There’s a great gag at the end of Burning Men that made me wonder if the writer thought it up then worked backwards creating a story leading up to it.
And that’s partly what the film itself does, when what seems like a British horror movie turns out to be more a psychological foray into the mind of a teen who doesn’t seem to have been able to grow up, even though he’s now pushing 30.
This is a musical road trip of a kind, as two men steal a valuable piece of vinyl – off an accurately-named dealer called Mad Dad – that turns out to be potentially haunted.
Certainly there’s an urban legend surrounding it, the kind that makes people react when they hear mention of it the way Russian gangsters look when they realise they’ve accidentally annoyed John Wick.
And it’s the best kind of musician legend, about a black metal recording that summons demons. (It does that just if you play it the usual way. God knows what it does if you play it backwards. Raise the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from their slumber probably, or Westlife.)
Even better, from an urban legend perspective, the lead singer of the band – who was into “Satan, magic, and Aryan supremacy” according to one musical expert – was later decapitated.
When I first saw the trailer I labelled this folk horror, a sub-genre that British indie filmmakers are increasingly making their own. It tends to use this country’s eeriest and most isolated places, and local people’s links to the earth, and reinforces how different (and differently scary) areas of Britain are from each other, even in such a small island.
But folk would be underplaying it this time, despite that same (and very evocative) use of Britain’s mysterious landscapes. Maybe black metal blues horror would be a better term.
Heading North from London to sell the disc, so they can use the money to fly to Memphis and fulfil their musical destiny, Ray (Edward Hayter) and Don (Aki Omoshaybi) pick up a young woman along the way. Susie (Elinor Crawley) is an intriguing and ambiguous character and I was never sure until the end what part she was playing in all of this, how much she was being tossed around by life or how much she was directing it.
In fact it’s quite an intriguing and ambiguous film. It isn’t frightening, though it is at times menacing. And it’s never clear how much of the dialogue is tongue in cheek and how much is meant to be real but comes out as rather preposterous, though I liked that ambivalence: particularly Robert, Susie’s deadpan dope-selling friend (musician Guy Pratt, who also helped compose the soundtrack); and Mickey, a Geordie metalhead with delusions of grandeur who wants to buy the record off Ray and Don.
Their drive through the flat, watery Fens is misty and mysterious. There’s always something spooky and otherworldy about that area anyway, the isolation, the washed-out colours, the mist and murk rising from the many waterways. It’s an area that seems cut off from the rest of the country. But increasingly Ray starts seeing strange figures in the fields.
The dolly mixture bag of drugs they’ve brought with them isn’t helping, though Don seems oblivious. Not only are the demons after them but so is Mad Dad and it’s not clear who is scarier. He’d already sold the disc on to some Scandinavian headcases and they’re even worse than Mad Dad, following Ray and Don north in their determination to get their hands on their record.
There’s an aimlessness to Ray, to the life he’s been leading and to his relationships; it’s only the need to get away from Mad Dad and to their buyer in the North that gives the road trip any direction at all.
Ray is increasingly disturbed by what he’s seeing and it’s soon becomes clear that he has a history of mental illness brought on by drug use and his home life. He’s already vulnerable and highly susceptible, and now his paranoia rises.
And as much as Burning Man wants to set out its horror stall, it’s more about Ray finding some kind of peace within himself. Susie and Don may not be living the lives of most people pushing 30 but they seem like they’re more in control of their own destiny, unlike Ray.
Burning Man utilises POV filming, so characters are often speaking directly to camera as if to the other person. It’s hard going at first, the wobbly camera work distracting from the early scenes. But it does serve a purpose, reinforcing their isolation and particularly Ray’s loneliness. It also heightens every interaction. Friendliness seems more genuine, anger more threatening. We’re more involved as an audience too, part of their journey up the A1 to Newcastle, meeting new people, running away from old ones. It’s a neat trick for a low budget movie and it mostly works.
Unsurprisingly that low budget does show at times, and Ray’s aimlessness sometimes seems replicated in the film. There’s little urgency and Susie’s attempts to drive a wedge between the two young men is a bit of an afterthought. The soundtrack is terrific though, and the performances are good.
The isolation works really well – it could have been set at any time in the last few decades, as Don drives their old car, Ray gets out a record player and sticks it on the bonnet before they jump around to the devil song, mocking it. Only the clothes and a story about a soldier dying on his return from Afghanistan set us in the here and now.
And there are some lovely touches: the poems by William Blake, that poet and visionary whose writings sum up our relationship with our country, and are sometimes the only way to get back to it.
Burning Men is released in select cinemas on 1st March 2019, with a regional tour across the country. For more information, please head to http://bit.ly/BurningMenTour
Check out the trailer below and scroll down for stills from the film: