At the height of WWII, four boys out poaching in the woods make the grim discovery of a human skull in the gnarled branches of a wych elm tree. Thus begins the on-off investigation of a murder which remains a mystery to this day. ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?’
This fascinating 36 minute ‘folk mystery phantasmagoria’, written, directed, and edited by indie filmmaker Thomas Lee Rutter, is an exploration of the true-life ‘Hagley Woods Mystery’. Ever since four young boys stumbled on a woman’s skull in these Worcestershire woods in 1943, “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?” has appeared as graffiti on walls and monuments all around the West Midlands, and the mystery has been the subject of various songs, plays, and musicals in the intervening years.
In essence a silent film, the story is narrated in voice-over by a middle-aged sounding man (‘Tatty’ Dave Jones) with a Midlands accent, lending it the authenticity of a history lesson given by an old man down the pub who knew all the parties involved first-hand. But to dwell on this aspect is to do a disservice to the sheer power of the imagery on display, a combination of newly-filmed action, stock news footage, newspaper reports, and plates from musty old books.
All of this is assembled seamlessly by Rutter, presented in chilling monochrome, and overlaid with a flickering, speckly, at times over-exposed, pre-sound-era look which creates the feeling of viewing the events through the thick, dark, impenetrable mists of history; which of course is all we can ever do. The overall effect is sublimely unsettling, the stuff of half-remembered nightmares. There’s a heart-stoppingly terrifying scene just a few minutes in that still makes me shudder at the thought of it, and a later gut-churningly chilling sequence where a man is driven insane, tormented by the ghost of ‘Bella’ (Sarah L. Page) invading his dreams. She might just invade yours too once you’ve seen this. It’s likely the creepiest thing you’ll have seen in quite some time.
It’s a fabulous achievement, well worth keeping an eye out for. I’m told a DVD release is imminent, and some festival screenings too. Take these as an opportunity to show this excellent filmmaker your support, and with a bit of luck we’ll see more great projects like this come to fruition.
Words: Rob Talbot