Saturday, 25 August 2012

Shankill Graveyard

While staying with my parents recently in my home town of Lurgan, County Armagh, I naturally decided to pay a visit to a few of the local graveyards. Top of my list was Shankill Graveyard.

Located just outside the town centre, and surrounded by a residential area, the site upon which Shankill cemetery stands was a place of worship in earlier centuries. Shankill Parish church was originally situated here before it was eventually moved to the town centre. The outline of a double ring fort is still noticeable. Amongst those at rest in the cemetery are the Brownlow family, who established the town in 1610 when they were given land beside Lough Neagh by the British government during the Plantation. They eventually contributed to the development of the linen industry the town became famous for throughout the seventeenth century. Their family vault is situated in the centre of the cemetery where the old church once stood. Apparently well off English families such as the Brownlow’s, sought burial grounds on sites of old churches at this time. A large number of people who died during the famine and in the workhouses of the town are also buried here in unmarked mass graves.

As much as I love old cemeteries, Shankill holds a particularly special place in my heart. My grandfather was the caretaker here and my mother grew up in the graveyard house; one of her sisters was actually born in the house. As a rabid fan of all things horror, there is something else that contributes greatly to my fondness of the place aside from these personal connections. In the middle of the cemetery is the grave of a local woman named Margorie McCall; her epitaph is a simple but highly unusual one. It reads ‘Lived Once, Buried Twice.’ As a child I remember my mother telling me the story of Mrs McCall, indeed, her tale is well known throughout the town. It is one that still fascinates me…

Margorie grew up in Lurgan in the early Eighteenth century. It is believed she was married to John McCall – who is thought to have been a surgeon – and she lived with her family in Church Place. It is said that after she became ill one day, she fell into a swoon from which she couldn’t be revived and, as her family thought, died soon after. At the wake there was quite a commotion concerning her wedding ring. Many of the mourners tried in vain to prise it from her fingers, as they perhaps anticipated the possibility that grave robbers would desecrate Margorie’s resting place in order to steal it. Remember, this was during a time when ‘resurrectionists’ forged careers out of digging up the recently interred and selling the bodies to surgeons and anatomy students for dissection and study. Grave robbing was practiced quite widely, especially here in Ireland and in Scotland (Burke and Hare, anyone?).

After the wake – which according to folklore is traditionally an attempt to avoid premature burial; the family of the deceased would sit and watch over the body to see if the person awoke - Margorie was laid to rest in Shankill Graveyard. That very same night her body was exhumed by grave robbers. The robbers also tried in vain to remove the ring from her finger, but could not. Eventually a blade was produced – perhaps with the intention of severing her finger to remove the ring. As soon as blood was drawn from Margorie she came to – revived from the coma-like swoon she had fallen into. Giving the robbers the fright of their lives, Margorie climbed out of the coffin and began to make her way home. When I picture this spectacle in my head - a lone woman wafting through an empty town in the middle of the night - I immediately think of the scenes from Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead, when the cataleptic Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery) has emerged from the tomb in which she was prematurely interred and wanders around the lonely isle, burial gown fluttering in the howling wind.

Meanwhile Margorie’s family were gathered around the fire at home when they heard a knock at the door. Margorie’s husband John – still grief-stricken – exclaimed – “if your mother were still alive, I’d swear that was her knock.” And sure enough, upon opening the door John was confronted by his “late” wife – dressed in her burial clothes, very much alive. Depending on who is telling the tale, several variations have come to my attention. Some say that when Magorie’s husband answered the door to her he dropped dead from the shock of seeing his ‘dead’ wife. Others say they had several more children together before she died. What seems to be the general consensus is that Margorie did indeed live for some years after this macabre event and when she did finally die she was returned to Shankill Graveyard where she continues to rest to this day. Throughout the years she has become something of a local ‘bogey-woman’, tales of whom are told to scare naughty children.

The following is believed to have been penned by a local scribe under the name of Cortze, at the graveside of Magorie McCall some time in the late 19th century.

Died Once Buried Twice 

There lowly beneath lonely sod, 
A lady twice entombed, 
Tradition has it noised abroad, 
She was exhumed alive. 

Her precious ring her finger bore, 
From her bright wedding day; 
And in death likewise wore 
When buried in the clay. 

But a foul thief to steal the ring, 
Did cast the clay aside 
And he to life did quickly bring 
She who lately died. 

For he should cut the finger round, 
To gain the golden prize, 
But when the blood flowed from the wound 
She spoke and did arise. 

And straight away to her home did go 
In her dead robes so white; 
Like a wandering spirit free from woe, 
But doomed to roam at night. 

And when she reached her husbands door, 
She gave her well known knock 
An he fell senseless to the floor, 
Un-nerved by the strange shock. 

Her children knew here gentle voice 
And flew to her embrace; 
And all the neighbours did rejoice, 
But marvelled at the case. 

But death at last took here away, 
As he will sure take all 
And not again to Judgement Day 
Shall Rise Margery McCaull.

Sectarian vandalism still plagues the cemetery 

Mass pauper grave

The (caretaker's) house by the cemetery

The Brownlow Family vault
A few years back I contributed an article about Margorie McCall to BBC NI. You can read the responses to it here. Sleep tight!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Audiodrome #11

This month’s edition of Audiodrome focuses on Bruno Nicolai’s hauntingly beautiful score for Sergio Martino’s gothic-flavoured giallo, Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key. Loosely adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, it stars Edwige Fenech as a scheming vixen, whose arrival at the crumbling villa of her alcoholic uncle seems to spark a slew of bloody murders. Nicolai's harpsichord-driven score eschews the usual jazz-inflected music associated with the giallo for something altogether more clandestine and melancholic, perfectly underpinning the macabre desires at the heart of the story.

Head over to to read my review and listen to a track. 

While you’re there, why not pick up issue 16 of Paracinema Magazine. Amongst the abundance of articles and essays on genre cinema you’ll find the likes of Images of Horror and Lust in Ken Russell’s The Devils by Samm Deighan, The Films of René Laloux: Notes on the Golden Age of French Science Fiction by Derek Godin and Rehabilitating Daddy, or How Disaster Movies say it’s OK to Trust Authority by Jon (Shocks to the System: Subversive Horror Films) Towlson.

Keep an eye out for issue 17 of Paracinema in which I’ll be taking a much more detailed look at Martino’s Your Vice and its moody gothic influences.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

[REC] Genesis

Dir. Paco Plaza

As the families and friends of Koldo and Clara gather to celebrate the happy couple’s wedding, the party soon descends into a nightmarish bloodbath as partygoers, seemingly infected by a strange virus, begin feeding on each other with ravenous bloodlust.

[REC] Genesis exhibits a much more playful tone than its predecessors, and while it may be a prequel, it isn’t an origin story documenting the demon-possession viral scourge that rips through the prior installments. It doesn’t really add much to the mythos of the series aside from presenting a similar situation to that in the first film. In fact, the events depicted in its narrative run in parallel with those of the other films. At one stage we catch a glimpse of reporter Angela from [REC] as she makes her original broadcast from the building where the first film was set. Also adding to its distinction, is its ditching of the use of ‘found footage/camcorder-horror’ conventions so brilliantly utilised in the other entries. It has an expansive cinematic quality that elevates it yet doesn’t detract from its moments of hellish tension and suspense. Whereas the prior films boasted a dark and gritty look, Genesis revels in stylised lighting - particularly the scenes in the giant hall where the reception is held - and in the many rain-lashed exterior scenes. At times it resembles an Italian horror film from a bygone era, with its livid primary-coloured palette and grandiose set design.

By taking the time to establish the main characters in the opening scenes by aping typical wedding video footage, we are slowly drawn into the story. The overwhelming feeling that something bad is about to happen permeates these scenes, and when it does, the ensuing chaos and carnage is sudden and bloody. We’re made aware of an ‘ill’ uncle from the get go, and his increasingly strange behaviour strikes just the right amount of knowing humour and genuine suspense. There is more of an emotional core in this film, particularly in the use of a just-married and very much in love couple as protagonists. That they are actually a pretty sweet and not-at-all annoying couple (well played by Diego Martin and Letitia Dolera) adds to their appeal. There is also an oddly moving moment in the scene featuring a creepy reunion of bride and mother.

Comedic moments - some dark, some just goofy - come thick and fast, but don’t diminish the scenes of expertly crafted tension; and believe me, there are more than a few of those. Once seen, the image of Clara in full bridal garb brandishing a chainsaw and cutting a gory swathe through hordes of demonic zombies, won’t be forgotten. It perfectly encapsulates the tone of Genesis. Nods aplenty to The Shining also abound, not just in the hotel setting, but in certain shots (including one that pays homage to the moment when Jack busts through the bathroom door to terrorise a frantic Wendy) and in the very appearance of bride Clara; pale of face and raven of hair, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Shelley Duvall in Kubrick’s masterful shocker.

[REC]2 reveals that the virus is actually demonic possession spread by infected blood, and this idea is only slightly expanded upon here. The possessed/infected are glimpsed in mirrors and reflective surfaces as monstrous and warped figures. There is a very basic, strangely vintage and overtly religious coda afoot, most evident in the reaction of the possessed/infected to Biblical recitations.

With its moments of gore, suspense and gallows humour, and with its shifting tones and emphasis on fun, [REC] Genesis wasn’t described (in an admittedly cliched way) by Frightfest’s Alan Jones as “Another terrific ride on the [REC] rollercoaster” for nothing. The bittersweet and gore-drenched ending also packs an unexpected wallop. Mention must also be made of the terrific menus on the DVD; they resemble that of a cheesy wedding video, perfectly complimenting the delirious and jokey tone of the film.

[REC] Genesis is released on 3rd September, 2012
Distributor: eOne
Certificate 18
Price £15.99 (DVD), £19.99 (Blu-ray)

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Fields

Dirs. Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni

Set during the early Seventies, at a time when society was reeling from the Manson Family murders and the brutal end of the Summer of Love, The Fields is a thoughtful, atmospheric and quietly powerful film. At its core is a rumination on the end of innocence - the young protagonist’s rites of passage unravels during a time when social unrest and the backlash of the Manson murders shook society to its foundations. Hippies were demonised and their ideologies lambasted and tarnished. Due to the setting and circumstances, the hippies in the film are actually portrayed in quite a sinister way. Their behaviour doesn’t sit right, their motives are ambiguous. This is the only horror film I can think of that actually presents the Love Generation in such disquieting light. The Fields explores how society changed in the wake of the Manson family killings. Paranoia was rife. People became all too aware of the fact that human monsters moved amongst them. Telling the story from a child’s perspective allows the filmmakers to address such notions and ideas from a middle ground. They also show how society can influence children and shape who they become - for better or worse - through its attitudes and prejudices.

Horror in this film really stems from broken homes, dark (though realistic) family secrets, changes in society and a young child’s active imagination, sparked to morbid effect when he hears of the bloody Charles Manson massacre on the radio. The boy’s father (Faust Checho) is a Vietnam vet and suffers from PTSD. His mother (Tara Reid) is an alcoholic. They send him to stay with his paternal grandparents when he witnesses an argument that ends when his father holds a gun to his mother’s head.

“You should be more afraid of the living than the dead.”

As the audience is invited to see the world through the eyes of a child, there are moments of fearful fancy and childhood terrors such as the darkness beneath the bed or the slightly ajar closet door which are deftly executed to induce quiet chills. The titular fields surrounding the house take on a sinister quality as Steven (Joshua Ormand) explores them against his grandparents wishes. Stealthy point of view camera shots stalk through the imposing rows of corn and the emphasis on sound to create an eerie atmosphere is key throughout these moments. Autumnal scenery underpins the idea of change in society at the time, and the sense of loss and grief people felt.

The grandparents house highlights their simple lives as farming folk; it is cosy and lived-in, but during the night it takes on a creepy atmosphere, fuelled by Steven’s imagination. The grandmother is something of a horror fan and she’s often glimpsed watching old horror films on TV, including Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead. At one point she is chastised by her husband for letting Steven watch them with her. The films she watches are now considered to have socio-political commentaries that considered the unrest and turmoil in society at the time. These films also seem to inspire Steven’s imagination, as shortly after he sees Carnival of Souls, he wanders around a deserted funfair that seems to be situated somewhere beyond the cornfields. Again, because we see things from his point of view, we can’t be sure if the terrors he encounters there are real or the product of his imagination.

Naturalistic conversations and the banter of the family flesh out already believable characters. Domesticity mingles with real life horror - highlighted in the scene where Steven and his grandmother are discussing what to have for dinner as they also chat about how her brother died - delving into those moments when children first begin to realise that death is part of life. Weighty issues such as race are tackled with the introduction of the grandmother’s sister’s partner, an African American. This throws light on the attitudes of ordinary folk at the time, and as they’re presented to us from Steven’s perspective, they remain objective. An almost Lynchian scene unfolds when Steven and his grandparents visit his disabled great aunt, complete with flashing light bulbs and the sight of the grandfather taking his teeth out at the dinner table. Of course these moments are all benign, but the way they’re shot - from Steven’s naïve and inquisitive vantage point - renders them weird and unsettling. Things become increasingly nightmarish when Steven wonders into the dark and cluttered basement and meets his great aunt’s grown children playing in the dark. They obviously have learning difficulties and while they’re presented in a slightly off kilter way (again, as Steven sees them), the film does manage to highlight the plight of such individuals and how society treated them in the late Sixties, early Seventies - hidden away from the world as matter a fact as you like.

Later on, when the family are tormented by persons unseen in the cornfields who hurl stones through the windows, events become unbearably tense. Are these just harmless pranks, or is something more sinister afoot? Does Steven really see ghosts? Is this a haunting? Due to his imagination and the film’s presentation of what he sees, the audience are often left to ponder if certain things are real or imagined, including the discovery of the body of a young woman in the field, and an immensely creepy moment involving a clown and the darkened space beneath Steven’s bed… Other sinister moments come when the audience apply their contemporary outlook to various situations such as Steven’s encounter with a dodgy farmhand in the milking shed.

The performances are all uniformly strong, particularly those of Bev Appleton and Cloris Leachman as the grandparents. Even Tara Reid impresses as the frustrated Bonnie who uses alcohol to cope with her unhappy home-life.

The Fields is subtle, unassuming and thought provoking. While its pace may not be to everyone’s taste, it nonetheless slow-burns its way to a satisfying climax which, at the very last moment, threatens to undo the film’s lyrical approach to the horror of growing up, by introducing an ambiguous, possibly supernatural angle. Aside from this, The Fields is perfect for those who like their horror with heart.