Danse Macabre: ‘Sulphur’ by Cult Modern reviewed

‘Sulphur’ is the latest short film from director Christopher Ian Smith, exploring the darker dimensions of our odd, English folk traditions.

Barbara is taken to the bonfire celebrations of an old English town by her livewire boyfriend Theo. As the night descends into chaos… she finds a connection with the town’s dark past…

England isn’t a country that most people think of as having a vibrant, living folk culture. History, yes, by the bucketload – but mostly in the form of castles, paintings and landscapes – ossified, preserved, distant. In the popular imagination English folk culture pretty much ends at Morris dancing. Look to its neighbours if you want to see traditions alive and flourishing. As Show of Hands put it in their song Roots, “What’ve they got right that we’ve got wrong?”

There are places, though, where fragments of the past remain fitfully alive. Places where the veneer of genteel English decorum splits and peels away for a time, and something altogether stranger and darker is revealed. Of these, among the most vivid is the Lewes Bonfire, the annual commemoration of the attempt by Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators to kill the Protestant King James I of England and VI of Scotland at the State Opening of Parliament.

This is no common-or-garden bonfire and fireworks display, though. It’s something far closer to a dark, threatening carnival, such as the terrifying correfocs (fire runs) of Catalan festivals. Each year Lewes plays host to around 3000 participants from seven bonfire societies in and around the town, and up to 80,000 spectators. While many other Sussex towns have their own societies and events (which are well worth experiencing), Lewes is the granddaddy of them all. Bonfire Night’s origins in religious strife are still very much present here, with banners proclaiming “No Popery”, and burning crosses commemorating Protestant martyrs burned at the stake under Catholic Queen Mary, half a century before the Gunpowder Plot. In an era when violence purportedly in the name of religion is again a living theme, this wilful echo of past enmities is a disturbing reminder of how dark things once were, and how dark they can still be.

For most of the participants now, I suspect, the religious origins are less important than the event itself, a spectacular, surreal orgy of fire in the darkness of early winter. It undoubtedly owes much to traditions from long before Guy Fawkes smuggled gunpowder into the cellars of Parliament – to pagan Samhain, itself long celebrated with bonfires. It is into this explosive mix of myth, history, religion and festival that Christopher Ian Smith plunges his crew and actors in the short film ‘Sulphur’.

Described as “a macabre experiment across documentary and horror”, it follows two characters, Barbara (Rakel Lindgren) and Theo (Alex Harvey), as they descend from day-lit ennui and unease, via some mind-altering chemicals, into the maelstrom of the Lewes bonfire. Impeccably shot and edited by Tom Goudsmith and Xavier Perkins, the film is a visual and auditory treat – high-level shots make Lewes High Street look like a fissure in the earth’s crust leading straight to hell. Smith is perhaps over-selling the film slightly with his “horror” description – while the feeling of eeriness and unease is palpable, ‘Sulphur’ offers no scares and nothing beyond what the BBFC would call “mild threat”. That said, there are distant echoes of Robert Aickman’s classic short story ‘Ringing the Changes’ – the masked figures thronging the streets of Lewes every bit as other-worldly as Aikman’s risen dead.

The plot of the film is slight, and its ending ambiguous. But the characters provide an intriguing lens through which to explore the atmosphere of the event. As documentary, ‘Sulphur’ seeks to explore the weirdness, the dislocation of this utterly un-English event, rather than to dissect and analyse it – allowing us to experience it alongside these slightly mood-altered people gives us an additional dose of oddness that helps the film make its mark in its six-minute running time. The haunting figure of the skull-faced watcher (Toby Chown) looks on impassively as tensions between the main characters pull them apart, and one of them is drawn, seemingly inexorably, towards the flames…

The atmosphere is greatly aided by a superb soundtrack from Essex hauntology artist Concretism. Admirers of Boards of Canada and The Advisory Circle will find much to like here. Recommended.

❉ ‘Sulphur’ is Written and Directed by Christopher Ian Smith. It was edited by Xavier Perkins. You can view the short film on Vimeo.

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