In what is a disorientating, not-quite-recognisable late twentieth-century England, the parishioners of Dean Puckett’s The Sermon perform punitive medieval rites with their off-white shirts primly buttoned, the women scowl in crown braids and long skirts, and the men sport Alex DeLarge smirks in side-parts and gallused trousers.
Chastened survivors of an alluded-to ecological catastrophe (“nature had her revenge”) this lawless community built a penitent ark of militant homophobia and Calvinist asceticism, and shan’t abide those who jump ship. Early scenes depicting as much, and evoking the rowdy gallows walks of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General [UK, 1968], are stagey and blunt, but they get away with being so because the film has more vital interests – namely a rescue-revenge stratagem hatched by the pastor’s daughter, Ella (Molly Casey), and midwifed by a demon.
Opening the film, a crow lands on a barren tree, is shown in close-up, and then, as the subject of Ella’s trancelike, kitchen-window glare. Later, a black-cloaked figure – having crept slowly from the background - will wrap an arm, pinion-like, around her chest, as her plot bears fruit. The subtle approach of this half-glimpsed shadow, shown in three or four blink-length cuts, is always surprising, and peculiarly unnerving – it flickers into this pristinely finished film like a coded message scratched on the reel. The interloper constitutes the film’s pagan, or anti-Christian, agitator, a staple anxiety of British folk horror: called to mind are the possessed youths of Piers Haggard’s seminal The Blood on Satan’s Claw [UK, 1971], who toil to restore flesh to a dark-hooded devil.
Here however the operative malevolence may reside somewhere in the land, with references to “the black in the ground”, and frequent cutaways to heaths and moors eked red and agent by cinematographer, Ian Forbes, and colourist, Tobias Tomkins. If nothing else, watch The Sermon for its landscape photography, which is as specific and palpable as I’ve seen English pastures look on screen – otherwise, for eleven minutes and change, this is a technically superlative, piously studied genre contribution.