In 1943 four young boys were out poaching illegally on the Hagley Hall estate in Worcestershire when they discovered a human skull hidden inside a wych elm tree trunk. Initially reluctant to tell anyone, one of the boys was too shocked by their discovery and confessed all to his parents. Upon police investigation, an almost complete human skeleton was found forced inside the trunk of the tree, with a hand discovered some distance away.
Bella in the Wych Elm is a black and white documentary short (36 minutes) which tells the tale of the skeleton from discovery to her presumed identification. It was two years in the making and is clearly a labour of love for all those involved with two versions of the film existing, the original and a special silent movie edition with intertitles. I watched the original version which is narrated by ‘Tatty’ Dave Jones, who has a very broad Birmingham accent and he relays the tale as if chatting to you over a pint in your local pub. The film is made to look old and damaged with the filmmakers citing influences ranging from early silent films such as Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), the works of Guy Maddin, the book and film of Wisconsin Death Trip and exploitation pseudo-documentaries such as Legend of the Witches (1969).
It was deduced from forensic examination that the body was forced into the trunk whilst still warm as it could not have been achieved once rigor mortis had set in. However, the discovery did not really come into public conscience until 1944 when the first graffiti message relating to the mystery appeared on a wall in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham, reading “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm – Hagley Wood”. Since the 1970s the Hagley Obelisk near to where her remains were discovered has also been sporadically defaced with graffiti asking “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?”
Rutter’s short places the story in the realms of witchcraft and ritualistic murder, although the reality of her death is shown to be far less fantastical. He drops in a couple of very effective scares, what appears to be an original score and his influences, in particular Haxan, are definitely apparent. However, the short is also strongly tied to its geographical roots and it would be hard to imagine it having the same provincial tone if made by a non-local film crew. Although limited by a low budget at times, this creepy little tale lingers after the closing credits and comes recommended.
Bella in the Wych Elm has its premiere at Kidderminster Town Hall on 19th July 2017. More information can be found on Facebook (@BellaInTheWychElm) and Twitter (@Bella_Wych_Elm).
(A version of this review also appears on @UKHorrorScene)