The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970)
The only film directed by actor Roddy McDowell, The Ballad of Tam Lin, (also released as The Devil's Widow and Tam Lin), is nowhere near the disaster that many commentators would have you believe. Very much of its era, (it was filmed in 1969 and released in the UK the following year), with it's visual style, fixation on the 'jet set' and bright young beautiful people doing bright young beautiful things, the film comes over as achingly 'swinging'. But as an example of British 'folk horror', it wears surprisingly well. Not as dark and disturbing as The Wicker Man, perhaps, but nonetheless quite effective in places in evoking the darkness which underlies many archaic rituals and beliefs. Tam Lin is, in essence, a contemporary retelling of a traditional Scottish folk tale of a knight enchanted by a faerie queen, who subsequently falls in love with a mortal girl and attempts to escape the faerie realm.
In the film, 'Tom Lynn' (Ian McShane) is the current paramour of Mrs Cazaret, a fabulously wealthy, but ageing, jet setter played by Ava Gardener. She 'collects' young people, recruiting them into her retinue, which accompanies her from one venue to another, living a life of leisure and wealthy indolence. After traveling to Cazaret's Scottish mansion, Lynn meets the local minister's daughter (Stephanie Beacham) and starts a relationship with her, drifting away from Cazaret's retinue in the process. After the girl falls pregnant by him, Lynn - after stopping her from having a termination - leaves the retinue to live with her in a caravan. Cazaret, however, is still determined to draw him back to her circle. Dismissing all but one of her young followers, she replaces them with an altogether more sinister coven of acolytes, who are sent to kidnap Lynn. The film climaxes with Lynn being fed hallucinogenic drugs by Cazaret before being hunted through the woods by the coven, (Cazaret believes that the ordeal will finally bring Lynn back to her). During the chase Lynn hallucinates first that he is a bear, then that he is on fire as he stumbles into swamp, before wrestling with an imaginary giant rubber snake.
All of which follows the basic outline of the original legend, albeit substituting the magical elements with what McDowell clearly saw as modern day equivalents. Most obviously, the world of the ultra rich becomes the faerie realm and magical potions are replaced by narcotics, Whereas in the legend Tam Lin actually transforms into various beasts and experiences an ordeal by fire, in the film these occur only in his head. On the whole, these substitutions actually work quite well. The film's main problem - to contemporary eyes - is the dated visual style alluded to earlier. Many sequences wouldn't have looked out of place in a 1970s TV commercial: lots of soft focus shots of beautiful young people running through fields, for instance, which feel as if they belong in a hairspray or shampoo advert. The romance between McShane and Beacham is likewise presented in the style of a glossy magazine shoot. That said, one sequence, their first romantic encounter, is surprisingly effective, with the scene dissolving into a series of still shots, before returning to a normal visual flow, suggesting a breaking of Cazaret's 'spell' over Lynn.
Arguably, though, choosing to adopt the visual style of contemporary TV commercials is actually the point of the film. After all, aren't they a form of enchantment? Isn't advertising the modern witchcraft? Offering us a whole fantasy lifestyle if we just give into temptation and buy the products they are peddling? I well remember those Martini TV ads from my seventies childhood, which seemed to offer a glossy jet set existence - drinking Martini on sun drenched Mediterranean terraces with other beautiful people, toasting each other on luxury yachts in the Caribbean or even racing air boats in the Everglades - if you drank their product. It all seemed hugely enticing to me as a child. And perhaps McDowell is trying to show us what enchantment of this kind is really like: endlessly engaging in utterly meaningless games against a background of fabulously well appointed mansions. An utterly empty existence which might look tempting from the outside but is, in reality, stultifying. Cazaret's replacing of her 'hippy dippy' retinue with the more sinister coven effectively demonstrates the darker side to this 'enchanted' jet set existence, with mesmerised followers who will do anything, even kill, in order to maintain their empty, but luxurious and privileged, lifestyles.
A much maligned film - mainly by people who have never seen it, incidentally - much of Tam Lin's historically poor reputation apparently stems from the re-edited version released in the US by AIP under the title The Devil's Widow. This was accompanied by a salacious marketing campaign the film could never live up (or down) to. Seen today, the film (in its more-or-less it's original edit) comes over as an entertaining, if somewhat lightweight, piece of folk horror, with a suitably ethereal musical score and generally good performances from the cast, (especially Richard Wattis as Cazaret's creepy secretary). The soft-focus style eventually gives way to full blooded horror at the climax, with the whole chase sequence presented in an effectively nightmarish and disturbing style, racking up some genuine tension. Long overdue a proper critical reappraisal, The Ballad of Tam Lin is well worth seeking out.
Labels: Forgotten Films