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Robin Redbreast, rurality and British folk horror
'Folk Horror' is a film genre which, if the hugely popular Facebook group is anything to go by, has in recent years, expanded in all directions, and become vast and sprawling. Despite valiant attempts by writers like Adam Scovell (see interviews) to rein it in, the term currently seems to be a catch-all for a huge range of cultural products.
At its very epicentre, and towering over all its imitators, remains the immense, magisterial film 'The Wicker Man' (1973). Other films and art-works seem slight in comparison, yet the creepy BBC Play for Today 'Robin Redbreast' (1970) recently released by the BFI as a DVD, is worth highlighting because of the similarity of its themes - including its examination of 'rurality' - and the fact, that, preceding The Wicker Man as it did by three years, it is likely to have influenced its better known cousin.
The opening shots of Robin Redbreast: Norah shows her friends a cottage she has bought in the country.
Admittedly 'Robin Redbreast' doesn't have the same cinematic sweep or visual impact, nor can it boast stars with the charisma of Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, but like The Wicker Man, it is set in the present day and it features a metropolitan outsider who, once drawn into a rural community, becomes involved in a human sacrifice performed as a fertility ritual at the film's climax. In this case, rather than Howie the policeman it is Robin, a blond gamekeeper given to practising karate in a pair of black Speedo's, that is the victim of the ritual killing.
John Bowen, Redbreast's script-writer, has suggested that the inspiration for the work was the controversial murder of Charles Walton in 1945. In a recent BFI interview he said: 'The inception (of Robin Redbreast) was a murder in the village of Lower Quinton, just outside Stratford-on-Avon. A tramp was murdered by villagers and his body was dragged along so the blood could fertilise the crops'.
Rob (or Robin) practising karate in the woods. He is later the victim of a ritual killing.
Because of its suspicious circumstances, the facts of the Walton murder have been picked over many times since and, it should be said, Bowen's description (above) seems slightly embellished. (Walton was well-known local farm-hand, not a tramp, and there is no record of his body being dragged as such. In fact he is thought to have been pinned to the ground by a pitchfork).
A more useful reference point for both these folk horror classics may therefore be Sir James Frazer's 'Golden Bough' (3rd edition 1922), which proposed that most known religions, including Christianity, have at their heart the myth of the sacred, or priestly, king that undergoes a mystic marriage to the goddess, but is then sacrificed, only to be reborn.
Indeed in Robin Redbreast, the connection to Frazer's book is made very explicit in the film, when Mr Fisher, one of the locals, explains the murder of Robin to 'outsider' Norah, the female lead: The goddess of fertility in the old legends was in some ways like yourself...in the autumn she would couple with the young king. He'd be treated like a king. Served and pampered you might say...then of course he would pass away...assisted to it you might say. And from his blood the crops would spread.'
The final shots: Four of the villagers watch Norah leave for the last time
In his publication 'Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange' Adam Scovell observes that: 'the role of pagan sacrifice is emphasised here, moving away from simply the landscape, and expressing another facet of Folk Horror; that of the reemergence of interest in occult themes and imagery in the late 1960s and early 1970s'...'(Mr) Fisher is only a slight twist on the typical counter-cultural guru, dressed as a country gent akin to Lord Summerisle, but more ready for a trudge through fields looking for 'sherds' rather than a flower-child sage heading to a happening'.
As these quotes suggest, Scovell's book is a useful guide to this most mercurial of genres but, in uncovering such numbers of thematically related works, it still leaves the most important question raised by them only partially answered. That is: why were so many folklore and landscape-infused films about witchcraft and paganism made in the late 60's and early 70's? What exactly was happening, in broader cultural terms, at the time?