Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Roddy's scotch mist…Tam-Lin aka The Devil's Widow (1970)

Tam-Lin, aka The Ballad of Tam-Lin, The Devil's Widow and The Devil's Woman… was the only film directed by Roddy McDowall and he took a break from playing in part four of the Planet of the Apes films to make it.

On this evidence it’s a shame he never got around to directing more: there’s genuine strangeness and charm about this film that is more genuinely unsettling than most outright horror films of the period.

With a screenplay by William Spier, the story is loosely based on the traditional Scottish poem The Ballad of Tam Lin and perhaps the multiple titles reflected the distributors’ difficulty in marketing such an unusual product. The original ballad dates to as early as 1549 and has evolved into many forms as young Tam, under the protection of the Queen of the Fairies looks to be rescued from sacrifice by a young woman who has stolen his heart.

Part of the music for McDowall’s film is provided by The Pentangle – a folk super-group featuring Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Danny Thomson, Jacqui McShee and Terry Cox  – and it’s possible that he came across the story through its popularity in the sixties folk boom. From trailblazer Anne Briggs wispily mystical performances of Young Tambling through to Fairport Convention’s more muscular Tam Lin off 1969’s Liege and Leif the story was sung again through the taverns and hipster coffee houses of London and beyond.

Stephanie Beacham
It is in the capital where this film starts with a gaggle of excited youngsters who live off and around an ultra-wealthy woman Michaela Cazaret (superbly played by the iconic Ava Gardner – no doubt one of Roddy’s many showbiz buddies). Her current favourite is one Tom Lynn (Ian McShane) who seems to be madly addicted to her intoxicating presence.

Michaela and Tom leave the comforts of their conjugal bed to lead their mobile party to their cars in preparation for a journey to Scotland. They look to be in Knightsbridge or somewhere similar and the cars include an Aston Martin DBS – another classic. One young man is desperate to speak to Michaela but she casts him aside.

The convoy travels along London Wall past St Alphage Tower (currently being demolished) and then find themselves rocketing up the empty motorways of the early seventies.
St Alphage Tower on the left... London Wall as was.
Once in Michaela’s immense Scottish castle they settle down to the business of having a good time… Georgia (Joanna Lumley) reads books and makes broad philosophical statements, Rose (Sinéad Cusack) plays with Tarot cards, whilst Caroline (Jenny Hanley) plays Frisbee with the boys and the unsettlingly childlike Sue (Madeline Smith) asks for a puppy. It’s the cream of 1970’s British acting starlets, with more to come…

The local vicar’s daughter, young Janet Ainsley (Stephanie Beacham) arrives with a dog as per Sue’s requests and looks on in awe at the young, beautiful and directionless crowd but is immediately unsettled by Tom (and likewise).

Jenny Hanley and Joanna Lumley
She’s not sure whether Sue will be the right sort of person to hand over her pet too but then Michaela arrives and casts her glamour over all. She asks Janet to name her price and in a rush she asks for £50… Michaela writes her a cheque with a rueful smile whilst her secretary, Elroy (Richard Wattis) tells the young girl that she’s missed a chance to impress his mistress.

Janet returns to the vicarage…and discusses the strange new visitors with her father (Cyril Cusack) who urges her to return the £50.

Out walking she encounters Tom – on a head-clearing walk nursing a bottle of brandy as cure for a massive hang-over from an unbridled night with his mistress. Here McDowall does something experimental and stop-motions events in a series of photographs – possibly reflecting Tom’s skill in that area: he views Janet’s beauty in a professional manner and wants to capture every moment?

Ian McShane and Stephanie Beacham
The images show the couple finally recognising their love for each other and you can guess what happens next. Afterwards the couple walk back but Tom refuses to let Janet near the castle grounds as if realising the influence that shapes his own feelings in a particular direction.

Tom returns to the castle but Michaela quickly senses what has happened and from now on a course is set as Tom beings to seek out his free will.

He goes to church in order to see Janet and is spotted by his rival in the group, Oliver (David Whitman), he rejects the latter’s offer of a lift…

Back at the castle the news has obviously been relayed and Oliver goads Tom and violence erupts much to Michaela’s displeasure… Meanwhile the faithful Elroy positively relishes the opportunity to point out some home truths to Tom as he details how the unexplained deaths of certain young men in expensive motor cars are linked to Michaela. Is this to be Tom’s future: finished off once he steps out of line and stops being useful?

Tom is stubborn though and vows to leave, Michaela sends him to a caravan near the Firth of Forth promising she’ll give him a truce of eight days before hunting him down. Meanwhile, Janet discovers she is pregnant and seeks help from the local abortionist who sends her off to Edinburgh.

There’s an edge to the story now as the full cruelty of the situation is starting to be revealed: what exactly is Michaela and is there any way she will let Tom go or is he as doomed as the rest of her former lovers?

The party's over...
No spoilers: The ending I won’t give away needless to say that events slip into psychedelic overdrive and the outline of the original ballad is loosely followed as things come to a head.

Dusty verdict: Tam Lin is an oddity that lingers in the memory. McDowall’s direction is fluent and full of invention whilst his cast deliver strong performances not least Miss Gardner, relishing the chance to play a most unusual baddy. Is she the Fairie Queen or some kind of witch or is she just a very wealthy woman with a penchant for lovin’ an’ leavin’ ‘em a bit dead?

The horror is not over and is all the more remarkable for that: had this been a Hammer film it would have been a lot more… obvious. Long out of print – I’m clinging onto my old video – Tam Lin has now been released on Blu-Ray in the US. It’s available from Amazon  here.

Rolls, Bristol, Aston and Jensen...
Jenny Hanley
Madeline Smith and David Whitman

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