❉ We look at the award-winning West Midlands folk horror short, back in a brand new re-mastered cut.
“Shot in a style that suggests a midlands Guy Maddin, Bella in the Wych Elm emulates being told a particularly ghoulish story around a campfire, leaving the wider investigations for things like the Fortean Times… it wants to tell a rattling yarn whilst never wasting any time on being ponderous. It rattles along nicely and is helped no end by a folky score from the wonderfully named Worrisome Ankeltrout.”
Of all the British Fortean stories of the twentieth century, ‘Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?’ holds particular fascination. This is probably because, unlike so many other similar stories, what’s really become infamous isn’t so much the incident but that very phrase. First appearing in 1944 in Birmingham, and since the 1970s regularly showing up on an obelisk in village of Hagley in Worcestershire, there’s something so evocative and unsettling about the phrase that you don’t even need to know any more about the story to get some sort of chill. Is it an actual question? Is it rhetorical? Who is Bella? What is the Wych Elm? Who’s saying this? It’s a fascinating statement before you even get to the crime itself.
Because, oh yes, there’s a crime here alright. A particularly nasty one as well. You couldn’t pitch a horror story any better really – four children trespassing the woods of the Hagley estate in 1943, stumbling across a wych elm to look for bird eggs and instead finding a hollow trunk and a skull, complete with human hair and teeth, within it. Once the police were involved, they found fragments of clothing, a gold wedding ring and a piece of cloth crammed into the jaw, presumably causing the female in question to die of asphyxiation. It’s a particularly nasty and gothic crime – could the corpse have been found in a better named tree than a wych elm? – and weirdly indicative of how the nation’s innocence was fast being lost in the second world war. Some time after the investigation of the corpse began, the graffiti started.
So any documentary has a LOT to deal with here, and wisely Bella in the Wych Elm focuses on the mystery rather than worrying too much about context or other solutions or the like. Instead it emulates being told a particularly ghoulish story around a campfire, leaving the wider investigations for things like the Fortean Times.
Shot in a style that suggests a midlands Guy Maddin, the film wisely doesn’t attempt to over reach itself. There are obvious anachronisms in dress and performance styles, but that’s beside the point: it wants to tell a rattling yarn and does so without overly worrying about details that would slow down the narrative. It also helps that the voiceover is read not so much by an actor but someone who sounds like an authentic raconteur, the wonderfully named “Tatty” Dave Jones.
The film probably wisely decides to talk about only one theory, and one I’ll not ruin here, because it’s probably the most dramatic one to visually represent in what’s ostensibly a silent film. It helps propel the film along at any rate, and it’s nice that for a film that’s willing to throw out some wild visual moments – particularly “Bella” herself at the obelisk and a nicely done witches’ sabbat (which probably accidentally reminded this silent film nerd of Annabelle Serpentine Dance from 1895) – whilst never wasting any time on being ponderous.
It rattles along nicely and is helped no end by a folky score from the wonderfully named Worrisome Ankeltrout. As someone who finds the majority of modern horror films endlessly ruined by endless ambient noodly soundscapes, the soundtrack again helps you feel like you’ve been cornered by a particular kind of storyteller in a particular kind of pub on a particular kind of night. Which in these lockdown days is a wonderful feeling to be reminded of.
There’s a grand tradition of this kind of film in cinema – anyone who has seen the extraordinary Haxan (1922) will find it hard to forget – but I suspect the director here is either very aware of or should immediately become aware of 1971’s Legend of the Witches which updates Haxan’s attempts at visualising centuries of tall tales about witchcraft and the occult with hefty doses of British sexploitation cinema. Certainly scenes like the witches sabbat feel very much like extensions of the kind of area Malcolm Leigh is working towards in his film.
I was also particularly pleased to see mention of similarly infamous midlands murder, Charles Walton, whose possible occult murder involved an investigation by proto TV cop Fabian of the Yard and may have been partly an influence on John Bowen’s masterpiece, Robin Redbreast. These sorts of stories are important and would hundreds of years ago been commemorated in folk songs, and this film is part of that folk tradition of keeping these stories alive. And it does so beautifully.
❉ ‘Bella In The Wych Elm’ (Carnie Films, 2017/2021) is available to pre-order in a brand new remastered cut as a BLU+DVD collectors set. Shipping 18 April 2021: https://carniefeatures.bigcartel.com/product/bella-in-the-wych-elm-remastered-definitive-blu-dvd-set (Orders currently UK only. EU and US orders to follow soon)
❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.