Bella in the Wych Elm is an earlier work from Thomas Lee Rutter, writer/director of Day of the Stranger. He’s used the COVID lockdown to re-edit the 35 minute short for a Blu Ray release. I never saw the original so I can’t say if it’s an improvement. But I can say I liked what I saw.
In 1943 four boys poaching on an English Estate found more than they were looking for. They discovered a woman’s skeleton hidden in a wych elm tree. A severed hand was later found nearby. Despite extensive efforts, the victim has never been identified. However in 1944 graffiti asking “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm – Hagley Wood” began appearing, possibly connecting the body to a local prostitute who had gone missing around the time of the victim’s death. Speculation as to why she was killed has ranged from supernatural ritual to German spies.
Rutter approaches the case, not as a typical “based on actual events” style of true crime or horror film. Quite the opposite, Bella in the Wych Elm is shot in black and white and narrated by ‘Tatty’ Dave Jones with a folksy soundtrack by Jon Joseph Murray (credited under the much more memorable title of The Worrisome Ankletrout). Apart from the occasional voiceover by someone involved in the case, there is no dialogue.
The results are somewhat similar to Wisconsin Death Trip, (the movie not the album by Static X) or what might happen if Guy Maddin tried his hand at folk horror. It’s visually captivating with low-tech effects such as over and double exposures and just enough simulated print damage to make it look like a bizarre newsreel from the 1940s.
With a running time of just over half an hour, Bella in the Wych Elm obviously can’t go into great depth on the mystery or its possible solutions. But the film does give enough information to be interesting along with bits on the New Forest Coven and the last known witch killing in England. Surprisingly, it even manages to deliver a couple of jump scares as well.