A thematic – and perhaps actual – sequel to A Field in England, this Ben Wheatley joint (he wrote and directed) was put together during the early stages of the pandemic. The crisis features in the opening section (indicating that the film is set a little in the future, with several more waves of doom having crashed over the country), then gets left behind as we walk through the woods leads to a more primal, Nigel Kneale-type haunted/folk horror stretch of the countryside. The dominant image, as expected, is a standing stone with peculiar features.
City-dwelling scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a SSI site in England, searching for a colleague, Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has been performing research deep in the forest. He sets out on foot to reach her camp, accompanied by slightly high-handed ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), who might be near the end of her patience with the boffins who have taken over what used to be a tourist centre. Local legend has it that the wood is haunted by a particular bogeyman (Parnag Fegg), and eventually all the characters fall under its influence – though it might be a portal or a phenomenon rather than an entity. We check off swirling literary (H.P. Lovecraft, Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock) as well as film/TV (Kneale, John Carpenter, Stalker) influences while Wheatley does his own thing, especially when hallucinogenic fungus (related perhaps to the ringworm infections that all the characters have had recently) spumes mists of spores into the atmosphere.
In the woods, Lowery and Wendle find a few dead people and other ominous signs that many, many things are amiss … then run into Zach (Reece Shearsmith), Wendle’s ex-husband, who disagrees with her scientific method of trying to contact Parnag Fegg with electronic tonalities (Clint Mansell’s more-than-just-music-score contribution is outstanding) and is relying on ritual, storytelling and blood sacrifice. Zach is soft-spoken, reasonable and whips up mushroom soup – then reveals that his kindness is a deliberate tactic adopted all the better to be hideously cruel. A spell at Zach’s camp leads inevitably to tied-to-a-chair-and-tortured business, though effects artist Dan Martin’s signature touch is mostly seen in a foot wound Martin sustains after – in a diabolical touch – Zach has taken away the intruders’ shoes and made them walk barefoot. |Especially cringe-inducing DIY surgery involves sewing up the wound and then (in a Misery-like sequence Shearsmith plays for cruel comedy) chopping off toes with an axe.
Zach functions like Colonel Kilgore in the film, for Alma and Martin escape him – he’s still just one middle-aged humanities bloke, not a masterfiend who knows how to tie people up properly – and enter the domain of the Kurtz-like Wendle, who might have set this whole thing up. Squires is splendid as the obsessed scientist, not going the full-on rant but with tiny tics that give away how deep into the dark she’s ventured. Martin’s genuine kindness is taken by others as a weakness, qualifying him to be sacrificed by science or sorcery to bring about some sort of transcendence that, in typical Wheatley manner, goes beyond any rational plotting. Like A Field in England, it’s liable to frustrate those who want a straighter horror tale, but it has more of the darkly humorous touch of Kill List and Sightseers. The unusual production circumstances, which might well lead to a general tone observable in many 2020/2021 films, also make for a disorienting, faintly discernible wrongness that boils over in a climactic son et lumiere assault on the senses.