Continuing his look at chilling Public Information Films, RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES takes us down to the farm for a little movie show…
Ah, the British countryside. Corn swaying in the breeze, birds singing, the happy farmer tending to his crops… before dying at the hands of his own plough. And, what if that same farmland was haunted by the spirits of children who had met an unfortunate end there?
Sorry to corrupt this picture of rustic bliss, but the farm can be a deadly (and somewhat spooky) place, as our programme of viewing from the COI film unit demonstrates.
We open with 1961’s “A Game Of Chance”. Almost a prototype Amicus portmanteau, three tales are crammed into its 10 minutes, of farm workers who failed to follow the correct safety procedures, ultimately heading off for an appointment with the nearest funeral parlour. It’s the linking device that adds the real Brit-horror flavour, as a group of people play a game of cards around a poker table, throwing their hand in or revealing a sinister card as each hapless farm worker meets their fate. It’s a device that Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors would utilise a few years later, not to mention the end credits of Masque Of The Red Death. Look out also for the third segment’s uncanny resemblance to the opening of Blood On Satan’s Claw (1970) – or is it just me?
Acting as a brief commercial break of sorts is the 30-second short Grain Drain (1975) – this time the subject was the perils of open grain pits, especially to small children. Its makers stopped short of showing a child falling victim, but this 30-second piece’s imagery of a baby doll being sucked downwards and soundtracked by a young girl’s cries, whilst actor Keith Barron (the voice of many safety films of the time) advised farmers to “put a grid on it”, still packs one hell of a punch.
The most notorious farm safety flick is probably the 26-minute Apaches (1977). John Mackenzie’s film was a warning to children of the dangers of playing on farmland. What starts as a perfectly innocent game of cowboys-and-indians ends up producing a body count which the average slasher movie would be content with. Deaths by drowning in a sluice pit, ingesting a deadly pesticide, being thrown from a tractor and more are interspersed with scenes of preparations being made for a funeral. The biggest power blow is possibly at the end: The audience realises that the narration has been provided by the ghostly voice of one of the deceased children, and the end credits are replaced by a roll call of real children who died in farm accidents in the year before the film was made. It might just be one of the most chilling films ever produced in the UK.
Apaches was shown mainly in ITV regions which had large rural areas, particularly Westward, Anglia and Southern, where I saw it regularly (unannounced in the schedules) before children’s programmes in the school holidays. It must have worked on me, as I grew up opposite a farm, and never once did I get the desire to investigate the grounds. Mackenzie, meanwhile would break into mainstream cinema with The Long Good Friday a couple of years later.
Now, I can hear some of you asking: Do these films really qualify as British horror films? In my view, absolutely. They were, after all made with the express intention of scaring their audience, and by and large they succeeded. They certainly demonstrate the way in which our horror tradition was quickly absorbed into our cultural fabric.
A perhaps more chilling aspect of these films is that their victims are not killed by vampires, werewolves, man-made creatures, ghosts, demons or any other being of their ilk. No, the fates of these poor unfortunates could easily befall each and every one of us: Death or injury by accident or misadventure.
The Brit Crypt returns to more traditional horror fare next time, but I’ll leave you to think about this: According to RoSPA, there are 21 million attendances in UK A&E departments every year, predominantly through accidents. Annually, at least 14,000 people in England and Wales alone die in this manner, while over 30,000 suffer life changing injuries. Scary stuff, indeed.
Meanwhile, all of us here would like to wish you a very good night. Don’t have nightmares.