There is a fantastic trailer that arrived online this week for upcoming horror film The Witch, a period set tale of witchcraft in the new world that appears to mix Arthur Miller-esque period dialogue with Blair Witch style thrills. It’s drawn comparisons in some quarters to Michael Reeve’s classic Witchfinder General (1968) despite sharing little more than a period setting and the word ‘witch’ in the title. The trailer reminded me much more of Piers Haggard’s still disturbing seventies horror film Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) (seeing Betty from Some Mothers Do Have Em participate in an orgy mentally scarred me when I saw it on ITV as a kid), and even more of Ben Wheatley’s 2013 psychedelic mood horror piece A Field in England.
So for no other reason than that, here is a look back at Wheatley’s excellent but devisive film.
During the English Civil War, as a battle rages on the other side of a hedge, alchemist’s assistant Whitehead (Shearsmith) flees musket fire and cannonballs. Barely escaping with his life he joins a small group of fellow deserters heading for the pub. Over the following 90 minutes they fail to get there as they fall under the malign influence of O’Neill (Michael Smiley), a man Whitehead has been tasked with apprehending for stealing from his master. O’Neill is obsessed with a quest to find some buried treasure in under the long grass and turf and believes Whitehead has the key. Under the influence of a psychotropic mushroom stew and possibly supernatural forces the group becomes mired in an existential and psychic labyrinth that looks to the untrained eye like a simple fallow field.
A plot synopsis can’t really do justice to Ben Wheatley’s film, this is not a movie that is concerned with a strong narrative, it is far more about creating a mood. Only tangentially a horror film it creates an oppressive, claustrophobic and intense atmosphere without worrying about a logical framework to hang it upon. Some of the films most distressing and frightening images are difficult to rationalise. Being chased in the dark by a knife wielding maniac is an obvious fear, but why is Reece Shearsmith emerging from a tent with a crazy grin on his face so terrifying? It’s not something I can easily explain; it’s the surreal, primal imagery of a nightmare.
In a bold move this blatantly psychedelic film is filmed in black and white. The excellent cinematography of regular collaborator Laurie Rose is key, his striking high contrast images combined with James William’s music and editing by Wheatley and Amy Jump (also screenwriter) create a vivid atmosphere that becomes literally mesmerising during an extended drug induced freak out that cuts repetitious images together at such speed they combine create a hallucinatory third image (watch this in the dark with the sound turned up for the full sensory experience).
Despite the looseness of the film’s premise, the performances from the small cast are extremely committed. I will admit to initial misgivings about the presence of Reece Shearsmith, not because I think he’s a poor actor, far from it, but like most of you I’m familiar with his caricatured performances in the TV comedies The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville. In fact, he is brilliant in this, almost unrecognisable in fact. He plays Whitehead as a snivelling and insecure coward who loses himself and discovers a core of steel he never knew existed. Ryan Pope is scarily intense as O’Neill’s violent henchman. Peter Ferdinado (who played the lead in low budget serial killer film Tony) and Richard Glover (the new age hippy icyclist in Wheatley’s Sightseers) make an appealing double act as a pair of salt of the earth soldiers. Glover in particular sings a haunting folk song that assumes great significance in the film. Michael Smiley is simply demonic as O’Neill. Often a comic actor (a Wheatley favourite, he will always be Tyres O’Flaherty from the Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson nee Hynes sitcom Spaced to me) Smiley can really turn on the menace when he wants to (as in his appearance in series one of the BBC’s Ripper Street) and he really brings it here. The only misstep is in the casting of the rather too recognisable Julian Barratt of Mighty Boosh fame in a minor role.
Made on a very small budget and a tight shooting schedule, this film continues director Wheatley’s very English series of dark dramas although it dials down the comedy that has characterised his previous three features (even his violent horror film Kill List contained significant humour). The very creepy Japanese horror film Onibaba (1964) is referenced by Wheatley in the blu-ray extras, anyone who has seen that film will see obvious parallels in terms of imagery. A lot of people wish to link this film to Michael Reeve’s classic Witchfinder General (1968), but apart from the period setting there is little in common. A Field in England owes more to a very British tradition of folk horror that includes The Wicker Man (1973). I saw something of the experimental films of Kenneth Anger in there as well, especially in the palpable evocation of the supernatural and the psychedelic. For my money this is a much more successful attempt to make a psychedelic horror picture than Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, although fans of that movie may also enjoy this.
Obviously, this is not a film for everyone. There is no three act structure here. There is no obvious explanation for events, and the impatient viewer may find it boring. However, if you are open to the more unusual and esoteric corners of cinema (think of names like Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, Andrezj Zulaski and Stan Brakhage) then this is well worth your attention.