Rurality In Folk Horror And The Films of David Gladwell.

This paper was originally given at The Alchemical Landscape conference at Girton College Cambridge, 07/07/2016.

Though more well known for work as a film editor associated with the Free Cinema Movement of the late 1950s, and for cutting work on several films by Lindsay Anderson including If…. (1968) and O’ Lucky Man! (1973), David Gladwell is a director in his own right; a cinematic outsider who distils interests in agricultural life, the urban/rural divide, and uncanny landscapes into heady, oneiric forms of short and feature length film.  In this presentation, the concept of “rurality” – the term I use to denote sideways tipping of reality in fictional media through the hyperactive inclusion and obsession with rural aesthetics and themes – will be addressed chiefly within Gladwell’s 1976 feature film, Requiem For A Village.  By assessing the themes of Requiem, a film that presents an essayist cine-poem examining the surreal shifts of English village life caused by the suburban developments of the mid 1970s, the film can be shown to parallel work by the likes of George Ewart Evans, Philip Larkin, Ronald Blythe and Stanley Spencer. 

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By aligning Gladwell’s practice within the context of such artwork, as well as within terminological genre spectrums such as Folk Horror and the English Eerie, his films can be argued as being the epitome of work that, in the words of Robert Macfarlane, explores concepts surrounding landscape in “terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities.” (2015).  Rob Young also hints towards this being a chief aspect of rurality in cinema in his essay for Sight & Sound, The Films Of Old Weird Britain (2010).  He writes of an influence of rural based ethnographic, agricultural and cultural practices upon many films and television programs, especially in 1970s Britain.  In the same essay, he describes Requiem itself as “an essay film that slips into reverie and fantasy.” (2010) and there’s certainly a connection between the idea of slips into the fantastical, the violent, and the “past lying just behind the present.” as Young later writes.

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Requiem portrays a small Suffolk village whose edges are gradually being scratched at by the development of the outlying suburban estates.  The potential calamity that such a development is to the local ways of the villagers conjures strange images of the dead rising from their graves to attend emergency village council meetings.  Meanwhile, the new ease of access to the countryside leads to a local biker gang invading the peaceful vista of the meadows, their violence culminating in a number of scenarios, namely the disruption of the agricultural harmony.  Gladwell summarises his own portrayal of this modernity encroaching upon traditionalism as follows:

The present-day world is represented by a modern housing estate, youths on motorcycles, and a busy dual-carriageway road.  It was useful that a new road was actually in process of being carved through idyllic countryside during the period of the filming.  But, for the extensive desecration shown at the end of the film, we had to go as far afield as the site of the new Milton Keynes development. (2011).


Yet the film also unconsciously questions the hypocrisy of such a paranoia and it is doubly ironic that Gladwell himself had to search further afield to find such a supposed, encroaching horror.  Because of this, the film finds a poetic equivalent in Going, Going by Philip Larkin (1972), a poem equally dismayed at the death of the country village.  Requiem recognises the violence already present in the rural zones, something which Larkin’s poem is earnestly ignorant of:

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres. (Larkin, 1972).


Such paranoia over the topographical shifts of post-war Britain can be found in a number of similar works, of which Larkin’s is the most hysterical, while Gladwell’s is the most quiet.  Consider, for example, Ronald Blythe’s ground breaking work, Akenfield.  Again, looking at the agri-ethnographic traditions found in Suffolk, his book’s opening passages share that same sense of unease, albeit in a quieter form, of the reversion of rural to urban delineations being blurred.  Consider the following from the book’s introduction:

The townsman envies the villager his certainties and, in Britain, has always regarded urban life as just a temporary necessity.  One day he will find a cottage on the green and “real values”.  To accommodate the almost religious intensity of the regard for rural life in this country, and to placate the sense of guilt which so many people feel about not living in a village pattern, the post-war new towns have attempted to incorporate both city and village – with, on the whole, disheartening results.  A number of such towns are spreading into East Anglia, arriving suddenly on the loamy flats where there has been habitation before, and claiming that they can offer the best of both worlds.  Trees are landscaped into the concrete. (1969).


The final line especially of “Trees are landscaped into the concrete” is a wonderful meme for the arguments presented here, if only because rurality in this particular instance becomes less fetishised and simply more paranoid.  Even more fitting in the context of Gladwell’s film is this snippet from Blythe’s introduction: “The centre of the village remains self-contained and quiet in spite of farm machines, motor-bikes and the dull murmur of summer holiday traffic on a bit of straight.” (1969).  How fitting for an analysis of a film that openly uses the socio-aesthetic image of a young motorbike gang as evidence of the impending doom for the English rural idylls of East Anglia.  This is before even considering that Blythe’s book itself was adapted into a film by Peter Hall a mere year and a half before Gladwell’s; it was clearly a prominent idea plaguing the English creative psyche during this period of Ballardian suburbia and Brutalist architectural prominence. 

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Motorbikes, of course, became a strangely prominent image in cinema of this post-Easy Rider period, especially the of more esoteric kind.  In The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1973), the elusive count, who has since become a property barren living in a high-rise, has his henchman travel around on motorbikes, all of course wearing matching, and not to say fetching,  sleeveless sheep-skin jackets.  Whilst in Pete Walker’s Frightmare (1974), the motorbike gang becomes a symbol of the young going astray into the hoodlum, albeit hiding a darker secret of Home Counties cannibalism; an irony where the real danger is from a pair of OAPs living in a country cottage.  Yet this is besides the main point, that of rurality, which is better surmised by Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1973); a film that has a motorbike gang harness the power of a stone circle to come back from dead and to haunt the suburban realms.  It is essentially an inversion of Gladwell’s film that sees his gang travelling from nearby Ipswich in order to cause fear and violence in the village-zones.


These worried visions are equally derived from that other great influence on Gladwell’s film, the writing of ethnographer, George Ewart Evans.  Gladwell has been on record in various interviews, including one we conducted last year, about the writer’s sensibility towards gradually disappearing traditions and practices being something to be both mourned and potentially fought against, something Gladwell himself attempts through his own filmic practice.  Ewart Evans writes in his seminal work, The Pattern Under The Plough, of such a happening, however, whereby:

If the separate disciplines continue to investigate the past of rural Britain, each in its own way, much will be lost irrecoverably.  I hold this view chiefly for two reasons: first, according to the evidence in the preceding pages, the old rural community was essentially the true remnant of a primitive society that had lasted since prehistoric times.  And in writing primitive I am not making a value-judgment and using the word as a synonym for backward; for it is undeniable that in certain aspects of living some primitive societies were very much forward compared with modern western civilisation. (1966).

By amalgamating such ideas of Ewart Evans’, along with Blythe’s and Larkin’s, Gladwell produces such an augmentation of reality that the film seems to be more of a subjectivist avant-garde work rather than a purely objectivist ethnographic documentary such as Ewart Evans’ work.  Yet, with such a range of influences going into the melting pot, Requiem can’t help but directly comment on such similar social and topographical changes even when questioning such changes through some of the most hauntingly eerie and disturbing visuals produced in the whole of 1970s British cinema.  The film is perhaps most infamous for an extended montage of sexual assault, slipping in its perception between the motorbike gang and the workers of the land, both forcing themselves upon various women.  The sequence is almost dreamlike and is the most overt that is arguably channelling the side-ways tipping of reality, essential to the concept of rurality.  Gladwell suggests that this mixture of reality and fantasy (i.e. the mixture needed for such an argument of rurality to be applied) ties the former aspect to his own life in the countryside, writing “It could be used as a metaphor within a semi-documentary story relating past with present generations of rural life.  The documentary aspect took over from the fantasy, and in a rural setting because I grew up in the countryside and have always felt an affinity with it.” (2011).  It is fitting that Gladwell still lives there today, producing  many works in the form of painting but still addressing the same issues of countryside, rural practices and the darker hues of the fantastical.


A tapestry should be growing which shows the character of rurality and how it potentially influences Folk Horror more generally; where films represent previous generations and their practices, either in period where the films take on a sense of the uncanny, or in the present where tradition itself becomes a source of unease and horror in its anachronistic charisma to hold on.  Gladwell also referred to another chief influence on his film in the form of work by the painter, Stanley Spencer, and this influence surprisingly accounts for some of the film’s more pulp elements.  He writes that “I had harboured the wish to try and incorporate some ideas of the English artist, Stanley Spencer, and his paintings of a churchyard resurrection, in which previous generations of villagers are united with the present…” (2015).   Spencer is perhaps the most prominent of influences on Gladwell’s work as a whole.  He quotes the artist when describing his own practice, writing that “The primary inspiration for that film was the paintings of English artist Stanley Spencer; “People emerging from graves as embodied spirits in the clothes they wore in life, waking from a long sleep, yawning and rubbing their eyes: stretching and catching sight of friends and relatives among the living.  The dead and living rejoice and are united.” (2011).  Though Gladwell could be seen as imbuing Spencer’s work with a far more explicit potential, as Louise Collins writes in her book on the artist’s work, A Private View Of Stanley Spencer, there already was an extensive strain of repressed sexuality manifesting in the artist’s work, explicitly in his “Resurrection” paintings:

It was an idea he elaborated on for the next twenty years.  In 1927 some of the people shown were in actual fact his friends, alive and well, but they are all rising from the grave of previous existence.  In the 1945 resurrection series, many of the characters are onlookers.  They are standing round the tombs and have never lain in them.  They are helping the risen up from their coffins and preparing to make love to them, for heaven has come upon earth and there is no death nor any pain, only everlasting love of a slightly necrophilic tinge. (1972).

This was due to what Collins calls his “long delayed pleasures of manhood”, referring to Spencer’s delayed loss of virginity until he was in his early thirties.  Gladwell uses this element of dreamlike, erotic fantasy (and perhaps even horror at such urges) as more of a surreal social commentary on the topographical developments occurring in the mid 1970s.  But other films delve into this same territory for purely pulp means.  Both Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) and Piers Haggard’s The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) tap into this sense of rurality as they both follow sexually powered communities whose livelihood is derived from the land and whose belief systems are based around it (even if only manifesting in a superstition in Blood).  The former is an example of the anachronism of traditional practices, using them as a thematic gateway to bring other associations back through to the 1970s (i.e. paganism and its potentially violent window dressings).  The latter uses the grounding of its rurality to both set in motion its narrative and to bring a sense of recognisability to its violence, sexuality and macabre nature; where a very particular vision of the past is as tangible as the mud of its fields.

Gladwell’s film, along with several of his shorter works, is the epitome of the former type of rurality; the modern day colliding with a past, an urban/rural divide manifesting physically and psychically in both place and people.   For a shorter example, Gladwell’s short untitled film commonly referred to as The Killing (1964) is an excellent example of these specific binaries.  Made with support from the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund, the film uses rurality to create a feeling of dread and unease even though it simply showcases farming practices portrayed in hypnotic slow-motion, like a Humphrey Jennings short on Ketamin.  Equally of prescience is Requiem‘s image of a farmer violently throwing rocks at a commercial digger which is one of the most profound in all of Folk Horror.  On the release of the film, Elizabeth Sussex argued that it was essential to see Gladwell’s work as a reaction to the present rather than a nostalgia for something lost, writing that “It is important, I think, to know that what started him off on this was not nostalgia for anything familiar to himself.  It was, on the contrary, the sight of the new towns spreading across the country and in their progress replacing, burying – what?” (1975).  The horror in this sense is not one of terror but more of a frustrated fear, that the old ways are being bulldozed and tarmacked into the byways. 

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The essence of rurality can create a huge number of differing narratives and relationships once embedded into the very soil of a film.  Gladwell’s rurality forms around more avant-garde mechanisms but a general rurality can be seen in such narrative tropes as the insider/outsider, the modern city dweller entering the zone of the countryside, an old magic being derived from the landscape, the rural becoming the testing area for scientists with their dangerous, experimental urbanity, and the places of terrible happenings being cultural and even theologically imbued into the land rather than simply random; these are all potentially derived from the sideways tipping of reality into the rural of a hyper-explicit Suffolk and elsewhere, whether it be Summerisle, Winnderden Flats, or Milbury.

Gladwell’s film, however, deserves to be more widely seen and discussed because it surmises a key theme in Folk Horror; the break-down of the everyday normality that occurs through the very emphasis upon the seemingly normal.  It may not have done it in such a populist way as to achieve the cult and pulp popularity of other films that use the rural to augment the perception of diegetic reality but, as an example to begin the analysis of the concept, there is no better, more visceral or more hypnotic starting place.  Gladwell concluded in my brief interview with him by suggesting in regards to Requiem that “It was probably the fragmentary quality of this story which attracted me – including, again, the bringing together of different worlds.” (2015).  Little could he know how much his film reflected the clash of such worlds in cinema from all corners of the globe; the clashing of realities with the rural, the agri-aggressive and the eeriness of rurality in all of its pastoral horror.

Adam Scovell

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