I must confess that I watched Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb (Dýrið) whilst having a goblet or two of Absinthe, but had I viewed it tea-total, I don’t think it would have been any less strange!! I don’t want to give away too much of the film but the basic premise is that a farming couple, Maria and Ingvar (played by Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) living on a remote sheep-holding in Iceland discover that one of their animals has given birth to a very peculiar offspring. They develop a deep attachment to this progeny and it becomes like a child of their own. This strange scene of domestic bliss is strained by the arrival of Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) the brother of Ingvar and, so it would seem, a previous lover of Maria, (or at the very least someone who would very much like that to be the case). But it transpires that he is not the only visitor to the isolated farm.
Lamb is slow to the point of being glacial. That is not a problem for me as I really like slow-burn movies and here it really suits both the plot and the setting. The desolate beauty of the Icelandic landscape seems to lend itself to atmospheric, introspective drama and the photography in the film is bleakly beautiful.
As with other A24 films that dwell in ‘folk horroresque’ fields, I can see that Lamb may prove to be a ‘Marmite’ movie that would provoke a divisive response between viewers ( I myself am of the camp that loves the current output of Robert Eggers but have little regard for the films of Ari Aster, which are very popular with some; but one person’s poison is another person’s meat.) Regarding Lamb I could see why some viewers would not like it, but I personally thought it was an unusual tale delivered well, with hints of a fairy-tale like narrative to it. It is worth noting though for viewers who have a sensitivity to animal death in film, that there are two animal deaths depicted in the film, one of which, the first has a specific narrative role but the latter is arguably unnecessary but serves as one of the film’s actual few ‘horror’ moments. For the most part Lamb does not play out as a ‘horror’ film as such but as a domestic drama (albeit it a very strange one) but its conclusion returns it firmly into a horror fold.
Antlers (2021), directed by Scott Cooper and based on the short story ‘The Quiet Boy’ by Nick Antosca, has in its promotion highlighted the production role of Guillermo del Toro, to whose films Antlers shares some similarities but shows some differences. Like a number of del Toro’s movies the principal backstory concentrates on children growing up in difficult circumstances, but the delivery here is darker and more desolate than del Toro’s presentations. That for me personally is not a problem, I like bleak movies. Another difference is that even though there is potential there for it, Antlers does not really share del Toro’s sympathy for monsters. Again personally I have no problem with that, but had the film been longer I would have liked to have seen more indication of the character of Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) and his relationship with his children prior to the strange and brutal circumstances that befell them.
Frank Weaver, a single father following the death of his wife, supports his family by brewing and selling Methamphetamine in a town in Oregon that has been beset by social and economic difficulties (actually filmed in beautiful British Columbia). Whilst in an abandoned mine that he uses as a lab, he encounters a very strange and very dangerous creature. His colleague and his son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) are both also attacked, his drug partner being killed outright. Following the assault, Frank and Aiden begin to sicken and grow increasingly feral. Locked into a room, they are cared for by another son Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) who brings food to them, which in the case of the father often consists of roadkill. Dealing with being a young home carer to his father and sibling in the weirdest and direst of circumstances, as well as coping with the grief of losing his mother, has a noticeable effect on the child. He is overly thin and his clothing is threadbare. Small, quiet, insular, poor and unconventional, Lucas is sadly the target of bullying. This concerns his new teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) who has returned to the town where she grew up, sharing her childhood home with her brother Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons) following the death of her father. A victim of childhood abuse herself at the hands of her father (her mother dying whilst Julia and Paul were still children) upon seeing the character and condition of Lucas as well as his grisly drawings, fears that the boy may be a victim of abuse at home. The school principal (Amy Madigan) pops around the child’s home to assess the situation and that is when hell breaks loose.
The delivery of the film situates itself between a slow-burn social realism horror and a more mainstream creature-feature, which doesn’t in this instance for me completely work. The horror SFX are fairly visceral and delivered well enough but they seem somehow a bit out of place. I would have preferred more of the gore and violence to have been implied rather than shown, but the literal nature of the beast in this film is bloody so a proportion of viewers may have felt that to remove this component would dull the film. Again, because of treading two stylistic paths it could perhaps be felt that not enough characterisation was given to certain roles, situations and backstories. The amount of attention given to Julia and Paul’s own childhood trauma and grief feels perhaps underrepresented but film has a limited timescale generally and the time allocated for the overall narrative is enough where Antlers is concerned; if this film were any longer it would be too long. This is not because it is a bad film that I wanted to end as soon as possible, but because the horror aspect of it that dominated the final third played out following familiar tropes in a more conventional horror film manner and in that sense did not offer anything really that has not been seen before.
Because the story is based on the lore of the Wendigo of some Native North American peoples, but has been made by predominantly non-native creators and cast there is the risk of potential exploitation / appropriation and of colonial-hangover misrepresentations of the ‘Other’. Although some viewers / readers may feel generally weary and wary of sociopolitical considerations in film-making and reviews, if as a creative you are inspired to write about and film an aspect of another culture, whether for fiction or documentary purposes, I believe there is a duty of being sensitive, respectful and factually correct. (Personally as an artist who frequently works with the folklore and legends of varied cultures, I don’t believe that non-sacred lore is necessarily off-limits to representation by someone of a different society or ethnicity nor that mythic representation should be racially segregated at all, but I do believe that it is important that appropriate attention is given to the beliefs and considerations of other people and that no exploitation occurs.)
I watched Antlers with my girlfriend Erin, who has Mi’kmaq ancestry and who holds an interest in Wendigo mythology, and I was curious to see what her opinion of the film would be. There is the matter that the main protagonists are all white, with the only First Nation character, Warren Stokes (Graham Greene) seemingly only being there to give exposition to the police and school teacher regarding Wendigo lore upon seeing the child’s drawings and the medicine protection put up in the tunnel meth lab. The main family in this film could have been Native American, but if them alone, a risk there would be a negative representation as the family were socially troubled and the father (though perhaps by necessity to provide for his family) was a criminal. To have all the cast Native American could’ve been a possibility but that would remove the discovery and shock element of the supernatural invading regular life for the Wendigo concept would likely have already been familiar to all concerned. However, due to the relevance of native belief to the film’s core it would have been good to see a stronger First Nation role and presence. Although the Wendigo is a spirit, it is not a sacred figure as such so the film does not demonise a god or religious tenet. The Wendigo myth though is more than just a fireside bogey man story for it represents a Taboo – a forbidden practice – namely that of cannibalism. In times of famine some Native American tribes would hold a ceremony to remind and warn of the prohibition and spiritual danger of anthropophagy.
For Erin, the meteorological setting of the film was brought into question, for winter is seen more as the time of starvation and would have befit the film better. Set at the dirty end of autumn, Jack o’ Lanterns still on display rather than Christmas decorations, there is a chill in the air and damp a plenty, which does certainly add to the bleak atmosphere, but a wintry setting would perhaps represent desperate hunger more. The social realist aspect of the plight of the afflicted family with Lucas’ emaciated condition and desperation to find food for his increasingly ravenous family does symbolically relate to the myth as perhaps does the father’s production of methamphetamine- a drug that can diminish appetite replacing it with a craving addiction and in the cases of prolonged addiction lead to the emaciation of the user as if they were being devoured from inside by a possessing spirit.
The physical appearance of the Wendigo is a debated point. Warren Stokes’ description of it in the film does state that it can take different forms. This applies also according to the old lore. In some cases it humanoid but very wizened and gaunt, in other tales it is seen as a gigantic figure and in others more animal than man. The antlers which give the film its name and one of the strongest individualistic representations of the Wendigo are not always to be found in the older myths. For Erin and many though, the antlers are an integral factor in the form and nature of the Wendigo. Its representation in the film is done well enough and the final transformation from human form into that of the monster is a distinctive element of the movie, though I myself am undecided whther it revealed too much and that less would be more or whether it is needed for the film to make a distinctive stamp on the cinematic genre.
In conclusion, I think I liked Antlers but did not love it. Further viewings may endear it to me more or possibly leave me colder. It promised more than it delivered, that there was something not quite fulfilling about it but perhaps that is the way it should be, like a Wendigo hunger that cannot be satiated and always a craving for more.
In the 21st Century Folk Horror Revival, several names keep coming to the fore, among those are the partnership of British film director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump. Together they have previously brought us the new wave of folk horror gems Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) as well as the tangentially associated Sightseers (2012) – a darkly humourous film that is akin to Mike Leigh’s classic 1976 BBC play Nuts in May but on PCP. In the years between then and now Wheatley and Jump have ventured into the world of the Urban Wyrd with their adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise (2015) as well as working separately on a variety of works.
When rumours began to be whispered around that Wheatley was returning to the old pastures of pastoral terror, the ears of folk horror folk began to prick up. Then the trailer dropped for In The Earth with its flashing psychedelic images, discordant noise, glimpses of folksy woodcut art and a monolith that hearkens back to the cult ‘children’s’ book and TV series of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. The tag line of the trailer invitites us to go on a Trip with Ben Wheatley and why the Hell not? I’m up for that. https://youtu.be/3Lqkfo7IymU
And so it must be assumed that Mr Wheatley may have a fascination for hallucinogenic mushrooms as they play a part in his alchemical civil war drama A Field in England and play a greater role in In the Earth. The premise of the film sees Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) venture out from a state of quarantine imposed upon urban areas due to an unspecified viral pandemic to a research facility in a forest in the south west of England. The shadow of the pandemic is not only cast over the health and safety measures Martin must undertake and the scientific research prevalent in such times but it also manifests in the social awkwardness and behaviour of folks who live in conditions of isolation and distance. Martin as such is a non-typical protagonist, he is not some confident self-assured doctor-come-hero of numerous horror and sci-fi films but a quiet, anxious individual. In seeking out his ex-lover and scientific partner Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who is researching the mycorrhizal (symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants) network beneath the forest which has a higher than normal soil fertility, Martin is assigned the trekking assistance of a woodland ranger named Alma (Ellora Torchia). Before setting off into the woods, seeing a large woodcut artwork upon the wall of the cabin recommissioned as a research base, Alma informs Martin about the local lore and belief in a sylvan spirit named Parnag Fegg.
Whilst camping in the woods, the pair are subjected to a nocturnal attack by an unseen assailant. They are not badly hurt but the attacker has stolen their shoes, making an already precarious journey more troubled still. This is darkened further by Martin tearing the sole of his foot open upon sharp terrain. All is not lost however as a bedraggled man Zach who lives and works as an artist in the woods, approaches them and offers them food, drink, shelter and footwear. he even stitches up Martin’s wound. This rudimentary arboreal operation is one of several scenes where gore and the ‘ouch-factor’ comes into play. As with Kill List, Wheatley and Jump’s ‘Arthurian’ gangster movie (it is much better than that description sounds) violence and injury are graphically depicted in In The Earth. However as may not be totally unexpected there is more to Zach and his art than may first appear.
After a brutal hallucinogenic nightmare unfolds, Martin and Alma against all odds reach the research camp of Dr Olivia Wendle, whom it transpires her study has progressed beyond soil fertility and is also trying to reach the ‘consciousness’ of the mycorhizzal mat – the spirit of the earth. Though she is attempting to invoke an animistic presence through science (utilising sound and light – which significantly shapes the aesthetic of core sections of the movie) rather than art like Zach, her practices are ritualistic and it becomes apparent that her and Zach are perhaps estranged but are not strangers to each other.
Sound and image are very important factors of the film as can be seen from the Art and Sound department’s roll call of talent which reads as a folk horror revivalist / hauntologist’s dream – Richard Well’s woodcuts, Julian House’s credits sequence, camera work & cinematography by Nick Gillespie and musical / soundscape composition by Clint Mansell. One scene that will likely live on in future discussion of Wheatley’s work alongside the culminating ritual of Kill List and the magic mushroom sequence in A Field in England, is the passing of a hazmat suited Alma into a mist of fungal spores. The image of her affixed to a rope is reminiscent of the tent scene in a Field in England and both have a symbolic resonance of an emerging child still attached to the umbilical cord suggesting a birth or rebirth. It must be noted however that any viewer who may experience seizures when exposed to flashing lights or certain sound wavelengths should proceed with great care if at all, for numerous segments of the film are something of a sonic and stroboscopic assault.
But is it all style over substance? Not quite, but I do feel that the film would have benefited from greater input into the writing from Amy Jump (whose role on this film is given as a Producer credit) and /or a longer period of time taken by Wheatley on the plot development (he only spent 15 days on the script-writing). This is particularly pertinent to the ending which could in my mind have been both stronger and stranger. Part of both Kill List and A Field in England’s strength (though it would annoy some viewers) is the ambiguity. Too much yet oddly maybe not enough is revealed with In the Earth. Much of the plot is quite predictable and follows a familiar enough path. It would have been better perhaps to follow wander lines and go further into the abstract and see where the film would end up.
However this is a film made in strange times under different conditions. It will be noted in future as a work that was seeded, grown and bloomed in the days of the Covid19 plague. It offers further reading potential in that area and it has to be said that it does deliver scenes of both weird (and wyrd) beauty as well as brutality. The characteristics and dynamics of the characters are a bit off the beaten track which is interesting however and Shearsmith is particularly sharp casting. The shows The League of Gentlemen and Inside No 9 display his versatility and his role of Zach is the most interesting in the film, though at times the visuals portraying him are suggestive of The Shining’s Jack Torrence escaping into the wild.
In conclusion, I liked In the Earth and with subsequent viewings I feel my appreciation for it could possibly grow more, but I would have liked more in terms of plot development which prevented me from experiencing love at first sight. But certainly it is an intriguing and welcome addition to both Wheatley’s oeuvre and the folk horror canon. I imagine though that it will be a film that divides audiences.
As we move further into the dark as long nights draw in ever closer, we bring to you some movie suggestions that go against the grain somewhat of mainstream horror. Films that burn slow and burn both beautifully and grotesquely like candles made from human tallow. Films that haunt the mind …
In no particular order …
The Wind (2018) –
Directed by Emma Tammi. Written by Tessa Sutherland. Cinematography by Lyn Moncrief
In New Mexico in the late 19th Century, two couples strive to make a life for themselves on the wild frontier. As the story unfolds in a non-linear motion, we see their relationships and lives fall apart as something else stalks the threshold.
The Lighthouse (2019) Directed by Robert Eggers. Written by Robert & Max Eggers. Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke.
The simple tale of a Lighthouse keeper and his new assistant that get marooned on the rock in a raging storm. But even this wild weather is not as tempestuous as their relationship which descends into madness and a Promethean struggle over control of the light. Sirens and seagulls make their presence felt too on that ocean blasted crag. The dialogue in this film is coarsely mellifluous especially as it drips off the tongue in a sterling performance by Willem Dafoe. Robert Pattinson also firmly shakes off his twilight sparkle in the shit and kerosene of this brilliantly bat-shit crazy film.
Marrowbone (2017) Written & Directed by Sergio G. Sánchez. Cinematography by Xavi Giménez.
Set in rural Maine, but actually filmed in Spain, this film does have the feel of Spanish classics such as The Devil’s Backbone and Spirit of the Beehive – the sense of childhood sentimentality with a bitter under-taste of something strange, perhaps sinister. A single mother and her 4 children move from England to start a new life in what seems to be a haunted house but as her health worsens the family find out that their past is more haunting still.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015) Written & Directed by Osgood Perkins. Cinematography by Julie Kirkwood.
This segmented film focuses around three young girls whose lives are fatefully entwined. As the boarding school they attend in upstate New York breaks up for a February vacation, Rose and Kat are left behind with only the company of two nuns. Rose has chosen not to return home as she fears she may be pregnant whilst the younger girl Kat’s parents fail to arrive to pick her up. It is apparent that Kat is a troubled girl, who feels lonely and isolated even when there are more girls around, but as her stay in the school progresses, her behaviour becomes stranger still. Joan, the third girl in the story, is a creature of mystery. We first encounter her as she escapes from a psychiatric hospital and is offered a lift by a man and his wife as she sits in a bus station. The darkness and heaviness of the winter permeates throughout this film invoking a strange sense of tension.
Gwen (2018) Written & Directed by William McGregor Cinematography by Adam Etherington.
During the Industrial Revolution a woman struggles to raise her two daughters and run a farm in the hills of North Wales, whilst her husband is away at war. Their lives turn harder still as they lose their sheep to apparently a blood-thirsty predator and as the local people grow increasingly hostile and shadowy figures in the mist watch the farm. Maxine Peake excels in her role as the hard-bitten mother.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2018) Directed by Stacie Passon. Written by Shirley Jackson. Adapted by Mark Kruger. Cinematography by Piers McGrail.
Adapted from the excellently odd novel by Shirley Jackson, the film adaptation does change some elements but does maintain both the quirkiness of the book and the sense of isolation and ill-treatment that may befall people who are deemed to be outcasts or weird by communities. The Blackwood family are eccentric and insular but the town also fears them due to the matriarch and patriarch of the family having being killed by poisoning, with a finger of blame pointing to the eldest daughter Constance. Her, her younger sister and their confused Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover being cast perfectly in that role) have little contact with the outside world, but one day cousin Charles comes to visit and everything begins to change.
The Other Lamb (2019) Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska. Written by C.S. MCMullen. Cinematography by Michał Englert.
We are introduced to a female commune existing in what seems to be serenity, but then discover that all of the women and girls are the wives and daughters of a cult leader called Shepherd. Among their number a girl Selah comes of age, which the cult regard to be the curse of Eve and a symbol of impurity. Shepherd however begins taking a greater interest in Selah but she is troubled by strange visions. Being forced off the land by the local police, the group seek their ‘new Eden’ across the wilderness. The use of colour in this film is aesthetically and symbolically stunning, yet it serves also to unsettle us as we feel the undercurrent slowly rising beneath what initially seems to be a peaceful, bucolic idyll.
Possum (2018) Written and Directed by Matthew Holness. Cinematography by Kit Fraser
Possum is a little different from the other films on this list as Possum is a little different from most things. It has a dank damp dark aesthetic with its scrubby nature, edge-land settings and rundown town house interiors. Following some manner of disgrace, a puppeteer named Phillip is forced to return to his childhood home and the company of his unpleasant uncle (played creepily well by Alun Armstrong). When a child goes missing, Phillip finds himself a suspect but his mind is also troubled by a grotesque puppet that he cannot get rid of, but that is not all that haunts him. Adding to the grey cloud of possum is a delightfully dark hauntological score by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015) Written & Directed by Robert Eggers. Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke.
Quite possibly the most familiar title on this list to folk horror revivalists, but even if seen before, always worth a re-watch; though there are those who are not beguiled by its wild charms, I must say it worked its magic on me. A family in New England struggle to survive far away from their Yorkshire home and banished by their brethren community for the father’s religious pride. Their misfortune begins when their youngest born, the baby Samuel is spirited away right from under the elder daughter Thomasin’s nose. On top of tragedy more misfortune falls – their crops are blighted, the nanny goat yields bloodied milk and the eldest son Caleb disappears only to return in a wretched, bewitched condition. Their suspicions turn to witchcraft but could the maleficence spring from a source closer to home?