So many horror films, so very few with real ambition.
“A Field in England” is a period piece set during the English Civil War, and
its horrors are not of the torture-porn, splatter, slasher with a knife a
variety. This is existential fear served up on an absurdest platter, the terrors
suggested by “Waiting for Godot,” “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” or
“Six Characters in Search of an Author.”
No nubile teens hacked up in an abandoned summer camp, no Michael Myers or
Jason or Buzzsaw. Just soldiers, fleeing a pitched battle, in search of an ale
“We’re not running away,” one assures the others. “We’re going for beer.”
They are men born around the time Shakespeare died, so they speak his
English. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is a quivering alchemist, aid to a
“gentleman” who has sent him on a mission in the middle of this battle between
Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s “Roundheads.”
“I am not your enemy, sir,” he pleads to a menacing soldier who has also run
from the fight. “I am a coward, sir.”
Others, common men whose combat experience is directed at robbing the dead,
hacking of fingers for rings, fall in with the highfalutin expert in
“divination” and alchemy — a cooper (barrel maker), a tradesman who makes
buttons. The battle won’t miss them, they figure.
“Would not be the first time I’ve left a wave of indifference behind me,” the
cooper (Richard Glover) shrugs.
But as they trudge through hedgerows and the sounds of battle fade behind
them, this trek to a bar becomes mysterious. The violent Cutler (Ryan Pope) is
too easy with a threat, the others lose the thread of seeking that ale house,
stopping to cook, eat and ponder what punishment God has in mind for them and
just where the Devil is on this bloody day. Are they ghosts in Purgatory,
metaphors in a Civil War parable?
And then they come across a strange, heavy rope, stretched out across a
field, tied to a strange, carved post. That’s when they meet O’Neil (Michael
Smiley), monstrous, murderous and someone the alchemist knows all too well.
“It does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman!”
Director Ben Wheatley, who did the minimalist
trailer-travelers-as-serial-killers film “Sightseers,” shot this in black
and white and spared every expense doing so. There’s barely a hint of effects,
just a handful of characters, grimy 1640s costumes, the odd explosion, firearms
and the occasional hallucination. Scenes drop into slow-motion or are edited
into a blur, characters strike freeze-frame poses, engage in off camera torture
and bring the battle (with firearms and pikes) to this remote field.
The performances are sharp and distinct, the action a fascinating puzzle. And
I could listen to Amy Jump’s script all day. It’s a romp through Cromwellian
England, from its medical diagnoses — “disease of the private parts brought on
by too much venereal sport” — to fortune seeking.
“The world is turned upside down, Whitehead. And so has its pockets!”
So what if “A Field in England” delivers only a few shocks and no real
frights? It turns this weary genre inside out and should shame legions of
American and Asian horror auteurs into rethinking their settings, characters and
dialogue. It doesn’t all have to look, sound and spatter the same.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with some bloody violence, nudity, profanity
Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Ryan Pope, Richard Glover, Peter
Credits: Directed by Ben Wheatley, written by Amy Jump. A Drafthouse Films
Running time: 1:30