At the end of Dogged, its definition – “having or showing tenacity and grim persistence” – pops up, by which time it’s finally clear who the title is referring to.
Though as the director of this very low budget full-length feature, Dogged is certainly a word that also applies to Richard Rowntree. Somehow he’s managed to create a two-hour feature film for only £14,500, all raised via Kickstarter.
Like many indie films it started out as a short film – in this case a micro short, which came fifth in BBC Three’s “The Fear”, a search for talented new horror directors that was judged by Blair Witch Project’s Eduardo Sanchez.
Sam (Sam Saunders) is a middle class university student returning to his island home for the funeral of a 10 year old local girl, whose body was found beneath a cliff. But this island is not a place of safety or a return to childhood comforts, despite the “Return of The Jedi” and “O Brother Where Art Thou” posters still on his bedroom wall.
Instead something vicious and very bloody has taken hold in those tranquil, wide-pathed woods. As Sam digs deeper – without ever really wanting to – it becomes clear that whatever is happening is a crescendo of male violence and control in a community already beset by “bad magic”.
Three things really stood out for me during Dogged. The locations are well-chosen and the cinematography is excellent. Seascapes are bleak and sometimes dreary – the water seems like a force holding people in rather than helping them escape. Greys, dirty blues, cold washed-out creams, the colours look menacing rather than pretty. Flashbacks, explained later in the film, are in very bright, even gaudy colours, red, bright yellow, green and blue. The gore is occasional but very realistic (I think!). Interesting camera shots keep us on our toes, close-ups are very close. And the music, almost all of which was composed for the movie, brilliantly adds another layer of threat to the atmosphere (I expect it also takes guts to save a chunk of an already low budget for the score).
Dogged is set not just on an island but a tidal island, so its existence is one of connectedness followed by repeated isolation. There’s also that sense of sticking together among villagers (“we islanders handle our own problems” says mum Nanette to Sam) so it’s believable that something terrifying and cult-like could take root over generations, weaving into a society’s fabric making almost everyone culpable in some way. Trapped by rising tides and decades of abuse no one even thinks of escape, even as strange disappearances over the years have been explained away as simply people leaving for the mainland.
On the surface the local village is typically English – old pubs, working people in ancient cottages, well-to-do families in their converted barns with 4x4s and expensive cashmere jumpers. The highest stratum of local society is entirely male, while women make the sandwiches for the village supper. But the greatest danger lurks within the families, so literally nowhere is safe.
There is a group of hippies living away from the village, who seem to be blamed for everything, as does the woodsman Jim (Tony Parkin), mostly seen as simply the local crazy, but what has driven him mad – drugs or real life? The woods are not for the faint-hearted after dark. Tall black-clad figures wearing whole-head animal masks that at first seem comical before becoming scary run through the forests. There’s a slate table, or is it an altar? And strange wooden charms hanging from branches.
Along with family, fatherhood is a big theme. The sinister village vicar, Father David Jones (Toby Wynn-Davies), is father to his flock while still trying to control his sweet daughter Rachel and terrifyingly creepy son Daniel. Whatever is going on, it’s soon clear that Father Jones is the lynchpin, with all the local men in his thrall. Pulpit sermons and pious speeches often include a warning about the dangers of straying, and always have two meanings. “We thank you for the life of young Megan Lancaster and the joy she brought us all” he sickeningly intones about the dead 10 year old, when saying grace before the village festival meal.
At times there’s a tendency to lurch into melodrama, and very near the end the tension dissolves despite the horror. And it could have been 10 minutes shorter (though to be fair I say that about most films over 98 minutes, apart from Interstellar). But I liked that loose ends aren’t completely tied up – there isn’t much back story and it’s never entirely clear how much other community members know about what has been going on, particularly among the women (Jo Southwell as Nanette in particular portrays that ambivalence very well).
Sam Saunders is good as a young man whose horizons have suddenly expanded. Most students know that feeling of returning home after the first college term and trying to impose themselves back onto a family that has managed perfectly well without them, but Sam’s newfound distance and perspective means he finally notices something abnormal that uneases him. His relationship with his father is very combative, sometimes too much so. I really liked Jim the woodsman, and I’d have loved to know more about him (his back story – lightly touched on – is intriguing). Kudos also to Abigail Rylance-Sneddon who plays Megan – her story is told in flashback, but the expression on her face, when she realises a putative saviour is no such thing, is astonishing.
Folk horror is the perfect type of horror for the UK, as we’re a country set up for sinister goings-on under the easily-cracked veneer of village respectability. Countless movies and Sunday night serials have played on our history of druids and pagans, witches and devils, and on our tendency to pick the bits of pre-history we want while reworking them in our own image. Dogged fits perfectly into this trajectory with its tale of a quasi-religious cult hiding in plain sight.
The key to the success of Dogged is developing and maintaining a sense of prison-like menace, of being cut off from the rest of the world, hemmed in by a community that is sinister rather than soothing – something that even big budget productions often fail to achieve. Rowntree has done an incredibly impressive job achieving this, and creating an interesting and jolting full-length horror feature on such a miniscule budget.
Watch the Dogged trailer, below: