The Wyrm of Bwlch Pen Barras

The Wyrm of Bwlch Pen Barras (2023)

At the beginning of first-time writer/director Craig Williams’ Welsh-language short film The Wyrm of Bwlch Pen Barras, Gwyn (Bryn Fôn) is woken early in bed by a phone call. “It’s happening again – today,” he tells his wife Anwen (Victoria Pugh). “It’s not that long since last time,” she replies, clearly anxious.

Later, after Gwyn has received further instructions via a burner phone hidden in the attic with other items, he will drive out and pick up his crew for the day’s assignment: Emlyn (Morgan Hopkins), as middle-aged and gravely resigned to the task as Gwyn; and Dai (Sean Carlsen), younger, tougher and, alone of the three, seeming to relish the mission ahead. “I can’t believe it’s come around again so quickly,” Emlyn will say, echoing Anwen’s words, “It’s never been this soon before.”

It is clear that these three quietly determined men mean business. And it is strictly men’s business, with Anwen staying home while her husband heads out to meet the others. The initial suspicion that their activity may be as criminal as it is covert is confirmed when they grab Dafydd (Morgan Llewelyn-Jones) from his farm, very much against his will. “Be thankful that it was an easy decision this time,” Gwyn will say as Emlyn expresses sympathy with Dafydd’s ‘poor’ mother for what is about to happen, ”We’ve had far more difficult ones than this.” Yet there is Dafydd, bundled and bound in Gwyn’s boot for one last journey, first by car and then on foot, up the slopes of Bwlch Pen Barras.

The title The Wyrm of Bwlch Pen Barras does a lot of heavy lifting here. For much as it combines a very real peak in north-east Wales with a monster of myth, Williams’ grounded fantasy involves an intersection of the modern and mundane with the ancient and eldritch, while conjuring a creature, phallic yet expressly feminised, which is never actually revealed beyond that title itself and these men’s facial expressions in response to its arrival.

For The Wyrm of Bwlch Pen Barras is concerned as much with what is off the screen and between the lines as with its central drama of men doing what they have to do without being entirely sure whether they should, or what their real contribution is to a cyclical mystery which is also a circle jerk. Are they quenching the fire that threatens this god-fearing parish, or are they just further fuelling – and feeding – its destructive flames?

Here an ancient ritual of scapegoating and sacrifice may be designed to placate the beast and to keep the darkness at bay – but we also know that the frequency with which it must take place is accelerating, suggestive of a failure in the process. For even as these three men – or ‘boys’, as Dai addresses them – cleanse their community of its toxic masculinity, that toxicity abides, and grows, both outside and within. Indeed, it is embodied in the cockily aggressive Dai, who enjoys his rôle in this cruel, bullying rite a little too much, and who might very well find himself next in the line of more or less worthy victims.

This is a grim, business-like evocation of the ineffable and the unworldly (if not quite the unearthly). It is aptly filled with the drab colours, the distressed grain and the uneasy feel of British folk horror from the Seventies (an impression very much aided by Sean Price Williams’ cinematography and Richard Wells’ title art), while avoiding altogether the unrestrained sensationalism of Ken Russell’s later The Lair of the White Worm (1988). Yet in localising these motifs, and drawing from them a portrait of the gendered ills that snake through a small rural Welsh town, Williams brings his own brand to the material, and immediately, deftly makes his (muddy) mark as a filmmaker.   

strap: In Craig Williams’ folk horror short, determined local men engage in some illicit repeat business

© Anton Bitel