Pagan. Now there's a word which gets a hammering all round and is taken up and run with by all sorts of people. Its etymology is Latin, of course, from the word for fields, and it means people of the fields. It's a Latin way of saying country bumpkin, and was coined at the time Christianity was a spreading urban religion to refer to the unbaptised hordes who stuck to their previous Pagan ways. Similarly Christmas is a festival argued over by all sorts of people, and it seems strangely suitable that I should be reviewing this story of alleged Pagan remnants from this box set of ghost stories for Christmas. I may or may not write about the others, which are in the main adaptations of MR James's marvellous stories, but I've chosen to start with this one since I find, reading the reviews of the internet, it gets widely criticised for not being a ghost story. It seems to me that it can be considered a ghost story, it's about a ghost of a different sort from the usual run of ghost stories. It picks up on some of the themes familiar to readers of this blog, found in the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s: modernity versus tradition, religious symbols of baptism and virginity, ideas of religious sacrifice, and the idea popular at the time of 'the old religion'. Personally I think it's absolutely superb and just had to blog about it here, to try to counterbalance the largely critical drumming it's tended to get.
The main divide here is a truly Christian/Pagan one between baptism and ancient sacrifice. The theme is introduced by the name of the young girl, Verity, again a word of Latin etymology and which refers to truth as a virtue. She is seen driving home with her mother in a car (it's a Citroen Diane for those interested in that sort of thing), and the car is contrasted with the surrounding countryside, which countryside is also contrasted with the digger employed in alterations to the garden, including removing one of the standing stones. The pictures of standing stones are the real thing, taken from the circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, and I believe that those sort of things are probably protected as ancient monuments in reality. These contrasts of nature versus mechanisation introduce the main themes.
The story is one of a dead body, with knives through its ribs and at all four corners of the grave, whose disturbance leads to the death of the mother of the house, who bleeds to death by spontaneous bleeding with no visible wound. The blood is a major visual theme throughout the piece. Mrs Delgardo's later bleeding to death is presaged by the blood of the joint of beef she is preparing for dinner just as the men are trying to take up the stone. Blood is of course one of the major elements of religious sacrifice throughout the world and throughout history – the implication here is that because the ancient sacrifice has been disrespected, Mrs Delgardo must pay for this with her own life. Further religious symbolism is added by the comparison of blood with red wine – again a Christian reference to the eucharist – when Mrs Delgardo thinks she is bleeding although her husband (played wonderfully by Peter Bowles) thinks she has got the red wine down her front, which is actually the case.
A further visual reference to Christianity is in the recurring visual of white sheets, towels, clothes, walls. In the early church, the newly baptised would wear white only for a period after baptism, and it of course remains a symbol of illumination. In the ancient world it would be contrasted with black, which while it would tend to be seen as racist nowadays, is of course influenced by the sheer fear of the dark in Europe before electricity. As Mrs Delgardo is bleeding in the bathroom, and wiping the blood on white towels, or as her blood later pools on the white bedding, it is as if visually the symbol of Christian baptism is being overtaken by the blood of ancient sacrifice. Significantly the time when it turns out that what looks like blood is actually red wine, she has changed into a flowery ethnic dress for dinner, visually a pagan representation opposed to the white which otherwise dominates. Mrs Delgardo's partial nudity while she dabs at the blood in the bathroom, represents a taking off of the Christian baptism, which she keeps trying to put on again by repeated washings, repeated use of white towels, bandages, etc, but through all of which the ancient blood seeps. Her nudity is a return to the state before modern sophistication – a true paganism.
The knives which pierce and surround the sacrifice in the garden are reflected in a scene in the kitchen when Peter Bowles can't sleep. It is apparent that the sacrifice is happening then, since the vegetables on the stove represent the country, and the knife on the stove represents sacrifice: the country is taking its sacrifice.
Ironically it turns out that the cottage the family live in was previously in the family of one of the men digging up the garden. This exchange of the 'natives' (with regional, although somewhat confused at times, accents) with the incomers who speak received pronunciation, is a further image of the land wanting its own, wanting sacrifice, and not actually really belonging to the people who merely live in the cottage. They are portrayed as townies and contrasted with the villagers: it is not really loud-pedalled in this piece, but it is very apparent that their way of life would have been relatively expensive for the 1970s. They own two cars, the kitchen is obviously an expensive fitted one, they can eat a joint of beef for dinner, they have afforded to buy and do up an old cottage, and furnish it with antiques. But this film criticises their way of life – there is a very real sense in which it is not real, and in fact drawing on a major concern of the time, it is seen as actually inevitably leading to its own destruction.
Also about as 1970s as you can get are the visuals (I've included pictures of the cottage as well as the stone to make the contrast clearer, and to indicate that although the family obviously want to live in the country it is not in an authentic way). The cottage is a dream of tasteful 1970s decoration: we're not talking avocado bathrooms here, but rather Terence Conran decoration books. It is paced exactly right and in some ways I will have to grant is more suspenseful and horrifying than ghostly, because you just know something terrible is going to happen and the film draws you inexorably towards it.
My one criticism is one extraneous to the actual show, & it is that my suspicions are always aroused by the phrase 'the old religion'. It is sometimes used to refer to Wicca, which although it is bigger in the States in the only living religion Britain has given to the world, & is a wholly twentieth century creation, drawing on popular (not academic) ideas of what ancient religion was like. These ideas are present here to the full, including the 13 year old girl who is definitely flirting with one of the workmen at one point. Sex & knives, the visual paraphernalia of the imagined old religion which became Wicca. This was the age of The Wicker Man, of course, & this ahistoricity is a personal quibble rather than a criticism of the film, but this is a blog & I reserve the right to fill it with my opinions!