Saturday 8 July 2017

We Don't Go Back, an appendix: Dogged (2017)

It's only in the last few years that folk horror has been a thing. Hell, it was only last year maybe that I even realised that the sort of film and TV I enjoyed the most even had a name, and that there was this vibrant community dedicated to its aesthetic.

The biggest nexus of that has to be Folk Horror Revival, which, as I've written before, has been a tremendous support to me in the writing of this blog.

More than half of my readers come from there, and the We Don't Go Back Kickstarter wouldn't have gotten to its goal nearly so swiftly if it weren't for the enthusiastic support of members and admins of that group. Basically, I'm going to owe much of my next month's livelihood to Folk Horror Revival, so here's a reminder that this year FHR will be running events in Edinburgh and Whitby (you can still buy tickets for the Whitby event here) and that Wyrd Harvest Press has published several books, all the profits of which go to wildlife charities.

The DIY ethic of small presses and blogs extends to record labels and bands (here is where I mention that Zeuk's first album, which is probably my favourite, is available on Bandcamp now). But the aesthetic of folk horror began with film and revived itself with film, and it's no surprise that, in an age of streaming video and crowdfunded movies, that grass roots movement has expressed itself in film (I'm even involved in the making of a short, but more on that as we go on).

And there are loads of them out there, testament to enthusiasm and a hands on attitude to to creativity. And I'll be honest, attempting to write about even a fraction of them would eat this project alive, and also, let's be brutally honest, not everything that's homemade is good.

Shortly after launching my Kickstarter, independent filmmaker Richard Rowntree approached me and asked me if I wanted to see his recently crowdfunded film Dogged. It had funded long before I'd found the community, and had flown right under my radar at the time, and then he backed We Don't Go Back on Kickstarter, so I said, of course I would.

Richard actually works in the film industry, and he'd managed to raise about fifteen grand for his own project. Of course fifteen grand is one of those sums that's a lot of money for most people and an infinitesimally small amount of money with which to make a feature film.

And the fact is that talent only gets you so far. With the number of moving parts that a feature film inevitably has, your budget will show, and as Mark Kermode said some years ago, if a big budget feature is bad, it's bad in spite of its budget, not because of it, and if a zero budget film is good, it's good in spite of its small budget, not because of it.

It's harder to make an expensive-looking cheap film than it is a cheap-looking expensive film. With a shoestring movie you're going to have to compromise on acting talent, effects, even the medium you shoot on. And that's horrible, because it means that cheap movies are more or less doomed from the outset. Yes, occasionally something that cost peanuts will enter the public consciousness (£45 zombie movie Colin springs to mind here, and of course The Blair Witch Project, which was made for $60,000 nearly twenty years ago, and accounting for inflation, that's a lot more expensive than Dogged) but vast, vast numbers of these films get made and vanish, and sometimes they're just films that fail to escape the gravity of their budgets.

So I was a little afraid to watch Dogged, because there was that looming fear in the back of my mind that it might be terrible, and that I would have to try to find something kind to say about it, and I'd begun to think about how to honestly phrase that. I was afraid it would be a bad film, and that saying that would be like kicking a puppy (also, there was the whole "wait, why are you asking me?" thing).

Dogged is not, I think, a bad film. I enjoyed it.

My relief was a tangible thing, I can tell you.

I'll try not to spoil the film as much as I usually do, because I would like you to go and see it, if you have the chance. But at the same time I feel I need to give you some detail, because I want to give this film a fair shake.

Sam (Sam Saunders), a university student, returns to his family home on Farthing Island, a tiny community somewhere off the South Coast of England, for the funeral of a girl he knew; she fell off a cliff, everyone says. He thinks that's weird, but the community closes ranks. Sam becomes aware that something terrible is going on, and that the vicar (Toby Wynn-Davies), whose daughter Rachel (Aiysha Jebali) he's been seeing since they were in school together, behind the man's back, is at the centre of it.

Saunders carries the film. Although young, he sells his part well, and that's a boon because having your best actor as your protagonist does much of the work of making a film watchable. While little of his life is explicitly sketched out, there's a nice, deft bit of detailing in the way that his bedroom still has a Star Wars poster in it, which frames his somewhat strained relationship with his parents nicely. The room hasn't grown up with him, because he's left this home behind, and his parents haven't quite come to terms with that.

And actually, that's another point in the film's favour. Too many low budget horror films compensate for an inability to stretch to showing things by having really didactic, obvious dialogue, but for the most part, Dogged tries to show you things rather than tell you. It trusts you to be clever and to follow. There are times when things that could be really bad actually turn out to be signifiers of something that makes sense. So early on in the film, we see the vicar in his pulpit, and right from the start you think, "Ouch, that is the most insensitive vicar I have ever seen," and then a few minutes later it becomes apparent that he really is supposed to be that terrible, and that's there's something very wrong with him. The film takes risks, as if to say to you, "Go with me on this," and for the most part it doesn't disappoint. 

Although its two hours didn't drag, Dogged could be shorter. There's a plot thread around the middle of the film that doesn't go anywhere terribly productive, and inspires the protagonist to act in a way that doesn't make much sense in order to keep the plot going. In the final act the film breaks its promise to itself not to do too much telling, and there are a couple of infodumpy bits given to actors who aren't as good as Saunders. The vicar is a bit Wagneresque, and the lines that are supposed to be vicarish aren't terribly convincing (but then, Christian jargon is really hard to do convincingly). Some of the background players aren't a patch on the principals. One particular effects shot is obviously cheap. 

And all this seems a bit harsh, but it's important that I say this stuff, because I am not being kind to this film because it's an underdog. If this film is going to be shown at festivals, it's going to be seen by people who don't necessarily know it cost the price of a couple of lorries full of crisps. And I genuinely like it. I do. I enjoyed it, because it's an intelligent film that wants to give you something to think about. 

The thing I like best about Dogged, the reason I'm recommending it, is that it it does something with the inevitable Pagan Village Conspiracy that's interesting and nuanced. In Dogged, while the beliefs of the cult group don't make any more sense than most Pagan Village Conspiracies in film, Rowntree makes a virtue of thinking about how a thing like this would work in an actual isolated community. He takes the very sensible step of showing (again, not telling) you how different people in the community (and even in the conspiracy) have varying relationships with what is going on, and the ending and coda, which are wonderfully grotesque, frame that beautifully, without really telling you in words.

I keep finding myself comparing Dogged to The Wicker Tree, which is very like Dogged in a number of ways, and yet which, despite being made for just under eight million pounds, is worse than Dogged in practically every respect (and in fact, just to say "Dogged is better than The Wicker Tree" is damning horribly with faint praise, and that's not what I want to do). Dogged has a well-played protagonist, a plot that (apart from that one bit in the middle) holds together, and most of all, it has an ambition to succeed artistically. Rowntree really wants to make a good film, but, crucially, he knows what a good film looks like, and he deploys his peanuts budget in the absolute best way he can. It's like he's at a target range with a supply of half a dozen bullets, three arrows and a peashooter, and he's keeping the bullets for the highest scoring targets. Let's buy some decent actors and put them where it counts, let's make the camerawork as interesting as we can, let's do our best to make the story tell itself.

There's enough here to make it worth keeping. I liked it. I liked the protagonist. I liked the direction the film took, and I felt the ending was satisfying and disturbing. I liked it, and I want to see Richard's next film.

Follow Dogged (and  maybe track down a screening) here.

Yes, with all this talk about Kickstarters, of course I was inevitably going to mention that the Kickstarter for the book version of this project is still funding. It made its goal a few days ago and it's motoring along nicely.

Back it! It's a sure thing. I'll be very grateful.