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Review: Dogged – “Delightfully disturbing”

We’ve had plenty of rural horror over the year, but there is a less frequently visited sub-genre of the rural horror, the folk horror, and it’s an area Brit horror has crafted into some delightfully disturbing films, and with this Indy British offering, that’s exactly what Richard Rowntree does.

Right from the beginning as we follow young Sam (Sam Saunders), reluctantly returning to his island home for the funeral of a neighbour’s young daughter, Rowntree starts to build a feeling of unease, of things just not being right. Even pleasant rural then coastal scenes are not restful to the eye, they are shot in such a way as to build that feeling of wrongness, of leaving the regular world with its clear rules behind, entering a small community which does things its own way. The rising tide cuts off the island’s causeway twice a day, making this small rural community even more isolated than most, and the warning signs by the road make it clear that outsiders are not welcome. This is not an island looking for the tourist dollar…

Sam is not happy about being back after escaping the stifling island home for university, but it feels even more suffocating than before, and not just because of the death of a young girl (a supposed accident, a fall from the cliffs, the cliffs Sam comments all the local kids know not to go near). His overbearing father doesn’t even welcome him when he picks him up, just bad-temperedly shouts at him to hurry up before the tide turns, and it is soon clear he has spent much of his life under his strict father’s thumb, but it seems in turn his father and the others in the village, especially the men, are somehow in the power of the local vicar, played with an excellent, quietly disturbing and creepy manner by Toby Wynn-Davies, who even at the memorial service offers a sermon which is far more disturbing, unsettling and threatening than the simple message of Christian comfort one would expect in such a situation. Clearly, this is a man whose voice carries weight in the village and he is not used to anyone questioning his authority. And he’s not overly happy to see Sam back, especially as his daughter has romantic links to Sam.

Was the young girl’s death an accident, or something more sinister. What hold does the vicar have over the villagers? Who are the strange figures, half-naked men with animal mask heads, glimpsed in the woods? Sam finds his old home seems to hold older and darker mysteries that he wasn’t aware of before, and even though he is a native he now feels like an outsider, and an unwelcome one, with Rowntree playing out this fear and claustrophobia both on the community level and the personal level within the family home. Sam himself, after years under his overbearing father’s thumb, feels like a fairly passive character, less a hero investigating the mystery than someone reluctantly pushed along by the events and other characters. The wee indie budget seems no bar here as Rowntree makes maximum use of what he has – the odd angles glimpsed through trees, the unspoken silences between the characters – building a sense of wrongness, of a rotten core hidden inside the dark heart of this small island community, and it does so in a way which puts me in mind of classic British folk horror like Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, choosing brooding atmosphere over sudden jump scares.

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