Castleton Knight was a respected British producer and director in documentary and archive filming. Before producing such national projects as The Queen Is Crowned (1954) – the colour version of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation – Knight’s focus was dramatically more eerie as evidenced by this wonderful, Edgar Allan Poe-inspired short. Taking its notes from Poe’s story ‘The Premature Burial’, as well as Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, the film is littered with delicious gothic imagery, from skulls on books by the fireside to ominous funeral bells and marches. Most effective is the burial itself, realised with a dreamy, Cocteau-esque flair as visions of heaven and hell plague the buried man in his translucent coffin.
Dr Turner’s Mental Home (1929)
This strange, hallucinatory home film produced by some of the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers mixes Lewis Carroll naivety with a darker edge. Filmed by Bernard Penrose, the younger brother of the artist Roland Penrose, the short is rendered unnerving as much by the ageing process of the celluloid itself as its unusual content. Following a young woman who finds herself in a mental asylum (itself the famed Ham Spray House), the crazed Dr Turner experiments on his patients. The film feels like a surreal ode to H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau as much as anything else. The noted artist Dora Carrington plays one of the inmates (who also include a human owl) and some of the dummies used for the hanging and drowning were designed by the artist too.
In this surprisingly effective short, the viewer is at first presented with a story more akin to a Sunday afternoon crime thriller. In 1950s England, a man hitches a lift to London from the site of a crashed car on a country road. However, the man is in fact a vengeful ghost seeking justice for the death of his sister caused by a cad played by Ferdy Mayne. The unusually quaint film is given an edge by its lead being none other than a young Christopher Lee. Lee’s calm and menacing tone seems to set the direction for the following decades of his career, the film even going so far as to light his face in that same angular way that became synonymous with his work for Hammer Studios. “I’m really quite harmless you know,” he says to the woman who gives him a lift. You would be mad to believe him.
Haunted England (1961)
This enjoyably camp documentary allows for the early flexing of director Michael Winner’s talents in a range of beautiful, occasionally ridiculous visuals. Foreshadowing the haunted house documentaries that were later made for NBC, The Stately Homes of England (1965) with Margaret Rutherford in particular, this playful documentary is a warm and cosy look at the supernatural around some picturesque landscapes and country manors. Presented by a dapper David Jacobs (from the BBC panel show Juke Box Jury) and featuring noted society clairvoyant Tom Corbett, the film is a time-capsule from the peak era of drawing-room mediumship, aristocratic occultism and all of the other delicious Dennis Wheatley-isms that were quietly popular in the period.
The Testament of Caleb Meeke (1969)
Boasting an atmospheric, standing-stones-themed title sequence to rival Children of the Stones (1977), this short made by the filmmaking brothers Roy and Noel Spence is an incredibly unnerving and eerie film indeed. The brothers were noted for their gothic shorts in particular and this is one of their best, drawing influence from German Expressionism, 1960s Italian gothic cinema and occult imagery. Brimming with lonely mansions, observant woodland, standing stones and a wealth of gorgeous horror visuals, it’s an original, enjoyably local horror that feels in the same universe as Malcolm Leigh’s Legend of the Witches (1970).
- The Testament of Caleb Meeke is from the collection of Northern Ireland Screen
The Hungry Grass (1981)
The very ground that surrounds gravestones in Northern Ireland is hungry. A stray wanderer is travelling to research his ancestors. Seeing his own name on a grave after sitting down for a quiet afternoon of sketching some of the tombs, the grass around him becomes ravenous and desires to take him below the soil. Playing on the politically charged folklore surrounding the interments of those who died in the Irish famine, this effective film by Archie Reid is a spooky mixture of fake documentary and B-movie shlock.
- The Hungry Grass is from the collection of Northern Ireland Screen
Transcending Mirror Boundaries (1981)
Certainly the eeriest film ever shot around the Welsh coastal town of Prestatyn, Transcending Mirror Boundaries by Jon Coley takes the pulp trope of the evil doppelgänger and transplants it into the everyday world of the 1980s, filled with drab concrete seafronts, town high streets and views from the window of a Vauxhall. Most intriguing and surprising is the film’s evocative electronic score, composed by Brian Eno. Even if cut roughly like many amateur projects, Eno’s score elevates the film from a filmmaking curio to something stranger and more ominous.
- Transcending Mirror Boundaries is from the collection of the East Anglian Film Archive