The Goblin Market

Belfast-based collective Shadowtide Arts adapt Christina Rossetti's 19th century gothic poem to the screen with startling results

Madeline Graham and Christopher Whiteside’s The Goblin Market is a short film version of Christina Rossetti’s 1859 poem of the same name. It is a visually rich and densely layered piece that never the less remains remarkably true to Rossetti’s original text.

As the film starts we are under a black and white canopy of trees, cross-hatched by shivering ferns and glittering, murmuring water. We are transported to a bucolic idyll until, in a clearing, we come across the transfixed figure of a girl, dappled by sunlight, and seemingly lost in a reverie. A fallen tree branch appears to lance her side, bisecting the frame.

At once fast jump-cuts of teeming maggots, degradation and corruption, invade. We see grasping hands and smeared, slick lips and finally we meet Laura, the impetuous girl who has strayed on to the forest path and heeded the call of the Goblin men and tasted of their fruit. Her is head tilted back, her eyes roll, as the shadowy Goblins place a crown of thorns on her head – an awful lot of symbolism for the first minute of screen time.

I meet with Madeline Graham and Chris Whiteside, collaborating under the name Shadowtide Arts, to discuss where this extraordinary short film came from and how they began to make it.

'I discovered The Goblin Market when I was about 16,' begins Madeline, 'and when I first met Chris we just talked and talked about it. We had proposed to do a series of illustrations with little pieces of fruit with all the elements of the stories within them.

'Then the people at PS2 (the Paragon Studios Project Space) saw my work and a film we had made, a dark fantasy version of The Three Little Pigs, and thought that both of our work might be better as a film.

'This had always been Madi’s idea,' says Chris, 'and originally we were going to put it together as an art piece. I was doing photography at the time and I was making animal masks as a part of doing textiles and it spring-boarded from there.

'If you want to get specific I’m technically an embroiderer, which is why I made the masks and it was just natural to take photographs of them in different lights and make different characters of them. The next development from that was film.' 

'We had to pull the film together quickly,' Madeline continues. 'We had a budget of £500 and we borrowed some equipment and I asked my sister if she would like to play alongside me as Lizzie but the only day that we could film it was the 12th of July!

'We had to go to Tullymore at five o'clock in the morning to beat the crowds and on the drive back I was caked in fruit, Chris was dressed as a goblin and because it was the Twelfth there were police checks all along the way!' 

Perhaps the film The Goblin Market most closely resembles is Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, based on the work of Angela Carter and imbued with her woozy, sticky dedication to a young girl’s emerging sexuality. Moments of anachronism and gentle surrealism echo through these sensual fairy tale tropes, as rosy apples swell and hairy heads bob in milk like Cheerios.

Having tasted the Goblin men’s fruit Laura becomes colourless and lethargic, wasting away until her sister determines to return to the Goblins to retrieve their fruit in the hope of saving her life. They pop up in full colour in a meadow, masked, like children in The Wicker Man and stage a fruity, dizzying attack on her.

'The film has a sweaty, visceral immediacy', she says, 'but that was because of how we made it. We threw it together; we were panicking, trying to get it made in time for the exhibition date.

The film is beautifully put together with a real sophistication and knowledge of cinematic grammar. As virgin filmmakers how did you achieve this?

'That was Chris', who blushes on cue. 'He’d edited the three little pigs project and he’d also edited a film piece I had done for my degree show, but this was the longest film we’d ever done and he’s a fantastic painter and illustrator and I just think he has an incredible artistic eye.

'We feel like the most terrifying thing something can do is just stand and watch.

'It doesn’t need to chase you as it has already got you in its sights. The goblins never ran, they never chased. The girls were the ones that ran. The goblins had already ensnared her. We love the feeling of the hair on the back of your neck standing up rather than just a standard jump scare.'

It is an eerie, creepy piece, more imbued with a sense of dread than most horror films. The pair are young and hungry and talk breathlessly about their future plans, though my Dictaphone struggles to discern Chris’ low rumble from the endless clanking background noise of The MAC.

'We’re working on another short film named Dead Moon, which is based on a Yorkshire folk tale, about a woman who is the embodiment of the moon and comes down to save a man who the animals of the fens have to set a trap for. We have some plans to build an actual fen; little pools and a luminous willow tree, which is quite exciting. We’re getting quite ambitious.'

The Goblin Market is a remarkable first film, by turn lyrical and grotesque, languorous and frenetic. It translates its subject matter beautifully for the screen and has a sense and sensuality that seems both timeless and timely. These orchard fruits may be sweet but they leave a distinct and peculiar after-taste.