an interest in mystical teachings that would become a recurrent theme in his writings.

Meyrink’s best-known work was originally published as a serial. German director Paul Wegener helmed three cinematic adaptations. The first two of Wegener’s trilogy are now considered to be lost. Wegener’s 1920 film The Golem: How He Came into the World is a classic example of German expressionism. A restored version was released in 2011 featuring a new score by alt.rock band Pixies frontman Black Francis.

An omnibus edition of The Golem was published after the release of the first film in Wegener’s trilogy. Its initial print run is reported to have sold 200,000 copies.

Frequently compared to Frankenstein, Meyrink’s novel was inspired by Jewish literature and Prague legends of a mythical creature said to have been created in the seventeenth century by Rabbi Judah Loew. A disturbing and occasionally bewildering work which at times reads like the outpourings of a troubled mind seeking acceptance and understanding. Meyrink’s obsessions and life experiences are written into the unsettling narrative of a strange creature who visits Prague’s Jewish ghetto every 33 years and strikes terror into the hearts of its inhabitants.

Meyrink’s reputation was destroyed and career left in tatters when he was accused of financial impropriety. Maintaining his innocence he was sent to prison. His time in custody is dramatised in the novel.

Robert Irwin’s introduction draws the reader’s attention to similarities with Kafka’s work. Both authors wrote about trials, castles and Prague and were acquainted with Max Brod. Meyrink’s writing is infused with Cabalistic mysticism and is more explicitly horrific than Kafka’s work.

Meshing classic horror themes with Jewish mythology and offering a nightmarish vision of the now vanished ghetto, The Golem is a classic novel from the author regarded as Czechoslovakia’s Edgar Allan Poe.

The Golem is published by Daedalus Books.

Book Review: Christmas is Coming by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (Trans by Hallberg Hallmundsson)

IMG_1380

Something festive this way comes: classic collection of verse reintroduced figures from Icelandic folklore.

In the early 1930s Icelandic literature was undergoing a golden age. Having gained independence in 1918 the country was experiencing an emboldened sense of self identity which was expressed throughout the arts. An age of introspection and exploration that saw the country’s writers and artists reinterpret Icelandic heritage from a nationalistic perspective.

Possibly influenced by adult literature’s coming of age, children’s fiction began to exhibit greater sophistication and spoke to a nation that although primarily dependent upon agriculture and fisheries for its sustainability was taking tentative steps towards urbanisation and consumerism.

Into this age of transition Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s seminal seasonal text Christmas is Coming was published. First issued in 1932 the text reintroduced Icelandic society to figures from pre-Christian Nordic Yuletide folklore albeit in a slightly sanitised form more palatable to early twentieth century readers.

An alternative to Father Christmas, according to Icelandic folklore children’s homes are visited by elves over a number of nights leading up to the Yuletide festival. Until the publication of Christmas is Coming the precise number of elves and individual characteristics varied regionally. Malign and occasionally murderous figures traditionally used to scare children into behaving were transformed by Jóhannes úr Kötlum into mischievous elves. Fixing the number of Yule Lads at thirteen each was given a distinct personality.

In modern Icelandic society children are told that Yule Lads will visit homes leaving gifts or rotting potatoes depending on their behaviour. Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s verse was written at a time when agriculture was the dominant industry and in his poem the elves play a series of pranks upon farmers homes.

This seasonal bestseller remains in print and is now available in English. The collection also includes The Ballad of Grýla the tale of an ogre who feasts on badly behaved children and The Christmas Cat a dark account of a terrifying feline who prowls around Iceland looking for children wearing old clothes because she is unable to eat infants that are wearing new garments.

Providing an invaluable glimpse at the birth of modern Icelandic festive traditions, Christmas is Coming is a macabre and impish collection.

Christmas is Coming is available to order from Amazon.