In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week we look at British Cult Film icon, Ben Wheatley, and his avant-garde folk horror, A Field In England.
A Field In England is a potent cocktail, and a simultaneously understated but beguiling title, and those traits could pretty well adequately describe the movie. Ben Wheatley has been one of my favourite directors for a long time. Only losing my top spot for favourite director when he put out his worst film, Rebecca, in such close proximity to my new favourite director, Kelly Reichardt putting out maybe her best film in First Cow. In fact Rebecca was one in a long line of absolute stinking reviews, of which I’m very proud, for this very site. Part of why Rebecca was such a gruelling disappointment is that in returning to horror by remaking a horror classic, what Wheatley ended up making was something bland and boring, whereas the horror films that marked Wheatley out as such an exciting prospect were exciting due to the fact that were unruly and ill tempered and experimental and bold and didn’t really give a shit what you thought about them, whereas with Rebecca it seemed like it was breaking its own back bending over backwards to look like a perfectly well behaved BBC made for TV Agatha Christie adaptation. Anyway, it’s all water under the bridge between Ben & I, not that I know Ben personally, but still.
A Field In England starts in the mud with prayers. Reece Shearsmith plays an alchemist called Whitehead who is feeling an English Civil War battle. His pursuer is a cameo from British TV Comedy staple Julian Barratt before he receives a pike to the chest in a brilliant bit of shock. Whitehead is in a pursuit of his own though, his master has had his books stolen by another rogue alchemist who Whitehead has been tasked with tracking down. He runs into a raging alcoholic and his idiot friend who are promised an alehouse where the cavalier drunkard and roundhead alchemist can sort out their differences, but this is upon receipt of a favour in which a strange ritual of pulling rope is completed, the ritual pulls them into a fairy ring of mushrooms and then things get… strange. I lose track of how many times while writing these pieces that’s all I can say about the plot without spoiling the film.
Straight off the bat though some things are immediately set up that are key to the appeal of this film. First of all this is a folk horror film but it is so much more. As the film gradually slides off the rails, the detours into surrealism and body horror provide some of the film’s most freakish moments. Also of note is that the first two actors you see are British comedy legends. Shearsmith of course being a quarter of revolutionary TV comedy troupe ‘The League of Gentlemen’ who changed the face of British TV comedy in the late 90s and early 2000. Here Shearsmith turns in the first of what is now 3 turns in Wheatley’s films. Barratt is, of course, half of the comedy troupe ‘The Mighty Boosh’. The off kilter comedy of both of those seem right at home in the Wheatley oeuvre. Although Wheatley only has one out and out comedy to date, that being Sightseers, all of his films are funny, but in that cracked mirror way, an image that recurs in A Field In England. Even for a comedy, Sightseers makes light of serial murderers and even then, has some incredibly disturbing montage work. A Field In England strikes a strange blend with its comedy. It deals in things like religious anxiety, national heritage, war, and a great existential darkness, and it’s peppered with jokes about venereal disease and base, crass humour like that. Wheatley has spoken very intelligently about it evoking contemporary writers like Chaucer. I was lucky to study Chaucer at school and I can attest to the way, for example, ‘The Canterbury Tales’ juxtaposes the existential horror posed by the black plague, with a comedic satirical farce about a non-conventionally attractive woman who sleeps around a lot and steals her husbands’ inheritance. The dialogue is also written in a beautifully period specific dialect, less meticulous than The Witch which came out a few years later but equally as evocative, and it splits the class and power status of the characters clearly with regards to how they use the dialect. There’s one beautiful moment where in flowery eloquence Reece Shearsmith says this wonderfully preening line and another character asks “what did he say?” and the translation is this incredibly blunt and base sentence that’s actually more understandable to us at home. It works rather nicely. Just as an aside by the way, the boils in the prop penis in this movie, you can pop the boils. I actually had the good fortune of interviewing Dan Martin, the practical effects artist behind this movie for this very publication, and he’s a lovely man.
On top of that genre blend already, it’s also a war film. Not something you see often, a surrealist, war, horror film. Here it is rather appropriate. Wheatley has worked before in the realm of folk horror with the classic chiller Kill List, but that was much more in the vein of The Wicker Man, whereas this is much more to do with the rest of the unholy trilogy, The Blood On Satan’s Claw, and The Witchfinder General. Folk horror typically deals with isolated communities, and unsurprisingly it is a typically British genre. The Blood On Satan’s Claw follows the springing up of a dangerous and scary cult that deal with mephitic and strange rituals and The Witchfinder General is a historical piece in which the English Civil War throws up enough turmoil to allow Vincent Price’s Witchfinder to take advantage and slowly inveigle his way into positions of power over people. The horror in that film comes from the fear of the violence that people can do to other people while being allowed by the state’s infighting. Wonder why that might still be relevant. These films strike at something dark in the heart of British identity. The Wicker Man deals with the place of religion in our society and the way more organic British identities have been trampled over by more conservative and rigid and oppressive versions of Britishness that were imported from elsewhere with the church. The Witchfinder General shows a lot about the evils of the power structures of that conservative form of Britishness. A Field In England kind of does both. The title shows how this story could take place anywhere in England, and is representative of something deep and dark about the country. The use of magic and the descent into surrealism and drug tripping shows how this is a fantastical, metaphorical thing happening. It also helps that Micheal Smiley’s pompous villain is clearly cut from Vincent Price’s Witchfinder General, (self appointed, by the way). I love how the film takes that magic seriously, really gets to the fact that this is about something lost and deep in the heart of history that we’ve somehow forgotten.
I remember when I was an adolescent and I was watching through Your Movie Sucks for the first time I remember very clearly he did a TIFF round up and talked about A Field In England, the only time I remember him talking about Ben Wheatley, and he said “you can’t just throw a lot of weird shit at the screen and expect it to mean anything”, I think, and… Adam always struck me as someone who needs the handlebars of narrative that this film so deftly frees itself from, and this brings me onto the experience I had watching this film last night.
Quarantine has fucking sucked, for many reasons. I lost a lot of opportunities as a result of it, a lot of opportunities in filmmaking. For a long time I’d learned to accept that filmmaking was a ship that had sailed for me. The other day I get an email saying that in September, a course that I’d applied to, what must be a year ago now, was going to run again. It’s a Masters in screenwriting right in the heart of the industry, and my place on it was secure. This is surreal because I’d accepted that I’d never make films. In many ways I’d felt lost but for the rest of the day I felt filled with a renewed sense of purpose, but my habits around maintaining a rabid consuming and love and thought for cinema had all been thrown into disarray. Watching A Field In England last night though, a film I’ve loved for a long time, something happened. A Field In England is a film that in a dialogue scene frames it very strangely to evoke an eerie sense of disconnect, it’s a film that shows important scenes entirely through tableaux vivant, and it’s a film that dissolved quite literally. It’s a film that breaks down from narrative into a purely sensory experience and then that’s it for about 20% of the movie. This shit excites me. A Field In England is a film that was made on the cheap by travelling around Essex looking for fields that looked right and then stopping and shooting and it does not give a single fuck, and that’s the shit that excites me. It is a film that quite literally liberates itself from narrative, focussing purely on giving you an emotional journey through cinematic language completely divorced from narrative language and it is one of the most beautifully strange and bold and exciting things a film has ever, ever, ever done. It’s a film that completely set a fire under me on what is probably my seventh watch of this movie. It’s a film that reminded me quite why Ben Wheatley made me so excited to get to make films before he ruined it all with Rebecca. It’s a film that made me feel alive and passionate, which are experiences that are really hard to come by right now, in lockdown.
Stay strong everyone. This is not forever. Take it from me.