Sam (Sam Saunders), a callow student, returns from uni to spend a few days on Farthing Island, the remote community where he grew up, to attend the funeral of a young girl who died in mysterious circumstances no one wants to talk about – least of all his stern, seething father (Philip Ridout). Farthing Island is home to a small village dominated by its priest, David (Toby Wynn-Davies), but also a small hippie commune (we only see two hippies) and a shambling down-and-out who sometimes gabbles exposition. Sam gets back together with Rachel (Alysha Jebali), David’s daughter, against the wishes of both parents … and a double standard is plainly in view as the young people’s consensual relationship is disapproved of more than voyeurism, rape, murder, heart-ripping and the like, as perpetrated by the priest’s creepy son (Nick Stopien) and various folk who lurk in the woods or around the inevitable standing stones in animal masks with symbols daubed on bare chests.
Directed by Richard Rowntree – who co-scripted with Matthew Davies and Christina Rowntree, expanding a short film – Dogged is an essay in the folk horror sub-genre, a tradition that has only recently been pinned down and named … indeed, it ticks off a complete shopping list of the tropes, themes and images found in The Wicker Man, Robin Redbreast, Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Witches and the like. It may even be the first film to use the term ‘folk horror’ in its own publicity. What it doesn’t do is make a lot of sense – there’s a clumsiness about establishing who all the characters are and how they relate to each other, quite a lot of the plot depends on people either knowing or not knowing things for no rhyme or reason, and — despite a leisurely running time of nearly two hours — key characters (a ‘Nan’ whose house is visited after a Red Riding Hood-style bike trek through the woods but who isn’t there and who’s fate is never really specified) and even events never show up onscreen. The funeral the protagonist has come home for never takes place, and the whole climax occurs while he’s too traumatised to pay attention – we get close-ups of his agonised face and hear violence in an attempt either at subtlety or keeping the budget down which cheats us of resolution to several plots, information about whether or not major characters are killed, and a quite interesting late-in-the-day conflict between two different factions of the cult – the menfolk who blindly follow their horribly unreasonable leader and the witchy wives who finally seem to get fed up with staying home while their children are dragged to the sacrifice stone.
An inevitably downbeat coda is effective, but as unbelievable – on a sheer sense of people acting in ways that make no character sense, even in a fantastical context – as everything else. Sam is a passive dimwit of a lead, necessarily naïve even about things he’s lived his whole life with, and most of the other characters are one-note, glowering goons. Wynn-Davies and Ridout play nasty pieces of work, but without nuance – David seems to run the village through sheer force of will, without charisma or charm. Despite showing Pagans to be truly horrible people, The Wicker Man at least acknowledges the sensual side of the cruel old religion – Dogged offers a simply vicious, cold, hypocritical-Puritan cult, but for plot purposes rather than in an attempt to do something different. The economy, social system and agriculture of the island is also out of whack – the villagers live in luxurious (and presumably pricey) homes and complain (in a credible touch) about ‘bloody hippies’ at every opportunity, but only the commune seem to do any actual work in the fields. Awkwardly written, haphazardly acted and oddly paced, it still has a certain queasy, interesting look – lots of ominous fields and dark woods, haunted by figures in those slightly overfamiliar felt animal head masks (the big bad is a badger) – and flashes of strange dark British magic.