I have an odd, personal connection to Ben Steiner’s folk horror movie – it was partly shot in Sutton Mallet, a village very close to Aller (where I grew up) in Somerset and which features in my novels The Quorum, Life’s Lottery and An English Ghost Story as a mythologised, significant location of eerie liminality … the reason for this is more or less described in The Quorum, where it’s a place you only get to by accident. I responded to this obviously, but also note how non-specific city and village in this story are – no one has a West Country accent and witchy mother Celia is played by Kate Dickie with her usual Scots snarl/purr while protagonist Laura is Jemima Rooper’s off-posh norm. Both actresses are excellent, showing a relationship which went off the rails long ago but still defaults to recognisable, almost-funny family bickering and fussiness (Laura still refers to the piano she was made to practice on as ‘the rack’) even as black slime is seeping out of wounds, the villagers are all in a Lovecraftian cult and the real matriarch is locked up in a greenhouse in the garden.
Ad exec Laura, mothered by a tolerant boss (Franc Ashman), is brittle, given to lesbian hook-ups that betoken desperation and overdoes drink and drugs at home. She dies of an overdose, but a pool of that black slime flows through her mouth and brings her back to life – whereupon she returns to Celia’s village and old irritations fester, like the nasty neighbour who still resents her for pilfering fudge as a child, while Celia has some desperate plans afoot that might involve braining her daughter with a flowerpot … and the church has been taken over for a pagan sex/slime rite, though Laura is still more amused than shocked to discover her mother’s frank sex diary.
Steiner embroiders details nicely – the little paper tributes hung on trees as thanks for blessings, the mix of reverence and resentment Celia’s congregation feel for a priestess who has preserved their lives but got them hooked on black milk – but doesn’t demystify the giant female worm-mouth monster/deity/alien/whatever (Anna Frost is credited so must have played some of it), so that even getting a good look at the thing doesn’t take too much away from it. Intense and gloomy – Rooper and Dickie, both performers who can be very funny, have to play it dead straight – it’s a tangle of big cosmic horror and dysfunctional family themes. Some of it goes for extremes – a vision of a mother eating a baby comes early on, symbolic of the plot to come, though the slime orgy is drabber, less all-out and wild than the one in Society – and the downbeat themes are so present that it has to give contact details for a helpline in the end credits.