Folk horror is a genre that experienced its boom back in the late 60s and early 70s, and nowadays isn’t visited anywhere near enough. The exploration of occult practices and pagan tradition provides a dark canvas for horror film, especially when presenting a modern main character on the outside of it all. Dogged is a film deeply ingrained in the folk genre, set in a small coastal town that’s hiding dark secrets and ancient ceremonies. The visuals create a nostalgic and surreal portraiture of folk horror, while the landscape — a tidal town surrounded by lonely farmland — makes for a perfect setting to add to the otherworldly feel.
Dogged feels part Lovecraftian, its locale populated by strange characters and hiding deeply evil secrets, and part Blair Witch Project, with the unnerving aura of the wooded surroundings. The story follows Sam, a university student returning home for a funeral, as he begins to fully realize the clandestine layers the town of Farthing Island’s society is built upon. It’s a place that becomes completely cut off from the rest of the world once the tide rolls in, and for Sam this is a return to his youth; he finds himself with only his old bike to travel around on, and even becomes involved with his old flame. But this time he’s not so welcome, and the town itself seems to be rejecting him.
The opening sequence of the film sets up the volatile relationship between Sam and his father, poses questions regarding the tragic death of little girl Megan Lancaster, and introduces the strange transients that live in the outskirts of town. There are some fantastic shots that set the scene and focus on the small intricacies of the landscape, and the sound design is ominous and foreboding, screeching out that something is very, very wrong.
A constant threatening aura permeates the townsfolk and their conversations. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding their relationships, which creates a sense of wanting to dig deeper, but also alienates the viewer somewhat as the characters drop into their eccentricities and dark pasts without providing much explanation. The town is alive in that sense, which adds to the mystique surrounding the grim secrets it hides. Sam eventually receives a cryptic message from the town doctor that encourages him to delve deeper into Megan Lancaster’s death and the strange circumstances surrounding it. Due to his testing relationship with his parents, as well as troubles regarding a romantic relationship with the priest’s daughter, he finds a lot of time to escape and investigate the mystery.
The dark is pitch in this small rural town; there are no streetlights to illuminate the roads or reveal what lurks just outside of what the headlights reveal. This sometimes obscures details at night in some scenes, but overall adds an authentic feel to the terror. There’s also a Blair Witch feel from the surrounding woodland and the sheer darkness of the night, and the strange cult-like signs Sam discovers in the woods are even complete with hanging shapes made from sticks. Occasionally indoor scenes do have lighting issues though, with some areas being slightly too dark, and some shots varying in brightness to a noticeable degree due to the position of windows and the time of day.
A particular highlight of Dogged is the use of various animal masks that give off a feeling similar to those in David Lynch’s Rabbits — disconnection and a menacing aura. As the film goes on, we see there are more of these people wearing animal masks, and that they wish to put a stop to Sam and the group of vagabonds from a nearby abandoned farm who are intent on uncovering the truth. The slow build of the film is punctuated by bursts of violence and terrifying situations based around the woods, with an ominous cloud hanging above the town throughout.
There are a couple instances of harsh camera shake as action goes on, such as an altercation between the priest and his daughter Rachel. It feels unnecessary, and takes away slightly from the scene. Largely the scenes of violence are presented well, however, often with people meeting an abrupt end that summons a nervous energy around the safety of Sam.
The town holds a festival, a small affair where most of the townsfolk show up for a night of fun and tradition. It’s a brilliant show of the folk roots, and leads into the ending sequences quite well. The paranoia and foreboding atmosphere reach a new high during the night of the festival, and the film shines as the finale plays out. Sam, with the help of one of the vagabonds he formerly looked down upon, illuminates the truth behind the town as it falls into shambles around him. The townsfolk attempt to rectify the damages done to their neat cult community, and come to terms with what they’re told to do.
Everything comes together in the end, with all of the signs and hushed conversations overheard finally making sense. The ending sequences of the film paint a graphic and disturbing picture of what truly transpired in the small town and the evils that lurk within, and finally what lengths those in the town will go to maintain their idyllic existence.
Dogged suffers somewhat from the budget and indie nature, but the filmmakers work excellently with what they have at their disposal. Most of the performances are solid, with only a few awkward standout moments in dialogue, and Sam Saunders (who plays our main character, Sam) perfectly embodies his character’s confusion and justified paranoia. The film was crowdfunded after a successful short was filmed with a budget of just £200, and the filmmakers obviously knew just where to use their money. A very promising and passionate debut feature film from director Richard Rowntree that taps into our fear of what lurks in the woods, and in each other.