In Hex, director George Popov – who also co-writes with Jonathan Russell – obliquely tackled one of the central planks of the British folk horror canon, riffing on Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General, but also taking on aspects of Hell in the Pacific, A Field in England and The Witch. Here, the team moves on to The Wicker Man, with elements of Dead Man’s Shoes and The Kill List – but also, as before, reassembling the parts in a fresh, distinctive (if obviously low-budget) way. Shot in Cumbria, with stunning location work, this is set around a town whose local festival supposedly gets out of hand as ‘nutters in squirrel masks’ run riot, with dark mutterings about a local legend involving a merchant who lurks in the vicinity not interested in trading for cattle but more spiritual, human commodities. But, as in Hex, we the familiar genre elements are almost a feint, as the straight-ahead plot eventually requires that we look harder at the protagonist, who embodies a modern set of horrors that eventually seek out an ancient evil which proves welcoming for his violent urges.
Martin (Daniel Oldroyd), a deceptively mild-mannered but intense soldier, investigates the disappearance of his sister Meg (Amy Tyger) during the last Droving, quizzing her hill-hiking friend Tess (Suzie Frances Garton) for clues, turning the tables on some animal-masked rural menaces and a voluble hermit (Jonathan Lawrence Risdon), eventually revealing that he is so good at tracking down a possible cult conspiracy because his day job is as an army interrogator … though things are then complicated even further by flashbacks which show, in a credibly excruciating Christmas dinner, he was never able to turn off his matey-threatening-vicious questioning technique even around loved ones, and thus has his own responsibility for putting Meg in a situation from which it was too easy to disappear. Oldroyd, returning from Hex, is an interesting presence, and manages here to be professionally deceptive – Martin fools us as well as himself, and all the people who underestimate him along his quest, but his willingness to sacrifice others is as much a tragic weakness as a ruthless tactic for revenge … and the home stretch of the story, which turns back on the protagonist, finds him pitted against two possible doppelgangers, another grieving searcher who is willing to do terrible things (Bobby Robertson), and a plausible, tweedy modern incarnation of an ancient deal-maker (Alexander King).
For the most part, it’s a spare, minimally-populated film – a few characters seen against stark landscapes – and lulls you into suspecting that we’ll never actually get to see the Droving itself, but the climax suddenly plunges Martin into crowds, confusion, large-scale local rituals and traditions and literal fireworks (with a matching shift to hand-held edginess after more classical cinematography) before we drift away from main street to a ruin and back to a more intimate, uncomfortable finish. I was impressed with Hex, and I’m even more taken with The Droving – Popov and Russell know that it’s not enough to riff on other films for nostalgia value. The fact that folk horror is at risk of being swallowed by cosy nostalgia is one of the more hideous ironies of current horror fan culture – and this gets away from that, into the dark, cold, chilling, primal nastiness that made the sub-genre connect in the first place. Logically, this team should look to play variations on Blood on Satan’s Claw for their next project.