Marked For Justice – The Sermon

First of all in the name of full disclosure I’m a thrawn Scotswummin who doesn’t venture south of Hadrian’s Wall very often. Our current political situation and a steady diet of British sci-fi and horror from a young age has me convinced me that England is a Very Strange Place. J.G. Ballard may as well have written the towns into existence and the countryside? Well yous have zombies in your tin mines and all manner of sinister goings on behind your hedgerows. I have a real fondness for the weird vision of England conjured by classic horror though and I was genuinely excited to get a new English folk horror to take a look at.

The Sermon is a short film set in a small religious community deep in the English countryside. The village patriarch described in the films logline as a powerful hate preacher prepares to deliver a sermon however his daughter Ella has a secret which could destroy them all – her love affair with a mysterious older woman. Her secret is uncovered by one of the preachers lackeys who desires Ella for himself and an inevitable chain of events featuring a baying mob, a forced betrayal and a final act of “desperate act of ecstatic violence’’ is set into motion.

The director’s statement cites the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw as inspiration and describes the film as being in part “a political fable which seeks to reflect, through metaphor, the current British and US socio-political climate”. Worthy intentions but ones that don’t feel untimely in these dark days where it’s no stretch of the imagination to picture a dead-eyed, torch-wielding mob chanting not ‘burn the witch’ but ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Wait, that’s probably already happening.

So on to the film and I’ll start with the good. At its best the Sermon which is shot on 35mm is nice to look at with some reverent hat-tipping to its influences. It opens with a perfect rural horror trifecta of rolling moors, bright eyed corvid and a witchy tree (yes!) and the scene where the villagers round on and humiliate Ella’s lover is total 70’s horror in both look and mood. There’s atmosphere in the films quieter moments and respectable turns from the cast.

Unfortunately the Sermon which is set in ‘nowhere time’ isn’t so visually strong in the interior scenes which look a little more Waitrose advert than Witchfinder General. Most of the dialogue of the film is made up of the anti-LGBTQ ‘hate sermon’ of the preacher and while he’s an unxious character the writing falls short and it feels more parody than venomous at times.

These are all minor criticisms though compared to my real contention with this film which is the one explicitly folklorish element. This takes the form of a mysterious figure in a black hooded cloak first half-shown hovering near our protagonist during the public shaming of her lover and then fully revealed when her act of revenge is complete. At the point the figure is fully revealed to us there are no two ways about it – it looks startlingly like someone in blackface. I watched the film a few times because I questioned my initial response and I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to the filmmakers but my pretty aghast reaction remained unchanged.

It’s what it looks like, not what it is I’m sure and while it makes me think this whole film should just be thrown straight out without question I don’t attribute it to anything more sinister than a lack of thought and to the makers of the Sermon fucking it in their attempts to make a film that adheres to a particular aesthetic.

Folk horror is obviously very ‘in’ at the moment and the themes are certainly relevant but as someone who loves the Buckfast as much as the red wine of horror the canonization of the so called Unholy Trinity films and attempt to set them alongside Ingmar Bergman as supposed their genre contemporaries is depressing, as is the accompanying world of beard stroking, symposia and endless journal articles which buries all the weird gritty beauty and transgressiveness of the original films under its dreary weight.

Horror is plenty political and queer in its themes without needing to have any earnest agenda and making genre films despite the low cultural and financial rewards with an unapologetic and unselfconscious love of the thing is an act of resistance in itself in these try-hard, hipsterfied times.

In conclusion the crew behind this little film appear to be a well-intentioned bunch who have found their niche. Well connected in the world of Arts Council funding, in with the BFI and the festival circuit and despite my ill feelings about the Sermon I’m sure they’re going to enjoy some success with this so good luck to them. The film itself however, and the world it belongs to leave me scunnered. Horror should never be this bloodless.