By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Sam Saunders, Aiysha Jebali and Toby Wynn-Davies
Directed by Richard Rowntree
Written by Matthew Davies and Richard Rowntree
In his 1940 novel YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, celebrated American novelist Thomas Wolfe—channeled through lead character George Webber—famously mused, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
It’s a maudlin warning that takes on considerably greater degrees of menace and consequence when viewed through the prism of DOGGED, a lyrical, harrowing neo-folk horror film coming to North American/UK DVD and digital tomorrow. Its focus is on a young man who returns to the isolated rural island of his youth and discovers there are worse fates than biting into the bittersweet fruit of nostalgia, or absence and distance turning him into a stranger in his own land. Like, say, finding himself in the crosshairs of a gang of strange, murderous, esoteric cultists wearing oversized, bloodstained animal masks and brandishing machetes.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
As the movie opens, we join Sam (Sam Saunders) at the tail end of a long journey home. He has come to pay his respects at the funeral of 10-year-old Megan Lancaster, who died in a terrible accident. From the jump, virtually every direct interaction he has—with his father, his estranged girlfriend, the local priest—is contentious. OK, perhaps all of this could be chalked up to complicated personal histories and lingering resentments. But the rest of the island’s inhabitants giving him the David-and-Jack-visiting-The-Slaughtered-Lamb treatment? Not so much. Soon, evidence begins to mount that perhaps young Megan didn’t fall off a cliff after all.
Sam has barely begun to peel the layers of that odious onion when his rekindled affair with Rachel (Aiysha Jebali)—daughter of the aforementioned flinty, austere man of the cloth (Toby Wynn-Davies)—comes to light…at roughly the same time he begins to encounter occulty symbols and stalkery men in animal masks. Rather than flee, Sam decides to engage and go down this particularly nasty rabbit hole. By the time he realizes that pure hubris has led him to fool himself into believing he is so worldly and wise as to serve as master of his former domain, Sam and Rachel are in a fight for their lives against an exotic and powerful evil birthed in the most familiar faces and locales. It’s no spoiler to note that the powerful and brutal denouement will be delightfully difficult to see coming, even for seasoned fans.
In his feature-length debut, director Richard Rowntree not only proves himself quite adept at slowly building dread, but—aided by solid performances and the stellar contributions of cinematographer Christopher Foulser and composer James Griffiths—also turns the film’s shoestring budget into a boon rather than an albatross. He summons forth a ’70s-tinged narrative that morphs from naturalistic to surrealistic to nightmarish with surprising ease.
Though perhaps a tad longer than need be, at a hair under two hours, DOGGED is an impressively immersive experience. It’s a kind of sly, hallucinatory amalgamation of THE WICKER MAN, THE BELIEVERS and YOU’RE NEXT that will be of interest to those who have thrilled in recent years to the films of Ben Wheatley and Robert Eggers (THE WITCH). It’ll have you looking at your own surroundings, wondering whether everything is as it seems or if, like Sam, you’ve been unwittingly dancing along the precipice of the abyss for your entire life.