Though curiously lacking a DVD presentation until being picked up recently by Monster Pictures, 2009’s micro-budget indie feature “The Fallow Field” is perhaps the most convincing evidence yet of a recent rebirth of interest among young filmmakers in the classic, atmospheric British horror movie of old, a process which began with the revived Hammer’s partially successful “Wake Wood” in 2011 and which has successfully been nurtured since then by several up-and-coming British horror directors. This particular film is the directorial debut of writer Leigh Dovey, and it represents something of a modern take on the British folk horror tradition of the 1970s, usually routinely associated with classics of the genre such as “Blood on Satan’s Claw” and “The Wicker Man”. Elements of an ancient pagan past that’s tied to the cyclical nature of the seasons and the rhythms of the English countryside are evoked here through a combination of distinctive, sympathetically photographed rural settings and subtle hints in the screenplay of a supernatural undertow to what initially seems like a thoroughly grounded, down-to-earth mystery tale. Not afraid to take its time and to develop the unsettling and ever-shifting relationship between its two main characters, bound to each other as they are by an inscrutable, mysterious English landscape (which becomes as much a protagonist in the action as leads Steve Garry and Michael Dacre), the film manages to be at once a dark twist-laden thriller that proffers an unusual take on current serial killer/torture porn horror tropes, and a very English home counties take on the ‘70s backwoods horror tradition exemplified in films such as “The Texas Chain saw Massacre” and “Deliverance” and which perhaps has a little of Pete Walker’s domestic macabre about it as well -- although the DVD blurb comes up with a ‘“Memento” meets “Wolf Creek”’ sell line. Mainly though, the fact that the film is worth bothering with at all comes down to the originality behind the central conceit (which has to remain a mystery for fear of spoiling the slow reveal on which the plot depends for its full effect) that allows all these genre interests to be brought together under one heading.
What Dovey does do particularly well, to the accompaniment of composer Rob Lord’s beautifully evocative title theme -- which incorporates traditional hurdy gurdy as part of its instrumentation -- is to establish an intriguing mystery in the opening minutes while also precisely pitching the tone of the piece with a montage of images that reveal a disorientated young man (Steve Garry) waking up outdoors in the early morning and in the middle of a remote piece of moorland -- ground mist at dawn creeping across bucolic vistas as the sun rises across the hilly horizon -- with no memory of how he got to be there. HhhHe returns to his house on a prosaic street full of rows of hemmed-in suburban terraced houses, where we learn that these black outs are a common occurrence and that Matt (for that is his name) has gone missing in the same way on many previous occasions; so many times indeed, that his wife (Anna Ruben), believing he’s simply having an affair and therefore being no longer even willing to communicate with him, has had enough, and is planning on moving out for good.
In fact … Matt is having an affair -- with a woman called Ann (Sarah Pemberton), but this relationship is as much on the rocks as his marriage. Although he has no idea what happens to him during these frequent blackouts, Matt does experience flashbacks to something violent and awful during his nightmares, along with a feeling of déjà vu whenever visiting certain areas of the surrounding countryside. He sets out to explore these sensations and finds his own abandoned car in a deserted lane near a secluded farm. Drawn to the complex of outhouses near a picturesque cottage on the farm site, Matt runs into the vaguely sinister figure of farmer Calham (Michael Dacre), who appears simultaneously both extremely antisocial and unwelcoming yet also unwilling to let him leave alone, even insisting that Matt come into the farmhouse kitchen while he has his tea! Something extremely unexpected happens during their conversation over the kitchen table while potatoes boil in the pan, which takes the film from the realm of being simply a two-hander, featuring Pinteresque dialogue with a malevolent edge to it, into becoming a menacing, dark occult mystery, in which the motives for Calham’s subsequent actions are only gradually revealed.
To say too much more about the plot would necessarily involve far too many spoilers in a tale which relies on incrementally doling out information and only gradually revealing the nature of the grand concept that ties everything together and explains both Matt’s amnesia and the isolated farmer’s propensity for abducting innocent motorists and doing bad things to them in his tool shed by lamp-light. Suffice to say it involves regulation uniform boiler suits, a child’s homemade hanging mobile, something misshapen and odd that’s kept chained up in the dark in one of the outhouses, a field in which the birds never sing and which is apparently fit only to be used for ‘cemetery soil’, and burial by moonlight …
The budget was clearly extremely limited on this effort, and although cameraman Nick Kindon frequently finds some lovely shots in the Surrey countryside locations, the film can’t help but look extremely cheaply shot. Nevertheless, the originality of the premise and Dovey’s taut direction, which keeps the narrative evolving and the viewer constantly guessing at where it all might be going, is enough to ensure that the film always retains one’s attention. Having the structure of the plot echo the cyclical rhythms of the natural processes at the heart of the film’s main concept is a nice touch, suggesting the ebb and flow of the personalities of the two central characters are somehow occultly regulated by the earth mystery at the heart of Dovey’s weird tale. The music of Rob Lord is supplemented by a more conventional but equally effective incidental score from Adam Ford, who supplies eerie drones and atmospheric synth ambience as beneficial augmentation to Lord’s more traditionally based musical offerings. Producer Colin Arnold also successfully doubles up as film editor, creating some authentic jump shock moments and ratcheting up the tension nicely during several key sequences, not least the early farmhouse kitchen table scene mentioned earlier. The dialogue was sometimes just a little too clunky for my taste and could have done with a little finessing, although the small but very able cast handle their roles superbly well. For the most part the film is built around just Garry and Dacre, playing off each other in a variety of tense face to face situations during which the power dynamic constantly shifts between the two; but towards the end of the film Natalie Overs and Johnny Vivash are brought into this strange, uncanny world as well, playing two motorists who get waylaid by an encounter they might prefer to forget … assuming they manage to make it out alive.
“The Fallow Field” comes to DVD in the UK from Monster Pictures and features an audio commentary by writer-director Leigh Dovey and producer and editor Colin Arnold in which the two talk about how the project came about, how it evolved from an even bleaker idea in Dovey’s original screenplay and the rigours of low budget film-making, which in this case involved the crew having to camp in the Surrey countryside for the duration of the six week shoot! A trailer and a slide-show of behind-the-scenes production stills are both included, and a 15 minute ‘making of’ featurette covers most of the ground mentioned during the commentary but also includes lots of behind the scenes video footage to accompany it.
“The Fallow Field” is an original and engaging first time effort which largely overcomes the limits of its minuscule budget to produce a clever update of classic British horror cinema that still feels rooted in contemporary thriller traditions as well. It’s well worth seeking out.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!