Hell’s Bells: review

Tim Plester and Rob Curry’s Way of the Morris (2010) is a fascinating, beautifully made documentary about the world of morris dancing, examining the rituals of community, family, tradition and dance itself. It’s serious but never earnest; funny but never flippant.

But the fiction film world hasn’t served the morris well. While there’s some creepy Maypole-related dance action in Robin Hardy’s excellent The Wicker Man (1973), the movers and shakers of Summerisle aren’t specifically morris men or women. In 2009 we got Morris: a Life with Bells on – a mockumentary about a solo morris man trying to make it big in the States – but it was a mess, thin on plot and unsure whether to be affectionate or cynical.

Now, on a smaller scale, the short film Hell’s Bells, directed by Devon-based film-maker Luke Jeffery, has been made available to view on Vimeo. It’s free, and – relax, folkies – it’s great fun!

The film reminds me of Eliza Carthy’s dictum that folk music should be “sexy, frightening and meaningful”. It tells the story of Rosie (Magda Cassidy), a young woman who we meet as she joyfully (and convincingly) dances with her side – played by the Dartington Morris Men.

However, one onlooker seems troubled – he stares at her, his intent hard to read. When, as she is hoisted aloft, Rosie meets his gaze, she is horror stricken. Before we know it, he is escorting her on to a red-sailed boat, and her smile has turned to a sickened grimace.

The man is Howard (Charlie Coldfield) and we next see him interrogating Rosie, apparently on behalf of her parents. He’s convinced her sudden conversion to the way of the morris is suspicious, putting it to her that it is some kind of front. “A bunch of weirdos in funny costumes waving hankies,” he reasons. “Of course people are going to keep their distance.” Ha! But has Rosie really fallen victim to a cult?

Jeffery – who also wrote the film – wisely keeps us guessing, and any number of scenes could be hallucinations, false memories or projections. It all adds to the disconcerting effect.

On the page, the moment at which Rosie’s head is turned by the entrance of a dashing young morris man (Josh Fedrick) might seem silly, but on screen it’s superb – a fever-dream of erotic promise (really!). And the rush of conviviality that follows will be familiar to anyone’s who’s shared a pub with a thirsty morris side.

The interrogation routine feels a little familiar, but the film is at its best when it presents its head-spinning group scenes, such as Rosie’s unsettling encounter with a Green Man. The music too is on point, with a mixture of traditional tunes and a superb, apposite original piece by Hannah Drayson and Benjamin Hudson for the disturbing conclusion.

Sexy and frightening, then, yes. But meaningful? Well, it’s left to the viewer. But the film certainly taps into the undeniably unsettling nature of many of our folk traditions. It’s easy to believe in a primal violence beneath the surface.

Never before has the jingling of morris bells sounded so ominous.

Click here to view the film – and let us know what you think of it via a comment here or on the Folk Witness Twitter and Facebook pages.

Full disclosure – as with The Ballad of Shirley Collins (review here), I contributed a small amount to the crowdfunding of this film, and had no input into its content!

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