Dir. Richard Rowntree (2017)
Sam returns to his island hometown to attend a funeral and discovers that the town is full of secrets.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Folk horror is one of the few genres of horror that are almost entirely not American, which makes a sort of sense when you consider that folk horror tends to delve into ancient cultures and practices and American culture only started 300-ish years ago. The rest of the world has a rich history of committing its old-world culture into film, and Europe has produced some legendary films within the realm of folk horror, including The Wicker Man, the paradigm of the entire genre. In that same tradition comes Richard Rowntree’s 2017 film Dogged, which deals with a small village and the neuroses and evils present in an isolated religious community.
Beautiful cinematography with gorgeous locations and a haunting score highlight a story about a weird and creepy little town filled with eccentric characters and ancient rituals. Folk horror often burns very slowly, with the atmosphere and storytelling taking center stage rather than the action that Americans are generally used to. Dogged definitely moves slow, and its focus is on well-written and carefully crafted creep factors rather than a fast-moving plot. It’s almost has a British television vibe to it, with the camera feeling handheld and not entirely stable. This helps to add to the disorientation as we are drawn further into the strange, cult-like town, and forces the audience to feel their role as an outsider in this insular community.
No man is an island, but some men live on one.
The puritanical nature of the religious community in the film (and, I suppose, in real life as well) is in juxtaposition with the modern feel, giving the impression of a long-ago time while clearly taking place in modern day. The pilgrims, after all, did not drive cars, at least that I’m aware of. Rowntree uses skewed angles to further make the audience identify with Sam, without placing the camera strictly in his POV. We feel as if we’re intruding into somewhere we don’t belong, much like the protagonist, who is alienated upon his return. While he finds solace in the arms of the preacher’s daughter, we are left stranded in a land that we feel like we’ve seen before but that is as askew as the camera angles Rowntree utilizes throughout the film. Once things begin their inevitable decline into madness, we remain in the unsettled state that Rowntree has already forced us into. The entire film is unnerving and feels off, which is exactly how folk horror should make its audience feel.
The film is longer than it needs to be, but I don’t quite know what I would have cut to reduce the runtime. There was a bit of running around the woods that could’ve been probably shortened around 10 minutes, but the discoveries made along the way were important, so you couldn’t even cut the scene entirely. At just under two hours, the slow burn is a bit slower than I’d like at times. It’s also decidedly indie, with nary a budget to speak of and little spent but on the cast and crew. It’s hard to nitpick, though, because it really is a good film with a lot of heart that wears its inspiration on its sleeve. There’s a good bit of disturbing horror present, and it feels like it could be developed into a miniseries in order to fully explore each of the threads that it casts. Rest assured that some of these threads are creepy as hell. And, of course, the goddamned animal heads.
Seriously, this is never not scary.
As Sam begins to discover the terrible secrets of his hometown, shit goes fully off the rails into religious horror and paranoia. The film is, probably unintentionally, a great treatise on what it’s like to grow up in a small town, where everybody knows everybody and everybody is in everybody else’s business. One of the themes of the film is how Sam’s actions behind closed doors are brought into the light because they are not able to be hidden. This is paralleled by the actions of the villagers, which normally would happen away from the prying eyes of strangers, but which we are privy to through the film. The film does a magnificent job of exploring the secrets within families and the impact it can have on the outside world. Sam begins to question his family’s involvement in the island’s original sins, and it is through this lens that the film delivers its compelling finale.
Rowntree manages to make a pretty decent folk horror film with Dogged, one that has some truly creepy moments and features some excellent cinematography. Unfortunately, folk horror is not everybody’s cup of tea (and to be honest isn’t usually mine). This is a film that is definitely not going to please everybody, but with an open mind there’s something within for everybody to enjoy. It’s well-made, especially with its obvious low budget, and the acting is fantastic from pretty much everyone in the film. While it would definitely work better as a limited run series than it does as a two hour film, the film delivers on its promises and goes for the jugular when it needs to.
Who this movie is for: Folk horror fans, Lovers of indie religious horror, Wicker Men
Bottom line: While certainly slower than I would’ve liked, there’s a lot to love about Dogged. It is a throwback film, bringing to mind the very best of the genre while paving a way all its own. It’s going to have its detractors, simply because of the rugged pace of the film, but these kinds of films aren’t for everyone anyway. The meat is there for sure, and Rowntree shows his skill behind the camera by delivering some absolutely beautiful shots. The best folk horror shows you crumbling or horrific communities that create a hell on earth, but the scenery is so beautiful that you want to visit anyway. Dogged delivers that in spades, and, for all of its faults, is well worth a watch for any lovers of slow burn folk horror.