Thursday, March 20, 2014

British Rural Horror vs. American Hillbilly Horror

One of my favorite podcasts is Boys and Ghouls, which is basically like listening to two of your buddies discuss horror movies for around 60 minutes once a month. I love to listen to podcasts when I’m a) cooking or b) exercising, and Boys and Ghouls is the best because it’s fun and accessible and it’s essentially just talk radio but with no commercials and pertaining to topics that I actually give a shit about. I prefer the discussion format to the storytelling format when it comes to podcasts. Anyhow, I digress – my point is that Kat and Marshall recently ran a contest asking listeners to submit ideas for their April episode, and my suggestion was British rural horror. Alas, my idea wasn’t drawn out of the plastic jack o’lantern, but I’m still hoping that they might delve into it on a future episode.

British rural horror is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, because two things recently happened in quick succession: I caught A Field in England at the Cinefamily, and I finally watched Blood on Satan’s Claw for the first time. The latter is a movie that I’ve been aware of for like 20 years, ever since I first heard it referenced in a Cramps song. Fucking cool title, right? It also features a character named Angel Blake, whose eyebrows get so diabolically awesome the deeper she’s drawn into the occult that I think it may have inspired my 2014 Halloween costume. (Well, I’m either going as Angel Blake or as Tara the Android.) **CAUTION: Tara the Android will HAUNT YOUR NIGHTMARES, so watch at your own risk!**

Both A Field in England and Blood on Satan’s Claw utilize the bucolic splendor of the English countryside as the setting of, and impetus for, ungodly horror. That, coupled with a recent article on the subject, made me realize that, duh, British rural horror is one of my favorite horror subgenres. I’m all about setting and atmosphere when it comes to scary movies, and that is definitely one of BRH’s biggest strengths. There are so many movies that can be construed as being part of this subgenre, even if the connection is a little tenuous. One notable example is The Witches, a Hammer horror film from 1966 starring Joan Fontaine that would make a really excellent double feature with Blood on Satan’s Claw. Another obvious choice is The Wicker Man (Christopher Lee version, not Nic Cage version). I’m guessing this is the most well-known BRH film.

I’m stretching the definition a bit here, but what about The Innocents? Burn, Witch, Burn (a.k.a. Night of the Eagle)? Curse of the Demon? Even Horror Hotel and The Haunting (1963) – while set in New England – have a very British feel about them, and a horror/revulsion surrounding the countryside. Who can forget Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper of Hill House, ghoulishly grinning at Eleanor while she tells her, “Nobody lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that. In the night. In the dark,” or her caretaker husband deriding “all you city people, think you know everythin’.” 

In their discussion of the listeners who had submitted episode suggestions to Boys and Ghouls, my topic came up. While Kat was enthusiastic about the idea, her co-host was a bit cagier about the whole thing, wondering where he would even start with such an arcane topic. I realized that there is a very easy “in” for those people who don’t really get or aren’t that familiar with British rural horror, and that is to compare and contrast it with another, similar subgenre that surely every American horror fan knows, perhaps far too well: American hillbilly horror! 

I definitely have more of a love/hate relationship with this subgenre. As someone who was raised in the suburbs and now lives in the city, I am admittedly ignorant of what it’s like in the more sparsely populated corners of our country, and ignorance does breed fear, so there is something in me that responds to the notion of murderous inbred mutants and weirdoes. Still, it does smack of classism, doesn’t it? Certainly more so than its British counterpart; while American movies tend to be about demented hicks in abandoned farmhouses, BRH usually positions its villains as having some sort of pagan wisdom or connection to the land, old gods, pre-Christian traditions and so on.

There is an elegance to BRH films that is lacking in American hillbilly horror movies. I’m thinking of films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, Wrong Turn and even something like Children of the Corn or Jeepers Creepers. Don’t get me wrong, I love the majority of these movies; but it’s interesting to see how differently British filmmakers seem to view their small towns and sprawling landscapes. There’s a fear and a respect to it. In most American movies, the fear is laced with derision and condescension.

HBO’s True Detective – an excellent occult-based series with a super-scary finale – is almost a marriage of the two subgenres, as Hart and Cohle slog through the Louisiana backwoods in search of a killer with bizarre and possibly supernatural proclivities. Tonally, I think it skews way more toward British rural horror than regular American hillbilly horror, even though it takes place in the Deep South, which normally falls squarely in hick territory in Hollywood’s eyes.

Both subgenres offer something intriguing, something disturbing – especially for “all us city people, think we know everythin’” – and they surely make us grateful for the anonymity of the city once the movie is over and we’re back in our real lives. You’re probably way more likely to get killed in the city, say from a car accident or a violent crime, than you are in the countryside. But rural horror helps us feel like perhaps there’s safety in numbers, that maybe moving to the city – despite the smog, the traffic, the high cost of living, the noise – wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Or maybe it taps into something more primal, our sense that there is something going on just below the surface of modern life that we can’t quite discern, that we used to know but was lost to us generations ago, but that some people haven’t yet forgotten – and that’s what scares us most of all.

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