The Dreyer Connection in Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen (1974)

By Martyn Conterio

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It might appear deeply unusual, absurd even, throwing chronicler of Tory Britain, Alan Clarke (1935-1990), together with expressionist master Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968). Under the purview of ‘folk horror’, however, the coupling proves uncanny and riveting. Both Vampyr (1932) and Penda’s Fen (1974) are singularly weird folk-horror tales powered by eldritch atmospheres more than traditional scares and associated imagery. Phantasmagorical trips to rural settings, both invested in replicating the lingering, unshakeable psychic trauma of nightmares and existential truths speaking to us from dreamlike and fantasy sources, it is something of a paradox that, while narratively neither film is alike, they are nonetheless alike.

“I have lived with Vampyr for nearly fifty years, and it haunts me still,” David Rudkin wrote of Dreyer’s poem of horror, in his 2005 BFI Classics monograph about the film. It’s hard not to notice how 1974’s Penda’s Fen feels, sometimes looks, so Dreyer-like, not that it ever opts for directing referencing or postmodernist homage. Dreyer’s touch exists in the conceptual fabric of Penda’s Fen. Director Alan Clarke does throw in recreations or riffs on iconic Romantic era paintings (Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog and Fuseli’s The Nightmare), but there’s no glass coffin ride for Penda’s Fen protagonist Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks).

Rudkin pushed the Dreyer connection further by invoking the figure of heretic become saint, Joan of Arc, whose story the Danish filmmaker transferred to the screen in 1928’s masterpiece. “Joan was a witch,” Rev. Franklin tells Stephen, further musing: “An official patriot, a French saint now. What was she? There is even some evidence that she might not have been Christian, that she practised what is called ‘the old religion’, the primitive religion of the villages and fields.”

It is Clarke who directed the 1974 Play for Today drama, but Rudkin, a playwright and screenwriter, was responsible for setting up the stall with a story about a young lad casting aside his staunchly Christian-Conservative values for something more ancient, beguiling and freeing. Young Franklin’s journey to enlightenment is evoked through existential doubts, dreams, nightmares, repressed desires and learning outside of the classroom, with two figures, a radical playwright (Ian Hogg’s Arne) living in the village and his father, a parson with a very open mind and boasting an anti-conformist attitude to religion, influencing the conflicted boy’s education. But the whole thing feels so dreamlike from the off, there is no need to delineate the demarcation point (the same goes for Vampyr).

The village parson, in a more standardised vision of folk horror, would be the occult practitioner or warlock-type wearing the mask of conservative respectability, who reveals the terrifying ‘truth’ to the unsuspecting outsider at the film’s denouement. It is this very element, an almost subversive and politically anarchic flavour, which suits Clarke’s own aesthetic and interests down to the ground, and in doing so Penda’s Fen becomes a horror-tinged coming-of-age drama in the key of Dreyer. While the directors are creatively poles apart, as different as night and day, chalk and cheese one might say, here their aesthetics matched briefly with Rudkin acting as conduit.

Vampyr is acknowledged as cult classic, but Penda’s Fen is just as unique to the folk horror canon tracing a proud lineage of outsider figures and movements: from ancient pagan kings to Jesus as Marxist-like revolutionary, Manicheanism, Cathar heretics, Joan of Arc, English Dissenters, William Blake, Romanticism, George Orwell, workers’ unions to the turmoil of 1970s Britain.

Sukhdev Sandhu presents his class Sacred Disobedience: On ‘Penda’s Fen’ at Miskatonic NYC on Tuesday January 9th (tickets HERE>>) while folk horror will be discussed on a broader scale at Miskatonic London in Howard David Ingham’s Secret Powers of Attraction: Folk Horror in its Cultural Context on Thursday January 18th (sold out).