Day 3 of the 2017 Derby Film Festival: Holy Terrors!

by Elliot Davies

Holy Terrors Arthur Machen 2017 Derby Film Festival

Holy Terrors is a gloomy tribute to the work of Arthur Machen. It’s proof that low budget horror need not be naff. 

So today we’re watching a film called Holy Terrors. Yesterday we saw one called Worst Fears. In case it wasn’t obvious, we’re in the midst of the Fantastiq portion of the 2017 Derby Film Festival. This is a celebration of all things genre – sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. But because most modern auteurs seem to gravitate towards horror, Fantastiq looks and feels more like a straight horror festival than anything else. Dark clouds have been gathered above the Derby Quad for days. It feels good.

Holy Terrors is a portmanteau, the second we’ve seen in as many days. But whereas Worst Fears presented itself as a tribute to the work of Amicus Productions – with all the campiness and unevenness that implies – Holy Terrors feels more like the sort of thing that would play on a loop in the dark corner of a haunted art gallery.

It’s an attempt to bring the work of early 20th century Welsh mystic Arthur Machen to a new audience. Given the nature of Machen’s stories, it might not be accurate to call Holy Terrors a “horror film”. Yes, there’s supernatural elements. And yes, the film is laced with dread with a pervasively gloomy atmosphere. But Machen’s fiction was “weird fiction”. So rather than a “horror film”, Holy Terrors might more accurately be described as a “weird film”.

And it is very, very weird. The six stories themselves are weird. They tell tales of murder, of Sabbath Wine, of inexplicable rituals, of ghostly appearances, vegetarian soldiers and nightmarish transformations. It’s mostly shot in and around Whitby, a town whose inherent weirdness we’ve already touched upon.

But more weird is the way in which they’re presented. It’s largely black and white, and the screen is regularly filled with blurry and indistinct shapes. There’s close-ups of quivering eyes, flickering candles and shadowy architecture. Faces are distorted until they no longer resemble faces. Mud churns, and lights dance across the camera like incomprehensible sprites. One story is told almost entirely with archive footage. It’s heady, dreamy and psychedelic.

All the while, Machen’s stories are narrated in grim, quasi-archaic tones (the “wh” sound in words like “within” are pleasingly enunciated). They’re gripping stories, and the narration often interacts with the action in a silent cinema sort of way. We see people mouth the words they’ve just been said to have spoken, for instance.

It’s always engaging. And yet, I wonder. The opening story, The Cosy Room, is presented without narration. Instead we’re shown a number of scenes which are apparently shown out of sequence. It’s a woozy dream that we’re left to piece together ourselves. A dark electronic soundscape sets the mood, and it’s a very gloomy mood indeed.

The narrated stories are wonderful, but I wonder just how much more wonderful they’d have been had they been presented like the opening story, without narration?

It would have made the whole thing a lot less accessible, of course. And if the intention was to bring Machen to a new audience, stripping his words from the film would defeat the point. But it would have resulted in something utterly extraordinary: a sustained 75 minute dreamscape, with arresting visuals and a solid narrative that’s there if you look for it. Oh well. Maybe this will be a bonus feature on a future DVD release.

But the closing story, Midsummer, is one that is without question empowered by its narration. It’s also the only story that’s shot in colour, and the only story that could not really be mistaken for a horror story. It’s a poetic, bucolic meditation on the redemptive powers of nature. In appearance and tone, it’s highly reminiscent of that haunting masterpiece Valerie & Her Week of Wonders.

Here the narration takes on a sensual tone that allows us to share the tactile pleasure of the grass and the dew that so intoxicates the writer onscreen. A chance encounter with some “local girls” in the woods at midnight has a slightly sinister feel to it. But beyond that the film leaves you feeling fuzzy like you fell asleep in a sunny field having drank far too much cider.

Most films of this nature like to save their most shocking story til last. That a film called Holy Terrors is happy to leave you feeling refreshed and redeemed is all kinds of wonderful.

I hope Holy Terrors succeeds in bringing Machen to a new audience. I hope it gets a DVD release with an optional silent “ultra surrealist” viewing experience. I also hope that other mysterious writers get this sort of cinematic tribute. Oliver Onions, for instance. Or Sheridan Le Fanu. Or Robert Chambers, or Edith Nesbit.

Like I say, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to describe Holy Terrors as a “horror film”. But if we were to label it as such, I’d have no hesitation in describing it as the most remarkable horror film I’ve seen in a very long time.