Stigma

stigma

Stigma

1977's A Ghost Story for Christmas marked the final film in the series to be directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. Stigma also heralded a change in style, as Adrian Pennington's essay discusses...

Although categorised as A Ghost Story for Christmas, ‘Stigma’ (1977), the last of the films to be directed by series regular Lawrence Gordon Clark, seems a departure from his earlier instalments. Firstly, it takes place in a contemporary setting. Previous films, like ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Signalman (1976), featured period settings and were adapted from the work of esteemed writers like M.R. James and Charles Dickens. Secondly, while the film does feature an element of the supernatural, it here takes on a more physical manifestation, possessing its characters and inflicting upon them a level of suffering that seems both cruel and unusual when compared to the fate of characters from those earlier films.

From the first image, ‘Stigma’ strikes a strange and oddly surreal note. A small red dot, like an orb, or a distant planet, seems to float against a blurred, otherworldly landscape. As the credits begin to form, superimposed as they are over this image that at first appears like the glow of a nuclear sun, a feeling of disquiet seems to envelop the prospective audience. The red orb, artificially rendered via crude optical effects, isn’t just floating ominously across the blurred terrain, it seems to be growing, unfolding, like a bloodstain from an all too recent wound. The appearance, a drop of blood, creates an immediate suggestion to an early scene from the Nicolas Roeg directed masterpiece, Don’t Look Now (1973), where the smearing of a photograph in the opening scene became a red-hued premonition to a later moment of blood-curdling threat.

In a brilliant directorial stroke, Clark has his cameraman John Turner rack the focus of the lens. Suddenly, through another optical illusion, the red glowing orb is revealed to have been the out-of-focus glare of a red Citroën Dyane 6, driven here by the film’s protagonist, Katherine Delgado, and her teenage daughter Verity. The car moves through the quiet countryside, surrounded on both sides by fields and woodland areas, and by the occasional appearance of the mysterious menhirs that in part define the pastoral landscapes of Avebury, where the film takes place.

In the setting, and in the contrast between the very practical iconography, Clark is already establishing a disparity between the old and the new; between the “ancient” – as illustrated by the landscape and its mythical stone circles, and the near-unique, almost elemental formation of the hills and fields – and the “modern” – as clearly defined by the car and its cargo. This juxtaposition is an important theme that gives some credibility to the eventual development of the narrative, where the later sequences following the couple’s return to the family cottage seem to suggest an element of reincarnation, or possibly even possession.

stigma

Once home, Katherine and Verity make their way up from the driveway and into the back garden. Here, the characters find two local labourers hard at work attempting to remove a large stone from the surface of the lawn. A short exchange of dialogue sets-up their intentions around the work that’s been decided, despite the difficulty of the task at hand. Once again, Clark deliberately contrasts the harsh, mechanical appearance of the heavy-lifting machinery against the surrounding environment, including those stone formations that seem to watch ominously, like silent sentinels, or like the agents of a primitive God.

It is this attempt to move the stone that seems to unleash the unseen evil that will soon throw the lives of these characters and the narrative itself into disarray. The practicalities of this narrative device are well-used and recall the recognisable tropes of horror and science-fiction standards, such as the Quatermass series – for instance Quatermass and the Pit (1967), written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Roy Ward Baker – The Stone Tape (1972), also written by Kneale, and later films, like The Keep (1983) by Michael Mann, Prince of Darkness (1987) by John Carpenter, and The Church (1989) co-written by Dario Argento and directed by Michele Soavi. Films where humankind – in its infinite quest for knowledge or cultural progression – inadvertently awakens something primitive, even insidious, otherwise hidden beneath the earth.

Almost immediately, the character of Katherine seems to become transfixed, as if caught in the spell of some sinister influence, which leaves her dispossessed from her own emotions. As she heads back into the house and away from the remodelling of the yard, it’s almost as if she’s drifting through her own life; a sleepwalker, acting but not reacting; like a puppet compelled into action by the command of an unseen hand.

stigma

As if to create a natural association to where the narrative will eventually lead us, Clark signals the moment before the character’s metaphysical metamorphosis with a shot that has some relevance to an earlier film of his own. Here, the claw-like hook of the digger and the very specific way in which it seems to hang in judgement over the face of this character and the act of desecration that she’s brought to bear looks just like a noose. A noose, which – in the dark days of people like Mathew Hopkins, the “Witchfinder General” – might have sent a generation of young women like Katherine to their deaths.

This suggestion of judgement, or persecution from beyond the grave, seems intentionally designed to evoke the same territory as Clark’s earlier film from the same series, ‘The Ash Tree (1975). There, a woman accused and subsequently hanged for the crime of heresy, exacts revenge on her prosecutors in a manner best befitting the supernatural predilections of that story’s author, M.R. James. Here, Clark offers self-reference as a potential clue to understanding, or at least interpreting, the film’s strange and often intangible plot.

As the story progresses, we start to see more intercutting between two strands of the narrative. On the one hand, we have the scenes of teenage alienation; the daughter, unable to connect with her mum, wanders the fields and hills and finds comfort in her room and in the isolation of things. On the other hand, we have a very violent and unsettling horror story that seems to cut back and forth between the supernatural and the psychological, as the audience, for the most part, remains unsure of the real cause of Katherine’s unfortunate condition.

It is in the juxtaposition of scenes and the individual arcs of the narrative that Clark offers some reason for events; allowing the viewer to make a connection between the elements so far seen, and to use what we know of the horror movie, as a genre, to fill in the blanks. The implication, that this mythical landscape and the stone formations that so transfix the alienated Verity, are somehow conspiring to take revenge on those unfortunate enough to disturb their unholy slumber, seems to be further reinforced by the development of subsequent scenes.

stigma

By connecting the various occurrences, Clark and his screenwriter Clive Exton, give the audience just enough possibilities to create their own hypothesis regarding the fate of these characters. In reality, there is no rational explanation for anything taking place, however, by seeing an image of Katherine dazed and trancelike against an image of the stones as seen through the kitchen window, or the shot of Verity in her bedroom intercut with the mother’s violent ordeal, we create a connection between the two.

This brings us back to that strange and ominous orb seen drifting during the opening credits. There, the glare of the family car as an out of focus blot against a landscape took, on the appearance of an almost extra-terrestrial vision. However, when we think back to this sequence with the subsequent knowledge of the situation taking place, that connection to the drop of blood (and the idea of the blood as an objective premonition) seems explicitly linked to the horror that befalls the central character.

Having been possessed, either by a ghost or by the spirit of the landscape itself, Katherine is struck by an especially terrifying physical affliction: blood seeping through the skin as if secreting from an internal wound that doesn’t seem to exist. The way the red dot grows in intensity, spreading out as it soaks through the fabric of Katherine’s shirt, once again brings to mind the first image of the film; that red-hued harbinger that appeared to overwhelm the screen.

stigma

It is this literal translation of the title – the “stigma”, not just as “shame” but as shorthand for stigmata, in the biblical sense (although the cause of this bloodletting seems to point to something that runs counter to the Christian myth) – which seems the most obvious, but it’s only later in the film, when the stone is finally turned, that we’re given a kind of explanation for these bizarre events.

If the plot throughout ‘Stigma’ is vague and muddled, moving, sometimes awkwardly, between the domestic and the supernatural, it is moments like this that seem to create an emotional coherency beyond any narrative ambiguity (n.b. even Clark himself admits during the accompanying DVD introduction that he was never entirely sure where the evil in the film was directed). In general, these moments succeed in pushing the audience towards a certain unspoken interpretation that makes even more sense following the revelation of its parting shots. The ending once again shows the connection between the two strands of the narrative: between mother and daughter, or between the supernatural and the psychological interpretations of the scenes.

In previous films by Clark, such as ‘The Stalls of Barchester (1971) and ‘A Warning to the Curious (1972), the characters are punished because of their greed or underhandedness, or because of some perceived failing or flaw. In ‘Stigma’, Katherine and Verity have done nothing of real malice to incur the wrath of a vengeful spirit; their only crime is that of middle-class privilege. As such, it marks ‘Stigma’ out as one of the cruellest and most brutal of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, pushing the material towards something that is genuinely distressing and unsettling.

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A. Thomas Pennington

A. Thomas Pennington

Currently based in the South-West of England, A. Thomas Pennington has dabbled in blogging, playwriting, and occasionally unfinished fiction, but always finds himself returning to the study and discussion of films, books, and music. Recent film-logging activities tend to be limited to micro-criticism on the film and streaming platform MUBI, with infrequent attempts at proper film criticism, book reviews and miscellaneous writing hidden on the blog.

Illustration reproduced by kind permission of Rich Phllips

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