Reviews: Lovely, Dark and Deep

Lovely, Dark and Deep,
Directed by Teresa Sutherland,
Starring Georgina Campbell, Nick Blood, Wai Ching Ho

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
(Stopping by Woods on a Winter Evening, Robert Frost)

The directorial debut of Teresa Sutherland, who, among other things, was the writer on the excellent Western chiller The Wind (which I reviewed after it’s Edinburgh Film Festival screening in 2019 – see here), drawing inspiration from the Robert Frost poem quoted above, this is an intriguing, slow-burning horror which crafts an increasing atmosphere of unease right from the start. We have beautifully filmed landscapes of the vast American wilderness filling the screen, but soon that alluring wonder of nature starts to transform into something else, just with the simple device of changing angles, to something less normal, less natural.

Lennon (Georgina Campbell) is a newly-minted park ranger, on her way to her first posting, something she has fought for a long time to earn. As she drives through the countryside to a national park to take up her duties, she stops the car on the isolated road for a moment, noticing a cut in her fingertip (from a nervous habit of chewing on her nails). When she looks up, she realises a young deer has wandered onto the road. It raises its head curiously, looking through the windscreen at her, its eyes seeming unnaturally dark. Her car radio suddenly lets out a shriek of feedback, static and garbled voices, startling her. When she looks back up, the deer has vanished.

On arriving at the headquarters, she and the other rangers are briefed by their chief, Zhang (Wai Ching Ho), before being helicoptered out to their remote locations, each given a territory of the enormous national park to patrol, with a Spartan hut (without even electricity). She’s soon settled in, and out on her rounds, checking sites, there for any hikers who need help. On one of her walks her radio starts to play up, at one point it makes static noises very much like her car radio did earlier – despite the fact she had just taken the batteries out to check them…

 

She has to put this to the back of her mind, however, when a distraught hiker batters on the door of her hut for help, before fleeing into the dark of the night-time forest; on catching up to him she finds he is in a disturbed sense of mind, seeking his friend who vanished from their camp. She calls in the other rangers and a large-scale search and rescue operation swings into action. Lennon, with a foot injured while pursuing the distraught man earlier, is ordered to stay at her camp in case the lost person comes there, while the others go off, but she disobeys this order, and in the process finds the woman, who is in a strange state, asking Lennon if she is real.

At this point it starts to become even darker and more bizarre – I don’t want to spoil any of that here, the build-up to that point does an excellent job of introducing Lennon (and hinting that she has deeply personal reasons for wanting this job – she lost her younger sister in just such a forest long ago) and setting up her post, as well as casually mentioning that a large number of people go missing in national parks each year (a normal bit of data, but here it gives you a little shiver, because you know it is going to be related to something in the film, eventually).

As with The Wind, there’s a strong element of “is there something supernatural, or is it all in her head?” about Lovely, Dark and Deep, which I liked (I think later it comes down more on one side of that than the other, though), and then there are hints of ancient folklore and that there is some secret here, one the rangers may even be aware of, but how are they connected to it, what role do they play?

While there are small but excellent turns from others such as Ho as her boss, or Blood as a fellow ranger near her territory, the vast bulk of this movie rests on Campbell’s shoulders, and she does a great job, managing to convey someone who can be organised and efficient and confident, as you’d expect a trained ranger to be, but at the same time nervous, eaten by memories of her sister’s disappearance years before and also sensing there is more in the woods than any training can prepare her for. An excellent, moody, atmospheric, psychological flick, with elements of the folk-horror about it too, perhaps even a tiny nod to Parisian-set horror As Above, So Below and even a little touch of some of the wilderness-set X-Files tales .

Lovely, Dark and Deep is available on streaming services from Blue Finch from March 25th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

FrightFest – To Fire You Come At Last

FrightFest 2023 – To Fire You Come At Last,
Directed by Sean Hogan,
Starring Mark Carlisle, James Swanton, Richard Rowden, Harry Roebuck, Stephen Smith,
Severin FIlms

Debuting at this year’s recent FrightFest, Sean Hogan’s To Fire You Come At Last may be short, but it certainly delivers, drawing on the influence of classic British folk-horror movies. It’s a nice, clean, simple set-up: Mallow, the local squire (Mark Carlisle) and his manservant Pike (Richard Rowden) have enlisted Holt (Harry Roebuck) to arrange the carrying of the coffin of the squire’s son Aldis (Stephen Smith), Holt having been his best friend. The squire has sent his man to obtain villagers to carry the coffin across the moors to the church, but none want to come, as the moors (of course!) have an evil reputation for witches and mysterious black dogs that signify impending death (shades of the old Black Shuck legend). All they can get is Ransley, a local drunk and ne’er do well, forcing the squire to also assist in the carrying of the casket.

It’s against this backdrop of lonely moorland our four men set out with their macabre burden, Holt warning that with only four of them they will not likely make the churchyard before dusk, and they really don’t want to be caught on the moors after dark. The squire arrogantly chides him for foolishness and superstition, and the four continue, but Holt is correct, darkness falls while they are still treading this lonely, rural path, the blackness of the countryside at night, dispelled only in small pools of light around them from their lanterns.

And they start to hear noises – is that a dog growling somewhere in the gloom? Footsteps? As the darkness and thoughts of local folklore play on their nerves, the men bicker among themselves, and soon accusation are flying too – connections each had to the deceased (even the lowly drunk, Ransley), until it seems they have all committed sins that may leave them vulnerable to Damnation, and therefore ripe for the picking for whatever dark, supernatural forces roam the moorland at night. Except the squire, who insists he is a good, upright man (so you just know this arrogant aristocrat is hiding a secret!).

This short film is split into four acts, each slowly ratcheting up the tension rather splendidly. It’s shot in a crisp black and white, which is particularly effective once night falls – four figures burdened by a wooden coffin, illuminated only by carrying lanterns, the world around them almost invisible, black darkness, the odd skeletal tree coming into view as the lamp light reaches it, the only other features the stars in the nocturnal skies above them. It’s a great choice, aesthetically (props to cinematographers Paul Goodwin and Jim Hinson), giving the film a simple but very effective look, and it also works well for a small budget, enhancing the look of the film without the need for expensive sets or locations to match the 17th century period.

A highly effective, atmospheric short that draws on the fine Brit folk-horror tradition.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Atmospheric folk-horror in the Dark Between the Trees

The Dark Between the Trees,
Fiona Barnett,
Solaris
Publishing 11th October, 2022

When we returned to the hillside, I saw by the moonlight that there were but two of us left. Pray God have mercy for the ones we left behind.

Moresby Wood, like many isolated, rural locations in the British Isles, has a story attached to it – or really a thread of interconnected stories. It is not a place anyone local will visit; indeed it feels almost as if the authorities too realise something is simply wrong about these Deep, Dark Woods; the area is fenced off and secured, no visitors allowed. Rumour has it the MOD use it occasionally for Army exercises, but nobody really knows, and few care to venture close, let alone inside, in any place.

Except for a team of five women academics, lead by Doctor Alice Christopher. She has studied the folklore and scant records of this place for decades, inspired in turn by her original academic mentor; it is almost an obsession now, and she has taken years of snide remarks from colleagues and endlessly rebuffed requests to her proposals for a field expedition. Finally she has the academic grant and the authorities have permitted access. They are following the rough route of a group of Civil War Parliamentary soldiers, lead by the veteran Captain Davies, who records tell were ambushed on a road by the edge of the woods on a hill, as they marched northwards to join their regiment.

Cut down by a force hiding in the treeline – they never get more than a glimpse of them, despite the ferocity of the onslaught – the much-depleted company is forced to retreat into the woods to evade their attackers. One soldier, a local boy, warns them that they shouldn’t enter the forest, that there are tales, that nobody who lives in these parts will go near much less inside, but with musket balls whizzing past them and a number of their comrades lying dead in their own blood behind them, they have little choice.

Barnett splits the narrative between the modern-day academic expedition, and the troubled Parliamentarian soldiers of 1647. As the former attempt to trace the route of the latter, using very sketchy resources; out of date and incomplete maps – an OS cartographer with them explains even today they somehow can’t quite map the area properly – local legends, and a survivor’s account, dictated by one of the only two men who managed to flee the wood, telling a local priest of what happened. Doctor Christopher hopes her team can find evidence of what happened to the missing men from nearly four centuries ago.

However, as both strands of the tale progress, we find that both groups will encounter similar phenomena. What starts as worrying and disturbing – encamped overnight in a clearing by a mighty oak, they (in both time periods) wake the next morning to find the tree is simply gone – soon escalates from concerning to quite clearly dangerous, but what exactly is the danger? What is it with this place? There are tales of a family who did live here, centuries before, there are tales of a creature, the Corrigal (one soldier is reluctant to even name it, less the naming draw its attention to their group), but as so few have left this place, no-one can be sure,

Our modern academics are prepared with maps, GPS, mobile phones, compasses and notes, yet they will soon find that their knowledge and modern equipment will not give them any advantage over the lost military company from centuries before. The compass readings are wrong. The GPS doesn’t work, then the (fresh) batteries fail, as do replacements. The other electronics like their phones and digital cameras also fail; for some reason the batteries, even new ones, simply have no charge. And the forest itself is disconcerting, just somehow wrong, like it isn’t really a natural part of the British landscape.

And then there is sudden, visceral, bloody death…

I won’t go any further as I don’t want to risk spoilers. But I will say this is one of the most satisfyingly creepy horrors I have read in a long time. It draws deeply on one of my favourite sub-genres, the British folk-horror, and does so effectively that you find yourself feeling that the folklore here should be real, it should be like Black Shuck, something you could go and read about. While it does have moments of terror and violent death, most of the book is far more concerned with slowly building an atmosphere of ever-increasing dread, that permeates right under your skin until you almost feel you are walking in those strange, dark woods yourself, the air of unreality and disorientation, the feeling that there is something older, something not natural, in these woods put me in mind of the likes of A Field in England. A perfect read for the long, dark nights of autumn.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity

Reviews: unusual folk-horror in Hellbender

Hellbender,
Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
Starring Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams, John Adams, Rinzin Thonden

Prefaced by a historical flashback, a small town executing a woman accused of magic and attacks against her neighbours, this is a pretty interesting and frequently macabre film right from the kick-off – a judicial hanging, shooting and fire, just for starters! The bulk of the film is set in the present day, in a remote, rural part of New York state, where mother (Toby Poser) and teen daughter Izzy (Zelda Adams) live a very isolated yet seemingly content existence, their large house set in its own private woodland.

Izzy has a rare condition, meaning she can’t be in contact with other people. As a result, her mother has home-schooled her for her entire life, and she can’t go any further than the boundary of their wooded property. While she and her mother seem happy enough together – frequently jamming together to play metal – there are hints fairly early on that there is far more going on here than a “boy in the bubble” healthcare approach. When a disoriented hiker comes across Izzy walking alone in the woods, she is startled – she’s not used to talking to anyone other than her mother, let alone a stranger, and of course she’s had it drummed into her that if anyone gets too close, her condition means she could be compromised (this also evoked memories for me of the early days of Lockdown, pre-vaccine, where we all kept our distance from the few others we passed in a street).

Her mother appears as the two talk – the man not only asks for help in directions back to the road and his car, he talks to Izzy, mentioning his niece who is around her age and goes to school nearby, which intrigues Izzy with notions of the outside world and potential friends her own age. Her mother orders her back to the house and starts to show the hiker his way back to his car, to usher him from theirroperty, but then starts asking him questions, which soon set the viewer’s alarm bells ringing – especially when she begins questioning him about if he is married, has children, basically if anyone will notice right away if he doesn’t go home. Any horror fan knows where that is likely to be leading…

But the seeds have been planted in Izzy’s brain, and she goes from content with her remote lifestyle to curious about the rest of the world. She spies on a young woman using a garden swimming pool (Amber, played by Lulu Adams), but Amber sees her hiding in the treeline, and soon the two are talking then enjoying the pool and a beer together. Izzy tells her about being kept at home, and away from school and other people, and about the band she and her mother formed and play in, which they call Hellbender – Amber is taken with that idea and nick-names Izzy “Hellbender”, inviting her to come back and meet her and a couple of other friends later. A teen prank which sees her having to ingest a live worm causes a strange reaction in her – not triggering some medical shock, but something more spiritual, even supernatural.

Her mother is, of course, not too happy about this growing situation, and starts to explain to Izzy the real reason she’s been kept isolated all this time, about her true legacy and why ingesting that creature caused such a visceral reaction. Izzy, like her mother, and her mother before her, is heir to certain abilities, and like many abilities, they can be very dangerous is you are not skilled and trained in how to control them, something she is going to have to now learn from her mother.

I found this to be a terrific slice of American folk-horror – the isolated, rural setting really adds to the atmosphere. It transpires that this, and the tiny cast, comes from necessity – not just because of a small budget, but because it was mostly filmed during the Covid Lockdown. It’s a family affair – the mother-daughter here are in fact a real-life mother and daughter, the friend Amber is her sister, the uncle (and co-director) is her father, and the family wrote, directed, produced and starred in it, while each taking turns as a tiny film crew during Lockdown. I think that necessity actually helps the atmosphere and brooding, isolated, country Gothic feel of the film immensely. It also shows nicely in the acting – before I learned they were real-life mother and daughter, I felt the connection between the pair seemed very convincing; a scene where Izzy is slowly learning of her magical heritage was especially good, the young woman closely watching her mother’s actions with a close but clearly affectionate look, imitating what she was doing. It’s a tiny moment in one scene, but it’s moments like that which help sell you on the reality of a character and make you invest emotionally in them.

There are numerous very stylish touches here, many done in a very non-flashy way, being used for creating more atmosphere rather than trying to be showy for the sake of it, which I appreciated. From lashed-together wooden sigils (a nod to Blair Witch and some other notable horrors) to simple but very creepy moments (the mother cutting herself, placing her wounded hand on a piece of wall, for a bloody keyhole to appear with key on the back of her hand to access a secret space) this is filled with well-deployed visual and aural elements to maximise that creepy, disturbing atmosphere the film already draws on just from the location in the Deep, Dark Woods. The mythology here was also quite refreshing, even to an old horror-hound like me, as it didn’t just do the “oh, actually you’re a witch or vampire” type reveal, their family heritage and abilities are more convoluted and unusual. Add in a very interesting take on the coming-of-age story, and a subsequent, slowly-changing family dynamic this causes, and some very creepy, dark moments, and you have a cracking little Indy folk-horror for the dark autumnal evenings.

Hellbender is released by Acorn Media International as a Shudder Original on DVD (including extras such as how the effects were created, behind the scenes, more of the music the characters play) on September 5th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Deliciously disturbing Brit folk-horror in Lip Hook

Lip Hook,
David Hine and Mark Stafford,
SelfMadeHero

Arriving just at the right time of year, as the light retreats in the face of the long, dark, dark nights, Hine and Stafford’s Lip Hook promises a deep, deliciously disturbing read right from the front cover onwards. In fact I sometimes get a vibe on some books, before even starting them, a sixth sense (caused by a papercut by a radioactive book page) that steers me to a book that I just know I am going to love. I’ve learned to trust that instinct over the years, and Lip Hook was radiating that vibe to me before I even started it – once more I was glad I listened to my reading instincts, because it was a delectably creepy and disturbing read, awash in rich symbology, riffing on folklore twisted like a wind-gnarled coastal tree to suit the story’s own particular ends, and with a strong gender element.

Lip Hook revels in that rich tradition of British folk-horror; The Wicker Man and, more recently, Richard Rowntree’s Dogged (reviewed here earlier this year) came to my mind as I read, and in more than a few scenes that creepy short musical riff from Blood on Satan’s Claw would play in my head (horror film fans, you know that piece of music I mean), and classic Pertwee-era Who, The Daemons, also popped into my head several times while reading, and it is no bad thing when a horror tale evokes those predecessors for me.

Vincent and Sophia are on the run, high-tailing it from some unspecified crime, pursued by some group we never see but whose threat drives them to veer off the main road to Lip Hook, one of those small, all but forgotten villages that seems as if it is not only at the edge of the world, but a place caught in its own, little, twisted reality, regardless of the big world outside. Everything here is off – some things only slightly odd, others, increasingly as the narrative unfolds, are frighteningly wrong and twisted, and that feeling of unease grows and swells in the reader’s mind as they are drawn into this isolated village, surrounded by threatening marshes and the omnipresent (and apparently dangerous) fog.

Even the characters are visually disturbing – Vincent reminded me (in the good way) just a little of Marc Hempel’s interesting take on Loki in the Sandman: the Kindly Ones in terms of looks, while our first glimpse of Sophia, headscarf on as she drives, sunglasses like pilot’s goggles, long coat, made me think of a meaner, nastier version of Penelope Pitstop. In fact pretty much all of the characters here have something visually wrong and off-putting about them, including other main players that you actually like, such as local youngsters Falcon and Cal, with others among the locals looking even more unusual and unsettling.

Lip Hook is full of grotesques. It made me think of some of the odd-looking secondary characters Sergio Leone often used in his films, with strange features that he would let the camera dwell on, creating a strange mix of fascination (we can’t look away) and revulsion in the viewer. Here Stafford deploys that device to great effect – it isn’t just the crumbling village or the mist and marsh environment around it that look wrong, even the people do, and it feeds that sense of unease, that something here is simply, deeply, wrong.

In my view good horror requires an effective atmosphere as much as it does a solid, compelling narrative, and Hine and Stafford pay attention to both, allowing them to weave between each other to build a superbly creepy atmosphere; you could almost be in a crumbling old ruin in a Poe tale or wondering what lies round the corner in Innsmouth…. From larger scenes – Sophia being entirely engulfed at one early point by strange butterflies in the mist – to small details – an old portrait on the pub wall depicts a couple in Victorian finery, but closer inspection shows the well-dressed woman wearing a form of Scold’s Bride – Hine and Stafford build that sense of wrongness and unease until you are bursting for some form of release.

It’s just that what Rosie and Margot said to you… it made it sound like men mess everything up.”

Men run things. Things are messed up. Ergo men mess things up. There’s a neat logic to it.”

Traditional and folkloric elements abound, from cricket on the village green (which alters very quickly to something rather less wholesome) to the masks the locals wear to protect from the mists (some recall those horrifying protective masks worn by Plague doctors). The gender element of folklore is especially strong here, from two local women (and lovers) who still practise a feminine form of natural magic (like Wicca a type that celebrates kindness and goodwill and abhors the bad) to legends of a “hag” burned like a Guy Fawkes dummy, a perverted form of an older, female-centric belief system stamped on by previous generations of men in the area (shades of Witchfinder General and others, the men terrified of the thought of empowered women and seeing them as a threat to against their own power, to be contained).

A couple on the run, a strange, isolated, all but forgotten village wreathed in mysterious, dangerous fogs, people who have disappeared, a vile local nobleman who controls the village (or he thinks he does), hidden secrets coming out (literally and metaphorically), astonishingly grotesque characters and locations permeated with an unsettling atmosphere and a narrative that builds extremely satisfyingly towards a climax, pulling you along with it, lost in the mist with the characters and needing that resolution, whatever it may be, good or ill or both. A superbly atmospheric and deliciously disturbing slice of British folk horror. Read by firelight on the long, long nights while you wonder what lies just outside the comforting, warm glow of light from your windows…

Creeping folk horror in Dogged

Dogged,
Directed by Richard Rowntree,
Starring Sam Saunders, Debra Leigh-Taylor, Nadia Lamin, Philip Ridout, Jo Southwell, Aiysha Jebali, Toby Wynn-Davies

Richard Rowntree has being paying his dues in the movie business for years, working on all sorts of productions large and small, crafting some of his own short films, and now his directorial feature debut, Dogged. And it is a rather tasty, creepy slice of British folk horror at that.

Young Sam (Sam Saunders) returns to his home, a small island whose causeway is submerged twice a day at high tide, leaving it isolated. The opening montage of rural and coastal scenes would normally be restful, but Rowntree picks angles and perspectives that right from the start convey an impression of something wrong, something out of kilter, of leaving the regular world behind and entering somewhere that conforms not to society’s wider norms but to its own, secretive rules. Just to reinforce the unwelcoming atmosphere, his father picks him up by the causeway without so much as a “hello”, just a bad-tempered “hurry up, the tide is coming in”, while the signs where causeway meets the island all make clear visitors are not welcome here.

Sam was born and raised on the island, but escaped its cloying, inward-looking small community to go to university. He’s only returned now, reluctantly, to attend the funeral of the young daughter of one of their neighbours, supposedly killed in an accidental fall from the cliffs. Except Sam finds it hard to believe this was an accident, all the local kids know to avoid the cliffs… At the memorial service in the small local church the vicar (a superbly, quietly menacing and creepy Toby Wynn-Davies) gives a sermon which seems more of a veiled warning to the mourners than it is a message of hope or comfort. The padre clearly has some power over his local community, more than just a spiritual leader, and he is less than happy to see Sam return as he knows his daughter is fond of Sam, and this is a man who obviously does not like challenges to his authority.

Rowntree litters Dogged with some inventive camera angles and perspectives that make even a leafy country lane or what should be a comforting house becoming filled with menace, along with other nice little touches (the young couple walking into the local tearoom sees all conversation stop as they are stared at, like a scene from a cowboy saloon in a Western). Figures are glimpsed in the woods, one even knocks Sam from his bike before running off, another is lurking near his gran’s house, and for some reason these young men all run around topless sporting animal head masks. It all builds tension throughout the film – it is clear some in the village are not who they seem, that there are secrets, but what secrets, and are they related to the death of the young girl?

Sam is as far from the pro-active horror hero as you can get, a young man who has been under his strict father’s thumb for so long that although he tries to investigate he is often fairly passive and pushed along by events and other characters, although it is hard not to feel sorry for him – he has escaped what he thought was an overbearing, isolated community, come back briefly and found himself not only drowning in it once more, but being submerged into darker, hidden depths that he hadn’t known were there.

I’m guessing Rowntree didn’t have access to a big budget, but he marshals what resources he has quite effectively. The aforementioned clever use of odd camera angles and perspectives, the expressions on the faces of the locals, the simple sight of half-naked male figures in animal head masks lurking in the woods, all combine to raise the tension steadily, leading to a satisfying final reel. Rural horror often plays on the sense of the small, isolated community, and by having this on an island cut off twice a day Rowntree increases that sense of isolation and difference, as well as adding a feeling of claustrophobia, both generally (across the whole community) and more personally (Sam’s own family) and that “you don’t really belong” sense. I was put in mind numerous times of the original Wicker Man, which I think Rowntree was channeling very well here, offering us a creepy, disturbing slice of Brit horror.

Dogged is out now from Left Films