Spooky Film of the Day – Tam-Lin (Roddy McDowall, 1970)
One of the segments I enjoyed most during Mark Gatiss’ recent History of Horror series was when the erstwhile League of Gentlemen man set about championing a peculiar subgenre often referred to as Folk Horror.
Films that belong to this stable are notable for incorporating spooky British folklore into the horror mileu, often played out to a surprisingly unsettling pastoral backdrop, and include the likes of Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man… And I think we can also add Tam-Lin (also released as The Devil’s Widow, as you can see from the poster above) to that list. The reason why this equally folksy curio is not nearly as well-known as any of its potential peers is because it’s not currently available for purchase on any format* – but just because it’s been exiled into obscurity, doesn’t mean it can’t boast a considerable amount of star quality. Perhaps the most notable thing about Tam-Lin at first glance is that it’s the sole directorial credit of legendary character actor Roddy McDowall, and a quick look over the cast list reveals a whole host of further household names, including Ava Gardner, Ian McShane, Stephanie Beacham, Joanna Lumley, Withnail & I creator Bruce Robinson and two Cusacks: Cyril and Sinead.
The plot is a loose and very modern reinterpretation of the Robert Burns standard The Ballad of Tam-Lin, which essentially tells the tale of a young man rescued from the spell of the fairy queen (stop laughing at the back!) by his true love. In this retelling that young man is Ian McShane, a jaded little hipster who is currently the favourite hanger-on in the court of manipulative millionaire Ava Gardner. Leaving Swinging London for a bit of a break, Ava and Co. take a trip across the border to Bonnie Scotland where the future Lovejoy falls for an innocent local lass (Beacham!), thus provoking a strange and startling act of revenge from his pissed off mistress.
The film Tam-Lin is most often compared to is The Wicker Man, and it’s not hard to see why – both share a Scottish location, a foreboding folk-rock soundtrack (in Tam-Lin’s case by Pentangle) and a raw, earthy sensuality. However, while The Wicker Man plays a commendably straight-hand and has aged all the better for it, McDowall’s film is rather more wilfully of its time, and a couple of cracking little psychedelic scenes notwithstanding, proceedings are still somewhat marred by a few silly, typically early-70s bumnotes (sample dialogue: “I’ll swallow anything, so long as it’s illegal!”). This probably leaves it feeling a little more like something from Hammer’s slightly seamy, boldly cheesy mid-to-late period (think The Satanic Rites of Dracula or Tigon’s Curse of the Crimson Altar – that studio also being responsible for Blood on Satan’s Claw), but while Tam-Lin may not match up to it’s more famous, similarly Caledonian Folk Horror cousin, it is still well worth seeking out… Something which may prove difficult until it finds its way on to DVD.
You can at least enjoy the terrific trailer below – lovingly put together by Days Are Numbers’ chums Filmbar 70!
*I hadn’t heard of Tam-Lin myself until Days Are Numbers number one fan (I think?!) Paul “Too Hot to Handle” Sandell told me about it. But now I’ve seen it and he hasn’t! LOL