Weird and often wonderful
Roddy McDowall’s sole directing effort was a very late-Sixties take on a classic Scottish folk ballad – now this weird forgotten gem is back, unearthed by the BFI’s Flipside label
The Ballad of Tam Lin
Dir Roddy McDowall, UK 1971 BFI, £19.99 (Blu-ray)
How to class The Ballad of Tam Lin… It’s Folk Horror. It’s an Art film. And it’s very much of the Sixties.
The film is based at times remarkably closely on the centuries-old song from the Scottish borders in which a young man, Tam Lin, is held in thrall by the Queen of the Fairies; on the night he is about to be sent to Hell, he is rescued by his pregnant young lover, Janet, who drags him off a white horse and holds on to him while he shapeshifts, saving him from the Fairy Queen.
The Queen of the Fairies role is now taken by an incredibly wealthy and manipulative woman, Michaela (Mickey) Cazaret (quite chillingly portrayed by Ava Gardner), who gathers a crowd of upper-class hangers-on, vacuous socialites dedicated to languorous hedonism – including minor characters played by Joanna Lumley and Sinéad Cusack. Tom Lynn (a young, pre-Lovejoy Ian
McShane) is her latest lover. They all head off from Swinging London in Rolls Royces to a huge country house on the borders of Scotland.
In one of her earliest roles, Stephanie Beacham (later in Dynasty, Tenko and Coronation Street among much else) plays Janet, daughter of the local vicar (Cyril Cusack). She and Tom Lynn find a magnetic attraction, and she becomes pregnant. Tom tells Mickey he’s leaving her, and she responds: “I give you one week’s truce – then I’ll hunt you down and I’ll kill you. It’ll do my heart good!” Avoiding spoilers, suffice to say the remainder of the film is terrifying and nightmarish in its enactment of the song. The white horse is replaced by a white Rolls...
The Ballad of Tam Lin, prolific actor Roddy McDowall’s sole directorial work, is beautifully and at times strangely shot, setting the mood with exquisite opening credits, atmospheric landscapes, stretched out scenes, and shifts of colour and timing, including breaking the action at some emotionally critical points with a succession of freeze frames.
The story of Tam Lin was in the air at the time; the song was on Fairport Convention’s seminal album Liege and Lief, released in 1969. The film uses instead a new version by folkjazz band Pentangle, who were commissioned to write and perform for the film; they were also in the public view at the time through their song “Light Flight”, the delightfully bouncy theme song for the BBC series Take Three Girls, first aired in 1969. Oddly, their version of “Tam Lin” and their other song in the film, “The Best Part of You”, didn’t appear on any Pentangle release until a four-disc retrospective, The Time Has Come, in 2008.
Despite being well-funded and having a wealth of talent, the film fell by the wayside, a victim of corporate changes in the film industry; it never really had a UK release, and eventually slipped out in an inferior cut in the US as the B-movie The Devil’s Widow. It was saved from vanishing forever by Martin Scorsese, who viewed McDowall’s personal print and enabled a VHS release in the US in 1998. This is the first time it’s been available in the UK.
Being a BFI Flipside release, there is a host of extras, old and new. There are interviews with, amongst others, Ian McShane and Stephanie Beacham; singer Jacqui McShee talks about Pentangle’s involvement in the film; Roddy McDowell comments (in 1998) on Ava Gardner and the making of the film; and then there are three shorts unconnected with Tam Lin except atmospherically.
The Ballad of Tam Lin is, frankly, weird but often wonderful, at times disturbing and genuinely scary. David V Barrett ★★★★★
The Scary of Sixty-First
Dir Dasha Nekrosova, US 2021 Out now on 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD
In with a bullet at number one in the Most Tasteless Horror Film of the Year award is this dislikeable piece of deliberately provocative trash.
It’s a relatively straightforward story about two young women, Noelle and Addie (played by co-writer Madeline Quinn and Betsey Brown respectively), who move into an apartment in New York City and find that it was once owned by an evil criminal. They begin to suspect that terrible things took place there and Addie starts to feel threatened by the malignant atmosphere.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the evil criminal is none other than Jeffrey Epstein, the notorious child abuser, sex trafficker and friend to the rich and famous.
“I give you one week’s truce – then I’ll hunt you down and I’ll kill you”
“Too soon!” I hear you cry, and while you’re almost certainly right, it is a more than sufficiently horrifying story to base a horror film around, albeit one in terribly bad taste.
A third character (played by director and co-writer Dasha Nekrosova), a slightly unhinged conspiracy theorist doing an amateur investigation into Epstein, drives a wedge between Noelle and Addie; the latter also splits with her douchebag boyfriend and becomes increasingly disconnected from reality.
As far as I can tell from the interviews among the extra features, this is all meant to be taken seriously – but until I discovered that, I must confess I wasn’t sure. The opening sequences are reminiscent of those 1980s Italian horror films that weren’t as good as one from the 1970s – that’s to say, glossy-looking, with attractive but anonymous actors and a dated synthy score. Then the characters start conversing, and more than anything the film starts to resemble a hipster mumblecore movie with bored young urbanites talking half-heartedly about their nonproblems.
To its credit, the film does quickly take on a life of its own, but the direction it goes in is not one you’d necessarily choose to follow. Allegedly – and I must stress that – one of Epstein’s clients/friends was Prince Andrew and as such he is a strong element in the plot, in some of the most excessive scenes I’ve witnessed in a long time. At one point Addie masturbates furiously while rubbing pictures of Andy on her crotch, while pretending to be a child, and in another smears menstrual blood on his picture after another furious wank (this time using an Andrew/Fergie royal wedding commemorative ceramic bell!) She also has a J Arthur outside the actual door to Epstein’s former home on 71st Street.
Needless to say, the performances, particularly by Betsey Brown, are committed, but really only in the sex scenes. Otherwise some of the acting is almost laughable. An interview with Brown among the extra features almost suggests that she is indulging her own sexual fantasies. Dark stuff, indeed.
Nekrosova says in her interview that she was heavily influenced by Polanski (another man with criminal sexual appetites), particularly Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, which is obvious. Above all, though, she says Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was the main inspiration and that her film takes place in the “extended universe” of that film. I can see the connection, of course – the corrupt, degenerate lives of the super-wealthy – but, aside from the end scene, that idea isn’t really explored. Indeed, those films cited work because they rely on subtlety and atmosphere, not on gore and rough sex. Sometimes, even in horror, less is more.
As it stands, hardly anyone will see this film. However, if someone were to leak a copy to the Daily Mail it could become the Crash de nos jours.